Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Playstation Vita: a tale of relevance

The Vita is the kind of system you’ll want to grab out on the bus or train ride into work or university to show off how great it is, and by virtue of that fact, how great you are for owning it.  You want to be turning heads of the granny next to you that you hope, on spotting your brand-spanking new handheld gaming device, asks you a question that allows you to run off the laundry list of features contained within.  And that is one might long list of features.

So when none of that happens, and the regular that picks his nose is still picking his nose, and the guy that seems to have been reading that copy of Stephen King’s Dark Tower since June 2011 is still only up to CHAPTER F**KING FIVE , you start to doubt whether the Vita is really as exciting as you think it is.  You start to doubt the awesomeness that is Wipeout 2048.  Maybe it’s just you that is still into this stupid hobby – I mean the world has moved on – you see more people sporting Kindles than a knitting bag on public transport these days.  Maybe dedicated portable gaming is knitting in this scenario.

Just at that point you start to panic.  Where did you place that thing that you bought in March the year before.  You know, that thing.  The thing that you bought that had ALL the 3D.  Goddamnit, I hope I haven’t lost it.  What’s the name of it?  I can picture it, it’s right on the tip of my tongue…

That’s right the Nintendo 3DS.  Now where did I put that thing?

Yes, I bought this colour. What of it?

I retraced my steps, starting with March 2011 when I excitedly went down to the local store to pick up the latest and greatest handheld, the Nintendo 3DS.  Not terribly impressed with the launch software line-up, but acknowledging that I needed something to play on the thing, I (resentfully) picked up a copy of Super Street Fighter IV 3D edition.  I must really like Street Fighter IV, I thought to myself, realising that it was the third time I had bought something bearing the name Street Fighter IV.  But I didn’t care, Super Street Fighter IV is an awesome game, and the 3DS game certainly didn’t disappoint in that department.  So for the next few months I played SSFIV3D for about 20 minutes a day – as long as it took me to get to and from work on the bus.  And it was a good time – being able to play a pretty good version of a great home console game on my way to work was seemingly worth that AU$350 investment I had made.

After about 4 months of this, I had used it just enough to be able to convince the more fiscally responsible side of my brain (instilled in me by my parents) that it was actually worth the money I paid for it at launch.  Fast-forward to Christmas 2011 (and hopefully to a time where I could come closer to working out where the 3DS actually was) and I was loving the 3DS, for a while at least.  It was like a fleeting summer relationship, and we couldn’t be separated.  Summer Lovin’ had me a blast.

It turned colder, that’s where it ends.

And then I’d remembered where I had left it.  It was looking at me from its charging dock where it belonged.  The same place I had put it just after Christmas.

Turns out I just didn’t care where I had left it and the fact that it wasn’t in my bag meant that portable gaming just wasn’t relevant to me anymore.  Sad as it was to think about, I had moved on.

I came back to the present, still on that same bus, still playing Wipeout 2048.  Nose picking guy wasn’t there, and the guy that normally gets off at my stop was nowhere to be seen.  I had missed my stop.  But I didn’t care because all it meant was that I had more time to spend with my Vita.

Suddenly portable gaming was entirely relevant again.  And those people on the bus, they just sucked, because trust me when I say that I will not be forgetting where my Vita is in a hurry.

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Star Fox: Fun While It Lasts

Back in January I got all excited at the thought of playing a version of Star Fox 64 in real 3D, and I have to say I haven’t been disappointed. Out of all of the 3DS games I’ve played so far, the 3D in Star Fox is by far the most impressive: giant starships fly over your head, asteroids spin lazily across the screen and flocks of space fighters swoop and twirl in front of your eyes in wonderful, glorious, eye-popping 3D. If you’re interested in impressing your friends with what the 3DS can do, then this is definitely the game to show it off to its full potential (although seeing as it’s still early days for the system, it will be fascinating to see how far developers can push it in the future).

The graphics are way, way better than the N64 original, as you’d expect, and the water and lava effects in particular are a sight for sore eyes, although overall the graphics keep that classic blocky feel of previous Star Fox games, revealing the series’ origin on the SNES. The sound effects are all present and correct as well, and it was particularly rewarding to hear all of the cheesy dialogue again, vis a vis:

General Pepper: It’s about time you showed up, Fox. You’re the only hope for our world.
Fox McCloud: I’ll do my best. Andross won’t have his way with me.

