Sad panda.

•December 6, 2010 • 2 Comments

I’m surprised to see people getting rather annoyed at people changing their Facebook profile pictures to cartoon characters. I’m not sure how the whole thing started, however I first saw the message without any kind of charity connection. I’ve since seen it with mentions of the NSPCC or generic child awareness messages.

I changed my picture because I thought it was fun. Seeing other people’s pictures has brought a smile to my face. It’s entertaining to guestimate people’s ages from the cartoons they used to watch. Harmless fun.

Other people have done it for issue awareness reasons, which some people seem to take offence at. I’m trying to figure out how charities receive donations without some form of publicity. If just one person donates a fiver to the NSPCC as the result of these pictures, that’s a fiver that the NSPCC didn’t have before and wouldn’t have had if people hadn’t changed their pictures.

Some people seem to think that such a small gesture is insincere, as it requires so little effort. I don’t understand how making a small gesture is somehow worse than doing nothing at all. It’s like sneering at someone for putting a few coppers into a charity box, while not putting in anything yourself. I’m sure everyone has had their mood lifted because a stranger made the tiny effort to smile at them, or simply be polite. Sometimes just a tiny gesture to show that you do give a damn makes all the difference.

I find it genuinely depressing that, with all the real evil that happens in this world on a daily basis, some people find time to moan about cartoon characters. To moan about people having fun. To moan about people making small, positive gestures. I’m glad that I can take pleasure in such small things and I hope that others learn to do the same.

‘Til the day when all are one. 😉

Shortest God Sim Ever.

•March 29, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Run, Jesus Run! has put a bigger grin on my face than any game has for bloody ages. Please, if you’re reading this, go and play it.

Strategic Combat Is Strategic. Or is it?

•March 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIII. I actually pre-ordered it, which is somewhat odd and out of character for me, considering my tendency to go on long rants about how JRPGs are not actually RPGs. For the most part, I’m enjoying the game, which I think I’m able to do because they’ve streamlined it so much that it has become the “walk in a straight line, battle, talk, cutscene, talk, battle, repeat” game that detractors claim the genre consists of. It’s so divorced from any semblance of exploration or control, that all thoughts of “this bloody will isn’t a RPG!” are absent and I can appreciate it for what it is. FFXIII is the JRPG equivalent of Modern Warfare or Uncharted; utterly devoted to giving you the cinematic experience that the developers intended with no messing about whatsoever.

The battle system is different, to say the least. You only have direct control over one character at any given time and choices are pretty much limited to “use item, use technique, mash button that gives optimal attack/healing sequence.” You may as well not have any direct control at all, as that’s not really the focus of the combat. Each character has a number of different classes available, all of which match up to standard archetypes like tanks or damage dealers. Between battles, you define up to six “paradigms”; pre-set combinations of these classes. Switching between these paradigms in combat refocuses your team, allowing you to move between various offensive, defensive and balanced set-ups. A combo bar builds up as you attack an enemy, the goal of which is to get them to a “staggered” state, at which point the bar goes down, but they take increasingly large amounts of damage. Rinse and repeat until death.

Innovative, perfectly suited to the game and surprisingly fun – when you’re fighting a boss.

The rest of the time, it’s repetitive and boring. We’re talking Bland Street, Dullsville here. There might be a hint of thought required the first time you encounter an enemy, but the same types are repeated so often that this is a rare occurrence. It’s exacerbated by the fact that you spend the first part of the game (15-20 hours or so) with no control over your party members and usually only two out of the customary three characters in battle at once.

What’s really galling is that the developers seem only too aware how monotonous the regular combat encounters are. To coax some kind of interest out of you, they’ve implemented a five star rating system that encourages you to do better in order to maximise loot and experience gain. It’s an okay idea in theory, but in practice it rewards speed above all else. Frequently you’ll find that charging in with your strongest offensive paradigm and throwing healing and resurrection items at your party will yield the best results.

It reduces most of the game into a dreary trudge to the next marvellous cutscene. I wasn’t expecting to love the battles, I bought the game so I could sit around with my family and enjoy the spectacle, but it did leave me wondering how it could be improved. FFXIII is far from the only game that I’ve found has the same issue; there were sections of Dragon Age that were just one mindless clickfest after another.I’ve come up with two possible solutions.

The one most palatable to RPG purists would be to simply make all the battles interesting. Less quantity, more quality. Rather than having a dozen short encounters between save points, include two or three longer, more in-depth ones. Yes, it’s more work for the developers, but making games fun is kinda their job.

Alternatively, all pretense of quasi-turn-based strategic battling could be done away with. I may be speaking entirely subjectively here, but wading through faceless minions when you have direct, action-based control over your character is fundamentally more enjoyable than issuing commands. The divide between “I tell my character to attack” and “I attack” is huge. I defy anyone, upon witnessing the balletic grace with which Lightning leaps around the battlefield, to not wish for a little Devil May Cry or Bayonetta to be stirred into the mix. Mass Effect 2 has aptly demonstrated that RPG and action can go hand in hand without negatively effecting either element.

Square-Enix have shown that they’re no afraid to mix things up and tear down old conventions, even in this most hallowed of series’. Maybe next time we’ll Final Fantasy combat that is intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable, instead of just a time sink between pretty movies.

Minecraft: The Best Game Ever Right Now.

•March 25, 2010 • 1 Comment

Standing on the pinnacle of a dark fortress, I survey my domain. The CoG castle dominates the landscape with its stony, monolithic greyness, a giant gnome, resplendent in his pointy hat watches over this green and pleasant land, his intentions unknown. Far in the distance, I see a colourful, roundish object that I think is a hot air balloon and a red and white construction that I’ve not yet seen up close. Somewhere beyond the castle is my half-finished, olde worlde pub/inn/feasthall thing.

Two things about this scene strike me as remarkable. Firstly, everything I see, barring the randomly-generated landscape itself, has been constructed by my fellow Colonists, a motley crew of game enthusiasts, most without a single game design credit to their name. Secondly, none of it existed 24 hours ago.

Sure, plenty of games are about building stuff and some of them can be played co-operatively. Little Big Planet invested in the idea of co-operative building in a big way, but I would argue that it’s too involved to be seen as playing a game. Minecraft is different. It’s simple, even primitive, with everything constructed from basic cubes, but that simplicity leads to an immediacy which is its greatest strength.

Plop someone down in front of Minecraft for the first time and they can see the two choices they have; build, or dig. What follows is a frenzy of construction as blocks are placed and tunnels dug. The creative urge kicks in and structures immediately begin to take shape. It’s videogame Lego in its purest form.

Most gaming accomplishments are fleeting. The pin-point headshot that saves the day, the perfect, last-corner powerslide which wins you the race, the successful “one last try” boss attempt after an evening of wipes. You may be left with a slightly higher gamerscore, a better win record or a shiny new hat, but that moment of excellence is gone. Logging in to the world you share with your friends, to find it not only still there, but added to and improved evokes a feeling quite unlike any other.

In a world that is so focussed on the destructive, aggressive nature of videogames and too many titles which support that image, a game so completely grounded in co-operative creativity and construction is a breath of fresh air.

The Way We Played

•March 24, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Someone always jumps at the opening second and is usually followed by a sweeping kick, easily blocked and countered with a Dragon Punch. This is where we belong; this is how we play. As the movement flows across the screen, people are walking past and commenting. Some stop to watch. Someone reaches in and places a pound coin next to a stick, his way of saying that “he’s got next.”

As the match comes to an end, the smiles are back and someone else steps up to put their money where their mouth is. We stay there for hours, watching, or moving from machine to machine. When we’ve lost the taste to fight, we duck behind crates while we reload, or we climb into the seat of a Hornet and drive for as long as it takes.

Daniel Lipscombe writes about seaside arcades for Resolution. It’s a lovely, NGJ-esque piece that evokes the wonder of arcade gaming before they were rendered obsolete by the growing power of home consoles. I must admit that I’m a little jealous of Daniel, because arcades were a rare treat for me, the highlight of a seaside holiday or day trip. Jealousy coupled with melancholy because, as much as I take comfort in knowing that the latest, greatest games will always be available to me at home, I still believe that we’ve lost a little part of gaming culture.

/cast Resurrection

•March 24, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It’s a long time since I posted anything on here. It scares me how close to one of your Earth years it is. However, I have not been idle! Oh no, I actually dragged my arse all the way down to London and I’m now officially Student Scum, taking Education Studies and Game Studies at London Met. Before you ask, yes, Game Studies is a real degree course. No, I don’t get to sit around playing games all day. It’s slightly odd, being a student while also being a husband and a father. I’ve met a wide variety of people in my various classes but, as far as I know, I’m the only dad. Thankfully, I’m far from being the only (or oldest) mature student on my course. I was having nightmares about being surrounded by swarms of eighteen-year-olds who thought that Game Studies would be a good slacker course.

I figured that, since I was getting organised with all this study business, I may as well get organised with my writing too. I still spend way too much time funnelling my gaming thunks into forum posts and replies to other people’s blogs. It may be good practice and I certainly enjoy it, but it won’t help much when I go looking for a job of some description. To that end, I’ve cleared up the site a little, left my older posts that I didn’t feel were completely awful and I’m making a promise to myself to have another crack at keeping this thing updated. Even if I’m just reposting articles from elsewhere, it’ll help me keep all the good pieces I find and my thoughts regarding them in one place.

East Meets West: Aion

•July 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I’ve spent a large part of this weekend dabbling in the latest closed beta of Aion, the latest MMOG from genre specialist NCSoft. I have a compulsive relationship with all things MMO and RPG so I jumped at the chance to snag a key from Eurogamer earlier in the week, despite having no prior interest in the game. I went in with low expectations. I’m an old hand at this kind of thing and it set off all the warning bells: it’s from Korea, it has a gimmick (in this case, flight) and it has characters that look like this:

Oh yes, I know what you’re all thinking. The handful of character creation options will mean that two-fifths of the PCs and approximately one thousand, three hundred and seventy six NPCs will look exactly the same as this. You’ll have to grind seventy bazillion goblins to get to level two and it’ll have an interface that would embarrass Tarn Adams. I was thinking exactly the same thing.

I thought wrong.

After making the initial faction, class and gender choices (a female Asmodian warrior, in case you’re interested, screenshots of her coming up later,) you’re presented with what has become my favourite character customisation screen in any game, ever. City of Heroes beats it hands down in the “so good you could almost charge money for it on its own” stakes, but in CoH you’re doing a costume as well as the character wearing it. Aion allows you to have the same gorgeous characters seen in the likes of Lineage 2, but prodded and tweaked to suit your own personal vision. It’s flexible without being overwhelming and there’s little chance of your slider-twiddling resulting in some hideous man-beast or plastic surgery disaster. Character race is cleverly handled; while both the Elyos and the Asmodians are ostensibly human, despite the latter’s warped appearance, Aion makes it easy for you to style your character as an elf, dwarf or other common fantasy archetype. The graphical style is typically Asian MMO stuff, which will certainly be a turn-off for some, but you can’t deny that it’s marvellously constructed.

Once in game, you’re presented with an interface that’ll be instantly accesible to anyone who has played any of Everquest’s numerous descendants. In fact, you’ll probably sigh in a resigned fashion as the cloak of MMO familiarity settles about your shoulders. I’m not going to talk about the gameplay, simply because you’ve all played it before. You have an auto-attack. You have a numbered hotbar. You bandage after fights. It’s the genre standard and discussing it in detail would be like spending time talking about the WASD control scheme in a FPS.

What makes Aion worthy of note is the quality and the heritage. Everything in Aion is polished to a degree that puts most single-player console releases to shame. Visually, it’s stunning without being technically astounding. The starting gear, for example, looks better than anything I’ve seen in World of Warcraft and they’ve even managed to tread the fine line between sexy and slutty where female armour is concerned.

Practical leather, thick metal plates and you can still tell shes female! Its a miracle!

Practical leather, thick metal plates and you can still tell she's female! It's a miracle!

Look closer and you’ll see where corners have been cut, with some particularly low-poly rocks and other scenery. It’s very reminiscent of WoW and it puts you in mind of what that game would look like if it was released today (and developed in Korea.) It’s even more impressive in motion, with attack animations seamlessly flowing into each other to give combat a balletic feel with some real weight.

Quests are what you’d expect from the genre, with the exception of a series of storyline quests running through each area. Following the recent trend for single player experiences within MMOGs, they follow the development and ascension of your character and often include in-engine cutscenes, some of which are interactive.

What’s refreshing about the whole experience is the knowledge that it’s been developed in Korea. The region has become synonymous with free-to-play, grindy, disposable MMOGs and Aion bucks the trend with flair and panache. Imagine playing an Elder Scrolls clone and realising that it’s been developed by Square-Enix. While Aion is mostly a case of been there, done that, the same can be said of almost any Western MMO and Aion’s production values more than compensate.

When I logged into Aion, I expected to be logging out in less time than it took me to download the client in the first place. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a game that not only proves Korean developers can produce MMOGs that appeal to Western tastes, but also raises the quality bar for MMOGs across the globe.