Archive for the ‘ Games ’ Category

Ace Combat: Insult Horizon

I was a latecomer to the Ace Combat series. The first iteration of the series I picked up was the amazing Ace Combat: The Belkan War. From the first moment I picked up that game I was hooked. The series’ oddball Japanese take on the flight combat genre made it a series that’s just far more fun than more true to life flight games. One of the things I loved the most about the games was the way the action would escalate into outright insanity, for example, having you fly through, and destroy, massive death cannons that are several miles long. Or the inevitable fights against ridiculous planes with lasers attached to them. Somewhat farcical, yes. But also something I, and many others, revelled in.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, has ruined all that. At its heart it’s still the same game, the same mechanics, and indeed quite a number of improvements to the formula. But the Modern Warfare-esque bullshit that’s strewn throughout the game is somewhat difficult to swallow.

Deadly Skies tries to reinvent the series to be more in line with the likes of the Call of Duty series, only in the sky. But in trying to emulate the success of the Call of Duty series, Namco has instead cultivated failure.

The fictional world of the previous Ace Combat games has been eschewed in favour of basing it in real world locations. The story weaves a tale of betrayal by a group of Russian would-be usurpers, (anyone who’s played a Modern Warfare game will start noticing the similarities immediately, the bad guys even have almost identical names). It’s a rather gritty affair, and quite frankly, a boring one. Not that the story has ever been a reason to play an Ace Combat game, but it’s still worth a note, because this is one of the areas where Namco’s attempt to copy the CoD series has lead Ace Combat into mediocrity, and sapped some of the fun out of the game in the process. At least the over the top, campy, and downright ridiculous nature of the previous stories made for a little extra fun outside of the gameplay itself. I wouldn’t mind the “gritty” story so much if it contributed some entertainment value to the game, but it’s awfully written.

However, the writing is a triviality as far as the game’s issues go. The main problem is the fact that, in a series about flying awesome planes, half of the missions don’t take place in awesome planes. The game is broken down into several different types of missions, many of which involve helicopters, and it’s safe to say that if you’re playing through a helicopter mission, you’re going to be frustrated and bored. There’s also one mission that is more or less directly lifted from Modern Warfare 3, where you man the weapons of an attack plane, and shoot a variety of missiles at ground targets – it was so bad it almost made me want to quit playing.

Back to the helicopters though. The chopper missions can be split into two types: missions where you man the gun turret; and missions where you control the helicopter. The gun turret missions basically consist of you doing little more holding down the fire button until you win. The missions where you actually control the helicopter are relatively well designed, but hindered by the fact that the controls are rather clunky. It also doesn’t help that before every helicopter mission you’re treated to some awesome jet action, where you get to fly around at ridiculous speeds while the skies erupt with insanity. Getting in the chopper saps all of that adrenaline straight out of you.

Now for the game’s one redeeming feature, the jet missions. They’re an absolute dream to play, and I found myself wishing there were more of them. You play through a mixture of air to air combat missions, and air to ground assaults, which keeps things from getting stale. The controls have changed slightly from the earlier series entries, which makes controlling your bird a lot easier, although you sacrifice some manoeuvrability. Luckily, Namco has included the option to switch back to classic controls, which is a welcome feature.

They’ve also added a number of new features to plane combat. The feature I enjoyed the most is ASM, or Air Strike Mode. In the previous games, air-to-ground assault missions were a tedious affair, which consisted of the player having to dive towards the ground in order to point at enemy targets, and then pull back up before crashing into the ground. Thanks to ASM you no longer have to keep bobbing up and down to take out ground targets. Instead, there are designated points on the map where one can enter ASM, the camera then shifts back slightly, so that you’re able to get a clear view of what’s below you. Once in ASM your weapons all automatically target in a downward direction, making it easy to score shots on ground targets.

The other new feature is DFM, or Dog Fighting Mode. When you get close enough to an enemy jet, you can lock on to it, and the game becomes more of an on-rails shooter. You surrender control of the direction your plane is going in to the computer, which automatically pursues your target. In return, you gain control of the direction of your guns, whilst retaining control of acceleration and deceleration – allowing you to put yourself in the right position to score a decent shot with either your guns, or to get a missile lock. Even after having finished the game, I’m still not sure how I feel about the feature. Some of the DFM setpieces are pretty to watch, and there are times when DFM really enhances both the gameplay and the feeling of immersion. But there are plenty of other instances where I felt absolutely out of control, and when you’re chasing some of the boss characters things move so fast that you can’t really see what’s going on. The other downside to DFM is that when it comes to the low-level enemies, it’s essentially an instant kill button, taking a lot of the difficulty and the need to develop skill out of the game.

Speaking of difficulty, there’s not much of a growth curve in the game. Enemies on the final mission aren’t much harder than those on the earlier missions, there are just more of them. The previous games did a brilliant job of slowly ramping up the difficulty, not just through making the AI progressively better as the missions passed, but also by throwing ridiculous challenges at you like giant airships 500 times the size of yours, armed with guns, cannons, and homing missiles. You’ll never face anything like that in this game, and that’s a sad fact.

