Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Christmas letter - My year in gaming

An open Christmas letter, why not? Well, I’m sure there are many reasons why not to do it, but I’m the captain, wash boy and saucy maid of this blog ship, so I’ll give it a festive stab. My year in gaming has been a fun one to say the least, and quite varied too.

It all kicked off with Mass Effect 2 and my personal voyage into being a bad person in RPG games, rather than the selfless white knight that I would normally strive to be. It was my first purchase of the year and probably game of 2010 in my books, with a fantastic storyline pushed along by a more than fantastic conversation system. It’s always funny upsetting pretend people.

Next highlight of my gaming year was April’s Splinter Cell Conviction. Less shadowy gimp suit swaggaery and more violent throat punches made it a totally different experience to past offerings, but a lot more fluid and fun. About half of the internet disagrees with me, wishing it stuck to more classic roots, but the fast and furious room takedowns were brilliant and unlike any other game. Main criticisms came from people whining that it wasn’t a stealth game anymore, but I still think plugging eight people in an area with none of them realising is still pretty sneaky.

It was also a high for local multiplayer, with a complete campaign dedicated to co-op play that reached back to a simpler time when you could sit on a sofa and play with your mates without the need of an Internet pipe. Good stuff.

May gave us the spiritual successor to Red Dead Revolver, a game that should’ve done better than it did. Thankfully, Red Dead Redemption did to the barren planes of the Wild West, as Grand Theft Auto did to the sprawling cityscape of faux New York. Dragging people behind horses and onto train tracks was almost as much fun as pistol duelling and hunting bears. Okay, there were a couple of boring cattle herding missions that got less fun with each cow that ran off, but these added to the pacing of a truly brilliant game.

Those are my personal major highlights of the year, but the lows also deserve a mention. There has been a lot of disappointment this year, with release dates being pushed back, games with great potential turning out bad and still no mention of Episode 3.

Let down of the year was definitely Bioshock 2. The only innovation it brought to the series was the lovely drill arm of hypnotic spirally death, bringing absolutely nothing else to the same formula we saw last time in the undersea test tube society. It wasn’t a terrible game, but it did not live up to the first, and might has well have been a DLC addition to the original.

I still wish that Naughty Bear turned out better than the flaming orphanage of a tragedy that it was, but it somehow managed to secure itself a sequel, so we’ll see what happens there.

2011 is already looking bright with more Batman, Mass Effect and Portal on the way, so that’s a good thing.

I hope that you all had a great 2010, and still have many more fond memories to make over the festive period. Merry Christmas, happy New Year and best wishes to the other holiday festivities that take place this time of year. Have a good one guys.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Polished unmnetionable or broken marvel?

Duality is quite a common theme in games. Okay, so that statement mainly applies to good and evil, the major plot line of most games worth their metascore. Whilst Alpha Protocol certainly dances along the good and bad morality fence, it also precariously dangles both sides of the good and bad quality line. It’s a good RPG with each decision making an impact, whereas it’s a broken shooter with all the working mechanics of an Amstrad VCR caught in the gears of a combine harvester.

After picking it up for £5 on the PC and playing it for hours, I still can’t decide if it’s a good game or not. The idea of a modern day RPG intrigued me, but the “meh” reception from critics - which has ultimately denied the game a sequel - put me off picking it up at full price.

It’s one of those occasions where if you can avoid looking at the bright pink elephant in the room that is screaming racial slurs and stamping poo into your carpet, there is a good game underneath. Unfortunately, if you go in expecting a good third-person shooter, you won’t be doing this. You need to approach it purely from the RPG side to get the most from the experience. It’s a bit like saying that a toaster is a good kitchen appliance but an ill-advised bath toy.

I’m not the biggest RPG player in the world (or Worcestershire), but I have yet to come across a game where dialogue choices have had such profound effects on the game you play. A mess up on my part meant that I had to play the first third of the game again, and even though I strived for similar conversation options, I must have made alternative choices along the way.

Surprise doesn’t quite cover my reaction when the guards I had encountered on my initial play through, originally donned in suits and toting pistols were in fact man tanks bearing shotguns this time round. This one simple twist has made me wonder what the game would be like if I was actually nice to some of the people I come across. It has definitely made me want to go back to the game after completion for a different run through, but that’s only if the game’s major flaws haven’t caused me to punch my fists into mushy stumps.

Anyone who plays the game, even those who genuinely enjoy it, can easily point out the shortcomings within a minute of playing. It just feels wrong. There’s an awkward clunkiness to it all that means you are wrestling with controls half the time.

Game mechanics are also frustrating. As it is an RPG, your character starts out with a shooting ability that can be rivalled by most feral animals. It means that what you aim at is rarely what you’ll hit, especially if you don’t take the few seconds the game insists you are immobile and exposed for to line up the perfect shot, indicated by the crosshairs shifting colour. Not what you need when you want to shoot someone in the blink of an eye.

In journalism terms, this is a ‘good game poorly executed’, but personally I would say that if you can pick it up cheap and play it primarily as an RPG, it is a great game. It’s one of those things that I feel needs a sequel to show its true potential, but it looks like the kaibosh has been put on that one.

Still it’s not like we are going to be deprived of good sequels in the future, with Uncharted 3, Prototype 2, Arkham City, Mass Effect 3 and Portal 2 peppered over the release schedule for the next two years.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Why I want to ram that scope up your arse

Don’t you just hate snipers? They’re hard to spot in the grass, they shoot you just as you believe you’re safe and they deny you your desired memorabilia and cheap electronics on eBay at the very last second. Losing out on that bargain Logitech G15 keyboard aside, my main gripe about snipers recently is the domination of the class in multiplayer games.

Randomly dying during your daily routine is quite a hard concept to grasp, as I’m fairly confident the majority of people haven’t had it happen to them - at least not more than once. Processing this when it happens to you in a game can be an uncomfortable experience, and after multiple instances, all of the confusion and frustration can funnel itself into a vein of anger which spills out your mouth and down your chest as a gently warmed bile. And then it will happen again.

Getting killed repeatedly in the same mysterious manner is never a fun thing, but as virtual battlefields get larger and more densely populated with thick tree lines and pixel perfect grass that sways naturally, there is an increasing number of places where random death can travel from.

Snipers can really make or break the game experience for either team. Whilst they are useful for scouting out areas and providing intel to team mates, the majority of people who choose to be snipers are socially awkward silent types who are in it for the statistical benefits of being a harbinger of death.

Bad Company 2 is a prime example of why I hate the sniper class. Snipers in this game can mark enemies with their scopes and thin out the pack when it comes to picking off the occasional distant foe. Alarm bells start ringing however when over a third of the team has chosen to go sniper, and sits nice and immobile 500 metres from combat on a hill. This phenomenon is especially bad when they are supposed to be the attacking team with an objective to accomplish. The entire thing turns into a bit of a snipe off which goes against the fast pace nature and rolling frontline that the game strives for.

Another issue is that when the other team has a better sniper who whittles down those who sit in the same spot with every life and then seem perplexed when they die. When your team only has a limited number of lives, it is the complete opposite of helpful to join the legions of hill folk that think they are doing well because they are top of the scoreboard.

As I have mentioned in a previous blog, games that have introduced kill streak rewards are just compounding the problem. Rewarding someone for getting several kills in a row without dying is just going to encourage snipers to sit in their fox holes with piss flasks and tea pots at the ready.

I suppose that the real rage for snipers comes from those who have all the patience of a lit stick of dynamite, who don’t enjoy spending the game with their heads down, so instead spend it at the respawn screen. I’d just like to see an online FPS that doesn’t feature sniper rifles at all. Just full on, tense shootouts that take place in improbably small rooms filled to the brim with combustible furniture. Only then I’d be writing a blog about grenades and how there should be an online game where everyone only has a knife and a box of matches.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Assassin's Creed and messy public murders

Never having touched Assassin’s Creed II, despite enjoying the first game, I decided it was high time to give the hidden blade swinging, rafter stalking, horrific stab simulator a go. A few hours in and I’m enjoying myself, but can’t help but feel that Ezio is a terrible assassin and a very inefficient person.

My primary expectations of those who behave like assassins are people like Sam Fisher or Agent 47, both capable of knocking off their marks and slipping away without a witness raising the alarm, or on a really good day, nobody else knowing the target is dead. These feats are what I expected of Ezio and indeed Altair before him.

