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.

Prototype Revealed My Inner Bastard

•July 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Power corrupts.

It’s an old saying, half of an old saying to be precise, but it’s a good one. Even the strongest of wills or purest of hearts can fall prey to its insidious tendrils. With enough justification, the greatest hero can become the most vile font of depravity to walk the Earth. Now, thanks to Prototype, I can say that I’ve experienced it first hand. It’s an odd feeling, as a matter of fact, comparable to learning a profound life lesson from a Michael Bay movie.

When I started Prototype, I hadn’t given much thought to moral issues. I was more concerned with the visceral pleasures of hacking up soldiers with a blade formed from my arm and elbow-dropping tanks from off the top of sky scrapers. I launched into the game and was soon gliding around Manhattan with gay abandon. Zipping around with innocent exuberance, I had little idea how far Alex Mercer would fall and even less that he would be dragging me down with him.

Alex set off on his quest to rediscover his memories and became even more ridiculously powerful in the process. When you consider that you can run right up to the top of a skyscraper from the very start of the game, that’s pretty impressive. It also turns out that Mr Mercer is a bit of a dick and is quite happy to barge, punch, slice and chop through anyone who gets between him and revenge. It’s not a video game first, not by a long shot, but Prototype is distinguished by its complete obliviousness to its moral vacuum of a protagonist. Alex scares his sister, once, and then says sorry. He monologues a bit at the end. Other than that, he isn’t bothered by all the collateral damage caused in his three-way war with the infection and the military.

Scarily, neither was I.

It was early in the game that I took my first step down that slippery slope. At ground level, for a change, I spied a female character that I hadn’t seen before. Wondering if it would be just simple model change (it was) or a different animation set and voice, I grabbed the poor woman and consumed her. It crossed my mind that I had just devoured an innocent woman for my own amusement, but I wrote it off as an experiment, a freak occurrence, a one off. No more casual disregard for virtual human life coming from this corner, nosiree.

Not long after, I was being pursued by soldiers and low on health. I grabbed the nearest pedestrian and scampered up onto a roof to consume the poor sod for a little health. A necessary sacrifice, obviously. It soon became a regular occurrence. Like a character from an Anne Rice novel, killing to feed, to continue one’s own existence, had become normal.

It wasn’t until some time later that I realised what I’d become. I’m standing in a crowded street after a gruelling battle, battered, yet victorious, resplendent in my bio-armour exoskeleton. Flinging my whipfist down the street, I skewer a struggling civilian and pluck him from the crowd before devouring him mercilessly. My arm lashes out a second time, with similarly gruesome results. A third time, a fourth. Again and again until I have eaten my fill. Then the terrible truth dawns; Alex has become a monster and so have I.

I no longer gave a thought to the innocents who died in the crossfire. Even worse, I snacked on them whenever I wanted, snuffing out their lives in an instant. They had become meaningless; walking health packs.

I’m not one to shy away from playing a bad guy in games, however I rarely have the same attachment I do to my more heroic alter-egos. My first character in an RPG is usually a larger-than-life version of myself and I generally feel compelled to take the noble path, although not always, as Vault 13’s Overseer would be able to attest to if not for a slightly terminal case of bullet in the brainpan. Villainy is always a self-aware choice to behave differently to how I would normally.

This wasn’t about being evil. I’ve punched stupid reporters in the face. I’ve run over crowds of pedestrians while listening to “99 Red Balloons.” I’ve risen to lead the Dark Brotherhood. I’ve sacrificed my wife at the Temple of Shadow. I even made Zaalbar the Wookie…well…you know what I’m talking about, right? I’ve been a complete and utter bastard many a time, but this time was different.

This time I hadn’t noticed. This time there was no conscious decision, no choice to be a bad guy. I had been presented with near-limitless power and I had fallen. I’ve always felt that how you play games is a reflection of you as a person. Even simple things, like your favourite FPS weapon, can tell a lot about you. I’d always thought of myself as a good guy, a hero saving countless virtual worlds from destruction. Sure, I dabbled in evil, but that was to get the other ending, more achievements or to really get my money’s worth. Besides, it was the character that was evil, not me.

Prototype taught me that, no matter what I think about myself, that potential for wrongdoing is there. I don’t think for a moment that I’m going to start slaughtering people wholesale any time soon, but it’s made me painfully aware that even if I believe I’m the good guy, I can still be a bit of a dick.

Battlefield Extortion

•June 26, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Battlefield Heroes is now open to all. I would call this a time for rejoicing as I had the pleasure of playing in the beta and would certainly recommend giving it a go. I’m something of a dabbler when it comes to online shooters; I enjoy them, but I have the attention span of a gnat when it comes to anything that isn’t story-based. My hardcore FPS days are long behind me. A free BF game that I could entice my friends and family to play is definitely something I can get behind, especially with the cartoon style and tongue-in-cheek attitude. I could even see me paying some real cash money for some new threads. I like micropayments, they give me something to do with the odd few quid left in my bank account at the end of the month.

So it was with great dismay that I viewed the release version of the BFH store. The more I think about it, the more I feel that I was being a bit soft on EA when describing it as extortion. I’m not sure if there is a harsher word for extortion, but if there is, then this is it.

For starters, there are no micropayments. You have to buy “Battlefunds” in chunks, much like MS Points. The smallest denomination is 700 Battlefunds for £4.50, so it’s not too bad. I mess around with the store for a bit and play dress-up with my avatar like some kind of virtual Action Man. Totting up the clothes I’ve chosen gives me a result of 910 Battlefunds. A spot of maths and I work out that’s £5.85. Nearly six quid for an outfit for an online shooter. Bloody hell. You’d be hard pressed to find a clothes designer in Second Life that charges that much and SL wrote the book on overcharging for virtual clothing.

Then I notice that 910 Battlefunds would only buy me that outfit for a month. Can you imagine the outcry if Blizzard declared they were going to start charging you £5.85 a month for every set of armour you had in WoW? Thankfully, there is an alternative. I could buy my outfit permanently. For £23.40.

£23.40!

£23.40 for an outfit for virtual man-Barbie? You can get a real set of clothes for £23.40!

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The basic BFH Royal outfit and the one EA wants to charge £23.40 for.

I think I speak for the rest of the rational individuals in gaming (all seventeen of us) when I say that EA have fucked this one up royally. It’s not often that I wish bad things to happen to free games, but I sincerely hope that BFH crashes and burns due to no-one spending any money on it whatsoever.

Grumpy Old Gamer Strikes!: Little Wheel

•June 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Go and play Little Wheel now. It’s short, beautiful and I can almost guarantee that you’ll enjoy it. I know I did.

Back?

Good, because now I’m going to tell you why it’s a bloody horrible abomination.

You just got suckered in by Dragon’s Lair.

For anyone who doesn’t remember it, Dragon’s Lair was a laserdisc-based “game” that was just a cartoon that occasionally required the correct joystick input in order to progress. Get it wrong and you’d be treated to a “hilarious” animation showing you the consequences of your ill-advised actions. Then you’d do it again. And again. And again. Until you got it right and proceeded to the next segment. The big draw was the visuals. It was a fully hand-animated cartoon in 1983 and it was bloody impressive, but as a game, it sucked. I can’t remember any game being as derided in the Spectrum and Amiga magazines I read growing up.

Fast forward to 2009 and you’ve just played Little Wheel. I bet you were won over by its aesthetics and charm and generally Pixar-like characterful loveliness, weren’t you? The fact that it was developed in Slovakia gives it super-duper, indie game bonus cred too.

Now put your gamer head back on and ask yourself, “Where was the game in that?” I counted two screens that contained what I would call puzzles, simple ones at that, and the rest was clicking on the white circles in the correct order. Even that just wasn’t remotely challenging, as by clicking on each circle to find out what it does, the solution is made immediately obvious.

If it wasn’t for how beautiful Little Wheel is ( and it is absolutely gorgeous in every way, I’ve got to restate how much I love the graphics, the sound, the animation, the visual storytelling, everything but the “gameplay”) I wouldn’t be writing about it. You wouldn’t have played it. I wouldn’t have read Bandango’s really rather great “Free and Worth Every Penny” column about it. It would have been just another sad little face in the browser game crowd.

Don’t get me wrong, it was an entertaining few minutes and I’m glad of it, but gamers and the gaming media seem intent on forgiving all manner of sins as long as games are sufficiently arty. We’ve become so obsessed with gaining acceptance as an art form that we’ll ignore flaws that would be inexcusable in other games. On the other hand, we’re decrying the insidiuous influence of the traitor Nintendo and their allies as the Fat Plumber subverts everything we love about our hobby with his “mainstream” and his “casual gamers.”

If you remove everything from Little Wheel that could be done in a regular cartoon, you’re left with precious bloody little. It’s on par with the “games” you occasionally get as extra features on children’s DVDs. You push a pre-determined button to get more animation. That’s even less like a game than the random waggling of Wii shovelware.

Little Wheel is getting well-deserved praise for its presentation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of its failings as a game. If the trend continues and developers realise that being arty will get them more credit than solid gameplay, they will take that route. The dumbing down of gaming will not be the fault of the casual, the mainstream or Nintendo; the blame will be laid squarely at the feet of hardcore gamers who are desperate for the medium to be accepted as art.