Assault Horizon represents 1 step forward for the series, followed by about 20 steps back. There are elements of it I enjoyed, and I don’t regret buying it (but I only say that because I bought it for a tenner). It’s a good way to kill some time, and most places are selling it cheap now. If you’ve beaten everything else that came out over the Christmas period already, and you can get it for a good price, I’d recommend giving it a try. But if you’re going to buy an Ace Combat game, you’re much better off buying one of the older ones. You lose out on the amazing graphics, but you’ll have way more fun.

Reggie goes on offensive against game apps – espouses bullshit

On Friday Nintendo of America’s President and COO Reggie Fils-Aime came out with this gem.

As you may have guessed from the title, I think he’s talking shit. Why? I hear you ask. Well, lets break things down.

We’ll start by taking a look at this quote:

“I actually think that one of the biggest risks today in our industry are these inexpensive games that are candidly disposable from a consumer standpoint,”

So why, exactly are candidly disposable games a risk to the industry? Well, I can see why they might threaten developers of shovelware titles, which are basically candidly disposable games that are made at an inexpensive price, and yet sold at the same price as major titles. But the industry as a whole? Seriously?

In the interview Reggie goes on to say that part of the problem with these games is that they create an expectation that games should only cost about £2. Obviously this is a potential threat to companies who make and sell games for around £40.  But will many people seriously start to have that expectation? When someone sits and plays Dead Space 2, are they really going to be sitting there thinking “this is pretty rad and all, but if I can get Sonic 1 on my phone for £1.50, why was I a big enough fool to pay £40 for this?”

Thought not.

It’s pretty safe to say that for many years now there’s existed a cluster of gamers who are looking to buy games on the cheap. Apps are a new way of doing that, but we’ve been able to go and buy games for £4 from second hand shops for ages now, and yet the games industry is still standing. In fact, it’s growing. Cheap gaming has never been a threat, I don’t see why it will be now.

Not only are apps not a threat. There’s expert opinion that it could be a boost to the industry.

It’s also worth considering that Nintendo’s biggest competitor on the handheld market – Sony – seem to think the exact opposite about apps. They’ve even gone as far as to make app support a key part of their business strategy for their next handheld.

So what’s really motivating Reggie’s comments? Is it the fact that perhaps apps are a threat to Nintendo, rather than gaming as a whole? I certainly think so.

By the time the 3DS and the NGP are released succeed their respective forebears, there’ll be a situation where if you want to play games on the move, you have 3 options: the NGP, 3DS, and the smartphone you carry around everywhere. Spot the odd one out. Hint: it’s the 3DS.

The 3DS is the only handheld device that doesn’t have any kind of app support. Whether that’s intentional, or whether Nintendo have just failed to see an opportunity, I cannot say. But clearly it’s a problem for the company that they don’t have a means of dealing in these cheap, often disposable gaming experiences. And so people who want to just pay £2-4 for something a bit rubbish that helps kill time during lunch breaks and the like, they’re going to have to go to someone other than Nintendo.

Not only is Nintendo missing out on a slice of the pie with apps, but apps do represent a threat to a portion of its business. Remember what I said about shovelware earlier? Which consoles can you find more shovelware titles on than any other? Nintendo consoles.

As a quick example I went to gameplay.co.uk and typed in the word Barbie – which is basically the shovelware franchise. All but one of the titles was on a Nintendo console. Now the thing with shovelware is that it’s horrendous crap devoid of any kind of production values, and made at a relatively low cost. Kind of like a lot of apps out there. Except unlike a lot of apps out there, these games command a price of around £20-30. Why pay that if you can get your kids an app version of a similar franchise, and pay a fraction of the price?

Also, if you’re a developer of these crude titles, then there’s the temptation of putting them out in app form. This saves you having to find a publisher, who then has to pay lisencing fees, etc. And also ensures you a larger portion of the profits.

I am, of course, speculating here. But if wild speculation about the effect of apps on the games industry is good enough for Reggie, then I think I’m allowed to speculate a little about the future of shovelware in a post-iPhone world. Whether apps will damage Nintendo’s revenue stream from shovelware is something we’ll have to wait and see on. We’ll also have to wait and see if Nintendo lose business to people buying apps on other platforms (at very least even if they don’t lose any money, they’ve lost the opportunity to make way more money by not providing a platform for apps). One thing I can say for sure, is that apps are certainly not the biggest threat to the gaming industry. And now that I think about it, with the industry now so large, can anything really even threaten it?

Is the handheld shoe finally on the other foot?

Over the last two weeks the gaming press has been dominated by handheld news. Firstly owing to Nintendo’s 3DS conference in Amsterdam, where full details on the console were announced, including pricing, games, and more on the system’s capability. The big N’s big blow out event was top of the gaming new agenda for almost a whole week, and why not? It’s big news.

And then last week, along came the announcement of gaming’s worst kept secret: Sony’s successor to the PSP – currently dubbed the NGP. There’s still a lot of details with regards to Sony’s latest offering that likely won’t surface for a while. Chief amongst those is a price point and a release date. But what information Sony did make available is absolutely astonishing. Sony have once again created a piece of hardware that’s nothing short of incredible.

