Friday, 26 August 2011

Broken Sword

I've promised to write an angry blog post about Hitman: Absolution based on what we know about the game so far  based on developer interviews, as I am a big, angry, ranty fan of the Hitman series who has to kill the developers if the next game sucks since all the murder and violence and general immorality in the those games has brainwashed me into becoming a deranged killer. That's all nice and dandy, but the bad part of it is that I've also lost hope in video games and think every game sucks without trying them myself and I can't believe the next Hitman is going to be anywhere near what it should be. I mean, Io-Interactive was also behind Splinter Cell Conviction and that game was shit! I know, I know, Conviction has it's fans as well, but that proves nothing! Even the person popularly thought to be the most evil, Mr. Hitler, STILL has his fans and the bastard's been reportedly dead for nearly 70 years now (although we do now know the Russians lied to us about the skull and the eye witness). What I'm rambling on about is, if you like Splinter Cell Conviction then you're a nazi!
Well, regardless of my profound thoughts I got discouraged from writing that angry post about a month ago for who knows what reason and desperately sought for some other activity to help me escape the apathy when my eyes suddenly gazed upon the complete yet still largely unplayed collection of Broken Sword games sitting on my shelf.
And I installed and played them. All four of them.

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, or Circle of Blood as it's been often called somewhere else, is an adventure game classic. Almost everytime I've read a list of "the best adventure games ever" either this game alone or usually both the first two games back to back have been ranked in the top five and if neither of them have then someone's always crying about it in the comments section. I've read articles specifically written about some Sierra's classic game series with comments comparable in length to the article itself right under it praising the original Broken Sword and how it's better than anything Sierra ever made. That sort of fanaticism is usually annoying to witness, I've even completely lost all respect for Metal Gear Solid fans because of such nutcases, but after having played Broken Sword myself I can completely agree with the older fans, Broken Sword really is one of the best adventures games I've experienced. I'm not an adventure-game buff, though, so that probably weighs nothing.

The story of Broken Sword begins with a patent-lawyer named George Stobbart sitting outside a Parisian café enjoying his vacation when suddenly the café explodes. This starts off the quest for tracking down the clown-suited assassin who blew up the café and eventually stopping a loony cult from gaining mystical powers that they intend to use to take over the world. During his adventure George sees a lot of interesting places, pilfers a lot of interesting items and meets a lot of interesting new people like his to-be-series-long-partner Nico Collard, an interesting couple called Pearl and Duane and that one Nobel prize winner from the country whose name he couldn't pronounce.
The dialogue between George and the various persons he meets is really the biggest and best part of the game. The story, as the game's title might suggest, deals with a lot of Templar history and legends, and to be quite frank I don't really care about such things, but the dialogue and especially George's lines are often absolutely hilarious and Rolf Saxon delivers them with unusual honesty and talent, and the storyline events are so well sequenced that even if I didn't care about the grand scheme of things or the end goal, I ALWAYS wanted to progress just to see what happens next. That's really the best kind of storytelling if you ask me, because when you're pushing through a game just to see the end you won't enjoy the journey as much because your mind is set on something further away, but Broken Sword is structured so that it's throughly enjoyable and memorable because you constantly focus on whatever is happening in it at the moment. The game is very well written.
The dialogue is funny but not kiddy-funny. It's classy and amusing and although it's not ever explicitly adult it does have a mature tone to it. Mature largely in the sense that it doesn't treat you like you were a moron. Subtle jokes that still make you chuckle like Nico wondering how a person, referring to one of the bad guys, can be so evil as to pose as a doctor after George had just recntly disguised himself as one as well, or George mentioning that some idiot left the water running in the basement are delivered like any other line in the game and the dialogue doesn't pause for a second to remind you that you should laugh. That makes the funny even funnier.

