Sunday, 6 May 2012

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

Developer: Slant Six
Format: PlayStation 3

Score: 3.6

I spent the majority of my Easter weekend playing a wonderfully conceived city-based zombie shooter, in which at least three separate design threads – twin-stick high-score chaser, single-player narrative, global metagame – all work in near-perfect harmony. Anyway, enough about Housemarque’s Dead Nation. This here is Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, Capcom’s latest attempt to sully its legendary series.

As an off-shoot of the main games, ORC sits alongside the likes of the Wii’s Chronicles series, by changing familiar Resident Evil game mechanics and putting fresh perspectives on classic scenarios/eras from the past. Operation Raccoon City takes place around the same time as the second and third games in the series, a period that has already been utilised by Capcom (most recently in the second Wii game, The Darkside Chronicles). In Operation Raccoon City the twist is that you play as the bad guys, taking control of one of six different members of the Umbrella Security Service trying to stop the T-Virus getting into the hands of the US military.

What this amounts to is a squad-based third-person shooter from Slant Six, the developers behind the SOCOM series. Once again Capcom’s practice of handing development duties to a Western outfit (see also Dark Void, Bionic Commando) has produced less than spectacular results. Quite why Capcom decided on external help is questionable, when Resident Evil 5 had already made such big strides towards a co-op focused campaign; perhaps ORC is something of a testing ground for the forthcoming sixth game in the main series, which is rumoured to follow a similar simultaneous multi-character set-up. If that’s the case then Resident Evil fans have every right to be concerned.

The problems with Operation Raccoon City begin on the surface; this is a game whose animation and level of visual detail never rises above perfunctory, and where a combination of an awkward camera and sloppy controls will often result in an untimely death. Whatever their faults, Capcom’s marquee games have always boasted glossy production values, but here the suspicion of cynical cash-in stems from the cheap aesthetics and continues throughout into the rest of the experience.

For a title in such a crowded genre as the third-person shooter, it helps if you get the basics right. While the shooting itself is passable, it’s undermined by imprecise melee combat and an unwieldy cover system that doesn’t always work when you want it to; it’s not even possible to move from one area of cover to another without having to stand up into the line of fire. We’re a long way from Vanquish.

The single-player quickly becomes tedious, especially when played solo. Played online it’s better, albeit still fundamentally let down by the wider issues such as bland level design and poor pacing. Although it may be an unfair comparison, Left 4 Dead was such a compulsive experience because it engendered a sense of dependency on your fellow team members, the panic rising to a crescendo as each mission reached it’s end. ORC has little of this vitality; online play is preferable because the AI of your computer-controlled squadmates leaves a lot to be desired, but as an experience it still falls far short of other, more visionary, games.

A glimmer of the game that ORC could have been lies in the multiplayer portion, and in particular Survivor mode. Here waves of zombies descend on the team, which you and your squadmates need to repel whilst waiting for a rescue helicopter to land. Ingeniously, there are only limited spaces on the chopper, which triggers a switch from co-operative combat to selfish scrambling as everyone races to get one of the precious seats for fear of being left behind. The open arenas of multiplayer - without the burden of a directed narrative - are somewhat liberating in comparison to the narrow, linear passages of play in the single-player.

It’s not enough to save Operation Raccoon City though, which ultimately is a title that feels too rushed to warrant any great investment on the part of the player. That it’s sold in such high numbers (at time of writing it’s number one in Japan) says a lot about the strength of the Resident Evil brand which, if ORC is anything to go by, is in danger of being fatally diluted.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Assassin's Creed 3 - Preview

In the new film from the Dardenne brothers, the wonderful The Kid With A Bike, a local drug dealer uses the lure of playing the new Assassin's Creed game to tempt the film’s titular kid back to his flat, in a bid to recruit him for a robbery. We'll take any excuse to mention French arthouse cinema.

Anyway, it was of course the extraordinary success of 2009’s Assassin’s Creed 2 that put Ubisoft’s franchise onto the lofty path it currently treads. Two sequels followed in successive years, giving the historical open-world adventure a status shared only by a handful of other games – that of the inevitable, annually updated Christmas-friendly moneyspinners. With such an escalation in exposure came the inevitable ‘criticisms’ that also regularly follow the likes of Call Of Duty and FIFA: that they’re casual games for casual gamers, the annual sequels leaving little time for innovation, diluting what was once a unique experience via the laws of diminishing returns.

Ubisoft have been nothing if not alive to such perceptions. Assassin’s Creed 3 is the first full sequel in the series for three years. It uses a new engine, is set in a new era, and stars a new hero (Connor). Everything else though, give or take some iterations, is business as usual. We’ll start with the era first.

Set in the years 1753-1783, this stretch of American history takes in the decade predating the start of the American revolutionary era and ends with the war between Great Britain and the United States concluding. It’s an ambitious framework for the game, and great attention has been taken to ensure historical accuracy. We’re shown a mission that takes place with the battle of Bunker Hill as its backdrop. The visual scale of the conflict, with columns of soldiers marching and firing in unison, is a high point for the series, whilst the famous order given to troops – “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” – is heard as you walk among the troops, waiting for the mission proper to begin. The care for these little details – the verbatim speech, the slow pace of reloading – is in stark contrast to the traditional Assassin’s Creed gameplay, as Connor uses the armies’ confrontation to sneak around the field’s outskirts to kill a general on horseback.

The changes come thanks to the new engine, allowing Connor to climb trees and rockfaces with fluidity. In motion Assassin’s Creed 3 isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but crucially it does look like a big enough step beyond the Ezio trilogy to seem, at the very least, like a series suitably refreshed. Other changes brought on by the update in technology include dynamic weather cycles, more natural NPC behaviour and the ability, via new animations, to clamber manfully through thick snow. In fact it’s these snow-based sections, which take place in the Frontier – a barren landscape of mountain ranges and roaming wildlife – that thrill the most. Looking isolated and not unlike a certain Rockstar-developed western, the Frontier territory gives ample opportunities for Ubisoft to demonstrate how this new game will differ.

