Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You Must Run

Thinking of back to basics games, I noticed an interesting little flash game on Eurogamer's Best of 2009 Feature. Canabalt is an exceptionally simple game, all you do is hit the jump button as your character runs towards the right of the screen. I'm not sure I agree with Alec Meer about the genius of the game, but it is strangely compelling, and certainly an entertaining diversion for a few minutes.

I love the minimalism of the game's setting. What are you running from? Why is the city crumbling? What are the ominous mechanical walkers in the background and the transport ships that shake the screen as they fly past? The game doesn't explain any of it. All you have is the striking monochrome pixel art and the brilliant chiptune music to reinforce the urgency of your escape from whatever it is.

Also, let me know if you beat my score of 3.6km, a feat I doubt I will be able to repeat, as it involved me successfully jumping through about five or six building windows, when I usually can't even make one.

Edit: 09/01/2010, Managed to make it 7761m, although it was more luck than skill, as I only had about three window jumps in the entire run. I have replaced the previous image with my new high score.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Shadow Complex

A month or so ago I finished Chair's Unreal Engine powered Xbox Live Arcade title, Shadow Complex. The game is a 2D sidescrolling platform adventure game in the style of Metroid or Castlevania, or so everyone points out. Having skipped the NES/SNES era entirely (actually, I have never owned any Nintendo console), this doesn't mean much to me, in the same way Zelda references, which reviewers often make, don't mean anything to me, but the basic style of the game will be familiar to anyone who has been playing games for a while.

I'm not going to attempt to write up a proper review of it, you can look at one of the many positive reviews on Metacritic if you are interested in more in-depth detail.

What I really liked about the game is how traditional it is. The whole game, you run left and right, jump, climb ladders and shoot things. At times enemies appear in the foreground and background of the screen, but this doesn't really change the fact that the game is strictly two dimensional. Despite this, it is not simplistic, gradually upgrading your abilities to allow you to reach new areas and move around the game world in different ways. The game is not retro pastiche, and it doesn't have to rely on nostalgia for it to be enjoyable, it is simply the kind of game that developers used to make, made with modern technology, and I'm glad for it. I think sometimes modern games set out to be all things to all people, and sometimes they lose sight of some of the things that made games entertaining in the earlier years of the medium.

I wrote a post a while back about certain things I didn't like about digital distribution of console games, but Shadow Complex to me represents how the downloadable game can really succeed. The game looks good for an XBLA game, and is far from the throwaway entertainment offered by some downloadable titles, but it still wouldn't justify a boxed release at regular retail prices. They would have to add far more to the game in order to do so, and I think that would strip it of some of its charm.

I meant to write this post earlier in the week, as the game was reduced to 800 MSP as the Xbox Live Gold deal of the week for 21-27 December, but even at the regular 1200 MSP price I would certainly recommend the game.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Stylish Hard Action

In 2001, when asked to explain what sort of game his upcoming Devil May Cry was, Hideki Kamiya described it as "stylish hard action", which is an awesome description, and one I still like to use to describe third person action games with a focus on spectacular combat.

Three such games, all due for release in the first two months of 2010, have caught my attention, and they are:

Bayonetta is the latest game from Hideki Kamiya, through his new studio Platinum Games, which was created from the ashes of Capcom's innovative side studio, Clover, and is a spiritual follow up to Devil May Cry. The game is already out in Japan, and import reviews have so far been positively glowing. However, whereas the original Devil May Cry succeeded because of it's over the top Japanese-ness (nonsensical story, over stylised hero, constant battle against odd, demonic enemies), the games industry has changed since 2001 and I almost feel that this is now one of the things that holds Bayonetta back for me. I'm not sure I want to play as some blatantly over-sexualised librarian fantasy as she dismembers cherubs to the sounds of a bizarre mix of j-pop and lounge jazz.

A demo for Bayonetta is up on Xbox Live already, I am downloading it as I type this post, but it still may be a while before I can give it a proper try. The game is due out in Europe on 8 January.

It's actually hard to tell whether Dante's Inferno is the product of the new, positive EA, or the old, cynical EA. On the plus side, it's fresh IP (at least in gaming terms), developed by well-regarded studio Visceral Games (of Dead Space fame), and previews of it have commended the graphic style and combat mechanics, which are probably the two most important aspects of a Stylish Hard Action game. On the minus side, it's absolutely transparent in its desire to ape God of War (some canny EA exec no doubt realised there would be a gap in the Xbox 360 market created by God of War 3's PS3 exclusivity, which their multiplatform title could exploit), only with medieval Christian mythology rather than Greek, and it takes so many liberties with a well-known piece of literature that it comes across as wanting nothing more than to steal the title for some free name recognition. In addition, EA's marketers actually arranged a fake Christian group to stage a protest against the game outside E3 in order to drum up some publicity, which is pretty crass.

The demo for Dante's Inferno is due for release on Christmas eve, with the game itself, the last of these three to be released, coming out on 5 February, still a month in advance of elephant in the room, God of War 3.

With art direction from comic book artist Joe Madureira, Darksiders is the tale one of the Riders of the Apocalypse's quest for revenge against the celestial or infernal forces that have betrayed him. It's not going to win plaudits from the people who complain that the video game industry is still geared too much towards adolescent and post-adolescent males (neither is Bayonetta, though), but as I have explained before, there is a place for developed, complex characters, and there is a place for action heroes, and War looks like a pretty good action hero.

Every preview for the game I have read is keen to point out the similarities to Zelda rather than God of War, but having never played a Zelda game before, I have no idea what this is supposed to mean or why it should make me weak at the knees. Perhaps it has something to do with a more exploratory game experience rather than the more linear style of a regular third person action game. All I know is that Darksiders has characters with impossibly broad shoulders, huge enemies, guns, giant swords, and the ability to hit people with lamp-posts or throw cars at them. Which seems pretty cool to me.