I don't think I mentioned it in the post, but the game looks awesome
Of course, even though Broken Sword IS mostly an interactive story, it does still have it's share of puzzles to solve or it wouldn't be called a video game. I know I have a bad habit of bringing up Sierra that I should control more, but unlike their games Broken Sword's puzzles are much more casual and much, much more logical. In Sierra's classic games, when you pick up an item you have no idea where and when to use it because it's almost always something bordering on illogical, like using a moldy cheese to charge up a magic wand, and you often end up just trying everything with everything without even necessarily knowing what you aim to achieve. In Broken Sword, however, once you understand what it is that's preventing you from progressing, which tends to be easy as George helpfully declares to himself the nature of the problem if you inspect items, and then take a look at what items you have and what's on the screen, without Sierra-like wanton trial and error you'll always have at least a hunch of what you should do. Even an idiot like me can hear the whirring of small gears and the clicking of pieces finding their correct places in my brain when playing the game.
Some might think that what I just said means that Broken Sword is too easy because the puzzles don't stump you for hours, but it's not really true. Broken Sword's difficulty is close to perfect for what it is; an interactive story. The puzzles pose just enough challenge that you have fun figuring them out, but never too much to force you out of the narrative. If some section was too difficult, the overall Broken Sword experience would then suffer from the hold up.

Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror will fix whatever problem you had with the lack of difficulty in the first game, IF you had any problem at all. If the first game was perfect, then this game is likely to be tougher. A tad higher difficulty doesn't mean the game's puzzles would be illogical, though, not at all, but there are a lot more puzzles to solve, and a lot more parts to the puzzles with a lot more distractions from the actual puzzles. If you ask me, though, I prefer it like this. Hey, I said the difficulty in the first game was close to perfect, not perfect. The puzzles are still solvable with logic alone, but it takes you a little bit more time to actually distinguish all the useful pieces from the rest of the scenery and the correct order in which you should do what. Getting out of the first screen alone is more complicated than I think anything in the first game was, although not excessively so. Adventure game pros looking for challenges wouldn't get their fix in Smoking Mirror, but MY slow brain steamed at a few points, and I liked the sensation I got once I passed a screen all on my own wit. In the first game, passing a screen rarely made me feel triumphant for finishing the task, only happy that I could see what's up next.
The... uhh, beautiful? Nico Collard
Of course, other smaller things have also changed between the two games. Instead of you being able to travel between locations at largely on your own free will, Smoking Mirror is always in charge of where you are. In a way I like it better this way because I can fully concentrate on the one screen I am in, and try to pass the puzzles knowing there couldn't be anything else I could do somewhere else, but then again you do end up getting the feeling that the game's events, locations and puzzles find YOU, rather than you going out to find THEM. I think that it's important for a great adventure to be grounded and let the player to be the one going forward, instead of the adventure coming towards the player who just solves the problems as they come up.
I also can't help but feel that Smoking Mirror is less story and much more gameplay. I don't know for certain if that's good or bad. I think I ended up enjoying Smoking Mirror more than Shadow of the Templars, but maybe I enjoyed it in a little bit different kind of way, or maybe I welcomed the change of pace after finishing the first game. I dunno.

This game's a visual treat
The story of Smoking Mirror unites George Stobbart with Nico Collard for another adventure several months after the events of the first game when Nico asks George to come back to Paris for some reason. As George's luck would have it, on the first day of meeting Nico she ends up getting kidnapped by Mayan indians and George is left tied to a chair in a locked room with a deadly spider advancing towards him, AND the place is on fire. That's how the game starts, and yes, it is indeed a very interesting ride even if the story has a tendency to take the backseat. The overall plot is about smugglers and some bad people trying to return an ancient Mayan god back to life to bring the end upon the world, but like said this "epic" sounding story just doesn't seem to ever be the thing to focus on and largely just acts as a vehicle to deliver the adventure and exploration and not the other way around, and perhaps this has something to do with what I said earlier about how the first game is structured so that you have your eyes set closer to home. In Smoking Mirror, after you release Nico from her captivity, you basically start the "main quest" immediately and see the end of the game coming waaaay before you're actually there, so all the smaller tasks like finding artifacts to defeat the ancient evil feel like pitstops and detours in the grand scheme of the plot.
Love this bit and the next few screens after this
Regardless of the story feeling less important, the game still offers the same old awesome writing that was endlessly amusing in the first game in the way of dialogue. Dialogue is still as witty and talking to people never feels like a drag. You in fact itch to talk to everyone about everything to see what they have to say. For example, there's a part where you must send a correct item from your inventory to a village shaman to get a chance to speak to him. In some other games you might try to choose the right items immediately in this kind of a situation, but here I can almost guarantee you will try out everything BUT the right item just to see what happens. And as you can guess, what happens is usally very amusing and worth the extra time spent dicking around. It's also important to note that in neither of the first two games messing about is so dangerous that you would have to save the game every step of the way. You can indeed die at certain points in both games, but what's nice is that you can always see when something is too dangerous to do without saving, and if you can't see the danger then someone will point it out before you rush blindly into it. So it's certainly not the death-fest Sierra games usually deliver. Although, sometimes excessive dying in adventure games is actually more fun than passing them flawlessly...

Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon is the third game and the first in 3D. I also assume it was made specifically for the consoles and only ported for PC, as it has no mouse support whatsoever and all actions are tied to four directional keys and four action keys with two or so "trigger" key actions. Sounds a lot like something fit for a PS2 controller.
Sleeping Dragon is also regarded by Broken Sword fans as "utter garbage", and while I do not agree with that sentiment at all, I can sort of see what's going on in the heads of people who do. It's very different from the first two.

The story of Sleeping Dragon begins with Nico getting framed for murder and having to track down the real assassin to clear her name, while at the very same time in a different corner of the world George is getting involved in yet another mess of cultists seeking mythical powers. The game keeps switching the character you play as back and forth until at one point the stories intertwine when George and Nico bump into each other and realize that they have a common enemy. The main villain in the game is largely the same from the first game and Sleeping Dragon is basically a continuation of the Templar theme.
Damn that Sewer Jacques!
The game doesn't feel a whole lot as good as the first two in many ways. Although the plot can be very interesting at several points and it's well written again, there is much less entertaining dialogue than before. Even though there are plenty of moments when you can tell the situation on-screen is supposed to be funny, it's not really as humouring as you might have learned to expect by now. There is still a lot real amusement to be found, sure, but there are often looong gaps between the truly interesting bits and the game can get at times a tiny bit boring. The game's ending is rewarding, though, which is welcomed after the rather brief ending screens of the first two games.

Gameplay's changed quite drastically in Sleeping Dragon. Although it is still largely about investigating the scenery and using items with other items and talking to people, what's different is that there seems to be a LOT less points in the areas that you can interact with, so you won't be spending ages looking at everything like before, and you certainly won't have to bother your brain at all trying to figure out what to use with what because the "puzzles" are largely nonexistant and there are only a handful of points of interest that do not contribute to your progress in any way. If Shadow of the Templars was an easy adventure game, Sleeping Dragon is hardly even an adventure game in the first place. The fact that the game has roamable 3D-environments further highlights the sparsity of interactive entities, which is funny as well as sad when it was probably the designers' intention to make the game feel more alive (or just to cater to kids who think that 2D = old 'n shit). When you look at a large area you can roam and there is only one single point of interest sticking out of the often dull scenery, it's really just more depressing than anything. It's another good example of what I often preach about, that being the game developers' desperate need to jump on technology bandwagons for the sake of being competitive without thinking what harm they might doing do their product. The scenery isn't ever AWFUL to look at, but it often could've also been better and even at it's prettiest it's still dead.
The 3D also poses a problem with your control over the character, because the camera is fixed and it's always eager to jump from corner to corner or spin around in it's own path while you're trying to navigate streets and hallways. Trying to keep the character running in a straight line without bumping into walls every three steps is incredibly frustrating, and there is even one point in the game where I failed an action sequence three times in a row only due to the camera flipping around, making the movement keys switch places at inopportune times and going ass-backwards from what the controls should've been considering the camera's new position. Instead of holding down to run towards the camera I had to stop, press up, stop and then hold down because the game had to take a moment to realize that down was now backwards. It was even sadder that this happened right after a lenghty, unskippable cutscene. Having the old survival-horror tank controls where up is always forward no matter the placement of the camera would ease the pain quite a bit. Or, using a joystick of a controller might work too, so I guess I suggest you just a controller no matter what you're playing the game on.

The new, more beautiful Nico Collard.
She's in my top 3 sexiest female video game characters of all time.
Yup. Right up there with Cate Archer and Tron Bonne.
Of course, being a 3D game that seems to be mainly a console game, there are also a few new things to "enrich" the "tired old" gameplay, such as brief platforming sections, crate-puzzles and quicktime events. You might think that's the last straw and decide to forget you ever heard of the game, but the game doesn't really drop these on you too often. Well, okay, it's a popular joke that Sleeping Dragon is mainly about pushing crates, but seriously, they're not that bad. The crate puzzles are simple and take less time than you'd think, the platforming sections are brief and relatively rare and I think there are only five or six quicktime events in total, you sort of see them coming and you only have to press X... I mean, down-action button once to pass them. It's more about activating something within a cutscene rather than playing Simon all of a sudden to be honest. There are also some sneaking sections, which for the most part are casually fun.