Now when it comes to Sony and new hardware, it’s never surprising when the company rolls out a sleek looking piece of tech that seems years ahead of it’s time. That’s what Sony always does. Building great hardware has always been the company’s strength.

But when it comes to things like software, and good business decisions, Sony generally get themselves into hot water. It’s not good enough to simply wheel out an impressive console if that console then turns into a flop. Lets look at the original PSP as an example: Way ahead of its time, technically superb, and in posession of the UMD as a brand new media format. And yet in it’s early years the console tanked. In fact, even though the PSP is the only handheld I can think of to go against Nintendo and keep going for this long, and even though the console is now in posession of a decent software library, I’d still venture to say that the PSP is still a big flop now, especially when you compare it to just how well the DS continues to do.

I think that the NGP could truly be different though. Obviously, it’s still early days. There are still a lot of ways Sony can go wrong between now and whenever the NGP gets released. But I have a sneaking suspicion they won’t. It seems like the company may finally be making some savvy business decisions.

Firstly, lets look at the hardware itself. Previously Sony’s approach to building something new has just been to build it bigger and better than what its competitors can offer. This approach doesn’t really work anymore. Nintendo has proven that with the DS, and with the Wii especially. Yes, people want bigger and better, but more than that, people are suckers for gimmicks and innovation, which Sony have never really had a go at before. But with the NGP it seems that Sony is having a try at experimenting with new ways to build a handheld. Feature wise, the NGP has a giant touch pad on the back, a microphone, cameras on the front and back, and SIXAXIS motion controls built in (also, on top of these innovative touches, Sony’s still gone down it’s tried and tested route of building a machine with mammoth power. A handheld that can run PS3 games? Yeah, that’s not tempting the shit out of me.).

But the impressive hardware isn’t the only feather the NGP has in its cap. Sony have already announced that a number of pretty important franchises are coming to the NGP around launch. One of the biggest failures of the PSP was poor third party support for games, and this time around it seems that Sony is committed to not making the same mistake again. A solid launch line up will help build early support, and hopefully Sony will be able to keep that momentum going further into the handheld’s lifespan.

But that’s not the best software decision Sony have made for the NGP. They’ve also announced something that nobody saw coming. Something which may well be a complete gamechanger. That something is the Playstation Suite. In a nutshell, the Suite is a development platform for use on both the NGP and on Android phones. And to put it simply, it may be Sony’s best idea since they put a DVD drive in the PS2.

The suite’s a smart move for two reasons. Firstly, it will create a framework for Android phones that can rival Apple’s app store to some extent. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why that’s a good idea, apps are an incredibly lucrative business, and currently the Android system doesn’t have any kind of universal means of distributing apps, Sony may be about to provide that, and it will obviously be very lucrative. Moreover, by putting content out on Android phones, Sony is extending the Playstation brand beyond its own hardware. In a way, they’re beating Nintendo at their own game, and going for the casual gaming market. When Nintendo went for the casual gaming crowd with the Wii, they basically started printing money for themselves. And now Sony could be about to do the same by getting a slice of the cash all the people who download a couple of of games to play on their phones pay out.

This whole process is a two-way street, which leads me to the other reason it’s a great idea. Not only does the Suite give Sony that brand extension, but it will also work to draw customers and developers alike to Sony’s own hardware. Right now you have a situation where there are loads of developers working exclusively on phone games and apps, and there’s loads of money in it. Apps are the new craze, and Sony would be foolish to not try and do something that would attract the app crowd to develop for the NGP. But instead they’ve gone one step better. They don’t need to try and get app developers on board with the NGP, thanks to the Playstation Suite. Instead, they can just keep developing things for phones, except it just so happens that if they do so using the Suite’s framework, all of that content will also be made instantly available for the NGP, with no need for any kind of extra fooling around. And then there’s the added bonus that people who may start off by casually downloading a few PS Suite games to their phones may then find themselves thinking they’d quite like a dedicated device that plays those things in higher quality. Meanwhile, the execs at Sony sit back laughing at their new money printing press.

Meanwhile, on the Nintendo side of things, it seems like for the first time in the company’s history, the handheld division are actually making bad decisions.

Now, Nintendo is such a powerhouse that I’m sure these decisions won’t really matter at all. Infact, I’m sure that the 3DS will come out, smash some sales records, and continue Nintendo’s handheld market dominance.

But the company may just alienate a lot of people on the way.

When it comes to those bad decisions I mentioned before, Nintendo have made two of them. The first of which is the decision to region lock games.

Region locking isn’t anything new when it comes to gaming, it’s been in place pretty much since the medium began. But this is a first for a Nintendo handheld. Up until now the games have always been region free. But at a glance it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, I’ll just have to buy my games from the same region my DS is from. Except that region is Europe – and when it comes to games on Nintendo handhelds and Europe, Europe gets fucked. Admittedly, these days things are nowhere near as bad as when I was a kid. I remember sometimes having to wait as much as three years after a US release for a game to finally make it out here. Sometimes they just didn’t come out.