As far as I know, there is no demo planned for Darksiders, and the only footage I've got of it, a trailer I downloaded from E3 this year, looked pretty shonky whenever it used in-engine footage. Coming from a studio with no real pedigree, Darksiders is the one of these three that I most want to like, but I fear it may be the worst as a game. Darksiders is out on the 8th of January 2010, the same day as Bayonetta's western release.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tony Hawk Takes You For a Ride

From when it was announced at E3 this year, I thought Tony Hawk: RIDE (why do the identifiers on the end of game titles now have to be capitalised as if they were acronyms even when they clearly aren't?) was a peripheral game too far. Following the monstrous sales of games like Guitar Hero and Wii Fit, selling your game with an expensive piece of plastic tat seemed like the new golden goose for video game publishers. While a title like Guitar Hero is playable with a regular gamepad, that's kind of missing the point, and most of the fun in the game is derived from the novelty controller. That's not to say, however, that a novelty controller is going to improve any videogame it is added to. The gamepad is popular for a reason; it's familiar, it's precise, and of course, it's usable while sitting on your couch.

It wasn't long after the game came out that I started to see write-ups which confirmed what I suspected the game would be like. I would highly recommend reading the two pieces of Penny Arcade commentary on the game here and here, but for those of you not bothered with following links, I think this pretty much sums it up:

" of this kind, by which I mean peripheral games, typically allow ordinary people to engage in a kind of assisted fantasy. This is a game that actually punctures the fantasy, one that reinforces and almost codifies the user's ineptitude. As a product strategy, it must certainly be called unique."

Earlier this week I read Eurogamer's review of the game, written by their casual / rubbish game expert, Ellie Gibson. I am often a little bit suspicious of Ms Gibson's reviews, as she has previously revealed herself to be incapable of learning how to play a game properly, and has even admitted she doesn't even like (conventional) videogames, but she can be very entertaining when let loose on a poorly conceived game and this review is one of those instances. Bonus points for the digs at Bobby Kotick and the ActiBlizz Hegemony that has replaced EA as the evil overlords of the games industry.

Experience the joys of skateboarding in your own home

It is interesting to note that because nobody wants to write "Exclusive first review! It's ass!", when RIDE first appeared on Metacritic, it had a score close to 90, and while it is normal for games' metascores to drift lower as more reviews come out, it is uncommon to see them drop from above 75 (green) to below 50 (red). As of publishing this post, RIDE has a metascore of 49. You can easily identify the first four reviews that were published; they're the first four on the list.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Problem with Digital Distribution

I don't think any of us would try to argue that digital distribution isn't the future of games retail. However, at the moment, there are a few things holding it back, often making digital purchases notably inferior to regular retail. One of the issues is simply bandwidth (although this is far less of a problem in the first world) and another is transferability (digital purchases are often locked to your PC or console, whereas you can lend a disc to someone), but what really sets them back is price. By doing away with the middlemen, and almost all of the physical costs of the product (no boxes, manuals, discs, freight charges), digitally distributed titles should be cheaper than conventionally marketed ones. However, this is seldom the case, and the lack of discounting causes significant price discepancies once a game has been out for a while.

Regular readers of this blog, or anyone who knows me in general, will know I am fascinated with retrogaming and the history of videogames. A little while back I bought a copy of the Namco Museum Virtual Arcade collection for the Xbox 360. Essentially, this is a collection of 9 games previously released onto Xbox Live Arcade (when the disc is in the drive, you can even select them from the games menu as if they were XBLA titles installed on your hard drive), as well as 25 other retro titles from Namco's back catalogue.

When Namco Museum Virtual Arcade was released on disc, it was probably a full price (or close to full price) title, but over time the price has gone down, and I bought it for £12.99, which was about R155 at the time of purchase (or 1530 MSP for the sake of comparison). Despite the fact that many of the games released on XBLA have been there for years (according to Wikipedia Pac Man was released on XBLA in August 2006), I believe that all of them are still at the full price they were released at. Even assigning no value to the other 25 games not previous released on the Xbox, the 9 XBLA titles included on the Museum collection alone come to 4800 MSP (£40.80 / R486), which is a pretty poor comparison, even if you could argue that a person might not choose to buy Pac Man as well as Ms Pac Man, or that you probably wouldn't want to buy New Rally X at all.

The problem with digitally distributed titles is that they are immune to the regular pressures of retail, as there is no cost to holding stock and therefore no real need to keep it cycling. This is great for the retailer, but not so good for the consumer. If you look at Microsoft's Games on Demand initiative, many of the games loaded onto the service cost more than a boxed copy now does at retail. Valve's Steam service is great for indie games and the occasional weekend deal, but the standard pricing on new titles is often higher than a boxed version. Until this is sorted out, digital distribution is not going to be able to make substantial progress in supplanting the retail games market.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Selling For The Loss

I read a most bizarre story just now. As just about everyone should know, tomorrow is the second coming of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and all sorts of sales records are saying their last goodbyes before they are cruelly shattered (oddly enough, I'm not planning to buy a copy until some time in 2010, too many other things to play).

However, in the UK, there is a bit of drama because certain supermarkets are planning on selling the game below cost price, which is causing havoc with smaller retailers and threatening to destabilise the used market (which I don't really care about, as I'm not in favour of used games sales anyway). I don't really see the logic in doing this. I'm not stupid; I know about loss-leading, and I also understand how volume retailers can make money by having a negative cash cycle rather than through the size of their mark-up, but a game seems like a strange thing for a general retailer do this with. A modern game now costs so much that it would to justify a trip solely to pick up a copy - people might go into the store, pick up a game for less than cost, and leave without even considering buying anything else. This would be a particular risk for the so-called "core gamer" market, which must surely make up the largest part of MW2's inevitably massive sales. Perhaps these retailers will be short-stocking (at least relatively) the title to prevent too great a loss on it, in an attempt to get more consumers into the store than who would be able to buy it at the special price, consumers who probably would feel the need to buy something else to avoid making a trip out for nothing.

