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Friday, 30 April 2010

Back in the saddle...

I haven't posted since Tuesday the 20th... jesus. But I thought I'd say I am back in the saddle as I have just brought a game for the first time in weeks. FIFA World Cup 2010. I haven't played it yet, but I shall definately review it in a few days.

I was always a FIFA fan, from the original game up until about 2003, when I jumped aboard the good ship Pro Evo for a few years. Then that series seemed to stagnate and by FIFA 09 it was clear EA had beaten Seabass and Konami to reclaim the footballing game crown.

My favourite football game of all time is the World Cup 98 version, which I used to own on the Nintendo 64. Tournament specific games have sought of lost their luster since then, but I am really hoping for a nostalgia rush from this latest one. I also hope it will build up my excitement for this summer's main event in South Africa.

I have put the disc in and the menus look terrific, with a brilliant world map where you can select one of 199 natioal sides and bring up stats and current news concerning each country! I love that sort of thing.

Anyway, I'm going to play the game now. How sad that I'd rather write about preparing to play the game rather than getting stuck right in?

Oh well. Here goes...

Monday, 26 April 2010

Jonesing for Splinter Cell

I haven't posted anything in a while, I thought the next thing I would put up was my review of Darksiders for the 360. It has taken me much longer than anticipated to complete though so for that you will all have to wait!

As I have previously expressed on here I am a ma-husive fan of couch co-op. Even the most terrible games can be epic fun when your playing in the same room and on the same screen as a buddy; so when a really good one comes along it’s worth talking about, even just for a little bit.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is that really good game. I haven’t played anymore of the single player campaign than the initial interrogation because that is where the demo starts, and for me; where it ended. I took no joy in smashing a man’s head into a sink or through an occupied toilet’s door. It was altogether wrong and didn’t seem to fit with what I loved about the first Splinter Cell game – super stealth. Sam Fisher’s (Splinter Cell's lead character) Jason Bourne style makeover had already made me dubious about how seriously this game was going to take it’s stealth origins so this start to the demo was enough to push this game right to back of my list of things to play. Behind Russian Roulette even. That was until a mysterious man (my mate Sam) invited me to play the game on co-op in realistic mode. Not one to refuse a challenge and always up for double teaming AI I accepted and I spent the next two nights thoroughly wrapped up in a world of Sonar vision and co-operative executions.

The co-operative mode only consists of four campaigns of which I have completed the first three and each of which took at least four hours to do. Sixteen hours of co-operative content, not bad at all. Best of all though is that while playing co-operatively your character is independent of your buddy’s. There are few points on each level where both players are needed – each level ends with a door so with a lock so mighty that a single crow bar isn’t enough – your combined force is just enough and throws you into a fire fight, which in this game is a terrifying concept but it is a nice way to break up the play between pulling people off ledges and slide tackling them down stairs. But just because the game isn’t forcing you to work together doesn’t mean that you can’t and the game is cleverly engineered to reward you for doing so. For example: the game has this feature called executions, this enables you to mark targets with the shoulder button (up to three) and then kill them all with a single press of Y. If you do this with a buddy though you share targets, so if there are two dudes I can mark them both up and hit Y, on my buddy’s screen it flashes up to tell him what I’m doing and he can hit Y too meaning both targets will go down at exactly the same time as oppose to the first come first served basis you are restricted to on your own. Playing co-operatively in this game is a clear advantage, your buddy isn’t a burden as in Army Of Two or Fable II, it’s because of this independence that the game is so fun to play with a friend because it is totally up to us how we help each other out. You go along the pipe and I’ll shoot the lights as you go  or I’ll run past this guy so he looks at me then you grab him from behind leaving me free to hack the terminal etc.

I find myself longing to play the final part, and if you haven’t played any parts than what are your parting at?!?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Lorne Lanning's Oddworld Series

I was on PSN yesterday and saw that the first entry in the Oddworld series of games (Abe's Oddysee) was available for download (£3.99). Obviously I brought it on the spot. I love this series. The first two games (Abe's Oddysee and Abe's Exodus) were released on the PS1 (1997/99) and the gameplay was largely like that of games like Flashback or Another World. You got from static screen to static screen solving puzzles and avoiding enemies. They were difficult and funny and became famous for their great cutscenes. The last two games in the main Oddworld series (there are also three rubbish gameboy games) came out on X-Box.

Munch's Oddysee (2001) changed the gameplay into a 3D action-adventure, but with all the familiar Oddworld elements. It was full of puzzles, humour and attention to detail. It also boasted a new character (Munch) who added a whole new batch of skills into the mix, such as swimming. Finally, perhaps the best of the lot was Stranger's Wrath, which came out in 2005 to universal critical acclaim, but sold poorly. It saw you take control of "the Stranger", a Clint Eastwood cowboy figure who used local creatures to take out his enemies in various ingenius ways. This was the only game not to feature Abe and it makes no referance to the rest of the series. In terms of gameplay, it was more of a shooter with some open world elements.

Hopefully all the games will be given the same treatment as the first and might soon be readily available in some form again. If so, check them all out! Here are the opening intros of all four games, so you can get a sense of what these games are about (usually evil corporations trying to exploit and often eat their workers):

Abe's Oddysee intro

Abe's Exodus intro

Munch's Oddysee intro

Stranger's Wrath intro

Monday, 12 April 2010

Gaming's biggest bastards!

The above video pretty much nails my thoughts on Kratos, the star of the God of War series. Kratos is totally unsympathetic douchebag and, as "Yahtzee" points out: "it seems like the heroic thing to do would be to stop playing before Kratos completely fucks everything up!" About 3.45 in to this clip from 'Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe' you can see 'Father Ted' and 'IT Crowd' writer, Graham Linehan, talking about why he finds the characters in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood to be among these great gaming arseholes:

Personally, I really can't stand everything about the atmosphere of Gears of War, as showcased in this clip that someone of YouTube has named "Funny Scene":

Yes, in Gears of War everyone is a giant jerk. When you're not chain-sawing people's faces off and curb-stoping their skulls with your abnormally huge boots, then you're threatening to kill harmless drunks. The distain shown for all non-military characters in both Gears of War games is utter. The game is set of a human colony where an evil-alien-raceTM has killed more or less everyone and left civilization in ruins. The human survivors you meet are referred to as stranded and are generally seen unfavorably by this black hearted game. The stranded are shown eating rats and living in filth, but this is shown completely unsympathetically with the tone being "look at these losers!" in a way that is disturbingly reminiscent of real life American attitudes to poverty and people on welfare (note the drunk in the video has the voice of a stereotypical Southern hick). It's actually making me a little angry. I guess I'll have to chainsaw something...

When I were a lad, I found the pc adventure game Simon the Sorcerer (voice by Red Dwarf's Chris Barrie) hilarious. There was a bit where you turned up at a lonely creature’s house, told him how ugly he was and ruined his birthday and the sarcastic, spiteful Wizard seemed really funny to me at that age. However, playing the game back a few years ago it occurred to me that he really is just a horrible little shit of a video game character. I think these sorts of character types are deployed in games because games are still aimed at children. Yes Gears of War and God of War are both '18'-rated by the BBFC, but they still have juvenile attitudes and are popular with young people (the only people who really find this sort of thing cool) and older people who still like WWE, for whatever reason.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Dr Who graphic adventure game due soon?

