Tuesday, 12 June 2012

E3 2012: Well that was a let down

PhotobucketE3 is over and we’ve had the weekend to reflect on the busy flurry of gaming news and trailers. I’m not alone in thinking that this year’s event was largely an unmemorable one. As I said last week, the show stealers were Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Other than that it was a lot of stuff we had seen last year, or largely unimaginative takes on several titles we’ve seen before, just with a 3 or a 4 tagged on the end.

So what was E3 2012 good for? I’m not entirely sure really, but I’m not going to write one of those rants asking about E3’s purpose and if it is necessary. I think it’s a glitzy, overly-expensive mega-venue to announce and showcase the biggest and best titles of the next year. As an attention drawing podium it can’t really get much bigger. It’s great for building hype and passion for new games during an annual spectacle that should be a treasure trove of greatness for anyone with a passing interest in games.

Unfortunately it wasn’t used in this way at all this year. Microsoft waffled on about sports and non-games related games console services and Nintendo went crazy and told us nothing we didn’t know about the Wii U last year. Sony brought more of a games focus to the table, but didn’t really shock or surprise us with anything new. I won’t lie, I’m not a big fan of Quantic Dream’s games and so Beyond: Two Souls didn’t twist my happy glands in the same way it has for a lot of other people. The demo still looked impressive though.

I feel that E3 2012 was just a massive wasted opportunity. I know that the Internet has made the world smaller and can make announcements just as big as those made on a giant show floor, but it still lacks the wow factor that a big event like E3 can convey. If the game giants like Nintendo and Microsoft aren’t going to utilise opportunities such as E3 to drop bombshells of awe and spectacle, should they even bother attending such events? Nintendo did a really bad job this year. They basically said “The Wii U is still a thing that you will see one day and we have changed the controller slightly.” With no hint of even a price or release date, Nintendo can’t be surprised that the reception to their virtual fireworks finale was a limp as a wet crisp.

It’s around this time of year when analysts, bloggers and devs start to wheel out the old ‘do we really need E3?’ arguments. I say that we do need it because it gives us something to look forward to in terms of potentially ground shaking technological reveals in games. I just think we need to review if we actually need to have Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony in attendance if they are just going to waste time.

If Reggie Fils-Aime genuinely thought that he was presenting a strong Nintendo conference this year, I think the company needs a restructuring. It was like watching an uncle retelling Christmas cracker jokes from last year.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Salvaging the positives from E3

PhotobucketDisappointment is a word that goes hand-in-hand with the aftermath of most E3 events, and this year is no exception. With everyone’s cards on the table it was disappointing to see that the winning hand only had a high card, with nothing earth shattering coming to the surface. The big three really left me feeling hollow inside, all seemingly wasting their big opportunity to drive excitement.

Sony’s The Last of Us gameplay was great and really has me pumped for the game, but that was it. Microsoft talked about a lot of things which seem remarkably unmemorable and Nintendo had with their wondrous Nintendo Land finale that went down like a sack of meat at a vegan convention. Even though the big players introduced next to nothing, there are still a few things to be excited about.

Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs was the surprise hit of the show for me, with the gameplay demo completely stealing my interest. The seamless on-the-go hacking gameplay is completely new, incorporated into an original IP that seems to have borrowed elements from some of the best games. I really can’t wait to see more of it.

As I mentioned above, the E3 gameplay demo for The Last of Us impressed the socks and trousers off of me. The dynamic enemy reactions to protagonist Joel were quite amazing, and it also looks like the first adventure game in a while where ammo conservation and a tactical approach are a must. My only concern is that the demo didn’t make it very clear how much was scripted. The action and encounters looked a little too good and natural for it to be completely unscripted gameplay. I would love more than anything to be wrong, but I am slightly sceptical.

I don’t think the E3 CG trailer did Assassin’s Creed 3 much justice, but the gameplay Ubisoft showed off seemed very promising. It looks significantly different from past Assassin’s Creed games, but still keeps the elements that worked in previous titles. Ezio’s accent has also worn the tread off of my brain, so it’s nice to finally have a new central character.

Aside from the non-shows put on by Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, the biggest let down of E3 was Splinter Cell Blacklist. I loved Conviction and Ubisoft just needed to do more of the same. Instead, they’ve pissed away the last remnants of stealth and made it into a generic shooter clone to please the Call of Duty crowed. I’m really not happy with it. Also, Michael Ironside is gone yet Sam Fisher remains. If you’re going to cut out his voice box you might as well kill the character all together. It would have worked a lot better if they introduced a new protagonist, rather than having the same Fisher with a younger voice.

E3 is drawing to an end now, but it’s left us with a lot to think about. Namely, when does Watch Dogs come out? Will Hitman Absolution actually be good? And does Nintendo care about its fans or investors?

Saturday, 2 June 2012

E3 excitement rising

PhotobucketAs I’ve already written an E3 speculation blog this one will merely serve as my anticipation builder before the inevitable wave of disappointment and talk of wasted opportunities that will likely follow. Despite usually feeling let down by the mammoth gaming megatron E3 sets out to be, I never fail to build up excitement like a dog longing for a meat and biscuit buffet.

Snippets that have leaked so far all look promising. Well, apart from that Hitman: Absolution trailer. It was awesome cool and action pumped; exactly what the Hitman games are not about. Not in my eyes anyway, although we’ve all been guilty of equipping the pimped out assault weapons and gunning down rooms full of anything with eyes and a smile, just to vent the frustration of all the failed ‘perfect hit’ attempts. However, the E3 demo preview over at CVG has slightly restored my faith in the potential sneakiness the game will offer, so I’m really looking forward to some proper gameplay footage next week.

What I don’t understand is the over-analysis of the nuns with guns featured so prominently in the trailer. Many femme-journos and a few of their male kin have been speaking out about the over sexualisation of gunning down ladies clad in sexy leather outfits. Have these people never seen Saints Row, GTA or upcoming zombie slayer Lollipop Chainsaw? The combination of violence, boobs and skimpy attire is nothing new to any media, and this whole uproar just seems like a pointless punch thrown to stir up controversy. I bet the chauvinistic pig men that put that trailer together are laughing at the tremendous publicity hive being shaken.

