Tools of The Trade
I'm only five months removed from sinking 30 hours into Just Cause 2, yet I can’t for the life of me recall plot details or character names. They were so thoroughly forgettable that they barely even registered with the sizable part of my brain labelled "gaming". What I do recall, however, is how much enjoyment I got out of this very open-ended game and how it was all derived from the multiple uses of a simple, retractable grappling hook.
When I say that a metal gauntlet and wire had more character and charisma than the lead, I’m not just trying to belittle our protagonist in black (I still can’t remember his bloody name). The grappling hook was the key to getting the most out of JC2 and without it the game would have failed spectacularly. Sticking to anything, it affords complete freedom of movement, never once wrenching arm from socket and allowing the player to paint chaos across the blank canvas that is the island state of Panau. I don't know about you, but between boarding helicopters, swinging from skyscrapers and launching myself into the air, I created a masterpiece of mayhem.
It was only last week that I was writing about the importance of story, more specifically that of a good ending, but clearly a game can succeed without a strong narrative and cast as long as there is something else with the presence to take the slack. The recent issue of EDGE magazine got me thinking about this topic with an excellent piece of editorial on Just Cause 2's famed gauntlet, which in true EDGE fashion expressed with far more eloquence, and with a helping of words outside my vocabulary, exactly how I felt.
Items, be they weapons, tools, gadgets, potions or whatever, may be raised to iconic status and define the games from which they were derived. The mere sight or mention of them may bring back a flood of memories and they will be forever associated with the games in which they are found. The following are a handful of my personal favourites.
Assassin's Creed series - Retractable Blades
As the Assassin's Creed series has progressed, it has come to offer an ever expanding armoury. From scimitars to smoke bombs, your targets have little hope of escaping from our well prepared assassin - the kind of man who probably carries a tissue, pen and mint at all times. Yet even with all these impressive methods of dispensing stabbery, I still find myself reaching for the assassin's most elementary of tools: the concealed, spring loaded wrist blades.
As much as the white cowl, the hidden blades have come to represent the AC experience. We have been spoilt rotten by Renaissance parkour and increasingly intuitive swordplay, but it is still difficult to match the joys of a simple wrist-blade kill. Skulking in the shadows or clambering over roof tops, you stalk your prey waiting for the opportune moment to pounce and dispatch them with a silent and fatal flick of the wrist. It is the weapon that best suits the graceful yet brutal style and secretive nature of the Guild of Assassins, and I would struggle to imagine playing AC without them.
Resident Evil series - Herbs
I may not be a pharmacist, but I know that green herb plus red herb equals super herb, and If I were to be poisoned I would be only one blue herb away from full recovery. Herbs save lives and fortunately, between cultivating the deadly T-virus and creating monstrosities, Umbrella is full of keen herbalists who enjoy nothing more than potting and scattering them all over top secret, research facilities. You'd have thought Wesker would've caught on to this amateur gardening trend and taken the opportunity to leave a few pots of deadly nightshade here and there, as a nasty surprise for a complacent Chris.
The balance between carrying ammunition and healing items, and the scarcity of available storage slots, has long been a vital part of RE - a bit of micromanagement that is at odds with the more action-packed direction the series has taken in recent years. There is nothing more disheartening than opening your menu and seeing only ammunition, and likewise you are imbued with confidence when entering a boss fight with ample mixtures of red and green. It is strange how a simple, non-mutated plant is the first thing that comes to mind when recalling a series as action-packed as RE.
Final Fantasy series - Elixir
A recurring item that restores both health and manna, the Elixir is one of the most sought after items in the Final Fantasy universe. It also happens to be a real life, limited edition energy drink produced by Japanese beverage giant, Suntory. Released in many different shapes and sizes to coincide with the release of a number of FFs, the one thing they all have in common is that they taste absolutely rank. It would seem that the in-game versions are not as vile, as I cannot recall seeing a FF character grimace quite the same as I did when taking a swig of the life giving potion.
The Elixir is a reason to check every chest, rummage through every drawer and spend hours scouring dungeons in any FF adventure, as it renders any foe, no matter how mighty, infinitely more beatable. Its big brother, the megalixir, was perhaps a step too far, able to bring the entire party back from the brink of defeat. In FFVIII you could convert the unique Bahamut card into 100 of these wonder potions, making your party almost unbeatable for the remainder of the game. Elixirs are worth their weight in gold and are the ultimate "should I use it now or keep it for later" expendable in the world of Final Fantasy.
Sonic The Hedgehog - Golden Rings
Like some sort of hideous, blue magpie, Sonic is forever drawn to collecting shinies, and we are the enablers of his all-consuming habit. Sonic will quite literally jump off a cliff in his desire for rings and terrorizes the local robotic population in his thirst for one more hit.
Sonic games have always been at their best when hurtling through simple levels, relatively uninterrupted, and not when having to slow down for precise jumps and moving platforms. The sound of a collected ring is one of the few welcome interruptions when steering the blue blur, and SEGA appear to be aware of this, placing most of the rings directly in your path so that you needn't go out of your way or slow down for them. An extra life is awarded at one hundred, and rings may also be exchanged for a shot at the bonus rounds and opportunities to collect Chaos Emeralds.
Golden rings have remained a constant throughout the good times and the bad, and on occasion have been on the few things linking modern Sonic to his early, golden years. I may be collecting stars in Joe Danger or bubbles in Little Big Planet, but in my mind they are just another take on the very same collectibles I first stumbled upon one christmas in the early Nineties, playing my very first video game, Sonic the Hedgehog.
Red Faction Guerrilla – Sledge Hammer
I had this final spot earmarked for either the silenced MK23 tranquilizer gun from the Metal Gear Solid series or the camera of Dead Rising's Frank West. However, due to yesterday's most unwelcome news that the Red Faction franchise is finished, thanks to the poor sales of the rather average Red Faction Armageddon, I thought I would celebrate instead a series that I have greatly enjoyed since its first outing in 2001.
Red Faction Guerrilla was an excellent game, thanks to its impressive physics engine and the ability to destroy, piece by piece, the infrastructure of a colonized Mars. You could tear down a variety of structures with explosives, vehicles and firearms, but there was nothing more satisfying than using your surprisingly powerful sledge hammer to flatten a wall or fell a load-bearing pillar. Using the hammer to collapse a building from the inside was a captivating game of roulette, as you risked the whole thing crashing down around you before making good your escape. It is much like a high risk game of Jenga, only on Mars and for grown-ups. It was also rather handy for shattering rocks as well as your unfortunate enemies, who foolishly laughed at the man who brought a hammer to a gun fight.