Monday, 25 January 2010


Developer: Vigil Games
Format: PlayStation 3

Score: 6.1

When both inFamous and Prototype were released within weeks of each other last year it was considered a freak of scheduling, two open-world adventures remarkably similar in tone, structure and even the syllables in their name just happening to share the same development cycles. The start of 2010 brings with it another such clash, but one that owes less to coincidence, and more to the paucity of real inspiration that afflicts the third-person brawler (Bayonetta seemingly the exception that proves the rule).

Both the forthcoming Dante’s Inferno and THQ/Vigil Games’ Darksiders also betray a significant debt to a certain Sony franchise about to make its long-awaited next-generation bow. In this context playing Darksiders feels like one restless prelude, a digestible starter likely to be quickly overshadowed when the main course, an HD Kratos, finally emerges in March. It’s a game that, frankly, only has two months in which to cling onto anything resembling relevance; a pretty depressing prospect for a title that, despite its shortcomings in the innovation stakes, is clearly the work of a substantial budget and a modestly talented team.

The majority of Darksiders’ roots can be traced back to God Of War; from the satisfying physicality of the combat (in which enemies close to death can be quickly dispatched with a QTE), to the treasure chests that offer various upgrades, David Jaffe’s opus casts an obvious, not unwelcome, shadow. Even the prologue, in which lead character War battles angels in the middle of a post-apocalyptic city, nods towards the beginning of the second God Of War: in both games the player starts with maximum power, before being stripped of everything and having to start again.

Darksiders’ plot also shares a similar affection for mythology, and the relationship between Heaven and Hell. Understandably the familiar Greek stories are replaced with the battle of Armageddon, in which you play one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. If I’m honest I was lost within the opening minutes – not so much from confusion but an apathy brought on by a relentlessly hammy approach and clumsy transitions between gameplay and cut-scenes. In all fairness, whilst great lengths have been made to keep Darksiders narrative to the fore, it’s only real purpose is to serve as an excuse upon which to hang a rigid structure that is, in essence, one big fetch quest; it’s also a set-up that seems to go to great lengths to extend the experience.

For example, the game essentially uses one central hub to which you return regularly, while certain paths will be blocked by a cursed rock monster, the seal upon whom can only be lifted by completing four challenge rooms spread around the immediate vicinity. Darksiders is also surprisingly puzzle-heavy. Every door seems to have a key that needs to be found elsewhere, which doesn’t involve backtracking so much as the ability to pick your way through the labyrinthine designs of Darksiders’ levels. The aforementioned challenge rooms take the form, simultaneously, of mini-games and tutorials; they also do an excellent job at highlighting hidden depths within Darksiders’ combat system.

Whereas the first hours play would see the game easily – and fairly – dismissed as the most regressive of button-bashers, by the halfway point the potential has unfurled for something a whole lot more: switching between weapons and sidearms in the middle of an attack, ably supported by all manner of spells and Wrath powers, demonstrates a fluency of fighting that stands up to – without quite matching – the third Devil May Cry. Most weapons collect their own experience points, and it’s this aspect, coupled with the endless switching of abilities, that sees Darksiders enter the territory of an action-RPG.

Visually the mixture of stock grotesque fantasy creations and real-world environments recalls Ninja Gaiden 2, albeit with an identifiably Western approach. There are a few technical rough edges (slowdown, clipping and the unfortunate moment my character became suspended in mid-air), but while it’s rarely arresting or unique, the world of Darksiders is solidly realised, with a cohesion that ensures the journey from one area to another feels organic.

While Darksiders is an undeniably confident package, it’s a shame the developers have fallen back on a succession of barely disguised facsimiles from proven classics to fill in the mechanics of their game. I get the impression that if just a little of this talent was directed at carving a unique niche for Darksiders, then the game would flourish. As it is, the journey that War takes is fun, sporadically challenging and definitely worth playing, but the overwhelming familiarity secludes any deeper engagement. Over to Dante’s Inferno…

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


Only at the start of this week Sega of America's development director Constantine Hantzopoulos cast doubt on the company's plans to release further mature-rated Wii titles, following the poor sales of both The Conduit and MadWorld, with the admission: "Are we going to do more mature titles for the Wii? Probably not. It was a space that was open and we took a gamble on it. It's like, 'wow, there's no mature games on the Wii, is there an audience out there?'. We did some research and it said that there was an audience out there." This research was presumably flawed.

At the time of MadWorld's release back in March I read its delirious, quasi-slapstick tone as a satire of console-based videogaming's overwhelming focus on violence as entertainment. The issue of violent games is of course something that will be discussed for a while yet, with a new controversy ever ready - hello MW2! - to drag the issue back into the mainstream. But on reflection MadWorld is also something else: a mockery of the average internet forum dweller's clamour for more violent and yes, "mature" Wii games. For MadWorld is at such an aesthetic extreme to the style of the Wii's more expected software that the fact it failed to sell speaks volumes about the console's demographic, and perhaps how detached some gamers might be feeling at the inarguable rise of the so-called 'casual' market. Although the same example could be made of Dead Space: Extraction's commercial failure, or indeed Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, the difference is that only MadWorld feels like a conscious comment on the very console on which it is played. In this context MadWorld wouldn't really work - or be as fun to play - on any other format.