Other pre E3 leaks that make my trousers rise above my ankles include the mention of Splinter Cell: Black List, Gears of War: Judgement and Star Wars 1313. While they aren’t fresh settings, the tiny information nuggets dropped thus far suggest they might be trying something new. Talking of new things though, I’m hoping for a long look into Naughty Dog’s sans-Drake adventure The Last of Us. In fact, I’d be very happy not to see the much loved Nathan Drake at E3. I’m happy to give him a break.

So with the major platform holder conferences taking place on Monday and Tuesday we’ve got a fun week ahead of us. It’s nice they coincide with the Queen’s 60 year throne shenanigan holiday days. It means a lot of us get to step away from the tangles of bunting and flag memorabilia to indulge in gaming news as it happens. Although I’m sure only the dedicated will be up for Sony’s 2 am Tuesday slot. Happy E3 everyone!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

What I want to see at E3 2012

Photobucket The biggest, sweatiest gaming convention on the planet is just around the corner, and I wouldn’t be worth my extra strong blogging salt if I didn’t spray my opinions about it before it launches on June 5. Yes, E3 will be crashing into the Los Angeles Convention Centre in just under two weeks and it could prove to be a very exciting event.

Being the alleged launch year of the Wii U, Nintendo would be missing the biggest trick in the book by not bringing it up. I imagine we’ll see the close to final designs for the console and tablet-esque pad, as well as getting a glimpse at a few of the Wii U’s launch titles. I would hope for a new F-Zero, Star Fox or Zelda to be announced but would most likely be disappointed, especially if the list of launch titles supposedly leaked by Blockbuster is anywhere near accurate.

With the Wii U on the horizon it is very likely that eyes and ears will also drift towards Microsoft and Sony for new console news with equal measures of anticipation and trepidation. Anticidation sounds like a good made-up word to describe the feeling. There have been numerous rumblings about the new consoles, what specs they might have and even the form of media they will use to play games. If either company is to draw and show a new console at this year’s E3, I’d put my new hat on Microsoft being the company to shoot first. The majority of the speculation and inaccurate closed door mumbling regarding new consoles has focussed around the next Xbox, so I imagine it is closer to the surface than another PlayStation.

My gut gets warm and fuzzy when I start to think about the possible game reveals at E3 2012. The new Splinter Cell is at the top of my list as I really loved Conviction and just want more of the same, maybe with a touch more stealth siphoned in. As for other games a really want, I think I would actually send Rare a thank you note and muffins if they announced a platform-focussed sequel to Banjo Kazooie. If not that then another Perfect Dark title will make me equally as happy. I strongly imagine this won't happen though. It’s a shame to see two great game series just left to rot.

Lastly, there’s the long list of games that have already been revealed but could do with a lot more fleshing out in terms of what we know about them. I’d like a bit more evidence that Hitman Absolution can be played with a level of sneakiness that will satisfy long term fans. Heart of the Swarm is also well overdue for a little more light to be shed on it. As an expansion pack to 2010’s StarCraft II, Blizzard sure are taking their time with it. I would love to see more of Borderlands 2 as well because it might just be my game of the year if it is anywhere near as good as the original.

Whatever happens, 2012 and 2013 look to be very excellent years for gaming. I just hope the teasers and tasters we are served in June live up to the hype bubble currently growing in my brain. I’d hate to have it popped.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

BioShock Infinite delay is probably a good thing

Photobucket Whilst it’s beyond rubbish when a game gets delayed it’s usually done with good reason to ensure the most polished product possible is let out the door, rather than a rushed mishmash that will attract hate on forums like wasps to a puddle of syrup. BioShock Infinite has been pushed back to February 2013 to be buffed into something better.

"I won't kid you: BioShock Infinite is a very big game, and we're doing things that no one has ever done in a first-person shooter” explains Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine. “We had a similar experience with the original BioShock, which was delayed several months as our original ship date drew near. Why? Because the Big Daddies weren't the Big Daddies you've since come to know and love. Because Andrew Ryan's golf club didn't have exactly the right swing. Because Rapture needed one more coat of grimy Art Deco.”

This sounds reassuring because the love, care and awesomely twisted thought that went into the original BioShock truly made it the tremendous game it was. The first few Big Daddy encounters stick in my mind like a pulsating drill arm extracting fond memories and other important wet bits. If it’s this extra time that Irrational Games need to recreate that feeling in BioShock Infinite, then I’m all for being a little more patient.

My only concern would be if the BioShock Infinite delay is to implement multiplayer, as the rumours currently circulating are saying. I know it had nothing to do with Irrational Games, but the multiplayer portion of BioShock 2 developed by Digital Extremes has really put me off the idea. I feel that the unique feel to BioShock games suits a single player experience well, but does nothing for multiplayer. The one genuinely brilliant thing introduced in BioShock 2’s multiplayer was the fully interactive hotel room that replaced a menu screen.

Maybe a multiplayer mode could work in BioShock Infinite, as zipping around on skylines chasing friends has lots of potential for roller coaster-like gun fun, but I’d want to see something more unique than the fairly standard deathmatch formula used in BioShock 2. Whatever the case, I’m sure the delay will only bring good things. It will also make the pre-Christmas games gauntlet that little bit cheaper, which is always welcome.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Black Ops 2 trailer raises the rusty bar

Photobucket Well, shortly after writing this I’ll be rummaging through my cupboards looking for a hat I don’t need so I can sprinkle it with pepper and eat it. After seeing the Black Ops 2 debut trailer, I’d be lying if I said I still stand by the sentiments made in my last Call of Duty related post where I said Black Ops 2 would probably be a rubbish rehash with nothing original. Treyarch have really gone up in my estimations and it almost seems like they secretly share my feelings about Call of Duty needing a shake-up.

Where do I begin after seeing the trailer that has rekindled my interest in the series that has fallen into a mould riddled stale formula? I think the future setting and robot dog tanks would be a good place. Leaping into 2025, Black Ops 2 looks like it will feature plenty of robot based warfare, with quadrotor drones and equally nasty ground based counterparts roaming the battlefield. It already looks more Metal Gear than Modern Warfare. I like it.