Now, my love of point and click adventure games is well documented here. So I am delighted to have read a story on the BBC news site that links Broken Sword creator Charles Cecil with a series of episodic adventure games based on Dr Who. I don't really like Dr Who, but I am happy to see that Cecil has a new game on the way and I await the results with interest. They are titled Dr Who: The Adventure Games (imaginatively) and are being developed by the UK team Sumo Digital who usually work for SEGA porting games like Virtua Tennis to consoles and, most recently, making Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing (which I liked very much).

Anyway... just thought I'd share that. With a new game from Frédérick Raynal also in the pipeline, this is shaping up to be an exciting year.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Still no longer. The age of Motion is upon us.

stab Not long ago the majority of people were seemingly convinced that computer games were for children, geeks or psychopaths. A fact the game industry made little effort to change. Why bother? Psychopath money is money too right? In 2006 a dwindling corner stone of the once elitist games industry released the most widely used and heard of motion controller there is – that company was Nintendo and the motion control was the Wii Remote. Along with the control, the company also released a console (obviously!) but the console was nothing new, it was the GameCube in a much whiter box. According to a certain Shigeru Miyamoto (Game Designer and General Manager at Nintendo) the plans for said motion control were in the pipes as early as 2001. That’s five years to develop a control pad for those who are keeping score.

Lets fast forward a bit now to the present day where it is more likely that the chick on the bus to your left right now, has played games too, and her call sign is ‘TheCamelToe86’. Times have changed; the market has broadened. For that reason the big boys of the games industry are salivating, it’s not just for the psychos anymore. Now, it's not hard to see that Nintendo opened the door to rest of the population with it’s super ‘casual’ approach that it had been honing so well with its handheld console, the Nintendo DS (and friends, DSi and DS XL and the newly rumoured DS3D). Microsoft and Sony (the aforementioned big boys) are too comfortable to take that casual line too seriously right now so in the coming years they will seek to steal that audience directly from Nintendo. How? Motion controllers of their own of course!

2010 will see the release of these new motion controllers and you will no longer be restricted to Wii-ing – you will be able to Move and Natal too. Considering what we know it would be safe to assume that the big boys will at bare minimum copy Nintendo wouldn’t it? Then games could be ported with ease and players of the Wii would find the cross over less distressing. So let’s take the Wii remote as the master motion controller and Move from there.

Nintendo and The Wii Remote


The control detects movement in three dimensions, it is important to note though that this means the Wii can only ever know how the remote has travelled it has no clue where it started or ended said movement.

It also has some buttons and is expandable through a port at the bottom to accommodate more motion controlling power or even just more buttons. Last but not least and quite separate from the rest of it. The control also acts like a pointer with its infrared receiver on top, what is it receiving? The two infrared lights (the Wii Sensor Bar) that you have to fit a top (or bottom) of your TV in order to for the remote to function as a pointer.

Sony and The Move


The move works in much the same way as the Wii remote with a few subtle differences and one major one. That major one being that it works in conjunction with (and only in conjunction with) an EyeToy (Sony’s official webcam). This takes the two dimensional pointer aspect of the Wii to the next dimension with the camera acting as the receiver and a pretty glowing ball on the end of your control pad replacing the lights on the your TV. Sony have flipped ya Nintendo, they flipped ya real good.


Microsoft and Natal

project-natal2I lied I suppose. Strictly speaking Microsoft will not be releasing a controller, rather a new control method that requires an extra peripheral (Microsoft stock holders can breath a sigh of relief). It’s two cameras and the controller, if you like – is you. Like Sony, Microsoft have tried to stick with the ever popular 3D bandwagon and by having two cameras they have achieved just that. The Natal works much the same way as your eyes do and here in lies its biggest flaw. Just like your eyes, the images these cameras receive are raw and meaningless. it takes the processing power of the Xbox to interpret those images into gestures. Roughly 30% of it!

So the Move is a Wii remote with a camera and Natal is just a camera? A camera with a burden at that! Have Sony put too much effort in here and Microsoft too little? Or perhaps it is quite the reverse. What do you think?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Well hi, do I know you?

Who am I? I am Christopher Beames, the younger brother of this blogs founder; Robert Beames, whose busy schedule is preventing him from updating this as much as would be awesome so I have been asked to step in. Sorry.

To kick things off I thought I would fix Robert’s "last post about games to look forward to in 2010" as that list paints a dim picture for those of us that don't recreationally flail our limbs around in the lounge. Why? Well, two of the games on that list are Wii games. Are you mental? What is your problem? And the two 360/PS3 titles that are mentioned are both new themes on old fairly recent games. “Alpha Protocol” – “Mass Effect”. “Red Dead Redemption” – “Brokeback Mountain – The Game”. So I have decided to try and fix that, here goes:

Lost Planet 2

While I never played much of the first one, it definitely touched a nerve with some people and the second looks to go above and beyond anything Capcom dreamt of achieving with the first. Lost Planet 2 looks to draw a new line in the sand as far as co-op gaming goes with four player story mode; being a massive couch co-op fan, I just can't wait.

Lost Planet 2

Fable III

Lionhead are absolutely fantastic at winding up expectations and failing miserably to deliver on them, but every time they get back up and dare to dream all over again. Bless ‘em. And every time I'm there to offer my £40. Maybe I’m a sucker but when Pete says to me (yeah you read that right, to me) that in ‘Fable III’ you can “touch” I don’t say “oh yeah Pete? you mean press Y to interact?” I say: Wow! Why? Because at least it seems like he is trying to achieve something greater than more frames per second. Is he just an excitable salesman? Maybe. But I’m sold.

Look at him... Aww.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

A new contributor emerges...

My brother, Chris, has happily agreed to start providing "content" for this video games blog as of now. Lately I haven't had time to provide too much for this blog, mainly due to a heavy workload and the fact that my priority is writing film reviews and articles for Beames on Film. I wasn't able to complete Final Fantasy 13 (or even play it for more than an hour)last month, and it took me ages to get my Dragon Age: Awakening review up aswell. Chris plays more games than I do and has some strong opinions on games industry related things, so his posts are sure to be a treat!

Come back soon for some all-new opinions from an all-new contributor.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Some games to look forward to in 2010...

Epic Mickey is the upcoming Wii platformer being developed by Warren Spector, the creator of the highly-rated year 2000 PC game Deus Ex. Below is a long clip of Spector explaining some things about the game. As anyone who reads my film blog will know, I am a fan of classic Disney animations. This game just looks awesome from that perspective as it has so much loving detail. Please take the time to check it out if you have any interest in Disney, animation history or platform games. It looks like 2010 may see a real novelty in the form of a decent third-party Wii game.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 needs no introduction here: its predecessor is easily the best game on the Wii and one of my favourite games of the last decade. Needless to say, I can't wait for this new entry into the series, which represents the first time Nintendo have released more than one 3D Mario game on the same console.