Broken Sword: The Angel of Death a.k.a. Secrets of the Ark: A Broken Sword Game is the last game in the series and like Sleeping Dragon also boasts 3D-environments, but that's largely where the similarities end, because this game tries it's best to be more like the first two games. Mouse is once again your main tool of progression, you click everywhere to find items to pinch and then you use the items on other items. Instead of huge open spaces with boring background areas are of perfect size and often have enough details to make them seem more than just backdrops. Quicktime events do not exist, only a couple of boxes get pushed, platforming bits are even shorter, only a jump or two, and not at all as repetitive as in Sleeping Dragon.
So, it's considerably closer the old fun, but there are still problems. Camera is still a bitch at times. That's the only problem I can actually think of right now... oh, yeah, and that fucking glitch that, for the second time, forced me to replay two hours of the game because the game got stuck. Hey, don't you tell me to save the game more often! I don't need to save, saving is for sissies!
The main new addition is the hacking minigame. Every now and then you need to find out something, a phone number for a company, information from a website George is locked out of by an asshole, security codes for locked doors or simple bomb defusal guides for when you have only ten minutes left to live, and that's when you begin hacking. The hacking minigame is a pretty fun one, but some of the final puzzles are pretty difficult to crack in my opinion. You have to place mirrors, tubes and dividers onto a grid in a way that allows a light beam to pass through nodes and end in the server, but this is made harder because you have to navigate past solid squares and avoid tripping alarms. It's a puzzle.

The story this time doesn't tie into the previous games in any way, altough Templars and manuscripts are still often on the forefront. George has quit being a patent-lawyer and has instead started running a bail bonds office. A woman named Anna Maria comes to ask George for help because she's being followed by some mobsters that are after her valuable manuscript. The game begins with you escaping from the thugs and the tension doesn't often let up during George's quest to find out who are the bad guys, how to foil their plans and where and when does Nico come into play. The story holds your interest all the way to the bitter end, the places you go to are fun, and I dare say the dialogue is mostly better than what it was in Sleeping Dragon, the humour is actually funny. Jokes can sometimes seem a little bit more downplayed than what they were in the previous games, but not much and they're still actually very amusing.
Why doesn't George just stay in Paris? I would.
The one big problem the story has is the ending. It's very, very abrupt and what's worse is that it's a downer, which really sucks after the very positive ending of Sleeping Dragon. I'm guessing maybe a fifth game was planned, and I really hope it's actually made, because I'd hate to see the series end in such a downer. Sure the ending is different from the previous three and yes it catches you off guard, but it's also crap and short and when the credits begin rolling you just sit there staring at the screen asking yourself "what the fuck?". I don't want to spoil what little could be spoiled, but if you think of playing the game yourself, don't get your hopes up, kid.

Anyway, I don't think I have too much to say about Broken Sword games anymore. Maybe I should've started writing this post sooner, huh? I bet you could write five times as much about each of the games if you got in the correct mood.
At one point George has to decapitate 25 gang members on video for a
mad director. Well, it would be an interesting turn of events, don't you think?

My final thought on the entire series is that I highly recommed the games. The first two, Shadow of the Templars and Smoking Mirror are the kind of games that will undoubtedly find their way into people's lists of classic games 'till the end of time, and although the other two aren't the same undying "classic" material, I have no reason at all to discourage people from playing them. Sleeping Dragon may be the weakest of the four but it's still a decent enough game and definitely worth a playthrough, and Angel of Death is a quality game and a blast at least the first time through because the puzzles in it are pretty much the variety that you could imagine seeing in the originals and all four games offer challenges solvable with logic to go along with smart and entertaining writing. How invested you become in the story of each game is largely dependant on yourself. Still, even if you have trouble with the plot, Rolf Saxon's awesome George Stobbart is the same likable guy in all of the games even if some of the other voice actors tend to blow quite a bit, and through his lead you should be able to survive the occasional dips in quality.
Seriously, the haters that say the two newer games suck and should be avoided at all cost are greatly exaggerating, at least in my opinion.
Go play Broken Sword is what I say. Especially the first two.

All but first two screenshots grabbed from MobyGames.
Forgot to take screenshots of Smoking Mirror,
technology prevented from doing it in Sleeping Dragon,
couldn't be arsed with Angel of Death.

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