Okay, the setting isn’t super original, with Ghost Recon Future Soldier also due for release this year, but it's new to Call of Duty and does give Treyarch more creative license over equipment design. And it looks like they’ve fed that license through the original ideas machine two or three times, with the trailer featuring conventional looking weapons given a slight twist of future in their looks.

Black Ops 2 will feature a similar interrogation storyline mechanic as was used in the first Black Ops, which gives them the handy ability to jump entire continents and time periods without heavy strains on the narrative. Apparently it will revisit time periods as early as the 1980s, showcased by the horse bound sections of the trailer, which again, look to be something different.

From reading the previews this morning, it doesn’t just seem to be the setting or inclusion of horseback riding that Black Ops 2 will use to separate itself from prior entries. Treyarch look to be derailing the non-stop linear action train and introducing branching storylines that depend on whether you accomplish or fail mission objectives. If they can make these consequences big and unique enough to encourage multiple run-throughs, then I might even be happy to award Black Ops 2 and (urgh) Activision the first-person shooter crown of awesomeness this year. There’s even talk of small sandboxed areas within the campaign, something that will change-up the pacing nicely.

EA have a lot of impressing to do with Medal of Honor: Warfighter if it is to compete with Black Ops 2. From what I’ve seen of so far, Warfighter just looks to be another copy and paste job of the Modern Warfare setting, exactly what I feared Black Ops 2 would be. If Treyarch can keep mission structure as off the rails as possible, then this new setting could be enough to entice me back and bring in a new age for Call of Duty. I’d like to hope it would also encourage Infinite Ward to try something new with their next inevitable Call of Duty game. If Black Ops 2 can pull off what’s been promised, a 2013 Modern Warfare 4 would go down like a lead balloon with a basket full of elephants.

Monday, 30 April 2012

What happened to space battles?

Photobucket Something that I’m really missing in my current gen games collection is a mass scale space combat game. I mean proper large scale space battles with hundreds of combatants, whizzing around large flag ships like laser spewing flies drawn to a bloody carcass with yesterday’s dinner spilled on it. With Space Invaders being a fairly iconic ‘first game’ for lots of people, and the universal fond memories held for titles like X-Wing Vs TIE Fighter, you’d have thought a modern equivalent would have seeped out of somewhere.

Before anyone says EVE Online, I played it for five years and finally got sick of spinning my ship around on the spot. Yes, the huge battles are intense and fairly amazing, but controlling the ship feels so unsatisfying compared to something like Freelancer of Rogue Squadron. It also relies on you finding a competent group of players, and then usually waiting within that group for three hours until it can organise itself into any kind of large scale battle that lasts more than 20 seconds.

I want to be in the middle of large space battles like those seen at the end of Return of the Jedi or even the start of Revenge of the Sith. Being in control of a nippy ship dog fighting within chaos and running a gauntlet between large ships sounds like the best space flight game ever. Instead, most space games pit you against a handful of ships in a fairly sparse environment with nothing else going on. There’s hardly ever any infighting or other form of interaction between the ships that otherwise just seem to drift toward you.

The closest I’ve got to this was Star Wars Battlefront II, in which two opposing teams spawn on their faction’s capital ship and then jump into fighters to attack each other and the enemy mothership. It was so much fun and a completely different experience to any other game. The leaked footage of the canned Star Wars Battlefront III showed similar battles between surface bases and orbiting ships, which I believe could have been exactly the kind of game to fill this gap.

There must be someone out there working on such a thing. Space combat was made for portrayal in video games. I can’t help but think Mass Effect missed a trick by not letting us participate more with ship navigation and combat, especially as you spend of the game on board a ship or station. Maybe another Rogue Squadron would scratch my itch, but the Nintendo console exclusive series seemed to have missed this generation, along with so many other great games. Ah well. A man can dream.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Will a new Call of Duty offer anything new?

With the official announcement of the official announcement of the next Call of Duty title, I’m trying to bring up any optimism I can summon from my gut. I haven’t even played Modern Warfare 3 yet and the two entries previous to that failed to spark any excitement in me, just coming away as fairly average shooting galleries with exceptionally high production values. For the next CoD game to really tantalise me to the point of trouser bulging, it needs to do something different.

Rumours are flying around that the next game will be Black Ops 2, which already sets off my mediocre alarm. The first Black Ops made as much sense as a rocket propelled grapefruit and pretty much rounded off the story of the nutjob being debriefed throughout it. A continuation of the series probably means they will try and come up with another contrived twist that awkwardly juts out of the Michael Bay soldier sim it will otherwise try and convince us it is.

Set pieces have always stuck out in CoD and first appeared to be fantastic original moments that crammed all the drama of a high octane action film into a video game screen. They’re just getting boring now though, being overused and milked to the point of producing dust from the once supple udders of the great imagination cow. It has come to the point where it is easy to spot that the battle raging around you is just several explosions and a constantly respawning enemy that won’t relent until you cross an invisible threshold.

I think half the problem is that the setting for these games is now really old and overdone. Modern warfare is the new World War Two, with each new game that hands you conventional weapons feeling increasingly similar. Why not try and poke the tiniest hole in the mould and let some creativity seep through. Even jumping into a future setting gives you an excuse to design your own military hardware and not just copy and paste last year’s weapon models.

What about an alternate reality setting? Activision’s pocket devs could rewrite history to make their own version of warfare in 2012. It would be so much better than making yet another indentikit shooter that inexplicably sells millions. Well, it would be so much better in every way other than the financial risk that comes with being original these days.

I’d also argue about changing multiplayer so that it didn’t focus on idiots chasing after ego-wanking titles and ranks, but that might be asking for too much innovation in the space of one game. I’ll just try and stay open minded for Call of Duty 9. It still has until May 1 to officially disappoint me.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Do people still play online for fun?

Not that I’m trying to sound old or anything, but I thought I’d whip up the clouds of nostalgia for this post and begin it with “I remember when I was a young(er) lad”. Well, I would have done, but now that I’ve explained it the repetition would take away from the effect slightly and there is always the faint chance that I’m not remembering things correctly. But anyway, is it just me, or did online games used to be a lot more fun?

