Author Archives: lewispackwood

About lewispackwood

The first game that Lewis ever played was "Horace Goes Skiing" on the ZX Spectrum. Yes, he's that old.

Heavy Rain: Awkward Start, Great Finish

Heavy Rain box artMy first impressions of Heavy Rain weren’t great. After a protracted installation session, I was wholly underwhelmed by the game’s glacier-slow and mind-numbingly tedious opening (see earlier post). However, Sir Gaulian assured me that the game picks up, and I’m glad I stuck with it.

For a start, it’s a film noir thriller, and I’m a sucker for film noir: over at 101 Films You Should Have Seen… Probably, we’ve eagerly covered all sorts of representatives of the genre, from the 70s noir revival Chinatown to the 90s sci-fi noir Dark City, with a bit of Lynchian psycho-horror noir thrown in for good measure. Heavy Rain is noir to its core, and it delivers a satisfying and convoluted story that throws in plenty of twists and red herrings to keep you on your toes. It’s also paced particularly well: although it starts off a bit too slow, the action builds nicely towards a breathtaking and satisfying crescendo.

The controls are a bit of a sticking point, however. I believe the aim of the control scheme was to mimic the actions taking place on screen: for example, to make Madison Paige put on lipstick, the game directs you to slowly move the analogue stick in a semi-circle. For most of the time you’ll be wandering around just matching inputs like this, but every now and then an action sequence will pop up where you have to match the command that appears within seconds to, say, dodge a punch. So, a bit like Dragon’s Lair, then. Later on, the consequences of missing these commands can be serious – your character can die permanently, and in fact I ended up doing a few quick restarts in an attempt to get Jayden through to the finale.

Sam Douglas is excellent as private detective Scott Shelby.

Sam Douglas is excellent as private detective Scott Shelby.

I have mixed feelings about this control system. If the aim of the controls was to develop more of a connection between your input and what happens on screen, then I think it has failed. If anything, the controls drive a wedge between the player and the game – I never really felt like I was controlling what was happening, more like a monkey pressing buttons in expectation of a reward. As such, it was more difficult to develop an attachment to the character I was ostensibly meant to ‘be’. Also, the decision to control walking by holding down R2 and then pressing in a direction with the left analogue stick is absurd. For the life of me I can’t work out why they didn’t just map movement to the analogue stick alone: why make us press R2 as well? It’s certainly not more immersive: half the time I found myself walking into walls as I wrestled with the controls.

However, I did quite enjoy the action sequences in the end. I’m not normally a fan of QTEs in games, but here there were some moments where my heart was really pounding as I desperately tried to follow the prompts on screen, knowing that if I failed, my character might not make it to the end of the game. There prompts are also set at a very well-thought-out level of timing – just forgiving enough to make them possible at first try, but still hard enough to make you really concentrate.

But, again, I did feel that in some way I was being robbed of control. The ‘decisions’ I made in the game often just game down to how quickly I mashed a button, so really it was more about reactions than decisions. I think the TellTale games did this a little better, providing you with clear, timed choices. L.A. Noire also bears some striking similarities to Heavy Rain, but I prefer the way that the former approaches controls: in that game you always feel like you’re in complete control of what’s happening, whereas in Heavy Rain there’s sometimes a bit of a disconnect.

There’s also a bit of unintentional comedy, not least with the whole ‘Press X to Jason’ thing, as well as a highly gratuitous shower scene that seemed to serve absolutely no purpose as far as I could see. But overall I enjoyed the game a lot more than I thought I would – it’s certainly a daring experiment, and I can see how other games have been hugely influenced by it.

The alternative reality glasses that FBI agent Jayden uses are a great idea - they could make a whole game using this mechanic.

The alternative reality glasses that FBI agent Jayden uses are a great idea – they could make a whole game using this mechanic.

7 Comments

Filed under Backlog - The Mantelpiece of unfinished games, Reviews

The Gaming Bar of my Dreams

I was in London the other week for work, and after reading about a bar called ‘Loading’ in Dalston on Kotaku UK, I was keen to see the place for myself. Ian (of 101 Films You Should Have Seen fame) and I headed along one Thursday evening to check it out.

IMG_2387When we walked in, it was fairly quiet, but there were a few tables occupied by dedicated board game players who were engrossed in their gaming, and the bar gradually filled up as the evening wore on. The bar has an impressive selection of up-to-date board games, including the newly released X-COM board game, which I’ve been dying to play. As dedicated X-COM fans, we were tempted to play it there and then, but really it’s a game that requires a team of people. Maybe next time.

The cocktail list was pretty hilarious. Apparently they sometimes take commissions from publishers to make new cocktails based on upcoming games, which seems like an ingenious marketing ploy. We opted for ale in the end, but I couldn’t help but admire some of the brilliant punnery on the menu. Earthworm Gin has to be my favourite.