Oooh err Fox, I sincerely hope not. Speaking of dialogue, I spent pretty much the entire game trying to work out who Slippy Toad’s voice reminded me of, and it finally came to me when I was writing this post: Martin from The Simpsons. I did a quick check though, and apparently Martin is voiced by Russi Taylor, whereas Slippy is voiced by Lyssa Browne (interestingly, Slippy was voiced by men for the subsequent games Star Fox Adventures and Star Fox Assault, although I think I prefer Lyssa’s effort: have a listen for yourself and see which you prefer).

Gameplay-wise, Star Fox 64 3D is pretty much exactly the same as the original, which is no bad thing really seeing as the game was an absolute delight to play in the first place. The only major change is that they’ve now introduced an option whereby you can play using the 3DS’s motion controls – although as far as I can see, this is utterly pointless. As I mentioned in a previous post, the 3DS motion controls seem completely redundant to me, as moving your head (or the machine) out of the ‘sweet spot’ means the 3D illusion is immediately broken, so the only real way to use the motion controls is to turn the 3D off… which kind of defeats the whole point of the system. Plus why use fiddly and unresponsive motion controls when you could use the much more accurate circle pad? And why would you want to wave your 3DS around in public like a crazy person? Perhaps I’m missing something Nintendo, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but the 3DS motion controls seem to be a complete waste of time… Anyway, thankfully motion controls are optional for Star Fox 64 3D, and I found the circle pad and buttons to be wonderfully responsive. I really think that circle pad is an amazing achievement: compare it to the ‘nubbin’ of the PSP and you can see just how far handheld controls have moved on over the past half decade.

The one big flaw of Star Fox is sadly still evident: it’s just too damn short. It’s easy to finish the game on your first go, and you probably won’t be playing for more than a couple of hours. Still, the game’s longevity is increased by the fact you can unlock various routes through the Lylat System, and despite finishing the game several times, I still haven’t seen every level. However, I suppose the real key to the game’s longevity – like every shoot ’em up –  is attempting to beat your own high score on each level, but this is something that’s never really appealed to me. As I’ve said before, once I’ve completed a game, I very rarely go back to it, so I expect Star Fox will eventually find its way onto eBay when I’ve finally worked out how to worm my way through all the levels. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted.

[Dictated by Lucius Merriweather]

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This Is Just A Modern War Song

Let me take you back to the dim and distant past of January 2010. I’m in deepest darkest Dunstable, visiting my dear friend Curly (or Rich as he’s now known in respectable society) for his annual birthday bash. It’s rather late, and we have repaired to his luxury chalet for some refreshment and nibbles. Messrs Burke, TB and Manwich are in attendance, and they throw out the delightful suggestion that we play a newly released game by the name of ‘Modern Warfare 2’.

It turns out to be jolly good fun. Even though I am awful at it. As the evening draws to a close, I vow to keep up with my chums more often, and to this end I buy a shiny new Gold subscription to Xbox Live along with a brand new copy of Modern Warfare (the first one that is), fully intending to play with my pals online.

A year later my Gold subscription expires after I’ve managed to play online just three times, each for around half an hour. I work out that my failed attempt to join the ranks of the online gamers has cost me around £25 per hour in subscription fees. I decline to renew my subscription.

Cut to January 2012. I’m in Dunstable again, and my chums are excitedly talking about the delights of Modern Warfare 3. I shamefully admit that I still haven’t played Modern Warfare 1, despite having purchased it two years ago. They look at me with a mixture of confusion and pity. I vow to regain their trust and respect by at least making an effort to play one Modern Warfare game this decade.

But I have to say, playing Modern Warfare solo is a world away from the ribald joshing and playful oneupmanship of that birthday night two years ago. In place of the friendly, liquor-fuelled rivalry of the living room is the cold, hard, horror of war beamed directly from your telly box right into your pleading eyes.

I’ve played a fair few first person shooters, but my tastes tend to veer towards the sci-fi/supernatural (BioShock, Halo, Gears of War, FEAR 2, etc.), so playing a game whose main intention is to create a realistic representation of conflict was quite a shock. One of the early levels in the game places you in the streets of an unnamed Middle Eastern capital as part of an American invasion force, and the designers go to great lengths to recreate the confusion and chaos of warfare. Bullets zip past you from all directions, and mostly you can’t tell where they’re coming from, so you’re spinning round in a panic trying to find cover, and all the while your comrades are shouting and screaming and barking orders and one by one they’re dropping like flies and it feels like there’s nothing you can do to save them and then a grenade appears out of nowhere and BAM you’re dead. It’s as convincing a portrayal of an actual firefight as I’ve seen, and it’s eerily reminiscent of footage from ’embedded’ reporters in actual war zones. But is it fun? Well, not really. Harrowing, perhaps. Draining, yes. Fun? No.

