Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Game Of 2010: Limbo

I was reminded of Limbo's brilliance not through another recent playthrough, but over a conversation at that most venerable of institutions, the office Christmas party. In fact, I haven't played Limbo since launch week, such is the indelible impression it can leave on even the most jaded of gamers. Actually, that last bit isn't true.

It's beautiful monochrome aesthetic has also been held up as a sign of indie gaming's innate conservatism, and the resolutely unforgiving gameplay is considered by many, not unfairly, a little too old-school in its punishment, a touch regressive when compared to the likes of Braid.

But I fear this is missing the point. Limbo is a game of memory - the use of memory that it demands on you, the player, and pointedly the memories it leave you with once the small yet perfectly-formed experience ends. "Have you seen that game Limbo?!" my excited colleague asked. "Yes, yes I have", I replied, jumping onto the restaurant's table whilst punching the air. There wasn't another game quite like it in 2010.

You can read my original review of Limbo here.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Top 10 Games Of 2010

Whilst attempting to nail in order the ten best games I played in 2010 I realised that, for somebody who attempts, albeit sporadically, to maintain a videogames blog, I hadn't actually played that many videogames this year, or indeed enough to believe that my top 10 as it stands below would be no different were I to have enough time enough to experience everything I had wanted. Time for a deep breath, then - these are the games I actually purchased within the last twelve months, and can see sitting on my shelf (or nestled on various hard drives), but that I haven't actually got around to starting:

Gran Turismo 5 ("we might even get to play Gran Turismo 5" was the last, somewhat ironic, line from my 10 Games for 2010, part two feature way back in the first week of January)
Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days (I'm pretty sure this wouldn't have got anywhere near my top 10, but still)
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX
Joe Danger
Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode One
Sin & Punishment 2: Successor Of The Skies
Medal Of Honor
Metroid: Other M
Final Fantasy XIII
Mass Effect 2 (yes, I know this instantly invalidates the actual top 10)

(Disclaimer: I don't like to skip between games, and prefer exhausting each to completion one at a time, as opposed to grabbing successive hours on multiple titles).

This is without including any of the myriad titles which I would have liked to have found time to buy, let alone play. So the likes of Enslaved, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, Castlevania: Lords Of Shadow and Fallout: New Vegas can console themselves with the knowledge that, although Moon Witch Cartridge couldn't find time for them, plenty of other more important blogs and websites would have.

So this then is a list of my Top 10 games of the year; feel free to question why your favourite isn't there, but you probably already know the answer:

10. Halo: Reach
9. Split/Second: Velocity
8. God Of War 3 (review)
7. Heavy Rain
6. Chime

5. Rock Band 3 (review)
4. Limbo (review)
3. Super Mario Galaxy 2
2. Bayonetta
1. Red Dead Redemption (review)

I'll be covering some of the games here with a few retrospective articles over the next few weeks, whilst trying to make a dent in that aforementioned pile of unplayed gems.

Also, honorable mentions go out to: GoldenEye 007 (a reasonably successful attempt at excavating the memories of my gaming youth), BioShock 2 (Rapture here was still the star of the show), Dead Rising 2 (here's a review), Alan Wake (did many things wonderfully, but ultimately felt compromised) and Super Street Fighter 4 (even though I'm still rubbish).

Happy new year!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Deadly Premonition

Probably the last review I post before the inevitable head-scratching over year-end lists. Exciting times / where have the last twelve months gone?, etc etc.

It seems appropriate that Deadly Premonition should arrive in the same year that Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s mould-breaking television show, celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Often cited as the greatest series ever made, Twin Peaks’ heady brew of dark themes, rich symbolism and plain freakery – all wrapped up in the devices of soap opera – has been the source of inspiration for countless cultural works since. In fact, Deadly Premonition is the second videogame this year to draw its chief reference points from Laura Palmer and company, with the other being Remedy’s flawed but absorbing Alan Wake. It’s Hidetaka Suehiro’s game however that is, in terms of tapping into the spirit of Lynch, the more successful creation.

Deadly Premonition arrives on these shores on a wave of hype somewhat out of step for its extremely niche status; indeed few games could be labelled as ‘cult classics’ as soon as they arrive on shop shelves, but this is certainly one. Despite dividing critics, a lot of the reasons for this excitement – ironic or otherwise – rests on YouTube sightings and one particular review, its 10/10 rating proudly stamped to the front of the box, that heralded, quite brilliantly: “This game is so bad, it’s not just become good. It’s pretty close to perfect”.

The story sees you play as FBI agent Francis York Morgan, called to the fictional American town of Greenvale to investigate the murder of a young woman. Although the set-up is fairly conventional, it is Francis’ eccentric powers, which include the ability to deliver hilariously inappropriate dialogue with a straight face, forensically scan a crime scene, as well as have conversations with his invisible alter-ego Zach, that act as preludes to the strangeness within. The perspective of Zach, you quickly learn, is that of you as the player – but having the main protagonist break the fourth wall and address you is the least of Deadly Premonition’s idiosyncrasies.

Gameplay mechanics are built on influences as obvious as the affectionate riff on Twin Peaks is in terms of the game’s aesthetics. Survival horror has been a genre in need of a significant shake up for a while now, but even when that day comes there will always be titles like Deadly Premonition, whose set-up and rigid approach to exposition recalls the Silent Hill series, while the combat takes a leaf out of Resident Evil 4’s book, using an over-the-shoulder perspective. Like the rest of the game, it’s somewhat unrefined and, when looked at in isolation, quite poor – movement isn’t particularly smooth, the results lack gratification – but when put in context of the overall game you can’t help but feel that theses design decisions are all intentional.

It’s this sense of intent that works in Deadly Premonition’s favour; it is, after all, far easier to make a game with poor voice acting, nonsensical narrative and bizarrely motivated characters when your actual intentions are perhaps quite the opposite, than it is to do so with a view to creating an unsettling world, imbued with a quite delicious sense of the absurd. Greenvale is certainly one such open world. There are several side-quests and tasks scattered throughout; because many of the missions are time-sensitive in a manner akin to Dead Rising, there is a freedom afforded to the player to explore the environment when the narrative takes a breather.

What may work against Deadly Premonition are all the surface details that we perhaps take for granted in other higher-budgeted, well-intentioned and overly serious productions. The visuals and use of font are frequently jarring, the lurching tone is probably just as likely to alienate players as it is to engage, and it’s very easy to lose track of just what the hell is supposed to be happening. It’s a tough game to click with, but when it does it’s great.

The somewhat boring truth is that Deadly Premonition isn’t a game that will forever shake up videogames, but neither is it one whose flaws mark it out as a failed experiment. Instead it may yet become a key game for its approach to the feel of horror videogaming; ugly, inelegant and excessively linear it may be in many places, but Deadly Premonition is also very hard to forget, and the aforementioned sense of intent on the part of the developers works in its favour. Like Twin Peaks, it’s as full of as many happy accidents and surreal edges as it is well-engineered shocks and hilarious moments, and while it can’t ever hope to match the impact of Lynch’s classic, those who take the ride will be rewarded.

You can read the original review over at D+PAD Magazine.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Rock Band 3

My original idea was to have kept a Rock Band 3 diary since the game’s launch, charting my daily exploits with this most anticipated of rhythm-action titles. Although it would have been an exceptionally tedious read, it would have also reflected the sheer breadth of the title, and all the scope for drunken party fun and hours lost to an obsessive single-player structure that the last week has entailed. For Rock Band 3 must surely rank as Harmonix’s crowning achievement, the culmination of close to ten years work of experimenting with music, visual feedback, interactivity and social gaming.

The fundamentals of gameplay remain the same of course, but it’s the small touches and impressive level of detail invested in the overall framework that lift Rock Band 3, and make it an essential purchase for those gamers with even a small interest in the series. For instance, an extension of Guitar Hero 5’s drop-in/drop-out device allows each individual player to tailor such variables as difficulty and their on-screen character on the fly, without breaking continuity. The changes aren’t back-of-box unit shifters, but the fact that you almost forget that they’ve been made suggests they work well.

The method of song selection has also improved, with a wide array of filters helping to streamline what for many will now likely be a vast library of tracks. One of the strengths of the Rock Band series has been its’ sensible approach to exporting music you already own into successive games, so with just the Rock Band 3 disc I now also have access to the music from Rock Band 2 and Lego Rock Band (which means repeat plays of Ghostbusters), not to mention the excellent DLC support.

Other tweaks to the existing Rock Band model include a revamped career mode, which now takes the form of Road Challenges bracketed loosely by genre in a manner not unlike that used by the most recent Guitar Hero game, Warriors Of Rock (just without the hilarious sub-Games Workshop narrative and, sadly, Rush). As with other areas of Rock Band 3, the Road Challenges have been designed to encourage you to play the game in different ways, and help you unlock one of the very many career goals available. It’s an engaging approach to what is already a very addictive game. Additionally, because your band follows you from these aforementioned challenges to the multiplayer, there’s a pleasing self-contained cohesion to the whole experience.

All these amendments, as well as the ones not discussed at length in this review – such as the ability to rate songs, the enhanced character customisation tools, the excellent set-list – would in themselves be enough to ensure Rock Band 3’s position as one of the best games of 2010. But Harmonix understand that in these tough times for the genre which they had a significant part in creating, ‘mere’ refinement may not be enough to keep the wider audience interested. This is the point keyboards and Pro Mode step into the spotlight.

The keyboard, like the drums, has the advantage of closely replicating its real-life equivalent; there are no abstract coloured buttons to simulate the idea of playing, but actual real keys, and so their appeal – whether using the keyboard on a stand or, hilariously, as a ‘keytar’ – is instant. It’s startling how a small difference in an input device can have such an impact within the familiar template, as you learn to apply the years of playing with a plastic guitar to a new instrument. Some of the songs on Rock Band 3 don’t include keyboard tracks, while there aren’t as many as you’d expect where the keyboard takes central focus, but we anticipate this will change as further DLC is released.

Although the keyboard Pro mode is playable via the standard peripheral, it’s the guitar-based section that has been the subject of keen interest ever since it was announced that Rock Band 3 would, budget and time willing, let you play along using a stringed instrument. The concept is the perfect antidote to every guitar bore who insists that you might as well learn to play a real guitar instead of messing around with a plastic one, but it’s one that we were unfortunately unable to test ourselves as a) Pro guitars aren’t released in the UK until later in 2010 and b) we’re poor. Every report we’ve read about the Pro mode though has been glowing, and the fine work Harmonix have done elsewhere suggest that it really is the mould-breaker we had hoped it would be. Amusingly one of the Pro mode-related trophies, ‘Play A Real Guitar Already!’, is awarded for playing The Hardest Button To Button on Pro guitar (The White Stripes’ Jack White was one of the most vocal aforementioned music bores, who in 2009 said: “It’s depressing to have a label come and tell you that Guitar Hero is how kids are learning about music and experiencing music”).

Even taking Pro mode out of the equation, Rock Band 3 is still an incredible package of almost limitless depth. From playing online one night to jamming with a room full of friends another, from mastering that tricky guitar solo to taking your first Pro keyboard lessons, from naming your band ‘Aids LOL’ to realising that wasn’t the wisest idea; there is so much to do here that I could conceivably still write that fabled Rock Band 3 diary and end up doing something new and different with the game every single day. It wouldn’t exactly be a riveting read, but it would be the most fun I’ll have had with gaming in ages. Still nobody does this better than Harmonix, and with Rock Band 3 they are at the top of their game.

This review of Rock Band 3 was originally published by D+PAD Magazine, link.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Guitar Hero: Warriors Of Rock

If 2009 was the year in which the music game threatened to collapse in on itself through oversaturation (Beatles Rock Band, Lego Rock Band, Band Hero, Guitar Hero 5 and – deep breath – Guitar Hero Van Halen all launched within a mere three month period) then 2010 could prove to be something of a revitalising, watershed moment for the genre/mini-industry. Similar to the annual battle between Pro Evolution and FIFA, with their new games both Harmonix and Activision’s axe-wielding franchises seem to have found their niches – both are now diametrically opposed in philosophy, both undeniably successful in their approach.

While Rock Band 3 forges ahead with the dizzying prospect of a Pro mode and new keyboard peripheral, Guitar Hero has been continually refining – as well as adding to – its core mechanics to a point where this latest title, the sixth in the core series, leaves us wondering where the franchise could possibly go next. But then we probably said that in the review of the last Guitar Hero game, such are the easy clichés of writing about videogames. Warriors Of Rock (we’ll come to those titular warriors in a bit) has learnt from recent mistakes both legal – no more Cobain singing Bon Jovi! – and musical – with the unsatisfying setlist of Guitar Hero 5 giving way to a monumental 91-track heavy list of songs that will assuage the average heavy rock obsessive, whilst still leaving enough names for the more casual fan to recognise.

Best choices include Drowning Pool’s stupidly fun/plain stupid Bodies (much beloved of Iraqi prisoners of war), Buzzcocks’ What Do I Get?, and several pleasing curveballs in the shape of The Dillinger Escape Plan, R.E.M and Phoenix to name just three. There are also the inevitable duds, particularly Nickleback’s How You Remind Me (warning: you’re forced to play this when progressing through the quest, but then your remote does have a mute button). Rush’s seven-part song cycle 2112 is perhaps the overwhelming standout; it’s the centrepiece of the aforementioned Quest Mode, and does a fine job of highlighting Warriors Of Rock’s strengths.

Indeed, it’s odd in a game – and genre – so heavily orientated towards the social experience that the Quest Mode should prove so significant, but it’s a well designed campaign that neatly deconstructs the core components of Guitar Hero one stage at a time, whilst embracing the silliness that lies at the heart of the music – the stage sets, the dress code of its most iconic singers, the ridiculous album covers – in a way that wasn’t quite achieved when all you were playing as was a small band slowly trying to make it big. The story, such as it is, involves you having to awaken each of the eight Warriors Of Rock, with the eventual aim being to form the ultimate band and take down the evil Beast by, er, playing a Megadeath medley(nope, us neither).

The one big advancement that Warriors Of Rock makes is the introduction of new special powers for each of its eight central characters. Rotten-alike British punk Warrior Johnny, for example, doles out extra stars for staying above a certain multiplier, whilst Echo Tesla awards star power for every ten-note streak. It’s an approach that helps keep the play nice and dynamic, whilst also acting as an effective introduction to all things Guitar Hero for those four gamers who haven’t played it before. Without spoiling too much, by the end of the Quest the unlocked characters powers combine to wonderfully overblown effect, and the end result is simply lots of fun.

Where Rush’s 2112 fits into all this is that it acts as the point in the story where the characters find the legendary guitar, but also hints at a future direction for the series that shares much in common with Harmonix’s beautiful Beatles videogame. Bespoke, lovingly drawn background animations and the sense of inhabiting a band’s singular vision and world, however strange, were just two of the strengths of last year’s special Rock Band, and they’re qualities present here; members of Rush even narrate the unfolding tale within this mini-epic.

Elsewhere, the full offering of Guitar Hero 5’s multiplayer and party play modes return, as do the addictive mini-challenges for each track (there’s even a challenge which uses the Quest powers). The ability to import songs from the previous two Guitar Hero games is also welcome, while the note charts have, as far as this writer can remember, never been as uniformly strong in a post-Harmonix Guitar Hero game as they are here. So, all well and predictable. But then, just as the series looks like it’s finally realising its strengths and reclaiming a lofty position in the rhythm genre, Activision have moved development duties from Warriors Of Rock makers Neversoft to Vicarious Visions, who previously handled just the Nintendo conversions. What this means for the future of the series is unclear, but it would be a shame if the fine work achieved here – as knowing as it is familiar – were to be wasted. The best Guitar Hero game yet? Oh, go on then.

Originally published by D+PAD Magazine.

Talking To Real Girls About Videogames

Z: Hello Natalie.
N: Hello!
Z: Hello…Erm, do you like videogames?
N: Love it.
Z: Really?
N: Some of them.
Z: Okay. What videogame is your favourite videogame of all time?
N: Um…Mario Kart.
Z: Which version?
N: N64.
Z: Oh really? Okay…
N: Although I love EA as well.
Z: Oh really? Are you saying that because it’s your job?
N: No. Definitely not.
Z: Definitely not. Okay. Erm, so what was your favourite part of your N64 Mario Kart experience?
N: Um, probably winning Battle every single time with Bowser.
Z: Oh really? Okay. I like Mario Kart N64 as well! Um, any other N64 games you like or…?
N: Um, Snowboard Kids, definitely.
Z: Yeah, I like that as well.
N: GoldenEye, Oddjob…
Z: I’d beat you, but…
N: We don’t know that because we haven’t played.
Z: Well, we can play so…
N: Um, okay, but let’s just agree to disagree for the minute.
Z: No, no, no, no…let’s just assume that I’d win.
N: Let’s make no assumptions at present.
Z: I think it looks like I’m going to have to invite you to my place to play GoldenEye.
N: Okay…
Z: Okay. So, does that mean we can swap numbers?
N: Yep, no problem.
Z: Okay, can I have your number please?
N: Yep, but it’s all being recorded so do you want me to just say it out loud?
Z: No, no, no…let’s, um, swap the numbers after the recording finishes…
N: Okay then, great…
Z: Fantastic, so…girls that like videogames, excellent!
N: Thank you very much.
Z: Thank you very much, cheers. Bye bye!
N: Bye!

First heard on One Life Left, episode #128, which you can listen to/download here.

You should listen to One Life Left on Resonance 104.4 (or via podcast) every week. Here is their website: http://www.onelifeleft.com/.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Eurogamer Expo 2010

Highlights from this year's Eurogamer Expo. We start with a picture of the moment I finally got the chance to play Rock Band 3 keyboards, to Devo's Whip It:

Rock Band 3

The decision to place the standard five coloured keys in amongst the rest of the Pro keyboard initially felt a little odd, so my first play didn't feel as intuitive as it perhaps would have if given a keyboard designed in a more traditional Rock Band style (though perhaps five big coloured buttons on a keyboard-shaped peripheral would look a little too much like something from Fisher Price). That said, it's startling how such a small difference in gameplay can have such a thrilling impact within the familiar template. Pro mode, for both guitar and keys, also looked as daunting as it should, and if seen through to its potential will transform the Rock Band experience, effectively creating two separate games. I wouldn't hold my breath for keyboard parts to be added to tracks from The Beatles Rock Band, as welcome as that would be, but otherwise this is looking like the definitive social gaming experience for late 2010, Kinect and Move be damned.

Killzone 3

Steven Ter Heide's developer session was a chance for the Killzone 3 producer to demonstrate the game's Move controls, as well as generally show off the game's visuals. Firstly, Killzone 3's use of Move looked very impressive; it was interesting to see how little movement Steven made whilst using Move, and a lot of thought appears to have gone into how to keep the experience as seamless and unobtrusive as possible (for instance, not using the Navigation Controller to throw grenades because of the problems this would cause with the camera). Latter-day Wii FPS have shown how effective this set-up can be for console, and Killzone 3 should be the best implementation yet. Secondly, Killzone 3's visuals are stunning. It's the little environmental details that stood out in yesterday's presentation, like the lens flare shining through a boat window, or the perpetual snow flakes obscuring your vision. With this and LittleBigPlanet 2, Sony have an extremely strong start to 2011.

Yuji Naka

Yuji Naka is something of a legend, so his developer session on Saturday afternoon was something of a high point. He's also known as the guy who made Sonic The Hedgehog, something he seems to be reminded about at every opportunity. Ostensibly in attendance to present his new game, Ivy The Kiwi?, it was of course fascinating to hear him (well, via a translator) discuss 2D gaming, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, his favourite Sonic game, and the genesis for his latest title. So, in order the answers were:

- "2D still has many more things to do"
- "It was actually my idea. I approached Nintendo...I always thought it would be fascinating (to have both characters in the same game).
- The first Sonic The Hedgehog game.
- The birth of his first child.

The trailer for Ivy The Kiwi? - yes, the '?' is intentional - doesn't reveal much in the way of varied gaming mechanics, but the gameplay's central focus, which sees you draw vines on screen to propel Ivy through the levels, looks as disorientating as it does tricky, and potentially ripe for drawing out high-score obsessives. Here's the trailer:

The finale, a hall-wide game of Rock-Paper-Scissors in which the prize were signed Ivy The Kiwi? picture books, was also, outside of Rock Band 3, the most fun I had playing a game during the whole event.

Other highlights:

Playing MotorStorm Apocalypse in 3D, despite not actually being able to see the 3D because the special Sony glasses wouldn't fit over my normal pair (this is why the 3DS is a good idea); Medal of Honor online (sans Taliban); inFAMOUS 2 (looking very dynamic); and losing to my friend on Move Table Tennis, from Sports Champions, by a humilating scoreline of 7-2 (excuse: he's already something of an expert, but it was the first time I had played).

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Dead Rising 2

A machete and a broom. A tin bucket and a power drill. A wheelchair and a mounted machine gun. The ability to combine weapons with your average everyday housing implements is one key way in which Dead Rising 2 attempts to differentiate itself from its predecessor, the original zombie massacre simulation of 2006. In many ways this much-touted new feature is symptomatic of Dead Rising 2 as a whole – on one hand it’s a playground purpose-built for inconsequential carnage, in the manner of the very best sandboxes, whilst on the other hand it’s a game without any freedom in the traditional sense, a game in which, for all its generosity with regards to player choice, ultimately leaves you in doubt as to who the real drivers of this experience are.

Arguably this is Dead Rising 2’s biggest success. As much as Dead Rising’s unceasing countdown and single-save option drew detractors, it also helped the game firmly imprint an atmosphere of impending catastrophe upon the player, lending the events on-screen a distinct urgency. By not listening to these criticisms to any great degree, Canadian-based developers Blue Castle Games have ensured that the sequel maintains this tradition, ensuring cohesion between the motivations of protagonist Chuck Greene and your actual style of play throughout. There are few games in which the juggling of objectives feels as important as it does here, where even the central story missions can be discarded or accidentally missed without halting the game entirely. Do you risk fighting a path to the lone survivor on a golf course and all the rewards that entails, even though your daughter Katey needs another dose of Zombrex in the next two hours to suppress her infection? Even Grand Theft Auto IV wasn’t as bold as to countenance leaving central narrative threads hanging, or have entire boss fights and missions disappear completely. Played in a certain way Dead Rising 2 is a compelling, nicely ridiculous, tale of paternal anxiety and media-based conspiracy. Played in the opposite way it’s audaciously freeform given the work invested in characters and situations elsewhere; the only true framework is the in-game 72 hours time limit before the military arrive, a deadline that puts a leash on the sprawling feel of other similar open-world titles, whilst still retaining that tangible momentum the main story provides.

This story centres on former motorcross champion Chuck Greene, who arrives in the airless Dubai-like Fortune City, “America’s newest gambling paradise”, to compete in a gameshow entitled Terror Is Reality. From the same satiric mould as Smash T.V and MadWorld before it, TIR dares the contestants to prevail in various zombie-related score challenges to win big money. It’s after one TIR show that another of those pesky zombie outbreaks begins, starting the familiar 72 hour countdown.

TIR not only serves the in-game fiction – Chuck needs the money to buy the vital Zombrex drug for his daughter – but it also acts as a hub for online multiplayer that feeds directly back into the main game. The mini-games that make up online Terror Is Reality, a gladiatorial tussle between four people, may lack refinement and feel a little rushed, but this matters little given their off-centre position in the context of the entire game. Each tournament lasts barely ten minutes, the loose mechanics keep things fairly even, it’s a laugh, and the end reward for coming first can be close to $100,000, which is very generous given the scant investment of time and the fact that – this is the best bit – all winnings can be carried over to the single-player campaign mode.

The success of this campaign, Chuck’s survival for 72 hours in Fortune City, rests on such emotions as panic, confusion and pressure. As such the compromises Blue Castle Games have made on visual fidelity are the only viable route they could have taken, and it emphatically works. Dead Rising 2 would have failed were the engine not able to depict mass hordes of the undead; although there are inevitable rough edges and odd groups of identically-dressed zombies, these issues are quickly forgotten as the ticker in the bottom right of the screen constantly updates your total kills, taking over your focus and always pushing you to tackle just one last shuffling zombie. And then another. And another…

By the time you finish playing a kill total in the tens of thousands isn’t just expected, it’s practically mandatory. As well as this impressive stat, there are several other sets of numbers in the game that keep the experience addictive. The currency of Dead Rising 2’s levelling system is PP points, which are awarded for such notable uses of the sandbox as killing zombies with one of the combo weapons, saving survivors and defeating a psychopath. Eventually the PP bar will be full, and Chuck’s level will rise, with attributes such as health and speed being enhanced on a seemingly random basis. The genius twist, and one that could potentially lead to many gamers being lost within Dead Rising 2 on a perpetual Groundhog Day-style loop, is that at any point you can decide to re-start the story, and take all your experience points and increased powers with you. If any bosses or missions are proving tricky on your first playthrough, they certainly won’t be when you have extra inventory slots and a wheelchair mounted with a machine gun (did we mention this exists?) ready to call upon. Although this approach may go somewhat against the ethos of Chuck’s story galloping towards its conclusion regardless of your choices, it does help balance the rather more unforgiving aspects of Dead Rising 2’s design.

Many of the grievances with Dead Rising 2 will likely arise from gamers not convinced with its design, or perhaps unwilling to engage with the game in the manner that its meant to be played. There are issues outside of this sphere – one risible driving section, controls that are sometimes awkward and inelegant, a co-op mode that adds little whilst spoiling the air of isolation – but they fail to blunt the overwhelming positive impression. By not changing too much from the original template Blue Castle Games have ensured that Dead Rising 2 will likely elicit as divisive a response as its predecessor. Which is fine because Dead Rising 2, a bundle of contradictions with a neat line in bespoke weaponry, isn’t an easy game to love at all. Take the plunge though, and you’ll find one of 2010’s most singular, bloody-minded, and fascinating videogames.

This review was written for D+PAD Magazine.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Games writer, aged 13

This is the first ever piece of videogaming writing that I had published, a letter in the first issue of N64 Magazine, Future's much-loved independent Nintendo magazine, back in March 1997. I was 13 at the time, so the cringe-factor is at least balanced out by my age (or so I'd like to think). N64 Magazine was perhaps the most influential model of games journalism on a personal level, the entire magazine a shining example of informative yet witty writing, honesty, great design and the difficult trick of being made to feel part of a special community with both the writers and the other readers. Tragically I threw my entire collection out a few years ago - bar this first issue and issue 5, in which I also got my name in print -and have spent the last months keeping an eye on eBay to once again complete the set of 60 issues. Once I've done so I'll probably read them all again in order, as sad as that might sound, as well as putting pen to paper and discussing what made N64 Magazine so special. But that's for another time, and another blog post. Having just turned 27, and about to start living away from my parents, it feels like an appropriate time to return to where my obsession with videogames - and, in a way, writing about videogames - began.

N64 Magazine Editor replied:

And, moreover, you just plug in the cart and switch on the N64 and it works. No fiddling with control panels and AUTOEXEC.BAT files. No polishing of CDs with your grubby sleeve. No screens full of incomprehensible error messages. No having to restart the entire machine in a slightly different graphics mode. It's bliss.

Every letter printed was supposed to receive a prized N64 Magazine badge, but mine never arrived.

And this is the game - of all the wonderful games that the N64 played host to - that I had to talk about. Hexen 64:

I've followed the progress of the N64 since the days of Project Reality, and over the years I've learnt to appreciate what is, as you so rightly say, "the pinnacle of mankind's gaming achievements in the late 20th century". It's just so radically different to any other console available, it really is kind of scary.
Take a game like Hexen 64. On the Saturn it runs quite smoothly, with graphics similar to the PC original. Now look at the same game on the N64. The graphics have improved - there's no pixellation, for instance - it runs smoother than the PC version, and such is the superior power of the machine, it even manages to create a four-player split-screen death match, with all the above features still intact.
It's when you make comparisons like this that you really recognise the way this one machine will change the world of video games forever. And don't worry - it will.
Zoheir Beig, South Harrow

Saturday, 21 August 2010

We Sing Encore

If you’re the sort of person, like this writer, for whom karaoke is an exercise in extreme humiliation when in a public environment, but a quietly transcendent activity in more private confines, then the rise of karaoke videogaming – not to mention plush Japanese-style booths like those found in Lucky Voice – will have come as a godsend. We Sing Encore, the follow-up to last year’s successful We Sing, is the latest console-based interpretation of this most alcohol-dependent of pursuits; it may not have the most radical of approaches, but the job in hand is executed well nonetheless.

The basic premise doesn’t quite require the levels of explanation as demonstrated by our recent Demon’s Souls review, but for the sake of word count we’ll quickly recap: songs are sung along to, points are earned, winners crowned, with losers made to down punishing shots of Tequila. This won’t be the last time that alcohol is mentioned; it takes a lot, after all, to forget just how bad at singing we are. Fortunately We Sing Encore even includes singing lessons, more on which later.

The game’s interface is cheap and cheerful, especially when compared to the artful minimalism of SingStar or the colour and dazzle of Lips; lyrics appear at the bottom of the screen, while the pitch bar occupies the middle. There’s also something called a ‘sung pitch bar’ that highlights how much lower or higher your vocals need to be whenever you stray from the correct pitch. It’s a reasonably serviceable system, albeit one which lacks personality. All the features that you’d expect are present – the ability to play shortened versions of each track, or a true karaoke mode in which the demands of matching the correct vocal are removed – but they’re present because that’s what karaoke videogames are supposed to offer. There’s no overriding philosophy to We Sing apart from singing – this is of course perfectly fine, but a bit of the invention of the other famous karaoke games wouldn’t have gone amiss either. In all fairness there are quite a few multiplayer options (our favourite being the game in which the winner is the first to 5000 points), but nothing to enable Nordic Games to stand alongside the likes of iNiS and London Studio.

Thankfully the most important factor to determine We Sing Encore’s success – the actual singing – works. We know this because our attempts at singing Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’, or indeed most of the tracks that weren’t ‘Three Lions ‘98’, were regularly rated as ‘awful’. Another point of interest is that We Sing Encore, like its predecessor, supports four microphones simultaneously, a feature that comes into its own with friends. And, er, alcohol.

There are two features in We Sing Encore worth highlighting. One is the system of awards that are available to the player. Unlocked for everything from singing every song and reaching high scores to picking the developer’s favourite background, these achievements help give structure to a solo mode that, in a party-orientated karaoke game, sticks out like that ginger one from Girls Aloud. Then there are the aforementioned singing lessons. They grow in complexity, from holding one note at the beginning to spanning a large variety of notes in one breath; how useful they are is debatable, but they are interesting in showing a glimpse of how sight-based singing may be taught, as well as hinting at just how fun (or otherwise) Rock Band 3’s forthcoming Pro mode really will be.

Because We Sing Encore doesn’t have the luxury of downloadable content to bolster the on-disc track selection (or even, given the Wii’s limited memory capabilities, an option to transfer over songs from the first game), it’s feasible to see the game’s appeal diminish quicker than similar music titles. The 40 included tracks veer wildly from the familiar staples (Gloria Gaynor, Lou Bega, Soft Cell, Elton John and The Proclaimers) to a depressing amount of more recent mind-numbingly awful pop (N-Dubz, Pixie Lott, The Saturdays and Florence + The Machine soundtracking the party from hell). That said, there are also some excellent (relatively) contemporary selections (Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Robyn) and two out-and-out slices of genius (S Club 7’s ‘Don’t Stop Movin’ and The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’), so it all balances out.

Nordic Games are undoubtedly exploiting a huge gap in the Wii’s catalogue with the We Sing series, without making the most of the host hardware. Whilst their sole focus on Nintendo’s console may hinge partly on shirking from the direct competition that would greet them on both Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, there’s also little doubt that they have gone about their task with a keen understanding of the Wii demographic. And no, we don’t know why they didn’t just call it Wii Sing either.

