The Ghost of Thanksgiving Gaming Past

I bring you a message from the past--be thankful for your Black Friday PC hardware bargains. Gaming in 2009 on a PC mostly built in 2004 makes for a lot of older games and even more staring wistfully from the sideline. Thankfully a new black box of joy arrived last month and I've barely stopped playing since to catch up on all I missed.

To express my thanks and show there's no hard feelings over that whole 'Pilgrims' episode, I'm joining in the holiday fun with some casual thoughts a few games I've enjoyed since re-entering civilised society. It's probably a Thanksgiving tradition.

BOOM widget 66433 Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 clearly provoked what is known in the UK as 'the Marmite reaction'--you either love it or hate it. I'm very glad to say I fall into the former camp, as Shack alumnus Nick Breckon would never forgive me if I didn't.

I suspect the best way to explain Far Cry 2 is to tell dozens of anecdotes but there's never enough time or room. I would of course have to mention the time I kitted myself out for stealth and snuck undetected to the perfect sniping point to await my target, only for a roving lookout to spot me by chance and start a huge roaring bushfire behind me with a wayward rocket, forcing me to charge an enemy camp armed with only my dart gun, IEDs and a bolt-action rifle. I'm still not sure quite how I survived.

Then there's when an enemy river patrol destroyed my boat's engine and I over-zealously exploded theirs with a grenade launcher, leaving me to spend three minutes swimming to my target and actually enjoy swimming in a video game.

And I couldn't forget when I stumbled out ammo-less into a previously-safe zone now exploding in civil war and had to charge a soldier with my machete to nab his gun then frantically picked up new weapons during my escape as they jammed and ran out of ammo.

It slightly puzzles me that the Marmite haters often complained Far Cry 2 was repetitive, as every encounter has been completely unique.

I even enjoy the nagging malaria and jamming guns. Coupled with the gorgeous graphics and minimal HUD, it all feeds into a deeply immersive sandbox experience.

Don't drive straight into every single guard post, try using weapons other than assault rifles and spread it thinly on hot buttered toast with a cup of tea on the side.

BOOM widget 69920 The Witcher

It would be tempting to call CD Projekt RED's RPG "gritty" had that not become a derogatory term of sorts for games which hap-hazardly chuck in some sex, suffering and swearing in the hope of seeming mature. The Witcher has all of these in spades but didn't make me roll my eyes so let's try calling it a "coarse" fantasy RPG.

Drinking games pump people for information, lovely local lasses let Geralt get his monster-hunting hands on their jubblies in exchange for trifling trinkets--memorialised in erotic 'trading cards'--and that loveable old 'C' word puts in an appearance or two without any of it feeling forced. The Witcher creates a macho fantasy world where you simply must quaff, decapitate and make lie-down kisses--it's what Witchers do.

That hoary "good vs. evil" tosh is thankfully also jettisoned in favour of two mostly-wrong factions for the plot's central inter-species conflict. As an added delightful kick in the teeth, The Witcher does its level best to push you into choosing one side over the other and only reveals the awful consequences of your actions a few hours down the line--no more "I'll just see what happens then quickload to check out the other option."

While dwarves and elves feature heavily--Scottish and haughty respectively, of course--at least there are no orcs or dragons. Enemies instead have a fantastic European folklore vibe and I understand several are based on actual tales. They feel like creatures people might have believed in not so long ago rather than 'cool'-looking fiends dripping spittle, spikes and chains.

That's The Witcher then, I suppose. A fantasy RPG for people tired of fantasy games. Combat was so-so and a few places slightly dragged but on the whole it was sixty-odd hours of good decent fun.

BOOM widget 78119 Saints Row 2

Saints Row 2 is well aware of how ridiculous it is, setting aside frivolities like plot and characters in favour of marvellously enjoyable open-world shenanigans.

One moment I was in a cop uniform dispensing heavy-handed justice for the reality show FUZZ then minutes later I snuck into a nuclear power plant to steal waste so I could give a rival gang leader a radioactive tattoo.

There were no statements made or thoughts provoked, I was simply let loose to be extremely reckless and amuse myself with big, stupid, dangerous, destructive and wonderful toys. Missions and activities lay around almost every corner but if I couldn't wait even that long, I simply could car-surf on passing vehicles or jack a car with passengers to begin a hostage mini-mission. It's relentlessly silly and fun.

Saints Row 2 also boasts the single best character creation I have ever seen, with options to tweak everything from minute proportions of my jawline to my voice, taunts and even gait. With a staggering array of highly-customisable clothes too, I was in dress-up heaven.

The PC port is lumbered with an awful menu system and stuttered badly upon entering a new area but those honestly didn't impact my enjoyment all that much. Any gripes and grumbles that might have been building would dissipate as soon as something ridiculous happened--within about twenty seconds, usually.

BOOM widget 125041 Mass Effect

Mass Effect is an excellent story-driven RPG. I found myself engaged in a lot of substandard combat and pootled around many planets on uninteresting missions, but whenever the story kicked in I was riveted.

More accurately, at first it was my companions' responses to the story that got me going. There are some great personalities at work and bouncing off each other, even if a certain someone was more than a little irritating. I wanted to embark on these missions with them, to get to the bottom of it all together. How much I like and wanted to get to know my party members played into my away team picks as much as tactical considerations.

The story tension does build over the game as you learn more though, going from ho-hum--with a very tired way to establish the threat--to positively thrilling towards the end with the aid of some stunning set pieces.

There's a lovely visual style with bright colours, clean lines and smooth surfaces instead of rust, grit and grime. I spent a great deal of time gawping at everything from the Citadel and its contents to my ship, armour and even weapons. Delightful.

The incredible skies found on many planets are also worthy of note, making exploration still enjoyable. Cresting an extraterrestrial hill to discover an eerie blue giant looming over me was particularly breathtaking.

I am hugely looking forward to Mass Effect 2. I'll even keep Subject Zero around, as awful as she seems to be, for the dialogue potential.