Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Red Dead Horse

Red Dead Redemption proved to be one of my most enjoyable games I’ve ever played, with stunning graphics and one of my favourite protagonists in John Marston. It is a huge open world game and has taken a long time to grapple with, but finally I got there. The only time I wavered was when the action changed to Mexico. However, this game also revealed to me I have a curse.  Let me explain the incidents…

#1 – Whilst on a quest, I was waiting on foot below a cliff I had walked around and down. I whistled to my horse, who proceeded to fall down from the cliff and smash hard before me to its poor death. I mean that’s a mistake that could happen to anyone, right?

#2 – I was hunting a deer. I jumped off my horse and went to skin the creature. I noticed a train was approaching. Then I noticed that after I had jumped off my horse it had come to a stop on the train-tracks. Too late to do anything the train slammed through my (new) horse, obliterating it. There was not a single piece of horse left.

#3 – A pack of wolves attacked me whilst I was on horseback. They just kept on coming, in my panic I aimed my gun underneath me and – accidentally – shot my horse, who collapsed in a heap beneath me.

I am no horse’s friend it seems. In a previous life my ancestors must have angered the horse gods and led to this curse. Still nothing could take away from this amazing game, not even a horse death curse.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Inside The Cave

The Cave is a quirky puzzle platformer that uses style and dark humour to great effect. Ron Gilbert, of Monkey Island fame, has created an interesting hybrid here. You select 3 different characters from a possible 7 to enter the cave and experience different missions. Each character has a different special skill and you swap between them and coordinate to help explore and solve puzzles - the character switching reminds me a little of playing a Lego videogame in single player mode.
I loved how dark some of the stories were and how your protagonists are slowly revealed to be something quite less than heroic. The puzzles are not overly challenging, but for once I quite enjoyed this level of challenge. I like a game that doesn't drive me too quickly into picking up my phone and looking for a walkthrough. I felt more immersed in the experience for that. 
The voice of The Cave, played by Stephen Stanton, is one of the delights of this game. His narration, bold and full of humour, adds a bit of magic to the experience. At times he almost sounded like the Tadman from that great old crazy Dreamcast game Seaman - a major plus for me!
I have only played through the game once so far, but it is definitely one I would play through again to experience the other characters’ stories and levels. Although I may wait a while so the levels you have to repeat will feel fresher.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Galactic Mario

Super Mario Galaxy warped my mind. A spherical gravity-based platform game that managed to be intuitive despite the craziness that was unfolding before my eyes. It is an expertly designed game that leaves you in no doubt that failure is down to user error. Initially I was a little sceptical with having to use a Wii Remote and nunchuck as the main controller, but it was responsive and accurate. It was only the sections where you had to pull and levitate yourself around on the blue stars that the controls felt awkward. I was also impressed with how well the automatic camera worked for the most part - it wasn’t often I felt the lack of twin sticks was an issue.

The galaxies were varied and original whilst still putting a Mario-spin on everything. I enjoyed playing Bee Mario the most and liked how the limited flight time was used. Only toward the very end did the ideas seem to run out, with some designs and ideas repeated or mirrored. The extra comet stars varied between being challenging and just a little too frustrating. None of this really diminishes what an excellent game this is and how much fun I had playing it. I’d wager that the sequel will iron out a lot of the issues and be even more impressive and fun.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Butterflies and Hurricanes

Life is Strange is a triumph, a game that really absorbs you into the setting and has a rich detailed story with strong character development. The game feels indebted to the works of Telltale Games and Quantic Dream, however it manages to forge its own path with its tone, its time travelling mechanism and its pace.  It is important to note from the start that this is not a game about time travel. The power is really just a tool here, something that is used to explore characters and situations in an compelling and unique way. The choices you make have a huge impact on the unfolding story, and the ability to rewind and make a different decision makes you soon realise how branching and tangled things quickly can become. Nothing is black and white. It is not a game for someone who is indecisive.

The focus on decision-making and relationships means that there are few frustrating game mechanics that you usually find in this kind of story-driven adventure games. The item retrieval moments are kept mostly to a needless bottle hunt in a junkyard. The puzzles that fall your way tend to be engaging, all due to the clever use of the time travel mechanic in solving them.

I found myself thinking a lot about Last of Us and the first season of Telltale's Walking Dead as I played Life is Strange, the way the game makes you really buy into the world and care about the characters. However this story revolves around the bond of friendship, rather than the protective parental relationships explored in the aforementioned games. Max and Chloe friendship is not perfect and riddled with difficulties, but there is a deeper love that unites them. Whilst Max tries to act the hero and use her power for good, it soon becomes apparent that it is impossible for a human being to truly shape and bend destiny to their will.

The only misstep I felt was the Alan Wake-y stealth section in the final episode, but I can see why the section was needed otherwise it would have been just a simple walk from point A to B. There had to be something difficult to overcome when the stakes were so high at the end.