The following text is my original review of MadWorld, previously published by D+PAD Magazine in March 2009.

It’s with no little sense of delicious timing that MadWorld arrives in the same week that House Of The Dead: Overkill was confirmed as having broken the world record for use of expletives in a videogame. Of course, the most noteworthy statistic is not this liberal use of swearing (a frankly brilliant 189 uses of the f-word) or MadWorld’s predilection for a bit of the old ultra violence (more on that later), but that both titles are exclusive to the cuddly, family-friendly Wii.

Nintendo’s sales-freak of a console, a veritable money-printing machine, is nothing if not riddled with anomalies: demographics have been skewed, decades-old control system conventions have been upended…two years on even the price is set to increase. Similarly, whereas games like the aforementioned Overkill and MadWorld would be relatively generic in terms of subject matter on any other console, here they certainly stand out, on first impression, as total contrasts to the inclusive, immediate, industry-shaping titles that have otherwise defined Wii.

MadWorld is the brainchild of one PlatinumGames, a Japanese development house founded by former key personnel of Clover Studio (the now dissolved branch of Capcom that birthed the indelible likes of God Hand, Viewtiful Joe and Okami). Similar to its forebears, MadWorld’s charm rests on a gleeful combination of irreverence, pop-cultural sass (the art style and pulp fiction tone is a recognizable nod to Frank Miller’s Sin City) and more than a little wink towards the history of videogaming in general. However all this risks being overlooked by simply focusing on the one reason why MadWorld exists, the one hook that holds the entire crazy experience together: its depiction of violence, the most striking example in videogaming for quite some time.

Much has been made of this violence, with the expected outcries from the expected corners, and to a certain extent MadWorld lives up to the hype. Laid out on paper the charge sheet would indeed make uncomfortable reading for Mr Daily Mail: impaling with signpost, impaling on a wall of spikes, being first impaled with a signpost before being thrown into a wall of spikes… But such a treatment stripped of context would be utterly missing the point. In its way MadWorld is almost on the same side as the dissenters: it agrees that videogaming violence is often ludicrous, unnecessary and glorified, and underlines this by showing us just how ludicrous, unnecessary, glorified – and damn entertaining – violence within the medium can get.

The stylized visuals are perfect for this message: less graphic novel and more bubblegum comic book, the black and white aesthetic is certainly uncompromising, and leaves no room for pretensions of realism or gravitas. Though in the midst of a large brawl things can sometimes become disorientating, the frequent swathes of bright red blood and yellow exclamations help liven the palette. The pretext for these exercises in brutality is that lead character Jack (who recalls an even more immoral Hellboy) is in a game show called Death Watch, his increasingly inventive way with weapons slowly winning over more viewers and sponsors (there’s also something about a virus – the cut scenes are superbly directed, the narrative surprisingly meaty). Both Smash TV and Manhunt covered similar issues of voyeurism and playing to a crowd, albeit with nowhere near the outrageous disregard for subtlety.

Despite the surface appearance suggesting otherwise, MadWorld is actually, in its structure and mechanics, a lot closer to the compilation party games that have come to define Wii. The driving force behind everything is the quest for a high score: it’s your means of progress, of competition between players and your reward for an inventive use of the various mini-games, contraptions and secret rooms scattered across each self-contained arena. Neatly underpinning this all is the thirty minute time-limit for each stage. Though the game is short and not especially challenging on the first playthrough, its long-term appeal lies in scouring each level for the best score opportunities, as well as trying to clear the game on the unforgiving hard mode. MadWorld may be repetitive on a base level, but there’s enough variety and emphasis on player experimentation to see the game prevail.

The controls are another large factor in MadWorld’s success. Any errors in input (more often than not intended side swipes tend to come out as uppercuts) are compensated by generosity – you’re never required to be precise in the manner of, say, Trauma Centre – and a visual, visceral payoff. There’s a completely regressive pleasure in puling the Nunchuk and remote apart to rip someone’s head in two, or in swinging the remote back and forth to hammer an enemy into the side of a train. One of the reasons Manhunt 2 got into such censorial trouble for similar actions was because of its adherence to a more realist, consciously sensational agenda. MadWorld takes the more ridiculous, honest approach; PlatinumGames’ insistence on tapping into the fascination with high score tables hardwired into every gamer’s psyche ensures that underneath a game as visually brutal as God of War lies an experience as compulsive as Geometry Wars.

MadWorld may well be a highly nuanced comment on the role violence plays within our entertainment, as well as a gleeful two fingers to the Wii’s so-called casual audience. Right now we’re too engrossed in working out how best to combine a candlestick, meat grinder and exploding barrel on that zombie over there to care.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Ocarina Of Time's audio re-imagined

It may seem strange to call the first N64 Zelda game overlooked, considering that Ocarina of Time still regularly tops BEST-GAME-EVER polls; it is after all a description that would probably be better applied to either the intense follow-up Majora's Mask or the Gamecube's Wind Waker, two games that were somewhat caught in the middle of what was a financially uncertain period for Nintendo. But certainly at the time, coming as it did two years after the seismic shift that was Super Mario 64, I felt that although there was little doubt about Ocarina of Time's achievement (and it remains a staggering achievement), it was as if we all expected Zelda to be great, almost taking for granted the genius on display; after all, Mario had done all the hard work in showing that games which had defined their genre in two dimensions could seamlessly make the transfer across to three. 