These days Europe isn’t treated with such disdain from publishers. But there are still games that don’t make it out here, or that we have to wait ages for. Generally speaking they’re more niche titles that don’t tend to have a mass appeal. So it’s the core gaming audience that’s going to be most hit by this.

So financially speaking, since Nintendo’s largest source of funds these days comes from the more casual crowd, maybe it’s not such a dumb move, there’s probably not that much money to be lost. But why do it at all? There’s an argument to be made that the import market skews sales figures a bit, but that’s no big deal, because all things being equal the worldwide number of sales will still be the same, no matter what territory the game was bought from. Except in the case of games that don’t get released in all territories. Like pretty much anything published by Atlus. In cases like that, the import market can actually help create sales that won’t otherwise happen. And more sales means Nintendo rakes in more money from lisencing fees.

So right now by implementing this Nintendo’s got a pissed off section of  customers, and is also fucking over the developers and publishers of niche games, whilst also losing out a bit of money on lisencing in the process. Please tell me if there’s something I’m failing to grasp about why this is actually a good decision, because right now I’m not seeing it.

Then there’s the matter of pricing. And this is the biggy. 3DS games will cost £40 at launch. Quite frankly, that’s going to piss everybody off. As I said earlier, I’m sure the 3DS will be a success no matter what, and I know for a fact hundreds of thousands of people will go and pay that price for games. But maybe they’ll start thinking twice about it. In fact, I’m sure that this is a move which will drive sales down over the long term.

I’m willing to make an educated guess and say that most of the people who own a DS also own at least one home console. If it comes down to the choice of what to spend £40 on, and one of them is a handheld title that looks like something that came out six years ago, and the other is an AAA blockbuster with explosions that are unparalleled in their realism, big name actors providing the voices and likenesses, and some decent online options, I’m picking the latter. In a time where across the globe people are tightening their belts, people want the most value for money. Handheld games don’t often compete with console games on that front. Handheld games mitigate that fact by coming at a much cheaper price, making them appealing.

What makes it an even more abysmal decision is that people will realise that the increased price point is motivated by greed. Yes, Nintendo are a business, and as a business their objective is first and foremost to make some money. But this needs to be done fairly in a way where people don’t feel like they’re getting fucked over.

It’s long been the case that the cost of development for console games has been going up, and perhaps the cost of games should go up to reflect that. And yet it hasn’t. If Rockstar can employ thousands of staff to create GTA4, which basically involved them designing an entire city, all whilst not having to add £10 to the price, why does Nintendo need to add £10 to Dr Kawishima’s 3D cookbook weight loss psychic ability training bootcamp? Or to Ocarina of Time, an N64 game that they’ve made look slightly more pretty? These are really simple games using age old tech, and the fact that they are in 3D is not adding such a great financial burden to the companies that make these games that the price point needs to go up by so much.

Ultimately, there’s still a lot the remains to be seen. And only time will tell what happens to the next generation of handhelds. Sony still have plenty of time to get things wrong in their usual bungling fashion, and Nintendo could wow us with a boatload of amazing new games that make us forget their follies. But at least for now, for the first time I can ever recall, the shoe seems to be on the other foot with regards to which company is making good decisions. Right now there’s only one handheld I’m excited for. And for the first time it isn’t something made by Nintendo.

Disappointment of the Year

In my last post I mentioned that 2010 was a great year in terms of the games I got to play. Even my DotY was something I thoroughly enjoyed playing. If I was going for a worst of the year, I’d really struggle to make a choice, but disappointment is a different thing entirely. And as far as disappointments go, the choice was glaringly obvious to me. In terms of untapped potential, unfulfilled promise, and the amount of dreams that lay shattered like the glass at the Conservative HQ when there are students around; Final Fantasy XIII stands above all, a beacon of bitter disenchantment.

I have to stress again, it’s not a bad game. Although if you read any kind of internet forum with a topic about it, you’ll likely end up thinking that Square-Enix has stooped to a level worse than genocide, and you’ll probably be hearing a lot of that noise from people who haven’t made it past the first 8-12 hours of the game. If this is a situation you’ve found yourself in, then you’ve made two mistakes: firstly, you’ve gone on the internet to find out what people think about video games. Wait, that’s not going to make people read further. one mistake: listening to people who haven’t made it past the intro. After all, you wouldn’t pay any attention to a review of a whole album based entirely on the first song.

However, the intro portion people complain about is terrible. And long. And this is possibly the biggest place where Squenix have gone wrong. You don’t really get to play the game properly until you’ve got past that initial 8-12 hours and acquired a full party and unlocked all the facets of the battle system. Until that point the whole thing is excrutiating. The battle system is incredible when you’re playing with a full party and you understand how it all works. It’s fast paced, flashy and fun to watch. But for those opening hours it isn’t. And here’s a brief rundown of why:

The game has a party based battle system where you control one character and there are 2 others controlled by AI. Each character is assigned a role that determines what moves they’re capable of and how the AI will behave, it’s fairly typical stuff like healer, tank, etc. By the simple press of a shoulder button you open up a menu to choose from 5 combinations of roles that you’ve set up for your team, and you can switch on the fly. It can seem quite complicated at first, but once it’s all sunk in it’s actually incredibly intuitive. The trick to making the gameplay work is to have a certain balance of character roles in your team i.e. healer, tank, damage dealer. And for certain enemies you’ll need to use certain setups for best effect.