Although development started over two years ago, the influence of Red Dead Redemption is felt in these brooding, convincingly isolated passages, not to mention the slaying of a bear followed by the option to skin the slain creature. That said, the athletic, fantastical manner in which Connor traverses the environment is far removed from that of John Marston, and it’s the surrounding milieu of Assassin’s Creed 3 – the passing regiments, the scattered villages – which should help differentiate Ubisoft’s excursion into wilderness territory. Apparently 30% of the game’s missions take place here, a sizeable chunk and a figure that the team will have to work with carefully if they’re to avoid the trap of repetition that afflicted previous games.

Unfortunately – albeit unsurprisingly – the narrative will once again be formed around the idea of an Animus meaning that the game world is, to all intents, a fabrication in the mind of contemporary protagonist Desmond Miles. A witty comment on videogaming construction it may be, but the story in Assassin’s Creed 2 was one of that game’s biggest failings, the tedious mythologizing and confusing plotting proving a barrier to the immersion that the best open-worlds offer. That said, this time around the Animus is more closely integrated into the game, which should help alleviate the disjunction between worlds that existed before.

Here are some other bullet points:
- So far three locations have been confirmed: the aforementioned Frontier lands, Boston and - still under wraps - a New York under siege.
- The name of the new engine is Anvil Next.
- Cut-scene technology has been vastly improved.
- Lead character Connor stands, apparently, for justice, and is half-British/half-Mojave.

Assassin’s Creed 3 isn’t the only major release this year to use American history as a foundation. BioShock Infinite, which releases just a few weeks before AC3, also hinges on a depiction of America, except its use is more of an allegorical one centred around the turn of the 20th century, and America’s growing status as a world superpower. Although the approach is markedly different, there’s something more exciting about Ken Levine’s thoughtful, nuanced vision.

The numbers, features and quotes we hear at this preview are impressive on paper, but leave us feeling generally unmoved. History, as the series' IP and development director Tommy Francois says, may be the developer’s “playground”, and the themes of the American Revolution may mirror those of Assassin’s Creed (liberty or death, power or oppression, control or freedom) but there appears to be a tension between the lengths to which historical accuracy has attempted to be followed, and the sci-fi narrative overlaid on top. It’s a trap that Assassin’s Creed 2, for all it's strengths, also fell into. This third chapter doesn’t as yet appear to share the same sense of revolution as its setting; we’ll have to wait until October to see if that will be enough.

Devil May Cry 4

Devil May Cry 4, with its introduction of a new character and an ending that hinted at further adventures to come, was likely meant to herald the beginning of a healthy new life for the series on next-generation consoles. Despite being a praiseworthy, albeit unadventurous, fourth chapter in Dante’s saga, it seems something didn’t quite go to plan as far as Capcom were concerned. That last line in this re-visited review – “from here, everything is looking very bright indeed” – sounds a tad optimistic now.

Over four years on from Devil May Cry 4’s release, and there still isn’t any hint of a ‘proper’ fifth chapter. Instead, last week saw the European release of the inevitable retro exercise Devil May Cry HD Collection whilst – far more controversially – development duties for a new full-blown DMC game have been handed to Ninja Theory, the developers of the underrated Heavenly Sword and, er, the overrated Enslaved. Set in a “parallel, non-canon” version of the DMC universe, and featuring the sort of self-consciously gritty restyling that tends to be shorthand for a developer unsure of which direction their creation can go next, early reports on DmC: Devil May Cry (because nothing shouts reboot like a minimal title) haven’t been encouraging. But there’s something fascinating about DmC, especially as it’s, by our account, the first big Japanese franchise to be entrusted to a Western studio. That’s one for the future (well, E3 2012).

For now, to celebrate the release of the aforementioned Devil May Cry HD Collection, here’s our 2008 review of DMC4. And to think, Bayonetta was still two years away…

The amount of criticism regularly directed at Devil May Cry 2 even today may seem disproportionate and in no uncertain terms a little picky, but the overwhelmingly negative light in which that 2003 release is still held suggests two things: 1) Devil May Cry is a series that demands an opinion, whether devotional or not, like few others; and 2) the second game remains an albatross hanging around the neck of the franchise, which even the fantastic previous instalment has failed to dislodge completely.

That’s why when in this latest instalment new character Gloria says to Dante “Looks like you’ve got a rep to live up to”, it’s almost as if the developers are not only acknowledging that there’s still some debt to pay, but that there are certain things the player expects from a Devil May Cry game; outrageously flashy action, lots of guns and a nonsensical narrative, to give but three examples. It almost goes without saying that Devil May Cry 4 delivers emphatically on these fronts, despite featuring some disheartening flaws.

New character Nero is central to proceedings in the tricky plot, a naive and eager foil to the brash, cocksure Dante. A convincing relationship of master and apprentice develops between these two as the game progresses, although to explain more would be to potentially spoil moments that are best appreciated when accompanied by the most OTT cut-scenes in the short history of Devil May Cry (and that’s quite an achievement in itself).

That this is the first established Capcom franchise to receive a next-gen makeover meant that the graphics and general presentation were invariably going to be a significant step ahead of what we’d seen before, and sure enough ‘Devil May Cry 4’ positively glistens. The lighting through- out is wonderful, the backgrounds expansive and dramatic (the entire forest sequence being a particular highlight), while in crucial areas such as character animation and bosses, the increased processing power has clearly played an integral role. We can only imagine the delights Resident Evil 5 will offer in twelve months time.

