Game Reviews

Verdicts on Bioshock, Wii Sports, Halo 3 and Vice City Stories

Bioshock for Xbox 360/PC

Plunged into the middle of the Atlantic ocean after a dramatic plane crash, Bioshock sees you take the role of Jack, the sole survivor who, seemingly by chance, happens across the entrance to a colossal underground city named Rapture. Designed and built by wealthy industrialist Andrew Ryan, Rapture was intended to be a haven for society's elite, but genetic experimentation and civil unrest have turned it into a graveyard of ideals - one that Jack must fight his way through to survive.

Boasting one of the best storylines in gaming's history, along with breathtaking graphics and a fantastic soundtrack, Bioshock is, perhaps, the pinnacle of the single-player videogame canon. Mixing exploration and adventure alongside intense and innovative action, the game flies by at a frightening pace, still finding time to ask moral decisions of the gamer which affect the outcome of the story. Undoubtedly an adult experience, the game has a foul-mouthed script Tarantino would be proud of and more violence than one of Martin Scorcese's nightmares, but the violence never feels superfluous and it helps round out a game world that is utterly fabulous and entirely its own. Set in a 1930s art-deco-style dystopia, the coherence of the production design is faultless and all encompassing. With golden oldies playing ominously over the soundtrack and deranged, mutated enemies lurking around every corner, it is as creepy as it is compelling and is a must-have for anyone who doubts a videogame can tell a story.

Wii Sports

Of all the things Wii Sports may be, an accurate sports simulator it certainly is not. Including Nintendo's own interpretations of tennis, bowling, golf, baseball and boxing, Wii Sports is an exemplar of the unique features of the Wii console that have made it such a phenomenon.

Most notable of all, and crucial to the game, is the use of the Wii remote to play. Rather than having to worry about using a combination of several buttons to interact with the game, the Wii remote removes confusion by simply allowing you to swing it - like a tennis racket, your arm, a golf club, a baseball bat or even your fist. Due to the severe limitations of all the games featured though, with the possible exception of bowling, it does have the tendency to feel more like an elaborate technical demo than a game in its own right.

However, the intuitive controls and simple addictive nature of the multiplayer component still make it a blast to play, and where Nintendo has succeeded - and where Microsoft and Sony fall short - is that it is accessible to all types of age groups. Grandma and Grandpa can play this game and enjoy it because it requires nothing other than a little bit of co-ordination and careful timing.

Watching people try to play is half the fun, as it creates an arcade-style gaming experience in your own home which brings people together through playing and has a feel-good factor that is second to none.

Halo 3 for Xbox 360

Hype can be a terrible thing. The sheer weight of expectation resting on Halo 3's sizeable shoulders was monumental.

"The most anticipated game of all time" it bravely touted on its pre-release advertisements, so it really had to be good. Thankfully, it is, meeting - and in some respects surpassing - its promise. Once again, following the progress of the Master Chief in his interplanetary battle with the Covenant, the fight has finally come to Earth, and its future lies in his armour-clad and genetically-enhanced mitts.

The single player campaign is solid, if somewhat unspectacular, and far too short, but this game was fundamentally built from the ground up to be a multiplayer experience and is simply glorious on Microsoft's Xbox Live service. Building on the excellent multiplayer component from the second title in the series, Halo 3 is an absolute riot when played online, whether it is against friends or complete strangers.

It pushes the boundaries of what can be expected of a next-generation title in the sheer wealth of options it offers. Not only has a level editor been provided, it has become part of the gameplay; with the ability to edit levels on the fly during online games to aid team mates or create havoc for the opposition. For a more complete single-player experience, Bioshock wins out, but for its ambition and creativity, Halo 3 is an unmissable gaming event that is currently unmatched on any console.

Vice City Stories for PSP

Acting as a predecessor to the Playstation 2's highest-selling title, Grand Theft Auto - Vice City Stories gives you more missions, more vehicles and more breakneck violence in possibly the best city from any of the Grand Theft Auto games.

The only difference is that it lets you do this all in the palm of your hand and has next to no visual difference from its Playstation 2 counterpart.

The core gameplay and story elements from its console counterpart stay intact. You take the role of a small time gangster trying to elevate himself to infamy in a 1980s city which bears a striking resemblance to Miami - with Scarface and Miami Vice being clear reference points.

In order to raise your reputation, you complete a series of missions which involve stealing cars, killing mob bosses, out-running the police and generally being a menace to society.

This all works fantastically on the PSP, showcasing its graphical excellence like no other title, with responsive and effective controls for both the driving and on-foot sequences and with the same great soundtrack of eighties classics underpinning the stark brutality with a wry sense of humour.

The storyline is rather a non-starter in what is effectively a mission pack, but the ability to play Grand Theft Auto on the move is more than worth the asking price and will keep you coming back for more. Just don't sit next to young children when you are playing it on the train.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle