Monthly Archives: October 2012

Past Present, Future Present and Past Future

Time blows my mind.  One minute I’m a strapping young lad with my whole life ahead of me, and the next minute I’m a disillusioned nearly-thirty young man looking forward to my next cup of tea.  So if that’s how I handle time imagine how I handle time travel.

Rather not well.

Which sucks because I like the idea of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.  Travelling around having an actual causal effect on the world around you is, well let’s face it,  exciting.  Too bad it’s also impossible.  Or is it? Actually best not think about it, I like my brain and the thought of little bits of it oozing from my ears doesn’t really tickle my fancy.  Watching it as a third party however – that might be a bit of a hoot.  Wait can I even watch myself die?

In a moth to a flame kind of way, despite having a fear of all streams of time – past present, future present and past future – I am drawn to media that depicts time travel and all of the perils that lie therein.  And there have been some rather good ones.  But the way time travel is treated in video games is seldom full of twists and turns and a real sense of causality beyond any binary changes to one or two, or a handful at the very most, variables.  Even then the effect seldoms bleeds from one causal event to another, leading to worlds which are in some cases restricted to only a handful of end-game states even where there can be up to ten times more individual changeable events.  This lack of interconnectedness leads to worlds which feel contrived and where it becomes obvious that time travel only exists to serve a narrative or structural purpose within the game.  That’s awesome and all, but with a concept that can be so mind blowing, it is equally as frustrating to see the treatment of time travel not evolve beyond something that is surface deep.

So why is this?  Why when we have the world plus more in our games these days are we confined to such a piecemeal look into one of the most interesting sci-fi concepts around?

It’s because time travel is simply the easiest way to present the player with a variety of environments, enemies and challenges without breaking the game’s narrative.  I feel like I’m mentioning the PS1 pseudo classic Duke Nukem: Time to Kill every time I write something, but there really is no better example I can think of that uses the concept of time travel simply as a way of putting you into a whole stack of unique locales.  Wild West?  Don’t mind it I do.  Ancient Greece?  Don’t forget to bring a toga.  It’s cool and interesting, or was at least when it was released way back in the late nineties, but it’s not clever and never makes good use of the fact that good old Duke can go back in time in order to change the future.  Beyond a few scripted events at least.

And honestly you don’t need time travel to do that.  Evoking the feeling of an era and a time long forgotten doesn’t require a TARDIS or even some wizz-bang portal, it just requires intelligent thinking.  And when I think intelligent thinking I instantly think of Portal 2 because to put it simply, it is bloody clever.  But not just in the way you first think of it to be clever, what with all the manipulating physical space to solve puzzles and the like.  It is actually a great example of how the narrative and design of the game manages to send the player back in time without ever formally doing so, which is quite a feat.  Using the long forgotten test labs of Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson, complete with 1980’s decor and office design, Valve were able to send the player back in time to not only capture a time and place long before the game is actually taking place, but to also add layers upon layers of depth to the present within the construct of the game world.  Sure it’s not actually involving any time travelling but that’s just the point because it does the ‘different time and place’ thing better than games that actually have you stepping back into the past or the future.

But when time travelling games get it right, they get it right.  Which brings me to Shadow of Memories, which for me serves as a bit of a benchmark in time travelling video games.  The underrated PS2 classic served up a smorgasbord of choices for the player to make throughout time in a quest to prevent your own murder, that all seemed to have a broader impact on other characters and the gaming world throughout multiple layers of time.  And to keep things interesting as you spend time in the past time still passes in the present.  It is this complex treatment of timelines, spanning multiple centuries from 1584 to 2001, that makes this adventure game stand above the rest in the time travelling stakes.  Sure the game wasn’t perfect, but it served to present the player with a cohesive where there were multiple points of cause and effect that served to (whether it was real or not) shape the world around you and give you a sense of agency in the outcomes of main character Eike’s actions.

It is frustrating that developers don’t think beyond the obvious when delving into the depths of time travel.  Sure, Doctor Who boggles my mind sometimes with the seemingly impossible often being the outcome.  But that’s what I want.  I want time travel to present to me something I have to think about for a while and even when I think I’ve worked it out, being left unsure as to whether my understanding of the complex weave of time is actually the right one.  I want to walk away from a game with that feeling I get when someone tells me the universe is infinite and ever expanding, the feeling where you just can’t even contemplate something so your brain just goes into overdrive.  Because time travel, like the universe doesn’t make sense in most of our minds.  That doesn’t mean that video games can’t try and make sense of it.