The problem with battles during the intro portion of the game is that you only ever get to use two characters at a time, and they’re locked into only being able to access a limited number of roles. This makes things move at an incredibly slow pace, and makes the battles unenjoyable.

The battle system is the least of the game’s disappointments though. At least it rectifies itself. My two biggest gripes with the game are it’s linearity, and the story.

I’m of the disposition that linearity is not necessarily a bad thing to have in a game, depending on what the game is. If this were Halo, for instance, it wouldn’t really be an issue. But if there’s one thing fans of main series Final Fantasy titles expect, it’s a degree of openness within the game. FFXII managed to do a spectacular job of creating a sprawling world for players to run riot in, and that was on the PS2. It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation to think that the next game in the series would be at least able to match that, especially with more powerful hardware, and the extra storage capacity afforded by a blu-ray disc.

But for the most part FFXIII eschews an open world, in favour of pushing you down a series of corridors. It doesn’t even try and feign a sense of being part of something larger. If the game didn’t involve battles, you’d almost be able to tie an elastic band around your thumbstick so that it points up, and watch the game complete itself.

What really rubs salt in the wound is that there is a section of the game where the world becomes incredibly open, and if you get involved in the side quests that avail themselves to you during this section, you find yourself enjoying a glut of content and actually doing a bit of exploring. The problem is, that this section is pretty small in terms of both the game proper, and in comparison to other gamess. And if you don’t do the optional content, you soon find yourself going back through the corridors. But nevertheless, this section of the game gives you a glimpse of the Final Fantasy XIII that could have been. And just to make it clear, if you go by that section, the game could have been bloody fantastic.

It’s that failed promise that really builds the disappointment. If the game was entirely linear, it would just be a really badly designed game and I’d think about the whole thing no more. But the game does show that it’s capable of delivering, it just doesn’t deliver enough. It could have been so much better.

The same is the case with the story. It reeks of unmet potential. Although there’s also a serious issue with the pacing. Throughout the game there’s a real sense that Square-Enix have built a rich world that’s just waiting to be sunk into. The foundations of the story are solid, and the world the characters inhabit is thoroughly compelling. The setting is unlike that of any game I’ve played in recent memory. It’s just begging to be cracked open. And you never really get to.

There are moments where it feels like you might, and strangely enough, the majority of those happen during those introductory few hours of the game that I was bemoaning earlier. The story is one of the few elements that section of the game does okay. And I say merely okay, because they’re still not great. But then, that’s usually how stories go, the introduction is there to build you up to something greater, it’s there to get the ball rolling.

But that something greater never comes, the ball stops rolling. And it’s exactly at the moment where the gameplay picks up. For the next 10-20 hours of the game there’s basically no real story development, bar a few bits of exposition. And that’s the greatest disappointment of the whole game. If they’d just kept the ball rolling, and actually added more of a story to the middle section of the game, Square-Enix may have actually had a great product on their hands. Not without it’s flaws, but forgiveable.

And then you get to the end, after several hours of pushing your thumbstick upward. All of a sudden some semblance of a story comes back into play, but it doesn’t really seem to follow from what was just going on. I don’t mean that in the sense that the story isn’t well explained, but rather that the sudden jerk in tempo is abrasive and seems incongruous with how the game has unfolded until then.

Overall the game just fails to deliver on every level. There are hints of genius dotted throughout, glimpses of what could have been, but those glimpses don’t remotely represent what actually is. I still really enjoyed the game, although it seems I’m one of the few that did, but it could have been so much more. Here’s hoping Versus XIII manages to pull the series back to where it belongs.

Game of the Year

I’m going to start this post by violating the main rule I set for myself when I first set up this blog: no personal stuff. There’s a valid editorial reason though. This year has been a bad one for me as far as gaming is concerned, money’s been tight, and I’ve not had as much free time as I’d like. There we go, personal stuff over.

Why did I include that? Well, as a result of those circumstances, I’ve not played all the releases in 2010 that I’ve been interested in. Compared with previous years my gaming consumption has been tame, to say the least. I’ve missed out on all sorts. Although barring the latest Castlevania title, and Vanquish, I’ve managed to play all the games I was seriously interested in. As a result of missing out on so many titles, my GotY is the best of a relatively slim bunch of this year’s releases. Although I’d like to think that that slim bunch represents the best this year has to offer. Anyway, you’ve had fair warning to take this with a pinch of salt.

Now that I think about it though, I may have been wrong about 2010 being a rubbish year, because in many ways this has actually been a good year for me in terms of gaming. I’ve played through some absolutely fantastic titles. I started off the year with Bayonetta; which any of you who pay attention to the mainstream games press will know scored incredibly well. For those of you that don’t know about how fantastic Bayonetta is: you should go buy it, right now. It’ll cost you about a fiver, which in my opinion is a criminally low amount of money to charge for such a masterpiece. Solid 10/10 game.