Zelda's innovations are smaller in comparison - the automatic jump, the battle system - but they're so well integrated that after a few minutes play they sink invisibly into the overall experience. After a while you forget that you're playing Zelda in 3D, simply because everything fits together at a level of perfection and intuition beyond, in my opinion, any game released before or since. Maybe that's why I feel Ocarina of Time is overlooked: it's almost too good, rendering a detailed analysis of what makes the game so special superfluous to the simple practice of just playing the damn thing.

I digress. The point I wanted to make is that Ocarina of Time is pretty special; it's one of those games that stays with you for a long time after the end credits have rolled. Some of those like myself, who remember being glued to their N64 during the December of 1998, have gone on to pay tribute to the game in some creative and frankly inspiring ways. By coincidence I came across two such projects, both focussed on Koji Kondo's music for the game, within the last few days: both are wildly divergent in approach, but similar in their love and respect for one of the great works of the nineties.

The first is ZREO, or Zelda Reorchestrated. Began in October 2004, ZREO's aim was to recreate the entire Ocarina of Time score as it would sound if played within "the warm halls and intimate expression of a live philharmonic". This didn't mean drafting in a real orchestra, but rather the usage of both high-end sequencer synthesizers and sound library-aided transformations to give all 82(!) tracks of the soundtrack a warm, symphonic texture. The difference is noticeable and compelling. The ZREO site gives far more information with regards to such issues as reverb and which particular sample libraries were used, but suffice to say that after five years of work (which also included the site having to close down once because of financial issues) it stands as a task quite epic in scale, dwarfing your average fan artwork or this here blog as a labour of love. It also draws attention to what a great piece of orchestration the original Kondo score is, full of character, nuance and charm. Incidentally some of the 2/3-second pieces, like Item Catch and, er, Small Item Catch, would make excellent interludes to the mix CD you decide to make for that cute geek-girl/boy.

The second is the work of one Team Teamwork, a self-described "beat maker from Windham, Maine, by way of Somerville, Massachusetts". A ten track record that marries beats to bleeps, in The Ocarina of Rhyme TT marries some of the more commercially notable and/or inventive hip-hop of the last decade to some of the best passages from the original Ocarina soundtrack. I'd call it a mash-up except the combinations are frequently so inspired and well edited that the two components often sound like they're meant to go together (Still Tippin', from 2004, even references "Nintendo" and "Gamecube"). Simultaneously nostalgic and innovative, the likes of Clipse's Virginia (using Lost Woods as a template), and Still D.R.E (which begins with the unmistakable sound of a Zelda treasure chest being opened, a sample that is then cut-up and looped for the rest of its three minutes), highlight why The Ocarina of Rhyme is that rare thing: an idea that escapes mere novelty status through an intelligence of execution and an expert understanding of the strengths of both aspects - listen to Jay-Z's controlled flow on No Hook and the woozy Zelda accompaniment Meeting the Owl, for another example. Music was of course integral to the central time-travel mechanic at the heart of Ocarina, but this even works as a standalone record of abstract, psychedelic hip-hop.

What also unites both ZREO and Team Teamwork, apart from a good taste in games and music, is their generosity: downloads of both their considerable efforts are FREE, though there are places on the sites linked below to donate some money. Enjoy!

Zelda Reorchestrated

Team Teamwork

Monday, 4 January 2010

10 Games For 2010, part 2

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

While the prospect of a 3D Castlevania has always been something of a poisoned chalice, the 2D Castlevanias, from Symphony of the Night through to the more recent Order of Ecclesia, have been some of the richest examples of platforming in recent years. Quite why the Belmont family has failed to make the dimensional leap is puzzling, especially when compared to the ease with which the likes of Mario and, more pointedly, Metroid were transformed whilst still maintaining their essence. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow then is something of a last throw of the dice. The series has always had the respect of Western gamers without setting the charts alight, so Konami will be expectant that the idiosyncratic pairing of Hideo Kojima with Madrid-based studio MercurySteam ('famous' for 2007's Clive Barker's Jericho) can bring a cinematic verve and new-found sense of purpose to the brand.

Reassuringly the budget appears to be substantial (the voice cast includes both Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle), while producer Dave Cox, whose first Castlevania title as Konami Project Manager was SOTN, has said Lords of Shadow will take inspiration from the series' earlier games, including Super Castlevania IV (my personal favourite). I'm excited.

Heavy Rain

No other game on the list has already split opinion as much as David Cage/Quantic Dream's latest, the PS3-exclusive Heavy Rain. It's controversial, ambitious, a little pretentious and will - depending on your viewpoint - either a) set a new benchmark for interactive, emotionally-rich narrative or b) be the biggest PS3 folly since Haze.