Newest_Menu-2Downstairs is where the real action happens. Not only have they got an Xbox One and PS4 with a tonne of games, there’s a Super NES tucked in the corner with a collection of fantastic cartridges that made our eyes bulge. We spent a goodly chunk of time playing Micro Machines, but I was amazed by the broad selection of games available, including a few absolute classics that I’d almost forgotten about, like Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters.

It was quite odd to be playing the SNES again. There’s a satisfying mechanical quality to it that is entirely missing from modern gaming machines. The spring-loaded pop as you press the cartridge eject button has no equivalent on the latest consoles – as we head further and further into the digital future, this kind of satisfying physicality is becoming all but lost. It was also gratifying to play games that loaded almost instantly – no waiting around for OS systems to boot up or patches to download, just straight into the gaming.

The Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail.

Probably the highlight, however, was an arcade cabinet that had dozens and dozens of classic 1980s games, all set on free play. After dabbling with Ms Pac Man and 1942, we ended up getting settled into an intense high score contest on Galaga that must have gone on for at least 3 hours. It was a sharp reminder of just how addictive and brilliant that game is, and how online leaderboards are really no substitute for standing next to a mate and jeering/applauding their high score attempts.

Ian attempts to beat my high score on Galaga.

Ian attempts to beat my high score on Galaga.

It was interesting to see the broad range of people that were in the bar. There were some seriously geeky-looking chaps on the ground floor who were very much into whatever game they were playing on their laptops (I think it was Hearthstone), but elsewhere there was a mix of pretty normal-looking young men and women, mostly playing card games like Fluxx. Interestingly, there were also some laddish types in suits who spent most of the evening playing FIFA on the Xbox – a good indication of how games appeal across a broad spectrum these days.

All in all it was a fantastic place to go for a drink, and I’m hoping the idea of gaming bars catches on across the country – I wish there had been places like this when I was at university. The only trouble I could see was that we spent so much time playing the games that drinking was almost an afterthought – I think we only had about three pints in the whole evening. Perhaps that’s the trouble with running a gaming bar, everyone’s just having too much fun…

They even had a DOOM Piano, although unfortunately it wasn't turned on. If you look closely, you can see that the various keys control firing, strafing, etc.

They even had a DOOM Piano, although unfortunately it wasn’t turned on. If you look closely, you can see that the various keys control firing, strafing, etc.

4 Comments

Filed under Opinions and Hearsay

New 3DS: First Impressions

The wait is over. I finally have my hands on a limited edition Monster Hunter 4 new 3DS XL, and it’s beautiful. I mean, look at it. So, so shiny. It excites.

And not only is it a looker, it’s a powerful beast, too. Already I’ve noticed that it loads games considerably faster than the old version, and I no longer have to wait precious seconds while the game icons populate the menu screens. A small change, but a definite improvement.

It's so... so... SHINY.

It’s so… so… SHINY.

Perhaps the biggest improvement, however, is the 3D. The new 3DS now tracks your eyes and adjusts the 3D effect to compensate: no longer does the image begin doubling or blurring in response to the slightest tilt of your head, and this has made an enormous difference. Whereas before I might only turn on the 3D once in a blue moon, now I have it on all the time. And I’m impressed by how robust the tracking is – turn your head away and then back and the screen readjusts in a fraction of a second to realign with your eyes. Finally the 3DS lives up to its name.

It’s great to have a second analogue stick too – the right-hand ‘nubbin’ works like the mouse pointer on an old IBM Thinkpad, and it’s surprisingly responsive considering that it doesn’t move. It works brilliantly with Monster Hunter, and the positioning of the stick is much more intuitive than the clunky old 3DS Circle Pad Pro, which used to give me gamer’s claw after long sessions. That clumsy experiment in pad design can now safely be consigned to the dustbin of gaming history.

But although I’m impressed with my new 3DS, the process of buying it and setting it up was unnecessarily tortuous. I preordered it from GAME to take advantage of their offer on trading in my old 3DS, and on Friday afternoon I headed down to the store armed with a type 0 screwdriver, a new microSD card and a PC for transferring the SD cards (for more on the ridiculous hoops new 3DS owners are forced to jump through, see this post).

The store was incredibly busy. Then when I got to the front of the queue, I was informed that customers were being told that they would have to pay the full cost of the new 3DS and then come in the next day to trade in their old 3DS because the transfer process takes “4 hours” ( a figure seemingly plucked out of thin air). I disputed this, saying that actually it’s much quicker if you transfer using a PC, and that even if I was to do the transfer by Wi-Fi, Nintendo say that transferring 4GB would take around 2 hours. But they insisted, and said that the Wi-Fi in the store was “patchy”. By this point I was getting a bit annoyed at the thought of having to come back the next day (Valentine’s Day, no less). But then the store assistant said I would be getting “credit” when I came back to trade in my old 3DS.