Unfortunately, this is not a "problem" we have to contend with in South Africa, as pretty much all brick and mortar stores are happy to charge the full RRP for games, with only online retailers like willing to provide a meaningful discount to RRP, and even then they don't provide any further discounting, even when games have been out for a long time.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The King of Fighters

2009 has been a pretty good year for fighting games, particularly 2D ones. It has seen Capcom release the critically acclaimed Street Fighter IV, the first new Street Fighter game in 9 years, it has seen Arc Systems release BlazBlue, the spiritual successor to the Guilty Gear series (which Arc somehow lost the rights to), which was also highy rated, even if it probably couldn't hope for the same level of commercial success. It has even seen a new King of Fighters game, which wasn't as well received, but at least they did redraw all the art in the game for the first time, well, probably ever.

However, the fighting game which I had been looking forward to most has been Tekken 6. In fact, considering it was released in the arcades in 2007 and a home port was always going to be released, it may have been the game which I have waited for the longest out of any I can remember. I have always had a particular fondness for the Tekken series. Tekken Tag Tournament was the primary reason I bought a PS2 back in 2001, so it is essentially what made me a console gamer.

My copy arrived on release day, and while I haven't had that much time to play it, just a shortish stint of versus play was enough to confirm that the Tekken series is still very much on form.

Tekken's big strength is the cast of characters. Each game has added new characters, without removing or diluting old ones, and Tekken 6 now has 40 playable characters, with the only real incidence of direct move sharing being that Eddy and Christie still appear to be carbon copies of each other. While the cast does have some serious weak points (Roger Jr, Panda, Mokujin), there are also an enormous number of really good ones. Character design is a personal thing, but I think Tekken has a stronger roster than Soul Calibur, and is far superior in this regard to the relatively staid characters of Virtua Fighter or the oddball cast of Street Fighter (there is a reason why the vast majority of casual SF players play Ryu or Ken).

In addition, they've continued to improve the transitional animations and update old move animations. I can still spot some vestiges of Tekken 2-era animation, but for the most part animations are newer, smoother and more impressive than before. It works really well with the motion blur effect they've introduced in T6, which smoothes out slow moves, and emphasises the fast, powerful strikes which characterise the series. They've added a fairly substantial number of new moves to each character (remember that this game is essentially 3 updates from Tekken 5, there was the Dark Resurrection update to Tekken 5, the base Tekken 6, and then the home version is effectively a port of Bloodline Rebellion, the update to Tekken 6) without removing old ones like they did in Soul Calibur 3 and 4, in which certain characters were quite badly denuded.

I tried to play a bit of the Scenario Campaign mode (the Tekken Force-style beat-em-up they've included with the console port) last night and to my surprise, I ended up watching what seemed like nearly half an hour of intro and cutscene before I even got to start playing (although I did think the prologue, which recaps the Mishima storyline from Tekken 1 through to the start of Tekken 6, was quite good). I think they've missed the point here. A Tekken Force mode should be something you can jump into, preferably with a friend, and annihilate scores of identikit enemies for a bit before going back to the core fighting mode. I don't think we need hours of cutscenes showing characters interact and elaborate on the plot. A rendered movie on starting and finishing the story mode is all (some would even say more than) a fighting game needs in terms of exposition. If this mode is the reason for Namco's painfully slow conversion of the arcade game, then they've wasted quite a lot of their time, especially seeing as the mode still seems ugly and awkward compared to a genuine third person action game.

However, to a fighting game fan it doesn't really make that much of a difference as long as the core fighting is so strong, and because of this I think, for me at least, Tekken 6 appears to be the best of the current generation of fighters. I've read some criticisms that it doesn't do enough to move the game forward, but I actually appreciate that, in an attempt to reinvent themselves Namco haven't taken a step backwards (as happened to an extent with Soul Calibur 4). Essentially, Tekken 6 may be more of the same, but it is more of the things that made Tekken good in the first place.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Games as Art

I just read Eurogamer's review of Fatale: Exploring Salome, Tale of Tales' next "game" after the Red Riding Hood inspired The Path. For the first couple of paragraphs I was wondering what on earth I was reading about, it seemed more like a blog article than a review on a games site, but in the end I think it was probably the best way to try and cover something like that, assuming that Eurogamer should ever be covering this sort of thing. Quite how you can "review" something like that and assign it a score out of 10 is a bit beyond me, though.

It does raise some interesting points about games as art, if you can get through the pretentiousness with some degree of objectivity still intact. However, I've never really wanted to go there, as I don't really care whether games are art or not. I'm the first to admit that I'm a bit of a philistine, I like the idea of art, but it is not something that I'd actively seek out. Art or not, I only care about whether or not I can appreciate or enjoy things. Things have to serve a purpose, be it to look or sound interesting, to provide an enjoyable challenge or even to provoke thought (but by this I mean more than simply going "This is controversial. Discuss"), for me to appreciate them. Art for art's sake is worthless to me.

I made the point in my post about
metagaming that it seems quite acceptable to make a game which conveys a message while (or sometimes because of) being a bad game, provided you do not require too much of an investment in time or money from the gamer. Tale of Tales want GBP 7 for Fatale: Exploring Salome, which is probably the right sort of price for this sort of thing. Trying to charge as much as an actual game (although you can get some pretty decent games for that price on XBLA or Steam) for your piece of digital art would come across as entirely unwarranted self-importance, and having it too cheap would limit your returns, as I doubt it is the sort of thing that would get impulse bought by too many people. I suppose your benchmark here is a movie ticket, or perhaps a more accurately a DVD, as you would own a copy of the game, regardless of whether you felt the need to play it more than once.

For the record, this sort of thing doesn't appeal to me at all, I was just so surprised by the review of it that I thought I'd post something about it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Ninja Gaiden Sigma Ad

While browsing one of the games sites a few weeks ago, I saw a link to an ad for Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, the PS3 update of the Xbox 360's Ninja Gaiden 2. As with the original Ninja Gaiden Sigma, it is an updated version rather than a simple port, with new stages, new weapons, new enemies and new playable characters. I think it even includes a co-op mode, although it would have to be system link or online, because you could never get two players working together on the same console because the camera is diabolical enough when it only has one player to worry about. I digress, however. What they also added, to leverage the unique power of the PS3, is the ability to jiggle the female characters' breasts by shaking the sixaxis controller. Yes, rumble was a last generation feature, motion control is clearly the way forward.