Apparently the game's real message will be "about how far you're willing to go to save someone you love"; whether this connection and involvement can be fostered through such a tightly controlled sense of progression remains to be seen. The balance between interactivity and exposition will have to be finely nuanced, and that's without taking into account the quality of the script, acting, how much scope there is for the player to make decisions... Whatever happens, Heavy Rain will be hard to ignore.

Here's the suitably mysterious cover art:

God of War III

Bayonetta may apparently have just perfected third-person combat, and Dante's Inferno trumped Kratos in the extreme imagery stakes (slicing up "unbaptised babies", really?), but as the God of War Collection has proven, for a combination of spectacle, loose mythology, blister-inducing mayhem and hilariously OTT set-pieces, Sony's standard-bearer for all things bloody and visceral will be hard to beat. Expect familiarity, only notched up to the highest degree.

Lost in Shadow

In a similar manner to WayForward's WiiWare title LIT, Wii-exclusive Lost in Shadow sees you reliant on light as a means of progression. In a fantastic twist on 2D platforming, it's the shadows cast in the background by objects in the foreground that map out each level. You play a boy who is only represented as a shadow, with your manipulation of the foreground and light sources key to each self-enclosed puzzle. The game already has an impressively sparse and lonely feel; fingers crossed that the eventual execution can match the ideas.

The Last Guardian

Any overview of the last decade of gaming would be incomplete without the now-obligatory referencing of both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Fumito Ueda's pair of enigmatic, heartbreaking, Playstation 2 classics. Although dropping their titles into a conversation is now almost a cliche of non-mainstream gaming, actually playing these titles again casts aside all cynicism - they are frankly works of art the likes of which videogaming still throws up all too rarely, worlds unto themselves with an immersive quality and aesthetic style that I can still vividly recall and almost feel to this day. Not much is known about The Last Guardian, its story and gameplay remaining satisfyingly vague, although an expressive use of silence, an unintelligible ending, and lots of beautiful moments, are almost certainties. File under: potential best game of 2010.

Honourable mentions: Red Dead Redemption, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Sin and Punishment 2, No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, Golden Sun DS, Metroid: Other M, Crackdown 2, Epic Mickey...we might even get to play Gran Turismo 5.

10 Games For 2010, part 1

As if 2009 wasn't enough. The first months of this shiny new year read, rather incredibly, like the average Christmas schedules: Final Fantasy XIII, Mass Effect 2, Bayonetta, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Alan Wake etc etc. And they're the games of 2010 that I didn't choose. Here are the 10 that I did, across two parts. It's going to be an expensive 2010.

Halo: Reach

Didn’t Bungie say Halo 3 was the last Halo game that they would ever work on? Proof that you can’t keep a good, er, multi-million-selling franchise down, Halo: Reach, a prequel to the first in the series, will center on the Battle of Reach that takes place near the end of the Human-Covenant war. It’s also set to be the last Halo game developed by Bungie, honest.

2009’s Halo 3:ODST was a neat summation of the Halo series to date, its generous multiplayer content supplementing the ‘greatest hits’ feel of the missions themselves, spanning as they did every previous facet of Halo gameplay. Hopefully this is a sign that Bungie are going to treat Reach like a blank slate, ready to shake the series, and consequently the FPS, with some radical ideas. Or maybe it’ll just be Halo as we know and love, albeit with prettier visuals. An emphasis on squad co-operation is likely, an epic scale certain. It’s almost certain to be the biggest entertainment launch of 2010.

Medal of Honor

EA’s last console-only Medal of Honor. Airborne, was an admirable attempt at doing something different within the WW2 FPS, introducing a relatively freeform approach to objectives and the clever idea of being able to land nearly anywhere in the level. Unfortunately it turned out that the problem EA needed to address wasn’t so much a creative stagnation within the genre, but rather World War 2 as a setting for yet another game of Nazi bashing. Halo 3 and, more significantly, Modern Warfare were released a few weeks later, and Airborne quickly became nothing more than a footnote; this must have been especially galling for a series that was once so dominant.

Now EA are back with a MOH game set in present-day Afghanistan. The trailer looks exciting if a little, well, like Modern Warfare. One issue that remains a possibility: could this new-look MOH be once again squeezed out by both Bungie and Activision? On one side there’s Halo: Reach, on the other the (heavily rumoured, not yet confirmed) Call of Duty Vietnam. Have gamers already had enough of modern-day combat? EA will be hoping not.

BioShock 2

The first BioShock of course had a lot more going on than the initial hours suggested, so I’m confident that despite a few potential negatives (Is a multiplayer mode really necessary? Will the change in development team have any effect?) this second adventure, set ten years later, will be as rich in atmosphere, mind-games and tension as the original. There’s only a little over a month now until we can return to Rapture.