Dontnod Entertainment should be commended for a fantastic achievement, Life is Strange is a thrilling and thoughtful game that makes great use of an interesting time travel mechanic. Praise must also be given to the voice actors who really made the characters live, in particular Hannah Telle as Max who managed to reflect inner strength and courage with a subtle and powerful performance.

PS - I really dug how the barn in episode 4 had a real Friday the 13th Part 3 feel!

Monday, 13 June 2016

Fez Ending

I loved Fez from the first moment I glimpsed eyes on it. Seldom have I been so completely sold on a game. It never could do any wrong in my eyes. And on every step of the way it managed to confound, surprise and delight me – always surpassing my already lofty expectations. Fez has two layers; one an ingenious platform experience and the other a challenging lesson in cryptography.  

! - Just a little warning of spoilers from here on - !

I finally decided to complete Fez recently, I had not found all of its secrets but it felt I had come as far as I could without resorting to some challenging code cracking. The ending had such an impact on me, it was like the videogame equivalent of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My interpretation of the end: when Gomez returns most of the cubes and anti-cubes it appears the day has been saved initially. However, on return to your home village when you start walking around things start to deteriorate. It felt to me that because all the cubes had not been found the world was starting to fall apart, the pixilation grew more severe until Gomez grew into a white and red dot. To me it felt like the point of the end of life, where you are stripped down to nothing but your base elements. Although this point seems like the end  everything zooms in even further in a hypnotic way, the collapse of both the second and third dimensions in on themselves. The ending then descends into a series of further reprographics, lines, fractals and shapes, with Disasterpiece providing a haunting rendition of Chopin’s Prelude #4 in Em as we see the images collapse into cubes within cubes within cubes.

To have left the ending there might have been a little to bleak and heavy and so you return to Gomez in his villages playing the drums, which has a little more feel of a traditional 8-bit game ending. Which encapsulates how Fez works, stunning originality and subverting ideas of classic gaming to produce that is more than the sum of its parts.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Mario Kart Memories

Since getting my Wii U I have been playing a lot of Mario Kart 8. A heck of a lot. It is the online mode that is the most addictive, especially as you can join and play with friends and family so easily on the quest for VR points. Anyhow, it got me thinking about my experiences with the Mario Kart series over the years. 

Being a Sega boy the SNES game passed me by, so it was only when I went to University and my neighbour in my halls of residence had a new Nintendo 64 that I was introduced to the series. The graphics were impressive (for the time) and I loved the 4 player split-screen mode. I still remember what an impression having to dodge traffic on Toad’s Turnpike - or all the multiple directions of Yoshi’s Valley - had on me at the time. My neighbour who owned the N64 was head and shoulders above the rest of us who played - even getting hit by the blue Spiny Shell in first place never stopped him from always winning races. He was merciless.

The next time I really got into a Mario Kart game was Double Dash on the GameCube. I have a real fondness for the GameCube controller and it just seemed to suit the game so well, it was one of the few games that could tear me away from Resident Evil 4. Me and my friend really played this game to death, the ability to choose different pairings and karts made the choices seem endless. I loved the absolute chaos of Baby Park. Maybe it was because I had not played many of the earlier games that it felt quite fresh. Another friend who came over to play multiplayer was disgusted with the game - saying it had nothing on the original SNES version.

Anyway, back to Mario Kart 8 and to slowly creep towards 99,999 VR points…

Friday, 13 May 2016

When The Dreamcast Died In The UK

I’m recently been reading Service Games: The Rise and Fall of Sega by the ever-enthusiastic Sam Pettus and it got me thinking about my experiences working in video games retail in the early 2000s, and the fate of the Dreamcast. I worked in two different video games stores between 2000-2002 and saw first-hand the dramatic change in the fortunes of Sega’s final console.

Back in 2000 at the Nottingham independent video games store I worked at for 18 months the Dreamcast was flying high, despite being a little dead in the water internationally by then. It was really eating into the original PlayStation’s market and had the prominent display position in our store. However being an indie store we also sold import games, and the ominous arrival of the Japanese PlayStation 2 was a sign that Sega’s time in the sun was about to end, all due to the PS2 hype. And that’s what it was at the time, mainly hype - a lot of people tend to forget how lacklustre the PlayStation 2’s original games line up was. I remember people paying £600 for a Japanese PS2 and £80 on something like the underwhelming Ridge Racer V or FantaVision and ending up sheepishly trying to return them a few days later. The Dreamcast was so going strong at this point, with so many great games and the internet enabled play of games like Chu Chu Rocket and Phantasy Star Online offered something completely new for console gamers.

When the PS2 was released in the UK people went mad for it, they went crazy for it… as it was a cheap DVD player. And that was what the Dreamcast was lacking, I saw so many people agonise over which system to buy and in the end the DVD factor always won out. Reading Pettus’ Service Games it is interesting to see the reason why Sega did not incorporate one in the Dreamcast and opted for GD-ROMS -  in short: money. They just could not afford to include one and thought it would not matter for a dedicated games machine, but I saw first-hand how many sales they ultimately lost to this gamble.

