Monthly Archives: May 2013

Metropolismania: the first social networking game

MetropolismaniaSo Sim City wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  I feel so sorry for all those budding town planners and socialites hoping to get to know their citizens and build the utopian dream.  Where will they go now to fullfil their dreams?

Well dreamers, you’re in luck because the PS2 has just what you’re looking for.  Metropolismania and its sequel were nifty little Japanese budget titles where you are a town planner tasked with the ultimate goal of building a ‘metropolis’ that befits its citizens.  Sound pretty standard so far?  That has Sim City and Cities in Motion written all over it right?  Well in Metropolismania the town planner is a pretty hands-on kind of character.

Let’s pretend you live in a typical Metropolismania city.  You want a school for your adorable cartoon children?  Just let him know when he waltzes into your house unannounced.  Working with stakeholders is a key part of his job and he takes it very seriously.  In fact he spends most of his day calling and visiting his peeps, the ones written in his contacts book, just to make sure they’re okay.  And it is in this little black book, if you will, that he will find someone who happens to know someone in an adjacent town who is an expert at opening schools.  Even better she is looking at moving anyway and would just LOVE to help you grow your town!  How serendipitous!  At its heart and soul Metropolismania is a social networking game disguised as a town building game.  Sure you place houses, public spaces and business.  But you also obsessively visit people, gossip, inquire, and generally build up rapport with folk in the hopes that they will refer you to someone who can solve your problems.  And its this very strange gameplay that makes Metropolismania a strangely addictive experience.

Interacting with your citizens in Metropolismania isn’t complex.  There is no dynamic dialogue system. No measure of moral choice.  It is just a simple questions and answers gig.  But it is the things that come out of these whacky characters that makes it so darn charming.  They will regale you with such detailed descriptions of their lives – the way their wives spend all of their money, the way they love eggplant and how they are just so bloody fashionable.  Often inappropriate, the things that come out of these virtual people’s mouths are akin to something you’d hear from come from a politically incorrect uncle who thinks that a woman’s place is in the kitchen.  But they are so cliche and often so ‘wrong’ that its is almost compulsive.

Metropolismania and its sequel are budget titles that are almost indistinguishable from one another from a gameplay standpoint.  The second certainly looks prettier, sporting a cell-shaded aesthetic over the horrendous 3D models of the first game.  By in large though they are exactly the same game.  I’ll flat out say that they are not good games.  But they are entertaining games that will evoke a strange voyeuristic streak in you that compels you to disentangle the complex social weave that these virtual people have.  Consider it a way more fun and less pointless Facebook where you get to build a town while listening to stupid people complain.  Thats definitely one-up on Facebook.



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Payne persists, but don’t see a doctor

Max Payne Xbox Max Payne (Xbox) review – In an age where it is all about the cover and simply rushing head on to take the battle directly to the enemy is out of fashion, it blows my mind that Max Payne holds up so well.   Both from a narrative standpoint and gameplay this decade-old game feels every bit as old as it is and most certainly shows up some of the limitations of the previous generations of hardware.  But amidst the dull visuals sits a gem of a game.  A blast from the past.  A reminder of a time when games were more about the fun than the message.  Max Payne has adrenaline fuelled action by the bucket and I loved every pulp-filled minute of it.

Released originally on PC in 2001, and on both PS2 and Xbox a couple of years later, Max Payne was a revolution in no-holds-barred shooting, introducing bullet-time to the world of video games and effectively changing how they approached gunplay forever.  No longer was having the greatest reflexes or the best memory the key to succeeding in a gun fight, rather it was about slowing down time strategically to give you an edge in battle, and look pretty damned cool in the process.  On the surface bullet-time was a gimmick that made for some spectacularly cinematic action sequences in the vain of John Woo’s films, but beneath the glitz and glamour Max Payne’s gunplay subtly changed the way that we all thought about third person action games.   It was arguably the first step in the direction toward full cover-based third person action employed by Kill.Switch (PS2) and more popularly Gears of War (Xbox 360), with developers Remedy employing a game mechanic that gave players a defensive option to approach any given battle.  Shooting didn’t need to be a chaotic random walk dictated by equal parts chance and reflexes.  Rather it could be a dance that allows the player to be in full control of how they approach the battle at all times.  And it made battles dynamic and exciting.