As regards combat, Ninja Gaiden 2 is probably the most viscerally entertaining third person action game I've ever played. The speed of the combat put other games to shame, and the ferocity outdid even God of War. The game fell short of greatness due to the nonsensical nature of the plot, the lack of any strong characters, a general inability to match the epic nature of the action to any epic form of drama. And the camera was anything but helpful for much of the time. It was a punishing, thrilling action game, but nothing more. And the main character was a badass ninja, so I loved it anyway. It did not occur to me, however, that it would have been a better game had the female characters' norks been more interactive.

Okay, so they have stated that this is a viral ad, which implies they know it is too ridiculous for mainstream channels, and it was released in Japan, which allows us to shake our heads and snigger about those crazy Japanese, but it was nevertheless released by Tecmo's advertising department, and is thus an official ad for the game.

I like boobs as much as the next guy, and as a person who writes a games blog it's fairly safe to assume that like I the polygonal representation of them. I actually rented Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball when I was in the States (conclusion: it's not a very good game). Maybe I'm getting old and sensible now, but this just embarrasses me. I'm not one to argue that games need to become highbrow entertainment in order to gain further acceptance and respect from mainstream (ie, non-gamer) audiences, but I had hoped that we could at least limit these sort of juvenile excesses to appropriate products.

To think that this "feature" adds anything to Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, which currently appears to have been more favourably received than the game it is based on (metascore of 85 compared to 81) is ridiculous; to think that it is being used as a unique selling point in the game's advertising campaign defies belief.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Forza Motorsport 3 Demo

Turn 10 have released a demo for their upcoming racing opus, Forza Motorsport 3, which is due out on 23 October 2009. Forza 2 is without a doubt the best racing game I have ever played, so Forza 3 has to be one of my most wanted games this year, and I thought I'd better check the demo out.

It doesn't take long for the demo to make a car enthusiast smile. In fact, even the car colour selection process does the trick; in Forza 2 you had the in-game model rotate in the upper half of your screen, in the Forza 3 demo it cuts away to a full screen rendition (still using the in-game model), which it lovingly sweeps across, fading in and out of different views. It really is car porn, and it is indicative of the kind of full-on automotive fetishism that Turn 10 have brought to their games. Another example of this is the pre-race routine, which focuses on your car's front wheel as it rolls to a stop on the starting grid, before switching to the usual three-quarters view as the car blips its engine. It doesn't always work, for example the screen shake accompanying the engine rev is the same whether the car is a Mini Cooper JCW or a Porsche 911 GT3-RSR, which seems a little silly.

The demo includes 5 cars in different classes, and one track, Camino Viejo, Montserrat, a short winding strip of road that works its way around a mountainous region. Despite being a circuit, it feels very much like a point to point race compared to the wide open, structured race tracks that made up almost all of Forza 2's tracks. It looks stunning, even if you do get the impression that Turn 10 are doing the Gran Turismo trick of sticking a photograph behind the engine-rendered foreground. The good news is that the handling model instantly feels every bit as right as it did before, you get a definite sense of the weight and balance of the car and the tyres' interaction with the road surface. You still have to drive properly, you can't brake and turn at the same time, but even with almost all the assists off (I still can't cadence brake efficiently enough on a controller trigger, so I need ABS on) the cars are satisfying to race, the faster cars being scary enough to stop you from just flattening the throttle out of every corner, but not so scary that they become a chore to drive.

It's not all choirs of angels, though. The car models are still quite flat and shiny compared to other racing games, they don't look anywhere near as good in game as they do in the screenshots, which are no doubt taken with the game's photo mode. On the bright side, despite far better background detail, the game is still rock-solid at 60fps, which I'll happily take over slightly flashier car models. I'm also a little concerned about the game's rewind feature, which is a great idea, especially for people like me who seem to have an uncontrollable tendency to throw the car off the road on the final lap of a race. The problem is that (in the demo, at least) there are no limits to the rewind facility, you can just hit it and redo any part of the race as often as you would like to, which means you should probably win every race on the first attempt. I'm no fan of having to redo entire races because I lost control or overshot my braking point on the last lap, but many of my best memories of racing games have come from the tension of knowing the whole race was at stake. Rewind worked fantastically in GRiD (dubbed Flashback in that game), but you were limited to about 4 usages per race, so you could only use it to correct major errors, not just every time you missed an apex. Maybe they will change the number of uses in the full game.

Regardless of any tweaks Turn 10 do or don't make to the final game, the demo has got me even more fired up for it. 23 October can't come soon enough.

Monday, August 31, 2009

That's So Meta

Achievement Unlocked is a little flash game I came across a while ago, where the actual game is secondary to your need to earn all the achievements, which are dished out with comic abandon (there is one for moving left, moving right, jumping, pausing the game, clicking on the scroll bar, pretty much everything). Despite the extremely basic nature of the game, I found it suprisingly compulsive, which no doubt says lots of things about me, none of them good. It does also have an awesome soundtrack, though.

Bear in mind I had to stop to take screen caps

I discovered later than the creator of Achievement Unlocked had made another flash game, Upgrade Complete, which similarly satirises the way many games extend themselves by playing off our desire to accumulate with a simple vertical scrolling shmup in which the gameplay takes a back seat to the need to unlock pretty much everything in the game with in-game currency. There is a more wordy post about Upgrade Complete here, if you want to check it out.

My fully upgraded ship pwns all

These meta-elements are becoming more and more common as gaming becomes more mature and self-aware. We have long since reached the stage where we can watch a movie that is so awful it actually becomes enjoyable, so have we reached the same point in video games? To an extent, I think we have. Most of the games on and Double Fine Production's website are entertaining simply because they are so rubbish, with the idea behind them being far more important than the actual gameplay. It is a similar story with most of the games from The Independent Games Source's hilarious Video Game Name Generator and Bootleg Demake contests.

Yes, these are all actual games, in various stages of completion

However, all these games have two very important elements to them: they're short, and they're free. Games require far more active participation and contain far more repitition than movies do, so if you are going to take up any significant amount of the player's time or money, then no matter how funny this sort of meta-humour is, the joke is ultimately on the player.