What I’m really struggling with is the assassination process in the Assassin’s Creed series. If you’re very good, you can get close to your target and plunge cold steel into the inviting warmth of their still beating heart without anyone being the wiser. In my experiences so far though, it is impossible to get away without drawing some kind of attention, even if everyone in the nearby vicinity had their back turned at the moment of execution.

Now, whether this is down to the victims futile gargling as they blink out of existence, or the fact that our assassin feels the need for a quick chat in some sort of digital dimension afterwards, there always seems to be a heavily armed escort who turn up to stab your getaway in the balls. At this point you can turn and run, but it is usually just as easy to turn on the party crashers and chew them up with your sword, especially if you can master counter-attacking.

After this it is not uncommon to find out that your smooth assassination job has created a trail of 20 corpses that you leave in your wake as you stroll away from the scene as calmly as anything. As Ezio seems to fair very well in sword fights, he feels nowhere near as sleek, fragile or invisible as some assassin’s from other games do. I find this disappointing as it takes what I thought would be a series about stealth and cloaks and makes it seem much closer to an all out action game.

I’m also struggling to work out the point of the hidden blades, as cool as they are. I completely understand the importance of concealed weapons to a man who makes his living by increasingly messy, yet subtle murders, but surely having a sword on your hip all the time is likely to raise just as much concern. I’m not entirely sure how common it was for the ‘average man in the crowd’ to hang a sword from his belt, but it isn't the most conspicuous thing in the world. Having two tiny blades hidden, but a large one swaying very visibly with your every movement seems a bit contradictory.

Fortunately for Ezio, everyone back then had a memory that could hold onto recent events as effectively as a buttered hand can grasp a wet bar of soap. You can bribe people to lower your notoriety, but I still feel this should only work within reason. I am not convinced that we could bring Assassin’s Creed to a modern timeline, as the invention of bloggery, Twitter and camera phones do not accommodate for the very public and bloody brawls that the central characters enjoy partaking in.

Brotherhood is out next week on November 19, and it’ll probably continue the trend of sword fights that end with blades embedded quite deep in people’s necks, backs and shoulders. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing at all, it’s looking good. Just not the most silent assassin-ny game in the world.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Back to being Bond

November looks to be a great month for games, not least because of Call of Duty this and Assassin’s Creed that, but we also get to see a return to games for one of the world's best loved, mass murdering, traffic law abusing, womanising, degenerate gamblers. Yes, James Bond is back in two titles for us to shoot through.

Ever since its official announcement back at E3, the Goldeneye remake has had me squirming with scepticism that I really hope I am wrong about. Being the first Bond film I saw as well as the first Bond game I played, it just seems wrong that they have ditched Mr Brosnan for the super serious, street brawler in a tuxedo Bond that Daniel Craig has brought to the series.

They’ve also gone and updated the storyline to make it more relevant for today, giving them far too much poetic license to juggle stuff around. The thing that is eating away at my skull like a flesh eating virus on horse steroids is the tank chase sequence, showcased in one of the many pre-release trailers.

The genius behind this sequence in the film was that it turned the car chase concept on its head, for once giving Bond the ridiculously overt upper-hand that was usually reserved for maniacal super villains. It was the simple beauty of a tank chasing down a single car whilst ripping through Russia and its landmarks.

Goldeneye 007 on the N64 did its best to recreate this, even though vehicle sections in first person shooters were relatively primitive back then. It still put you in a tank against basic infantry that gave you a sense of superiority, with a timer simulating the chase element and the need to get a move on.

The new version has gone in completely the wrong direction, putting you against much bigger tank sized enemies and helicopters, completely negating the point of the chase in the first place. I’m sure the new fangled storyline will make it fit, but as far as I’m concerned it is a bit of a butchery in terms of the original point. It was fun being an overpowered forced, and it could have been a great level if you were driving through buildings, smashing off the corners trying to chase down a car with precious Bond girl cargo inside. Now it simply appears to be like any other generic tank section from a shooter.

Bond’s other offering in the lead up to the festive season is Blood Stone, another Daniel Craig themed game, this time in third person with an original story. This one has me quite excited, despite the slightly disappointing critic scores. It looks very similar to EA’s Everything or Nothing, released in 2004. I personally loved this game, as it felt exactly like being in a Brosnan era Bond movie, packed with gadgets, girls and over the top sequences involving plenty of collateral damage and flexible use of the double-0 agent’s license to kill.

Blood Stone looks like it’s another title going for the Bond movie experience packed into a game. Again, Daniel Craig-ifying everything, it looks like it misses out on gadgets and excels in throat punches and twirly appendage breaking grapples. The vehicle sections look like they have turned the excitement up too, although this is to be expected coming from Bizarre Creations, known for Project Gotham Racing and Blur.

Both games seem to be doing okay in the press, although Blood Stone is hitting a couple of bumpy reviews. I just hope that they are decent games and that they aren’t full of glaring errors, simply being masked by the big 007 logo on the game case. Either way, being Bond is always good. I suppose he’s like a slightly more sophisticated Kratos from the God of War series, just as violent and sex hungry, but portrayed with a (colossal) touch more class and suave.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Killstreaks are just trolling on easy mode

Don’t you just love it when the elusive bastard who has been killing you round after round suddenly drops a guided missile, a harrier strike and a helicopter gunship on your head whilst you struggle to pick out targets through the random carnage? I personally can’t see the masochistic charms of games like Modern Warfare 2, but online gameplay statistics state that the majority of people enjoy them.

This fascination in killstreak rewards that were first popularised in Call of Duty 4, and now Medal of Honor is beyond me. I really don’t find it fun when the guy who camps in the corner, snipes from his cosy cubby hole, or is generally miles better than anyone on your team gets to pile up the kills in a ridiculous fashion.

What twisted logic decided that those who are doing better than everyone else should suddenly gain the ability to get almost unavoidable death strikes from the sky? It’s a kind of mentality that doesn’t reward team play, but instead holds those who focus on looking after number one in a high regard.

Surely those who are playing poorly should get the killstreak to boost their team performance, to even the odds on those who clearly have the upper hand in terms of occupied ground or sheer ability. When a golf player gets a hole in one and shows that he is clearly superior to his losing opponent, he doesn’t then earn the right to take his golf club and crack his opponent in the arm, making sure they can’t vastly improve their score. Why should the case be the same in games?

The worst time that this mentality rears its head is in objective based team matches. There are usually way too many snipers on the attacking team which rack up the kills virtually out of sight. They then get the killstreak rewards and start raining hell down on the defenders. Arguably, this is how they can contribute to the team effort. But when it is five people doing it over and over again, it gets very boring and un-fun for the defending team who get suppressed so badly they cannot enjoy the game properly.

However, due to the attackers having such a massive sniper presence, hardly anyone goes for the objective, and the ones that do can get foiled by the defenders in between air strikes, mortars or lingering war planes. This means that the match is dragged out and is no fun for anyone other than the kill hogs.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of killstreaks, I just think they need to be far more removed from the regular free kill generators that they are in their current state. Call of Duty: Black Ops looks like it is timidly stepping in the right direction by making them involve the player more. You now have to pick positions to mortar, where helicopters should roam and generally make yourself slightly vulnerable when preparing death from above. The kills gained from such super weapons will also not contribute towards the next killstreak reward, a definite bonus.

Is it enough though? I feel that killstreaks should possibly be team buffs and defensive rather than huge kill magnets that they seem to be. Medal of Honor gives the player the choice between a supportive and offensive killstreak reward, but the sad thing is that the majority of punters, in my experience, will always take the free kills over the team booster.

The only purpose that I see in killstreaks as they currently stand is that they artificially boost the scores of the winners, and wind up the people who are on the less than healthy end of the mass death strikes. They are not progressing the online FPS shooter experience, they are changing it for the worse.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Post Eurogamer reflection

It’s nice to see that over the course of three years, I still have the hang of this regular blog thing. I’ve been quite busy post Eurogamer, writing up a lot of previews for the stuff I encountered there. It didn’t help that my computer decided to eat the second power supply I fed it within a month delaying said write ups, but I’m fairly sure nobody really cares about that.

