Thursday, 27 April 2017

Feature: 7 Good Games That Look Like Arse

Previously featured on What Culture.

I’ve never really been one to lend much weight to the notion that graphics are equivocal to a game’s worth. A game is a sum of all its parts, and a good storyline and/or gameplay can usually make up for bad graphics. Such an argument will always inevitably come up when discussing a medium that’s inherently visually based; but it’s difficult to accurately measure “good graphics” when the bar is constantly moving, and a variety of different techniques are being employed.

I mean, is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the same league as da Vinci’s The Last Supper? No. Does that make it any less enjoyable? Of course not.

All the same, there are instances when subpar graphics can be detrimental to the enjoyment of a good game. This problem often emanates from technological limitations, or as a direct result of the developers’ lack of skill/unfeasible gameplay ambitions. Occasionally, even if you are willing to look past the graphical aspects of a game, there can be games forever ruined by particularly rubbish graphics.

When conducting this list I decided to not include any games older than twenty years, as it seemed unfair to do so. The choices are either games (new and old) below generational standard, or games that have aged so badly that any fun they may have once held, has long been sucked out of them. Oh, and I have to have at one time considered the game to be good, so they’ll be no E.T or Super Man 64 here.

7. Shadow Man (PS1)

The saddest thing about Shadow Man’s inclusion on this list is that I spent more hours of my childhood exploring the twisted realm of Deadside, than I did my local neighbourhood. But let’s be honest here: Shadow Man was a fucking ugly game. If it were a bloke, it'd have to be fucking hilarious in order to get laid.

When Shadow Man was released, back in 1999, it was lauded as a genuinely mature title which successfully explored grisly themes (evil voodoo, torture, abuse, serial murder, etc). The very same macabre things I would likely have encountered if I had actually gone outside and bumped into the local paedo. But the way these themes were explored was what made Shadow Man particularly noteworthy. It threw the player head first into an unimaginable world of misery and pain, and forced them to endure that misery in order to progress.  The only relatively “safe” areas of the game, Liveside, render Shadow Man powerless - this was a game made before safe spaces gained their power, remember.

If you were unfortunate enough to own the PlayStation version, however, then your experience would have been utterly ruined by shoddy animation, bizarre graphical glitches, poor frame rate and textures that look like they had been done by a contractor off Rogue Traders. The core game, like the local goth nightclub, had enough questionable design choices as it was: especially its bizarre problem of having fantastic 3D models and environments, but exceptionally dire detailing and textures. Put short, the port should have been locked away in a room down in the darkest depths of the asylum.

6. Dexter the Game 2 (iOS)

Dexter had one of those killer (heh) concepts that'd lend itself well to most mediums. A serial serial killer killer serial (phew) in which those who 'deserve it' receive bladed justice would fit a Hitman style game. I was rather surprised that such a game hadn't been made. I was even more surprised to find that, actually, a Dexter had been made: shat out and forgotten about, like a mopey 3am Facebook status.

The finished product is not exactly Hitman, but a perfectly serviceable adventure with puzzle solving elements. You know the sort of mobile game wank where the action boils down to plonking your fat fingers on the screen and swiping. Then I discovered there was a more recently released sequel with the addition of an open world. Great, I thought: they’ve expanded the gameplay, and had three years to polish the graphics, what could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, actually. I, like whoever called the Titantic 'unsinkable', certainly have egg on my face. Gameplay wise it’s rather similar to the first, only with streamlined story elements; or at least I suspect this to be the case, because I quickly stopped playing after succumbing to the flawed graphics.

Somehow, the game looks worse than the first (which was around mid-life PS2 levels), and fails in almost every other graphical area. Dexter himself looks like a (mostly) shaven autistic gorilla. Dodgy animations, abnormal graphical glitches, poor textures, and the absolute crime of making a beautiful city like Miami look visually austere and stagnant, are all reasons why I wanted to surgically segment Dexter 2. Monumentally disappointing: like the final season of the show, really.

5. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Xbox 360/PS3)

I’m pretty sure this is going to be a controversial pick, but nevertheless onto the list it goes. When Oblivion was released in 2006 the graphics were a huge leap up from ESIII: Morrowind. I remember the water effects and some Oblivion locations being particularly breathtaking – but even back then I never actually felt the game as a whole was beautiful. The character models were absolutely hideous for a start. Everyone had suddenly gone from being perilously thin and under developed in Morrowind, to round faced, bug eyed and generally saggy. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only instead of replacing the NPCs with perfect replicas they were replaced by a much older version of themselves.

The world itself was pretty unremarkable, and lacked the charm and character of the previous settings in the series. The draw distance had improved remarkably, but Cyrodiil still felt so small and simplistic compared to Vvenderfell. Everything about Cyrodiil was lifeless and homogenised, and in the eleven intermittent years it has only gotten worse. Cyrodiil feels like my hometown of Hull after it won City of Culture 2017, gentrified to the point of having all the personality and grime swept under the carpet. The exotic and alien landscape of Vvenderfell (the giant mushroom-houses and swamps) replaced by a generic Advanced Dungeons and Dragons setting.

Oblivion certainly doesn’t have the worst graphics I’ve seen in a Seventh generation game: but I’m kind of put off from returning, knowing I can get a more enjoyable experience in Morrowind or ESV: Skyrim. Morrowind hasn't aged well either, but it has that early-2000's PC game charm: Oblivion got trapped in the uncanny valley, like the bloke from 127 Hours, and was too chicken to amputate its arm. I’m aware that high res mods are available for the PC version, but unfortunately my laptop is too inadequate for such endeavours. Anyway, I’d have more important mods to install first: like the Mr. Mochi mod and, inevitably, the nude mod.

