5th of November, 2021
Hello! Welcome back to our regular feature where we write a little bit about some of the games we've found ourselves playing over the last few days. This time: war, space adventures and a bit of robbery.
If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What We've Been Playing, here's our archive.
House of Ashes, PS5
I really liked Until Dawn and what Supermassive has done with this idea of horror party games, and how they're events for everyone in the room, like horror films, not just the person with the controller. But I bounced hard off Man of Medan, the follow-up. It came across as really shoddy to me, and tacky. I couldn't stick with it. So I was nervous about House of Ashes - hopeful, but nervous. And when I realised it was in the Iraq War, and I'd be playing as a bunch of yee-haw US Marines, I scrunched my face up so hard I almost ate my nose.
But House of Ashes has a secret weapon, one that actually exists, and it's Salim. He's an Iraqi soldier fighting against Americans, and he's another of the characters you play - the only one not from the American camp. And including him opens this whole other perspective in the game. Now, when the two sides are having a shootout, you're playing both sides. Sometimes you're literally shooting at a character before you pass the pad and they take their turn and respond.
That's neat, but that's not the entire reason I love Salim, because yeah, to begin with, it feels as forced as it probably sounds. But as the game progresses, Salim starts to emerge as objectively the best character in the game. Whenever Salim speaks, he makes sense. He's thoughtful, selfless, wise. Likable. Not like the others there. Maybe it's because he's a father, the sole parent of an 18-year-old boy, so he's had to put someone other than himself first for many years. But whatever the reason, he feels like the conscience of the game. And I love this. I love that Supermassive saved all that care and attention for him. He shows the Americans up.
Guardians of the Galaxy, PS5
Escaping the crystalline pink glow of the Quarantine Zone at the end of the first chapter, Star Lord boards the Milano ship and flies off as the planet shifts and explodes, teammates barking instructions. It's a rush, all with I Ran (So Far Away) by new wave band A Flock of Seagulls thumping in the background.
It's moments like this that encapsulate the silliness of Guardians of the Galaxy, bordering on the absurd. Despite Eidos-Montréal creating their own take on these familiar characters, they still capture the essence of the films that fans have grown to love. The game is pure popcorn entertainment, for better and for worse. It wears its influences on its sleeves - the set pieces of Uncharted, the team sci-fi of Mass Effect - and offers simplistic fun full of charm controlling the roguish Peter Quill. But it sometimes feels too on-rails and quick time events ruin the flow.
What really makes it, though, is that 80s soundtrack and that's never more apparent than in streaming mode. It's a useful feature to include, but watching streamers on Twitch and YouTube play the game with key moments in silence rather than with licensed tracks saps all the joy out of the game. Despite the comic commentary from your teammates and the colourful space vistas, gameplay suddenly feels soulless and lacks urgency.
Guardians of the Galaxy, then, is a game that proves what an impact music can have, but it's one best experienced on your sofa alone.
Every now and then I am delighted to remember that a game as exquisite as Monaco exists. Has a developer ever been named as aptly as Pocketwatch Games? Here is a thing of exquisite precision and compactness, a little buzzing, spinning, ticking world of many moving parts, all with a lovely sense of urgency to it. A watch is its own world, I have always felt: you stare down into the face and are transported. The same is true for Monaco. Maybe more true even, if something can be more true.
This week I returned to its offices and caves and palaces with my daughter, who is looking for new games to play. Monaco is so thrilling, I think, because its complexity is entirely emergent - at the simplest level, it's just Pac-Man, as you race around mazes dodging guards rather than ghosts and stealing loot rather than gobbling pills.
I thought it might too much for her, but she absolutely adored it, instinctively understanding the stylish way that the game handles lines of sight, and delighting in the moments where stealth gives way to chaos. For a few happy hours we robbed the rich and generally messed stuff up. So many moving parts! What a game.
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