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New Challenger: Dear Dual-Stick Shooters, Tell Me A Story

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Regular readers will remember that a short time ago I was enthusing about Housemarque’s Dead Nation and how it was lurking in the back of my mind whenever I was thinking about games. I’ll spare a moment to plug it once more: Dead Nation is excellent, whether you like killing zombies or even just playing games that do things particularly well (the lighting is something really special and just adds heaps of tension to the atmosphere the way the shadows jump and dance as you sweep an area with your flashlight), so I recommend you log on right now and download this little gem. Not to mention the fact they have now announced DLC coming that provides a follow-on to the cliff-hanger ending. Right, now that is out of the way, let’s get down to the meat of today’s subject: dual-stick shooters.

A dual-stick shooter is a game where largely only the controller’s two sticks are used to move around and destroy everything in sight. The current market is beginning to overflow with them as they seem to lend themselves particularly well to mobile gaming (where the touch screen is used instead of sticks, obviously!). Yet there is still room for them on the main consoles; indeed, one of my favourite Black Ops game modes is Dead Ops Arcade, a top-down zombie kill-fest. That one was well made despite only being a tiny distraction from the main thrust of the single- and multi-player modes that Call of Duty has to offer. Far from being a new or innovative genre, this type of game has been around for rather a long time now.

Let’s kill some zombies for a change…

My first real memory of using two sticks for a game other than aiming and firing at something was in a game many of you should make an effort to play if you haven’t already: Luigi’s Mansion on GameCube. The left stick was in charge of movement and the right stick was used to get Luigi sucking the ghosts up his vacuum cleaner. It only dawned on me recently that this might be the point of origin for my love of this genre (and I suppose it’s arguable that it’s not technically a shooter…), but I also remember when I first got my PlayStation 3 and logged on to the internet; Super Stardust HD (another of Housemarque’s excellent games) had just been made available to download, it was the first game with Trophies, it was my first real experience of a downloadable game. I was not left disappointed.

Perhaps the simplicity of the game’s mechanic is the lure; easy to learn, hard to master and, if the developer is cruel enough, it can provide an almost insurmountable masochistic challenge. I know I spent hours playing SSHD trying to get the ‘Boomer’ Trophy, to no avail. And even now, after three years, I still occasionally yearn for one more chance to spray rocks with the Gold Melter or hear the crisp sound of the Ice Beam as it shatters chunks of debris. The problem is, due to the arcade-like nature of the genre, it can sometimes be difficult to find something a little more substantial in terms of story; Dead Ops Arcade needed little justification beyond the hordes of undead and SSHD was barren in terms of story.

Take a moment to appreciate the sheer beauty of this screen, there’s no such luxury when playing the game.

Now, I have not played every dual-stick shooter out there, but I imagine there are at least some that have a satisfying story. Dead Nation follows the player on his single-minded quest to find out what happened and get to safety. Age of Zombies is a charming little game with a funny story (does anyone else get the feeling zombies and dual-stick shooters go well together…?), although it can hardly be said to plumb the depths of narrative possibility. I know with arcade-style games a story more often than not is just noise between levels getting in the way of blowing up more stuff, but as a gamer I like a strong dose of story in my games (I am a big fan of RPGs) and I especially enjoy strong characterisation. Maybe it’s unfair to demand so much of such a minimalistic genre, but it’s something that lacks generally in video games, writers falling back too often on old plot clichés and stock characters so the player knows what to expect before the action unfolds.

This week saw the release of Avalanche Studios’ (of Just Cause 2 fame) Renegade Ops, a game where the player is in a vehicle killing hoards of enemies, saving prisoners and, for the most part, blasting the crap out of everything. This is another fantastic game, despite doing exactly the things I just said about stock characters and plot clichés. Just Cause 2 is a game I played far more than I do the average game, there was a lot of freedom and a lot of stuff to destroy, so you’d think these guys would be the perfect bunch to give something a little deeper than the average ‘point and shoot’ story. In some ways they managed to do this (although I won’t assault you with spoilers, minor or otherwise), the narrative unfolds partly in Infamous-style comic sections and partly in-game as you drive around the map, the game occasionally wrestling control from you to point out an important place on the map or show you something useful. I would call this a step forward in terms of storytelling, but not in terms of story content.

Collect the item or demolish the house? Decisions, decisions…

Do not misunderstand me, this game is excellent and is, in fact, the only PlayStation Play game that I have actually played for more than an hour. The levels are richly designed, the visual art style of the cut-scenes or the arcs described by incoming missiles brings a smile to my face and I love the sharp echo in the silence that follows gunfire. It has a lot of the things I loved about Just Cause 2 including diversity in terrain, even if that final level is very restrictive in terms of movement. Let’s just say if the genre continues to develop this way then maybe we can expect something that will one day fulfil my dreams of playing a well-written, addictive, dual-stick shooter with strong characters whose story actually manages to surprise me. Is that so much to ask for?

Video games were a part of Chris's life from the Mega Drive onwards. He has many happy gaming memories, including the first time he collected all the chaos emeralds in Sonic 2, collecting all SSBM's trophies (yes, all of them) and, more recently, collecting far too many platinum trophies on his PlayStation 3. In the real world, he has a degree in French and is currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @DPrime_Chris

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