“Hold on, credit?” I said. “I thought I was getting cash?”

I explained that I didn’t want credit, as I wasn’t planning to spend 70-odd pounds in GAME in the near future – times are tight, after all, and I already have a mountain of games to play. This discussion went on for some time, until eventually the manager came over and said that actually I would be getting cash, and the store assistant was misinformed.

That wasn’t the only misinformation floating about, either. When I schlepped back into the store the next day, I found out that I would be getting £55 for the 3DS, not the £85 I was told originally (when I preordered, I was told I would get the £209.99 special edition for £124.99 when I traded in, but it turns out the assistant was reading the price for trading in against the regular new 3DS XL, not the special edition). And then I got told I’d have to trade in the power cable for my old 3DS as well. This despite the fact that on two previous occasions I’d been told by assistants in the same shop that I’d be able to keep the cable to use with my new 3DS XL (which doesn’t come with one).

Eventually they relented on the cable, but by this point I was already feeling pretty put out after having to go back to the store a second time and having to argue my case both times. I don’t appreciate being made to feel like I’m in the wrong, especially when I’m right. As I watched the store assistant turn his back to me and start fiddling around with my 3DS (presumably to test it, although he didn’t say that, he just turned around unannounced and left me staring at his back for five minutes), I was left astounded that despite the chain almost being thrown into financial oblivion a while back, GAME still hasn’t improved its notoriously poor customer service. Indeed, when I worked there many years ago, the attitude from management was very much that customers were there to be shaken down for every penny they’re worth.

Setting up my new 3DS was fairly tricky (involving a 16-step process, followed by downloading MH4U again), but it was a damn sight easier than buying the bloody thing in the first place.

3 Comments

Filed under Opinions and Hearsay

Wolfenstein: The New Order is far better than it ought to be

Wolfenstein The New Order Xbox 360Nazis, robots, alternative timelines – on paper, Wolfenstein: The New Order (buy on Amazon) sounds like the sort of straight-to-video B-movie nonsense you’d bypass with a tired shake of the head were you to spot it in a video shop (if such places even exist any more). Yet it manages to be, as Sir Gaulian found, far more than the sum of its parts.

My first impression wasn’t good, however. By halfway through the opening level, I was questioning whether I’d even bother playing through the rest of the game. It opens with a classic beach-storming episode of the like we’ve played through hundreds of times before in dozens of WW2 shooters, and it quickly reminded me of the dire Return to Castle Wolfenstein from a decade or so ago. Yes, there are robot dogs: otherwise though, it could be any old Call of Duty or Medal of Honor game from the turn of the century. But then it gets interesting.

Hero B. J. Blazkowicz takes some shrapnel to the head and goes into a catatonic state. He wakes up 14 years later in a mental asylum, only to find that the Nazis have taken over the world thanks to some mysterious advanced technology. And its the chilling depiction of this world, along with some brilliant characterization, that really elevates this game to the next level.

Whereas previous Wolfenstein games had you gunning down Nazis just because, you know, they’re Nazis, here you’re given a reason to really hate them. The game presents you with a world where Nazism is taken to its logical extreme – the quest for a pure Aryan race is taken to levels of unimaginable genocide and repression, the development of nuclear weapons has led to the subjugation of America and the quest for lebensraum has ensnared the whole globe – and even other planets. Blaskowicz’s shock at waking up to this nightmare is palpable. He declares that he wants to join the resistance, to fight against the rise of the Nazis, but he’s given the chilling response: “What resistance?” The whole world has fallen.

Wolfenstein the New Order mental asylum

It gives you an uncomfortable feeling of helplessness. How can you possibly do anything to change this horrendous world? Of course, the game gives you a conduit to do just that, but the way it explores the consequences of living in a Nazi-dominated world really provides pause for thought. What would I do in that circumstance? What could anyone do?

The plot and characters are also far, far better than they have any right to be for a ‘dumb’ first person shooter. Many’s the time that I’ve played through a game without giving two hoots about the other characters, mostly because they have the depth and personality of a wet lettuce (Halo is a good example). But here I really bought into the plight of these NPCs, mostly thanks to some excellent voice acting and a taut script.

Gameplay-wise, it’s also something of a revelation. The use of health packs came as a breath of fresh air after years of getting used to regenerating health – battles feel terrifically exciting as a result, as you desperately hunt for extra health while under fire. Dual wielding also feels fresh again, and opting for this over just using a single weapon has a big impact on the way you play the game.

Wolfenstein The New Order Abbey Road

There’s also room for a bit of black humour – the LPs you collect are brilliantly done, featuring Nazified versions of sixties singers, and the fact that the designers actually recorded the songs shows an amazing attention to detail. The only criticism I’d level at the game is that the collectibles are largely pointless – I would have liked to see more of the letters you find, detailing individuals’ struggles to survive, rather than various useless gold statues. Oh, and the ending… well, maybe that’s an article for another time.