Matt Hazard takes on a JRPG boss

I was quite interested in Vicious Cycle's Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, which set itself up as the return of a fictional gaming hero (they even went as far as making up a back-catalogue) to the "next gen" era, in which they could make fun of all sorts of gaming tropes. It seemed like a great idea to wrap a serviceable third person shooter in, but unfortunately the game itself was savaged by the critics, proving that you need to have a solid game first if you want to charge money for this sort of thing. The idea of the game still appeals to me, and it seems like the sort of game that would get ridiculously cheap at some stage, so I might even give it a try if the price is right, but would remain to be seen who would have the last laugh in that case.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Serious Sam HD Supermercial

Sorry folks, it's another embedded video rather than a proper update. Does anyone have fond memories of Serious Sam? Well, I don't really, as the only time I played it was was four player co-op on a PC which couldn't really handle it, leaving me to die and respawn constantly in the midst of the game's near endless hordes of enemies. It was a bit like being stuck in FPS purgatory, especially when combined with the game's throwback, open area running and gunning.

However, Croteam have released a trailer for their upcoming high definition remake of the game, and it's pretty much made from pure win.

Serious Sam HD is way better than a loveless marriage!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Adventure Games: They're Not Dead, They Just Smell Funny

Monkey Island 2 and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the FathersMonkey Island 2 and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

You can always spot cranky old gamers by their insistence that everything was better in the earlier days of gaming, and one of their chief laments is that they don't make adventure games any more. It's not not hard to fathom why - those of us who had played the Space Quests, King's Quests and Police Quests, the golden age of LucasArts games, from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Monkey Island 2 to Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle, the Gabriel Knight series, probably the last of the high profile adventures of the era, will probably include one or more of these games in their favourite games from the past. Some of us may even remember playing text adventures before that (while I remember them, I don't think I ever got very far in any of them, in the pre-GameFAQs days when it wasn't the gamer's right to complete every game).

So where are these games now? It may surprise some to know that they're still around, and in fact more plentiful than they've been in over a decade, it's just their profile has changed a bit.

Runaway: A Road Adventure and Secret Files: TunguskaRunaway: A Road Adventure and Secret Files: Tunguska

For one, Spanish, German, French and Eastern European studios continue to produce these games. These markets tend to be more traditional than the UK and US markets, and haven't shifted as strongly towards the action based, console-centric ethos (perhaps PC games even make money there?), so a lot of games from older genres are still made their. The problem is, with a game as story and dialogue driven as a graphic adventure, language is a big deal, and these games reportedly often suffer ropey localisation to go with their already ropey programming (smaller developers in these markets often hark back to the old days of gaming in more than just genre selection). Probably the most notable are Spanish developer Pendulo's Runaway series German developer Fusionsphere's Secret Files series. No doubt anyone actually more familiar with the genre will be incensed that I've mentioned those but ignored something more worthy, but I'm not sure how many of those people actually exist, and I'm pretty sure none are reading this blog.

Sam & Max and Wallace & Grommit
Sam & Max and Wallace & Grommit

Next up is plucky American upstart Telltale Games, who had been making adventure games since 2005, based on the CSI license as well as the family-friendly Bone comics, but were really noticed when they released the new series of Sam & Max games in 2007. Telltale was actually founded in 2004 by former LucasArts staff who were working on a sequel to the 1993 classic Sam & Max Hit The Road when LucasArts cancelled it. In addition to Sam & Max, they've released Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People (in conjunction with and Wallace and Gromit's Grand Adventures, and have been entrusted with the new Tales of Monkey Island series (not to be confused with the release of the Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition, which they did not work on). Telltale has probably been the most successful publisher of episodic content in the games industry, as the adventure genre is suited to the release of short but regular chunks of game. I've played both seasons of Sam & Max, as well as SBCG4AP, and it's a company I'm usually pretty happy to throw money at.

Space Quest 3 and The DigSpace Quest III and The Dig

If you aren't interested in these new games, it's actually easier than before to play some of the old games, even if you don't want to dig around abandonware sites (although most of these games technically aren't abandonware) and mess about with Dosbox. As I mentioned a few weeks back, LucasArts have release an aurally and visually upgraded version of the first Monkey Island, but the game itself is as before, and the old graphics are only a button-press away (just be aware that the PC version is a big download). LucasArts have also starting re-releasing some of their classic games onto Steam. Currently, only The Dig, Loom and the two Indiana Jones games are available, but it's a good start. Good Old Games has a fair number of old adventure games available, and you can get Lure of the Temptress and Beneath a Steel Sky for free. Sierra (now part of the ActiBlizz hegemony) have released collections of their Space Quest, King's Quest, Police Quest and Leisure Suit Larry games (but sadly, no Hero's Quest/Quest for Glory compilation).

Peasant's Quest and Ben There, Dan ThatPeasant's Quest and Ben There, Dan That

Finally, if you're looking for some sort of freakish hybrid of old and new, there are several free games which pay homage to / gently mock the adventure games of old. A good example is Host Master, which sets up adventure game legend Tim Schafer's presentation to the Games Developers Conference in 2008 in the style of one of the old LucasArts games. An even better example is Peasant's Quest, a nearly full length pastiche of old Sierra games put together with so much love you'll feel nostalgia from the moment you hear the simulated PC speaker music, even though the game itself is entirely new. Also highly recommended are Zombie Cow Studio's Ben There, Dan That (which is free) and it's sequel, Time Gentlemen, Please! (which is a measly £3). There are also hordes of amateur attempts created in Adventure Game Studio, but I'm fairly certain that most of these are rubbish. I did download The Dig-inspired creation The Infinity String a while back, but while it sounds interesting, I just haven't got round to playing it.