Alpha Protocol has been delayed a number of times since it was revealed a couple of years ago, but I am still excited by Obsidian's RPG/Spy shooter. Obsidian have a close relationship with the great BioWare and developed the sequel to Knights of the Old Republic back in 2004, so this game, based on the Mass Effect engine, should be pretty good when it eventually comes out later this year on 360,PS3 and PC.

Finally, Red Dead Redemption, a Western-era Grand Theft Auto clone from Rockstar, looks simply awesome and should be out within the next couple of months. I can't wait for this one which looks to bring a good Western-movie-style atmosphere to the PS3 and 360. A Wild West GTA game is an exciting prospect.

Monday, 29 March 2010

'Dragon Age: Awakening' review: More of the same... in a good way

It has been a while since I last reviewed a game (Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing at the beginning of the month) and I was beginning to think I’d never have time to finish one ever again. However, today I completed Dragon Age: Awakening on 360 after around fifteen hours of gameplay. Awakening is an expansion to last year’s Dragon Age: Origins, an RPG by BioWare (who also made Mass Effect 2 which I reviewed back in February). Last November I played Origins on 360 even though it is (apparently) the worst version of the game (Eurogamer rated the 360 version a ‘6’ and the PC version an ‘8’). This is because my PC is pretty rubbish and wouldn’t have been able to run the game at all. The PS3 version is supposed to be a little better than it’s 360 counterpart (at least graphically) but that version came out about two weeks later and I wanted the game at launch. Anyway, that’s why I’m reviewing the 360 version of this expansion.

Awakening is probably the best console-based expansion I have ever played. Whilst the two downloadable Grand Theft Auto IV “episodes” were of great quality and length, most the downloadable content (DLC) offered on XBLA and PSN has been disappointing so far, with even highly-rated games like Fallout 3 failing to deliver the goods when it comes to expansions. Indeed BioWare themselves have been pretty sloppy with DLC up to now. They only released two (very short and overpriced) expansions to the original Mass Effect and the two previous pieces of DLC released for Dragon Age prior to Awakening (Warden’s Keep and Return to Ostagar) have hardly set the world on fire. But where Awakening is different is that it adds a lot of content: side-quests, items, companions, a whole new map of locations and, most importantly, it offers a continuation of the main Dragon Age story and allows you to up the level of your original character (to level 35 from 20).

As well as providing a lot of new content, Awakening also improves on the basic gameplay of the original. It is less glitchy, it looks a bit better than the original and the difficulty is balanced far better. In Origins I had to turn the diffculty down to “easy” during some boss fights, which otherwise seemed impossible. However, the “normal” setting on Awakening is much more playable whilst still providing a decent challenge. Where the game falls down a little bit is that, although I was continuing my character from Origins, there are precious few references to characters and plot elements from the first game. Awakening (bar a few small exceptions) doesn’t reference decisions the player has made in its predecessor, unlike Mass Effect 2. But this is hardly the point: Awakening is so much better than what we have seen so far from DLC that it is quite exciting and sets the bar considerably higher for future BioWare DLC releases (hopefully a Mass Effect 2 equivalent).

Dragon Age also continues to be the only video game that I have ever come across where social class and personal politics play a part in decision making (at least outside of something like Tropico). Quite often the decisions do seem morally grey compared to a lot of other RPG games and characters who are basically "good guys" are often dimissive of lower class people or of certain races (Elves are almost always considered as a lower caste of slaves, for example). In Origins one of the main things to consider when creating your character is which social class they are from, and this does tend to change how people react to you. I probably shouldn't stress it too much, because this element of the game could stand to be fleshed out a bit more in the future, but it is interesting that Dragon Age covers some of that ground.

Of course, all this extra content comes at a price (literally) and Awakening is £29.99 (at retail on a disc for 360/PC or as a download on 360/PC/PS3), but fans of Origins should not be put off by the price tag: Awakening is the first good piece of DLC BioWare have ever released and it is worth the money. Especially as it sets up ideas and characters which are almost certain to be part of the games sequel next year.

Dragon Age: Awakening is available now and is rated an '18' by the BBFC. Interesting that the BBFC has given Dragon Age a higher age certificate than the ultra-sweary, ultra-violent 'Kick-Ass' (which I reviewed recently on my Film blog).

Friday, 26 March 2010

"I haven't had time to play any games"

I have always completed a new game within a week of buying it (obviously, depending on the length), with most games requiring only a couple of long sessions in order to play them to the end. So, I have always been perplexed by people claiming they haven't had time to play through the last few games they have bought with some of my friends having upopened games they bought a couple of years ago sitting at home. I have never understood this... that is, until now.

You may recall, a few weeks ago, that I failed to put more than one hour into Final Fantasy XIII because (now that I'm no longer a full-time student) I haven't had the time to play very many games myself. I am currently playing Dragon Age: Awakening on the 360 and, a week into its release, I am six hours in. I'm sure that seems like a lot of time to people less anti-social than me, but as someone who would have polished off Awakening within a few days normally, it really feels that I am playing it in bite size chunks.

Now I understand why it is that most people don't finish half the games they buy. In recent times I have always rather tended to feel that, considering they cost around £40, video games are too short (some games take little more than six hours to complete). But maybe the reverse is true and games are too long and maybe something that takes six hours to best is perfectly pitched to provide a full experience to people who don’t want to devote their life to a game. Now that I work two jobs and have a few evenings a week where I am at home (and need to spend some of those catching up on episodes of 'Mad Men', making/eating dinner and talking to my girlfriend) I can't see myself getting through games like I used to. When will I complete Awakening in order to post a review? When will I get round to God of War 3? When will I put some hours into Perfect Dark XBLA (which has been out for a couple of weeks now, and I have barely touched it)?

Of course, if I spent less time writing about games then I would probably be able to play a little bit more each week...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Damn you Natal! I think this rules me out...

The big announcements of last year (in gaming terms) were two different solutions for competing with Nintendo on the motion sensing/”casual gamer” front, with PlayStation Move (for PS3, obviously) and Project Natal (developed for the 360 and shown in the video above). Both are interesting, but Natal is potentially revolutionary. There have been some early reports which are fairly sceptical about whether or not it can really live up to a lot of Microsoft’s claims, but whether or not it does, it is an exciting new idea to play games without holding any kind of controller at all.

However, I have just read a report on Natal from TechFlash which suggests that you need a pretty big living room to use the damn thing. They write:
“To be precise, you'll want to clear an area extending at least 4 meters (a little more than 13 feet) away from the television. That's the back edge of the space to be taken into account by the Natal sensors. In terms of width and height, the field of vision naturally expands as it moves from the Natal device to that back edge, ending up a little more than 4 meters wide and 2.7 meters high (about 8 feet, 10 inches).”

Now I have a pretty big living room and I don’t know if I can clear this much space. Kotaku made the good point that Natal may not be usable in most Japanese homes (although I suppose none of those have an Xbox in anyway) and I’m not sure UK homes will fare much better. The video above shows huge American living rooms with loads of clear space to play around in.

It is still early days; with Natal not out until the end of the year. Hopefully this information is not completely solid. Of course, many Natal videos have shown people standing in front of the TV and interacting with it up close, so maybe people are worrying over nothing and these spacial measurements are just the amount of space Natal can register. However, if it is people are going to have to think carefully about whether they can fit Natal in their homes at all.

Update I spoke to the head of a Brighton-based developer this afternoon (who I probably shouldn't name, because it was just an informal chat and not an interview!) and he said that although his studio have Natal development kits to play with, they won't be making any games for it. This, he said, is due to the fact that Natal is too laggy and you have to sacrifice graphics in order to make it work. He said that if this were not the case he would want to integrate Natal features (head-tracking was the example he gave) into future games, but that as things stand he believes Natal (and Move) will be limited to first party support and cheap, Wii-style shovelware (probably provided by Ubisoft and probably called things like "Family Avatar Summer Sports Games").

Is Natal going to be D.O.A later this year? Wii Motionplus has already shown how an optional motion add-on can be ignored by developers (Red Steel 2, out this Friday, is only the second game, since it came out last June, to require it). I still await both Natal and Move with interest, but I am not getting my hopes up for anything too radical.

Update 2! According to IGN, Microsoft have already moved to play down this thing about the amount of room you need to use Natal, here is the article.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

With a little help from my friends....

What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me? Well on Friday night’s evidence the answer is “no”, as I had around ten people squeezed into my living room for an “epic night of tunes” (as “the kids” would say). I am honestly not intending to exude laddish bravado when I say I can’t remember a lot of it (for example, the next day I took LEGO: Rock Band out of my X-Box and I don’t remember us playing it at all) but I will summon up what I can remember for this blog.

I know that the night started with either Lady Gaga’s “ Bad Romance” or REM’s “Losing My Religion” (both sung by me!) and went from strength to strength from there. A personal highlight was muting the sound on “Living on a Prayer” during the chorus (in a night club cliché) so that the room was filled with the voices of the drunken multitude. Anyway, I’m told a good time was had by all and this is down in no small part to how Rock Band fairs as a social game.

The genius of Rock Band (and I’m sure Guitar Hero employs the same mechanic) is that each player gets to select their own difficulty level independent of everyone else. This means that a good player can play with a rubbish player and both can play at a level which provides a challenge whilst still being fun. Of course, this is open to abuse. My friend Ally insisted on playing every song on expert and constantly failed, which meant everyone had to keep replaying the same songs as long as he saw fit! However, Ally and I did do an awesome duet on The Beatles “A Day in the Life” in which he was John and I was Paul, so I will forgive him.

I am not a proper musician (I can play guitar chords, but apart from that I know nothing about music) and so it was interesting to learn that my drums aren’t calibrated to go with the music at all! My friend John, who can really play the drums, was having to hit the notes early and was completely thrown by the games inaccuracy. But that was really my fault. Next time I need one of these music people to set it up properly before hand, like a video game roadie.

It was really great to see how people, in a party setting, would pass the mic around mid-song, or start dueting with one another. I wasn’t sure whether the game would work with so any people, but everyone seemed to get to play as much or as little as they wanted and almost everyone took turns singing, which I was really pleased with. My mate Dave from IQGamer (as pictured in the truly disturbed image to the right) looked a little like he was asleep for some of the night, but I think that was down to the fact that he was mixing his vodka and coke a bit wrong (more or less making it a 50-50 split between vodka and coke).

It was a really good night, and it made a change to have a night of drinking which revolved around singing and pretending to play guitar. I think everyone enjoyed it and I really want to do it all again!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Frédérick Raynal is making a new game!

"Who?", you ask. Well Frédérick Raynal (pictured here with his medal for the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) is as close as I have to a gaming hero. Little Big Adventure 1 and 2 (no relation to Little Big Planet) and the Dreamcast game Toy Commander are among my very favourite games of all time. He also created the original Alone in the Dark (though he isn't to blame for anything that has happened with that since). His Adeline Studios were bought by SEGA and became No Cliché in 1997 and after the amazing Toy Commander, and a budget spin-off called Toy Racer (which retailed for about £5), a new survival horror game called Agartha was sadly cancelled and No Cliché were no more. For whatever reason, he hasn't been able to make a game since then. Raynal worked as a consultant at Ubi Soft and helped with the design of the charming DS game Soul Bubbles, but that was all he did for video games in the best part of the last ten years. Until now!

This morning I read a news story on Eurogamer which reveals that there is a new game (format and genre yet unknown, but it isn't LBA 3) coming out this year. I suspect it will be a low-budget DS game or a download title, but if someone has given Raynal the money to make a big new game, then his track record suggests it will be awesome. Does anyone else remember when all the best games were French (Michel Ancel's Rayman and Beyond Good and Evil, for example)? What happened Ubi Soft? Hopefully this new Raynal game will make up for all the Imagine Tom Clancy rubbish.I am going to be following this one with interest.

Check out Raynal's personal website for a full gameography here. Also, come back in the week for my report on Rock Band night!

Friday, 19 March 2010

Because it's Rock Band night (oh what a night)

The excitement is almost too much for me on the morning of my first "Rock Band Night". For weeks now, I have been stockpiling tracks (many by bands I don’t even like) in order that people might come into my house and make fools of themselves. The big night is now upon me and around fifteen people will be crammed into my living room around a set of tiny plastic instruments to sing the hits of Lady Gaga (thanks to a recent track pack) as well as all the Weezer and Tom Petty Microsoft Points can buy.

I am really interested in how tonight will go. Will we all stop playing the game and just sit around drinking? Will it get competitive? Will anyone get angry and smash a plastic guitar? Will anyone be moved to tears at the sound of a beautiful rendition of Blink 182's I Miss You? The answers to all those questions (and many, many more) will be provided in due course. I will write a full, sleazy expose on the night’s events for this blog... hopefully with photos. I am personally looking forward to the singing (both giving and receiving, as it were) as it has the biggest potential for foolishness by far. To the probable annoyance of my neighbours I’ve been practising 5-Star, expert grade Michael Stipe impressions on REM’s Losing My Religion and I can’t wait to unleash that bad boy to a (hopefully) appreciative audience. What I don’t want is a person to leave during it, or for a neighbour to ask "is everyone OK?" upon hearing my whining through the floor.

So what will we be playing? Well I can answer that. I own Rock Band on the 360 along with the Beatles (pictured above) and LEGO variants, so there is a lot to play with. Maybe three people will want to play through the whole of Rubber Soul with me. Probably not. Anyway, watch this space if you want to read about some anarchic, fake music craziness.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Namco show off new four player Pac Man!

I love Pac Man: Championship Edition, the downloadable Pac Man variant released in2007 on XBLA. It’s one of my very favourite download titles in fact. So, when I saw this new four player arcade version earlier today, I got excited. I don’t know when or where this game will be in the UK (if it even makes it over here), but it could possibly be released on XBLA at some point in the future... I hope.

If you don’t understand why I am excited, do yourself a favour and download the demo version of Pac Man C.E on XBLA now! Or, if you prefer solid media, treat yourself to the excellent Namco Museum Virtual Arcade, also on 360, which is available at retail.

He has cried wolf before... but is Molyneux for real this time?