A sequel to one of the most visually delicious – if structurally unoriginal – games of the last decade, Okamiden should see the central mechanic of the Celestial Brush, of watercolour as a form of attack, brought to its logical conclusion. The Wii remote was an improvement over the Playstation controller, but the stylus control will, if the implementation is right, be a refinement that makes bringing fresh blossom to the valleys as intuitive as it is to battle through dungeons in the DS Zelda games. If Capcom can come anywhere close to the brilliance of Phantom Hourglass or Spirit Tracks then this could well be one of the games, handheld or otherwise, of the coming year.

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Super Mario Galaxy, but now with added Yoshi. The sequel to this current generation’s greatest game should be out within the next 12 months, hopefully sprinkled with a more-than-generous helping of Nintendo magic dust. Not much else needs to be said; likely to be amazing.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

A Boy And His Blob

Developer: WayForward
Format: Wii

Score: 8.2

It was after a full day’s play on Modern Warfare 2, my brain a tangle of dying civilians, gung-ho American patriotism and the sheer noise of contemporary gaming, that I started A Boy and His Blob. Far be it for us to try and reference Infinity Ward’s colossus in everything we publish, but after ten hours of bullets flying past my head and trying to follow some nonsensical plot I can’t think of a better game to have played than this adorable Wii platformer.

The original 1989 NES title was, by all accounts, a minor classic of the era – its 2D platforming as memorable for its unforgiving nature as it was for the subtle twist on run-and-jump gameplay that the various jelly beans provided. In bringing A Boy and His Blob forward into the current generation developers WayForward – self-confessed fans of the original – have clearly thought long and hard about how to keep the essence and spirit of NES Blob whilst making the game relevant to today’s audience. That they’ve succeeded is testament to both WayForward’s prowess with subtle, almost classical, game design and to David Crane’s initial template, laid down all those years ago.

One thing that thankfully hasn’t changed much is the story. A Boy and His Blob still concerns the fate of Blobolonia, a planet threatened by an evil emperor. In seeking help the blob comes to Earth and finds a young boy, and together they embark on their journey to save the blob’s world, as well as establishing “a friendship that will last a lifetime” (which the instruction manual helpfully points out). This is all played out, like the game as a whole, with an emphasis on simplicity. There are no grand special effects or lengthy dialogue trees, just an elegant little cut-scene before the game hands you control of the boy. More personality is in fact communicated through the little animations of both characters; the way blob will panic when separated from his companion, the way the boy pulls on his rucksack as soon as he jumps out of bed.

By placing more significance on an aesthetic revamp WayForward have teased out the original’s sense of wonder and innate childlike appeal. As well as the excellent animation the levels themselves are wonderfully understated. The backgrounds have the quality of fine watercolours, which balances nicely with the occasional sparkle of a treasure chest and the clear inspiration of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, which is shown in the character movement and, most obviously, the design of the enemies.

The core of A Boy and His Blob involves you traversing across a series of 2D levels that gradually increase in complexity. At the start of each of these stages you’re given a pre-determined selection of jelly beans, each of which grants the blob a unique transformation – one will change your gloopy friend into a ladder, while another will turn him into a space hopper (where these jelly beans come from, and why the boy doesn’t try eating just one, is never explained). It’s in using these powers in the right place and order that you progress through the game. While none of the puzzles will seriously tax the average gamer, solving each problem is nearly always fun. What helps keep the player engaged is the generous system of checkpoints (you’ll always start at the end of the last completed obstacle) and the fact that, by limiting the types of beans you have for each level (there are a total of 15 overall), you’re never left running through countless possibilities; the solution is within a finite range, and even though it’s very rare to find a puzzle with more than one correct method, experimentation is encouraged. It’s never too taxing, something obviously deliberate given the family-orientated approach.

To make this gameplay as satisfying as possible WayForward have used the Wii controls with a rare restraint (avoiding, as the company’s director Sean Velasco put it, “waggle controls simply for the sake of waggle”). The Nunchuk’s Z trigger brings up a dial menu of all available jelly beans, while a combination of the analogue stick and B is used to place these beans where necessary. Other commands, such as calling the blob to your side, or – best of all – hugging him/her/it for no apparent reason other than melting the player’s heart, are also well positioned (you can also use the Classic Controller to play, should you be looking for an even more nostalgic pull).

There are a few minor issues that potentially blemish what is otherwise an excellent game. One is the heavy signposting. Although the hints do ease up as the game progresses, it’s the early stages – where every opportunity to use a bean is marked by a large wooden board – that may ironically end up putting off more seasoned gamers from continuing to play. That said, each new jelly bean is introduced without any dull tutorial or text-heavy boxes. You simply start a level, find a new jelly bean waiting for you and proceed, much like a toddler with a new toy, to discover what it does. Another is that the main game isn’t particularly long. Once the mechanics of play are grasped, and bar a few awkward boss encounters, the 40 levels pass by fairly briskly. However longevity is provided by the task of collecting three treasure chests in each of the 40 levels, which unlocks a further 40 challenge levels. These challenge levels are extensions of the main game, whose prize isn’t another level but some genuinely interesting pieces of concept art and other such extras.