There isn’t anything radical underlining this extra flourish and polish, just Capcom aggressively pushing Devil May Cry 4 towards everything that the series has ever stood for; that fleeting impres- sion of a PlayStation 2 game wrapped in more expensive visuals is quickly replaced with the instant gratification of seeing Dante cut a wall into the shape of a heart using an endless shower of blades, or of watching Nero shatter the armour of flying knights whilst in balletic slow-motion. So far, so thrilling. The major problem though isn’t what Capcom has done with the leap to next-generation, but rather what they haven’t.

The charge often levelled at recent titles such as Call of Duty 4 and Heavenly Sword (to give a more relevant example) is that however enjoyable the games, the overall experiences have been extremely brief, lengthened in these cases by an impeccable online mode and a clever system of unlockable extras. Capcom has rather cynically (or deceptively, if we’re being charitable) attempted to swerve this issue by masking some significant repetition with the otherwise welcome introduction of Dante. It is no exaggeration to say that one-third of the game involves Dante traversing across almost exactly the same route that Nero takes, albeit in the opposite direction. Additionally, though the bosses are all suitably memorable creations, expect to encounter them more than once. Never mind the consistent beauty of the fighting system, such design feels unfairly cheap and draws attention to the potential ideas and environments that could have been explored across such a large portion of the game given more development time.

Just as well then that the mechanics of combat are so finely balanced, for this is truly some of the finest action gaming of recent years. Nero’s new Devil Bringer ability is the most important addition to the already bulging repertoire, allowing him to drag enemies closer as well as frequently swinging them into the path of others. It’s testament to how well the fighting system works though that once play switches to Dante you’re not left hankering for Nero, but are instead fondly recalling the suave carnage of the third game - Dante’s four fighting styles, changeable with the touch of the d-pad, each making a return. The combinational and tactical possibilities are numerous, and it’s this unprecedented depth and flexibility afforded to the player that raises Devil May Cry 4 beyond the more consistently surprising God Of War 2, or the more studious Ninja Gaiden.

The combat system is also the aspect of the game that goes furthest in (almost) justifying the aforementioned recurring mission structure. Devil May Cry has always placed a strong emphasis on style; completing the game for some players is almost a side concern when there are SSS rankings to achieve and air combos to master. The ends are less important than the means used to get there, and within this context Devil May Cry 4 makes perfect sense.

Although true redemption for this most singular of franchises is still tantalisingly out of reach, consider Devil May Cry 4 a devastatingly impressive placeholder, a flamboyant consolidation of everything you ever loved about the series. It’s impossible to ignore, a joy to watch and suggests that finally, after much internal anxiety, it’s time to stop looking back and instead embrace the future of Devil May Cry. And from here, everything is looking very bright indeed.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Ridge Racer Vita and altruism in gaming

What the PlayStation Vita version of Ridge Racer asks of the player is something that few videogames prioritise; it's a facet of human behaviour that any self-respecting entry in Namco’s racing series - a celebration of life’s pleasures - shouldn’t really be concerned with: altruism. Isn’t personal gratification (read: selfishness) a core tenant of gamers? That said, it’s not altruism as a concept that’s the problem when starting to pick apart the new Ridge Racer, but rather Namco’s fundamental misjudgement over player motivation. After all, many games encourage the player to behave in selfless ways, whether overtly or otherwise.

Useful contemporary examples (i.e. games I can think of from the top of my head) include I Am Alive, in which you can help the destitute citizens of Haventon by giving them useful items such as first aid kits that would otherwise have helped with your own adventure. Then there’s the forthcoming Planetside 2, a blend of MMO and FPS where your online battles will affect the wider, continuously-developing galactic war, as opposed to simply serving an individual, self-contained record of progression as in Call Of Duty.

Both I Am Alive and Planetside 2 soften these gameplay devices in ways that acknowledge the player; the former rewards your acts of generosity with additional retries, while Planetside 2 – according to previews – does still allow for the development of your own character through experience points in the midst of the large-scale conflict. Ridge Racer Vita, on the other hand, lacks anything approaching these sweeteners.

At the game’s outset you’re asked to select one of four teams to join. Your role then becomes that of an employee for this team, with Vision Points – earned through victory in races – being added to your team’s running total. The idea of these teams perpetually trading positions, each consisting of thousands of real-world participants from around the world is an attractive one, but its execution is broken.

With only three tracks in the basic game, Ridge Racer Vita quickly starts to feel familiar. This repetition poses a direct problem to the player’s motivation; it turns out that being given a task no greater than simply amassing as many points as possible for a faceless corporation by racing on the same tracks again and again (and again) just isn’t enough to maintain interest. Compared to the fantastic Ridge Racer 3D, which had an extensive structure of tournaments, the paucity of content here is embarrassing.

But it gets worse. Namco could argue that to alleviate the tedium there is still the chance of personal progression, as races give you credits, which in turn unlock upgrades for your car. But for a system of persistence to work, surely the gamer’s aims should be clear? Ridge Racer doesn’t show how many points away from the next level you are, while the system of upgrades is fixed and often forces you to spend hard-won credits on blocks that are empty, just to get closer to the next actual bonus.

So there are little in the way of personal rewards, while there’s no wider framework to keep the player engaged. Asking players to be altruistic and leave aside individual gratification for a wider cause (whether it be for the survivors in I Am Alive, an intergalactic battle or, as in our Ridge Racer Vita career, Circlite Racing) doesn’t mean you can ignore a gamer’s base concerns. Grinding in, for example, RPGs works because it’s supported by a reward system and a narrative that often overrides the repetition of the gameplay; Ridge Racer’s cause, then, is lost the moment just a few hours in when you hit this wall of repetition - lots of play that feels pretty thankless and, crucially, not very fun.