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XCOM? Game Of The Year, I Reckon

Here’s a revelation for you: I actually bought XCOM: Enemy Unknown on the day it came out. I can’t remember the last time I paid full whack for a game on its actual release date, but I suspect it was sometime back in the dim and distant days of the Dreamcast, so this should indicate just how eager I was to get my hands on the XCOM reboot. I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.

It feels a bit weird to be reviewing a game that’s only just come out – it seems to go against the whole ethos of A Most Agreeable Pastime, which has stoically remained somewhat off the gaming pulse since its inception. The last thing I want people to think is that we’re on trend, or some other such ghastly neologism. At least I can take solace from the fact that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake of a game from 1994, so in that sense we’re still happily behind-the-times.

I never actually played the original game (UFO: Enemy Unknown, or X-COM: UFO Defense as it was monikered in the States), but I remember my old games blogger chum Ian spent hours playing it at university, so I was intrigued to play the reboot and see what all the fuss is about. More importantly though, I completely adored Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (still my favourite 3DS game), which came from the mind of XCOM‘s original creator, Julian Gollop. Shadow Wars‘ only failing was in its relative simplicity, and although this perfectly suited a game designed to be played on the go, I was raring to get my teeth into the splendid complexity of the XCOM reboot.

The game does a wonderful job of easing you into its world: I never felt confused or unsure what to do next, which is an impressive feat when you consider how complicated the game can get. The controls are spot on too, and at no point did I find myself wishing for a mouse and keyboard instead of a gamepad (in fact, one journalist found he preferred to play the PC version with an Xbox pad). However, perhaps the game’s finest achievement is in its pacing – the tension gradually builds as more and more UFOs start attacking, and your resources become more and more stretched as you do your best to fight off the alien invasion. You’re constantly under pressure to make game-changing decisions, such as whether to invest money in research or in buying new equipment, or whether to gamble your men’s lives on supressing a particularly difficult but politically sensitive terror attack. The enormous level of control you have provides a sense of responsibility that’s rarely seen in video games, and it leads to some exhilariting moments as your risky decisions pay off – or lead to disaster.

Intriguingly, the points where it all goes horribly wrong are often some of the most memorable moments of the game. I remember at one point I led an assault on a Battleship-class UFO only to find myself running out of health packs halfway through and quickly being overwhelmed after underestimating the strength of the enemy forces. I attempted to struggle on to the end, but my men began dropping like flies, so my only option was to reload a previous save and hot-foot it back to the Skyranger in a Dunkirk-style all-out retreat. The aliens were surprisingly canny though, and at one point a Sectopod attempted to cut off my retreat path, leading to some heart-in-mouth moments as it targeted my beleagured troops. First shot: my ace sniper ‘Shadow’ Navarro is cut down to just two health points. Hang in there Shadow! Second shot: it’s lining up on my plucky rookie – a direct hit and she’s done for… But it’s a miss, phew! Now what’s my next move? Do I dash both of them towards the ship and hope that they’re out of range on the next turn? Or do I move them to a strategic firing position and try to take out the Sectopod? Or perhaps I should send in my Support troop with a smoke grenade to cover their retreat?

It’s the way the game creates little stories like this that makes it so compelling, and the stories are all the more rewarding because of the attachment you build up with your troops. Each soldier is fully customizable, and as they gain experience they move up the promotion ladder, unlocking various perks and stat improvements as they go. More importantly though, after they’ve served in a few missions they receive a nickname, and it’s these names that really stick in your mind: you can’t help but giving these little cartoon cut-outs personalities of their own, which makes it all the more upsetting when they ultimately perish. I was utterly distraught when ‘Boom Boom’ Martinez was cut down in the final mission after serving with me from the very beginning – in the end though, the squad had to press on without him for the sake of the mission. It was a hard decision, but it’s what he would have wanted.

These stories are helped by the fact that the aliens show a surprising degree of intelligence, and will try to flank you at every opportunity. At one point I threw my men forwards to attack a group of Mutons during a UFO assault, then watched in horror as a Chrysalid sneaked around the back to pop up out of nowhere before eviscerating one of my best soldiers. “Clever girl,” I thought. Then there was another occasion when I’d eliminated all but two aliens on a UFO, a Berserker and a Muton. Outnumbered 6 to 2, they fled into the innards of the ship and disappeared. I pursued them, only to discover they’d laid an ambush in cover, resulting in the deaths of two men before I had a chance to do anything. This all makes for a thrilling game, despite the seemingly dull emphasis on tactics and resource management. The outcome of the alien invasion is constantly on a knife-edge – one wrong decision and it could be curtains for the human race.

As I mention in the title of this post, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is easily my game of the year so far – it really deserves to sell a gazillion copies, and I was pleased to see that it’s been a firm fixture in the top ten for the past couple of weeks, as it could all too easily have slipped into obscurity in the face of the usual rush of triple A pre-Christmas releases. Buy this game now, it really is ruddy brilliant.

Perhaps the only other game that could be my contender for Game of the Year is Dishonored [sic], which also looks very good indeed. However, in the time-honoured tradition of A Most Agreeable Pastime, I expect I will just wait for a few months until it comes down in price, buy it for a tenner and then plonk it on The Mantelpiece for a couple of years before I get round to playing it. After all, we don’t want to get too contemporary.

[Penned in admiration by the doggedly anachronous Lucius Merriweather.]

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The Wii U preorder is in…

I’ve done it. No going back now: the Wii U has been preordered.

Maybe it was Adam Buxton’s voiceover on the new Wii U TV ad that finally pushed me to commit – I mean, if Adam likes it, surely it must be great? Right?

Seriously though, I’m pretty excited about finally getting my hands on Nintendo’s new machine. I’ve given the servants the day off on Friday 30th November, and I’ll be sat in The Manor excitedly waiting for the delivery cart to drop off my shiny new purchase. I’ve plumped for the Premium Zombi U bundle, and no doubt this will be supplemented with New Super Mario Bros. U and Assassin’s Creed III at some point.

In the meantime though, I need to free up a bit of cash to pay for the damn thing. Time to have a bit of a games clearout – expect to see a few more games topple off The Mantelpiece over the next month as I feverishly work through my backlog in order to ship my old games off to the grasping hands of Mr. Ebay.

Yours in feverish anticipation,

Lucius Merriweather

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Vanquish is a Veritable Feast for the Senses

I finished Vanquish at the weekend – boy what a game. It’s the kind of game that’s so intense you need to take a break every half hour to imbibe a soothing cup of tea and have a lie down in order to rest your shattered senses. Never is there a pause in the action – you’re constantly bombarded from all directions with a never-ending onslaught of ever bigger and crazier enemies, with the piéce de resistance being a prolonged journey through the innards of that most welcome of Japanese gaming tropes, the giant robot. But despite the chaos exploding around me, the smile never left my face.

The key ingredient is your character’s boost slide – rather than trudging heavily between bits of cover á la Marcus Fenix in Gears of War, Sam Gideon prefers to whoosh balletically from pillar to post in his fancy white cybersuit, before boosting in close to his robot foes and punching them in the face with his bare fists. There really is nothing like laying the smack down on a robot three times your size – it’s a gameplay mechanic that never gets stale. There’s no two ways about it, this game is fun with a capital ‘fuh’.

Ooooh, that robot’s in for a smacking, just you wait.

Like all of Platinum’s games, the level of polish is phenomenal – it really is remarkable how much care and attention, and love, has clearly gone into making this game. The space station setting looks gorgeous, and it constantly throws up new and exciting vistas that had me ‘ooohing’ and ‘aaahing’ at my telly every few minutes. Even more impressive though is the fluidity of the controls, which are satisfyingly precise and intuitive, letting you pull off the most astonishing moves with the minimum effort. As Bayonetta before it shows, if there’s one thing that has clearly become Platinum’s signature besides polished graphics and out-there plots, it’s absolutely spot-on control schemes.

Special mention should go to the weapon set, which is satisfylingly diverse and features a clever levelling up system that means it’s always worth picking up whatever weapons you find. Oh, and special mention also has to go to the most gratuitous use of cigarettes in a game since Metal Gear Solid – “press LB for a smoke break” is a line you seldom find in instruction manuals. Sam’s ciggies do prove surprisingly useful though, as he can toss them from behind cover to distract enemies (a tactic that Fenix could take note of, although perhaps we shouldn’t encourage him to take up the habit).

Argh, mind… melting… need.. cup… of… tea…

Perhaps the only slight niggle I had with the game is that the ending is a little abrupt, but otherwise it’s a delight from start to finish. It’s a shame that it really didn’t achieve the sales it deserved, as it’s easily one of the best games of this console generation. The publisher, SEGA, gave the game very little promotion, and effectively torpedoed any chance it had of making an impact by releasing it in October along with the usual avalanche of triple A pre-Christmas releases. As Platinum CEO Tatsuya Minami diplomatically says, “Perhaps they did not realise how good our games were.” Ah, SEGA, what happened to you? It seems like they’ve been on a disastrous downward slide ever since the pinnacle of the Dreamcast, too reliant on trawling through their back catalogue and re-releasing new versions of old games. When they finally struck gold again by signing the four-game deal with Platinum, it feels like they let it slip through their fingers all too easily…

Here’s hoping that, financially at least, Platinum’s new relationship with Nintendo will bear more fruit.