My Internet fragging days probably started with one of the many pre-1.6 versions of Counter-strike, but what really sticks in my mind is the neglected FPS multiplayer gem Command & Conquer Renegade. It had everything: multiple weapon types, selectable characters, tanks, helicopters, invisible tanks, in-game economy and a humorous ‘boink’ noise whenever you killed someone. What made it even better though was that none of your progress was persistent and everything was contained to the same 20 to 30 minute play window, starting afresh with each match.

Persistent unlock systems that Modern Warfare popularised and everyone else seemed to cannibalise have now made these games a lot more chore-like. Before, if a guy had ‘the best gun’ you could save your credits for five minutes or hunt down its spawn location so that you would be wielding the same power to exact your revenge mere moments later. Nowadays you’ll decide you want a gun someone kills you with, only to find out it is a few days of constant play away. When you finally receive it, the guy that originally killed you won’t be around, leaving you to vent your new toy at other players that don’t have the gun and thus restarting the cycle.

The pursuit of unlocks is killing online multiplayer for me. What I hate even more is the obscurely popular dick waving that prestige mode and its equivalents provide. Nobody likes it when someone jumps on voice or text chat to gloat how good they are, but apparently its now widely accepted that such things can be represented as medals and icons that press themselves up against the screen upon your demise.

I just find it sad when people discuss play schedules for their spare time around unlocking a new gun, level or skin. Surely you should be logging onto a game to have fun, not doing so to work hard at another job. It’s introduced this horrible drip-fed multiplayer DLC culture we have now, where people just run out of interest as soon as they unlock everything. I was happy when everyone had all of the toys at the start, creating a playing field that was as level as possible.

Of course this isn’t likely to ever be the case again. Not now that companies like EA have discovered people are happy to spend extra money on game unlocks. I really hope I never meet someone who is happy to pay an extra £30 to unlock everything in Battlefield 3. Such people allow the industry to screw over the customers this easily.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Loving Mass Effect 3's multiplayer

I really tried to stay away from another Mass Effect 3 related post, but it’s climbed inside my head for so many good and bad reasons. However, whatever my rampant inner fanboy may scream at Internet forums and comment fields, there’s no denying it’s an excellent game. I was especially pleased to find how good the multiplayer turned out.

Based on an abandoned Mass Effect FPS project turned third-person, it controls very similarly to the single player experience except you only have access to three powers on each class. Even though your custom character is limited compared to Shepard, you still have some fun biotic, tech and weapon combinations at your disposal to beat back the enemy waves each map throws at you and up to three other players.

My favourite aspect of the multiplayer is that it sticks two fingers up to the Call of Duty XP progression system and does its own thing. The best gear isn’t unlocked when you play for hours on end and sacrifice personal hygiene for game time, but instead is cruelly awarded at random. Instead of tying XP to gear, players buy equipment packs with in-game credits that come stuffed with random goodies.

It reminds me of my days spent collecting Pok√©mon cards, eagerly tearing open each foil pack to check for new cards. Mass Effect 3’s equipment reward system is exactly the same. Sometimes you get lucky, but most of the time you get virtually kicked in the nads for your efforts. It’s brilliant.

Unlocks that appear at certain levels in games like Call of Duty and Battlefield 3 may give you something to work towards, but they also set artificial limits and targets. Whenever I finally unlock whatever I’ve had my eye on I start to run out of drive and the game stops being interesting. Mass Effect 3’s random system always seems to spit out different rewards and doesn’t even hint at me beforehand what they might be. I like the mystery.

Once a character hits level 20 you can ‘promote’ it to the single player game, where it becomes a permanent stat that affects the (crushing, disappointingly limited) ending. That class then gets reset to level one where you can re-spec it with new abilities as you level up, whilst keeping all of the guns you have already earned.

I just hope that more games follow Mass Effect 3’s example and branch away from the unlock system that is being squeezed to death by the unrelenting annual horde of military FPS games.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

"Won't someone please think of the artists?"

I’ll just clarify now that I’m not stepping into the “Are games art?” argument here because I don’t care for the fires such a question can ignite in hearts and angry keyboard fingers. What’s really riled me is how the screams to change Mass Effect 3’s ending are being described as ‘undermining artistic integrity’. Demanding a better ending is justified in my opinion, especially with the space magic, plot hole riddled, nonsensical conclusion Bioware originally delivered.

Again, I’ll keep this one spoiler free for those who have yet to play this truly amazing game that tragically ends on a whimpering fart.

One of the challenges posed by those against the Retake Mass Effect 3 movement is that it is not our right to challenge an artist and demand they change the ending to their story because it harms artistic integrity. I’d argue that games pissed away their artistic integrity a few years ago. Games aren’t mainly made for the love of it anymore. The really sad and depressing truth is that mainstream games are made for the money.

Why do you think we are bogged down with sequels and series revivals? It’s because original ideas are risky and not guaranteed to rake in the big money. The ambiguously titled ‘indie games’ scene is going a long way to tackle the creative deficit, but we still have a long way to go until the big boys of publishing start taking serious risks.

The artistic integrity argument has particularly annoyed me because of the industry’s new favourite tack-on: downloadable content. Chunks of games that could have been included in the original release are being removed and served later for extra cash. I didn’t buy the day one From Ashes DLC for ME3. I get the impression it was meant to be in the full game but was cut and made premium content due to time restraints, even though it was ready in time for release day. Surely this should have been free content for players that purchased a new copy of the game, similar to the Zaeed character in ME2?

How can you claim artistic integrity when you are not shipping completed works of art? Did the Mona Lisa have alternative scenery people could buy to place onto their prints to expand it? Does the Venus De Milo have ports for clip-on arms to finish the unfinished work? To claim artistic integrity you should stick by your original work and not charge for as much additional content as possible to milk your original vision dry. Anything you add or modify should be free or significant enough to add content that can stand up as its own ‘piece of art’ and deserve a price tag.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Why end Mass Effect like that? (Spoiler free)

This is a completely spoiler free article as far as Mass Effect 3 plot details are concerned, but I will still talk about the structure of the ending, so if you want to keep yourself completely pure you may still want to look away now. You have been warned.