And that’s not the only amazing game I’ve played this year. Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver came out, sparking my fever for catching hundreds of varied monsters once again. Not only was it a fantastic remake of one of the premier gaming experiences of my youth, it also provided a brilliant expansion on the original. There were hours after hours of additional content contained within; and what was so brilliant about that was how organically interwoven into the body of the original that content was. It didn’t feel like a bunch of stuff that had been tacked on, it seemed like it had always been there. These days we’re seeing more and more remakes of games from years gone by, and HG/SS is the kind of remake that developers should pay attention to. It’s a remake done right.

But despite the huge pokemaniac I am, that is not my game of the year either. Nor is Bayonetta, despite the fact that I go absolutely nuts for anything Shinji Mikami makes, and those aren’t the other notable releases I enjoyed this year. I absolutely devoured Dead Rising 2, got sucked into Bungie’s epic and quite frankly thrilling final installment of the Halo series (at least until their next final installment of the Halo series), and nearly broke my controller several times in the mind bogglingly annoying, but ultimately satisfying Super Meat Boy.

None of these games make the cut.

There were two games that I was looking forward to this year. Two that were absolute must buys. One of them was Final Fantasy XIII, which I’ll come to in my next post. The other game I was looking forward to is my game of the year.

Red Dead Redemption

Before I get into the meat of this article of approbation towards Rockstar’s monolithic Western experience, let me make one thing clear: I love Westerns. So bare this in mind when I tell you that my anticipation for this game was nothing short of immense. A Rockstar developed sandbox in the wild west? Yes please! This may well have been the game I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little boy.

Now, I’d like to think that everyone at some point in their life has had an experience where something hasn’t been enjoyable because you’ve built up too high expectations for it, because it didn’t live up to the hype. Like when Machete finally came out this year, 3 years after the original trailer. Best trailer ever. Surely this would lead to the best film ever. And yet when it came out, it was good, but nowhere near what I’d hoped for. It kind of goes without saying that when you put such high expectations on something, it won’t ever live up to them. So given how high my expectations were for RDR, you think I’d be disappointed. You’d be totally wrong to think that.

RDR smashed my expectations in a spectacular fashion. Not only is it the best game I’ve played this year, it’s probably the best game I’ve played for the last 3 years.

It’s hard to start saying exactly why the game is so good, because there are just so many reasons. So I’m just going to pluck them out in random order.

The world that Rockstar has built for the game is absolutely phenomenal. Of course, given Rockstar’s pedigree for building rich, immersive worlds, this is what you’ll have come to expect from them by now. But RDR has a certain something more to it than the sprawling cityscapes you’re used to from a Grand Theft Auto game. To make a direct comparison, GTA4 is amazing, much like the first time you enter a big city in real life. It’s vibrant, and there’s a certain amont of sensory overload involved with it. Mostly though, it’s ostentatious, as a city really should be. RDR is stripped of that. RDR is huge, detailed, complex, but in terms of the environmental design the thing that it has going for it above all else is it’s understatedness.

You know when you visit somewhere really beautiful, and you have the urge to explore the place? I never thought I’d feel that within the confines of a videogame. But at times RDR can be nothing short of beautiful. Honestly, when I grow old instead of travelling the world I might just hook myself up to the game and retire there. This is amazing not only in terms of achieving something that games rarely do, but also in fulfilling something that is key to the source material.

One of the major themes of many Westerns has been the vast expanse of nature, and man’s innate desire to explore uncharted frontiers. Watch a Western and you only get to observe that exploration. RDR actually allows you to be the person exploring the frontier. When you take that fact on its own, it’s already pretty amazing. But if you look at it from a larger perspective, the very fact that RDR can make you feel like this is indicative of the wonderful heights that videogaming is capable of as a medium. I’ve watched dozens of Westerns growing up, and yet I find this one game to be the defining point of the genre. And that shows how far gaming has come, it’s no longer just a distraction, a way for kids to while away the time. We’re at the tipping point where games are capable of surpassing films and books as definitive entries in a particular genre.

And that’s not just down to the environmental design either. The storytelling is superb. And to be clear, let me focus on the telling part of the word storytelling. Because the story is good, but it’s nothing spectacular. In fact, the story is pretty much derivative of everything you’d ever expect from a Western. Rockstar have managed to splice together all the cliches, all the character stereotypes, and really everything you’d expect of a Western. As a fan of Westerns RDR isn’t anything I haven’t seen dozens of times before.

But despite that fact that, the presentation of the whole thing is to be applauded. Through the game you play as John Marston, a former outlaw trying to sort his life out, who’s found himself being blackmailed by the federal government. Nothing new there. But through the use of clever narrative devices, Rockstar has managed to turn the same old stuff we’ve seen before into a totally new experience. It’s not so much the story itself that’s so compelling, it’s the journey. John Marston isn’t anything new in terms of Westerns, but he is incredibly sympathetic in a way that I’ve never seen before.