Anyway, my experience at Eurogamer was largely a pleasant one, full of many awesome games played including Gears of War 3, Crysis 2, GT5 and Bulletstorm. The interview with Yuji Naka went really well too, despite feeling slightly awkward in a room with three PR people sitting in on the conversation being conducted through Mr Naka’s translator. I definitely haven’t been put off the idea of going to another games expo anyway.

In terms of expectations being met, on the games side of things I was fairly satisfied. Numerous pictures online of what I understood to be expos featured people in often hilarious, home made costume that I was looking forward to experiencing first hand. Of course on the occasion that I get to a games expo, it was a bit like going on a safari and only seeing a single lion that is so close to the brink of death, it couldn’t run away scared at the sound of the engine. I saw a grand total of one Lara Croft in attendance, and she was a lot shorter than you would expect. Also, her carrying two holstered toy guns around London didn’t strike as the smartest thing in the world, but ah well.

This is just a quick update to assure loyal readers (both of you) that I survived Eurogamer and am still capable of stringing sentences together. Now, please stay tuned for some actual content coming in the near future.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Sweating optimism over Eurogamer expo

I’m currently buzzing with optimism and excitement because I get to go to Eurogamer tomorrow. It’ll be my first trip to an expo, made even better as I’m getting in on a press pass. Of course on the other side of Friday I’ll probably be completely the opposite, damning that I’ll never go to one of the bloody things again because it’s a lot of work, queuing and committing myself to lots of writing when I get back. I’m really hoping that it won’t reduce me to a bitter husk of a man sworn off of press events forever.

It’s shaping up to be a good day tomorrow though, with my list of games to cover consisting of Gears of War 3, Bulletstorm and Gran Turismo 5. Of course most surprising on my list of nice things I get to cover are Just Dance 2 and Dance Central. My lovely editor has decided to make me dance correspondent for Critical Gamer. Wicked.

Other exciting things on the itinerary include an interview with Yuji Naka, the father of Sonic the Hedgehog (the game series obviously, I’m not suggesting that he goes for naked rolls in the bushes). I might see if my shorthand is up to scratch to take down the interview on paper, but I really doubt I could keep up. I used to practice the skill by copying down what people said on the Jeremy Kyle Show because they mainly spoke in single syllable words and grunts at a manageable pace. I suppose an actual interview will put me to the test.

The Expo looks like it should be a good one this year, with great titles like Crysis 2, Goldeneye and Killzone 3 all making an appearance amongst many other greats. It’s a shame that there’s no sign of Arkham City or Hitman 5, but I can’t really complain with all the stuff that will be there.

The only downside that I can see at the moment is that I’ll have to traverse London. I’m a competent enough tube rat when it comes to public transport, but I always carry too much faith in the human race and make the mistake of smiling at people on the underground. I get a stern look back as if I was a publicly known poodle rapist, and it really hammers the fact home that the tube is no place for politeness and smiles. It’s all about getting places faster than anyone else because life is a race and if you finish last you’re scum and probably live out of bins.

Back to the positive though; yay games expo. I guess I’ll see you on the other side.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Bad checkpoints make me a sad spartan

If at first you don’t succeed then you are definitely doing it wrong. That’s how Halo: Reach’s checkpoint system feels at times. Having just completed it on heroic, I certainly saw my fair share of deaths and checkpoints, but not all of them were entirely helpful.

You’d like to think a system that delivers you from the cold arms of laser death and throws you back minutes in time to a period when you had a lot more spring in your step, energy in your shield and bullets in your gun would be a consistently good thing. The problems start arising however when you decide to randomly pepper these checkpoints throughout the player’s adventure with the regularity of your bowels after pizza night.

The particular experience that upset this little camper is when the game granted me a checkpoint during one of the final fights that seemed overwhelmingly difficult. I had swept the area and killed everything that was really big. Feeling quite proud of myself I start looking around the area for any nice lootables. At this point I hear a manic scream and see a comical midget like enemy running towards me with grenades held aloft.

Attempting to avoid a severe case of agonising plasma death, I started to retreat whilst firing valiantly at my assailant. I killed him just as I stumbled down the small chasm with no exit. The game also decided that having reached my new inescapable tomb, I should have a checkpoint placed there so I can reload and enjoy it all over again.

Unfortunately, the walls were so high and so steep they could not be climbed, and the only way out was to follow the tight canyon along until you encountered the piece of ground that instantly killed you. It required over an hour of back tracking through the most challenging part of the game. You know, the bit that feels like a slog, but somewhat of an achievement once you complete it because you don’t need to do it again.

The issue here is probably a mix of a level design oversight and an irritating run of bad luck with the checkpoint system, but this kind of thing is still frustrating. Only having one checkpoint stored at a time means that these things can not be corrected when they occur.

I still remember playing PC games where I have quick saved, just as I discover that the lump under my foot was actually a primed grenade ready to send me into a loop of infinite pain and discomfort. It’s really frustrating when these things happen, but at least I can say things like that on those occasions it was my fault.

An auto-checkpoint that simply takes you back to the site of your impending grave however is damn frustrating, especially on the last level. I know I’m just waggling an irritated finger in Bungie’s rough direction, but I seriously think that this kind of thing shouldn’t happen in games nowadays. Maybe I found the only place in the game where something like that can occur, but it’s still annoying.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Money troubles

I’m a hoarder when it comes to virtual currency. There is no such thing as enough money when it comes to buying weapons, cars or safe houses. Yes, I have enough to buy it, but that will clean me out and leave me vulnerable when I need that something random chaos has deprived me of.

A real problem that I am finding in games at the moment is that I build up so much money through personal restraint, it becomes meaningless. I always deprive myself of the small upgrades that will help in the short term so I can get the bigger version that little bit sooner. I don’t re-purchase my weapons when I am arrested, I load a previous save game. I re-invest my cash in more ways to earn so that I become closer to having a sustainable passive income. It turns out I’m as boring in games as I am in reality.

Normally I hoard the most in RTS games, when I make my first priority after base defence to become economically sound. This lets me create a self sufficient mega fortress that can repel any attack thrown at it and lets me pump out my units in peace. If you’re an online RTS master, you can probably guess from this paragraph that I don’t play online much.

I’ve recently learned that when playing an RTS, having money in your back pocket is a bad thing. If you have a big bank balance it means that you could have a bigger army of tanks but don’t. This lesson was bashed into me when reviewing R.U.S.E. for Critical Gamer. I made the mistake of approaching my online opponents like they were the predictable drone like AI.

As soon as the game started I set about getting a base and supply routes established. All was going well. I had scouts out at a decent perimeter distance and was happily going about setting up base defences and researching units. This is when it went horrifically wrong, as my opponent started thundering towards me with a steam roller of pain. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he had the indecency to strike when my base defences didn’t quite have every area covered. Needless to say, I didn’t make a very good general.

The next game, I thought that I would be the fast striker, I would be the tinned lightening. I would be the winner. I wasn’t, but I gave it a damn good go. I spent all of my research and cash on getting into big aircraft immediately and managed to bomb the living crap out of my opponent’s base, taking out their main headquarters. Normally this would leave me to make a killing blow, but instead I had ran out of money and my supply routes had been cut off. I had simply slowed down my enemy and my inevitable demise.

I’m not very good with money in games and I still need to learn how to be better. The trouble with games like Grand Theft Auto is that I always struggle with money to begin with. This means that I get into the habit of never spending it. Unfortunately I stick to this habit when money is no longer an issue, and it just becomes an obsolete number taking up some of the screen. I need to learn how to manage my virtual finances better.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Being late to the party

Fashionably late is something that I will never be. Conveniently late on the other hand is definitely within my grasp. I don’t necessarily mean the kind of situation where I miss catching a plane that happens to be overrun by poisonous snakes, avoiding a blood coagulating death by failing to promptly get off my arse. I mean something more along the lines of keeping my ‘games to buy’ calendar a few months behind. Although avoiding death by sleeping in does appeal.

Anyway, the point I am making is that sometimes it is best just to wait a while to get a game. It can be hard trying not to jump the gun like an excitable greyhound chasing a fake rabbit stuffed with chew toys, but there are benefits to holding off on anticipated purchases.

I have only just started to enjoy the gravity and logic defying delights of Just Cause 2, despite following it very eagerly up until its release in March. Many times I have seen it floating around the £30 mark, but have decided to hold off at the last minute because I had other games that still needed my attention.

Come the relatively entertainment dry months of summer and much to my delight, I spot it for £18. It makes every grappling hook medical complexity that I inflict on the military forces of Panau that much sweeter, knowing that I managed to snag the game at a relatively decent price.