The irony of all this is perhaps the fact that, back in 2009, Namco themselves published a game whose combination of altruistic philosophy and freeform game mechanics worked beautifully – Keita Takahashi’s Noby Noby Boy. In Noby Noby Boy, as in Ridge Racer Vita, the aim was to add your individual efforts to a wider cause. In Noby Noby Boy this amounted to points, accumulated by how much your character stretched in game, being added to a global online total. NNB was such a success because its reward was the freedom afforded to the player – it didn’t need many trimmings, while the playground given to the player was suffused with such randomness and colour that no two games were ever the same. As unlikely as it may sound, the developers of Ridge Racer Vita could’ve learnt a lot from Namco’s own downloadable gem, about a character called GIRL stretching through space, while on the ground BOY plays with cows, crawling through toy houses.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

I Am Alive

Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 7.1

I Am Alive, an interesting (and quite literal) take on survival-horror is, much like its protagonist, somewhat lucky to even be here given the last four years of what we're going to rather predictably label Development Hell. There are two aspects I didn't discuss in this review, originally published on D+PAD Magazine, that are worth mentioning here. The first is the Survival Mode, which strips back the already small amount of resources and retries, casting the game in an even more gruelling light. Secondly, there are the many victims of the Event scattered across the ruins of Haventon, who you can choose to help. There's no morality system, so the decisions to assist rest purely on your conscience (if you ignore the rewards that are offered for helping, such as extra lives, which undermine this altruism). It's a good example of I Am Alive's sobering, unshowy look at what, again rather predictably, we'll label The Human Condition.

I Am Alive was first revealed to the world back at E3 2008. One magazine’s cover story that December hailed Ubisoft’s great new console hope a “groundbreaking survival epic”, with much excited discussion about its supposed reinvention of first-person gaming, of how – in the words of senior producer at the time Alexis Godard – “developing gameplay based around the concept of social chaos is, I believe, something really new”. Now, some four years later, I Am Alive is finally here – its’ title having taken on the mantle of a wry commentary on the game’s very existence, as well as being an overt nod to one of the key post-apocalypse works, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.

Whatever the reasons for such a significant delay, the 2012 model of I Am Alive bears little resemblance to the game initially previewed. Gone is the first-person perspective, while any attempt at depicting overt “social chaos” has been jettisoned, leaving an eerie absence of much that could be described as, well, social. What remains is a third-person adventure notable for its emphasis on deliberation, isolation and dust. Lots of dust. The fictional American city of Haventon lies mostly deserted a year after a disaster, referred to throughout simply as the Event, wiped out much of the planet’s population. Your task is to clamber across the city to find your wife and daughter, who were evacuated as the Event struck (and yep, the Event merits its capital ‘E’).

Although I Am Alive is a third-person adventure whose core gameplay revolves around athletically climbing across the environment, the approach here is a fair distance from the likes of Assassin’s Creed 2. The key distinction comes in the form of a stamina bar, which governs your movement to the extent that even running depletes it; this in itself is fine, because the standard walking pace works perfectly with the game’s almost permanent atmosphere of instability.

Basic climbing slowly reduces stamina whilst more demanding actions, such as jumping from one ledge to another, burn even more energy. Because only resting can naturally replenish stamina, traversing the more complicated networks of pipes, slopes and ladders becomes an exercise in forward planning. It’s a subtle grounding in realism that also doesn’t detract from the fluid movement gamers used to, for example, the Uncharted series will expect. The big difference is that whereas ‘everyman’ Nathan Drake makes the big leaps without any effort, I Am Alive forces you to recalibrate your understanding of third-person platforming and the distances that characters can successfully traverse. The jumps in I Am Alive are often prefaced by a wincing button press, which is a bigger achievement than it probably sounds.

However, of all the surface similarities to more famous franchises, the game I Am Alive most clearly resembles is Alan Wake, Remedy’s pulpy 2010 psychological thriller. It’s there in the developers’ tight control over the player, the effective pacing and the tension between narrative and gameplay. Of the latter, I Am Alive is arguably more successful on one level. Whereas Alan Wake’s struggle was internal – and more effective for being so – I Am Alive uses the central narrative device of a camcorder carried by the protagonist to reinforce the eerie feeling that you’re both playing through and observing, at a distance, a story that has already unfolded.

Viewing scenes from the camcorder before returning to play out, in real-time, the moments that follow may undermine player agency, but in I Am Alive the effect is to justify the game’s linearity. The motivation becomes not the search for the protagonist’s missing family, but your desire as a player to find out how the story ends; the aforementioned design tension then, between narrative and gameplay, comes from simultaneously feeling every physical exertion of the protagonist, whilst realising that very few games feel so fatalistic and, if you think about it, this sad.

I Am Alive’s combat system meanwhile adheres to the same realistic emphasis as that seen with the stamina bar, albeit with less success. As there’s such a lack of resources – having two bullets in your gun is considered generous in this world – actions need to be measured and decisive. Faced with one or two desperate ‘enemies’ – gasp at how savage humans can be when society collapses! – you can often get them to surrender, even bluffing threats by pointing an empty gun as if you’re ready to shoot. With larger packs targets need to be picked carefully, given the scarcity of ammo. The problem is that, unlike with something as definite as scaling a wall, interaction with fellow survivors should feel a little unpredictable and, well, human. Instead, encounters with these aggressors lack flexibility and settle into a mechanical predictability. That’s not to say that such moments aren’t nervy affairs, and it is at least pleasing that developers Ubisoft Shanghai didn’t undermine the deliberate atmosphere elsewhere by heading in the direction of all-out action.