This review was written for, and published by, D+PAD Magazine.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

EDGE 200 - #108, Tetris

Prestigious UK-based gaming magazine EDGE celebrated their 200th issue last year with the world's first split run of 200 different magazine covers. Only 200 editions of each of the 199 images (plus a subscriber-only LittleBigPlanet cover) were issued; I ended up getting an original 80s OutRun cover. Even better, they released a limited postcard set of all 200 covers to new subscribers, which I couldn't resist. Now I've played my fair share of games, but with so little time and a semblance of a social life to also try and manage, there are many titles that have passed me by. To make up for this I'm using the postcard set as a framework, and am going to try and play through all (or as many as is possible) of the games featured in the list of 200 that I have yet to experience. The order I get through them is random, but it'll be interesting (and hopefully fun). However there aren't actually 200 individual games, which will make the task slightly easier (some games run across several postcards - Final Fantasy VI has four images to its name, for example).

For a full list of the EDGE 200 images click here.

Name: Tetris DS
Developer: Nintendo

"But really, to understand puzzle games you only need one word: Tetris" - Steven Poole.

I, like many gamers and non-gamers alike, have of course spent many hours of my life transfixed by Alexei Pajitnov's masterpiece of design. The Nintendo Game Boy Tetris, despite the plethora of variants, remains the definitive version. Not just for aesthetic reasons (though Tetris will always, to my eyes, be a game coloured in various shades of grey), but because Nintendo's inspired decision to bundle the game with the console prefigured their appropriation of such 'non-traditional' software as Brain Training for the Nintendo DS, to similarly stratospheric levels of success, some 16 years later. In 1992 alone Nintendo sold 32million Game Boys - virtually an entire generation was raised on this epic of raining blocks.

So it's somewhat apt that in 2006 Nintendo released, for their latest world-conquering portable console, what is now commonly regarded as one of the best versions of Tetris - handheld or otherwise - since that seminal 1989 'original'. It's this version of Tetris that I write about here; Tetris DS may not perfectly fit this feature's criteria - playing games as yet undiscovered, according to the framework of EDGE's special 200th issue postcards - but it feels fresh. Which, for a game so ingrained in our psyches, is quite some compliment.

The standard Marathon mode embodies the game's winning 8-bit spirit. As you play Tetris on the bottom screen, scenarios based on Super Mario Bros play out in parallel on the top; starting from the idyllic World 1-1 of green hills and ? blocks, progress in accumulating lines sees Mario venture further into his own game. By the time you're pushing in excess of 100 lines, Mario has made his way into the depths of Bowser's Castle. The speed at this point is frantic, the music recognisable as that which plays when the timer in Mario drops to below 100. Stop to think about the way Nintendo have extracted such natural synergy from two of its biggest properties, and you realise that no other developer can play on nostalgia and quotation with quite the same impact. It's also very very addictive, but then with Tetris that should go without saying.

But Tetris DS's genius is that the extra modes that surround this core game are crafted with an intelligence that not only make the most of the unique host hardware, but they actually make you think about Tetris as a game in new ways. Push Mode, for example, could only exist on DS. In this game type you have to make two or more lines simultaneously on the top screen to push the field of blocks further down into your opponent's bottom screen. It's basically Tetris tug-of-war, in which you're allowed to use double the standard play area, and where considerations of depth and the necessity of a base upon which to build lines becomes crucial. Touch Mode uses the touch screen, and here the emphasis is on exploiting space, as you drag the pre-stacked blocks to fill gaps, create lines and therefore decrease the tower's height until a cage of balloons touches the ground. By taking away the pressures of time and unstoppable momentum that are hallmarks of Tetris, Touch Mode puts value on patience and asks you to analyse the relationships between the pieces, whilst subverting the entire concept: you're building lines to reach an eventual goal, whereas you could argue that pure Tetris is ultimately a futile battle in which the goal is only to fend off losing for as long as possible.

Puzzle Mode is an extension of the ethos of Touch, in which you are given a puzzle on the top screen and a limited selection of pieces (or Tetriminos, to give them their official name) on the bottom. Here the focus on the relationship between space and shape is given an extra nuance, in that every piece you use from the limited options available must clear a line. Not just that, but the puzzle screen must be cleared by using all the Tetriminos on offer. Puzzle Mode again removes the constraints of time, and also allows you to consider the way shapes relate to each other. For example, the later puzzles require a degree of forward-planning, as using unconventional Tetriminos first often helps pave the way for the remaining shapes. It's not about whether the straight line or the square can clear the lines fastest, but which will be better placed first to then allow the second move. This also makes you aware that one of the keys to getting good at Tetris is to think several steps ahead. The most instantly gratifying decision is often not the best, and by using one shape at a certain point you can often set yourself up a lot better for subsequent moves.

Of the two remaining play styles Mission (standard Tetris, albeit one where to proceed you need to complete a succession of missions such as "Clear 3 lines at once!" that are communicated via the top-screen) is a frantic if somewhat compromised take on the standard game whilst Catch is the least successful feature. In this Metroid-set mode you control a core around which squares of 4x4 need to be built, thereby detonating and earning points/clearing enemies. In itself it would be a complex take on the falling blocks mechanic, but its presence in Tetris DS feels a little out of place given the revisionist takes on the pure concept elsewhere.

By focussing on the key aspects that contribute to the magic of Tetris - spatial awareness, the pressure of time and speed, relationships between shapes, the cohesive and continuous nature of the game space - the highlights of Tetris DS extract the essence of the beautiful game, and act as de facto lessons in mastering the art of falling blocks. The design of the menu screen is cyclical, which in hindsight is perhaps intentional. Having worked through all of Tetris DS's modes (most significantly Push, Touch and Puzzle) I arrived back at the classic Marathon mode. With everything I had learnt my first play saw me almost double my previous record*, a record that - prior to exploring the rest of the game - I had spent nearly two hours trying to beat. To understand Tetris it would seem you only need one game: Tetris DS.

*For the record: Marathon, High Score: 118022, Max Level: 13.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Pulled Apart By Horses - The Crapsons

This is obviously not a music blog, etc etc. Following Mark Ronson's rather laboured appropriation of top-down Zelda for the video to Circuit Breaker, a recent foray into chiptune-based hip-hop...

...come Pulled Apart By Horses, a Leeds-based four-piece often described as "the best live band in Britain". Their self-titled debut strips all excess from the myriad styles of rock music they take inspiration from - they've been most commonly tagged as post-hardcore, which may be partly lodged in truth, despite doing them a massive disservice - and emerges as one of the heaviest, fun and quotable records of the year. It's an LP which should unite both metal obsessives and alternative music fans alike. Inevitably that's not why I'm writing about them, or why they've been bracketed with, of all people, Mark Ronson. Nope, Pulled Apart By Horses earn a mention here thanks to The Crapsons, the record's second track and a glorious tribute to Link that sounds like Blood Brothers fighting it out on the main stage at Download; all great dumb riffs and petulant screams, wrapped up in a deceptively catchy two minutes.

The song's lyrics are brilliant:

"Link has the greatest catch in the world
Despite what you heard
And every time their hero comes
They're all waiting for some revelation
And every time he drops the bomb
The power, the courage, the wisdom!"

In an interview with Drowned In Sound, singer Tom Hudson explained that: "I wrote the lyrics for it after losing my life and soul to the Zelda games. The song basically reflects on the hero 'Link's' love of fishing, fighting, power, courage and wisdom."