That said I’m loath to criticise A Boy and His Blob too much, such is the frequency with which it successfully hits its notes of wide-eyed innocence; the message of friendship and co-operation is delivered with a grace and an absence of pretension all too rare in gaming. To see WayForward’s lovely creation as a mere respite from the messy business of warfare and killstreaks is almost an insult to what they’ve achieved here. A Boy and His Blob deserves to be in everyone’s Wii collection, whatever their age.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Gitaroo Man

Gitaroo Man is a fable of self-discovery, a distinctly Japanese take on traditional themes of adolescent angst, a well-worn tale of good versus evil that places the fate of the world in the hands of one un-assuming, endearingly clumsy boy. It's also one of the most purely enjoyable experiences the Playstation 2 ever threw up: a kaleidoscopic, insane and quite brilliant world of dancing skeletons, talking dogs and a trumpet-playing bumble bee. Despite these wonders (or more likely because of them; the Western mainstream has never truly been comfortable with the rather more eccentric ends of Japanese developers' output. We Love Katamari is a more recent example; PaRappa The Rapper or its sequel, the similarly guitar-based Um Jammer Lammy, more relevant ones), Gitaroo Man failed to capture the imagination of the wider world. 

Fortunately Koei, a software house previously famous for action/strategy titles such as the Dynasty Warriors and Kessen series, ported Gitaroo Man in a tweaked form to the PSP. This also failed to sell. Not that we needed one, but such welcome revivalism, such dewy-eyed nostalgia, gives me an excuse to revisit this most loveable of games, and look at why a young boy who is often picked on at school and constantly passed over by the girl of his dreams should be one of the icons of noughties gaming.

The key to every rhythm-action game, despite whatever choice of interface they may use (from the bongos of Donkey Konga to the decks of Beatmania), is always timing, and in that respect Gitaroo Man is no different. The player must press a button as the small circles that denote musical notes pass over the centre of the screen. The closer to the centre that the note is when the button is pressed, the better the rating, and the more damage caused to the other player (Gitaroo Man is also notable for structuring the combat in the style of a fighting game, with energy bars at the top of the screen for each character). Often these circles will be elongated, in which case the note is not so much a stab at the guitar but a lengthy drawn out imitation of the sort of noises Slash often makes in the middle of Guns N' Roses solos. It’s hardly Guitar Hero, but then Guitar Hero never had a UFO robot playing their own synth.

Much like any rhythm-action title, the spark comes not with lengthy, often convoluted explanation of the game mechanics, but in the actual interaction. For example the arguable figurehead of the entire genre, Konami's Dance Dance Revolution, wouldn't be particularly innovative on paper, but walking into any arcade of the late 90s it was pretty much in-escapable, its exhibitionist style of play suiting both spectators with those just looking to show off. Because it was so simple anyone could play, and so for the first time even hardened gamers, those brought up on endlessly technical bouts of Virtua Fighter and memorizing the enemy patterns in Gradius were on the same level as street-hardened breakdancers and teenage clubbers. Interestingly it’s much the same philosophy that was eventually pursued by Nintendo and the Wii.

So thoughts of Gitaroo Man quickly turn from how to play to what happens during U-I's (Gitaroo Man's human incarnation) journey. U-I is un-aware that he is in fact Gitaroo Man until his dog Puma tells him of his real background: that he is in fact the last in the line of the legendary Gitaroo Men and that his destiny is to save the planet from the clutches of the evil Gravillians family. Thus runs the loose narrative on which to hang ten stages of increasingly surreal encounters.

Despite his axe fixation the music in Gitaroo Man is more varied than a standard rock set-up: it takes in the quaint sci-fi of Flying-O’s level, gothic metal with Gregorio III and the triumphant finale with Zowie, a feedback addled classic that shares more than a passing resemblance to Radiohead's Just. Thankfully the music, the integral component of Gitaroo Man, is uniformly wonderful. If this was an album it’d be a minor pop classic, dazzling in its variety and scope. Something like the last Outkast album or the entire back catalogue of The Flaming Lips. There’s even time for an interlude, the brief two minute chase sequence between Gitaroo Man and Ben-K, a mechanized shark with a penchant for drum and bass.

Ironically though the highlight of Gitaroo Man lies not with these wonders of amplification, but in fact the level most widely removed from the rest of the game. In the campfire segment halfway through U-I plays an acoustic ballad to Kirah, the planet Gitaroo equivalent to human love-interest Pico. Kirah moves from huddled and shy at the beginning of the song, her arms wrapped around her legs, to falling asleep on U-I's shoulder by the end. Here the link between the player's progression and the on-screen narrative development - play badly and Kirah moves away from U-I - is so beautifully executed that the entire three-minute segment stands as one of the more understated and unexpectedly emotional moments in videogaming. Space Channel 5 and, more recently, Lego Rock Band also used similar tricks, but never so well.

Split into just ten stages, Gitaroo Man is unfortunately brief and, on the standard setting at least, only infrequently difficult. Masters Play however, unlocked upon completion of the original, is a steep improvement which actually changes the structure of the songs to ensure a challenge that depends as much on memory as it does speed of reaction. Of course, the stages are so finely detailed and packed with quirky touches that repeated plays on each of them does little to crack their genius. In this respect Gitaroo Man is more the ADD-afflicted crayon-based relative of psychedelic classic Rez, a diminutive, almost perfect marriage of visuals, music and interaction.

