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.