I can never quite decide whether taking the three days off between Christmas and New Year really counts as a holiday. The resulting ten-day break is most welcome, naturally, but those who “work” in between (in office jobs, at any rate) impart wondrous tales of blessedly empty offices and extravagant two-hour lunches. On balance it is the futile attempt at catching up on a year’s worth of missed sleep that convinces me to take the time off.
It is a fair sign I have been working slightly too hard that, immediately upon stopping, I fell ill. An uncommon enough occurrence itself, this was some (chaotic) evil stomach bug that took about three days to kick, conveniently running right through Christmas. Between this and last year, I am considering blacklisting the holiday entirely. It is on notice.
Strangely what kept me going was a Skyrim fan’s efforts in porting all the short books contained within the game to ebook format. Loaded onto my tablet, I lay in bed reading the history, mythology and cautionary fables of an entirely fictional world to keep my mind occupied. The personal tale woven by the anonymously penned The Real Barenziah was a particular favourite, standing in sharp contrast to the official line in the Imperial approved Biography of Barenziah. And that is the perfect illustration of what makes the these games so special: that incredible level of detail in which the world is crafted. In each new Elder Scrolls game Bethesda will reproduce the books from previous entries while adding a host of new titles, now totalling some 13,500 pages of text that many (most?) players will never actually read.
Once recovered, I spent a pleasant few days catching up with friends in London and finally delving properly into Skyrim in the way I had expected a month ago (i.e. almost continuously). I saw in the New Year a few roads away at Adam’s new house, with a quick jaunt to Waterloo to watch the fantastic South Bank fireworks. There then followed the traditional struggle to return my sleeping habits to the socially accepted norm before returning to work. With moderate success.
Two years ago developer Rocksteady released its critically acclaimed breakout game Batman: Arkham Asylum, eschewing the typical cash-grab film tie-in for a meticulously constructed licensed game that owes more to the animated series and Batman’s comicbook roots. Its strength lay in its premise: placing Batman inside Gotham City’s asylum for the criminally insane allowed the team to roll out a rogue’s gallery of famous and lesser-known villains. The problem was that while Arkham Island was fully explorable, movement was constrained by the way in which it was broken up into contained areas.
I had concerns about the sequel‘s proposed open world approach, but again Rocksteady found the ideal conceit: a controversial response to crime has led to a section of Gotham City being closed off and all Arkham’s undesirables dumped inside. Batman can grapple, glide and swoop across large areas making traversal now as much fun as the brawling combat. Interludes as Catwoman intersperse proceedings (controversially requiring extra payment unless you buy the game new) providing a lithe new way to move and fight. Meanwhile a plethora of side-missions are available throughout, and after completing the main story. Its careful construction (traverse, explore, sneak, assess, fight, repeat, well-choreographed boss fight) means it never feels like anything but a game, yet it is one of the finest, most distilled gaming experiences of this generation.
Mark Hamill returns for his final outing as The Joker, having announced his retirement from the character which he has also voiced in countless animated productions. But what a high to go out on! Great as Heath Ledger’s performance may have been, The Joker is a role that Mark Hamill owns. Without spoiling the story itself, Arkham City‘s central plot focuses on my favourite aspect of the Batman mythos: not the rivalry between The Dark Knight and The Clown Prince of Crime but rather their co-dependence. While Batman donned his cowl in response to Gotham’s criminal element, Arkham City mastermind Hugo Strange reprimands Batman, arguing these criminals now exist because of him. Whilst there are other heroes and villains in Gotham, ultimately, bitterly fought as their battles may be, the lives of Batman and Joker would be emptier — almost meaningless — without one another. Approaching this in a videogame format marks another notch in the move towards conceptually mature narratives.
A bunch of videos will make up this post because my free time is going to be spent in the cyberpunk renaissance world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. When over a decade later a true successor is released to one of my favourite games of all time, I’m not about to make excuses.
Portal: No Escape, I discovered after watching, was directed by Dan Trachtenberg of The Totally Rad Show fame. I knew he directed here and there but this is the first I’d actually seen. And it’s stunning. The live-action short suggests that, if only they were helmed by people who really understand the source material, perhaps game-to-film projects would not be doomed to failure.
Continuing the Portal theme, this is perhaps my new favourite geeky proposal, in which our favourite passive-aggressive AI, GLaDOS, pops the question. “You can say no. I’m sure he’ll get over it. Eventually.” she intones. Interestingly, Valve helped out by recording his scripted dialogue in a session already booked with GLaDOS voice-actress Ellen McLain. What could the voice of Half-Life 2’s Overwatch have been doing there…
Finally, the creative advertising campaign for the Muppets continues its tradition of giving away virtually nothing about the actual film. The latest is a music video with OK Go covering The Muppets Show Theme, while riffing on their own inventive music videos. You may wish to ignore the somewhat tedious ending.
Now is a good time to be an adult gamer, with two fantastic new mature releases in totally different genres. The first and most high-profile, with adverts coating tube stations, is L.A. Noire. Published by Rockstar (of Grand Theft Auto fame) but developed primarily by the Australian Team Bondi, it is nominally an open world game but in reality nothing like previous Rockstar offerings. Instead the narrative-driven game following the rise of straight-as-an-arrow Detective Phelps draws its inspiration from police procedurals and, naturally, film noir’s atmosphere and aesthetics.
The big draw is the highly impressive MotionScan technology, a substantial leap forward in facial animation, if at times straddling the uncanny valley. Actors’ faces were recorded with an array of 32 cameras so that, when interviewing witnesses, the player must watch for reactions like nervous twitches or shifting eyes to ascertain lies. The fine line between doubting a suspect and confronting them on a lie feels clunky at first but soon becomes natural as you learn how to use the evidence in your notebook. I suspect it was an error instantly to inform the player at the end of an interview how many questions they dealt with “correctly”, since it sparks an intrinsic desire to retry the sequence. Cases are arguably more interesting with an occasionally fumbled interview but ultimately enough evidence to nail the culprit. And earning a five-star rating at the end of an investigation (which doesn’t require 100% success) is always rewarding. However gamers are taught to treat success as being black and white at every stage, and in generally are not wired to accept any level of “failure” as acceptable if the game highlights it as such. While it may be a helpful gauge early in the game, this is a case where providing too much immediate feedback arguably damages the experience.
Indeed L.A. Noire stumbles only when it attempts to fall back on traditional gameplay. The open world approach lets its 1940s Los Angeles feel alive, but the loose GTA-style driving mechanics feel at odds with the the rest of the game, often resulting in unintentional destruction. Similarly the generally violent side-missions are a great diversion but the body-count Phelps builds up seems both unrealistic and out of character (notwithstanding that he is a war veteran), much the same problem that plagues the Uncharted series. The short, disjointed tutorial cases may not give the best first impression but as soon as they open up into full-length investigations, L.A. Noire shines.
The second game, Polish RPG The Witcher 2, deals more overtly with moral ambiguity like its predecessor. Based upon the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, the world inhabited by supernatural monster-hunter Geralt is a far cry from the typical good versus evil fantasy landscape. Political machinations and racial mistrust underlie much of the experience (more successfully than the other recent fantasy sequel, the rather rushed Dragon Age 2), and even those giving you quests may be lying to you. While Geralt is out to help people, he is also a mercenary with his own code of ethics; this duality between nobility and cynicism has led to comparisons with Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlow. So despite very different protagonists, these two games are loosely linked by their murky worlds.
Many gamers will find The Witcher 2 hard going, beyond its inexplicable refusal to teach you its own mechanics (without delving into the manual, which feels somewhat archaic these days), because its shades of grey feel inherently unfamiliar. They are too used to simplistic binary moral choices, even from games that boast of more complex morality. Some argue that videogame fantasy is escapism, and so a sharp delineation between “good” and “bad” actions is essential to the player’s enjoyment. Yet such a narrow view is like suggesting all cinema should conform to the simplicity of the summer blockbuster’s “good guys” and “bad guys”. Such escapism is fine, but cinematic gems tend to be rooted precisely in those shades of grey in between. The further games explore such spaces, the more the medium can evolve. And as developers’ skill in crafting such worlds improves, we may find their interactive nature makes videogames better equipped for the job.
Recent posts have been infrequent and, as a result, lengthier once I have both something about which to write and the time to do it. This means I have been reluctant to pad them out further with the usual assortment of links and asides that I’ve stumbled upon in my online travels. So here are the latest in a light-hearted Short Post of No Consequence.
The hilarious ninja-filled Nexus S unboxing video may the best one ever. After the video scroll down to grab the red ninja’s nunchaku…
Yes, it’s just a marketing video, but Corning’s A Day Made of Glass video is a gorgeous representation of technology that is, in many cases, virtually here. As soon as Microsoft finds a way to sell me that Surface table, anyway. While Corning naturally favours touch interfaces, I’ll admit apprehension at the loss of buttons in a car, since operation while moving will require taking one’s eyes of the road for far longer.
If you’re rocking one of the latest web browsers, using the HTML5 canvas to screw around with content on any site has become a recent trend in either Asteroids or Katamari flavours (the latter accompanied by the requisite ridiculously cheerful music too).
Ostensibly a casual puzzle game, Stacking’s novel game mechanic, distinctive art style and colourful world will draw in almost everyone. You take on the role of Charlie Blackmore, the youngest (and smallest) of a family of matryoshka, or Russian nesting dolls if you prefer. The Depression-era story is one of child labour as Charlie must rescue his siblings who have been pressed into service by a corrupt industrialist.
Set against this backdrop — complete with silent film inspired cutscenes to progress the story — the game itself is a light-hearted romp rather than heavy-handed social commentary. Charlie can do little alone, but has the ability to jump inside the other dolls that populate environments. Doing so lets him use their abilities to solve puzzles. The draw is that each puzzle has multiple solutions and while finding one or two is usually swift, others will take some creative thinking.
If you breeze through for the story alone, Stacking may feel somewhat slim even at its low downloadable price. However the urge to collect the unique dolls and discover all the puzzle solutions encourages return trips to completed areas and will keep most players engrossed for several hours.
While Tim Schaefer’s critically-lauded creativity has not resulted in the financial success it deserves, it’s great to see that Double Fine has found a way to push through fresh and interesting game design (between this and last year’s Hallowe’en-themed Costume Quest) in a small package that reduces the innovation risk associated with large-scale releases. While their next big project gestates, this provides developers with a creative outlet and keeps fans happy, so it’s hard to see a downside. Perhaps more studios should take note as the downloadable game market continues to mature.
Over the weekend I was invited to a Nintendo event showcasing their forthcoming 3DS handheld console. They were taking a small group approach to the demo space they rented near Brick Lane. We were first ushered through two rooms with short live-action presentations to warm us up. The first of these was an impressively detailed Street Fighter stage with a choreographed Ryu versus Ken fight. My inner child could barely contain his glee. The second was distinctly less successful and frankly somewhat unnecessary: a darkened Resident Evil themed room, half lit with actors “protecting” the group from attacking zombies. Unlike the preceding room, audience participation doesn’t work quite so well in what might have been cheesy fun merely to watch.
We then proceeded to the demo rooms with dozens of 3DS stands featuring a range of games. First the hardware itself: this is undoubtedly the best build quality for a Nintendo handheld thus far, feeling solid and robust with a larger 3.5″ 3D screen at the top and the now-familiar 3″ touch-sensitive screen below. The top screen is of the glasses-free autostereoscopic variety and, while the viewing angle is narrow, playing alone one can remain within it comfortably. Interestingly the adjustable 3D effect is not simply on/off, but rather features a slider much like a volume control which adjusts the depth of the effect. Naturally their demo sets were mostly set to the maximum, but I found a middle setting much more comfortable and it’s likely where most people will learn to default. The analogue “circle pad” is a welcome addition (though just the one, like the original PSP, while the PSP2 has upgraded to two analogue controls). I found the placement of the flat Start and Select buttons below the lower screen made them a little fiddly to use. Finally there are no less than three cameras, one front-facing and two rear-facing which can even be used to take 3D photographs, though I did not get a chance to see the results.
