Summer’s Almost Over: Games for the Weekend.

Quick, term starts in a week and you’re leaving in four days. Nothing’s packed, you’ve forgotten so many things that you think you may actually be dumber than you were a year ago, but one question hangs in the air: what game can I play and finish before I leave?

This is from Act 2 or so. OUT OF FIVE.
A typical solution to a middle-difficulty puzzle. Or rather, one part of it: by Act 2 or 3, Spacechem throws puzzles at you that span two or more reactors; then your head explodes/Zachtronics Industries

Choices! Choices range out before you: the geniuses will invariably gravitate to Spacechem, a game of cellular automata which starts out merely quite difficult, and ends with the eventual explosion of the player’s head as they try to comprehend the nightmarish complexity of later levels: rumour has it that completing the game entitles you to a starred-first in maths and a special free pass into any PhD programme in the world. Chess players find themselves picking over Frozen Synapse’s similarly hard-as-nails blend of abstracted, symbolic graphics with simultaneous turn-based combat: everything hinges on predicting your opponent’s movements, since your orders play out together, in five second bursts. Getting caught in the open is death. Getting stuck alongside a wall is usually death. Walking down the wrong corridor (or sometimes even the right one) is, again, death. Nothing is random, except for the level layout and your troops: a shotgunner will kill a rifleman in the right spot every time, just like a knight can wipe out a rook and pawns. It’s bullet chess.

But perhaps you’re not an inhuman videogame genius: perhaps you’d prefer something a little gentler, a little more inside the modern game envelope. With four days, multiplayer is probably out: getting good will take too long. Something downloadable is good: delivery means a 25% cut in playing time. Maybe something story-driven, too: you could spend the next four days mainlining Breaking Bad – something with a plot at least half as good as that would be nice. The idea’s not to waste four days: it’s to enjoy four days.

Does chess have bullets? I thought not. It would be better with bullets.
Chess-with-bullets is aided by a planning and simulation mode: plan out your moves, and what you think the enemy might do. Then watch as you screw up, take it back, and make refinements. It won’t help in the end, when you get totally outsmarted, but you might just make it/Mode7 Games

Naturally, I have a game in mind. Sequel to the much-loved Deus Ex and much-derided sequel Invisible War, the long weekend game is the year-old Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a first/third person hybrid shooter/RPG. It’s The Future, where everything has been dragged through a barrel of golden syrup to remind the population that they are in The Future, but more importantly, humanity is at a crossroads. Artificial limbs, organs and implants have begun to outstrip the natural capabilities of the common man: thrown into it is half-Solid Snake, half-Sam Fisher private security consultant Adam Jensen, whose girlfriend is kidnapped in the prologue. He’s a tortured fellow. Human Revolution is a lovely little piece of transhumanist storytelling – not a Philip K. Dick classic scifi, but smarter than the average videogame. It also has the distinction of playing almost as smart as it talks: to a veteran of the series, some mechanics seem dumbed-down, but for new players, the combination of tough-yet-forgiving setpieces with wide-ranging routes for everyone from the shoot-first Gears of War veteran (from which Human Revolution borrows and refines its’ cover mechanic) to the dedicated talk-em-up player who, quite rightly, hails Planescape: Torment as one of the greatest games of all time is a lovely way to tug at a player’s head-strings: every level is a string of puzzles in miniature, whether they are solved with a clever stack of boxes, a quick (or not-so-quick) natter with some key NPCs, a meticulously-planned route of stealth-mode dashes and instant knockouts, or just a series of bullets. Or, indeed, all four and then a couple more for good measure: perhaps a hacked-open door, or an exploded-through wall, would be a better way in.

"I was only a day until retire-argh"
Jensen stalks a guard while dodging a camera: both are natural predators of the augmented angst-ridden secret agent/

Human Revolution is deep, but a playthrough will fit in a long weekend with just enough room around the edges to write about it afterwards; it’s a linear progression of sandboxes with the cement of a genuinely engaging story. Deeply flawed bossfights aside – for which Eidos Montreal have apologised, in a rare display of AAA developer contrition – Human Revolution is exactly the sort of game that can replace the series binge. In these dying days of summer, with the weather closing in on any attempt to have fun outside, it’s a chance to escape into a dystopia, before hanging up the game spurs until Christmas.

Spacechem (PC/Mac/Linux/iOS/Android), Frozen Synapse (PC/Mac/Linux) and Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC/Mac/PS3/X360) are all out now.