Fable 1 & 2 were both enjoyable yet frustrating games. Predictably neither could hope to live up to the massive-hype-generator that is Peter Molyneux, with claims such as "if you can see something in the distance, you can walk up to it" (a feature touted for inclusion in Fable 1 - possibly one of the most linear games ever made) or more recently his over-the-top stuff about the dog in Fable 2 being the most advanced piece of AI ever seen in a game (even though all the dog does is run ahead and find treasure). Basically, he always seems like a bit of a fantasist, and I always imagine the game designers (who actually have to make the game, whilst he attends expos and talks rubbish) sigh when they see/hear him.

That aside, I always get taken in by Molyneux. When I see him talk about Natal or, now, Fable 3, I am always lulled right into a state of believing the hype all over again. I think this is because I want to. Molyneux is a dreamer and visionary. He may say a lot of crazy, OTT things about his games, but at least he has ambition. For example, watch the video below (stolen from the good folks at IGN) where Molyneux talks about the lack of a traditional interface in Fable 3. It is great that he is out there challenging established things like that and seeing if he can change the nature of how we experience games.

Yes, I am afraid I will get more and more excited by Fable 3 the more he talks it up, as is (by now) tradition. He is always so disarmingly honest when it comes to recognising his older games shortcomings that I always think “maybe he’s learned from last time”. It remains to be seen whether this one also disappoints, but until then I will try to fight my Molyneux gag-reflex and give the old chap another chance.

For an interview with an effects artist working on Fable 3, check out this earlier article.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Alright! I can't do it! Happy Now?!

I am afraid I chickened out. I can’t play Final Fantasy XIII and thusly can’t live up to my claim that I was going to review it... but it’s not my fault! The game is supposed to be about 50 hours long and after having it for a week, due to work commitments, I was only able to play it for around an hour. At that rate I would have finished it sometime next year. So, sorry about that! I figured that with God of War 3 coming out imminently I should ditch Final Fantasy and play that instead, seeing as how it won’t be 50 hours long and will be fun to play. However, you won’t leave this blog empty handed. I can still give you my hands-on impressions of that hour of gameplay I experienced with Final Fantasy XIII.

A game like FFXIII lives or dies by whether or not you care about the story. In this respect, it failed miserably for me. The opening cinematic was all fighting and fast-cutting and I wasn’t sure who anyone was and what they were doing. I’m sure this was intended, with this information filled in as you play the game, but I find it very hard to care about action sequences which I have no investment in. The game also seemed similar to a lot of bad anime films, in the way that scenes of sudden extreme sadness or earnestness always feature just as much quirky humour, which serves to break that mood and undermine everything that’s happening. At the very beginning you witness a mother falling to her death whilst her devastated child looks on. To make matters worse, this bereaved boy has been given the cringingly bad name: Hope.

Little Hope will be alone now and he has just seen his mum splatter on the city pavement. But hey, it’s ok though, because his quirky, perky, female side-kick keeps laughing and shaking him and being weird! How inappropriate? Of course, defenders of this sort of bollocks will put it down to cultural differences or to a certain style... but that is no excuse, because I’ve seen a lot of Japanese movies and played enough Japanese games to know that this sort of thing isn’t an unavoidable part of the culture. Yes, FFXIII is uniquely Japanese in its humour and style, but then ‘Carry On’ films are uniquely British too. Basically, every society has something to be culturally embarrassed by (for what it’s worth, we’re winning there).

Let’s talk about Hope’s mother for a moment too. Before she merges with the infinite, she twice (and without irony) uses the phrase “mums are tough”. Another character (again completely sincerely) keeps referring to himself as a “hero” and says things like “heroes don’t need a plan” and “heroes don’t run from fights”. He is wearing a bandana and looks like he is in his late twenties, but speaks like a child. There is something disturbingly infantile about the whole thing actually: like a sort of school girl fetishist’s dream, as all the characters are sexy grown-ups who act like children. Very odd. My favourite bit of the game that I saw was when this bandana hero (called Snow and pictured here!) told a group of new soldier recruits “we go home together!” and punched his fist into the air... only to find that no one had bothered to animate any sort of response from the crowd. It was brilliant as it just made me think the character was as ineffectual at leading men as he evidently was at getting dressed.

Now the “gameplay”. Before I called it quits I had a lot battles against three different types of enemy and all of them went exactly the same way. I pressed the “auto” button and the computer fought the bad guys for me and I won easily every time. Basically (and I’m told the Japanese version doesn’t have this feature) the game has a “win” button. Now, maybe it gets much harder later on (this is the first hour of gameplay, remember?) but it made the game feel a little pointless... almost as if I was just lurching from cinematic to cinematic at the mercy of frustrated filmmakers determined to sneak their movie into your home by calling it a video game.

Anyway, that’s about all I have to say about that, as Forest Gump would no doubt say. Check out a gameplay video of trauma child and perky-girl, below (why are they making breathy sex noises in between sentences?).

For those of you who want an in-depth technical look at FFXIII, look no further than IQ Gamer. Final Fantasy XIII is out now in all good game specialists and is rated '16' by PEGI.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Raiders of the Lost Arts - Monkey Island 2 and Perfect Dark re-released!

A few weeks ago I wrote a little bit about the point and click adventure games of old. Since then, I have been happy to discover that LucasArts are again raiding their (impressive) back catalogue in the form of a re-release of Monkey Island 2 (original pictured above), with the same additions as last year’s brilliant re-release of the first game (voice acting and a graphical overhaul). I (obviously) welcome this move!

I seem to spend a lot of time on this blog harping on about XBLA and PSN games, and this next few months promise to be no different, with Monkey Island 2 being joined by an XBLA version of the N64 classic, Perfect Dark, and by the release of Sonic 4 this summer. I will certainly be playing all three of those.

I am really looking forward to Perfect Dark because, although I was an N64 owner, I never played it. I was obsessed with Rare's own GoldenEye (Perfect Dark's predecessor), but Perfect Dark tried to get every last possible effect out of that old hardware and the result was a really blurry, hazy and (in my view) unplayable game. I am in the minority here, as it was really enthusiastically received upon release in 2000 (just realised that's 10 years ago now!), but I couldn't stand to look at it (a problem I now have with all N64 games). However, I find the idea of playing a new sharpened-up, HD version of that game very appealing indeed (it will certainly be better than Perfect Dark Zero, the over-hyped and underwhelming 360 launch title).

Below I've put a before/after videos of N64 Perfect Dark and the new graphical overhaul on XBLA (run them both at once... go on). Enjoy. The game is out on the 17th of March for 800 Microsoft Points, whilst Monkey Island 2 and Sonic 4 are just "summer 2010" releases for the moment.

Gameplay footage of the N64 original, Perfect Dark:

A trailer for the improved HD version running on XBLA:

Monday, 8 March 2010

The JRPG and me

As Tuesday the 9th approaches, fan anticipation (fanticipation?) for the latest instalment of the Final Fantasy franchise is reaching fever pitch. However, I am left rather nonplussed. You see, I never played Final Fantasy VII and I couldn’t pick Cloud from a line-up of generic JRPG characters if my life depended on it. I am hoping to play and review FFXIII from this perspective, but in the mean time, I thought it would be best to come clean and put my (lack of) JRPG credentials on the table.