In 1999 no less a figure than Shigeru Miyamoto said "I feel that these directors who have been able to incorporate rhythm in their games have been successful" In this respect Gitaroo Man was more than successful: it's still in a field of one.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Game Of 2009: Uncharted 2

This was my review of Uncharted 2, for D+PAD Magazine, back in late October. Although that was only just over two months ago, in videogaming terms (and particularly during the cash-hungry Christmas period) two months is like the proverbial week in politics. Since scaling the heights of Tibet with Nathan Drake I've helped save America from an invasion by Russia, re-discovered the brilliance of Sgt.Pepper and, more recently, Rubber Soul, via Beatles: Rock Band, journeyed inside Bowser, reclaimed my GoldenEye 007 crown and been beaten up by my girlfriend for repeatedly throwing her from the levels in New Super Mario Bros Wii. That's not to mention the semblance of a social life - the office parties, Butlins-based music festivals and, er, book clubs - I try and fit in around gaming. I guess the point is that despite the pressures placed on time by videogames, and even after all the other interactive experiences I've had not just since finishing Uncharted 2, but in the last year of what has truly been "gaming's greatest decade" (thanks EDGE), Naughty Dog's sequel was my clear game of 2009. It's a work that is undeniably self-aware and yet so self-assured.

The self-awareness lies in recognising that when videogames talk about pushing narrative, it's not the slow-burn dramatics of, say, No Country For Old Men they have in mind, but the fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing efficiency of the best action movies; after all, it's no coincidence that Naughty Dog repeatedly puts Nathan Drake in a number of literal cliffhangers, in much the same way that, for example, Spielberg slyly acknowledged such popcorn-friendly action staples with the ending of the second Indiana Jones film (which also ended with all the characters hanging from a cliff, although this didn't stop it being rubbish). The self-assurance plays a thankfully larger part, and sees Uncharted 2 frankly revelling in what it means to be a game: the visuals frequently astound, cut-scenes never pull you out of the experience but instead create greater immersion and - most importantly of all - it's just great fun to play. Naughty Dog's achievement may seem modest on paper, but I wouldn't be surprised to find developers still struggling to match Uncharted 2's almost-perfect balance of interactivity and spectacle twelve months from now.

The opening months of every console’s life can be – much like the desolate mountaintop upon which Among Thieves begins – an unwelcoming and barren place. It takes a brave developer to step into the marketplace at this point and buck the vicious cycle that sees consumer uptake dependent on noteworthy games, whilst simultaneously many publishers will wait for an established user base before releasing their triple-A titles. Naughty Dog, back in late 2007, was the first significant outfit to show their hand on Playstation 3 with the excellent Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – this at a time when the console was still suffering from a very lean early period. Now, with Sony’s machine flourishing, they’re back to claim their justified reward with the game’s much-heralded follow-up.

Anyone doubting whether Uncharted 2 is a worthy sequel, whether it lives up to the sizeable hype, need only play the opening chapter. It’s an astounding beginning for many reasons. Not only does it establish very early on the developer’s mastery of tension, but also highlights the balance between interactivity and incident that they go on to consolidate and refine later in this wonderful game. Ingeniously it’s also a tutorial that doesn’t dress itself up as pre-game training; instead you’re plunged – literally – into the middle of the narrative.

Thinking of those initial minutes now I’m almost feeling a little nostalgic. That may sound strange for a game which is barely a week old, and one that I could be playing again now, but Uncharted 2 is one of those experiences that will resonate strongest the first time you play it. Although certain moments will still be thrilling on repeat viewings, it’s your first play through that will elicit the sharp intakes of breath, the wide-eyed wonder and the disbelieving laughter as you hurtle from one extraordinary juncture to another.

Perhaps even more extraordinary is how far Naughty Dog and the franchise have come in just two years. The first Uncharted was a crowd-pleasing adventure that through its look and feel couldn’t help but evoke certain – at the time more popular- franchises. With that one game however, Naughty Dog transcended them all. More exciting than the Prince Of Persia sequels, better balanced than the recent Tomb Raiders, Drake’s Fortune would’ve been embraced by the PS3 fraternity even if they weren’t so game starved. Many of that debut’s strengths – its lack of pretension, its storytelling techniques – have been heavily built upon and carried over into Among Thieves. But there’s also something else here: a flowering of imagination and technical confidence that the first game barely hinted at.

‘Technical confidence’ is something of an understatement. After all, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to state that Uncharted 2 is possibly the best-looking game of this generation thus far. It’s visually astonishing, but this achievement in graphics is supported by an attention to detail and countless number of little touches that also add a credibility and history to the world. The parrots that fly from their perch as you approach, the blue flame your torch casts in one particular temple, the entirety of the mountain sequence, a rain-soaked Nepal…really take your time to play through the game, bask in this scenery, and these moments – and there are hundreds like them – will sear themselves into your gaming memory (incidentally, during my first playthrough the game’s statistics recorded the collective time that I had spent standing still at over 2 hours). Oh, and the soundtrack is also great – subtle yet effective.

