Stunning Sevens: Five ‘Average’ Video Games That Are Anything But
Games reviews, eh? Who reads those things? Flipping everybody, that's who. And then they argue about the scores, @ing in whatever YouTube creep is best positioned to call a particular outlet a gaggle of shills or a cavalcade of cretins. That's the 'gaming community' every time a significant release comes out: on this or that side of the discussion, love it or hate it, but rarely straddling the divide like some kind of fence panel-mounted rodeo rider with an arse full of wood stain and splinters.
In short: social media interaction has accelerated cultural appreciation and conversation to a binary yay or nay, hit or miss, with us or against us. We see it in everything. And when applied to video game criticism, it too-often manifests as an ugly situation where anything less than an 8/10 score, or equivalent, becomes derided as little more than makeweight shovelware shite. We've lost sight, to no small degree, of the gradient of grey between black and white - or, on Metacritic, the varied array of yellow-coloured critical summaries that, on closer inspection, can prove to be unexpected favourites.
I asked on Twitter: what are your favourite, *personal* 7/10s? The games that, okay, are in some ways flawed, but have elements that stick in the mind like blazing beacons amid the mist of fond memories? Loads of replies later, I've crunched a list of five titles that, while not regarded as bona-fide classics, represent a breed of game that shouldn't be overlooked in the widescreen picture of this colourful and creative industry. They're mysterious and misshapen, angry and affecting, hard-nosed but soft-bellied. A buffet of contradictions and opportunities missed and uniqueness realised. All a bit brilliant, but compromised; average in the eyes of many, but anything but in the hearts of those they really connected with.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Before Hellblade really turned heads, Cambridge-based studio Ninja Theory was best known for its divisive spin-off hack 'n' slasher DmC: Devil May Cry and this: a 2010-released action-adventure adaptation of the 16th century Chinese novel Xiyou Ji, or Journey to the West. Enslaved casts the player as Monkey, who alongside the red-haired Trip travels across an apocalypse-blasted America, defeating aggressive mechs until the power that controls them can be found and stopped.
With its story co-penned by Alex Garland (the director of Ex_Machina and author of The Beach), and Andy Serkis starring as Monkey, Enslaved has a lot of awesomeness about it, and often looks amazing. It's just that the combat gets overly repetitive, controls can feel a little less than responsive, and it climaxes with a rushed and unrewarding end sequence. Shout out to that "Smoky Bacon" achievement, though.
I'm pretty sure that we've seen the last of Mirror's Edge as a series, in the wake of 2016's Catalyst reboot failing to build upon the foundations of its 2008 predecessor in a critically meaningful or significantly profitable fashion. But to play that 2008 title today is to experience a wonderfully weird big-budget title, powered by the publishing might of EA and developed by DICE.
A first-person platformer of exceptional aesthetical style but too many nuisances to dismiss - uh, it was a pig to move Faith through her environments, until each level really, really clicked - Mirror's Edge is what happens when major studios allow themselves to get a experimental. It should be celebrated for that, for bucking the cycle of repeat iterations of The Same Old Thing (DICE was fully entrenched in Battlefield at the time - its five games before Mirror's Edge were all part of the military shooter series, and the three that came afterwards). But a great game, Mirror's Edge sure isn't. If looks could kill, it'd be deadly - and perhaps it'd be better that way, as you'd never have to play it and see the fine first-impression facade slip.
This Capcom-published button-masher from 2012 was described, widely, as an interactive anime series - and we're happy to go along with that. It features fists-flying combat sections, on-rails shooting sequences, and a shed-load of quick-time events that are plugged into some of the most over-the-top action you'll ever see in a video game. If you've never had the pleasure: think Shenmue, with a dollop of Rez-style blasting, and a story that is all life and death in the shadow of demigods, spanning tens of thousands of years (millions, if you include the DLC).
It is, well, bananas, frankly, and sort of adorable - Asura himself reaches apexes of anger that only Kratos himself is an equal to, but the many-armed protagonist somehow remains someone you're wholly rotting for. What lets the game down is its insistence that you absolutely hammer the buttons - my right thumb still hasn't recovered, seven years on - and its longevity isn't much to write home about. If you like Japanese animation, however, the explosively colourful Asura's Wrath will brighten up any afternoon (and may just about stretch to two).
Before French studio Dontnod really made its name with Life is Strange, it produced this Capcom-published adventure that combined an intriguing plot about memory hacking and human mutation with the stunning setting of Neo-Paris in the year 2084. Its stylish and enveloping cyberpunk aesthetic wasn't quite matched by some undercooked, Uncharted-pinching level navigation, though, and combat that borrowed from the Arkham games but couldn't stand apart from it, despite the inclusion of a customisable combo system.
But play Remember Me today and you'll get a vision of its makers' future, as the time-bending mechanics of Life is Strange are present and correct here, too, in the game's Memory Remix sequences (pictured above). These puzzle elements - essential for changing the remembered past and future fates of both lead character Nilin and various NPCs that support her - offered a refreshing break from the face-pounding progression of the main game. While obviously flawed, Remember Me's playfulness with its brain-manipulating sections and overall look - seriously, Neo-Paris is such a delight to gaze upon that you'll want a big screen for this one - makes it a seven-out-of-ten title that's still worth a look.
When this one came up in the tweeted suggestions, I couldn't help but declare it the very epitome of a seven-from-ten experience. Ambitious, expansive, wholly entertaining, United Front Games' open-worlder of 2012 really stood apart from its peers. Set in Hong Kong and starring a protagonist who could kick arse alright but who remained someone to root for throughout (something that can't be said for so many GTA games), Sleeping Dogs could easily swallow you up for whole weekends at a time. Its setting remains one of the best 'real world' playgrounds in gaming, too.
If anything let Sleeping Dogs down, it's probably its ambition exceeding its budget. Yes, it can be beautiful in screenshots, but also curiously stiff to play at times. Its camera is unreliable, adding something else to wrestle with when engaged in the game's combat (genuinely rewarding, with its environmental takedowns); and driving its many and varied vehicles never feels quite as spot-on as what the limitless-money sorts at Rockstar can achieve.
However, Sleeping Dogs is precisely the kind of Actually Pretty Awesome game that, while not hitting the highest highs throughout its compelling story of undercover cops and warring triads, tends to find passionate fans wherever it's played. So, Square Enix: sequel, when? (Nah, we know it's never happening... and we're not crying, honest.)
And, why not, have five more that easily fall into the category of great 7/10s, but I don't have the space for here: the Yakuza development team's sci-fi squad shooter Binary Domain; the still-gorgeous 2008 version of Prince of Persia; PlatinumGames' frenetic 360-degree slasher Metal Gear Solid: Revengeance; Starbreeze's Mike Patton-blessed supernatural mafia FPS The Darkness; and Obsidian's cult-hit tactical action affair Alpha Protocol. I could go on, but...
Featured Image Credit: EA