For starters, why didn’t I play FFVII? It isn’t because I’m being a contrarian killjoy. Plenty of people I trust and respect love that game and I feel like maybe I missed out on something. I was an N64 gamer back in 1997, and without a PSX or high-spec PC to run it on, I was forced to go without. I was therefore never really exposed to Japanese Role-Playing Games like my peers. That was until 1998 gave my “Gameboy” (a huge brick-like “portable” gaming device with a green screen) an imported US copy of Pokemon Blue. I know “serious” Final Fantasy fans will be outraged that I honestly consider Pokemon to be an equivalent experience to their beloved series. But rest assured, I don’t think it’s Final Fantasy’s equal. No, for me Pokemon is the king of the JRPG.

I say that, of course, fully admitting that I don’t have the biggest frame of reference to draw from in that regard, but for me aged 13, Pokemon was the perfect combination of a childish love of collecting stuff with JRPG elements. Plus, I liked the cartoon and can still sing all the songs. But since those days, I have played every major instalment in the series and look forward to the next. Yet, I have never really played another JRPG. Why is that?

Well, that’s not completely true. I did quite enjoy Lost Odyssey (pictured above) on the 360 when that came out, until I went on holiday and never felt the urge to pick it up ever again upon returning. I was involved in the story and the atmosphere, which was all lost during my break from the game and was hard to re-capture. I also really wanted to play a little-known Dreamcast JRPG called Evolution, which I first saw on an Official Dreamcast Magazine demo disc which contained a video of the game way back in the launch issue (I’ve found it, albeit with an odd resolution, and posted it below!). I watched that video over and over again throughout 1999, in the hope of finally having a meaty JRPG of my own to dig into and make up for neglecting FFVII. But, as the date slipped back, and back some more, so my interest in the title waned. When it finally came into shops a year after the video that had excited me, I didn’t even bother to play it (in fairness it wasn't actually supposed to be any good anyway).

I think the main reason Pokemon has always worked for me whilst other JRPGs haven’t is due to the fact that I can’t really stand any game where you spend more time watching it than playing it (Metal Gear Solid 4 being the absolute worst game ever, in that regard). I am also not generally a fan of the super long boss battles or of grinding to “level-up”. Anyway, I promise to give the new Final Fantasy a fair crack of the whip, and as I'm reliably informed that no knowledge of previous Final Fantasy games is strictly necessary, either in terms of plot or gameplay, then I should be able to offer the non-fan's view on this "must-have new title" that will undoubtedly sweep the nation over the next week. Watch this space!

Final Fantasy XIII is out on Tuesday on PS3 and 360 (though I'm told the 360 version is "a bit rubbish"). Meanwhile, the classic Pokemon Silver and Gold games have been re-made for the DS and will be released in the UK on the 26th of March.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

'Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing' review: Hazuki All-Star Racing!

I mentioned last week that I was due to review Heavy Rain and Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing. Well, having met my commitment to the SONY title earlier in the week, I can now turn my attentions to this fun piece of SEGA fan service from Sumo Digital. Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing (with Banjo-Kazooie - on 360) is the latest in a long line of cartoony kart racing games inspired by the original 1992 game, Super Mario Kart. When I say Sonic & SEGA is “inspired” by Mario Kart, I mean it rips it off wholesale. The power-ups are more or less like for like, with red homing missiles instead of red homing shells, green boxing gloves instead of green shells and mines standing in for banana skins. It is unquestionably derivative and unoriginal, but it remains a lot of fun.

For a start a SEGA fan like me is treated to a range of playable characters from across SEGA history, with characters from every SEGA platform, as wide ranging as the Master System icon Alex Kidd and Opa-Opa (the star of the 1985 coin-op Fantasy Zone) to the Bananza Bros from the Mega Drive game of the same name and even including cult hero Ryo Hazuki, from the masterful Dreamcast game Shenmue. SEGA enthusiasts will also recognise much of the music used in Sonic & SEGA from games such as Sonic Adventure and Jet Set Radio Future. However, the game is less of a love letter to SEGA than Smash Brothers (the beat em' up which allows you to play as a range of Nintendo characters) is to Nintendo, as that title allows you to unlock far more (in terms of characters, stages and collectable items) than Sonic & SEGA does. It is disappointing that more time wasn’t spent adding unlockable character art (or something of that type) to the game, as once you’ve played Ryo Hazuki and gotten into his fork-lift truck, there aren’t really any more Shenmue references awaiting you as a hungry fan. A collectable model of an obscure Shenmue character (like Ine-San - pictured), in the way Smash Brothers does with Nintendo characters, would have provided that extra level of fan service the game needs to appeal to SEGA fans.

Indeed, Sonic & SEGA doesn’t try very hard to SEGAise every little detail in the same way Mario Kart and Smash Brothers do for Nintendo. Why are the power-ups red homing missiles and green boxing gloves? The shells and mushrooms in Mario Kart come from the Mario games. Whilst the Sonic & SEGA equivalent of the mushroom boost is a pair of Sonic’s speedy shoes, the other power-ups don’t seem to be SEGA-related at all, which is disappointing. How much effort would it have taken to turn the "confusion star" power-up into a picture of Mega Drive hero Ristar? A friend of mine at IQGamer told me that he thinks the game doesn’t have personality in the same way that Mario Kart does, and it’s hard to really disagree with that statement. There are some nice touches to be found, like the speech bubbles which indicate the objectives during mission mode, which are clearly stolen right out of SEGA’s OutRun arcade racing series, but they are few in number.

These gripes aside, I really enjoyed Sonic & SEGA as the Mario Kart rip-off it is. I played the 360 version, and it is great to have a colourful, fun game on that console in contrast to all the grim shooters. The courses look great, especially the Sonic-themed Ocean Ruin, which takes you through a translucent glass tube under the water. The slide mechanic, which again owes something to the slide and boost mechanism from the Mario Kart series (as well as SEGA’s own OutRun) works well and once you’re used to it you can naturally slide into the harshest bends and boost ahead of your rivals. The trick and boost mechanic is stolen wholesale from Mario Kart Wii to good effect, as performing a trick whilst airborne grants your an additional speed boost.

There is a pleasing variety to the games (60+) missions, a decent system for downloading pretty much anybody’s ghost on the time trials and the obligatory championship mode, with three difficulty settings (of course), is also pretty strong. Whilst I would have preferred there to have been more unlockables, there is still plenty to do in Sonic & SEGA. I’ve played it, across all the modes (including online and local multiplayer) for around seven hours now, and I still have half the missions to do, the majority of the time trials to attempt and I am yet to master the hardest difficulty in the cups. If you are looking for a fun racing game which offers 4-player split screen multiplayer (a rarity in this day and age) and an atmosphere of cartoony fun, then I would seriously recommend you play Sonic & SEGA.