So is 3D the proverbial — and literal — game changer? It is undoubtedly a gimmick but, for the most part, one that works. Unsurprisingly, no photography of game footage was allowed, since the 3D effect would be lost. Racing and flying games naturally benefit from the additional dimension as you hurtle off into the screen. Street Fighter looked particularly impressive with its background pulled away and the action in the foreground. It also neatly utilised the touch screen for easy execution of special moves, making the hardcore fighter more approachable to a casual audience. Resident Evil is undoubtedly part of the launch push because of the franchise’s status, but I don’t think it forms a great showcase for the new hardware. With enemies’ up close the graphics consistently look pixelated (the 800×240 resolution is really only 400×240 per eye) at which point the 3D does little to improve immersion.
Interestingly the one game that took the technology beyond a gimmick into truly fresh territory was the augmented reality offering. Placing a card on a surface, the 3DS’ twin cameras can identify it with depth perception, and create a virtual gaming space wherever you like. Looking through the 3DS screen you can then move around in three dimensions and interact with it. In this case it meant moving around to aim at targets and ultimated defeating a dragon which required maneuvering behind it to hit certain spots. Hopefully we will see more of this originality from developers once they become accustomed to the hardware.
The demos we experienced were all too short to give a good indication as to whether prolonged use would cause eye strain. Certainly I think setting the 3D slider to a middling level will be more comfortable but I would not be surprised if eyes do become fatigued faster. When leaving, I also noticed reps having to turn away a couple who had brought with them a young child, since Nintendo is clearly very aware of the ongoing debate as to the potentially detrimental effect of 3D on young eyes. Marketing a console where the key new feature is not to be used by children will be a difficult line. Similarly the StreetPass system, allowing data automatically to be transferred between consoles in proximity, even while asleep, is an interesting touch that requires careful marketing. Although I think the minimal data held by the console ought to leave little to fear, with privacy concerns on the rise the words “send data without you even knowing” from one rep were alarmingly ill-chosen.
Overall I came away with a decidedly positive impression. A more powerful hardware refresh means better games even in 2D, as evidenced by a Resident Evil game, while the 3D varies between gimmick and — at its best — some genuinely original innovation. Marketed well, there’s no reason the 3DS shouldn’t follow its predecessor’s monumental success. Whether the 3D remains, or we all switch it off within a few months, remains to be seen.
A combination of qualification, flat moving, delays in landline connection and database upgrade issues led to an enforced break. All of that now dealt with, I’m feeling refreshed and keen to get back into it. Let’s start with a couple of new reviews that went up in my absence: Buried and Toy Story 3. I suspect the latter may cause disagreements but, while it’s good, I simply did not enjoy it as much as I hoped when compared to the stellar How To Train Your Dragon. Expect a few more reviews soon. The rest of this post was written a while ago, but I’ll put it up anyway.
I recently headed to a talk by Ninja Theory’s Tameem Antoniades, Creative Director on Enslaved. While I already view videogame development as a legitimate creative industry, it is still nice to have external confirmation. Sitting in a crowded BAFTA theatre certainly provided that.
Tameem’s talk focused on Enslaved’s collaborative process with individuals from the film industry. Andy Serkis voices the player character, Monkey, but also co-directed the performance capture sessions. Scriptwriter Alex Garland came on board at an early stage and influenced level design choices by emphasising the need to set up encounters through the use of subtle film flourishes such as fleeting shadows. And finally veteran composer and musician Nitin Sawney was providing the soundtrack.
Enslaved’s story is based on the Chinese classic Journey to the West, though in the UK it is largely known only through the cult Monkey TV series. Though they have chosen a futuristic, sci-fi setting, Ninja Theory’s Eastern influences are clear, both in their previous game Heavenly Sword and the recently announced Devil May Cry reboot, which many were surprised to see handed over to a Western developer. The post-apocalyptic USA, inhabited by mechs that vary in size from humanoid to gargantuan, is surprisingly saturated with colour a conscious decision and a welcome change from typical incarnations.
