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Game of the Week: Spec Ops

Someday this war's gonna end...

The games of this week were really the games of the last seven months, as online updates saw two titles which have dominated the lives of so many return to our screens: Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim. The updates were very different, but neither was exactly a triumphant return.

Mass Effect 3's Extended Cut isn't a traditional free update so much as a story patch, a rewrite, plugging holes in plot and motivation and massaging away the more downbeat implications of the game's ending(s). It came into being so BioWare could be seen to be doing something about the extraordinary outpouring of fan fury that greeted that ending back in March. All that has largely died down now, leaving this bizarre precedent looking like what it is - a sticking plaster that doesn't so much cover up a messy tangle of issues about interactive narrative and the developer-player relationship as draw attention to them.

"Post-release plot-changes shouldn't become the norm, for the simple reason that while a script can be patched, memories can't," wrote Rich Cobbett in his analysis of Mass Effect 3: The Extended Cut. "Likewise, it would be tragic if the wrong lessons were learned from this. If Mass Effect 3 is going to teach something, it shouldn't be 'You can't end on a downer' or 'Only give people what they think you want', but the more generally applicable 'Make sure your ending is appropriate for your story' and 'Don't rush something fans have been waiting five years to see.' With a polite but firm 'Duh...' on the end of the second one.

"One thing's for sure, though. After this and the Dragon Age 2 debacle, BioWare is officially facing its third strike with whatever comes next."

My thoughts exactly.

BioWare still makes good games and sells plenty of them, but the harder the developer works to satisfy the lofty promises it has made, the more it seems to be chasing its own tail. Its relationship with its fans is spiralling out of control and the developer seems to be losing confidence in its own creative vision; The Extended Cut was intended, no doubt, to begin reversing those trends, but if anything it's doing the opposite. Other developers facing open player revolt (notably Blizzard since the release of Diablo 3) would do well to consider this cautionary tale, but it's not one that provides any answers. Appropriately enough, you might say.

Bethesda, by contrast, has weathered the storm over The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim's backwards-flying bugs pretty well, if only because it was performing to expectations. So there's no crisis management evident in Skyrim's first add-on, Dawnguard, but perhaps a little more urgency would have been a good thing. Positioned somewhere between a full expansion pack and a bolt-on bit of DLC - but priced a bit more like the former - Dawnguard feels like the developer going through the motions.

"You're looking at around eight to 10 hours of gameplay to complete the main Dawnguard storyline, but the reality of it is still slightly insubstantial," wrote Dan Whitehead in our Dawnguard review. "Too many of the missions feel like padding... The details become a blur, so your motivation becomes detached and more about the constant meta-game of avatar improvement than any meaningful desire to help these characters progress. You're chasing map markers rather than advancing the story.

"That's really no different to many of the quests already in the game. It's just that being asked to pay 1600 Microsoft Points for the experience shines an unforgiving light on this sort of construction." Making it a timed exclusive for Xbox 360 leaves a bad taste in the mouth, too.

PS3 owners can console themselves with the lovely Ratchet & Clank Trilogy, a trio of remasters which celebrates this clever, polished and colourful series of platformers. "This compilation captures Ratchet & Clank at their innovative, genre-bending best," Dan wrote in our review. "If you have any fondness for the platforming genre, you owe it to yourself to sample this greatest hits compilation from arguably the last worthy faces to grace the genre."

Ratchet & Clank, by the way, has now officially outlived its successor. Creator Insomniac Games' next brainchild, the zeitgeist-chasing first-person festival of brown monster-blasting that was the Resistance series, was as good as canned this week. Insomniac is currently making the 11th Ratchet game, QForce. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

But if you think that lesson is "we don't need any more dusty, militaristic shooters," Berlin's Yager Development has an unlikely but persuasive counter-argument for you.

Spec Ops: The Line

Thanks to Modern Warfare and Gears of War, the military shooter has become the most ubiquitous genre of this hardware generation, and the default response to another game in this mould is weary cynicism. But Yager's Spec Ops arrives with a timely reminder that it's not the vehicle but where you go in it that matters.

That destination is a stark and memorable vision of Dubai - a ruined capitalist fantasy, the Emperor's new clothes in tatters. The game takes you on a journey into the heart of darkness and the meaninglessness of war, not with great subtlety or perfect execution perhaps, but with surprising sincerity and commitment. This is not the jingoistic spree you think it is.

"It tries to do something special, and it tries to create something memorable and something strange," wrote Chris Donlan in our Spec Ops review. "In Dubai itself, it genuinely succeeds, perhaps because the reality of the place is already so gaudy, so cloyingly, oppressively weird, that it provides a good hard shove in the right direction before the first bullet's been fired. There are such a lot of shooters these days, and so many tend to blur into each other if you're not careful. This one won't, however - and that's quite an achievement."

Isn't it, though? The problem is that it very much will blur into all the others if you don't play it - and you'd be forgiven if the generic images and portentous tone swirling around it didn't exactly fire your imagination. Don't be mistaken, though. Compared to some of the other rehashed and recycled reasons to game this week, Spec Ops is a true original.

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