Now, sometimes a game can be dripping with so much appeal, we cannot help but leap and snag it at the release price. Day one sales figures usually reflect this when a big title comes out, like a new Zelda or Gears of War, and I can definitely say that sometimes I am among that crowed. The thing that I can’t stand however is this new attitude that some games companies *cough, Activision* are carrying around. You know, the one where they decide that because their games are so great, they can be sold at a marked up price that the public will happily lap up.

This has happened with a few games, such as Modern Warfare 2, and more recently, Starcraft 2. With a RRP of £44.99, you can probably find a copy of it for about £35. I refuse to pay that much for a game that originally was meant to contain so much more, until they decided it contained too much and then broke it up into a main piece and two expansions. I feel like Activision Blizzard are trying to drag the consumer’s collective balls through the sand, because that is honestly taking the piss.

It may only be a matter of £5 over what a PC game would usually cost (and more or less in line with console purchases), but it’s the principle of the matter. My one man boycott may be a simple case of angrily pissing into the wind, but it does bug me that most people are happy to lie in front of Activision’s money train as it happily steams over their wallets.

Ah well. I guess it just means that I’ll be enjoying Starcraft II’s campaign long after everyone else has. Hopefully though, I will be safe in the knowledge that my Zerg rushes cost me less. Now then, back to tethering people to passing helicopters.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Just a quick gaming fix?

Going on holiday is always fun because it means you get to leave the worries of reality behind you. This is also a reason why I like really getting into a game sometimes, when you can get completely absorbed by it and not notice the daylight turning to night around you until some un-thoughtful sod ruins the atmosphere by turning the lights on.

I certainly don’t feel an urgent need to take games on holiday with me, but it can be a nice time waster. I remember in the past having fun with the Pokemon titles, when just about everyone that was my age who I encountered also had a copy, allowing for trades and battles galore. Just lately however, I personally feel that the handheld market has been missing something, and I’m not entirely sure what it is.

I’ve had my clunky, unstylish original DS since they were first released(ish). It was originally purchased to help cope with a 25 hour coach trip to Italy, with my friends having had similar thoughts allowing for many hours of Super Mario 64 DS multiplayer.

Since then I had only bought two other games, Mario Kart and New Super Mario Bros, both being alright, but nothing that I would pick up and play if in any situation other than a long journey. The levels of New Super Mario Bros just felt boring after the third run, with the crippling linearity of 2D meaning there was only really one direction to explore, with the occasional branch in the path taking you up or down, but not in a drastic way.

I’ve never been a huge fan of using the stylus as the main control method which is exactly why I never braved either Zelda DS game. Perhaps it’s me being closed minded but tapping and scribbling on the screen with the tenacity of a toddler with a crayon never really appealed.

I was pleasantly surprised on the holiday just past. On a whim I decided to buy Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars before I departed and I’m still playing it now. I have a stigma surrounding on the go gaming, that it’s just for a quick gaming fix and offers no really substance to get into. Chinatown Wars shattered this train of thought by incredibly being both a dip in and out casual affair and a decent, immersive game that could kill an hour or so. As it turns out, virtual drug dealing is almost as addictive as some of the very more-ish powders you can sniff or shoot (maybe).

With the 3DS hopefully seeing a release in the next six months, will this trend of engrossing games continue to appear. I don’t mean to use this word with disrespect to games on the current generation of DS, but it looks like we will start seeing some ‘proper’ games on Nintendo’s next handheld. A port of Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater for a start will definitely keep you hooked, with Hideo Kojima’s movie game fetish probably shining through that title.

Perhaps I’ve been too dismissive of handhelds as of late. Chinatown Wars has shown me what the little machine can do, so who knows what else I’ve missed on Nintendo’s little grey clam shell. Maybe I will look into Zelda after all.

Monday, 23 August 2010

I don't care what you say, I like it

Having just come back from holiday, I was going to regale you all in a fantastic tale about unexplained absences and gaming abroad. Instead I came back to what seemed to be an odd mix of critics either hatefully spitting or gleefully licking the experience of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days.

This game appears to be some form of explosive Marmite, with the love it or hate it mechanic shining through the internet. It gives the game an annoyingly misty Metacritic score because it has almost as much praise as it has damning. Having enjoyed the demo and hated the first game, I decided this was a day one purchase just to see what the almighty guff was all about.

I can honestly say that I like it. Okay, it’s a slightly average shooter that’s too short with a liberal sprinkling of glitches and a plot that ends in completely the wrong place. It’s definitely functional though and a hell of a lot better than the craptastic heap the first game was pressed together from.

I must admit that I find it quite irresponsible and just a bad thing to do to award this game one out of ten, like Destructoid decided to. Okay, it is nowhere near perfect and you can pick it to ribbons if you like, but even then it is definitely not worth that much of a dismissal.

Perhaps I found it more fun because I played it through on co-op with a mate, but I really found it to be genuinely enjoyable. I felt that it missed some of the more innovative ideas for levels that the first game pulled off, as mentioned in the Destructoid review, but from a gameplay experience it is a million times more playable.

A one out of ten score, pitching it as “the lowest of the low” is horribly misleading. Seriously, has the writer ever played the joys of Ninjabread Man? That terrible turd smudge of pixels and unhappiness deserved every one out of ten (and lack of review) it got. Kane & Lynch 2 would still be better than that game if it contained subliminal messages encouraging you to evacuate your bowels onto your hands and finger paint “10/10” all over the walls of your living room.

I know this post can be boiled and evaporated down to the salty remains of “I disagree with X reviewer” but in this case it has particularly wound me up. Destructoid prides itself on ‘brutally honest game reviews’ but I fail to see how this is honest. It’s brutal sure, but I feel the review possibly ran away with how fun it is to be a bastard. Even reading the review, the one out of ten rating comes as a shock at the end. Okay, the article doesn’t beam sunshine out of a whole created by a thousand children smiling, but the rating at the end seems like it went straight for the jugular at the conclusion of a thumb war.

I really enjoyed Kane & Lynch 2. It has an interesting presentation with gunplay that feels fun and gritty. If you liked the demo, then you know what to expect. Not a perfect gem essential to all collections, but it certainly isn’t the steaming pile of fail that some reviews are claiming it to be.

It also has a fantastic level played in the nude that definitely tops Metal Gear Solid 2’s adventure into the naked protagonist experience.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

How important are graphics these days?

Pretty colours, shiny textures and looking good are things that games are always striving to be. New art direction, next generation this and high definition that are all buzz words generally used to describe the next big game coming to shelves and internet listings, but how big a part do these factors play nowadays?

It’s funny to think that once upon a time NES, SNES and N64 graphics kept us in total awe, and that Lara Croft’s second adventure had impressive features such as a moving ponytail. It’s understandable that as technology gets better, our expectations continue to peak and then go beyond. Is this still the case nowadays though?

Personally, it has been a very long while since I was completely blown away by the visuals in a game. Environments, atmosphere and design have made my trousers smile recently yes, but the actual technology that is meant to make things pretty seems to have hit a plateau. Graphics are starting to get so good, that a lot of the realistic games especially, are starting to look the same. I just feel that I haven’t been swept off my feet lately.

Perhaps it is that graphics are improving quite gradually now, and so between games it is hard to notice a difference until you start comparing what we had two years ago with the big releases that are coming out over the next few months. Maybe I’m just not as easy to impress anymore, having grown cynical with age and the below average games that I have had to crush underneath my uniform journalist boots.

I still remember reading reviews with checkboxes giving the game a rating based on its graphics. These days, when I review something with a strict word count, I hardly ever mention the graphics of a game unless it is something interesting. If the game’s visuals are refreshingly different and expertly polished, or to the other extreme, as appealing as a daffodil covered in hot, chunky vomit, then I will spray liberal amounts of happiness or bile at the piece as appropriate.

This is the thing though. With in-game graphics of bigger blockbusters all looking fairly decent these days, is it really justifiable to mention it as a selling point in the review? Good graphics these days just simply don’t differentiate you from the pack enough.

At university I wrote a piece about the future of games for a feature writing assignment. I interviewed the editor of the Game Career Guide, the lead writer of PS3 shooter Haze and a video game design student. I was expecting answers to come back about photo realistic graphics making games as life like as possible. Instead, I had three rather distinct answers about broadening the gaming audience, the price of technology lowering to make it more available to game developers, and improvements to make physics more realistic. As far as I can tell, all of these have been spot on so far.