[Another game blasted off The Mantelpiece by Lucius Merriweather.]

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A spot of decorating

Lucius here, just wanted to trumpet the wonderful new wallpaper I found while chugging along the information supermotorway. I’ve put up in the Manor – it’s rather dashing don’t you think?

Toodle-pip, have a smashing weekend!

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Hanging out with the dead: my meta holiday on Dead Island

I have been on holidays for the last week and for a large part of that I have been sitting indoors enjoying staring at a much larger screen than the one I have at my desk at work, while the season changes rapidly from a cold Canberra winter to a smashing warm Australian spring.  And don’t be like that, I wasn’t watching life pass me by,  I occasionally would look out of the window at the sunshine, and sometimes even hear the birds singing if they were close enough to my balcony.  So I am well aware I am alive, thank you very much, even without all the sun and the birds and the like, my bladder kindly reminded me of that fact far too often.

Because rather than spending time in the WC, I would much rather have spent that additional time on the island of Banoi fighting off hordes and hordes of bikini-clad undead in a holiday gone horribly wrong.  Yes, I have been spending an inordinate amount of time with the ridiculously broken, but equally as fun Dead Island.  And I would argue that it was time well spent.  Roaming a pseudo open world looting dead bodies and their luggage and making-do with whatever weapons I could find to save myself from some rather unfortunate looking undead was bloody great fun.  Aaaaah, the walking dead.

But a Walking Dead game this is not.  There are no choices to be made and almost zero gravity to anything you do, even within the scripted story events.  And when I say story events I should highlight the fact that  the story is non-existent, that is when it’s not being utterly retarded.  And the voice acting supporting any semblance of a story is seriously as bad as MacinTalk.  Actually, it’s worse.  What is that accent?  Papuan? Australian?  I am Australian and I don’t know where you’re from.  Seriously Sinamoi what are you saying?  Oh just shut up.  If we ever get off this island don’t call me.  And change your name, what kind of a name is Sinamoi anyway?  Oh god I’d rather hang out with the zombies.  And the punks.  Yes, there are punks in this game.

Personal differences with the other survivors aside though I found my time with Dead Island to be a pleasant one in spite of the too numerous to mention technical glitches and all-round unpolished nature of the game.  The island isn’t as sprawling as other open-worlds, nor is it as seamless as it is broken up into discreetly contained areas.  But exploring the resort and its adjacent city provided just enough in the way of variety to hold my interest in the infrequent lulls between combat encounters.  Sure the beaches aren’t as nice as we enjoy down here in Australia, but is does a good enough job of capturing what a beach resort should feel and look like that it was easy to get lost in the world for hours at a time.   Of course just when you were starting to become immersed in the world, the unpolished technical side of Dead Island would rear its ugly head.  And a rather large head it has.  Not a moment would pass where something would just feel not quite right technically with Dead Island, to a point where I actually exited out to the main menu to see if a QA team was mentioned in the credits for fear that perhaps that step of the development cycle had perhaps been missed.  Technical misgivings are the domain of the fantastic chaps over at Digital Foundry but lets just say that frequent texture pop-in is the least of Dead Island’s worries.

But luckily what the game is missing in technical brilliance, it more than makes up for in the gameplay it presents.   At its very core the same thing that required me to spend almost 100 hours wandering the wastelands of Fallout 3 – I felt compelled to explore every nook and cranny of the island looking for weapon schematics or random survivors to save from the incredibly hungry undead.  And Fallout 3 is an apt comparison for the core mechanics of the game.  You collect components to make weapons, you find bottles of energy drink to replenish your health and you receive quests from poor survivors just trying to make their way in the world (read: fetch quests).  But a poor man’s Fallout 3 this game is – the world isn’t nearly as open or interesting as Bethesda’s expertly crafted post-apocalyptic Washington DC, and the quests aren’t complex nor do they carry any weight in the way of narrative even for a fleeting moment.  Sure there are a few interesting missions that attempt to pull at your heart strings – for example at one point a man asks you to break into his house and kill his zombified wife and daughter – but for the most part they are simply devices to send you traversing across the map in order to kill whatever enemies stand in your way.

And that is just what Dead Island is.  For each if, there’s a but.  But that’s okay because I wasn’t expecting this to be a triple-A release that had billions of dollars, focus testing and high-profile producers thrown at it during development. Techland have achieved a minor miracle in releasing a game that doesn’t just not suck, but actually is a great foundation for whatever that developer does with the franchise next.  Sure it has it’s issues, but it has enough great stuff weaved in between them to make it a worthwhile experience.