Amen to that. While we wait for Nintendo to adopt The Crapsons as The Skyward Sword's new title music, here's what the track sounds like:

As the people who grew up with videogaming go on to do wonderful creative things in music, books, art and film - for example, Scott Pilgrim is out next week (25th August) - these heartfelt tributes to cultures 8, 16 and 32-bit will likely become more and more frequent than they are now. Still, when they're as good (and strangely touching) as Pulled Apart By Horses are here, they'll always be worth pointing out.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Surfer Blood - Harmonix

This is obviously not a music blog, but in a tenuous link to the forthcoming Rock Band 3 here's Surfer Blood's tribute to the game's developers Harmonix. At least I think it is, what with the intentional spelling of the title, and the thinly-veiled pleas to be included in the game with such choice lines as "I won't wait around for your vaults to open / Let us in somehow" and "I won't bargain for / For your affections anymore / And I won't wait around for you to figure it out". It could also be a wry acknowledgment of the fact that music games are one of the few ways that bands, particularly those of the size of Surfer Blood, seem to make any money and gain exposure these days. Whatever; the album that Harmonix is from, Astro Coast, is one of the best guitar records of the last twelve months. They may wear their influences emphatically on their sleeves (Weezer, Pavement) but it matters little when the music is this hook-laden and classically youthful. And judging from the clip below they also look ace live:

Oh, and Rock Band 3 is out on October 29th.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Fallout 3

Fallout: New Vegas, which shifts its gaze on post-apocalyptic America from the Capital Wasteland to New Vegas, is bound to be one of the games of 2010. Aside from the expected expanse of game world, side-quests, gambling dens and the appearance of Dinky the Dinosaur (his mouth is a sniper position!), of most interest to many gamers will be the new Hardcore mode, which will realistically track such variables as healing and dehydration. According to Fallout Wiki The Vault, your character will have to eat, drink and maintain normal sleep cycles to stay alive. Not only this, but switching back to Normal difficulty whilst playing Hardcore will make it impossible to switch back again, thus preventing you from gaining that all-important trophy/achievement. Fallout: New Vegas is out on November 16th.

I reviewed the Bethesda-developed Fallout 3 for D+PAD Magazine back in 2008, and gave it the magic five red stars. You can read the original PDF-enhanced article here.

The post-apocalyptic, with its focus on survival and loneliness, has long been a ripe area for culture; recent works such as the big-budget adaptation of I Am Legend and Cormac McCarthy’s stunning, spare 2006 novel The Road (with lines like “the outline of a burnt city like a black paper scrim” suggesting a possible key influence on Bethesda’s latest masterwork) presenting the world – well, America – in the days and months after a cataclysmic, mysterious occurrence. Fallout 3 slips neatly into this heritage. It is undoubtedly a game of survival and, at times, desperate loneliness; and yet it also reaches out to embrace such issues as the significance of choice and the great span of life itself. In short Fallout 3 is a game that certainly doesn’t lack ambition.

Set in 2277, at a time when the world is an “abyss of nuclear fire and radiation”, the developers have taken enough artistic license whilst still rooting the game in a recognisable environment. So amongst the vehicle carcasses, barren trees, abandoned schools – and it’s hard to overstate just how affecting the experience of trudging quietly across this devastated landscape can often be – there are computer terminals, robots and suchlike, but their design, all rusted metal and inelegant antennas, is more reminiscent of the 1940s/50s science-fiction so lovingly referenced in Mars Attacks!, than the more overtly ‘futuristic’ likes of Halo. Fallout 3’s approach is undoubtedly more realistic as a result, the use of such relatively antiquated technology as microfilm and steam engines recalling 2007’s classic BioShock, the non-Bethesda game that Fallout 3 most closely resembles.

The game that Fallout 3 will most often be compared to though is, of course, Bethesda’s previous title Oblivion. Like the fourth Elder Scrolls game, Fallout 3 is a genre unto itself: part first-person adventure, part action role-player, part enormous sandbox...the pigeonholing is potentially endless. The gameworld is what helps all these components come together, ensuring that as a player you can approach the experience as you want to without feeling forced (even though on paper a fairly linear trajectory is still followed). Not only is the so-called Capital Wasteland enormous in scale, it’s the level of detail that never ceases to amaze. From the carefully etched textures in every interior to the way many characters will have complete diaries, there is a wealth of history here that would take hours in itself to completely digest (one museum location even has descriptions for each exhibit). The ‘go anywhere, do anything’ approach is certainly no longer radical, but the precision with which everything has been put together here certainly is. As a result the sense of immersion and atmosphere is almost unparalleled.

Given this it’s understandable that Fallout 3 is a game that rewards a patient, exploratory approach. It is of course possible to speed quickly from objective to objective - and it’s to the game’s credit that such a style of play is as seamlessly accommodated as the steady almost tourist-like perspective we would recommend – but to do so would be to ignore the aforementioned detail and character invested into the remarkable surroundings. Traversing across the huge world you are as likely to come across a group of hostile raiders as you are a boy separated from his family.

These encounters often lead into sub-quests of their own, with entire new cities opening up as you take one direction instead of another. The real genius of Fallout 3 is that the focus is never lost; no matter how far from the main story thread you stray – and it’s possible to ignore it for countless hours – Bethesda have ensured that a sense of cohesion is maintained.

They do this by investing, right from the start, an importance in the player’s decisions. From the smallest verbal response to some quite significant moments that change the entire makeup of the world (which we certainly won’t spoil here), you’re left in no doubt as to the consequence of your actions. Every decision ties in with your overall existence, the world and your character so tangible you rarely remember that this is “only” a videogame. A welcome antidote to the current vogue for sub 10-hour campaigns, Fallout 3’s mastery of player motivation should be a case study for any developer looking to follow in the open world footsteps of Oblivion. The much talked-about VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, apparently) even adds a layer of innovation to the combat. Combining the careful planning of a standard turn-based RPG to the stylish dynamism of an action game, the system allows you to pause any confrontation and then target precise areas on an enemy according to the likelihood of a successful hit. The ease with which VATS slips into the player’s repertoire is testament to its success in restructuring the nature of RPG battles. Again it’s only an optional tactic, but the conventional FPS approach is intentionally too haphazard; like the third-person view it’s there for the sake of choice, albeit difficult to see anyone choosing it over the infinitely more immersive first-person view.

The wealth of content here truly is staggering. After all we haven’t even touched upon the sensible levelling system, the solid technical achievements in everything from voice acting to frame rate (facial animation is lacking somewhat, but these are
laughably minor grievances), the well-balanced range of weapons, the Pip-Boy 3000 (whose intuitive set-up makes item/quest management become second-nature)...to pick apart everything that makes Fallout 3 so superb we’d need a word count that ran into five figures.

It’s a game that begins in breathtakingly audacious fashion – again we’re staying resolutely spoiler-free – and simply doesn’t let up from that point onwards. Though it doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary, the level of artistry is so far beyond anything we’ve played recently that it almost doesn’t need to; standing uniquely in the busy Christmas schedule and indeed within 2008 as a whole, Fallout 3 is an experience to savour, a game about which every player will have their own story to tell.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Okamiden: Chiisaki Taiyo

One of the highlights of last week's Nintendo London showcase, alongside the 3DS and Wii games covered for the D+PAD feature referenced below, was the lone demo pod for the forthcoming DS-exclusive Okami sequel. In a recent interview with Official Nintendo Magazine, the game's producer Motohide Eshiro explained why Capcom opted to bring the wolf's adventures to DS, and not Playstation 3: "The distinctive feature of the Celestial Brush is just screaming out to be realised on the DS touch screen, I think it's only natural that Okamiden was designed for DS." Having finally had time with the game, it's an approach that works as well as you'd expect.

Besides, each version of Okami has seen the integral Celestial Brush mechanic – the ability to draw onto the game world – take steps forward in terms of implementation, so the move to DS is consistent as much as it's logical. The Playstation 2’s acceptable analogue sticks gave way to the Wii’s excellent use of motion-control, but it’s this DS version which inevitably makes the most sense – drawing onto the screen with the DS’s stylus is as direct and pleasing as you’d hope. There are shades of the DS Zelda games in both the use of the touch screen and the cuter aesthetic (Ōkamiden is a direct sequel to the first game, in which you play as a baby wolf), and based on the brief demo presented here – in which I had to fill in a missing bridge, as well as briefly abandon our new partner, the young boy Nushi, while trying to solve a switch puzzle – I'm confident that Okamiden: Chiisaki Taiyō will be just as involving and delightful as both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.