It’s hard to gauge how well I Am Alive would have turned out had it been pushed into the blockbuster mainstream that Ubisoft presumably anticipated all those years ago, given that many of its notable successes have been dictated by the creative freedom afforded to smaller downloadable titles (Naughty Dog’s forthcoming The Last Of Us may well be the answer to this hypothetical issue of what could have been, but that’s another story). It’s distinctly lo-fi in terms of visuals and environmental detail, and far from being either groundbreaking or epic, but the bold manner with which the aesthetic and set of mechanics support an overall theme of survival and hopelessness ensures I Am Alive is an experience worth undertaking. Though there isn’t enough distance from our time with the game to say for sure, I suspect that its atmosphere will linger long after many other, more instantly gratifying games, have faded from memory.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Final Fantasy IV

Back in September 2008 I reviewed the Nintendo DS re-release of Final Fantasy IV for D+PAD Magazine. With yesterday's blog on Hironobu Sakaguchi - Final Fantasy IV's director - and the impending release of Wii JRPG The Last Story, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the game, Final Fantasy's debut on Super Nintendo and a title still held up as one of the best in the illustrious series. Final Fantasy IV was subsequently re-released on PSP with the subtitle The Complete Collection. And yes, the review does feature references to both Slayer and Dostoyevsky. Could just as easily have been Slint and Faulkner. Pretensious? Er, maybe.

Related article - A look back at another Sakaguchi SNES classic, Chrono Trigger.

Being a self-confessed novice to the entire JRPG genre I approached this review with a certain trepidation. The experience of plunging head-first into a world of levelling-up, item management and – gritted teeth – random battles is to all intents akin to hearing heavy metal or reading, say, Dostoyevsky for the first time. Unless it’s all that you’ve ever known there’s a certain natural sensory hurdle to clamber across. But then, what was once overwhelming, be it the sheer impact of Slayer’s Reign In Blood or all 500-plus pages of Crime And Punishment, suddenly becomes accommodating – even vital – and before you know it there’s a whole new world of cultural discoveries to make.

Many would have felt the same way playing Final Fantasy IV upon its original release. The legendary series’ SNES debut, released as Final Fantasy II to maintain continuity for western gamers, the game is generally regarded as a milestone for the series for the introduction of Square’s Active Battle System which, for the first time, allowed you to input commands in real-time. Indeed, much-missed Nintendo magazine Super Play ranked FFII/IV the 20th best SNES game of all time, saying that “the story, soundtrack and finely-tuned gameplay make it essential playing to all RPGers”.

That was back in 1996. Twelve years on and FFIV is now the latest in Square Enix’s series of polished remakes for the Nintendo DS, just two more instalments away from that hallowed seventh game. The first thing that really stands out is the near-faultless way a strong narrative thread and characters are introduced; within the initial hour a theme of redemption and the imperialistic ambitions of a power-hungry monarchy are established, Cecil emerging as a principled, engaging protagonist (referred to amusingly as the Dark Knight, though this is apparently a regular character class within the series). The plot and gradual arc is subtly implemented; it’s only thinking about the game later that I realise just how strong the translation and voice acting is.

This at times compulsive momentum carries FFIV, and goes some way to explaining just why JRPG devotees regularly cite story as the most significant part of the genre. Without this investment in a cast of heroes, this need for catharsis and the expectation of wrenching twists, the abstract battle system (well, abstract to someone reared on the Zelda games) and attendant exploration would be little more than numbers and an exercise in mind-numbing repetition. Granted FFIV does come across as the equivalent of jumping in at the deep-end for someone new to the genre, but even something as pivotal to the game’s mechanics as levelling-up can take on a certain relaxing quality. The game is hard, often annoyingly so, but deeply rewarding given some effort and patience.

Visually the 3D makeover does a solid job. There are enough effects and functional animations (e.g the swirling screen preceding every battle) that nod to the title’s origins, balanced by elegant presentation and a superb score (from series staple Nobuo Uematsu). The DS isn’t used to its full capabilities, but like the previous remake of Final Fantasy III Square Enix’s agenda with these new editions has been less about dragging the series kicking into the next-generation and more about preserving the games for new audiences to discover them as they were meant to be played – much like the manner in which folk songs would be passed from one singer to the next, or periodic remasters of classic cinema. FFIV may be a form of heritage gaming, but it’s no less a pleasurable example of videogaming for being so.

Returning to the theme of trepidation, aware that Final Fantasy attracts passionate and vocal debate unlike any other series, I contacted a close friend and ardent fan to explain just what the games personally mean to him, and what I could expect from this undeniably superb example of the series. His reply referenced everything that becomes clear after a dedicated playthrough: the overarching themes, the engrossing plots, the superior level of characterisation, the depth, the worlds, the music…Final Fantasy may still be too overwhelming to some - this writer included - but like, er, Slayer and Dostoyevsky, FFIV is a great and demanding art. Consider me converted.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Hironobu Sakaguchi on The Last Story

On Thursday 16th February the legendary Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy (a tag which he admits to be "really tired" of, but as videogame introductions go it isn't bad), came to BAFTA to discuss his new Wii JRPG The Last Story, which finally launches in Europe this week (Friday 24th). The conversation encompassed The Last Story's background, battle system and narrative, as well as the evolution of the role-playing genre and the possibility that his first iOS title will be a "surfing game". Here is the RPG titan in his own words. For more Moon Witch Cartridge coverage of Hironobu Sakaguchi, here's our look back at Chrono Trigger.

Hironobu Sakaguchi on The Last Story's belated release...
In Japan The Last Story was released on the 27th January last year (2011). It took some time to localise the game but finally we've been able to come to its release. I will be in Paris for the release and I hope everyone enjoys the game.

On The Last Story's world...
The game is staged at a fortress that protects the empire of the Lazulis Island. It's a story about a group of mercenaries, who dream about becoming knights.