I suppose casual games are another culprit for graphics not being pushed that hard, as the rather simplistic visuals that these games use are ideal for their target audience. You don’t need the drastic, over the top CGI from a Michael Bay film to try and make wiggling your arse to spin a hula hoop more interesting (then again, the prospect of Optimus Prime doing this intrigues me in mysterious and disturbing ways).

So will graphics make a notable leap forward in the future? I don’t know. Industry folk seem to say that consoles still have room to be pushed further, but then again they wouldn’t exactly turn around and say, “Yes, the Xbox 360 cannot do anything else and this is the best it will ever do.” Of course PCs are always getting more power pumped into them, but trying to take their games to consoles as well as desktop power towers does limit how far they can be pushed. Let’s just see what happens, eh?

Monday, 19 July 2010

Goodnight sweet prince, thanks for the fun

Sad times. That’s all I can really say. It looks like Future Publishing has decided to stop PC Zone after 17 years of being one of the funniest bastions of games journalism around. It gave us so many great writers, such as Jon ‘Log’ Blyth, Steve Hogarty and the ever popular Charlie Brooker to name a few.

PC Gamer regularly does the rounds in this household as it’s the one my dad likes, and I’m definitely not saying that I don’t enjoy flicking through it, but PC Zone just felt better, a bit grittier and definitely funnier. I still remember passing a copy of the magazine around because it had one of the funniest game reviews in it that I have ever read. It was a 150 word or so recap review on Little Britain the Game which only mentioned ways to horrifically mutilate yourself that were preferable to playing it.

I’m yet to have found another magazine that does scathing hatred as well or hilariously, and so PC Zone will be sorely missed. The last issue is number 225 released in September and they are looking for readers to contribute their fondest thoughts and memories. Check the details out here if you want to get involved.

Is this tragedy part of the ongoing line of thought that the print industry is folding? The internet has done many great things for us and simplified a lot, but it has also made a hell of a lot of things harder. The two examples that spring to my mind are photography and writing, as now there are so many people able to showcase both, getting your foot on the career ladder in either of these industries is about as easy as fending off two tigers with a pair of left handed safety scissors.

Personally, I would like to think that printed publications have plenty of life left in them. Taking out a laptop out to read on the train or porcelain throne just doesn’t feel the same as being able to hold a slab of finely bound and printed papers. I like being able to read the words off of the glossy pages, rather than committing my eyes to yet more retinal dehydrating screen time.

Unfortunately though I don’t know how long this position can hold. Circulation figures across all printed publications have been dropping for a while, and no one has been able to crack the riddle of how to make money from content online, apart from through advertisements. I can’t really see it ever happening, as everyone has started offering the content for free on various websites; it requires one hell of an en masse dick move to start charging for it all. Even if that does happen, there will be alternate sources that stay free.

Times have been changing for a fair few years now, but the print industry, as much as it pains me to say it, does seem to be a wounded survivor limping through a desert made from broken glass and crushed hope. I find it hard to imagine a completely digital media, but magazines are going to need to try evolving if they want to keep up. Maybe dropping the useless cover disc that I can’t see many people using these days is the way to go. It’ll drop production costs slightly, perhaps making the cover price a bit more attractive. I can’t see it being enough though. Let’s just see what tomorrow brings.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Good ideas that turn sour

I love it when a good idea remains good all the way through production until it ends up on the shelves, remaining the brilliant brain fart that spawned its creation months or even years prior. Half-life, The Legend of Zelda and chainsaw bayonets are all fantastic concepts that made the transition to virtual reality perfectly.

Unfortunately this train of thought, like many others, does have a polar opposite effect that can make me more hateful than a bag full of convicted murderers given time in prison to plot their revenge. When a really good idea goes into the machine beautiful at one end, but comes out the other horrifically warped and covered in hair from multiple donors, it makes me want to scream in anguish.

The latest game I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing was Artificial Mind and Movement’s demented hack and slasher Naughty Bear. I really wanted to like it, but the repetitive gameplay and complete lack of variety made it about as fun as eating a Jammy Dodger that has been trodden into the carpet.

I wrote a very similar blog back in 2008, explaining my dismay at another game that had displayed brilliance in the concept but had an appeal very similar to wrapping a wet towel around your face to see how well you could cope at drowning. Ninjabread Man for the Wii had a great, original idea about a deadly biscuit trained in the ancient art of fighting evil. Why did it have to fail?

Both of these games were ones that I really wanted to love, where I forced myself to play on in an almost sadistic manner, just to see if they could possibly redeem themselves. To give Naughty Bear credit, I did find it genuinely funny, and it kept the smile on my face for a little while, but this just added to the insult that it was a complete flop to play.

I suppose there are many reasons why a game might end up being bad, whether it is time restraints, budget cuts, staff reductions, or perhaps the project simply runs out of spark. I just find it a real shame that such things happen. You can understand if a movie game tie-in seems rushed and half arsed, as it will be able to shift units by the basket load due to the license it’s riding on. These titles which seem completely off the wall and original however stand very little chance of seeing a second attempt if the first one sold as well as belly button fluff chutney.

I can accept that bad games happen, but the last couple of years have felt so sequel heavy within the seasonal blockbusters, possibly due to the safety net of them being ideas that people already know and love. I’m not saying that there haven’t been any truly imaginative gems released either, it just seems that there have been a lot of numbers and new subtitles adorning some very familiar game franchises, and not necessarily completely new casts to fall in love with.

It is simply a statistical fact that not all ideas will take off and be great, but both Ninjabread Man and Naughty Bear were enough to grab my attention with a single sentence description. They were mountains of imagination that turned out to be ice cream cones of sadness. I really hope that the next title to grab me by the gentleman handle with a single line will turn out to be the belter that breaks the trend.

Friday, 25 June 2010

A good reason to love or hate Steam

I am a sucker for special offers, whether it is buy one get one free on biscuits, suspiciously low priced alcohol at the front counter of my corner shop or games that are pretty much being given away. Steam has provided us with a scarily fast and easy way to buy hundreds of different PC titles, and they have just gone and made me reconsider my carefully thought out budgeting for the month. They’re doing another insane sale through to July 4.

I don’t know how Valve does it, but they always seem to pick just the wrong moment to suddenly hold a sale and convince major publishers to slash the prices of everything. Not that there is ever a right moment, because you look at all of the great deals, which probably save you hundreds of pounds, but you still end up spending an amount that would go a long way to building an orphanage.

For example, the THQ complete pack for £26.49 includes: (deep breath) all of the Red Faction games, Dawn of War 2, its expansion, and two previous titles from the series, Metro 2033, both Full Spectrum Warriors, three Company of Heroes games, Frontlines: Fuel of War, Juiced 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Saints Row 2, Titan Quest and World of Zoo. This is such a ridiculous deal that simply writing that sentence was enough to make me sweat blood with excitement. I’m really tempted by it, despite owning over half of those games already.

Not to mention the other gems available including the Valve complete pack (which was already a freakin’ steal) for £35.50. Seriously, if you were looking for an opportunity to flex the muscles of a new computer, or you are just getting into PC gaming, now is the time to strike whilst the iron is hotter than an oven on the highest setting in a volcano directly under the sun.

One thing to note though is that a fresh set of deals appears every 24 hours, so instead of rushing in like a mad man and throwing e-money at just about everything, it might be worth holding on with the off chance that a game you’ve had your eye on becomes a bargain. The amount of comical rage I have already seen online from people buying games the day before the insane discount kicked in is slightly harrowing. Do not become another victim.

This has probably come off sounding like a complete advertorial for the Steam sale, which I’ll be honest, it really is, but I just thought it was worth spreading the word. E3 gave us plenty to look forward to in the future, but instead of cradling yourself in the corner waiting for the 3DS, how about looking back at some of the current greats?

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Sony at E3 - holding the middle ground

Sony had its work cut out for it going last, especially when it took its turn after Nintendo. After the PlayStation focussed conference I must admit I was pleasantly surprised that they did not linger on Move for as long as they could have done. Unfortunately it still didn’t hold the wow factor that I always hype these conferences up to have in my na├»ve and excitable mind.