Fingers crossed that UK gamers also get this lavish - and frankly amazing - Japanese Special Edition.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Nintendo 3DS Hands-On

Getting to play with Nintendo's new handheld, the 3DS, so far ahead of the UK launch perhaps makes up for all these years spent writing for free. That is me in the picture below. You can see another picture of me, playing Metroid: Other M, in part 1 of D+PAD Magazine's excellent Nintendo feature here.

There can be few industry-centred moments that videogame fans cherish as much as the reveal of new hardware, not least because they happen so rarely; these first months of a console’s gestation are usually characterised by a level of anticipation and rich sense of possibility that makes all talk of third places, emotion engines and red rings of death (just kidding) sound plausible and like the future has finally arrived (this writer’s favourite console reveal was that of the Nintendo 64, and thanks to Super Mario 64 it’s perhaps the only piece of hardware that fulfilled its radical promise on day one). We only say this because the 3DS reveal had felt, until we had actually got our hands on the little miracles, just a tad underwhelming. There were several reasons for this: it was first announced through a press release two months before E3, stripping the Nintendo keynote of any major impact or surprise; Reason 2: there was no doubt that the console would work – Nintendo surely wouldn’t have discussed it otherwise – but the fact that you can’t truly comprehend its impact without holding one is, at the moment, a little frustrating. Eventually though, as we’ll discuss later, this could be the 3DS’ masterstroke. And Reason 3? Well, we want one now but probably have another eight months – at the very least(!) – to wait.

D+PAD arrives at Nintendo’s two-day London press showcase with the mentality of waking up on Christmas Day, consciously leaving the biggest present to open last. So, aware that the 3DS is just yards from where we stand, we first take eager if distracted peeks at Donkey Kong Country Returns, enjoy GoldenEye multiplayer, and marvel at Samus Aran’s Ninja Team-approved makeover, before the pull of new Nintendo hardware becomes something beyond irresistible.

In discussing the console at E3, Nintendo’s 3DS producer Hideki Konno admitted that its unique approach can only be appreciated first-hand: “Consumers can’t see the real surprise without the 3DS in front of them – cool footage isn’t enough – but yesterday I went to our booth and found consumers being surprised, saying: “Wow!””. Our first experience with the machine, watching a trailer for Resident Evil: Revelations, delivers much the same response.

The stereoscopic 3D being displayed on the handheld’s crisp high-resolution top screen is actually quite subtle (at least in the majority of ways it was being used in the demos presented, bar the contribution of Hideo Kojima), but the sense of depth and level of immersion is undeniable. What’s also impressive - and has understandably been overlooked in the clamour to herald the 3D - is that the visuals are a significant leap forward, in terms of texture and detail and impact, then what we’ve become accustomed to with the DS. Given that this is what developers have been able to create with such a new piece of hardware, we anticipate the 3DS’ graphics to approach a level that could neatly bridge the gap between that of high-end Wii titles and early PS3, if you’ll excuse the crude system for comparisons.

No other demo demonstrated these aspects, the visual quality and the 3DS’ true 3D capabilities, as well as Kojima’s aforementioned offering, Metal Gear Solid 3D Snake Eater The Naked Sample. A virtuoso demonstration of technical brilliance, we of course expected nothing less from such a shy and modest personality as the creator of Solid Snake. A seven-minute movie in which the sole interaction afforded was the ability to move the camera, the assortment of events – from Snake clinging onto a bridge, or being chased by a swarm of bees – effectively highlighted how such factors as height (the sensation of vertigo in one cliff precipice-based set-piece in particular was astonishing), depth, and the use of foregrounding will impact on the gaming experience if used as well as they were here.

The Metal Gear Solid demo was also a useful example of how much difference the 3D slider makes. An integral, not to mention sensible, part of the console, the 3D slider allows you to set the degree of the 3D effect, as well as turning it off completely. Whilst ensuring that players have the option to cushion their eyes from the effect should they need to, it will also hopefully – though probably not - rein in certain developers who might otherwise have seen the 3D as a gimmick to be exploited as lazily as the Wii’s motion-control was/is.

Two of the three playable games at the event also proved what a difference – if not in central mechanics than in an overall, intangible feel – the 3D will make. While Nintendogs + Cats (the new cats sadly not present) had a familiar design, we threw a boomerang more times than is perhaps sane, just to watch the graceful curve of its flight, while PilotWings Resort proved even more addictive, as we used our jet-pack to fly between houses to reach targets, the distance to which could be effectively calculated. This latter example also showed how dynamic the 3D will be when viewed at speed and from a conventional third/first-person perspective (Mario Kart looked similarly excellent, albeit in teasing rolling video form). The Slide Pad, the 3DS’ analogue nub, also proved an intuitive and necessary inclusion. The other playable title was Ubisoft’s Hollywood 61, but my colleague assures me it was uninspiring, while “its use of 3D felt token at best”.

There are a few minor issues. One is that the 3D effect will be lost if your vision of the screen is coming from an angle as opposed to straight-on, though this is perhaps an unavoidable result of achieving such startling results without the need for glasses. Another is that the 3DS, despite having a touch screen in the same place as the DS, may force a change in the approach towards interface than that taken by many ‘traditional’ DS games such as Animal Crossing, because of the 3D screen. For example, whereas the original Nintendogs had you directly petting and cleaning your pet with a stylus, here we were touching a silhouette of our dog as seen in the top screen. Will there be a loss of the tactile feel so well communicated in such games as Trauma Centre? And even if there is, does it really matter? After all, even after such a relatively short hands-on time with the 3DS it’s clear that it’s approach to play is markedly different to that of the DS.

Other features, such as the ability to view 3D movies, showed promise thanks to an impressive trailer for a new Zack Snyder film about owls, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (the film itself looked awful, but the transition of a 3D film to the 3DS was laudable). The 3D camera will also no doubt impress once the inevitable perspective-distorting assortment of lenses is set. Despite such an intimidating feature set though, our thoughts keep returning to the games – those we want to play again, those we wish we could, and the delirious prospect of Ocarina Of Time 3D being a launch day title. Nintendo have earmarked September 29th as the day on which all release date and price information will be unveiled. Our wishful thinking side hopes for £160 and pre-Christmas, while the realistic part of us expects something in the region of £180 (perhaps intentionally matching the Wii’s launch price) and a launch, at least in the UK, of late-March.

So, that masterstroke: no screenshot, or video, can hope to communicate the genius of the 3DS effectively. While on paper this might be the recipe for a gaming PR disaster, there’s only one thing as powerful as actually playing the console for yourself, and it’s something that arguably helped push the Wii to the globe-conquering status it now enjoys: word-of-mouth. Once people try the 3DS they will tell others, perhaps in slack-jawed awe, that they also need to do the same, and so the ripples will begin.

A version of this article was published by D+PAD Magazine.

Saturday, 24 July 2010


Developer: Playdead
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 9.2

Limbo may be about many things: physics, the loss of innocence, a reinterpretation of recent gaming history in the style of 1920s cinema, but above and beyond all these subjects it is death – and the finality that follows - which casts its ominous shadow across the exploits of this unnamed, silhouetted and enigmatic young boy. Death is the one constant, from the child that chillingly hangs from the branches of an angularly drawn tree to your own repeated demise as you figure out how to progress deeper into the world, and it’s to Playdead’s credit that this mood is maintained from the unforgettable opening through to the heart-stopping conclusion.

Redolent of German Expressionism – which itself paved the way for Film Noir – the rich monochrome of Limbo is a striking aesthetic, made all the more effective because, as well as ensuring that the game looks unlike anything else, the way it’s used is in keeping with those movements’ philosophy. In cinema and theatre the high contrast black and white, deep shadows and abstract sets were meant to reflect loneliness, threat, sadness; Limbo’s visuals and sparse sound design work towards much the same effect. Thankfully a subtlety underpins this approach, so despite the potentially contentious on-screen subject matter, there’s never any sense of gratuity when death occurs (the “potentially contentious” aspect is the fact that the boy you play as will die often, and in all manner of ways: drowning, decapitation, being impaled on a spike, falling from a great height and landing like a rag doll...it’s a sadists’ dream).