4. Exhumed (PS1/PC)

Build Engine shooters styled after Doom were the modern military shooters of the mid-to-late nineties. Popularised by Duke Nukem 3D, the Build Engine was known for its 3D environments whilst everything else was 2D and rotated around the player's perspective. The sort of geocentric model Galileo was persecuted for trying to disprove. Such games tended to have RPG elements and a non-linear structure, and one of the better examples of this type of game is Exhumed (Powerslave). Exhumed was a 90’s take on Egyptian mythology, and featured a Metroidvanian style of upgrade and exploration system. It was actually pretty fun.

But unfortunately Exhumed was still a Build FPS, and thus (like myself) extremely ugly. Consider the fact that it was released in 1996/7 and featured flat sprites, when during that period shooters that used proper 3D models (Quake and Goldeneye) were being released. Work shy feckers. To make matters worse, the art direction in Exhumed took a semi-realistic approach similar to Duke Nukem 3D so that all the enemies ending up blurry and pixelated. A problem common among such games, but at least Doom and Blood have retained a charmingly cartoony appeal. I tried playing Exhumed the other week, but just couldn’t get past the terrible resolution.

The other problem Exhumed suffered from was its horrible environments. Whilst it had some of the best 3D levels to grace a build engine game, the actual aesthetics are quite simply bland and repetitive. I understand that the setting is somewhat limiting - the typical Build Engine sleaze like strip club levels wouldn't have fit - but it doesn’t excuse the lazy, uninspired level design. The levels become increasingly detailed as you progress (alien structures, volcanoes etc) but you’ll spend the majority of the game exploring uninteresting generic brown locales; like Indiana Jones on one of his less exciting adventures.

3. Body Harvest (N64)

I only reviewed Body Harvest a few months back, but it's such a fond memory I had to discuss it again. Body Harvest came out I was seven and was about using planes and tanks to do battle with giant bugs (and occasionally, robots). If it included the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Body Harvest would have been a suspiciously accurate representation of what was going on in the back of my maths textbook. Ostensibly an open world game, it’s hardly surprising that BH was designed by the studio that would go on to become Rockstar.

The problem with BH is while the gameplay is utterly solid – rather obvious, considering the game is about raining vehicular death on creatures from beyond – the world itself is blander than a timeshare pitch by Alistair Darling. The whole explore the world at will concept, whilst fairly ambitious, is ultimately pointless. In the game’s favour each level did actually feel sprawling, and the level design got progressively deeper as the story went on; the fact there are five of them (3 vanilla, 2 secret) helped cement DMA's lofty ambitions.

But there was no substance to the world, which was poorly textured and utterly void of life; and you could guarantee that if there was any architecture even remotely interesting it’d make an appearance in the story. The game also had weird scaling issues: Adam would often be smaller than most standard vehicles, but ten times larger than any insignificant NPC. Still, name one other game that let you fight aliens while driving an ice cream van. It gets my Mr Whippy up thinking about it.

2. Deadly Premonition (PS3/Xbox 360)

Merge Twin Peaks with the eccentricity of Richard Garriot and you’ll have a half way decent experience of what Deadly Premonition is. It’s often rightfully described as one of the most polarising games ever, owning to its incredible ambition, technical shortcomings, and absolutely bonkers design quirks. Not a truly good game by any means, but sometimes you've got to appreciate the sheer audacity of something this nuts - like whenever a celebrity goes nuts and threatens to wank themselves to death.

Ignition Entertainment wanted to create an evolving open world city where all the characters had their own schedules. If you’ve never played it and want an easily digestible sound bite: Deadly Premonition is Shenmue with extra-dimensional monsters. If that doesn't work, try the UK government with Boris Johnson in a position of power. Like a senescent Lothario desperately clinging onto his youth by frequenting Club 18 -30 destinations, there are times when Deadly Premonition looks almost acceptable; but under a certain light one can see it for the decrepit, ageing creation that it is.

Aficionados of the game claim the idiosyncratic graphics add to the whole Twin Peaks fevered dream tone, but whilst I’m willing to concede to the similar eclectic gameplay counterargument, I can’t accept that the graphics are anything other than poor. It’s practically on par with the PS2 at times, later era PS2 mind, but PS2 levels nonetheless. You don’t defend a serial killer because he “only” offed homeless guys.

1. High Heat Major Baseball League 2003 (PS2)

Forget Fifa, Madden NFL, and NHL – apart from the one that let you play as zombies – The High Heat Baseball games were my favourite sports sims. They were always had a plethora of game modes, statistics/attributes, and demonstrated a simple to play, difficult to master ethos. A genuinely fun game, not like the sports games meant for the nerds. The only area where the games continually failed was in the graphics department; something which cumulated in HHMLB 2003.

Try and play the 2003 edition today and chances are the first thing that’ll strike (sorry) you is that the character models are abominations. And by abomination I don’t mean anything as stylish and intricate as Mothra, I’m talking Innsmouthian inbred Fishmen. Take Sean Casey up there. Look at the abomination and weep, weep at the knowledge that there is no God to save us from the void.

The poor bastard's got something of a I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream/Hellraiser vibe going. Almost like the perpetually constipated Max Payne after a freezer bag was melted onto his face. I’m no Baseball expert, but I reckon if you are adorning an expression that’s somewhere between an unashamed outburst of emotion and receiving a prostate exam from a Parkinson’s suffering Freddy Kruger, then you are doing something wrong.

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