The premise this time around concerns Nathan’s bid to track what happened to Marco Polo’s fleet upon leaving China in the 13th century – only one of fourteen ships survived the voyage, with Marco never revealing the fate of the missing thirteen (the game itself opens with a quote from Marco Polo, “I did not tell half of what I saw…for I knew that I would not be believed”, which you suspect the makers used as a personal mantra throughout the development process). Supplying the requisite conflict, the Nazi to Drake’s Indy, is Zoran – a Serbian warlord intent on finding the secret for his own nefarious means. On paper it sounds fairly conventional – even Dan Brown-like in its hokeyness – and to a large degree it is. But as with any story, half of the impact lies in the manner of exposition.

In this respect Uncharted 2’s success comes down to something I mentioned earlier, a considered balance between interactivity and incident, and an intelligent understanding of what makes for effective storytelling within videogaming. Not for Naughty Dog the immediately divisive use of pre-rendered cutscenes; everything in Uncharted 2, from the opening scene to the ending uses the same in-game engine. Furthermore, the transitions from cut-scenes to gameplay are, almost without exception, seamless – a practice aided by a camera that will dynamically swoop around and zoom out to give the most dramatic angle when needed. This, coupled with a lack of QTEs and some superb voice work, ensures Uncharted 2 always feels immersive, pulling you from one set-piece to another with all the cohesion of a classic action-film (think Raiders of the Lost Ark and you’d be close), never once breaking the illusion that so much hard work has gone into creating.

You may have already heard wonderful things about these set-pieces – one gaming website even ran a feature on their top five moments the very day Uncharted 2 was released. The problem of course with writing about such a game, whose biggest pull is the promise of thrills beyond anything previously experienced, is the risk of spoilers; I’m loath to go into detail, as much as I want to discuss certain sections and how they compare to and often surpass anything Infinity Ward, Bungie or Epic have crafted in the last few years. Suffice to say Uncharted 2 is a game seemingly designed with one eye on frenzied internet conversations; gamers will be swapping their own personal highlights from now until the inevitable third title (a potential for dialogue ironically undermined by the automatic – and incredibly banal – updates provided by the in-game Twitter link). Even the gunfights are uniformly exciting, allowing enough scope for strategy within each unique location to compensate for their similarity.

This is not to say that Uncharted 2 is one mindless ride, for Naughty Dog has also really paid attention to the idea of momentum. Rather then bludgeoning the gamer into submission with a relentless succession of death-defying feats, a clever use of the narrative structure and some expert pacing help build the experience into one which, to use the comparison again, recalls prime Spielberg. Not only does the opening chapter tease with its promise of perils to come, but the first few locations and objectives then serve as a neat reminder of the earlier game (the jungles of Borneo especially are almost a ‘greatest hits’ of Drake’s Fortune). There are also enough puzzles to punctuate the action, while one entire chapter – without giving too much away – is beautiful in its simplicity and emphasis on pure exploration, like playing a fabled next-generation Zelda.

It is in these areas of game design – the integration of the story, the spectacle of the action – that Naughty Dog has made the biggest strides. Beyond these features lies practically the same game as before, with an identical cover system and controls. There are only a few tweaks; one is the greater frequency of co-op moments that take place between Drake and, depending on the plot point, one of the many partners he works with throughout. These are pre-scripted, so a potential fully-fledged online co-op campaign could be something for a future game. Money earned throughout the game can now also be used to purchase bonus material, from documentary curios and concept art to graphical filters and – best of all – an alternative look for Drake that needs to be seen to be believed (one word: doughnut). It all adds up to a comprehensive single-player package. In this context the initially controversial online features could only ever be a bonus.

Thankfully they too are imbued with the spirit of the main game. Split into competitive and co-operative sections, there are a healthy number of game types within each mode; from the regular deathmatch to the now familiar Horde/Firefight template of battling successive waves of enemies, it’s a successful addition to the main game. In particular it works so well because a lot of thought has clearly gone into the arenas and the ranking system, with a now familiar combination of mini-objectives constantly showering medals and points upon the player. This lends the multiplayer a degree of substance that deflects any criticism of it being considered an after-thought. With consistent post-release support the Uncharted 2 community could well become the PSN’s equivalent of that built up for Gears on Xbox LIVE. Meanwhile, other forthcoming marquee games with seemingly ‘tacked-on’ multiplayer (Bioshock 2, cough cough) would do well to take notes.

If the first Uncharted was an early reassurance that Playstation 3 would one day be home to format-exclusives of genuine quality, then Uncharted 2 deserves – by a mile – to be the machine’s system-seller. In a season which has been dominated by the release of a certain other sequel, Naughty Dog might just have quietly slipped in and stolen the thunder. This will never win awards for originality, and other games this generation have been more audacious, ambitious, and plain louder. But none have left the sweet aftertaste that Among Thieves does; none have left me wishing I had enough time and luxury to jump straight back in and take the entire journey again. It’s destined to enter the annals of gaming’s classics in years to come.