Over the last fortnight I have lavished attention on video game openings and endings. It makes sense that I should now give some thought to that most overlooked part of a video game: the middle.
Most of us can reel-off our favourite and least favourite beginnings and endings, but i'd wager you'd be a lot slower to name a handful of memorable middles. They may not be as dramatic, but the central part of any game is critical, often building open the opening and setting the stage for the finale, as well as featuring the core game mechanics which, by the half-way point, should be fully developed and reassuringly familiar.
This isn't an exact science, as I don't have the time, patience nor inkling to sit through these games with a stopwatch. The following sections may not mark the precise midpoint of their respective games, but looking back they feel like they are located dead-centre, and that is what's most important. Besides, they certainly aren't the beginning or end, so by the process of elimination they must be the middle!
Here are some of my most memorable half-way points. There is of course the odd spoiler here and there, so do tread carefully.
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VI - or FF III as it was originally known in the US - is one of the more unique entries in Square's hugely successful franchise, and is considered by many to be amongst its very best. It shed the more traditional, medieval-style setting of its predecessors in favour of a world of steampunk, where industrial revolution is mixed with more mythical elements. Unlike most other FF, it featured an ensemble cast - there are fourteen playable characters in all - with no clear, lead protagonist. Lauded for its plot and character development, FFVI also has one of the most memorable midpoints of all, as it succeeds in trumping its outstanding opening third by laying waste to the world which you have gradually become accustomed to.
The earth shattering events of the midpoint, the result of super-villain Kefka's maniacal schemes, leaves the unnamed planet of FFVI in ruins, killing many of its inhabitants and leaving all but one of our heroes missing, presumed dead. The world map shifts into something far more barren and hostile, with once bustling towns wiped off the face of the earth and vast plains and mountain ranges now submerged. Thus the World of Ruin is born.
You awake as Celes, one of our leads, a year removed from the catastrophe. Stranded on a desert island, you are subjected to yet more heartbreak before leaving the safety of your solitary rock in search of other survivors. The next couple of hours are spent locating your remaining companions, affording you the chance to visit freshly created lands filled with new quests and characters, and ultimately renewing your offensive against Kefka. Its an opportunity to rediscover FFVI all over again and that, perhaps more than anything else, is why this is one of the best gaming midpoints of all time.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
I was tempted to go for the shocking events that befall the US Invasion Force in the Middle East, culminating in the desperate last few moments of Sgt Jackson's life, spent crawling through dust and carcasses. However, as memorable as that scene may be, it can't quite compare to the variation and excitement found in the Pripyat level.
Taking the role of moustachioed series staple, Capt. Price, we travel back to 1996 and a black-ops assassination attempt in the ruins of Chernobyl. Sneaking your way through the undergrowth, avoiding being spotted by the Russian terrorists who have arrived in force whilst also skirting areas of high radiation, you eventually reach a sniping position high up in an abandoned hotel. Your target, Zakhaev, is far off in the distance. Taking into account the wind, you take one, carefully measured shot with your cannon-like rifle, taking your target's arm clean-off but failing to kill him. You are quickly made by an attack helicopter and forced to high-tail it to your extraction point, where you must withstand the mother of all assaults whilst protecting your injured accomplice and awaiting the arrival of your chopper. It is a tense and perfectly pitched twenty minutes.
Three years removed from last playing Call of Duty 4, I still vividly and fondly recall the Pripyat flashback as the standout moment of an excellent game. Numerous CoD entries later, and the plot of the first Modern Warfare has yet to be bettered.
Assassin's Creed 2
I still consider AC2 to be the series best, thanks in part to the quality and variation of it's setting. Whereas Brotherhood was based solely in a beautifully rendered, scaled-down version of Renaissance Rome, AC2 spanned a number of iconic cities, each displaying their own distinctive charm. Florence and Forli are a joy to traverse, but it is the miniature recreation of Venice which steals the show.
You first travel to the floating city midway through the game after leaving your ancestral home in Florence. Although greatly reduced in size, the landmarks of Venice are easily recognizable, such as the Rialto bridge, St Marks Basilica and of course the Grand Canal. You can't move without being treated to a work of architectural brilliance and fans of smaller details will not be left wanting. From gondolas to carnival masks it really does feel like Venice; a city which captivated me with its history and beauty when visiting for the first time last year. Wanting to avoid looking like a massive tourist, and having discarded my map in an ill-advised moment of bravado, we ended up relying on my AC2 knowledge to get our bearings on more than one occasion.
Venice ranks as one of my favourite video game locations, right up there with Balamb, Liberty City, Shadow Moses, Gold Saucer and the like, playing host to some of the more memorable moments of AC2.
Metal Gear Solid 4
It may be due to my fondness for Metal Gear Solid, but I loved the return to Shadow Moses, part way through MGS4. The game mechanics are no different to the rest of the game, and the bosses no more memorable, but it so expertly riffs on your original trip to the Shadow Moses Facility that it can cause a MGS enthusiast like myself to go weak at the knees. It is an excellent bit of gaming irrelevant of sentimental appeal, but it is elevated to another level by its homage to Snake's first infiltration of the island as a younger, healthier and far more naive operative.
The facility is much as you left it, with the signs of your previous struggles still evident and Metal Gear Rex stood where it last fell all those years ago. The memories of the men and women you killed remain in the cold, dank halls of Shadow Moses and these echoes of the past manifest themselves as a voice in your head; returning demons that have waited patiently for your return. Old Snake is haunted by these memories and we feel his pain as he struggles with his past whilst still having to remain in the here and now, wary of the more pressing danger posed by Crying Wolf and Vamp.
We finally leave the facility in a manner even more explosive than the first time around: piloting the bi-pedal tank, REX, as the whole place crumbles around you. It is a fitting farewell to the setting of the most daring and iconic chapter in the exploits of Solid Snake.
This is not strictly a mid-game event, but more like a mid-round occurrence. Fighting Vipers is a 90's, arcade beat-em-up from Sega's celebrated AM2 team which was eventually ported to the Saturn and PlayStation. It is a pretty good game, adding some new features to the genre and being much easier to master than AM2's other big fighting franchise, Virtua Fighter.
A few years back, playing the Japanese Saturn version for the first time, I found myself being abused by the CPU - a regular occurrence when I try to play beat-em-ups - when all of a sudden the match was cut short by a premature return to the character select screen. I thought perhaps my inability to pull-off any moves other than jumping shin-kick had caused the game to crash, but no, Fighting Vipers had something special up its sleeve. Suddenly, a new, secret challenger appeared and it was none other than Pepsiman - a 90's mascot for Pepsi who looks much like a futuristic gimp.
He proceeded to frighten the shit out of me with his silver, bean like head but proved to be a bit of a push-over in the ring. Perhaps I was expecting too much from a man whose special ability is listed as "quenching one's thirst". I have remained cautious of beat-em-ups ever since, lest the Tango Man, or some other beverage bell-end decides to rudely interrupt my gaming.