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.