Throughout the game you can feel yourself getting drawn into his world, and the developers have woven this wonderfully into the pacing you’d expect from a videogame. In the opening of the game you find yourself getting shot and nearly killed, following that the game begins, and you find yourself just trying to recover and get back on your feet, whilst the game itself is throwing you as a player very easy missions in order to get yourself on your feet.

Later, you find yourself in Mexico in pursuit of the men that you are trying to track down. You do mission upon mission for various factions who promise they’ll help you and don’t deliver. Within the narrative John gets frustrated by this, but what’s most effective is that as a player, you can feel yourself getting frustrated by the fact that you’re doing all these missions without the reward of any real progression within the storyline. But you’re never frustrated to the point that you want to put the game down. You’re always one mission away from getting what you want. And just like John Marston, even though you say you’re just trying to get the guys your after, fact is you’re probably enjoying going around killing a bunch of Mexican rebels.

And that’s where the game’s genius lies. At all times you’re feeling the same things as your character. Whenever you make some kind of big break within the story, there’s a potent feeling of catharsis that accompanies it. Whenever there’s some kind of setback, you’re drawn in enough to feel personally cheesed off. Ten hours into the game, it’s not John Marston that wants his family back. You want John Marston’s family back.

There’s this ongoing argument about whether games can be art or not. I’ve always been firmly on the side that games can be art, as are most gamers. But in honesty, there are few games that can actually stand true to that claim. Red Dead Redemption is one of them. It may even be one of the best of them. All of the arty games that I’ve played have been very restricted. You have a linear setting, a small number of options, you’re blurring the line between a video game and watching a film. RDR smashes that barrier. I never thought that you could make art in a sandbox. I was wrong. And I love RDR for that. That, and so much more. And that’s why it’s my game of the year.

11/10

Taking down my white whale

I think it’s a fair assumption to make that the majority of gamers (bar the most dedicated completionists amongst us) have at least a few games within their collection that they’ve never finished. There’s a plethora of reasons why games go unfinished – I know from personal experience that I’ve abandoned games because I’ve got bored of them, because I’ve been distracted, not had the time, or because a game was just too shit to even bother dumping more of my time into.

Generally when a game gets abandoned for one of these reasons it’s no big deal – you either go back to it at some later date, or you’re happy to let it languish at the back of a shelf.

But occasionally you encounter a rarity – a game that for one reason or another you have not, or even cannot beat – every moment that it goes unfinished something at the back of your brain burns away. Something in you that was once defeated, like Captain Ahab, yearns for conquest.

For me, there are two games that fill me with such an urge: Alundra, and Dead Space.

Alundra has been sat in my collection for the best part of a decade. I still keep telling myself that one day I am going to sit down with it and give the game a thorough pasting. Even if it means walking through the whole thing with a gameFAQs page open next to me – something in me longs to see that game through to the end, just out of principle.

I don’t know how Alundra came to occupy this mythic status for me. I think part of it has to do with the fact that it is tough. There’s  more to it than that though, I’ve certainly conquered harder games before. I think a lot of it may be psychological.

Over the years I have started playing that game countless times. Each time I’ve had to start at the beginning again, because I’ve long forgotten what’s going on in any save file I may have of the game. Each time I’ve reached a certain point in the game and for one reason or another I’ve abandoned it again. Thanks to this procession of failures, I’ve probably built the thing up in my mind to be more than it really is. It’s just a Zelda clone after all. Albeit a very difficult Zelda clone. I’ve finished all the Zelda games – so why can’t I finish this? For now I’ll just continue to repeat my mantra – one day, when I have the time, I will finish this.

As I mentioned before, my other white whale is Dead Space. And I can tell you exactly how that game came to be such an ordeal for me. Unlike Alundra, there’s no need to analyse any kind of reasoning here. Put simply; Dead Space scares the shit out of me.

But the fact that it so deftly instills a sense of monolithic terror in me that makes me want to play it and beat it. The reason that I come close to soiling myself whenever I play Dead Space is how perfectly designed it is. It’s one of the most immersive gaming experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I could go into a huge amount of detail as to why, and it’d come close to me writing a review of the game. But I won’t, instead I’ll just use the one example of part of my experience with the game.

I was playing through one of the early chapters, and came to a room in the game wherein a typical action game scenario occurs. You get locked in the room, a bunch of enemies appear, you have to kill them all in order for the room to unlock. I proceed to do all that. Then, as is standard, I explore the room looking for ammo, key items, etc.

What’s important to understand is that in Dead Space a lot of attention has been paid to the design of the game, both visually and audibly. You can hear pipes rattling in the background, the occasional bang, even the sound of distant screams from time to time. Visually, there are lots of extra touches to the environment, such as places where people have written on the walls prior to meeting their untimely demise at the claw end of one of the deformed monsters that still haunt my worst nightmares.

In this particular room there was a wall covered in writing, and whilst I was exploring I came along it. I stopped to read it, dropping my guard as I get further into what’s written on the wall. All of a sudden there’s a banging noise and what sounds like a monster. I panic, I raise my gun and start looking around frantically from left to right, there’s nothing there. I gather my composure, and start exploring the room again, looking for something I might have missed, surely there was a necromorph hiding somewhere, waiting for me to drop my guard again and rip my head off.

