Quick Offload: Boring conversations

I’ve always found the notion that there’s a natural split between people that like Call of Duty and Battlefield and people that don’t more than a little bit rubbish. I’ve written before about how manufactured gaming culture is; and nothing demonstrates the arbitrary split between the self-proclaimed intelligentsia and the rest more than the vitriol from the ‘nerd’ side of the fence and the most popular shooters in the world.

It’s no secret that I happen to be a bit of a fan of the campaigns of the world-beating shooters that dominate the sales charts for much of the year. And although i’m lagging behind a tad, having played both Battlefield:Hardline and Call of Duty Advanced Warfare recently, I can say they’re bloody good examples of why in their own ways. They’re both good looking, adrenaline pumping actions games, held together by threadbare storylines that do just enough to make the twists and turns somewhat meaningful.

Much to my surprise they also both share something in common with a lot of people whose skin crawl at the very mention of their names: a deep reverence for Star Wars borne out through clever references to the 1977 original.

So to those who feign some level of superiority over choice or taste in video games, and critique others for theirs, I say this: Are we not human? If we pick [Call of Duty or Battlefield], do we not bleed?

Quick Offloads are short posts when we need to get things off of our chests but don’t necessarily want to waste too many words on them. But please add your words in the comments below.

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Maybe the new Prey does have a sense of humour after all

A while back I wrote about my worries that the new version of Prey from Arkane Studios and Bethesda might be lacking the anarchic sense of humour that made the original so memorable. Well, maybe I shouldn’t have worried after all.

As revealed in a new Gamescom trailer, the new game lets you turn into a coffee cup. Good work, everyone. 

See that mug? That’s you, that is.

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Spiffing Reads: Rubbish Game Logos, Proto-No Man’s Sky and Japanese Faxes

This week on Spiffing Reads, we kick off with a look at how magic in video games is in need of a radical overhaul.

elemental magic

Putting the magic back into magic in fantasy games (Eurogamer)

It amazes me just how influential the ideas of Tolkien are in the modern age. We still have countless video-game dungeon adventures with elves, orcs and familiar magic spells, like fireballs. But as this article shows, various novels have very different ideas about how magic can be represented, and video games could well learn from them. China Mieville, for example, imagines a much grittier form of magic powered by fossil fuel. And another example (which isn’t discussed in this article) is the representation of magic in the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch (Amazon link), where performing spells actually rots your brain.

logos

Modern Game Logos Are Rubbish (Digitiser 2000)

A cracking article that compares modern logos for games like The Last of Us and Battlefield with logos of old. Gosh darn it, modern logos are bland aren’t they? Most seem to be some sort of minor variation on the Impact font, probably in some misguided attempt to appear ‘grown-up’ and appeal to everyone. But they just end up being forgettable.

mirrormoon

Playlist: The games that shaped No Man’s Sky (Eurogamer)

I was well aware of the debt that No Man’s Sky owes to Elite, but there are several space-exploration titles here that I’d never even heard of before. Captain Blood from 1988 sounds especially interesting.

japanese fax machine

It’s 2016 and I’m Buying a New Japanese Fax Machine (Kotaku UK)

When I lived in Japan, I distinctly remember having to fax someone to get tickets for an event. Bizarrely, faxes are still prominent in the country, as this great article expounds on. I also remember that in 2004, all the kids I taught had minidisc players rather than mP3 players, you could still buy VHS players and cassette walkmans in department stores, and practically no one used debit cards – everything was done in cash. Even buying stuff on Amazon involved posting off cash or postal orders as I recall. Japan – incredibly advanced and staunchly traditional, all at the same time.

dead-space7_1811190b

Cognitive Dissonance and Contradictory Beliefs in the “Dead Space” Series (Philosophy and Video Games)

The first Dead Space game was so bloody good, wasn’t it? And Isaac’s ongoing visions of Nicole were one of the very best things about it.


Spiffing Reads is a regular feature where we pick out the best gaming articles of the week. If you’ve read anything interesting, please let us know in the comments.

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From The Armchair: Breezing Through The Backlog

ArmchairThe traditional ‘summer games drought’ comes as something of a relief for those, like I, who are imbued with a phenomenal gaming backlog. It’s a chance to dust off some unplayed titles and finally give them some time in the gaming spotlight before the inevitable deluge of games arrives in time for Christmas.