I guess the point is, whenever I’ve been watching footage from war zones on the 9 o’clock news, I’ve never, ever thought to myself, “Oooh, that looks like a laugh, I wouldn’t mind a go at that.” So I really rather wonder why you’d want to recreate that great war feeling in your own living room.

I realise I might be in the minority here (14 million Modern Warfare owners can’t be wrong).

About halfway through the game I was just about ready to jack it in: I was pretty much fed up to the back teeth of gunning down wave after wave of brown-skinned ‘bad guys’ before being blown to bits by an unseen grenade. Even worse, there seemed very little strategy to all the running and gunning – carefully picking off enemies from behind cover was a surefire way to meet swift grenade death, yet, against all reason, running straight at the enemy with guns blazing and grenades flying proved to be a surprisingly effective strategy. I was beginning to doubt the game’s ‘realistic’ credentials.

Then, just past the halfway point, the designers suddenly remembered they were meant to be making an enjoyable computer game rather than a harrowing war documentary and decided to include levels that are fun instead of drawn out stamina tests. It begins with ‘All Ghillied Up’.

Suddenly you’re transported from the modern-day Middle East to the Ukraine circa 1996, deep within the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. The visualisation of the deserted, radiation-ridden city of Pripyat is thoroughly absorbing, and the level simply drips with atmosphere – you really feel like you’re stepping into long-abandoned, forbidden territory. In a refreshing change of pace, the focus switches to carefully making your way past enemy guards rather than melting off the faces off insurgents with sustained machine gun fire, and the new approach makes for some heart-stopping moments. There was a particularly excellent scene in which you’re making your way across a field of long grass when suddenly an armoured column hoves into view. You drop to the ground and pray that your ghilly suit keeps you hidden from the enemy, but at the same time you need to shuffle out of the way of the incoming tanks. You know that any sudden movement will alert the troops, so you’re forced to crawl away painstakingly slowly as a 40-tonne tank bears down on you with alarming speed. Tense stuff. In fact, this level is so damn good that Now Gamer voted it number 20 in their 50 Greatest Gaming Moments.

The remaining levels of the game don’t quite hit the high point of ‘All Ghillied Up’, but they’re generally far more inventive and interesting than the first half of the game: the level in which you infiltrate a bunker against a tight time limit is particularly good, as is the final escape mission. So it’s safe to say that the single-player game goes some way to redeeming itself by the denouement – what could have been a tasteless, repetitive shooter ends up displaying some surprising inventiveness and a flair for dramatization.

However, I suppose I’m missing the point here.

The main reason that those 14 million or so gamers bought Modern Warfare wasn’t to sit there playing and replaying the single-player game, it was to shoot the crap out of their friends online, and this is where I just don’t get the appeal. I loved playing Modern Warfare 2 against Curly et al. in that epic late-night birthday gaming session, but when it comes to swapping bullets with randoms over t’interweb I’m just not interested. My limited online multiplayer experiences mostly consisted of me dying repeatedly to the mocking cries of people I’d never met, which, frankly, wasn’t fun in the slightest. Obviously, with a huge amount of patience and practice, it could eventually be me doing the killing rather than the dying, but the thought of the many, many hours I’d have to put into the game to reach that kind of level just puts me off completely.

The whole experience has really brought it home to me that I’m essentially a story gamer: I play games to see what happens next, and once I’ve finished a game once I hardly ever go back to it. I’m still partial to the odd local multiplayer session when circumstances allow, but these occasions are extremely rare nowadays, and I’ve realised that the thing I enjoy the most about gaming is being able to lose myself within an entirely new world. Which I suppose is why a game based around the horrors of real-life combat didn’t really click with me.

I guess in some ways I’m missing out on all the online fun – but on the other hand, I’m looking forward to the next drunken deathmatch in Dunstable.

PS. The title is a pun on ‘This Is Just A Modern Rock Song’ by Belle & Sebastian. I know, I’m referencing Belle & Sebastian songs, I really shouldn’t be playing these nasty war games. Anyway, here’s the song if you want to have a listen:

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