On The Last Story's central city...
By making the main city (the) only one I created the game with greater detail and density. I was also very conscious about including more minute details, such as the protagonist bumping his head against a signpost, and him reacting to that.

On breaking JRPG convention...
Because I wanted to create a completely new battle system for this game, we had a year long experimental phase where we tried out perhaps twice as many systems than those that were in the end adopted. My ultimate goal was to create a game that would be hailed as a new style of RPG, and I hope people will feel the same way.

On real-time versus turn-based battle systems for The Last Story...
For this game I had the idea of Gathering - this is a move that attracts the attention of the enemies to the protagonist, to make (the rest of your party) free. By doing this the player can bring order to a chaotic battlefield, or perhaps conversely, break up an ordered enemy group. Because this concept was at the core of this game, for me a real-time battle system was most important.

On cut-scenes...
One of the systems that I really like about this game is a fast-forwarding many games there's a skipping function, but with the skip people won't be able to follow the story. But with this fast-forwarding function players will be able to follow the story roughly by reading the fast-forwarding subtitles. For me the story is important, so it was important for people who usually skip cut-scenes, to also be able to follow the story.

On differences between The Last Story and his other games...
Gaming is a form of entertainment, so it's more fun for players to have fresh elements that surprise them, so I believe that this new battle system will be enjoyable for all of you. Apart from that, I've created a very detailed city, and incorporated an online function, so I feel that new players will be able to enjoy a game full of various new ideas.

On parallels between The Last Story and Final Fantasy, given the similar titles...
It's not really answering the question directly, but my daughter once told me: "Final Fantasy, Lost Odyssey, The Last Story - how come you can only give such similar names to your games?". So for the next game I'll definitely give it a different name.

On how he gets his ideas...
Often ideas come to me when I'm taking a shower, or waiting for a wave when I'm surfing, and Gathering was one of those ideas that came to me during this. Of course new ideas always need to be experimented, and that was no different for the Gathering system. At first, this Gathering caused enemies to all come to the protagonist at once, so there was a lot of trial and error involved with the game design.

On his inspirations...
In terms of the storyline for my games often what inspires me is, for example, a birth of a child, or a death of a close person. And on the systems side, often what inspires me is, playground games that you play as a child.

On the evolution of the RPG...
I think there are three things. Firstly, the transition from 2D to 3D, for Final Fantasy 7; this was a huge turning point, I believe. Another thing is the increased use of the internet, the incorporation of an online element into a game has also given additional dimensions. And thirdly, with the evolvement of hardware, games have evolved greatly in terms of graphics and sound being much more richer than I knew 25 years ago. We've come a long way since 25 years ago, when I was creating the first Final Fantasy.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2

Back in 2008 I reviewed Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 for zConnection International, an excellent Scottish-based "geek culture" site run by senior editor Connor Beaton. As Retro Evolved 2 remains one of the great games of this generation - and because I've been feeling too demotivated to get new content onto Moon Witch Cartridge this month - here's the review again, with added footnotes. You can read the review in its original form on zConnection here.

Developer: Bizarre Creations
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 9.4

It would be fair to assume that even Bizarre Creations themselves didn’t think Geometry Wars would become the significant piece of software that it is today, given its humble, unassuming beginnings tucked away inside Project Gotham Racing 2. Both flag-bearer for console-based downloadable games (arguably the defining innovation for this hardware generation)* and a delirious, compulsive throwback to purer-than-pure 80s arcade mechanics, the first standalone Xbox 360 title is still amongst the platform’s greatest games. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 is the first true sequel since the 2005 original (the superb Nintendo versions excepted)**.

Whereas lesser developers would be tempted to distort the basic formula with a "bigger! better!" approach, Bizarre Creations have taken the opposite route. Though the previous iterations of the game – Waves and Evolved - are present and correct, it’s the new modes that underline a certain genius. They simultaneously deconstruct the rules of the game whilst retaining the essence of what makes Geometry Wars so addictive, tasking the player with challenges that focus on one of the game’s core aspects***. So during Pacifism enemy ships can only be killed by flying through special gates, while King only allows the player to shoot within special circled zones which start to disappear as soon as they are entered.

On a more subtle level the friends lists are now better integrated****. Each mode has its own real-time leaderboard, and so the sense of competition is now more pronounced than ever; the habit of checking the game daily to see if anyone has beaten your score not only hints at a certain level of obsession, but just underlines the extent to which the game can get under your skin.

Perhaps the innocence of old is in danger of being lost under constant repetition (certainly at time of writing developer Craig Howard has confirmed that the company has ideas for at least ten more Geometry Wars games), but when the results are this well balanced and considered you’d be hard pressed to find many gamers complaining. Retro Evolved 2 is an expanded, more complete experience; expect to see these geometric shapes in your dreams*****.

*Tim Schafer of Double Fine recently mentioned Geometry Wars when discussing how far the perception of XBLA has apparently fallen amongst developers, when compared to the relative ease of working with online platforms such as Steam and iOS: "We were used to thinking of these huge triple-A games and all of a sudden when you got your 360, one of the things that felt really next-gen about it was that you could download Geometry Wars for five dollars, and we hadn't done that before. I hadn't thought of buying that kind of game on a console before and I'm having tons of fun and I think that leads to a new creative outlet and brought us games like Limbo and Castle Crashers and all the great games that we saw on that platform. I want that to succeed. So when you read an article about that, warning about the migration away from the platform, that's a shame and we want that not to be the case."

**An iOS conversion was released in early 2010, Geometry Wars: Touch, which featured an exclusive Titans game mode.

***Playing Pac-Man Championship Edition DX - another best-of-generation game - reminded me of Geometry Wars 2, with this emphasis on deconstruction and of twisting a game's classic arcade gameplay in new directions.