I finally finished Mass Effect 3 yesterday after 25 hours of shooting, talking and gathering, not to mention the 50 or so hours I put into the rest of the saga to get here. Whoever said the destination is not important but instead it’s the journey that matters must have been talking about Mass Effect 3. It has been the best journey through a closely linked trilogy I have ever played and I’m sad that it has come to an end. Well, I’m sad it came to an end like it did.

Siding with the vocal masses on forums and comment fields across the net, I think the ending was really badly done, not least because it didn’t actually make sense within the lore the series has worked so hard to establish. Unfortunately, it also went back on what the series has been all about.

At the game’s finale you are offered a choice of A, B or C to determine how the game ends. These choices take into account none of the decisions you have made throughout the game or the series. It doesn’t matter if you saved or doomed groups in the first game, or if certain characters didn’t survive your playthrough of Mass Effect 2. You are offered three choices that are independent of everything you have done on your paragon or renegade path.

What makes this even more infuriating is what Casey Hudson, the game’s director and executive producer said about Mass Effect 3’s ending in an interview earlier this year. He said: “It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.”

I got ending C if anyone is interested.

Players shouldn’t have been offered such a choice at the end. Surely the choices of their actions throughout the entirety of this space epic should have determined what sort of ending they received. We’ve been making the choices all the way through the three games that lead up to this point. Surely it all counts for something in the end.

There have been many conspiracy theories suggesting that the game hasn’t actually ended here, and there is even a prompt at the end that says something along the lines of ‘remind your wallet we’ll be releasing DLC’. Perhaps we haven’t seen the end and BioWare will redeem itself, or maybe we’re just stuffed with what we got with the end product. Either way, I know I’m not the only person who is anxious to know what BioWare’s plans for the future of Mass Effect are.

Friday, 9 March 2012

No disc drives in next Xbox

Whilst there is no concrete news about the next Xbox console (I refuse to call it the Xbox 720, that’s silly), the buzz this week suggests that Microsoft will be doing away with disc drives in their new machine. That’s according to MCV, who are saying that Microsoft has been telling its partners the news that they are going into the future sans-discs.

Personally, I’m not convinced that we will see download only consoles from the big three in the near future, as the UK’s Internet scene in some areas is only just more effective than a network of courier pigeons. This is set to improve over the next few years, but will people be happy sipping retail sized games through their potentially narrow Internet pipes?

Of course this is not a problem for some of the better developed net nations, but if it were to happen, it makes a significant push towards near constant online connectivity for gaming. I know you would only really need an Internet connection to download the games (unless they come stuffed with Big Brother DRM measures), but are enough people in a good enough position to maintain a decent net connection on their console? It will certainly upset heavy users that have a download cap or a low fair use policy with their ISP.

In all likelihood, Microsoft will still support some form of physical media for their next machine. There’s still a lot of money to be made from people who like boxes and special editions. The MCV report goes on to say that the console will have some form of interchangeable solid-state card storage, similar to that of an SD card. If this is the case then it will be interesting to see if Microsoft comes up with a new games format.

GAME will certainly be happy that they would still have something to stock on their shelves. Well, that is assuming they can still afford shelves in the future. I don’t think we are ready to push for a download only console just yet. OnLive is trying that experiment at the moment, and there is still a portion of gamers that can’t have the connection to support such a service. I’m certainly looking forward to E3 this year, where all eyes will be looking at Microsoft for a console reveal.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Staying in the GAME

It was very tempting to go with the much overused and expected ‘GAME Over’ pun for a title, but I just about managed to resist. Well, I almost did, but I still mentioned it in the top paragraph. That’s still worth half a point for making an effort to be original, right? But anyway, with the disastrous no-show of Mass Effect 3 in stores caused by a financial black hole and the possibility that such a thing might become a trend, is there a way for GAME to survive as a high street retailer?

In its current form I am not convinced that GAME can possibly stay around for much longer. Even the company directors are considering a retreat from the brick sanctuaries found lining town centres and shopping arcades. It’s easy to see where they are losing their customers. Let’s be honest, if you are tech savvy enough to navigate to my little Internet blog, you probably do most of your shopping online where you can find titles 20 per cent cheaper than you will find them in GAME.

Focussing on the chain’s problems isn’t the point of this post, but it’s obvious that the overpriced games, understocked back catalogues and rip-off trade-in prices are but a few reasons why most people tend to go elsewhere. What would it take to turn the business around and give prime location shops an edge over websites that can operate from warehouses in the darkest corners of nowhere?

One advantage of physically existing in a high traffic area is the ability to show off your products. The online domain has been slowly catching up with the amount of exposure it can output, but it still can’t quite rival the possibility of letting you play the game instantly. It might just be my memory fading into oblivion, but I seem to remember that demo units used to be a lot more prominent in shops. These days it seems like you’d be lucky to see a DS booth in the corner. Surely allowing customers to try before they buy will influence snap decisions?

Whilst demo units will take up space on the shop floor, it will be another hook to draw people from the street and into store. I realise it isn’t perfect as you will still get the bored dossers that have no intention of buying anything come in and play the games, but it still pulls in a bigger crowed of potential customers.

Introducing regular events could also draw in crowds of people. I don’t just mean launch events designed to flog the latest games and consoles, but things like Street Fighter tournaments or Call of Duty shootouts. You’d need staff dedicated (or desperate) enough to work the extra hours, but making your shop something more than a place to buy games could help develop a loyal customer base who would actually want to buy games from the business.

Game shops can survive, but they need to work out what they can offer to gamers other than just a place to buy games. They will never be able to seriously compete with the online retailers at a pure price level because they have drastically increased running costs in comparison. But there must be a plethora of advantages that are just waiting to be tapped from having control of over 500 shops across the UK. If GAME forms a proper community to engage and embrace, people might be able to justify paying slightly more for their games.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Is Nathan Drake just a little too good?

If I were a character in the Uncharted games I would go out of my way to ensure that my feet never shared a surface with Nathan Drake. Just about everything that man sets foot on crumbles and sends him hurtling to the floor. With all of the consecutive rough tumbles Mr Drake experiences, I’m fairly certain he has steel ribs or a pain tolerance higher than that of a fence post. How he has survived every cutscene and scripted scenery collapse is a mystery.