Beneath a Steel Sky and The Infinity StringBeneath a Steel Sky and The Infinity String

Actually, one thing which has occurred to me while typing out this horrendously long post, is how many of these games I haven't played, despite the fact that I have bought or downloaded them already. I actually bought a copy of the first Runaway game when it was on a clearance sale for R40 or so, but it's still in the wrapper, and unfortunately, it's a long way down in the queue. I've downloaded Beneath a Steel Sky, Infinity String and Ben There, Dan That, but have yet to play them. Despite enjoying the previous Telltale games I've played, I'm not keen to add any episodes of Tales of Monkey Island to the backlog just yet. So the problem clearly isn't the lack of games in the genre, it is perhaps that we've moved along a little. As actual games, I don't think adventure games are that strong; they live and die on the strength of their writing, and perhaps the interactivity doesn't add to the experience as much as it does in other genres.

So, yes, adventure games still exist, but they aren't the headline releases they used to be, which is perhaps one of the things the retro-gamer misses about them, but due to the fairly widespread incidence of "genre creep" in modern games, their place has largely been taken by RPGs, which now usually contain all the exploration, interaction and storytelling that adventure games used to, just without the obscure object puzzles ("use duct tape on stray cat"), and the adventure game is not going to reclaim its former prominence. Still, if you want to play another, there are plenty of options out there.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

There Is Only Defeat

Anyone who has had the misfortune to talk to me about PC games will know that I bang on endlessly about how much I love Dawn of War II. While I found the single player campaign to be a step backwards from a more traditional RTS, the multiplayer in Relic's latest game really hooked me. Dispensing with most of the usual faffing around you get in an RTS, it was a game that you would be killing each other within a minute of starting a game, and it would be all over in 25 to 30 minutes at most, while still retaining a lot of tactical choices and strategic variety. Plus, it has Space Marines in it, which is an immediate plus in my book. I've clocked up over 300 ranked matches in it so far, and it has almost stopped me playing any other PC game for the last few months.


When Relic released the "There Is Only War" update last week, I was pretty excited. This update promised to completely rebalance the game, as well as more than double the number of multiplayer maps. Well, having downloaded and played it for a few days, I'm hating it. They seem to have ruined the game for me.

The changes are too many to mention, but I think the root of the problem is that Relic increased the power cost to advance to tier 2 enormously, thinking that players wanted to stay in tier 1 and fight it out for a while. This doesn't appeal to me, because I've never been a big fan of the swarm theory in RTS games. I much prefer having small skirmishes with 2 or 3 diverse units, rather than a huge clump of low-tier melee units trying to overwhelm the opponent.

Of course, this by itself would be too much to bear, but they've wrecked the two races that I play. The Space Marines, previously one of the stronger and more versatile sides in the game, are now completely hopeless. Space Marine units are now expensive, slow and poor in melee combat (they always were expensive and slow, but they used to be good in any situation), which means that in tier 1 you just get rushed down, as every other race now has a cheap, powerful melee unit. Because it is now harder to retreat, if you don't leg it before you've even fired a few shots, you are going to lose one or two units before you make it back to base, which is not such an issue if you've got between six and eight units in a squad like the other races do, but when you've only got three in a squad, this is a serious problem, and you end up having to spend all your resources just reinforcing injured squads. Because you can't control territory, you can't accumulate resources to advance to tier 2, where you get some (expensive) methods to deal with swarms. By the time you tech up, the game is usually nearly over, and you don't have the resources to build the units you desperately need.

This happens to you a lot post-patch

The Eldar, on the other hand, are now far stronger than before. Guardian squads are stronger and tougher than they used to be, but what really swings it is how ludicrously powerful howling banshees, the Eldar melee infantry, have become. Banshees just rip most units to shreds, especially space marines, and because they now have no power cost, you can build them as soon as the game starts. You'd think I'd be happy about the increased potency of the Eldar, previously one of the more difficult races to play, but I don't like the way the changes have modified their playstyle. With the power of banshee and guardian squads, they're effectively now another swarm race in tier 1 (which is where a lot of the game is now taking place). I appreciate that they've made rangers more deadly, but there is still not much reason to use them, and by the time you get to tech 2, where you can use warp spiders, wraithlords and falcon grav-tanks, the units I really like, the game is often nearly over. Eldar are now like the tyranids were - easy to win with, but not that much fun to play.

Playing Dawn of War II is now just making me angry as I lose game after game. I still have this urge to play, but it's mainly from remembering how much I used to enjoy it rather than how frustrating I am finding it now. I've had Eldar and Ork opponents tell me that they used to be Space Marine players but have had to switch because it's impossible to win a game with the marines, but unfortunately, they're now the only race that plays the way I enjoy playing. Hopefully Relic will get a balance patch out soon, but even if they weaken banshees and make marines better in melee again, the basic nature of the game will still have been changed in a way that I'm not very fond of.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Free Stuff

Free games giveaway! It's almost enough to make you think that this is a proper website or something. Unfortunately, this is mainly stuff I offered to other people a while ago, so the fact that I still have it would indicate that you shouldn't get too excited by this announcement. Still, I figure I might as well put them up here.

I have the following:
These are all redemption codes for the full versions of the game. The MMOs include activation and a month's subs. Note, however, that you will have to download the games, which may be a problem if you're on capped internet. Speedball 2 is 1GB, and the MMOs are many, many times larger than that.

If you'd like any of these, leave me your email address in the comments and I will email the code and instructions on how to use it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Undead Forever

I've just noticed on Penny Arcade that PopCap Games have started parodying Evony's ad campaign to promote their highly rated tower defense game, Plants vs Zombies, complete with zombie cleavage.

That's actually pretty awesome. If anyone is interested (and don't worry, PopCap isn't run by a Chinese gold farmer, as far as I'm aware), the game is somewhat inexplicably 50% cheaper on Steam than it is from PopCap themselves.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Unnoticeable Now!

Well, it looks like Evony is at it again. Maybe Angry Helmet Man simply wasn't pulling in the page hits, so they've gone back to their previous advertising scheme.

It's apparently "unnoticeable now" as well as "free forever". I'm not sure exactly sure what they mean by "unnoticeable", as I certainly noticed something about the model they used for the ad.

Clicking on the ad brings you to the new sign-up screen, which clarifies what they mean by "unnoticeable" (although they appear to have a very low opinion of your IT department), as well as giving you a larger picture of unrelated-to-the-game-woman.

