If you're going to play Serious Sam, Croteam's riotous PC/Xbox FPS, through to completion, it's hardly going to leave you with any thorny existential questions to ponder. It's a game that's giddying in its simplicity. Several billion (well, many dozen) enemies spawn and charge/shoot at you, and you shoot back at them, endlessly circle-strafing and pumping the trigger in a gloriously dumb haze of gunfire and death yelps. And that's it, over and over, for the entire game. Zero subtlety. Minimal variation. On paper, it's deafeningly flat. It's the action-hero equivalent of LOLspeak. So, if you play Serious Sam through to completion, you are actually left with something to ponder: what the hell am I doing?
Consider me. Oh, go on. I like to think I have flatteringly high gaming standards. I do my best to play only the best. I coo like a connoisseur at well-crafted complexity. But I also have the attention span of Heat magazine; an unskippable cut-scene has me mashing the buttons and belming like a simian Caesar, snorting and whining the very nanosecond I stop being entertained. I find gaming's obsession with futuristic soldiers, muscular hero-fantasy and open-world hoo-ha to be as tedious as eating a sack of flour. And yet, there's a particular style of game - the crowd-control genre - that amputates hours of my free time, despite contradicting what I so often seek. Four hours into KOEI's battlefield beat-'em-up Dynasty Warriors 6, I'm still having a swell time, despite having done little other than batter make-believe Chinese men in the face with a spear. What the hell am I doing?
Anyone watching me play Dynasty Warriors 6 for four hours would probably be left with nothing but disgust, and maybe a glimmer of pity, at this podgy fantasist sat on his couch, his better judgement having flown south for the winter. Jabbing away at the same three buttons like some lab monkey jonesing for his next cigarette. But in my head, something spectacular is happening. I have become a stellar badass, scattering enemies like bowling pins with just a few pokes at the joypad. And this is the answer to the above question: effectuality. Repetition is a core criticism aimed at such games, but variety counts little if you don't feel engaged. And games like Serious Sam and Dynasty Warriors engage with swarms of things to lash out at. Your actual role may be literally one-dimensional - that of a one-man army - but the feedback is immense. It's the power of the penny jar, that pot of spare change you gather over time that always reaps a surprising wad of cash when its contents are counted out. No single interaction in a Dynasty Warriors game matters much at all. But when you spray defeat with every swipe, there's some brutal, blockbuster brain-maths at work here that provides an animal satisfaction.
It's like jumping into a puddle. Or swatting a house of cards. Or crushing handfuls of bubble wrap. These are examples of fun physics, tactile treats that make your inner primate smile. Even though Serious Sam doesn't really feature physics, it can feel awfully physical, and fun for it. Which is why current-gen development, with its '1000x physics!!' manifesto, still has to walk the same line that games have always had to. Both Kameo: Elements of Power and Assassin's Creed knew that showboating worlds populated with myriad characters would wow us as we lollygagged their previews, but it doesn't matter much if they're not being bounced around like hundreds of Maltesers on a trampoline. A box falling down some stairs may be realistic to ninety decimal places, but it doesn't make me feel awesome. The question I have to ask is: can it make 100 men go simultaneous aargh fall down amazing? Such violence may be cardboard or cartoony, but it certainly works wonders in insect-alien invasion shooter Earth Defence Force 2017. Fire a rocket into a huddle of giant ants, and they'll erupt into a cloud of pirouetting corpses, some of them being flung for miles. Havok doesn't necessarily buy you those kinds of grins, or that sensation of power.
There's just no guarantee that filling the screen with bodies will yield any appeal. PS2 title Ikusagami (released as the hard-to-find Demon Chaos in the UK) managed to fit around 65,000 enemies onto your telly, but carving through such masses feels detached and inconsequential. And so we hit on a secret trait of good crowd-control games: a certain depth. It's easy to understand why many players find such games numbing rather than thrilling. Their intricacies can take their sweet time to emerge, and require an amount of trusting investment. While Earth Defence Force 2017 is, on the surface, an intense but crude duck-shoot, you still feel like you have to play well to punch through the onslaught. Seasoned Dynasty Warriors players don't button-bash, but call on combos to best cut through the chaos, and any enemy generals within threatening range. Serious Sam plies you with piles of baddies, sure, but each one offers a slightly different vector of danger, and so you've got to keep on top of the mosh pit in order to be graceful; that needs a surprising amount of personal RAM, and drills you into the zone as effectively as any conceited cinematic adventure could hope for
Plus, there's a peculiar aesthetic, um, pleasure to be had from many crowd-control titles. You know how people laud Super Mario Galaxy because it's unpretentious, and is happy to be 'just a game'? The same applies here. The Serious Sam series has no delusions of grandeur; it knows that it isn't trying to tell a rich, memorable story, and so it goes nuts, with gorgonzola-strength action cheese, doolally self-referencing and an endearing sense of abandon. If you've got a single goofball bone in your body, you'll find the game all the richer and more memorable for it, too. Did anyone play Earth Defence Force 2017 and not adopt the "EDF! EDF! EDF!" battle cry as a daft, cheery catchphrase? And the Dynasty Warriors games are 'renowned' for their hammy, repetitive soundbites of voice acting, but that can only add to the comic-book charm, not to mention offer a wad of superbly childish double-entendres ("I have come for your head!"). The characters are shoddy, but it's perfectly in line with the game's sense of realism. You know how it's perfectly acceptable to guffaw at Arnie's tackiest lines from Predator or Commando, or whatever? It's that, yeah.
