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

Review: Little Inferno

Little Inferno launched alongside the Wii U, but I only picked it up recently in a sale – and what a fantastic little game it is. It’s the sort of thing I imagine Tim Burton would make if he ever turned his attention from films to video games.

Little Inferno

Conceptually, it’s defiantly odd. You’re presented with a fireplace – the Little Inferno Entertainment System – and you can order all sorts of bizarre things to throw into it and burn. Burning things gives you money – hey, why not? – which you then use to buy more things to throw into the flames.

The thing that glues it all together is the intensely weird narrative, which involves the unsettling Tomorrow Corporation, a weatherman in a balloon, and the exceedingly creepy girl next door who sends you more and more bizarre messages. Very little is revealed about the background of the game world or why you’re sat there throwing things into a fire (along with everyone else in the world, it seems), which is all for the good – it’s left to your imagination to paint in the blanks.

The things you’re given to burn are wonderfully strange. They include a ‘sleeping idol’ that emits a baleful, low-pitched drone when you burn it; a clutch of spider eggs; a blowfish; menopause pills; and even the moon, which has its own gravitational field. It’s all very weird.

There are plenty of digs at consumer culture here, along with some knowing nods about the addictiveness of video games (“I just can’t stop staring into the fire…”), but for the most part it’s willfully obtuse, which is fine by me. Little Inferno is very short, but it’s also highly entertaining and pretty much unique – and most definitely worth seeking out if you’re a Wii U owner.

Little Inferno screenshot

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Day one patches: now it’s just getting silly

I just read on Eurogamer that Borderlands: The Handsome Collection is getting a 16 GB day one patch on Xbox One.

16 GB.

That’s actually bigger than the hard drive on my Xbox 360 (that’s right, I never upgraded, and somehow I’ve managed to make it this far through judicious deleting and a reliance on physical media).

borderlands

It’s not much better on PS4, where the day one patch is 8.3 GB. But the astonishing thing is that this game isn’t a brand-new entry in a mega franchise that the publishers are desperately pushing to get out for Christmas. It’s a re-release of Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, the latter of which came out first in October 2014. So why couldn’t this 16 GB of data be included on the game disc?

The publishers say that the main reason is that it’s to include the Claptastic Voyage DLC, which came out too recently to be included on the disc. But they also say that the patch addresses “various bugs” and they “strongly recommend” that all players download it.

So why not just delay the game by a week or two, giving the devs time to add this “essential” patch to the game itself, rather than force players to sit through a lengthy download process when they attempt to play the game? 16 GB will easily take a couple of hours to download for most people, and could even take all night for some people with slow internet connections. And let’s not forget those unlucky few who have download limits on their internet supply, for whom this patch could end up costing a pretty penny.

Why inflict this annoyance on your customers? Is it so important to meet the Easter deadline? Or is the reason more coldly financial – was this game rushed out to be released before the end of the tax year in April, and therefore bolster the publisher’s profit margin for 2014/15?

There’s been a worrying trend for bigger and bigger day one patches recently. Patches are a boon in terms of providing the ability to fix bugs that creep through to the finished version, but increasingly they’re used as an excuse to release games in an unfinished state. And in the case of Borderlands: The Handsome Collection, we’re not even talking about a new game.

I’m tired of waiting for an enormous patch to download whenever I play a new game – it’s time that publishers started thinking of their customers more than their profit margins.

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Review: Weapon Shop de Omasse

TM_3DSDS_WeaponShopDeOmasseI picked up Weapon Shop de Omasse for a pittance in a Nintendo eShop sale a few months back, and I’ve dipped into it a few times over the past few months. It’s the perfect example of a game with a winning idea that’s let down by poor execution.

The set up is that you’re an apprentice in a fantasy weapon shop, and it’s your job to supply would-be adventurers with the right swords, axes and cudgels for the job. You forge the weapons through a rhythm-action mini game, and the more accurately you time your hits, the more powerful the weapon, and thus the greater the chance that your customers will be successful in their quests.

It’s a neat twist on the old RPG formula, and my initial experience with the game was great, but it quickly gets ludicrously repetitive. New weapons are introduced periodically, but the way you create them is the same, and – most frustratingly – the actual forging minigame feels annoyingly imprecise. It seemed almost random as to whether the weapon would come out ‘dull’ or a ‘masterpiece’. There’s also little room for emerging complexity – new metals and ores are introduced, but they don’t seem to have any impact on the game, and you can safely ignore them with no effect on the gameplay.