Then again, the summer games droughts of today are nothing like those in the past – even during the hottest months (or coldest months, if you’re down under), we still have a steady dripfeed of decent games thanks to the astonishing proliferation of games in recent years. A couple of titles have piqued my interest recently – notably Fire Emblem Fates and Tokyo Mirage Sessions: FE. In fact, I was most annoyed to have missed out on buying the lovely special edition of the latter (Amazon link here), only learning of its existence after it had sold out. I don’t normally go in for these types of thing, but I loved the Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water special edition, and I’m most miffed that the Tokyo Mirage Sessions one evaded my grasp – and now goes for silly money.

Look at it. It's so beeeaaauuuutiful.

Look at it. It’s so beeeaaauuuutiful.

Still, I’ll get around to buying both games eventually – along with No Man’s Sky, which I’m fairly certain I’ll enjoy, even if it utterly failed to float Sir Gaulian’s boat. And speaking of No Man’s Sky, one reason that I’m racing through my backlog is to sell my finished games and put the money towards buying a PS4, so I can finally, FINALLY, join the current generation.

I wrote about Journey and Uncharted 2 earlier this week after finishing them, but I’ve also dipped back in to Killzone 3, which came bundled with my PS3. I’d previously played about two-thirds of it before eventually drifting away, and I headed back in last week with the idea of finishing it. But in the end I decided I just didn’t have the patience to see the whole thing to the end. It’s an odd game really – despite being set in space, it feels more like a Call of Duty game thanks to its preoccupation with military tech, and the way it features lots of soldiers shouting at each other in military speak. It also reminded me a little of Gears of War, except the protagonists are instantly forgettable, unlike Marcus Fenix and company. It also sorely lacks great big ugly aliens.

Pew pew pew pew pew pew!

Pew pew pew pew pew pew!

Still I was grinning at the ludicrousness of the Helghast, a.k.a. Nazis in space. The ridiculousness of the setting made it feel like an entertaining B movie, along the lines of Iron Sky. I was also impressed with the graphics, which still look astonishingly good after five years. But in the end, as I fought my way through various factories and corridors, I just realised I wasn’t enjoying myself very much. It felt like a battle of attrition, lacking the light touch of Halo’s better entries, and not sufficiently OTT to rival Gears of War‘s better moments.

It’s basically just OK. Not bad, but not amazingly good either. And judging by my reaction to it, I doubt I’ll bother playing Killzone 2, which I picked up for an absolute pittance a couple of years ago.

Last week I also dived into Sonic Generations, which is reputed to be one of the better Sonic games of recent years. The hook this time is that you get to play as classic Sonic on 2D levels as well as modern Sonic in 3D, the latter with his trademark skinny legs and beach-ready tummy.

"Where are we going?" "Do you mean direction-wise, or as a franchise?"

“Where are we going?” “I don’t know!” “That’s the problem!”

It’s no secret that Sega have struggled to recreate the highs of 1990s Sonic games, but I’m of the opinion that even those early efforts weren’t all that great. They were fun to play at the time, but ultimately the gameplay is incredibly shallow. And the concept also seems to be fundamentally flawed – the main fun to be had is in going really fast, but going at any sort of speed in the 2D levels means that you simply can’t see any obstacles in your way. Sonic Generations‘ solution is to feature lots of on rails segments where you travel at phenomenal speeds but basically have little or no control of where you’re going.

I played through the first few levels, and they were pretty good fun, but I felt my interest fade very quickly. I bought the game a while back, thinking that perhaps this would be the one that might finally make me ‘get’ Sonic. But I’m still mystified as to the appeal. And as I finally realised a while ago, I just don’t like 2D platformers that much.

So, having knocked off a few games from The Mantelpiece, I’m scanning the teetering pile for my next target. I’m on a roll now – could this finally be the year when I clear out my gaming backlog? Possibly. Although there’s always the danger that I’ll just end up buying more… Ooooh, look, Virtue’s Last Reward is down to £9.99 on the Nintendo eShop!

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Quick offload: No Man’s Sky isn’t going straight to the pool room

I knew something was wrong when my wife didn’t want to explore the galaxy in No Man’s Sky when I offered. “No thanks” she said, “let’s watch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure“.