Having completed Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception over the weekend I can’t help but look back and think how slightly over the top and ridiculous it was at times. The Uncharted series has always been good at immersing the player in environmental peril, but the third outing may have pushed it a bit too far. It felt like every other chapter had dramatic and lively scenery that was desperate to shake Drake into whatever nastiness was below.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought Uncharted 3 was brilliant, but Naughty Dog seemed to over use the set pieces a little too much this time. In previous Uncharted adventures such occasions have really stuck out as highlights, but I can’t help but feel they tried to cram too much imminent danger into the third PS3 outing. I know Uncharted isn’t meant to be completely bound to realism, but it at least tries to pretend it follows the laws of physics.

To me there were a few too many near misses accompanying every action. It was always a case of leaping from the ledge as it crumbled or swinging from a pipe the second it detaches itself. It stopped feeling like Nathan Drake was really lucky, but instead that he might be some kind of thrill seeking god character descended to Earth for a cool-looking treasure hunting jolly. It might have featured this heavily in previous games, but it certainly felt more abundant in Drake’s Deception.

Despite this mild grievance it’s still a great game. It’s one of those titles with so few flaws you really have to criticise things that may seem a little petty. Although, as indicated in my last post, Uncharted 3 did seem a little more scripted and linear than the previous two games in the series. It was still enjoyable, but I wouldn’t want to relinquish any more control over Nate for the sake of making the game actions look more cinematic.

Friday, 24 February 2012

On-rails gaming: Uncharted 3 edition

Over the last several years, as games have been getting bigger and bigger, players have been granted more freedom, whether it was just a case of larger rooms to explore and navigate or entire worlds to cause havoc around. It’s generally been regarded as a great development and met with universal approval. However, a slightly disturbing trend seems to be working against such freedom recently.

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that Battlefield 3’s campaign seemed to be reversing this sense of open environments. It had all the appearances of large, open areas, but actually funnelled players down an incredibly narrow path, not leaving much need for exploration or navigational puzzles. It was basically an on rails corridor shooter with the appearance of a vast, expansive world.

Uncharted 3 is the latest offender of this, but not because of the seemingly one track path. I’m sure it must have featured in the previous Uncharted titles, but there seems to be far too much hand holding in Nate Drake’s third outing. I’m sure it’s all there to make it a more fluent and cinematic experience, but it really bugs me because so much challenge has been removed.

Leap in the vague direction of the ledge you are meant to jump to and Mr Drake will be inexplicably sucked towards it, like the conveniently placed finger grip holes are magnetised and pulling his belt buckle towards them. This can make for some incredibly weird and off-putting physics mysteries as your jump path is corrected and often extended in mid-air. It also makes it painfully obvious that control is being ripped away from your fingers to make the game easier, even on the ‘normal’ difficulty setting.

Look back to the days of Tomb Raider 2 and this all seems like madness. I remember carefully walking Ms Croft up to the edge of a platform before taking a step back to prepare for a running jump. You needed real precision to clear the majority of gaps and it was a genuine challenge. I appreciate that by today’s standards it might be a little clunky and impractical to careful line up your jumps that much, but for the game to actually correct your flight path to the necessary line seems a bit over the top.

I just hope that the new Uncharted inspired Tomb Raider game out later this year takes more notes from Lara’s previous adventures and actually retains some element of challenge with the jumping puzzles. I’m all for a little bit of assistance in terms of grab detection, but don’t take total control away from us when the perilous jumps are meant to be a challenge.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The onset of gaming fatigue

Gaming fatigue is an inconvenience that usually sets in when you get enthusiastic about a game and overplay it in a short period of time. It can be a real pain as you get half way through and then run out of steam. You then have to make the choice to try and grind through it or walk away and try something else for a while. Unfortunately both break your immersion in the world the game has worked so hard to build up.

I feel bad to admit it, but this is the hurdle I’ve come across in Skyrim. My sneaky archer character has burned through so many quests with no end in sight that everything just feels the same now. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve cheated myself and know nothing of the Elder Scrolls backstory prior to the fifth entry in the series. I’m sure the majority of what gets waffled at me has significance or glancing references to prior storylines that just sail over my newbie head.

Skyrim’s seemingly endless scope has started to work against me as I just can’t see a conclusion on the horizon. It’s a bit like building a wall to no specification, I have no idea how long or tall to make it. It’s great really, and a true achievement to have such an open game that is still crammed with plots, sub-plots and secondary sub-plots at every turn. I just don’t quite know where to go with it now the novelty has worn off.

Skyward Sword is the other game that is currently suffering from burnout. I’m having a real love hate relationship with it. I hated the opening 90 minutes, but then it opened up into something wonderful. But now (*minor spoiler alert*), I’m trying to tackle the third visit to the Silent Realm and I just can’t be bothered with it. Why oh why have Nintendo tried to fit stealth gameplay into Zelda? It’s a revisit to a game design crime that I thought the industry had outgrown. Forced stealth sections are not fun in a game that does not have stealth as a primary gameplay element.

At least Skyrim has other distractions I can entertain myself with should I get stuck on a particular quest. Skyward Sword won’t progress unless I finish this stupid, out of place sneaking segment. The pointless thing is that I’m not even stuck at this point. I’ve only had one failed attempt and have already dismissed the section because it’s not fun. I am genuinely not looking forward to returning to the game because of this. And when a game isn’t fun, what’s the point in playing it?

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Player One ReStart

Player One Upgrade may have been a more appropriate title, or maybe I could have made a joke about levelling up? Oh well, it’s done now. Player One Start has received its first ever major facelift since birth. It wasn’t that I thought my baby had grown especially hideous with age, I just thought I’d dress him up to look a bit more up-to-date and approachable.

The upgrade still isn’t finished mind you. I’m going to dig up all of my game reviews and set up an archive full of links to where they live on Critical Gamer. I’m also considering the possibility of inflicting a video blog upon the world as well, although that won’t be for a little while.