One thing I did like was the slightly naff humour of the game. The game was created by Japanese comedian Yoshiyuki Hirai, and with its laughter soundtrack and regular outbreaks of applause and boos, the game felt like one of those ubiquitous Japanese panel shows, where guests pop on, eat something ludicrous or watch an amusing video and then engage in asinine banter. Despite having only the faintest grasp of Japanese, I used to love watching these shows when I lived in Japan – perhaps because they were so different to the TV I grew up on. So if nothing else, the game reminded me of some happy times back in Nippon.

However, despite its best attempts at humour, Weapon Shop de Omasse quickly became unforgivably dull after the first few hours. I stuck with it in the hope that the ending might offer an amusing conclusion, but if anything the game gets worse as it goes along, and the ending is horribly disappointing. Rather than redeem the game, it made me question why I’d bothered to stick with it.

ES2-620x

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Nintendo and the perils of free to play

The big gaming news this week was that Nintendo are going to start making games for smartphones in coordination with the mobile games company DeNA. Speculation has been rife, and many have been pointing to DeNA’s reliance on free-to-play games as a worrying sign of things to come. Want to play as Super Mario? Pay $5 for a super mushroom or $15 for a pack of five – that kind of thing.

Image courtesy of Kotaku

Image courtesy of Kotaku

I can’t really blame Nintendo for moving into the smartphone market – analysts (and Nintendo’s shareholders too, I expect) have been all but demanding that Nintendo makes a foray into this potentially lucrative market, especially as sales of the Wii U have been relatively lacklustre. Particularly in Japan, there’s been a sharp move away from console gaming towards mobile gaming, so it makes sense for Nintendo to move into this area.

Nintendo has said that it sees its mobile games as complementing its console titles: the mobile games will be new, standalone titles that will presumably be expected to channel users towards the company’s own-brand consoles, or at least raise awareness of its IP, like Mario and Zelda. So in theory us loyal Wii U and 3DS owners have nothing to fear – we’ll still be getting the usual, brilliant games, and we can safely ignore any watered-down mobile offerings that appear on mobile phones.

In theory, anyway. Of course, there was the recent debut of the free-to-play game Pokemon Shuffle on 3DS, which could indicate that Nintendo sees free to play as the way forward – or at least as an important part of its strategy – on its own consoles as well as on mobile. It’s not the first free to play 3DS game that Nintendo has made (Steel Divers: Sub Wars came out a while back), but it appears to be the most successful – it’s already been downloaded over a million times.

I’ve been diving into Pokemon Shuffle on and off over the past couple of weeks, and overall it left me a little deflated. It’s actually a fun little game – the presentation is excellent, and there’s room for a bit of strategy in the match-three gameplay, plus the music is fantastic – but it showcases the worst model of free to play, where the user is constantly nagged to spend money. Each level costs a ‘heart’ to play, and each heart takes half an hour to recharge. Use all five hearts and you’ll be asked whether you want to pay to get another one and continue playing. There are two problems with this. One, it’s just so damned annoying to have your play session interrupted by someone demanding money, and it ruins an otherwise pleasurable experience. And two, it assumes that the user is an idiot. Why on earth would I want to pay real money for something that I could get for free by waiting half an hour?

Pokemon Shuffle - Ready Wallet, Player One.

Pokemon Shuffle – Ready Wallet, Player One.

I’m not against free to play when it’s done well, but I don’t particularly like f2p games that are both annoying and assume I’m stupid. Lionhead’s upcoming Fable Legends gives a good example of how f2p should be done: it’s completely free to play, but if there’s a particular character or costume you like, you can pay to keep that character or costume permanently, otherwise they are rotated every month. It’s a fantastic idea: the user feels like they’re actually getting something tangible for their money rather than just time or expendable items. Buying coins or hearts in Pokemon Shuffle, on the other hand, feels like throwing money down a well.

I’m hoping that Nintendo’s new mobile games follow the example of Fable Legends, although judging by Pokemon Shuffle, there’s a good chance they’ll follow the ‘bad’ model of free to play. This certainly won’t hurt Nintendo in a financial sense, but it might tarnish their good reputation – a reputation that was on a high at the end of last year thanks to a slew of rock-solid games that launched with zero online issues, unlike their competitors. As we know, reputations are hard to forge, but easy to lose.

