I'm trying to think of more hoary old subjects to discuss than comedy in games. Let me see. How about DRM? I could be trying to talk to you about digital restrictions management. Or whether girls play games? Come on, that's more overdone, right? What about whether the PS3 is better than the 360? Okay, so in this context, everyone's now happy that we're talking about comedy in games, right?
Right. Armed & Dangerous was released in 2003 to rapturous celebrations of its amazing sense of humour. Even the most critical reviews raised just how funny it was. In stitches they were.
Sit down, hold onto something solid, and cross your legs. Armed & Dangerous isn't all that funny.
The reception is all down to context. You know when a golfer makes a funny mime to the crowd when someone's phone rings, and everyone falls about laughing? Context. It's not funny. It's just unexpected. Put that golfer on stage at an open mic comedy night and his hilarity would be put into cruel perspective.
It's just not okay, not after 3000 years of games being around, for something just not being completely humourless to be good enough. And it's not that A&D is unfunny - not at all. It's occasionally wry, often silly. But just not "hilarious".
Planet Moon's second game, following Giants: Citizen Kabuto, had you play Roman, the leader of a group called the Lionhearts. For reasons obscure, your goal is to steal the Book Of Rule with the help of a tall robot, Q, and a mole called Jonesy.
Along with them comes Rexus, an old, tiny blind "man" thing, who was once the keeper of the book. Sometimes with their help, sometimes without, Roman has to third-person shoot his way through levels packed with enemies, exploding buildings, and ideally, jetpacks.
It's the four main characters who are supposed to be the source of this non-stop rollercoaster ride of hilarity. Because they're a bit stupid! And they probably might set their bottoms on fire. And reference Star Wars, 25 years after it came out. There are also some cut-scenes of the enemy and his deeply stupid son, where characters might fall over or get confused.
Surely this isn't good enough to receive the accolades? It's not awful, and it's snicker-worthy as often as it awkwardly misses the mark. But it's not good enough!
The comedy sources from so many places, seemingly without the shame to attempt to disguise the inspirations. So grab a handful of Pratchett, a fist of Python, and then scrape in some Mel Brooks. Reference ancient films, make a farting noise, and then fall out of a window. And apparently that guarantees your reviewers in conniptions.
However, the game surrounding all this is so much more deserving of attention than the tepid humour.
Played in third-person, levels are large, sprawling areas, absolutely stuffed with enemies. And dashing about shooting at them will get you quickly killed. Tactics are quickly forced upon you. You have to apply your range of weapons smartly, judiciously, and perhaps explore something other than the most obvious route.
And of course those weapons are deserving of mention. I reckon at least one in five people reading this have screamed at the screen before now, "WHAT ABOUT THE LAND SHARK GUN?!?" Possibly followed by, "YOU GREAT BLITHERING IDIOT!"
The Land Shark Gun is utterly brilliant, and hilariously funny. Anyone suggesting otherwise is clearly not meant to have oxygen. This is a gun that fires a shark - a shark that swims under the surface of the land, its dorsal fin sticking out, until it's underneath an unwitting enemy. It then erupts from the ground, swallowing the baddie whole, before disappearing and searching for another victim.
Not enjoying seeing the giant shark body sticking out the side of a mountain to eat a sniper is clearly a sign of brain death. It's a very splendid thing.
But it's not enough to carry the entire game, and the game has some other big issues.
So while using sticky bombs, sniper rifles, and even bombs that reverse gravity dropping all the opponents into the sky, can be immensely satisfying to get right, it can also become quickly very repetitive. This is a game with only three regular enemies, with an enormous amount of the first of them. You will shoot that same grunt creature so many damned times that the trickier bads with the rockets, sniper rifles or jetpacks come as a blessed relief, rather than a tougher challenge.
You quickly learn to take out the barracks that produce more enemies not because the volume of their attacking is too difficult, but because you're just so fed up of seeing them. However, it's a real pleasure that this is a shooter where you can influence things by taking out barracks, destroying buildings, blowing things up, and going to the pub.
Pubs are somewhere from which you can acquire new weapons, top up ammo, and most importantly, refill your health from a limited pool. When the random drops insist on giving you more bullets you don't need rather than the medkit you so desperately do, the sight of a pub door is a blessed relief.
In between straight shooter levels are some very average siege challenges, where you man a mounted gun and attempt to stop waves of enemies from climbing over the walls to a town or village. Extremely easy to succeed at, and mostly very dull to perform, they're an odd inclusion in a game that's otherwise so focused on forcing you to think hard about how you might survive a section.
In fact, some levels are extremely difficult, bombarding you with enemies in a ludicrous fashion, leading to frequent frustrating deaths. Get through them, and the next level will suddenly revert to a much more balanced experience.
One other thing A&D absolutely does get right is deforestation. I think there should be an extra point on the score of any game that allows you to shoot the trees down, and here you can do this to much satisfaction. If you're the sort of person, like me, who can't run through a screen in Zelda without chopping down every blade of grass, then taking out the trees will make you feel very content.
But I must return to the humour. It did make me giggle a couple of times. The crowing penguin made me laugh out loud. There's a few one-liners that are decent. But they're few. Too often you can expect an extremely cheap xenophobic comment on the French, or 'puns' like "Fjorkin Village". As in "Get out of the Fjorkin Village". If that works for you, then so will much of the game.
The Land Shark Gun is a wonderful thing. If the same level of smart and funny could have been invested throughout, this would be the classic so many claim it to be. Instead it's a solid shooter, with a really interesting emphasis on tactical play. But it woefully lacks variety, and has a gag ratio somewhere below even the most average sitcom on a bad day.
Everyone, stop accepting this level of humour as good enough, let alone laudable!