Finally, as a cherry-flavoured post-script, some of my most eclectic and open-minded of gaming friends are crowd-control enthusiasts of some persuasion or other. Last year, some girl spent half an hour on the phone to me, explaining in horrendous detail which of the Dynasty Warriors 5 characters she'd most like to marry, and I promise she's not mental. Which, somehow, only goes to show how right I am. So, while I'm on a roll, here are the top five crowd-control games, in descending order of my preference. You're welcome to disagree, of course, but then you'd no longer be welcome at my house. There are plenty of games that were considered - Spartan: Total Warrior, Kingdom Under Fire etc. - that didn't quite achieve the required purity (well, monomaniacal focus) to qualify. Here you go:
The Top Five Games
5. Ninety-Nine Nights
- Platform: Xbox 360
- Released: 2006
Microsoft's money plugged up another 360-exclusive niche, in its Quest to Woo Japan. The result threatened to barnstorm: great surges of goblins cresting the hills, dazzling combo strings and uproarious, swarm-smashing special attacks that could pass for deleted scenes from The Bible. Some simple, gobsmacking design errors soiled it, but the potential for something special is still there. It's not like it's been given the grace of as many iterations as the Dynasty Warriors series.
4. Devil Kings
- Platform: PS2
- Released: 2006
Capcom's attempt to snatch a sod of KOEI's lucrative 'Warriors turf, but not as cynical as it sounds. Pumped up with some hallmark Capcom vitality and camp, the combos were sparkier, and enemies actually wanted to fight. You like swords? How about wielding six at once? And robots? Then have Iron Ox, a screen-tall, comically overpowered metal beast that converts button presses into genocide. Trouble is, it didn't match the sense of battlefield scenario and ally presence you'd get in KOEI's games.
3. Serious Sam
Headshots? We don't need no stinking headshots. Often thought of as the spiritual successor to Doom's growling hordes, this FPS strips the genre down to its pubes: shooting. Shooting. And more shooting. No hiding, no reloading, no faffing, no pretensions, no nothing but shooting. By embracing idiosyncratic madness, it still stands tall above the self-conscious drudgery of too many shooters. Received a sequel and a spin-off on PS2/GameCube, but hasn't been blessed with the proper score-combo system that it's been crying out for. Until that happens, I can't get married. Sorry dear.
2. Warriors Orochi
The ultimate wrap-party, this, for the Warriors series and its obese PS2 CV. After countless Tactics/Extreme spin-offs and sequels that required an Excel spreadsheet to track, Warriors Orochi is pretty much the IP-collision that KOEI had been building towards all that time. Lassoing dozens of characters from both Samurai and Dynasty universes and letting them loose against a new, common enemy, this is the ultimate high-five for faithful followers. Imagine the effect that an Eastenders Vs Coronation Street mash-up would have on a typical soap fan. Then multiply it by flaming halberds.
1. Global Defence Force
- Platform: PS2
- Released: 2007
Now, Earth Defence Force 2017 on 360 was lovely. It brought Sandlot's armageddon of giant insects to an audience that otherwise wouldn't have chowed down on its delights. It's a one-track shooter but, boy, does it make some noise. Thing is, the two EDF games made prior to 2017 have been available in the UK for a while, albeit stealthily, on PS2. The first was released as Monster Attack, but let's not talk about that, as it's basically obsolete. EDF2 - known as Global Defence Force over here - was released in utter silence by D3's budget label Essential Games, and it's the standout experience. EDF 2017 was, in essence, a high-def redux of Monster Attack. Global Defence Force, however, upped the ante substantially. It offered Palewing, an alternative character capable of jet-pack glides and a new plasma-based weapon-set, and crammed in bundles of new enemies: giant millipedes, War of the Worlds walkers, pill bugs, UFOs with bullet-reflecting panels... and a last boss the size of a city. The frame-rate often spluttered, but it's not like any developer out there seems to want to usurp it. Well, not until Sandlot releases EDF4. Which, probably, will see the entire animal kingdom converted into B-movie freaks that attack en masse across a single continent-sized level that lasts for fifteen hours. We can but hope.