One of the bigger reveals that I certainly wasn’t expecting probably would have stolen the show for me if it wasn’t for the hype building behind it for the last couple of weeks. I am an absolutely massive Valve fan, and Portal 2 is looking superb, definitely securing a day one purchase from me, but on the PC.

This is the thing though. Valve had been teasing us with an E3 surprise for some time now. The PC community literally burst into flames, lighting up with untold amounts of excitement. Half-life 3 was whispered all over the internet, with some very convincing looking hoaxes getting the better of people’s optimistic hopes. Valve soon stopped this by saying their surprise was Portal 2 related.

The surprise arrived yesterday during the Sony conference, when Gabe Newell strolled out to reveal that Portal 2 would be especially good on PS3. Geeez, thanks. I feel like I have been spat on slightly. Not quite in the face, but possibly just catching my elbow.

We got a Portal 2 trailer (which looks rather fabulous might I add), but I do feel slightly betrayed. I don’t mean to sound elitist here, but the PC crowd is and always has been Valve’s main market. Making the PS3 announcement the big surprise really underplayed the significance of its appearance. At least PS3 owners who have felt let down by the dev can now finally be happier.

What got me excited more than anything was left for the end, with the awesome tease of a new Twisted Metal game. For those not familiar with the series, imagine what would happen if the characters from Mario Kart were placed in a dark room for ten years, routinely beaten and fed dead puppies for the duration of their incarceration. They were then shown a room full of guns, cars and rockets and told to pimp their rides before brutally slaying each other to have their greatest desire fulfilled. Sounds fun doesn’t it!

Other highlights included Dead Space 2, Medal of Honour and Mafia 2 footage as well as another look at Little Big Planet 2. A lot of the show was in 3D, such as a lengthy Killzone 3 video, but I couldn’t really appreciate that as I wasn’t there to witness it.

The biggest cop out was Sony bigging up their Xbox Live esque paid subscription service, PlayStation Plus. Unlike Micro$oft’s version, you don’t have to pay to play online, but I can’t really see the point of the service if that is the case. You do get a range of games that you can play for free, including some of the PS One classics and game trials which might be alright. Possibly not worth £40 a year though.

With all the major platform conferences now done with, Sony left me feeling fairly neutral. Ranking them in order of awesomeness isn’t hard, as most people are agreeing that Nintendo won it, with Microsoft trailing behind and Sony sitting in the middle. Not a bad set of E3 announcements by any means, but it could have been so much better. I wonder if we’ll get many more surprises from the big event before it closes up for another year.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Nintendo at E3 - restorers of faith

For me, Nintendo has been dragging its face through the mud during previous E3s, even though in reality, the company has made more money than I can imagine in the last few years. Judging from the rumours leading up to Ninty’s press conference however, it made me really excited about what could be around the corner.

Nintendo has managed to kick the door off of the excitement centre in my brain and thrown in an awesome grenade with some fantastic sounding products for the future that were kept under wraps. Microsoft take note, E3 is when you spring cool, unknown surprises on the world. Maybe it’s just too hard to keep secrets these days, but that’s for another blog.

Saving their absolutely massive gun of superness ‘til the end, I’ve got to say that the 3DS reveal was the high point in a conference that had so many peaks. Okay, it’s another handheld that the company seems addicted to producing these days, but this one has some drastically different specs, and will specialise in the third dimension, as we already know.

What nobody would have been able to predict however, was the awesome game line up that third party developers have laid out. It seems like a buffet filled with lobster, fillet steak and £50 notes. Some of the prime picks include Metal Gear Solid, Saints Row and a new Resident Evil, not to mention Nintendo’s own Kid Icarus making a comeback, all designed for the handheld, all utilising 3D. How awesome is that?

The device itself has a slightly wider screen on its upper panel and an analogue stick above the D-Pad, but the rest looks familiar. More news on these should be spilling out soon as conference attendees were given a quick fiddle with it.

The other stuff that we were half expecting and hoping for is also a fairly decent display. Nintendo’s conference started with another big gun from the arsenal that made me very happy, but it wasn’t exactly a secret being revealed. Zelda: Skyward Sword was announced and Nintendo gave us a lot more information than that one piece of concept art we have all been clinging onto for a year or so now.

It looks as if the sword play has been reworked to more accurately reflect your movements, with the motion plus letting you choose which direction you swing your sword in. We also get a bow which uses similar archery techniques to those used in Wii Sports Resort and a whip that can be used to pick up items. Neat!

Other highlights from the conference include a new 2D Donkey Kong game that tickles fond SNES memories, as well as Kirby Wii and a look at the super cool remake of GoldenEye. I’m not sure about the swapping of Pierce Brosnan for Daniel Craig but the game itself definitely looks good at the moment.

There were more bits about Nintendogs and Just Dance, but I real feel that this conference had its eyes set on regaining the love from a community that felt slightly abandoned. Nintendo hit the nail on the head with this simply amazing show of force. It made Microsoft’s conference look like a press gathering for the launch of a new cleaning spray that somehow made things dirtier.

Bloody good show Nintendo. I’ve been waiting three years to say that. You have really pulled it back for me. I might even take my Wii back out of its box in celebration. I’ll tell you one thing; Sony has quite the mountain to climb if it wants to out do Nintendo in the platform conference department.

Microsoft at E3 - wasted opportunity

E3 can sometimes be a bit like a visit Father Christmas in a shopping centre. You went in asking the nice man with a beard for an N64 with Goldeneye, but leave his fibre glass grotto with a colouring book and concerns about how he touched you.

Kicking off the major E3 festivities this year was Microsoft with the Xbox conference that happened mere hours ago (or perhaps a day, depending on how proficient I have been). What can I say other than ‘aflibber mubba mimma’ as I try to hold back the tears of rage that have bubbled up to the surface. Maybe rage is a bit harsh, how about, super unhappiness.

After teasing us about major news that will appeal to the self labelled hardcore amongst us, we get a few video snippets of games that we have known about for months and a tide of Natal, sorry, Kinect games that all seem to bear a surprising similarity to Wii party games. There was also the announcement of the 360 Slim, but if you were interested in Microsoft’s conference, you probably already owned one of their chunkier brethren.

It’s not that I am ungrateful for the fantastic Halo Reach, Metal Gear Solid Rising or Gears of War 3 videos, they were spot on. I just can’t help but feel that Microsoft was pretending to have an ace up its sleeve, but instead produced on old, slightly snotty hanky.

Honestly, to say that I am disappointed would be a bit like saying I slightly disapprove of Joseph Fritzl.

Maybe I am just getting caught up in the moment, and really need to sleep on the results to let it sink in. I’m just not feeling the sense of awe and amazement that I have hyped up in my head.

[Some hours later]

After a relatively peaceful sleep and a good mulling over two or three cups of coffee my thoughts are unchanged. Poor show Microsoft. Anything new, like perhaps the first glimpse of Mass Effect 3 might have left a better taste in my mouth. I just feel that this conference was a slightly wasted platform that leaned a bit too close to Kinect for a lot of people’s liking. Still, controlling Forza through mime might be good, if the thing actually works and isn’t just a gimmick.

Nintendo and Sony platform conferences are today. I’m really hoping we see them top the MS conference or this year’s E3 might be another filled with empty promises and pointless late nights.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Roaming in Redemption

Rockstar are very good at creating big, sprawling worlds, often filled with whores, violent types and fast modes of transport. We are very accustomed to spotting these around huge cityscapes that the game dev has made itself famous for with the ever popular Grand Theft Auto series.

I must admit though, I was starting to get bored of their tricks and cities, with GTA IV thrilling me considerably less than the other games in the series before it. It had all been done before, just with a new lick of paint and a shooting mechanic that wasn’t designed by a chair leg. What I wanted from them was something new and more original, and oh boy did they deliver with Red Dead Redemption.

Putting aside the fact that cowboys and six shooters are undeniably cool, the game environment has been the biggest thrill for me. Gone are the never ending copy and pasted skyscrapers and paved streets, instead being replaced by desolate nothingness. There really are huge areas of hardly anything, which makes exploration infinitely more fun. It means that when you do come across something, it immediately sticks out a lot more than any one of the generic locations GTA had to offer.

It’s when you are riding through a desert and you come across a lone man beckoning you over. What does he want? Is he the victim of a crime? Does he need a favour from you? Would he like to share an interesting story? Oh, no, he actually wants to slay and eat you, like he has done to others before this encounter if the piles of tasty man remnants are anything to go by. Thankfully, the solution is only two pulls of the trigger away.