All in all though, Wolfenstein: The New Order turned out to be a surprisingly affecting and eminently playable game that has managed to push the FPS genre to new heights. With this and the wonderful Alien: Isolation, my gaming year has already got off to a tremendous start.

5 Comments

Filed under Backlog - The Mantelpiece of unfinished games, Reviews

From The Armchair: Bye Bye Club Nintendo

ArmchairWhat ho, chums!

So no doubt you’ve already heard the news by now: Club Nintendo is to close later this year, which will be very sad news for fans of free tat. Perhaps ‘tat’ is being a bit harsh, but there’s no denying the fact that the stuff being hoiked through the UK site is not a patch on some of the free things they get abroad. Whereas the US and Japanese fans get free games, we get… golf balls and wrapping paper. I kid you not.

Still, all this stuff IS free, so it seems churlish to complain. Although having said that, slogging through all those marketing questionnaires to claim your Club Nintendo stars sometimes felt almost like having a second job. And you have to have a serious amount of stars in order to get anything partway decent.

See? Golf balls and wrapping paper.

See? Golf balls and wrapping paper.

I’ve only ever managed to get three things through Club Nintendo in the 12 or so years of its existence: some Mario themed hanafuda cards, which were pretty cool but ultimately fairly useless; a Pikmin keychain that looked amazing but broke after about a week; and a Yoshi cuddly toy, which is one of my favourite things ever (apart from Fire Emblem amiibo, natch). Yoshi-san is currently still in his wrapping, as I’m planning on giving him to Merriweather Jr when he arrives later this year. Although having said that, I may have to carefully ‘look after’ Yoshi myself until MJ is old enough to treat him with the respect he deserves (i.e. not puking all over him). I reckon he should be mature enough at about sixteen.

The Yoshi plush toy. Too good to give to a child.

The Yoshi plush toy. Too good to give to a child.

So a mixed haul from Club Nintendo, then. Perhaps its demise is no bad thing – although I still think the very fact that Nintendo has a loyalty programme is an indicator of how differently the company goes about its business in comparison to Sony and Microsoft. No wonder Nintendo fans are so devoted.

Nintendo has promised us that Club Nintendo will be replaced with a ‘new scheme’, although they’ve yet to release any details. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will be linked in to some sort of gamer account that will let you transfer your profile between machines more easily, as the current system is a right pain. What are your thoughts on Club Nintendo’s demise, and what do you want as a replacement?

In other news, I was pleased to see the reception to my article on Kotaku UK about Douglas Adam’s Starship Titanic – last time I checked it had been shared on Facebook and Twitter over 2,000 times, which put a big smile on my face. I’ve just finished another one, so hopefully it will appear on their website in the not too distant future.

Toodle-pip for now!

4 Comments

Filed under From The Armchair

The Secret Society of the Starship Titanic

My article on the Starship Titanic employee forum has just gone live on Kotaku UK: http://www.kotaku.co.uk/2015/01/23/secret-douglas-adams-rpg-people-playing-15-years.

This was a fascinating article to write – big thanks to Yoz Grahame, Carolyn Wilborn and Tony Marks for their help. It’s all about the game Starship Titanic, which was the brainchild of the late, great Douglas Adams. Yoz set up a secret Starship Titanic ‘employee forum’ back in 1998 to promote the launch of the game, but it evolved into something far beyond his imagination…

Starship Titanic box art

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Happy Amiibo Day!

The next wave of amiibos is released today, and look what was waiting for me in the post box…

IMG_2356 - CopyIke will now be joining Marth on the fireplace as my collection of Fire Emblem-related amiibos grows steadily larger. I’ve pre-ordered Lucina and Robin too (although they won’t be out until April), and I’m hoping that Nintendo release a few more Fire Emblem-themed ones to coincide with the upcoming game, although who knows when that will come out. Sir Gaulian’s amiibo Achilles heel is Warioware, and I reckon Fire Emblem is mine (and possibly Pikmin). Oh, and I pre-ordered Toad as well. I mean, come on, it’s Toad!

IMG_2360 - CopyOne thing I’m confused about is why each amiibo comes with an instruction booklet. The gist of these ‘instructions’ is essentially ‘don’t eat amiibos, and don’t put them next to a fire’. Surely that’s just common sense? There clearly must be a legal obligation to include these pointless booklets (which are written in about a dozen different languages), or else Nintendo is being extremely careful about not being sued.

"Don't eat amiibos. Don't set amiibos on fire. Don't punch yourself in the head."

“Don’t eat amiibos. Don’t set amiibos on fire. Don’t punch yourself in the head.”

5 Comments

Filed under Opinions and Hearsay