Played It: Gears of War 2

Game Central's review of the third game prompted me to pick up this budget re-release. It was, I must say, pretty much what I expected. A simplistic, macho shooty game, with satisfyingly meaty violence.

It also, in the planet of Sera, has some pretty interesting world-building - Old World architecture rubbing shoulders with chunky retro technology and subterranean monster civilisations. But for a game so interested in being cinematic, it actually doesn't place much stock in storytelling. Dom's quest for his wife is tacked on and ends questionably to say the least, while the main war story is rather haphazard and coincidental.

And yet for all that, the main surprise for me was how much I liked this thing. Shooting stuff in gorgeous environments is rather addictive when done this well.


Played It: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

As I played Castlenavia: Lords of Shadow, I kept comparing it, usually unfavourably, to the only other game I've played in this series: Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. Which isn't to say that this isn't a solid game. The mixture of platforming and brawling is very satisfying, the art design and environments are all lovely to behold, and the story, while weakly plotted, remains consistently interesting.

The first major problem is this: while keeping the player within the bounds of the level is obviously not a problem in the 2D Castlevanias, it requires considerable finesse in a 3D one. The developers here have hit upon the simplest and worst solution: invisible walls. You'll see a barrier you should easily be able to jump over, but it still blocks your progress. You'll see a raised platform and wonder what's on it – the answer will be that a mysterious force blocks you from actually mounting it. For a linear game this wouldn't be so bad, but as you'd expect from Castlevania, this game encourages and even requires exploration – exploration which inevitably devolves into butting up against those invisible walls to find the places where you're actually allowed through.

The other major problem is Patrick Stewart. Bringing his best “I'm in a video game” voice to the production (see also: the opening scenes of Oblivion), Stewart's character provides utterly bombastic narration over the loading screens. It's a neat idea, but badly executed, especially given that it interrupts Robert Carlyle's superb performance as the player character. To go from Carlyle's quietly simmering intensity to Stewart melodramatically overstating the obvious does both actors a disservice.

Apart from those two annoyances, though, this is a supremely classy game, and I found it quite addictive from start to finish.


Played It: Aliens Infestation

On the face of it merely a competent Metroidvania – unashamedly so, the developers were keen to remind us that the Metroid series has borrowed heavily from the Alien saga – Aliens Infestation demonstrates brilliantly how story elements can enhance gameplay.

From the first screen it's obvious that this is possibly the best recreation of the movies' atmosphere since Rebellion's 1999 Aliens versus Predator, complete with authentic sound effects, fan-pleasing elements of lore, suitably industrial architecture and cats bursting out of closets.

But the really notable thing WayForward Technologies have done here is to go back to the old concept of “lives” in a platform game, of which you can have at most four, and then to make each one a unique Colonial Marine with their own character artwork and cut-scene dialogue.

Keeping your favourite marine in reserve is no fun, but sending them into danger comes hand-in-hand with the risk of losing them forever (either instantly in a shower of acid blood, or John Hurt-style if they are captured and you take too long to rescue them). This, more than anything, creates an incredible sense of tension, especially when you're far from a save room and low on ammo when a xenomorph drops from the ceiling and starts mauling your beloved point man or woman.

This game's probably a must-have for Aliens fans, living up to its pedigree in a sea of rip-offs and risk-averse tie-ins. It's also an interesting and daring example of game design and writing, and a fitting parting shot for the Nintendo DS.


Played It: Red Dead Redemption

In my review, I described L.A. Noire as an important game, but not a masterpiece. And I think the opposite is true for Red Dead Redemption. The premise is as safe as it gets – Grand Theft Auto in the wild west. The execution, however, is sublime – not just in terms of the sprawling, detailed landscapes brimming with stereotypical cowboy activities, but in the careful characterisation of player character John Marston.

As a notorious outlaw, it still makes narrative sense for Marston to inevitably go on the odd GTA-style rampage. But the man's so dedicated to his family, so unfailingly polite, so damn sorry for every bad thing he's done and continues to do, that most players simply can't bring themselves to add to Marston's woes with even more bad deeds.

The atmosphere is mesmerising as well – not just the desolate desert ambience, the fantastic storm effects, and the lively towns, but the sense of the era of cowboys and gunslingers drawing to a close, with Marston both hoping for a more civilised future for his son and discovering first hand that society can be more about appearing to follow rules than actually doing what's best for people.

All that, and any game that gives me a button for tipping my hat and saying “Howdy ma'am” gets bonus points from me.


The Other Lady

Not to be confused with that rather horrific-looking film with Meryl Streep.


Monday Movie: Monsters

Six years after a NASA probe broke up on re-entry, seeding Mexico with giant tentacled monsters, photojournalist Andrew Kaulder is called upon to babysit his boss' daughter as she heads back to North America through the "infected" zone. Although local corruption, US militarism and extraterrestrial migration stand between them and home, their journey proves to be both eerie, illuminating and the start of a deeper bond.

Filmed on a shoe-string budget, featuring local non-actors improvising their lines and emphasising ambience over plot or genre trappings, Gareth Edwards' first feature film, Monsters, is, despite what trailers and blurbs may try to tell you, an alternate world travelogue. It may have its moments of action and tension, but predominantly I found this film to carry a mesmerising atmosphere of strange beauty. It's also, like all smart science fiction films, thematically intriguing - with obvious allegories to issues around immigration, environmental destruction, terrorism and military intervention.