And after two days with the game I was about ready to watch its bogus sequel.

Planet one was a boring mess of a place that had me trek 30 minutes to shoot a rock and collect a mineral. Not that I minded at the time; every grand journey starts with a monotony of sorts. Just read The Fellowship of the Ring. But Lord of the Rings didn’t have seven hours of Hobbits piss-farting around in the Shire. Sure you’ll travel the galaxy and see new things, – but in No Man’s Sky you’ll never feel like you left Bag-End.

Perhaps it’s my fault.  I made the mistake of taking No Man’s Sky out for a game of Pro Evolution Soccer 2016. But when I picked up the cover and reflected on my first few hours with the game I didn’t want to put it back in. And from there it went straight to the back of the shelf where it’ll probably sit gathering dust forever after.

I don’t want to labour on if the game is objectively good or bad. So here you go: No Man’s Sky is utterly boring. Whether fifteen blokes situated somewhere in Guildford made the game or not is completely and utterly irrelevant. I’ve seen teams of five model entire economies and teams of two review multiple-hundreds of pages of legislation. Video games aren’t magical. They’re not special. And making them isn’t any harder than any other job on the planet. And if they’re treated and critiqued as if they are then we’re all missing the bloody point.

In short: No Man’s Sky isn’t going anywhere near the pool room.

Quick Offloads are short posts when we need to get things off of our chests but don’t necessarily want to waste too many words on them. But please add your words in the comments below.

This isn't an animal...

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Better Late Than Never: Journey

Journey-coverI’ve played Flow and Flower before – two of Thatgamecompany’s earlier games, both imbued with an ethereal feel and gameplay unlike anything I’d seen. More a meditative experience than traditional titles, they teeter on the fine line between art project and bona fide video game. Both were compelling in their own ways, but I didn’t feel the need to revisit them.

Journey, on the other hand, feels more like a regular video game, collectibles and all. Yet it still has an ethereal quality that marks it out as other – and stirs more emotions in its short timespan than most other games manage in tens of hours. Upon finishing, my first motivation was to start it all over again.

The simple gameplay is beautifully explained without the need for words of any kind (indeed, I was irritated by the regular appearance of ‘Saving’ in the top corner, a needless use of a word when the game otherwise does so elegantly without them). A mysterious mountain looms in the distance, and your simple task is to guide your berobed avatar towards it. That’s it. Holding down the X button will launch your avatar into the air, and you can fly for as long as the patterned symbols on your scarf remain lit. Certain collectibles make your scarf longer, and allow you to fly for longer. Holding down the O button elicits a sort of chant that can activate objects.

18971Bridges_2

The game mostly sees you hunting for objects to activate in order to unlock the path forward, and really there’s very little more to it. But it does an astounding job of creating a strong worldfeel, and of drawing out intense highs and lows of emotion. At one point you find yourself surfing down an enormous sand dune in the company of some playful fabric eel things, skimming through archways and leaping off rocks for the sheer fun of it, and it’s simply joyous. Later, you find yourself trapped in a scary underworld being hunted by monsters, and the feeling of menace and fear is palpable.

One of the chief ways in which the game draws out these emotions is through the sumptuous orchestral music – the original soundtrack is phenomenal, and was rightfully nominated for a Grammy award. The graphics are similarly stunning, and the sweeping use of colour – from the descent down the dunes in the golden sunset to the creepy blue caves of the underworld – really affects how you feel about the game.

I love the way it never explains itself, too. You’re left to make up your own mind about what the journey represents, and what the various things you encounter actually mean. It’s a refreshing change from tiresome cut-scene exposition, and all the better for it. I’m a big fan of leaving things unexplained – the world would be better off without midichlorians and better with far more films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Journey-PS3-Screenshot

I was worried that because the game came out four years ago, I wouldn’t be able to experience one of its signature features – meeting other people who are playing at the same time, and wordlessly teaming up with them on your shared journey. However, I did manage to bump into a handful of other players, and it was fascinating to wonder what they were thinking. Was this their hundredth playthrough, or their first? Where were they in the real world? All I had to go on were their movements – was that straight line sprint for a collectible an indication that they were an old hand at this game? Did they play it every night, perhaps as some part of their daily routine?

Like reasoning through the mystery of the game itself, I loved the way I had to impose my own meaning on the actions of others. And although I perhaps wouldn’t go so far as to pronounce Journey as profound, it’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever played before.