****Similar in intention, if not in depth, to Criterion's much-praised Autolog system, introduced for 2010's Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, the bank of leaderboards on Geometry Wars 2's main menu added a devilish level of persistence and constant competition to the game beyond what had gone before. Nearly four years on I'm still trying to beat certain friends' scores.

*****Although Retro Evolved and its sequel are amongst Xbox LIVE Arcade's biggest-ever sellers, if you still have yet to download Geometry Wars then you really should. Moon Witch Cartridge will not be responsible for any drop in your productivity or sleep that follows.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

5 Games For 2012

This year we've decided to do things a little differently for our preview of the year ahead in gaming. Instead of focussing on the headline-grabbing games which have already eaten up ample coverage - the likes of Mass Effect 3, GTA V and Resident Evil 6, all of which we're excited about - we've picked five forthcoming games that may not be amongst 2012's biggest-selling once all the units and dollars have been counted, but that are just as tantalising in smaller, equally significant ways. It's going to be another brilliant year, we hope.

Anarchy Reigns

If the idea that Japanese developers are increasingly looking to Western ideas of game design comes to be seen as one of the defining traits of the current era, then Platinum Games will take an even more important place than they already do in the story of this generation. From debut MadWorld through to the most recent Vanquish, Platinum Games have showcased a subversive approach to genre, twisting familiar mechanics and encasing them in a self-referential, occasionally gaudy bubble. Anarchy Reigns appears to continue this tradition. Platinum Games' forthcoming brawler sees the return of Jack from MadWorld in an arena-based brawler the like of which we haven't seen this effectively realised since the Dreamcast's excellent Power Stone games.

Although there's a single-player mode, word is that the skills and bonuses unlocked feed into the online component, which sees up to eight players battling each other. Although it sounds potentially messy, Platinum have shown themselves to be masters of harnessing chaos (it's not insignificant that even the most intense moments in Vanquish were frequently described as "balletic" owing to their gracefulness), while their 2010 masterpiece Bayonetta still has the most wonderfully layered combat system.

Expected in May, likely to be one of the year's best surprises. Oh, and Platinum Games have also recently been tasked with rescuing a certain Metal Gear Solid spin-off; the awkwardly titled Rising: Revengeance is also expected in 2012.

The Last Guardian

Well knowing team ico these are the possible endings i can think of. Kid dies. Cute pet dies. They both die. Kid and pet survive but one of them later on dies of a disease. Kid kills himself by sacrificing himself for the pet or vice-versa. They were dead from the beginning and you were playing their last moments of life. kid goes crazy or vice-versa Kid kills pet or vice-versa They get separated for whatever reason and they live a sad and lonely life. And i probably depressed you.
- YouTube user UnLokoLoquendero

Although the annual appearance of The Last Guardian in previews is already a running joke (we featured the game in both 2010 and 2011), there certainly wasn't anything funny back in December when, briefly, The Last Guardian and it's idolised creator Fumito Ueda were trending on Twitter amid reports that the game had been cancelled.

After the dust had settled it emerged that although both Ueda and executive producer Yoshifusa Hayama had in fact left Sony, The Last Guardian was still on track for a release in late 2012. Last year's re-masters of Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus were exceptional, reminders of the singular, ambiguity-laced gaming experiences at which Team Ico excels. But ultimately we just want to play The Last Guardian so we can tell others that here was a videogame, and it made us cry.

The Witness

Blue panels are scattered across a picturesque, if quietly sinister, island. On each panel there are lines of increasing complexity, from a straightforward right-angle to more knotted, maze-like patterns. You trace the path along one of these lines and a door opens, or another panel lights up. No doubt this is just the briefest glimpse of systems that are yet to unfurl before us. We're watching footage of The Witness from over a year ago, already the potential is clear:

A large part of the excitement stems from pedigree, from the knowledge that The Witness is the new game from one of videogaming's foremost commentators, Jonathan Blow. Whereas Braid first deployed and then confounded a 'traditional' videogame mode of storytelling, with emphatic success, The Witness looks to be going the opposite way: offering an unprecedented level of freedom and choice unburdened by the usual framework of an overarching and directed narrative such as found in, for example, Skyrim.

It's an exercise in self-determination in which the player will have to be motivated not by intangible rewards such as experience points or loot, but by the desire to work out their actual place in this strange world. This approach should, in theory, quickly make the setting of The Witness feel as vivid as other notable open-world titles. As Blow states: "If you play a linear game where you pick up a key and then get to a door and use it, then the door might as well not be there. So there's something about running into that block then coming back to it. It's structurally interesting". The Witness may not relinquish answers easily, but it's sure to be fascinating nonetheless.

Quantum Conundrum

Kim Swift may not be as recognisable a name as the aforementioned likes of Jonathan Blow or Fumito Ueda, but it was while a student at the DigiPen Institute Of Technology that she was part of a team whose senior game project was a little title called Narbacular Drop, from which the life-changing* Portal eventually emerged. After several years of working at Valve she left to become lead designer at Airtight Games, and Quantum Conundrum will be their first release.

Working with similar science-based puzzle mechanics, Quantum Conundrum swaps the portal gun for a glove and the ability to create portals with the power to shift between dimensions of varying physical-properties. Of those unveiled so far, slow-motion and reverse dimension are fairly self-explanatory, while the fluffy dimension makes certain items cute and, more crucially, lighter. It's through using a combination of these that progress around Professor Quadwrangle's mansion will be made, with memories of the beautiful learning curve of Portal likely to be recalled as the game continues and the problems start to grow in complexity. One to watch closely in 2012.

Here's a recently uploaded gameplay video of Quantum Conundrum, narrated by imminent videogaming legend Kim Swift herself:

*not an exaggeration.