There was no such monster, I’d just been tricked by the meticulous sound design of the game and my own fearful paranoia. And as I came to that realisation, I came to another. For that 2 minute period I had made that in-game character act exactly as I would in that kind of situation. If I were really in that room, I would’ve definitely stopped to read the writing on the wall, I would’ve dropped my guard and I would’ve certainly started waving my gun around at the first odd sound.

I’ve not experienced immersion like that in a game either before or since. I think any game that can draw me in that well needs to be completed. Almost out of respect. But also because in spite of the fear, a part of me really enjoys that game.

However, I got distracted with my dissertation, and then other games came out, and every time I’ve told myself I should go back and finish Dead Space, it just seems so not worth it because I’m going to end up feeling like a terrified little girl again.

But soon this has to change. Dead Space 2 is coming out. I’ve been watching the trailers, following the news, and it’s a game that fills me with a massive amount of excitement. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to it, given that it looks twice as terrifying as the original, (which itself once made me scream profanity so loud that my flatmate at the other side of the flat heard me.) But I must have it. And if I’m going to play the sequel, I definitely need to finish the original first.

Daunting as the task is, I can’t wait to experience the satisfaction of finally putting the nail in the coffin of one of the games that’s tormented me for so long.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game

With the release of this game it seems that the medium has finally come full circle, in a sense. It’s a game based on a film, which is based on a comic book, which is largely influenced by and heavily references….. you got it, video games.

This makes it kind of an odd beast – true to it’s source material the game is full of material referential to gaming and the culture that surrounds it. I find this to be rather strange, because whilst the allusions to gaming have a place within the film or the comic books, it’s almost out of place for a game to make such a big deal of the fact it is a game.

Yes, I know that I’m playing a game. I have a pad in my hand!
That’s not so much a criticism as it is an observation. After all, the game is merely reflecting its source material. But it is a thing I find rather odd. But at the same time, it’s incredibly endearing.

And that’s probably the way I’d describe the entire game. The whole experience with it is one of endearment. Although I can see this not applying to everybody. You see, Scott Pilgrim is the story of a 22 year-old, and everything about the game, and the film, (I can’t speak for the comics, haven’t read them yet.) seems geared towards appealing to people in that age bracket. As a 23 year-old I’ve squeezed out plenty of enjoyment from the game. But I could see a lot of what I’ve enjoyed about it going over the heads of younger players.

So what’s so good about it then? Well, there’s a quite prominent nostalgia factor that comes into play. The game harks back to the 8-bit and 16-bit era that 22 year old Scott would’ve grown up with if he were actually real. The game has a strong resonance with the likes of Turtles in Time, Double Dragon, River City Ransom, and countless other side scrolling beat-em ups that were popular back in the day.

It’s refreshing to play something along those lines again – because, put simply, developers just don’t make these kinds of games anymore. It’s nice to go back to the simplicity of this style of game. Also, at least when you start playing it, it’s tough as nails – just like games used to be back in the 90s.

It’s got other things going for it besides tugging at my inner sense of childhood nostalgia. With 5 different characters to play through as, there’s a good bit of replay value in there, especially for a game that costs about a fiver. I also get the feeling that multiplayer on this game would be an absolute blast (something I’ve yet to confirm though).

Combat in the game is solid, you start off with a simple 2 button system of light and heavy attacks, and you gain more moves as you progress through the game. You get coins for every enemy you defeat, and those can be used to buy items to beef up your stats. It’s a simple formula – but it works.

But there are a number of things about the game that don’t work. For one, it’s a buggy mess. Menus take a ridiculous time to open, which just isn’t particularly acceptable for a game that doesn’t exactly use a lot of assets. And the game has a tendency to completely crash at some intervals.

One of my main gripes is that, aesthetic differences aside, there’s almost nothing to differentiate the different characters. Yes their moves have different animations, but they all do more or less the exact same thing. Playing as Scott doesn’t feel any different to playing as Ramona.

The lack of online co-op is another of my issues with the game. After all, it’s a 4 player game, it’s meant to be played with 3 other people, and the only way you’re able to do so is by actually getting that many people around into one place. (Although this is the perfect kind of game that’s worth getting 4 people together with a load of drinks and snacks, and making a night of it.) The only positive I can garner from the lack of any online play is that with how poorly put together the code is for offline play, online play would probably be a horrific enough experience that you’d want to scoop your eyes out with a spoon afterwards.

Despite its flaws, overall it’s a solid game that I’d fully recommend to anybody looking for a bit of nostalgic fun, or as a way to get rid of a few Microsoft points that aren’t being used. It’s a great bit of fun, and well worth the couple of quid. It doesn’t break any new ground, or do anything really impressive – but if you’re playing a side scrolling beat-em up with 16-bit graphics and find yourself disappointed by the lack of innovation, you really need to ask yourself what the hell you’re doing playing the game to begin with.

7/10