Better Late Than Never is a regular series in which we play through landmark games many years after their debut, after missing them the first time around. Does the praise heaped on these famous games hold up in hindsight?

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Better Late Than Never: Uncharted 2

uncharted-2-box1A few minutes into Uncharted 2, and it’s already apparent that it’s leagues ahead of the previous game, both in storytelling and finesse. After a meeting in a beach bar with some old associates, Nathan Drake finds himself persuaded to join a museum heist in Istanbul – an opener that immediately draws attention to the ‘Among Thieves’ subtitle. It’s a bold statement – Nathan is unequivocally a bad man, a man who thinks nothing of stealing for profit. Yet as the game goes on to show, he’s a somewhat less bad man than the other bad men and women who dog his every step. And later on he finds himself torn between the archetypal ‘bad girl’, who shares his thirst for adventure and questionable morals, and the ‘good girl’ who perhaps reflects his better side.

It’s a much more fulfilling plot than the mostly black and white storytelling of the first game, the latter being a much more basic set up in which bold adventurers journey in search of El Dorado. One of my favourite parts of Uncharted 2 is when the two rival women in Nathan’s life finally meet, which leads to some wonderfully sharp dialogue – a domestic crisis played out under gunfire and across a quest for the mythical kingdom of Shambhala.

The game's cold opening is brilliant.

The game’s cold opening is brilliant.

But it’s not just the story that makes this game stand out above its predecessor – the set pieces and locations are fantastic. The very start of the game sees Nathan clambering up the ruined carriage of a derailed train, which is hanging precariously off the side of a snowy mountain cliff for unknown reasons. We then cut to the beach bar scene, and realise that the derailed train is a flashforward to something that must happen much later on. As a cold opener (pun intended) it’s fantastic, and I like the way that it builds expectations for what’s to come. When the train section of the game does eventually arrive, it’s easily the stand-out part of the entire game, a pitched battle along the length of a train that winds its way through jungles and up into the Himalayas, all the more exciting because you know how it must turn out.

And it’s not the only memorable set piece – the scenes in war-torn Nepal are beautifully evocative and wonderfully drawn, and the Istanbul heist is brilliantly tense. Then there’s an exciting chase scene involving a seemingly unstoppable tank, as well as some eerily beautiful (and huge) ruined temples imbued with ancient machinery – even if these are defiantly copying a page torn out of the Tomb Raider textbook.

The Himalayan village provides some stunning views.

The Himalayan village provides some stunning views.

The controls are improved too, making gunfights much more enjoyable and less frustrating than in the original game. Yet gunfights still occur far too frequently for my taste, and Drake steadily mows down an absurd number of people for someone who is essentially a wise-cracking treasure hunter. His good-natured humour and murderous intent seem somewhat uncomfortable bedfellows.

The finale, too, rubbed me up the wrong way. The eventual denouement comes as something of a letdown, a tedious ring o’ roses with a bullet-sponge bad guy that’s more frustrating than exciting. It felt more like a need to fill a hole on a design spreadsheet that said ‘INSERT FINAL BOSS FIGHT HERE’, and it amazes me that video games still feel the need to throw in end-of-game bosses even if this doesn’t fit with the nature of the game. Bosses are a relic from eighties’ shoot ’em ups, yet they still get dragged in to all sorts of modern titles as a matter of course. I fondly remember how Banjo Kazooie subverted this trend by switching out the expected final boss fight for a quiz show. I’m not saying that there should have been a quiz at the end of Uncharted 2, but the point is that there are many ways of ending a game that don’t have to involve ploughing bullets into an overpowered boss.

It really is a stunning game that clearly pushes the PS3.

It really is a stunning game that clearly pushes the PS3.

When all’s said and done, Uncharted 2, like its predecessor, is a big dumb old adventure game that would never win an Oscar for its plot. But in terms of sheer fun and spectacle, it trumps the first Uncharted in every single way. And even if the characters feel a little cartoonish at times, I found myself caring about what happens to them – a seemingly simple requirement that many other, lesser games regularly fail to achieve.


Better Late Than Never is a regular series in which we play through landmark games many years after their debut, after missing them the first time around. Does the praise heaped on these famous games hold up in hindsight?

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