A year later I had switched towns, moving south and eventually getting a job at a nationwide games retailer. Inside just those 12 months the fortunes of the Dreamcast had changed greatly, in this new store the display section for the Sega Dreamcast was relegated to the back of the store. The new releases were drying up, limited releases like Cannon Spike and Evil Twin that failed to energise sales. The second-hand market was pretty buoyant for the console then, but that was because so many people were trading in their Dreamcast for either the PS2 or Xbox. The GameCube was also just around the corner too.

In this store we still had an official Dreamcast pod for people to play on, which was seldom used. To generate more interest I started to bring in some of my import Dreamcast games from home to play on the pod, stuff like Treasure’s incredible shmup Ikaruga. It proved really popular and shows the mistakes that publishers seem to make regarding which games to localise. It was the end of Sega as a real market force, and its shelf-space continued to evaporate. Most customers I saw opted for the Xbox when trading in their Dreamcasts, seemingly unable to side with either of the bitter enemies of new and old that Sony and Nintendo represented. It was the end of the Dreamcast for the UK retail market, I will never miss their terribly flimsy boxes though.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Adventures in Wii U

I have been waiting a long time to get a Wii U, yet the timing has never seemed right. However, the recent aura of doomed console chic – akin to the Sega Saturn – really sold me on getting one. Well… that and also because my fiancĂ© also really wanted one too. So now we have a Wii U. 

The only Nintendo home console I owned before this was a Gamecube (mainly for Resident Evil 4 and Mario Kart: Double Dash). I’m not a massive Nintendo fan as I’m a Sega Boy at heart - Nintendo will always be the “enemy” in some weird way. But with Sega a shadow of its former self it seems it is only Nintendo left who offer that kind of gaming nostalgia in a next gen platform.

So far I am adoring the Wii U. Between Mario Maker, Mario Kart 8 and Yoshi’s Wooly World I am having tons of fun. Mario Kart 8 especially is the best version of that racer I have ever played, and the online mode is fiendishly addictive. The amount of courses, characters and vehicles make everything feel so fresh.

The Wii U has become the prime console too, being the main hub for watching Netflix/iPlayer. The GamePad I thought initially seemed like a gimmick, but it is vital in designing levels in Mario Maker. I like how as well some games don’t try to force using it, sometimes the excellent Pro Controller is a brilliant alternative.

So yes, so far my Wii U experience has been great. It may be dying, but it is dying with style.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

I Have A Good Feeling About This

I was overjoyed when Super Star Wars was released for the PS Vita before Christmas - perfect timing after the coming of The Force Awakens. As a Sega Mega Drive owner growing up it was one of the SNES games that filled me with envy, but at last now a few decades down the road I finally get to play Super Star Wars!

And it’s hard.

Real hard.

So hard it takes me back to days of 8-bit and 16-bit games that were relentlessly difficult. Yet fair. That’s an important thing with a hard game, as long as there are no glitches, poor collision detection or slow controls, a game can still be incredibly fun and addictive. I played it solidly over Christmas and felt really proud when I finished it in the New Year. I really felt like I had achieved something.

Super Star Wars is beautiful looking run and gun platformer that follows Episode 4 quite closely. Playing as Luke, Han or Chewie you fight your way through many stages – mostly taken from the first half of the film. There are some decent mode-7 3D sections too where you fly about like Soulstar on the Mega CD or something. The levels are tough and without a strong power-up progress is slow. Inside the Jawas’ Sandcrawler was the absolute most torturous level I played – why do the Jawas have so much lava inside their Sandcrawler - it’s a moving vehicle!!! (heh - well I guess maybe it was actually molten metal thinking about it).

This was a game was so well suited to PS Vita, and there are quite a few options to change the screen and save progress. It’s a great challenging game and I hope the Super Star Wars sequels on the way.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted

Letting things slide again due to exams and moving, so it has been many many weeks ago since I finished Assassin’s Creed Revelations. My forth Assassin’s Creed game and the last feature Ezio. Going into this I was feeling a little fatigued with the series, however a friend of mine said this game did not last so long and was a fitting end to Ezio’s story.

I liked the fact that my jaded and weary feelings were captured well by the older version of Ezio, no longer the hot-headed punk he was of his youth. The game plays out very in a refreshingly simple yet familiar way. The major game changes - the hookblade and the bomb creation - don’t really alter things much, therefore if you are well-versed in the series you can fast make progress through Constantinople (the Turkish location is different enough to make the game look distinctive, especially after the two previous entries set in Italy). The heavily-armoured Janissaries also gave a bit of challenge to the normal hack and slash melee battles.

The sections featuring the welcome return of Altair from the first game are easily the strongest, and seeing how the rest of his life story played out was really touching. Ezio too gets to explore his softer side too with the relationship with Sofia providing an interesting contrast to how things develop with Altair.

I am really glad I did not skip this entry in the series, the fact it can be played through quite rapidly is a great bonus. I am now really looking forward to the next game with the fresh new setting and characters, but a part of me will miss Ezio.