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THIS IS HARDCORE 1 - February 1999

Hello viewers! Before we start, I'd like you to imagine something with me. Picture yourself in a cinema, watching Titanic.

We've met all the characters, spent an hour or so in the opulent surroundings of the grand liner, had a bit of snog in the back of an old car and recklessly steamed ahead into an iceberg field despite several weather warnings from the ship's radio room. (It's necessary to do this, of course, or when we hit the giant Orange Maid and everyone drowns in the freezing water, we won't give a monkey's about them.) In the cold Atlantic night, someone shouts "Iceberg! Right ahead!" The screen goes black and silent, save for a scratchy, mechanical whirring sound. A small notice flickers up. "Loading second reel. Please wait."

This month, I've been mostly playing Castlevania 64. Which is a little odd in itself, because it's a game loaded with several gigantically irritating flaws, including the normally fatal "obscure puzzle in which a single mistake gets you instantly killed and sent all the way back to the start of the level". And yet, I can't seem to put it down. And the reason, I'm sure, is the presence of a factor that's still incredibly rare in video games: direction.

Y'see, most game developers think that all you have to do is stick the character on the screen with some nice scenery and that's the job done, the world formed. But that's like putting actors on set and then having them stand still and deliver their lines in a newsreader's monotone. A video game isn't about building some sterile polystyrene-shopping-centre model, it's about creating an atmosphere, an experience. Castlevania 64 understands this right from the start. You're only seconds into the game, running through a misty and seemingly deserted wood with the rain beating down hard, when suddenly there's a calamitous thunderclap, a flash of lightning, and a mighty oak tree is cleaved into two right in front of you, crashing noisily to the ground wreathed in flames. (And then, just to prove to you that it wasn't a fluke, the storm does it again to another one.)

The effect is sobering and immediate. You're already feeling scared, tiny and insignificant, and you haven't even met any baddies yet. When you do, things get worse. The malevolent little skeleton grunts who keep on coming at you even when you knock off their heads or legs are just a taster. Barely a minute in, you'll meet an enormous one, but it's not his sheer size (or convincing, ape-like movement) that's frightening. Thanks to the game's clever use of low and swinging camera angles (and superb, evocative sound), the boss skeleton tangibly comes to life, quite happily charging right over your head "into" camera and attacking you with his bone club and tiny minions from offscreen while you dart around in panic trying to work out where he's gone. (Some reviews have mistakenly taken this for a clumsy flaw - in fact, it's a genius recreation of the confusion and chaos of exactly the kind of desperate life-or-death battle the game's trying to portray.) By now, just 90 seconds or so have flown by, and the game's already managed to create more atmosphere than Final Fantasy VII does in the first six hours.

That so few games manage this level of involvement (Resident Evil 2 does it, Banjo-Kazooie does it, Zelda and Goldeneye and then you're struggling) is a bit sad. That so few even try is downright depressing. Castlevania 64 is a very long way from perfect, and yet despite its flaws it's more compelling and affecting to play than, in all probability, anything else you'll see this year outside of Metal Gear Solid. And it's all down to direction. If more game developers treated their characters as living creatures rather than collections of polygons, imagine how much fun we could have.

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