I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank your excellent self for coming to this blog and dragging your eyes along the lines of text I spray everywhere. I really appreciate your presence here and hope to repay it with more insights, ramblings and word arrangements over the next year.

And what a year it’s already shaping up to be! March could be a lost month to be honest, with SSX rearing its head March 2, Mass Effect 3 appearing March 9 and Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai on March 23. That’s a lot of time to potentially lose to the machines; awesome.

P.S. I didn’t know how to illustrate this post so I took a picture of a plush headcrab eating a teddy bear. Enjoy.

Friday, 3 February 2012

More games need to lighten up

There are very few legitimate opportunities in life where you can write the words ‘pulsating dildo machine’ in a relatively guilt free manner. So I will apologise now if I offend anyone particularly sensitive for indulging myself in this way today. It’s the literary equivalent of swimming with dolphins.

Such a phrase would seem completely out of place in a world that is rapidly filling up with overly gritty titles like Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3 and Grand Theft Auto 4. The latter game in particular took a step in the opposite direction from the cartoon-like style and tone set by previous entries in the series, such as San Andreas and Vice City.

It’s a real joy then when something completely silly and fun rears its head above the meandering waves of macho realism that seem to be dominating the mainstream gamescape. Saints Row The Third doesn’t try to be serious, realistic or macho. It just gives you a world and tells you to have fun however you want from the very start. The protagonist can be anyone you want, from a hardened gangster in a slick suit to a transvestite leather fetishist that enjoys beating things with a four foot long sex toy.

Story missions don’t see you struggle against oppressively strong antagonists who leave a wake of immeasurably bleak circumstances behind them. Instead they are over the top joy rides that see you base jumping, flying VTOL jets and even raiding a ship to steal prostitutes. This particular boat raid mission has an element of Deal or No Deal thrown in, except you are opening shipping containers with the hope of finding a trafficked lady or two.

Opening shipping containers amidst a gun fight switches up the slightly monotonous chore of gunning down waves of baddies; however things took a turn for the funny when I opened the first container only to be greeted by a pulsating dildo machine instead of my terrified prize. Saints Row The Third is punctuated with similar semi-offensive props that reinforce the mental, nonsensical and humorous tones that make the game so different and fun to play.

The unexpected presence of this grotesque gadget in the middle of my mission was enough to make me giggle and continue on, knowing I was playing a game where the random and unexpected could truly happen. Who cares if these are static events that don’t change between playthroughs? Whereas most games are disappointingly predictable in terms of random cupboard dressing, Volition seem to go out of their way to keep the unexpected constant and fun. It might not be humour to suit everyone’s taste, but the complete lack of effort to make this game straight-laced places it high above GTA4 in terms of fun.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Shut the f@*# up Zelda

A problem I find in RPG games is dialogue that can’t be skipped. This usually isn’t a problem as the lore, background information or quest details being divulged are usual interesting and can be essential. The kick comes when you’ve heard the same thing 30 times before and you just want it to end.

As you may have figured from the title, the particular incident that spurred this blogasm was in a Zelda game. It wasn’t Lady Zelda that is responsible for this particular incident, but it was a snappier title than ‘Shut the f@*# up man who runs the bamboo pole slicing mini-game in Skyward Sword’. He was frustrating me to no end.

One of the many mini-games in Skyward Sword challenges you to cut a tall bamboo pole into as many pieces as possible before it hits the ground. The game rewards random prizes based on your performance. I had my eye on a particular prize as it was the last component I needed to craft snazzy new shield.

It took me dozens of attempts to finally claim the prize I wanted, manically swinging at the bamboo pole like a samurai lumberjack on steroids. Things were made frustrating by the chirping owner of the bamboo hut who insisted on pointing out my shortcomings with each failed attempt. You are forced to watch about six windows of agonisingly slow scrolling text between each play of the game. He is more than happy to let you play multiple times, he just insists on explaining the rules every time instead of asking if you just want another go.

Skyrim has got the perfect dialogue system in place that even reflects what most people could do in real life if they didn’t want to hear what someone had to say. When a character roots you to the ground because they fancy a chat, at any moment you can press a button and just walk away from them, as if they were one of those charity vultures you meet on the street. The only thing missing is a slight sigh of disappointment as you do it. It means you aren’t forced to indulge the majority of people if you really can’t be bothered talking to them.

A way to skip repetitive dialogue can’t be hard to implement and would make some games a lot better. It makes me think how much of Skyward Sword’s reported 30 to 40 hours of game time is made up of repeated text fodder you are forced to endure. Whilst some games use cutscenes in an equally incriminating way, at least they can be used to convincingly disguise loading times. I find it very hard to believe the long winded chats with Mr Bamboo Game between sessions are really necessary to reload and restore the virtual cane tower.

Monday, 23 January 2012

What am I supposed to be doing in Skyrim?

It was inevitable that this would happen, but I’ve finally decided to sit down and write a dedicated Skyrim blog post. To be honest, anyone could write a web entry about Skyrim if they have played it for 20 minutes. Heck, play it for 20 hours and you would probably struggle to fit your experiences into a book, let alone a blog. This game is huge, bigger and more open than any other mainstream game that still provides a narrative. This opens up a problem.

If Skyrim were a building it would be a huge skyscraper, fitted with interesting architecture and thousands of corridors. There would be several lifts and staircases but they will not all have access to the same floors. Also, each individual tier of the structure would not be labelled and each room would only be marked by a number on the door, whether it was a conference room or a maintenance cupboard. Most rooms have delicious cakes in them, but occasionally you will open a door and get mauled by a tiger.

My point is that you could spend years wandering around Skyrim and not quite be sure of your main objective, destination or current risk level. Things start off deceptively simple, but before long your quest list will have 12 entries in it and you will no longer be sure which one is the main objective. A game like this with seemingly endless and mostly fun tasks is a brilliant thing, but I’ve started to lose track.

Every time I set out to accomplish a task, I’ll talk to someone on the way or investigate a cave I pass and then suddenly realise my quest list has grown even more than before. You come across new jobs, favours and adventures by accident and your journal starts to look as bulky as a phone book rather than a convenient, wallet-sized to-do list.