Playing the game, my concern was that the basic combat elements in the demo would swiftly become repetitive. This is avoided through the ability to upgrade Monkey’s combat abilities. Purchasing new moves gradually over the game provides nuance and keeps things feeling fresh, but the danger is that you are not forced to do so — players may instead purchase them all early on or even eschew them entirely in favour of health or shield upgrades which would turn combat into a horrible grind.
So the action platforming gameplay is enough to keep the player engaged, with neat environmental puzzles breaking the pace well, but it is really the quality of the performances — Monkey, Trip and Pigsy — that sells it. It is the first time in while that I’ve finished a game to find myself genuinely disappointed to be unable to spend more time with its characters.
It’s no secret that I bought the PS3 as a blu-ray player and my gaming has remained almost exclusively on the Xbox 360. However this year there are a couple of PS3 exclusives that have my full attention: the first is the newly released Heavy Rain, on my radar ever since its intriguing casting trailer in 2006 (the tech is now much improved), and later in the year comes The Last Guardian. I felt surprisingly comfortable splashing out on the special edition of Heavy Rain despite the lack of tangible incentives. The reason is simply that, even if the game turned out to be average, it needs to be a financial success because this is exactly where I want to see the medium evolve and more developers need to start experimenting in this space. As it turns out the packaging alone almost justified the extra cost, with its beautiful embossed rain-slick appearance.
Quantic Dream describe their creation as “interactive drama”, a title that will make sense to anyone who sampled their previous offering, Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, depending on your geographical location). Their creativity is evident from the installation sequence, a typically tedious affair that no one enjoys, which prompts you to remove a square of paper provided in the box and instructs you in making the origami creation on the cover (the killer’s calling card in the game). The game itself is often mis-perceived as a series of quick-time events that require a series of button presses those displayed on-screen. Although the visual stimulus is the same, the mechanics are very different because there is no defined scripted sequence through each scene. Instead you choose the actions to make, and not only is “failing” a series of actions not fatal to your progress, but it may even be intentional. For example in one early scene, surely any good father would let his own son beat him in a mock swordfight.
Very much an adult game, Heavy Rain is a noir thriller, with the player taking on the roles of four different characters investigating a serial killer called the Origami Killer. However the storyline can diverge depending on how you play out a scene, substantially altering the ending, particularly if a character dies or critically fails in their investigation. Adult themes extend to flawed characters: a grieving father trying to reconnect with his son; a drug-addicted FBI agent; an insomniac photographer. Their moods and perceptions are evoked through impressive performance capture and some neat camera tricks as much as voice acting. Where the game sometimes fails in its lofty goals is that the on-screen prompts are not always intuitive and one often triggers an action without real intent, somewhat breaking the intended immersion.
Nevertheless the style is pitch perfect, it’s rendered beautifully and Heavy Rain marks a real step forward for mature games. In a world where killing is still considered the chief gaming mechanic, it’s just a shame more people won’t be exposed to it.
I have long been a proponent of the value of games in honing skills with real-world application, be it basic numerical skills in card games, reaction-enhancing twitch shooters or the more cerebral puzzle solving and strategising. Arguably none captures this moreso than Solium Infernum. Broadly it operates like a giant game of Risk/Civilisation set in Hell, played over a month or two. It’s turn based with people sending in their orders when they have time, which are then processed simultaneously and the results sent back.
What sets it apart is the strict protocol of netherworld diplomacy. One cannot simply invade another Archfiend’s territory on a whim, but instead but must first have a valid vendetta due to an insult or refused demand. It takes several turns to go war. The flurry of emails (ideally in character) in the turns in between is filled with the backstage politics and deceitful intrigue that are sure to destroy friendships over the course of a game.
After reading a detailed game report at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Adam, Sam, Sparkie, Tom and I all started a game. You know, because I clearly like them too much. I have discovered that nothing drives the human competitive urge so much as the profound knowledge that someone tried to convince your friends to destroy you. Unfortunately since they all read this site, that’s about all I can safely reveal for now. Suffice to say my anagrammatic alter ego, Peril-Eye Lawman, has his Eye firmly fixed upon the infernal throne.
Finally, links from the past month:
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