As well as killing off eight year-olds in ever more creative ways, Limbo also does other things that most games don’t (or, in some cases, shouldn’t), like asking you to make leaps of faith, and using trial and error in the solving of puzzles that often lead to a sudden death. But the checkpoints are always fair, the solutions tantalisingly hover within the realm of logic, and after every death the screen seems to linger for just enough time for you to look at the landscape and work out what the developers are trying to hint. You could even argue that the probing, instinctual nature of the gameplay neatly mirrors that of a young boy exploring new surroundings, however hazardous and frightening they may be. These frequent deaths underline the impression that your first playthrough feels very much like the practice run for a second, smoother journey; part of Limbo’s appeal will be in taming the environment until it can be played through in its entirety, in one seamless audience-impressing hour and a bit (the Achievement for completing the game with a maximum of five deaths will likely provide 10 of the most coveted gamerpoints of this or any other year).

Limbo is ostensibly, underneath these weighty images and even weighter themes, a 2D platformer that takes inspiration from two games with similarly one-worded titles, Portal and Braid (Gabe Newell is pointedly thanked in the end credits). Like those modern classics, Limbo introduces new ideas and devices at an expertly judged rate, until what began at the start with just a simple jump button has blossomed into all manner of gravity switches, magnets, and strange neon maggots (you’ll see). While Limbo may lack Valve’s self-reflexive wit and Braid’s mind-bending devious streak, it is still a supreme example of persistent invention, with the later platforming sections in particular playing like the best Bowser castle level Nintendo never made.

The one criticism that has regularly surfaced since Limbo’s launch is that of the game’s length. At a trim three or four hours for the first playthrough it isn’t a significant investment, but very few minutes of this time are wasted. The control of mood is masterly, the visual style invites immersion, and as experiences go it’s certainly better to be this tight, to be this memorable, than risk being bloated or losing the interest of the player. Also, the aforementioned temptation to keep returning to Limbo until the game has been mastered is strong. That it achieves this not through the pursuit of meaningless surface dressing collectables but via economical storytelling and the world’s nagging atmosphere, is laudable.

“Uncertain of his Sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo” – this is the only explicit communication of story, and it exists in the dashboard menu before you’ve even started to play the game. Why the boy’s sister is missing, the origins of the world he now inhabits, and the events that have led gangs of children to form Lord Of The Flies-style hierarchies is told with such attention to minimalism that it makes Ico look like a Final Fantasy cut-scene in comparison (a slight exaggeration, but you get the point). The smaller nature of indie development has obviously helped in bringing such a vision to complete fruition; only the forthcoming The Last Guardian promises something as affecting but on an even more epic scale.

Limbo is a game about death that manages to invest the act of dying, at least in the context of gaming, with a rare impact – quite an achievement considering how often it happens. Guilt, heartbreak, shock – they’re not the standard videogame experiences, but Limbo, despite its adherence to a familiar design framework, is not like many other videogames, as richly cinematic as it is unashamedly lyrical. An instant classic.

Originally published by D+PAD Magazine: link.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Doom II (XBLA)

The original Doom, released at the end of 1993, was such a revolutionary event that the inevitable sequel could only ever really hope to evolve the template, rather than blast out further into uncharted gaming territory. This wasn’t a problem of course. Doom’s innovations were so significant – its use of technology, subject matter, FPS world design – that with it id Software earned themselves a virtual lifetime pass of goodwill. While we wouldn’t go so far as to accuse them of resting on their laurels, Doom II certainly bears the hallmarks of a young, upstart developer vindicated in their pursuit of such a radical approach.

That was in 1994, some 16(!) years ago. Doom II played today is inevitably found lacking when compared to today’s mega-budget offerings, with its original un-embellished visuals squashed into a smaller screen and the ironic perkiness of the MIDI tunes maintained, but that of course is besides the point. Whereas 4J Studios’ conversion of Perfect Dark was an effective attempt at giving Rare’s 2000 title fresh relevance, Doom II on XBLA is unashamedly focussed on preservation.

The sheer speed of movement and absence of a vertical axis will be familiar to veterans of this era, as will the maze-like non-linear nature of the levels. Though there’s a familiar feel to the play now, these are factors I was unprepared for when I started to play the similarly authentic XBLA conversion of Nazi-slaying classic Wolfenstein 3D (in my defence, having grown up without a PC for gaming, my FPS education effectively began with GoldenEye 007).

Despite the leap in what developers can now inflict on space marines, there still can’t be many games as genuinely nerve-wracking as Doom II; on the higher difficulties the ratio of enemies to ammo regularly reaches Resident Evil-like heights of panic, something compounded by the disorientating design of the levels. If the absence of signposting and often confusing array of corridors and locked doors will be a shock to most modern gamers, then the satisfying crack of a shotgun to the face of a Cyberdemon will speak to any gamer who’s ever laughed manically while killing a Brute/WWII grunt/Helghast in the name of digital justice.

Played in the right spirit Doom II is still a cracking action game. This XBLA re-release, at 800 points, represents good value for money. The generous bonuses include online multiplayer, a co-operative mode and an extra chapter entitled No Rest For The Living which fits neatly with the tone of the original. Recommended for anyone interested in discovering where the roots of contemporary FPS gaming began.

Original D+PAD Magazine review here.

EDGE 200 - #74, Mini Ninjas

Prestigious UK-based gaming magazine EDGE celebrated their 200th issue last year with the world's first split run of 200 different magazine covers. Only 200 editions of each of the 199 images (plus a subscriber-only LittleBigPlanet cover) were issued; I ended up getting an original 80s OutRun cover. Even better, they released a limited postcard set of all 200 covers to new subscribers, which I couldn't resist. Now I've played my fair share of games, but with so little time and a semblance of a social life to also try and manage, there are many titles that have passed me by. To make up for this I'm using the postcard set as a framework, and am going to try and play through all (or as many as is possible) of the games featured in the list of 200 that I have yet to experience. The order I get through them is random, but it'll be interesting (and hopefully fun). However there aren't actually 200 individual games, which will make the task slightly easier (some games run across several postcards - Final Fantasy VI has four images to its name, for example).

For a full list of the EDGE 200 images click here.

Name: Mini Ninjas
Developer: IO Interactive

Touted as a self-conscious step away from the deeply serious and 'mature' likes of the Hitman and Kane & Lynch series of games, Mini Ninjas pays a little tribute to the developer's past (well, there's a tiny focus on stealth), but is mostly an attempt at building a new franchise. The Mini Ninjas of the title, each of who have different characteristics, are gradually unlocked as you progress and should - in theory - have made for a dynamic, varied experience. In practice that isn't the case. You never really need to take control of any of the other ninjas, although Futo - fat ninja with a wooden mallet - is handy at taking down the larger enemies. So the other five characters (you start out as the youngest, Hiro), ranging from flute-wielder Suzume to Tora, who cutely thinks that he's a tiger, are ultimately cosmetic; by all means play as them, but the overall experience of Mini Ninjas doesn't change enough as a result.

Aiming squarely at the younger gamers so entranced by Traveller's Tales' excellent Lego Star Wars series, Mini Ninjas doesn't have the luxury of that game's pretty-famous license to fall back on. There's a similar emphasis on collecting things, and although the journey from village to ultimate showdown is linear, the levels are commendably open and encourage exploration, while combat is brisk, a simple two-button system of stun and attack, upon which an array of magic spells and power attacks are built. All this, coupled with the crisp storybook-style visuals, mean the opening hours fly by. This opening section is all very pleasant, and quite relaxing.

In the later sections of the game Mini Ninjas almost throws away all this goodwill - there's a boss battle against a large samurai owl that exposes how bad the camera is in situations that involve any degree of dynamism, a final castle that is tedious in the extreme and possibly the most infuriating section of any game I've played in recent months: an escape from an avalanche in which progress feels like an extreme case of trial and error. Or maybe I'm just rubbish at games.

Hopefully any sequel - and the end of the game certainly hints that Mini Ninjas 2 wouldn't be the most unlikely event - will push forward the idea of a gang of ninjas, perhaps in the form of online/offline co-op. Overall Mini Ninjas is worth playing, if only for the boss whose attack is a deadly fart.