Evony is apparently bad news, suspected by some of being an email harvesting trojan supported by an army of spam-bots, so I wouldn't recommend going anywhere near it. I'm sure most of you wouldn't have anyway, but I thought it prudent to warn people nevertheless.

Friday, July 24, 2009

World of Warcraft: The Movie

Okay, so we've probably all read that the upcoming World of Warcraft movie will be directed by Sam Raimi (Army of Darkness, Spiderman). This is unlikely to make any difference to my policy of ignoring all game-based movies, unless Bruce Campbell is cast in it. And even then, only if he's given a leading role.

The idea of a World of Warcraft movie still strikes me as being a lot like Penny Arcade's vision of the Dungeon Siege movie, only with worse dialogue, as Dungeon Siege, being a single player game, didn't have to contend with a torrent of two and three letter abbreviations being spewed into the chat window by its protagonists.

Perhaps, for added authenticity, they could have the characters speak like actual players of the game, and then provide subtitles for the rest of us, who would have no idea what on earth they were talking about. It would make it seem like some sort of strange foreign film, which would instantly increase its appeal with the arty crowd.

I imagine it might look something like this:

Or perhaps:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Good Grief, Charlie Bandwidth

I missed out on the original Secret of Monkey Island the first time around, but I still rate Monkey Island 2 as one of the best games I've ever played, so I was understandably excited when LucasArts released their visually and aurally enhanced (but otherwise apparently untouched) Special Edition. The only real decision I had to make was whether to buy the Xbox version from Live Arcade or the PC version from Steam, which wasn't a very tough one. I figured the game would be better suited to mouse control, I was used to playing adventure games on my PC anyway, and I'm not that much of a Gamerscore whore that 200 points worth of achievements were going to sway me. Besides, it was also slightly cheaper on PC; 800 Microsoft Spacebucks equals 10 United States Dollars, but due to the magic of intercontinental price discrimination, 800MSP is R96, whereas 10USD is R80.

So, this morning I purchased it from Steam, only to receive an unpleasant surprise when I tried to install it. You see, the Xbox version is a little over 500MB - I know because I tried to download the trial version to see how the control scheme would work on a gamepad - but the PC version is apparently 2.16GB. Quite why it's so much bigger, I don't know. Uncompressed audio, perhaps, but as the artwork in both games is at the same level of detail in 1080p, it seems odd that the PC version is four times the size. That's quite a chunk of game to download for a person with a 378kb link and capped bandwidth. In fact, 2GB of bandwidth will cost me more than the game itself did, and seeing as I always exceed my cap each month, it's not just an opportunity cost, either. In case it isn't obvious, this is one of the reasons the shift towards digital distribution doesn't excite me that much at the moment. Well, that and the fact that I'm a packrat and like having shiny bits of plastic to show for my expenditure.

This isn't the most ridiculous incidence of this problem I've had, either. I won a code for a copy of Lord of the Rings Online, and I picked up a code for a free copy of Age of Conan from a website giveaway - these are full retail copies with activation and a month's subs included, not trial versions - but I worked out that for the same cost as the bandwidth to download either of these games, I could actually buy a boxed copy of the game from a retailer, and pay for an entire year of subscription to it. I'm sure you'll all agree that the situation there is a bit daft. I'm hoping the Seacom cable going online will help increase our bandwidth and decrease our costs, but even this will apparently take time.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Layout Changes

I'm fiddling a bit with the layout at the moment, so just bear with me.

Update: I just went through all of my old posts and had to justify each individual one. Surely Blogger should have some way of letting you do this on the template settings?

Update 2: What do people think of the new layout? It's certainly a little bit less "generic blogspot", but I'm not sure it isn't slightly harder to read than before.

Update 3: I'm having second thoughts about the justified text blocks. They make the text look more, for lack of a better description, professional, which is completely at odds with the actual writing.

Update 4: I've now (manually) removed the justification from the paragraphs of all the posts.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Top 5 Songs from Games' Closing Credits

Yes, a top 5 list. Someone call the internet cliche police, I've hit rock bottom. At least we can only go up from here.

I have made it a habit of watching the entirety of the credits roll at the end of every game I finish. I'm not sure when I started doing this, but I like to think of it as a mark of respect to the developers, even though the odds on me remembering even a single name from the list are less than remote. Accordingly, I've listened to a lot of closing themes in games. Most of them don't stick with me, even in games which I've really enjoyed, but there have been a few which have, and here are five (or six) of them:

5. Final Fantasy X - Suteki Da Ne (Rikki/Nobuo Uematsu)
Final Fantasy X, which is incidentally the only Final Fantasy I've completed, was a game which annoyed me almost as much as it enthralled me. It was like everything that was wrong as well as right in JRPGs. One thing I couldn't fault, though, was the music. From the tinkly opening theme in the start menu, to the soaring crescendos in the CGI scenes, it was superb, emotive stuff. The closing theme, which Youtube informs me is called Suteki Da Ne, is a poignant way of ending the game, although I think the real standout theme in the game was the Hymn of the Fayth, which was used at several points in the game (there are apparently 11 versions of it on the FFX OST).

4. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within - Straight Out of Line (Godsmack)
Much has been said about how the Prince's badassitude in Warrior Within was a step back from the more likeable persona created in Sands of Time, and I agree with most of it. By the end of the game, however, you had probably at least come to terms with the new, but not improved, angry prince, and even though the soundtrack lost the delicacy and mystery of the first game, at least it did rock. Ubisoft's selection of Godsmack's Straight out of Line to go with the shifting, burning imagery of the credits roll was a good one, closing the game off on an appropriately badass note.

3. Mass Effect - M4 Part II (Faunts)
Mass Effect is a game I enjoyed tremendously, and after the game's cataclysmic ending it drops to an amazing, spacey bit of indie rock as the credits come up, which I was really taken with. Turns out, the song is M4 (part II) from a band called Faunts. At more than 8 minutes, it's also the ideal song for a long set of credits. I enjoyed it so much that I actually ended up buying the band's EP, and you can too, from Friendly Fire Records.