Red Dead Redemption really is the perfect example of ‘less is more’. It makes each encounter with a human an event in its own right, and shows that everyone has an agenda, rather than the seemingly pointless bumbling about that everyone in Liberty City partakes in. Not only this, but the game even has a huge supply of different animals, letting you hunt, skin and fend off the likes of snakes, horses, boars and even bears. You can look a bit silly mind, running around the desert chasing an armadillo whilst fruitlessly trying to shoot it with a revolver.

I have genuinely found Redemption a lot more satisfying to play than GTA, and it’s all down to the original setting. Maybe if we were flooded with westerns and a city roamer came up as a rarity I would have felt the opposite way, as the novelty factor is still very high. Other western games have come close to greatness, such as Red Dead Revolver and Gun, but Redemption has perfected the atmosphere.

Then again, anything that lets me throw a rope over an innocent bystander, drag them to a train track and then let Mr Chuffy decide their fate is always going to get a thumbs up in my book.

Sorry if this observation has come slightly late, but I still thought it was blog worthy. Now then, who’s excited about E3 eh?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Should a game's community influence reviews?

Recently I had the pleasure of reviewing RTS multiplayer title Heroes of Newerth for Critical Gamer, and I must say it’s an intriguing game. You pick a hero from a staggering range of 65, each with their own unique abilities before setting off down a path accompanying some NPC creeps with the intention to smash skulls and destroy the opposing team’s base. It’s basically Warcraft 3 cross pollinated with a tower defence game. Whilst I found the game itself interesting, I did find myself wishing for the ability to send people cholera via email.

I hated this game, not necessarily because of the mechanics, but because the community was so hate filled towards new guys trying to learn. The problem was that it had been in open beta for ages, and is itself based on a classic Warcraft 3 scenario called Defence of the Ancients, meaning it has quite a sizeable cult following. It really did feel like stepping into the old boys club, and none of them are too happy when you join their game as it probably means the team with you on will lose terribly.

This leads to much abuse and angry jeering, more than you would expect from average netiquette, which is easily enough to convince Billy First Timer to uninstall and never touch it again. There is a matchmaking facility and servers labelled ‘noobs only’ but these also seem to drop you into games full of elitists who have no patience. There are a few good souls out there, but in every game you will find at least one guy who clearly hasn’t been taking his medication and has to wipe the frothy spit from his keyboard every half hour.

Is it fair to judge a game based on its community though? It is not necessarily the developers fault for attracting the kind of players they do, but there should at least have been more entry level stuff to ease newbies into the experience. I took my stance on this title because as a reviewer, you’re basically recommending to people what they should spend their money on. How could I possibly recommend Heroes of Newerth to someone who has never tried it before, if the welcome they will get mirrors a gazelle covered in fresh blood leaping into a shark tank.

It would be a bit like me recommending that someone watched the video tape from The Ring. “The initial experience is certainly interesting, but the harassment over the next seven days may get to you, and the conclusion might be a bit too permanent for your liking, but by all means give it a go.”

The problem with it being solely a multiplayer game is that new players are dropped straight into the frying pan without the limbs needed to crawl out of it. Couple this with a community that shows the same level of patience as a dog told not to go for the postman and it’s a raging explosion waiting to happen.

Playing an online multiplayer game is all about community spirit and synergy, so completely flaming newbies because they aren’t very good until the game ends just spoils the experience for everyone. We’ve all been called noobs before, but I’ve never seen it as bad as I have in Heroes of Newerth. It was at such a level that it has been a central point on several reviews. It comes to something when the largest criticism of a game is its core audience.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Better late than never, right?

It’s been a fun ride that probably took me too long to get here, but hey, I’m still happy with my 100th blog mile stone. I realise there is a bit of an irony to marking the 100th blog with a blog that does not really contribute anything other than a bit of ego rubbing for myself, but I’ll just assume that it’s okay to do as 100 seems like a good number to mini-celebrate.

This blog has been trundling along for 21,744 hours(ish) now, starting off as a project that was updated like clockwork on a Wednesday, to something a lot more sporadic, randomly springing back to life to deliver an insightful pellet of information to the front of your mind; a bit like a defective BB gun.

A lot has happened in the world of games over the life span of this blog. Unfortunately, the release of Half-life 2: Episode 3 hasn’t been one of them, but on the other side of the coin, the same company has brought us Left 4 Dead and a fully fledged sequel in that time. Team Fortress 2 has also seen the introduction of hats and numerous new weapons since I started bashing my fingers against the keyboard to edit my inner ramblings into legible jargon.

Model citizen simulator and sandbox city romper Grand Theft Auto IV also saw its release in this blog’s life, unfortunately failing to captivate me for as long as its predecessors did. At least they finally managed to crowbar in a slightly remodelled combat system that let you take on aggressors instead of always targeting innocent bystanders first.

I could continue to list things that have happened in the last two and a bit years but that would be as boring and futile as watching the sea dry out. Besides, I suppose this post is mainly filler for my enjoyment, but I needed to post something with a bit more substance than ‘100 posts, yay’. Having said that, I guess that is the message that I’m trying to get across, only I’ve managed it in 363 words. Please look forward to more actual content in the future.

100 posts, yay.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Are pre-owned games a good thing?

I must admit, I’ve never been a fan of pre-owned games. Ever since I was told not to put money in my mouth as you don’t know what kind of kinky stuff it might have been involved with, I seem to have applied the same logic to everything that is not fresh out of a factory. Apart from my various hygiene and quality stigmas though, are pre-owned games doing more harm than good?

The major problem with pre-owned games is that the publishers and more importantly the developers, don’t see a penny from the resale of their games. The only people that benefit from this are the customers, whether they are buying units to sell or games to play.

Whilst I can appreciate that games are expensive, and that the second hand market lets you pick up titles for cheap and get cash back for purchases you regret, it does mean that the developers end up getting less money and might struggle to make ends meet with their next project. This could result in a rushed or cut short production which means that an inferior product is released.

In a recent interview with Develop, co-founder of Blitz Games Studios, Andrew Oliver expressed his dismay over the situation.

“I understand why players do this, games are expensive and after a few weeks of playing you've either beaten it, or got bored of it so trading it back in to help pay for the next seems sensible when people are short of cash.”

He continued saying that, “while retail may be announcing a reasonable season, the money going back up the chain is a fraction of what it was only a few years ago. This is a much bigger problem than piracy on the main consoles.”

A bigger problem than piracy? Whether he is being over dramatic or not, it is clear that buying and selling pre-owned games are rustling feathers in places that we may not want them rustled in the long run.

I know that I’ve been banging on about this for quite a while, but I genuinely believe with all of my cognitive brain power that EA got it spot on with Mass Effect 2 and the Cerberus Network. In case you’ve been living under a rock, buried in a desert with a ball gag, ear muffs and a blindfold on, the Cerberus Network is accessed via a code you get with a retail copy of Mass Effect 2 to obtain in game content.

If you buy a copy second hand, the chances are you won’t get a valid code with it, meaning you need to go and buy one from EA if you want to enjoy the exclusive content. The system is genius as it helps the developers make customers out of those who buy second hand games. Then again, in this case, with the £10 price tag needed to access the network, it could well be better value for money to just go for a new copy.

The real winners when it comes to pre-owned games aren’t really the gamers, but the retailers. If you’ve ever walked into GAME or Gamestation and tried to trade in a game that no longer thrills you, it is very likely that they have offered you a price which is one up from them leaning over the counter and farting on you. Being offered £5 for a game that you know they will mark up and resell for £15 is just an insult and it makes me feel like some kind of man kettle, boiling my blood.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Rant: Not very stimulated

Activision certainly seem to have gotten themselves into a mess recently. Over the last month, ever since they forcibly removed the heads of Infinity Ward, one of the game publisher’s flagship developers, a huge majority of the team has also walked out after them. It certainly raises questions over the future of the studio and whether Activision can win back the support of the public that they seem to have lost over this whole debacle.

That’s not where my rant is going to settle today though, my fiery beef is not with the publisher directly, but with someone you probably know. What really grates the skin off of my knuckles are the masses of sheep that will happily throw their money into a big flaming pit and gawp at the crackling wonder of their stupidity fuelling a combine cash harvester.