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Why Do We Play Games? Part 4: Wonder

I remember the moment when I reached the waterfall cave in the original Tomb Raider on the PlayStation and an involuntary “wow” fell from my lips. That “wow” moment has happened many times before and since in many different games: encountering my first Colossus in Shadow of the Colossus, fighting Mother Brain in Super Metroid and watching the sun set in Far Cry 2 are just a few examples, and I’m sure you have plenty of your own. In the previous entry in this series, I argued that story is an increasingly important reason as to why we play games, but we shouldn’t ignore the power of games to provide dizzying, momentous spectacles that can inspire us with awe.

The old games reviewers’ adage is that gameplay is more important than graphics, but it seems odd to separate the poorly defined concept of ‘gameplay’ from a major component of your enjoyment of the game: i.e. how it looks. If you were given the choice between two games that were identical in content but where one had bland, outdated visuals and the other had shiny, cutting-edge visuals, you would obviously choose the shiny new one – it’s the equivalent of choosing the HD version of Ico over the crumbly old PlayStation 2 version. Sure, there are arguments for playing old games in terms of ‘authenticity’ and nostalgia, but most games players want their games to look as good as possible: the drive to make games look ever better has been with us since the dawn of computing, and there’s an undeniable delight in seeing a new, graphically stunning game in motion for the first time.

The waterfall cave. Ooooooh, aaaaaah!

Going back to Tomb Raider for a second, I can remember the exact feeling as I emerged in the waterfall cave, which I think was on the second level (not long after the T-rex, another “wow” moment). I remember being impressed by the sheer scale of it and looking round for a good few minutes in an attempt to get the best viewpoint. But most of all I remember launching myself from the top of the waterfall into the pool below and accidentally discovering that Lara could swan dive. I must have tapped R1 by accident, and the joyous discovery that Lara had a ‘hidden’ move bonded me to the character even more; I spent a good long while repeatedly climbing to the top of the waterfall and launching myself off it, just to relive the pleasure of the moment.

My point is that games can provide that “wow” factor through other means than sheer graphical oomph alone: often the “wow” is in the little details that draw us further and further into the gameworld. These might be throwaway graphical flourishes, such as the miniscule animations of the townsfolk in The Settlers or Sonic tapping his foot when left alone in Sonic the Hedgehog, or they might be more substantial gameplay elements, like happily testing out the various possibilities thrown open by the Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2. It’s for this reason that I’ve called this section ‘Wonder’: one of the main reasons we play games is that they inspire a sense of wonder by transporting us to a completely different world in which anything is possible.

*WARNING* Not actual gameplay footage.

Gameworlds have come on in leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades. Once upon a time the disconnect between the box art and what actually appeared on screen was so great that it bordered on a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. I remember being fascinated and excited by the box for Centipede on the Atari 2600, which showed a caped boy fighting head to head with an enormous centipede and spider, then being horribly disapppointed by the unrecognisable coloured squares whizzing round on the screen when I loaded it up (although graphics aside, it was a great game). Nowadays there tends to be very little difference between the pic on the box and the actual game, and this huge boost in graphical power has made it much easier for players to be drawn into the gameworld.

As such, I’d argue that the current generation of games are far more immersive than any of the previous generations, simply because the worlds they depict are more believable and interactive. Now we expect gameworlds that let us explore and interact with every object or person we find, whereas once upon a time just the inclusion of a toilet in a video game would be enough to delight and surprise any gamer who stumbled across one. “Look! It’s a toilet! In a VIDEO GAME! HA HA HA HA HA! Oh, hey, it flushes too! AMAZING!!!!!!” (Incidentally, there’s a surprisingly large amount of online articles about toilets in video games – gamers really do seem to be obsessed with them.)

Best game toilets EVER.

Anyway, discovering that a game toilet can flush brings me onto my last point: the reward of experimentation is a key aspect of video games that’s intrinsically linked to the investment of the player in the believability of the gameworld. The player constantly asks “I wonder whether I can…”, and the game has to provide the reward for that inquisition. (Yes, you CAN flush the toilet!) This is probably the key aspect that distinguishes video games from other mediums such as films and television, which are essentially passive. The best games encourage you to experiment and get lost in the fantasy world that’s been created for you to inhabit, and it’s telling that there’s a gradual trend towards more open-world games and away from the linear games of old – gamers want freedom to play the game as they choose.

And more toilets.

[As scribbled dans le salle de bain by Lucious Merriweather.]

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