I have no idea which quest entry is the main story now as I continue to work my way through Skyrim as everybody’s go-to guy. Sorting through your quests is like picking through a ball of cotton filled with broken glass. Trying to separate the main thread from the others that are perfectly woven around it is painful.

This may sound like a complaint, but it really isn’t. Skyrim is the game that keeps on giving, continuously surprising me with random, yet seemingly deep content that is hidden in the strangest of places. It makes me curious about how much I haven’t found yet in my 35 hours of play. It also makes me wonder if I’ll ever get to see it through another character’s eyes or if I’m just doomed to stalk around as a sneaky archer-type forever. How do you decide when you’ve completed the game?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Trolling and lolling

Griefing happens a lot in competitive multiplayer games. Whether it’s the enemy team spawn killing or friendlies destroying the plane you want to use, all gamers will eventually experience something that inconveniences them for the sake of another person’s entertainment. Yes, it’s frustrating, but have you seen how fun it can be?

Before I go any further I will make it clear that I am not endorsing spawn killing or destroying friendly equipment. That’s mean and doesn’t make the game fun for a lot of people. However, doing things like this in co-op games with friends adds an entirely new play dimension.

This week I finally got around to reviewing the very brilliant Trine 2 for Critical Gamer. It’s a fantastic game, made even better in my eyes for providing local multiplayer on a PC with support for multiple mice and keyboards. This aspect alone definitely made it one of the more entertaining reviews I have had to do lately.

For those not familiar with the game, the wizard character is capable of materialising cubes and planks to help negotiate tricky areas. These can also be used to block the jumping path of a fellow teammate, box them into a corner or direct them into danger. The real beauty of the game though is how naturally these griefing opportunities appear.

You will accidently knock friends off of ledges, put a cube out of place or delete essential platforms that cause everyone to drop into whatever hazardous chasm you are trying to negotiate. The infinite lives and regular checkpoint system just mean you all respawn just before this obstacle with no ill feelings and still giggling at the hilarious logistics cock up.

Portal 2 is another co-op adventure crammed with such lol-worthy pitfalls. The chaotic nature of four portals flinging robots and matter around an arena opens up several particularly evil applications. It’s funny to drop a portal at your partner’s feet and watch them plummet into whatever trap you set the exit portal over. What’s even funnier is when they respawn metres away and then do something similar to you. A random trap arena specifically made to kill your partner in various ways should definitely become an official map.

I do like to eventually get around to completing objectives, but when you can poke light-hearted fun at each other like this it just makes games better. Of course, this is preferably done with mates rather than random people you meet online, but I won’t say the infuriated ranting of random people isn’t funny. It’s just a bit mean after the third time.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Skyward Sword needs sharpening

Working through the pile of Christmas games is quite fun, and almost makes the delay on acquiring all major release from October onwards worthwhile. I hit somewhat of a brick wall this year however, with Skyrim, Arkham City and Skyward Sword falling out of my Christmas tree. Where do you begin with a mouth-watering digital buffet like that?

I managed to have a quick sample of each on Christmas Day and then carefully allocated my time between the gripping games on Boxing Day. I was completely swept away by Arkham City and Skyrim, but I found Skyward Sword to be utterly dull and uninspiring.

How can that be? It’s a Zelda game for goodness sake. Having such thoughts made me feel like a heretic. It was almost on par with defecating into a Bible and mashing the pages together. Not liking a Zelda game is just wrong.

It wasn’t until I had completed Arkham City and that my computer broke that I finally decided to give Skyward Sword another whirl. I’m very glad I did because I can finally see that it is a brilliant game. But what caused my initial upset?

The first 90 minutes of Link’s latest adventure are easily the worst opening sections of any Zelda title. It failed to suck me in and I found it incredibly boring. There was nothing to get excited about. You are basically just guiding a young boy around an island looking for his lost bird that the school bully nicked. No monsters, no magical peril, just a mundane task that made me feel as heroic as a shelf stacker at Tescos.

Nintendo really messed up as far as I’m concerned, especially when the game was released amongst such gripping and immersive titles like Skyrim and Arkham City. These lowered you into each game world with exciting scene setters and plenty of flashy violence. Not a drawn out quest for a lost pet.

I’m glad I am over that tutorial hump. If my computer behaved over the festive period then I still might not have sampled the delights that Skyward Sword holds after its initial cock up. My PC is once again functional now though. How the heck am I meant to juggle two epic adventure games? Not to mention that Deadshot and the Riddler are still loose in Arkham City…

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

(Mostly) Happy New Year

Happy New Year everyone! I can only hope that you all have had more luck than me so far this year, and that your Christmas was lovely and gamey. I could very easily have gone on about how great Skyrim is, seeing as I finally got to play it over Christmas, only I have been struck down by the one major drawback of PC gaming. My computer is out of action.

It’s really frustrating being a PC gamer at times. People will moan about poor console ports or not getting great games like Red Dead Redemption on our monolithic desk towers of computing power, but the PC’s temperamental nature is by far the biggest source of frustration.

I first knew something was wrong as I was playing Skyrim. I’m not a massive computer expert, but I think I had good reason to panic when I discovered that dripping noise wasn’t coming from the game, but from within my computer case. Fortunately there was not a puddle of coolant busily breaking my graphics card, but the pump in the cooler that keeps my CPU alive has failed. Not the biggest disaster in the world, but it still knocks my PC out of action until I get it replaced.

At least this gives me an excuse to step away from Skyrim and try some of my other Christmas games. I’ve logged about 16 hours in the latest Elder Scrolls title that has completely sucked me into its amazing world of dragons and bandits. As with my previous adventures into RPG titles, I’ve decided to be a massive bastard wherever possible. I’m finding this slightly harder in Skyrim as most decisions seem to be a neutral grey, rather than the Mass Effect style obvious black and white options.

So far I’ve resorted to pickpocketing everyone I meet, but hope to graduate to random acts of aggression soon. Well, I say soon. I will definitely jump right back into the game as soon as I receive the new cooling component for my computer’s brain.

So yeah, Happy New Year. May 2012 not bring random destruction to your home consoles, PCs or other consumer electronics.