2. Gears of War - Cole's Rap (Lester Speight, presumably mixed together by the Gears audio team)
Gears' credits start with a more atmospheric piece, but halfway through switches to a rap song presumably put together by Epic's audio team using Augustus "Cole Train" Cole's voice samples from the game, no doubt with a few extra ones recorded by voice actor Lester Speight. Much like Cole's character in the game, it's horrendously cliched and over the top, but manages to get away with it by not pretending to be anything else. In fact, if it weren't for number one on this list, it would probably be the greatest piece of closing music in a game ever. Yeah! Woo! Bring it on sucka! Dis my kinda shit!

1. Portal - Still Alive (GlaDOS, or more accurately, Jonathan Coulton)
Valve's quirky puzzle game succeeded as much due to the humour as it did to the problem solving, with the undisputed star of the game being the deranged AI, GlaDOS. Completing the game rewarded you with this brilliant, oddly touching song during the credits, during which the lyrics popped from text prompts and guaranteed that nobody was going to read the names of any of the poor souls who worked on the game. If you managed to watch the entire song after completing Portal without smiling, then you'd better check your pulse, because you might very well be dead.

Special Mention: Mirror's Edge - Still Alive (Lisa Miskovsky)
The closing track in Mirror's Edge is a really beautiful song, its austere Scandanavian-ness complementing the games aesthetic very nicely. It didn't make the list, though, because I couldn't very well put two songs called Still Alive on it, could I?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Real Life RPG

Okay, so apparently I'm now embedding Youtube videos and calling them updates. What's next? Top ten lists? Actually, I'm fairly sure lists are quite far less egregious than embedded videos on the "Waste of Space on the Internet" scale.

Anyway, I have no idea what happens past the two minute mark in this video because I got way too bored. In fact, the only reason I made it past the one minute mark was that I left the tab open when I switched to something else, so I continued to hear his droning voice for another minute before I had to shut it off.

Seriously, if you really think the problem with your life is that no number on a spreadsheet increases when you play a game of chess or go for a run, then this could be the thing for you. I'm not sure if the video explains how to earn phat lewtz from your activities, but to be fair, that could have been somewhere in the two to eight minute range.

Monday, July 13, 2009

New Mechwarrior Game Coming

It was announced last week that Smith and Tinker, who have acquired the videogame rights to most of FASA's IPs after Microsoft cruelly denuded them, are planning a new Mechwarrior game, aimed at rebooting the series. Developer Pirahna Games hardly has the best track record (fishing and hunting games, the tie-in to the second Transformers movie and PSP ports of Need for Speed and Call of Duty), and they have yet to find a publisher, but I'm still excited by the news.

Eurogamer now have a trailer up here. It's all pre-rendered, and even then most of it seems to involve mechs standing in front of each other firing until the other one falls over, but seeing a Warhammer, Jenner and Atlas smash each other into chunks of metal still makes me geek out a little.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

On The Mirror's Edge

I finished Mirror's Edge earlier this week, and I sort of felt I should write something about it. I'm not really sure what I'm trying to achieve here, as I doubt I'm going to say anything that hasn't been more eloquently explained in the 82 reviews of the game that have already been written, but I'm going to give it a try anyway.

The first and most obvious thing about the game is the way it incorporates body movement into the usual FPS. It's really more of a first person platform or free running game than it is a first person shooter, and when it all works well, there's an almost tangible sense of weight and flow to movements that in other games can seem more like the character is skimming across the ground. Unfortunately, while the shift to first person perspective may have allowed greater precision in the shooter genre, it makes platforming a little awkward. On several occassions I was left wishing for a Sands of Time style rewind function after missing what seemed like an easy jump.

The other notable thing about the game is it's use of colour. I think we're so used to FPS games being brown, grey or green that the use of white as the game's base colour really makes it stand out. When other colours are used, they are bright, saturated primary colours (unlike, say, the subtle huing that Assassin's Creed used so well). Visually, the game is really striking, and coupled with the minimalist soundtrack, creates a clean, unique aesthetic unlike anything else on the market.

The final thing I found interesting was that it was possible to play the game without killing anyone. A couple of games have theoretically let you do this, Mirror's Edge is probably the only one I've played that I felt that I should actually try to do so. Faith is a minor felon, an courier of unauthorised information, who is framed for a murder (I don't consider things to be plot spoilers if they're written on the back of the game's box), she has actually not committed any serious crime. As soon as she kills a policeman, even in self-defence, that it no longer the case (unfortunately, this sentiment is not shared by the game's enemies, who shoot to kill from the very first level), so I ended up just discarding any weapon I took from an opponent, even though the game sadly appears to be balanced with the assumption that you are prepared to shoot everyone. Faith is fairly capable in hand-to-hand combat, but as the game started to throw larger numbers of better armed opponents at me, I began to dread the inevitable arrived of red-hued enemies (which cannot be evaded, they have to be subdued before you can progress) on each level.

Toward the end of the game, when I started to feel like some opponents did actually deserve to get shot, I was so close to getting the "Test of Faith" achievement for the completing the game without firing a shot at anyone that I soldiered on with it. If anyone does intend to play through the game in a non-lethal way, I'd recommend playing on easy, which lowers the difficulty of the combat sections, but leaves the running and jumping sequences, which are the best part of the game anyway, unchanged. Pointless number chasers won't lose out on any achievements, either.

There were a lot of things I liked about Mirror's Edge. Not least of these was that it is one of the products of the "new" EA, who allowed DICE to develop a relatively risky new IP rather than forcing them to churn out nothing but Battlefield games. I liked the aesthetic, and I enjoyed the free running sections of the game, both the less structured platforming and the more scripted chase sequences in the game. I did, however, get the impression that DICE had a good idea that was probably not sufficient to turn into a full sized game, but just went for it anyway. I was also expecting something more from the plot, but I suppose it was serviceable enough to justify the action. Still, in this day and age, sequels are an inevitability, and I will be quite interested to see what DICE can do with the series on its second attempt.