Sumioni: Demon Arts

Sumioni, a stylish 2D platformer with a use of brush strokes and ink redolent of Okami, in itself looks very interesting, but it's place on this list is largely because it's a neat example of the pure innovations we're looking forward to in a year that promises two major hardware launches: those of PlayStation Vita and the Wii U. Both consoles will unlock new possibilities to developers: the rear touch pad of the Vita - used by Sumioni as the trailer below explains - and the tablet controller of the Wii U, are just two of the notable features in consoles that will herald an embrace of new control methods, continue the industry's ever-increasing focus on the downloadable space, and take the first steps away from the current generation. We already can't wait until E3. Until then though, it looks like there's plenty to be getting on with.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012


"The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It's the same with our lives. Just because there's an end doesn't mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence" - Haruki Murakami.

I have yellow hair, and I’m standing in the middle of an empty field. To my right the screen is folding in on itself, a taster of places to come, ones I may never reach. I only have five minutes to do as much, or as little as I want. Within a few steps I meet a girl, she has long brown hair, and the heart that briefly blooms between us suggests that it’s love. We keep walking, and the floor turns grey. The city, perhaps. We’re not holding hands but it’s clear that we’re inseparable. For every step we take, a counter in the top right corner increases. Every so often the screen blurs over, and the colour begins to fade from the both of us. The yellow hair loses its lustre, and I start to bald. As we’re crossing a tiled floor (a kitchen, perhaps) my wife, whose hair has kept its length and now turned a beautiful grey, is suddenly replaced by a gravestone. As soon as this happens I lose my posture and I hunch over, unable to walk with the same vigour as before. It’s heartbreaking. I know I don’t have much time left. My journey ends in a park, by a tree where I stopped to take a rest.

Passage is a game that’s been sitting on my iPhone for almost two years now. It’s designer is a guy called Jason Rohrer, whose ingenious approach to play was perhaps best exemplified in his winning Minecraft mod at last year’s Game Design Challenge segment of GDC 2011. In this take on the phenomenally successful construction game Rohrer’s world exists on just the one USB stick, the idea being that only one player at a time would be able to experience Rohrer's particular version. Once the current player dies he or she would then have to pass the USB stick onto the next player, creating a ‘mythical’ videogame experienced more through word of mouth and cumulative momentum than through shared player narratives within identical game frameworks. Rohrer described it thus: “We become like gods to those who come after us”.

Games designed to interrogate conventional ideas of play are conceptually limited for the following reason, the various restrictions encourage us to re-assess where and how we find meaning in game design. For example if a game, like Rohrer’s Minecraft mod, can only be played once, then the accepted structures usually taken for granted in videogames (e.g repetition of a pleasurable feedback loop, the ability to master a certain style of play, gradual progression) cease to carry any meaning, and the boundaries of what is possible within the interactive medium are re-drawn in simple, suddenly obvious ways. Such experiments are understandably easier to take in alternative macro-budget development, and Jason Rohrer has been one of the most notable designers in pursuing these approaches. In the case of Passage, because the end of the game is inevitable and pre-determined, the goal isn’t ‘completion’; instead it’s the journey you take that is important. Passage may not be something to play or think about when you’re feeling sad or vulnerable - but then how often can you say that about a videogame?

Monday, 2 January 2012

Game Of 2011 - Skyward Sword

Moon Witch Cartridge extensively covered the release of Skyward Sword back in November 2011, including a 24-hour liveblog on launch day from which we're still recovering. It's probably not a surprise then to see that Skyward Sword is our game of 2011. Here's to the next twelve months, happy new year!

Skyward Sword, apparently the biggest undertaking in Nintendo’s illustrious history, was first unveiled in E3 2009 with one piece of tantalising concept art: that of Link viewed from behind, looking over his shoulder, a ghostly apparition standing mournfully in the foreground. The softly textured, painterly quality of the artwork eventually carried over into the completed game’s aesthetic, giving Skyward Sword as distinctive a look as the console-based Zelda games that came immediately before, Twilight Princess and The Wind Waker. The former is perhaps the most important reference when discussing what elevates Skyward Sword into the year’s finest gaming experience. In 2006, Twilight Princess was adapted for the Wii’s launch, after several years of Gamecube-based development.

The motion controls for the Wii version were sufficient, but were lacking in the nuance it was hoped that the Wii remote would usher in, while the game’s design rested a little too much on the familiar Zelda structure. There were many calls for the franchise to get a shake-up, one that was heeded by producer Eiji Aonuma when, prior to E3 2010 he told journalists:

“It is something we used to talk about with Mr. Miyamoto, and he and I agree that if we are following the same structure again and again, we might not be able to give longtime Zelda fans a fresh surprise. So we have been trying something new in terms of the structure of the Wii version of the new Zelda game this time. I am really hopeful that people will be surprised with the changes we have implemented for this Wii version.”

Aonuma’s gamble has paid off spectacularly, as Skyward Sword feels like such a fresh and revitalized experience that it’s hard to believe that this is a series celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year. Made with one eye on legacy, one eye on the future, Skyward Sword was the Zelda game that people had been nervously hoping for ever since words like “reinvention” started to be thrown around following those early Nintendo briefings.

As moving as it was witty, its story weaved together childhood romance and apocalyptic danger, while the environments were a reminder that (with the exception of this year’s Skyrim and Dark Souls) nobody weaves together a game-world as convincingly, as richly, as Zelda’s designers. The sad irony is that it’s taken what looks likely to be the last significant Nintendo-published Wii game to really show how motion controls could be used to create a richer, more involving game. The subtlety of the mapping, the ability to change your style of swordplay with such natural movement, is the single biggest change to the Zelda gameplay; it’s a transformative addition that makes what was already a beautiful, impossibly refined game a generation-defining one. Entering a new Zelda universe is one of the great gaming traditions, and one that Skyward Sword held up magnificently.