Ultimately, how appealing Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing is will depend on which system you own. If you own a Wii and don’t already have Mario Kart Wii, than I’d suggest going for Nintendo’s more polished title instead. Similarly, whilst the DS version is surprisingly pretty and plays quite well, DS owners can play the excellent Mario Kart DS, as well as a perfect port of the classic N64 Kart-clone Diddy Kong Racing, which for my money is the best option. Sonic & SEGA really shines as a 360/PS3 game, where the only other option is DreamWorks Madagascar Kartz. Without Mario Kart on these systems, Sonic’s pretender is as good as you are going to get (although ModNation Racers may best it on PS3 later this year) and aside from the aforementioned Diddy Kong Racing (which was basically a re-skinned Mario Kart 64 anyway), it is by far the best Mario Kart clone that I have ever played.

However, it is with a curious sense of survivor guilt that I enjoy this game. The great studios behind the original games referenced in Sonic & SEGA either no longer exist (Smilebit, Hitmaker, United Game Artists) or are a shell of their former glory (Sonic Team, AM2) and it strikes me as cynical that SEGA have no interest in making new entries in many of these series (Shenmue, Crazy Taxi, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio) but are perfectly happy to pimp them for an easy buck here. What a slap in the face it must be to somebody like Yu Suzuki (creator of Afterburner, OutRun, Virtua Fighter) to hear that SEGA don’t want to conclude his Shenmue trilogy, but they would rather like to see Ryo racing Sonic on a motorbike! Gee, thanks SEGA. If you really want to please fans, this isn't going to be the way to do it. Sorry to end the review on that down note, but as much as I enjoyed Sonic & SEGA, I’d rather be playing a new entry in any of the classic series themselves rather than a derivative Kart-clone, however fun (and this game IS fun).

Check out footage from the German version running on a top-spec PC, below (thanks to the Fr3akDeluxe YouTube channel):

Sonic & SEGA All-Star Racing is out now on PC/Wii/DS/PS3/360 (not PSP?) and is rated '7' by PEGI. It really is a lot of fun.

Monday, 1 March 2010

'Heavy Rain' review: It's not big and it's not clever

I know I am massively out of step with popular critical opinion here, but it is with a heavy heart that I must say, I didn’t like Heavy Rain, the PS3 exclusive title which has promised so much since it was announced at E3 2006. It gives me no pleasure at all to say that many fears people had about the game being nothing more than a series of QTE’s have proven correct. As I said in my last post, after a few hours of playing I had found the “drama” aspect fairly comical and heavy handed, and it didn’t improve from there, with multiple sequences that REALLY stretch all credibility, including a major plot twist that comes from nowhere, and is a far cry from being the game which would make you cry (see video below for Mega64's take on this!).

Admittedly, Heavy Rain does get you doing some novel things for a video game (brushing your teeth; applying mascara; changing a nappy) but none of them are fun or involving or emotional and all revolve around pressing the right control stick in various directions. Failure to get the prompt right usually just results in doing it again and the whole thing is completely pointless. If the intention is to make a drama which just happens to be a video game, then it completely fails on that level. If you play the game imagining it is a film then you are just left with the most hackneyed series of derivative thriller-movie sequences. The whole thing is also quite smug. It is almost insulting how clever Heavy Rain thinks it is whilst being nothing more than a boring Dragon’s Lair clone. I applaud the ambition, and think developer's should be encouraged to aim for the stars more often, but the opening credit sequence, with sad people standing in the rain, or the moment when a red balloon ascends into the sky, are super pretentious and laughable as a result.

Oh, and it is boring and then some. There were so many times when I wished I could run somewhere rather than slowly walk (however "cinematic" walking in the rain might be). There were so many times when I couldn’t care less about a conversation which was happening on screen. But where Heavy Rain really, truly fails is in an area so many ambitious games have failed to master before: that is in meeting actions with consequences, with the intended result of making choices difficult. There are apparently more than twenty possible outcomes, but these are mostly reflected in an end of game “news report”, similar to the bit at the end of Fallout 3 where a few sentences have been recorded for each variant and all get stuck together in the final speech to reflect your path. Most of the time Heavy Rain is asking you to choose whether you want to have orange juice or not... and this has no consequence whatsoever.

Indeed, there were many times I wanted to make a game changing choice (like shooting somebody you have pulled a gun on, rather than waiting for the obligatory bit where they hit it out of your hand and you have to scuffle about on the floor) only to find that there was no option. There was a (stupid) scene where a “bad cop” pulled a gun on my FBI agent during an interrogation of a suspect, and infuriatingly I couldn’t fight him, or tell anyone he’d done it, or turn on the video camera behind the two-way glass to show him beating the suspect... it was completely out of my control. I could go and make myself a coffee, but that would be POINTLESS!

I have nothing against pointless details if they add to an atmosphere (I’ll never forget standing at a bus stop on a cold Yokosuka morning in Shenmue, for example) but the lack of any choice in terms of where the characters go (I never knew why my characters were turning up at various locations for half the game) and generally not having any meaningful input in what will eventually happen (bar a few key moments) took me right out of the game and cut the atmosphere dead.

I don’t want to completely bash this game, however this reads. Heavy Rain is commendable for its ambition and for the fact that there isn’t another game quite like it (previous QTE games have generally used them for action and not tooth-brushing or French-kissing). The titular rain is really well realised and the motion capture work is superb. There were a couple of really entertaining moments, which usually involved running away from/after someone. I also quite liked using the FBI agent character, who has a pair of futuristic glasses that allow him to find forensic evidence quite easily. These bits felt the most like I was playing a game and not watching a generic Channel 5 thriller. I also liked the Kubrick-inspired art design in one key location, which I won't spoil here.

But most of the time the game is stupefyingly repetitive and bland. How many times must I check a bathroom medicine cabinet in a single video game? It felt like every other scene in Heavy Rain involved doing just that. Why is every fight sequence the same (people pick up objects and try to bash you with them or throw them at you, and when you fall to the floor you have to pummel ‘x’ to stand up again). The first time I had one of these fights, it was entertaining. But the novelty quickly wore off.

Basically, Heavy Rain is quite a stupid game with delusions of grandeur, aspiring clearly to win some sort of industry Oscars. If you want to watch a drama about a serial killer, then lord knows there are plenty of them and most of them are better than this one in more or less every way imaginable. Or if you want to see games as an art form than I would, again, direct you to Flower or Shadow of the Colossus. I would love to know someone who genuinely cried at some point during Heavy Rain. I am easily moved to tears, and yet I found myself laughing at every terribly acted “poignant” scene in the game. It takes a real effort to take the tragedy out of child murder, but hats off to the guys at developer Quantic Dream for making it happen.

In summary: top marks for trying... but please don’t try again. Also, the "sexy" female journalist character, Madison, looks unsettlingly like the 1980s Scotch tape skeleton.

Heavy Rain is out now and is rated '15' by the BBFC!

Friday, 26 February 2010

Full thoughts to follow...