Still, we don’t know anything for sure just yet: Nintendo might not even go with free to play on their mobile titles, or they might use a very fair free to play system. But if they go down the ‘bad’ free to play route, expect plenty of articles like this one, where angry parents lambast Nintendo for ‘allowing’ their kids to spend X thousands of pounds on ‘free’ mobile games.

Here’s hoping that Pokemon Shuffle was just a one-off experiment.

Fable Legends gives an idea of how f2p should be done.

Fable Legends gives an idea of how f2p should be done.

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Writing about Record of Lodoss War

Another of my articles for Kotaku UK went up over the weekend – The Dungeons and Dragons Session that Became a Real-Life Phenomenon. A few people have been complaining about the ‘click-baity’ title – in my defence I should say that my original title was “The DnD session that became a Japanese phenomenon”, but one of the eds at Kotaku must have changed it. It could have been worse of course – as Luke Young points out in the comments, the properly click-baity title would have been: “One group of friends sat down to play Dungeons and Dragons, you wouldn’t believe what happened next!”

Anyway, controversial title aside, I was pleased with how the article turned out. It was fairly tricky to write seeing as most of the info available was in Japanese, with just the odd English site here and there. Huge thanks goes out to Jessica Vincent of Eiyuu Kishi Den, who gave me some invaluable information about the Lodoss War role-playing scene.

If you’re interested in reading some of the other articles I’ve written for Kotaku UK and Eurogamer, check out my gaming portfolio: http://lewispackwood.com/gaming/

Deedlit-the-elf

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Everything You Know About Gamers is Wrong

We’ve known for a long time that gaming is no longer the preserve of sweaty, bedroom-bound teenage males (if indeed it ever was). But I was intrigued to read this article on Kotaku UK about just how much the gaming demographic has changed over the years.

This was probably the most interesting part for me:

The gender split is pretty equal no matter where you look. On handheld consoles, the split is male 55%, female 45%. On console, it’s 60% male and 40% female. On mobile it’s 55% female 45% male. Even when you split gamers out into “core” and “casual” based on money and time spent on games, whether on console or mobile, the gender split remains pretty close – a slightly greater percentage of the most casual players are women, and a slightly greater percentage of the most “core” players are men.

Although it’s been common knowledge for quite some time that at least half of the people who play games these days are women, the way games are represented in marketing tends to be very male-oriented. For example, I don’t think that the advertisers of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare had a female audience in mind when they crowbarred Emily Ratajkowski into this advert for apparently no reason whatsoever:

Then again, perhaps you could argue that Call of Duty is predominantly aimed at males. Sadly there are no statistics in the article to back up or refute that particular generalization, but it does point out that women list ‘Action’ and ‘Shooter’ games as their second and third favourite genres, so it seems fair to assume that a great many of CoD players are women.

One commenter notes that he has “never heard” a woman’s voice while playing Destiny online, and suggests that it might be because women might feel uncomfortable with pressure and rudeness from males in online games. ‘CG’ responds to this comment:

As a female gamer … I avoid online gaming, because I rarely get a positive experience. I think there are probably a few people like me out there, who are hard to find because we don’t speak up.

So perhaps there are far more women playing first person shooters than the marketers think, it’s just they choose to play offline. I certainly tend to avoid the general horrendousness of online gaming, and I’m a man. (Monster Hunter is an exception – everyone who plays Monster Hunter is utterly lovely.)

A typical line dancing scene in Monster Hunter.

A typical line dancing scene in Monster Hunter.

It’s heartening to see that the gender divide has shrunk so dramatically over the years – now it’s time for the world, and games marketers and designers in particular, to catch up with reality. I’ve moaned at length before on how women get a raw deal in games, thanks to a lack of female lead characters and a shockingly low number of female developers. Hopefully that will start to change in the same way as the gaming demographic has shifted.

Finally, it was also interesting to note that the average age of gamers is now 31. As a consequence, many more games these days seem to be aimed at the more mature market, and this has left a yawning gap in the market for games aimed at 9- to-15-year-olds. Almost all of the big franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider, have at least a 15 rating, so there’s a big gap between ‘kiddie’ games and ‘adult’ games that is up for grabs, as noted in this fascinating article.

Tomb Raider for Xbox 360 was an 18 - for camparison, the original game was rated 13+.

Tomb Raider for Xbox 360 was an 18 – for comparison, the original game was rated 13+.

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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.

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