Modern Warfare 2 already started taking the piss when it decided it was worth more money than every other game on the shelves. To be fair though, the game was so monstrously in demand, that retailers noticed they could make a quick buck underselling the competition and so you would probably find it a challenge to locate someone who paid the full RRP. Now, a few months after the game’s release, the Stimulus map pack comes out.

This is a full five maps tacked onto the multiplayer, with three of them being new, and two returning from the previous game. The sad thing is though that it costs over a tenner. The crushingly depressive thing that makes me question the sanity of the world however, is how popular this damn thing has come to be.

I was really hoping this would fail just to show Activision and the world that you can’t keep charging your paying customers through the nose for the same product. I thought the gaming community would be able to show some integrity and actually say ‘no’ for once. Instead, it seems like a large majority of players were more than happy to bend over and let Activision play hide the sausage to their heart’s content.

DLC is really starting to get on my nerves as it doesn’t add enough to the game to justify a price tag half of the time. I remember the days when £10 - £20 would get you an expansion pack for a game that would not be a half arsed attempt to squeeze more money from the player base, but instead a decent add-on that would breath new life and a different experience into the exhausted corpse of the original experience.

If you ask me (which I know you haven’t but I’ll say it anyway) the Stimulus map pack won’t really stimulate a great deal, as after a little while, these maps will simply get lost in map rotations, and the novelty will wear off quickly. They are just slightly new (well, two of them aren’t even that) environments to play the same game through, with nothing really added to the existing experience. This wouldn’t have bugged me in the slightest if they didn’t charge so much for it.

The trouble we have is that stupid people are more than happy to lap this up, meaning it can now be viewed as an acceptable practice in which to squeeze and strain money from loyal, paying customers in a fashion which is similar to twisting a wet tea towel to remove most of the moisture from it. I just hope this isn’t setting a trend. When I buy a game I expect to be getting a full package, not committing myself to a long term investment. This kind of thing is really bad because it starts to shard the game’s online community, something that companies like Valve take very seriously.

Not meaning to sound ridiculously old here, but I remember the good old days when maps used to be free. EA keep rising up in my imaginary rankings list of good publishers as they have said, probably as a snipe at MW2, that they will never charge for new maps for Battlefield: Bad Company 2. It’ll be interesting to see if they make good on that.

Anyway, sorry for that bit of rant which probably becomes an incoherent mess somewhere in the middle. It’s just this kind of thing makes me want to drink gallons of sea water and vomit myself into a coma in the hope that when I come around, the world makes more sense. Paying more than £10 for three new maps and two old ones is simply disgusting.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Bring co-op multiplayer back to the sofa

I remember a time when playing a game with a mate meant fighting for sofa space and pretending to be a good host by offering them drinks that you secretly hoped they would refuse because you weren’t thirsty. It meant your extra controllers actually got some fingerprints left in the dust, and by the end of the session, someone might have a sore arm or bruised ego.

Nowadays though it seems like the internet is brutally killing my fond childhood memories by moving the majority of multiplayer gaming into cyberspace, leaving sofas criminally under populated. I can’t help but think that the current state of playing online with your mates shares the same level of personal connection as leaving your children at the orphanage does. I miss not needing a microphone to speak to someone when a zombie is bludgeoning me to death with rotting limbs.

My joy really hit its peak though when I got my hands on a copy of Splinter Cell: Conviction last week and found out that the frankly brilliant co-op campaign, and the other multiplayer modes had splitscreen support. It meant that me any my brother could completely blitz through it, gleefully loving every neck snapping, double tapping, goggle wearing second.

Some of the biggest disappointments I have found in games lately have been the lack of support for local multiplayer. System Link games are no good as you need two consoles and two TVs for that, not exactly what your mate might be willing to bring over on the off chance you fancied a game together.

Mercenaries 2 was a huge disappointment in my eyes, not that it was a bad game, but because the co-op mode was solely online. Where’s the fun in running around and blowing up the world when you can’t then turn round to a mate and let him know how awesome you are, only for him to do the same thing moments later. When you choose to play a co-op game with the general public, a surprising lack of co-operation is usually on the cards, as one guy runs off thinking he knows better. Whether he does or not is irrelevant, he’ll either run off and kill everything, or charge into the distance and have his balls blown off. Either way, you don’t get the fun of working together.

This is of course not true with all games. I have had some amazing Left 4 Dead sessions where the randoms were a really joy to play with, and were promptly added to the friends list as contacts for future awesome games. I have had a huge amount of stinkers at the same time though, so it really can go either way.

The Army of Two games are also utterly brilliant in my opinion. As a singleplayer experience they are nothing too spectacular, but as a co-op shooter, they are knee rubbingly good.

I can appreciate the challenge of creating splitscreen games as developers basically have to overcome the challenge of rendering the same world twice. On the other hand though, Ubisoft have pulled it off brilliantly in Conviction, which shows just how well it can be done. I really hope that this will start to become more commonplace as I really want to get more use out of my second controller, and maybe an excuse to buy numbers three and four.

Monday, 5 April 2010

I nostalgiad all over my Xbox

I’m having a bit of a premature elderly ramble moment whilst reflecting on the recent HD remake of the N64 classic, Perfect Dark which was just released on XBLA, as I just can’t shake the feeling that they don’t make games like they used to.

On the off chance that you have had your head well and truly buried in a Playstation disk tray all of your life, Perfect Dark was the fantastic first person shooter made towards the end of the N64’s lifespan by Rare, the studio that brought us the ground shattering Goldeneye.

It’s hotly debated whether Perfect Dark is better than Bond’s much loved N64 outing, but whatever the result of that argument, there is no denying that Perfect Dark was utterly brilliant.

I mentioned it was a HD remake in the first paragraph, but it would be more accurate to call it a HD spruce up. The textures and character models are slightly nicer looking, and the controls are a lot better now that they aren’t mapped to the N64’s trident controller, but under these improvements it is essentially the same game. The AI by today’s standards is comically pants, with the enemies making no attempt to preserve their lives apart from the odd feeble roll which is executed with the grace of a dead fish flopping out of a barrel.

Despite having enemy AI that can be outwitted by a toothbrush, the game still remains highly enjoyable and quite difficult even thought it is ten years old at the core. The real genius behind this lies in the mission structure, each one being very objective driven and highly original.

The problem I find with mission driven shooters in the modern age is that they all seem to have lost a huge amount of innovation over the years. It all seems to be about killing this, blowing that up or finding a needle in a Petri dish. Objectives in most of today’s titles are interchangeable and almost look to be taken from a database of things action heroes need to do.

Perfect Dark however has you putting on disguises, disabling security, planting various bits of spy gadgetry, locating scientists and generally just really keeping you busy. At no point does it ever seem like you are doing a mammoth slog from A to B just to accomplish an objective you’ve seen before. Constantly going between multiple tasks that boast a huge variety in each mission really helps to keep the game fresh.

Unfortunately, it also makes things frustratingly hard at times and is a real barrier to the wider audience. Perhaps the reason games aren’t like this anymore is because they will lose their mass appeal if the difference between success and failure lies on such a hairpin trigger like a lot of the objectives in Perfect Dark. It is also not always abundantly clear what you need to do, so if you aren’t prepared to bumble about and backtrack, you’ll probably get quite annoyed.

For example, in one section your objective is to rendezvous with a character you started the level with in order to escape. Of course it doesn’t mention anywhere at all where you meet with them, and it becomes a tad annoying when they aren’t where you left them. Thus starts the aforementioned bumble around the level, killing anything that was lucky enough not to have run into the barrel of your gun on the initial sweep.

Not that the environments are particular huge, but it did mean however that the developers got very creative with the little space they had, hence all of the running about doing different objectives. In my personal opinion, making the player occupy their time by constantly doing something is generally much better than letting them trek five kilometres to get somewhere, only to receive a single instruction to blow up a target.

It’s why I hated Far Cry 2 so much. Yes it was a big environment that you were free to roam around, but by the half way point, I really couldn’t be arsed to travel through the jungle again just to do something that seemed awfully familiar to my last pointless amble into an enemy camp.

To all FPS dev teams out there, please take a note from Perfect Dark and give the player something else to do that is more creative than exploding, shooting or meeting some kind of entity. The current format is drier than my muesli on that day I forgot to buy the milk.