Just a quick post to say I am playing through Heavy Rain (PS3) and Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing with Banjo-Kazooie (360) as of today. It may take a couple of days to get far enough through the pair of them that I can post a review, so in the mean time I will leave you with my initial impressions from having played both of them for around four of hours:

Heavy Rain: More like "Heavy Handed Drama". In fact, the first trophy I recieved thanked me for "supporting interactive drama" so it has certainly nailed its colours to the mast. To start with the dialogue is cliche, drawn from every thriller movie ever made about the hunt for a serial killer. The voice acting is only one notch above Shenmue in terms of how natural it sounds (which I quite enjoy because it makes me laugh, so I'm not knocking it there).

I suppose this next comment is a SPOILER. The opening section where you lose your son as Ethan seems to demonstrate the best and worst of the game: there is nothing else like it, as you genuinely feel lost in a crowd, unable to get to your son, and it is a nightmare. However, it is also faintly ridiculous in terms of plausibility (Ethan allows his child to wonder off twice in two minutes, and not only does his kid disobey him by leaving his side, but he crosses the road outside the mall for some unknown reason)and because of the heavy handed way in which your sons red balloon floats into the sky after he is killed. It just made me laugh, which isn't the reaction David Cage wanted, I'm sure. It certainly isn't how I wanted/expected to feel playing this game. It is also oddly un-engaging as you never really feel in control of anything, just resonding to occasional button prompts and lurching ever forward with 'R2'. "Interactive drama" is about right, as you don't decide where to go or what to do there, with most decisions being pointless (orange juice or coffee?) and with most areas (so far) not letting you leave until you have found the important plot point.

Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing: This much more traditional game will not win anything like the plaudits of the above, but has still been brilliant fun (so far). It looks lovely (with notable frame rate issues) and plays just like Mario Kart, although is obviously as derivative as that sounds at its heart. I am just happy to be playing something on my X-Box that doesn't involve shooting someone through the brain in an alleyway or something. The cast of SEGA characters and the recognisable music have filled me with a nostalgic glee I never get from Smash Brothers, I suppose due to being a SEGA kid at heart.

On the negative side, the game doesn't go as far as Nintendo's Smash Brothers in really offering content to the fanboys. There is no unlockable art or models or anything like that: just characters (each with a little piece of biography), courses and music tracks are there to be earned. I never usually care about this sort of thing, but I would have loved it here. Also, in my first few games on X-Box Live it seems that the game may share a problem with Mario Kart Wii's online multiplayer: races tend to be dominated by one player who goes so far ahead you never see him again, whilst the rest of the pack blow each other up. Maybe I'm just not good enough at the game, and it's my fault, so I'll just keep trying!

Two very different games, as you can tell, with one trying to develop and evolve the medium with something a bit different, whilst the other is attempting to be a decent and polished example of a tried and tested formula. Anyhow, come back in the week for full and fair reviews of both!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Ode to the glory days...

When I were a lad, there were these brilliant things called ‘point n’ click’ adventure games, so called because you used a PC mouse to point at things, and then to click on them. You could click on things to look at them, to pick them up, to talk to them or to use them on other things. It was marvellous. Many of the best examples were British (Discworld - pictured - and Simon and the Sorcerer to name a couple), though most of the really good ones were being made by an ancient and forgotten American company known as “LucasArts”. Almost every game made by this innovative developer during the late 1980s up until the late 1990s was pure gold. But then sophisticated 3D graphics came along and rapidly every game was about a grizzled marine shooting the guts out of Nazis/aliens. It was a sad time.

LucasArts continued making adventure games with the new 3D graphics for a couple of years (making Grim Fandango and Escape from Monkey Island), before they realised that they would make more money whoring around the Star Wars license instead. They had always made a lot of highly rated Star Wars games, but for the last ten years they have been just about all LucasArts have made (and to a terrifyingly low standard). So adventure games died along with the reputation of their biggest advocate.

However, there are a few reasons to be cheerful, as in the last few years the genre has had something of a minor resurgence. A company of ex-LucasArts employees called Telltale Games has released new games in the old Sam & Max and Monkey Island franchises (as well as a number of new series), whilst the brilliant 1996 game Broken Sword has been re-released on everything from the Wii to the iPhone (pictured below) in recent times. The iPhone platform has also seen the re-release of Beneath a Steel Sky, an even older game also made by Broken Sword’s creator, Charles Cecil. Valve’s Steam service on PC has (in the last year) seen LucasArts cashing in on their former glory by re-releasing a bunch of the old classics including: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis; The Dig; and Loom, as well as a remake of the original Monkey Island.

With the iPhone and small downloadable games (like those on XBLA or PSN) becoming increasingly popular, perhaps this once proud genre can find a new home and thrive once again. I certainly hope so. I leave you with some footage of a few of my favourites:

By far the best original point and click of the last half-decade, Capcom's largely unloved 2007 adventure Zack and Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros' Treasure, may not have the dialogue and story of most the classic adventure games of yesteryear, but it's every bit as good:

One of the most stylish and well-designed games ever made in any genre, 1998's Grim Fandango, published by LucasArts and created by the legendary Tim Schafer (Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island). I remember when my PC wasn't good enough for this:

My personal favourite Monkey Island game had nothing to do with the original creators (Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer). The third game in the series, The Curse of Monkey Island, introduced the voice cast now associated with the franchise (with Dominic Armato as Guybrush) as well as giving the game a major graphical facelift. The Curse of Monkey Island maybe my favourite point-and-click game simply because it feels like you're playing a detailed cartoon (whereas its 3D successor has aged less gracefully):

Check out the LucasArts Classic Adventure pack on Steam. It's £6.99 and includes four great adventure games (The Dig, Loom and two Indiana Jones adventures).

Monday, 22 February 2010

Grow Up Australia!

Pardon the inflammatory title, but “Grow Up Australia” is the name of a high-profile campaign which is seeking to persuade the Australian government to allow the introduction of an ‘18+’ age rating for in-game content (read the full news item here). This has been a hot issue in Australia for many years, with a great deal of moral panic generated by the media and politicians regarding the dangerous moral sewer that is the video gaming industry. There are lots of good articles about the history of video game censorship in Australia and the video below depicts a notorious recent example of this policy in action, with footage of the Australian version of Left 4 Dead 2, released with significant changes to its content last year.

I won't get into whether or not media images can turn children into serial killers (though, for the record, I doubt it) as that is an issue for another day and a longer post. I am just baffled by the fact that this debate is even happening in modern day Australia. Censorship is an unpopular idea when it comes to limiting freedom of expression, so how is it possible for video games to be singled out in this way? Well, because they are still not are still not seen as a form of artistic expression and so they are easier to censor or ban than a book or a film, especially as they are still perceived by many to be children's toys. In the UK, many parents I have spoken to (whilst working in games retail) will happily buy their young children BBFC-rated '18' games, whilst they may be less keen on them seeing a film with the same certification. People simply assume that a video game is something produced for children. When I have explained to parents that a game they are buying include the similar content to that of a violent film, they often express surprise that a video game might contain such graphic content.

Isn't the video games industry partly to blame for this perception? Because whatever their content, most games are still too juvenile to be taken seriously. It is the games industry, as well as Australia, that needs to grow up, and once that happens games may be able to confidently contain the same content as a graphic movie, perhaps even with the consent of the Australian government.

The official "Grow Up Australia" website is full of information about the history and future of Australian video game censorship and those interested should check it out!