Max Payne made similar strides in how it told the story.  While not necessarily having such a lasting impact or impression on games into the future, it did create expectations for how Remedy approached narrative and storytelling for the games that followed.  On the surface Max Payne was a serious story about love, loss and one man’s tale of redemption and revenge.  It employed noir and classic crime novel conventions to tell its story, punctuated by cheesy but suitable pulp comic panels featuring real actors.  But at the same time there was a certain ham-fisted, piss-taking feel about it all that made it hard to not laugh at even the most inappropriate times. And it all worked.  Max Payne felt every bit like a piece of pulp media than it did a serious video game, something that made it stand out from its brethren way back in the early 2000’s, and something that makes it stand out even more today.


Games have changed fundamentally since 2001 and Max Payne is undeniably a relic firmly cemented in a very different time.  But that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t worth revisiting, or visiting for the first time.  It feels like an older game, but in some ways that adds to its charm.   Max Payne’s action is non-stop, the story decent and the visual and narrative style of the game is unmatched even today.  More than the sum of its parts, Max Payne will undeniably go down as one of the great video games of its era and possibly all time, making it something you should experience.


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Second opinion – Spec Ops the Line

Spec Ops The Line Xbox PALSpec Ops: the Line (Xbox 360)This is actually the first time that Lucius and I have written something on the same game and honestly I couldn’t think of a better game to have two separate pieces about so if you haven’t already check out his.  excellent and comprehensive review of Spec Ops: The Line from late last year.  

Spec Ops: the Line is a brilliant piece of narrative driven game design that in my opinion rivals some of the best in the genre.  And the best thing is it doesn’t collapse in a heap under the weight of its lofty goals at the end unlike other stalwarts, with Bioshock specifically coming to mind.    From start to finish Spec Ops delivers a thoroughly thought provoking narrative while still managing to keep the shutters on your eyes as to what is really going on.

I want to remain firmly in spoiler free territory, but I think its safe to say watching the mental and physical deterioration of your character Martin Walker, expertly voiced by the everywhere man Mr Nolan North, has to be seen to be believed.  The game doesn’t try and tell a story of a utopian idea gone horribly wrong, nor does it rely on the old ‘the United States are the tyrants’ trope, rather is an exploration of character and the frailty of the human mind.  It would be easy to sit down and draw comparisons between Spec Ops and the defining moment in films exploring the nature of war and the human condition that was Apocalypse Now, but that wouldn’t be giving Spec Ops the credit it deserves.  Having you play as a character and experience the things that you do, along with the feelings he has when all is revealed later on in the game makes it all that much more relatable.

For the first time in a modern-combat themed video game, the outright slaughter of hundreds of enemies doesn’t feel out of place either – rather it all culminates into the powerful impact that the narrative twists and turns the game takes the player on towards the end of the game.  So not only is the shooting itself an extremely satisfying exercise in staying in cover, taking opportune shots at the enemy and managing the surprisingly scarce ammunition supplies, it serves a narrative purpose to justify it all.  It’s not revolutionary in how it plays as a third person shooter  but the way the combat weaves itself intrinsically into how the story the game is telling unfolds truly is inspiring.

Spec Ops: The Line is the Bioshock of war-based shooters.  It is thought provoking, the game’s environments invite curiosity and there is always that lingering feeling that something just doesn’t feel right.  Unlike that game it doesn’t grasp at straws toward the end to try and draw conclusion to an amazingly ambitious narrative.  The way it tells its story from start to finish feels organic and natural and most of all satisfying.  If you don’t play Spec Ops you are simply missing out on what I hope is held up as a benchmark for how video games can approach narrative but even more importantly, without compromising gameplay.



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Xbox One: First Thoughts

So let’s get this out of the way first: Xbox One is a stupid name. I’m vaguely aware that the idea behind it is probably that there should be ‘one’ box under your telly that does everything, but it just sounds like it’s the first ever Xbox. I’ll bet they spend AGES thinking it up too, which just makes me sad. Still, Xbox 360 was a stupid name too, but that never hurt its chances.

One of the most exciting design features of the Xbox One is that it floats.

One of the most exciting design features of the Xbox One is that it floats.

Second, my god it’s fat. Seriously, that box is MASSIVE. The fridge school of console design. Perhaps it’s the ‘one’ box under your telly because it ate all of the other ones. Where’s the form factor? Where are the ergonomic curves? Why have they made an enormous two-tone desktop PC? And then you’ve got to find somewhere to put that bloody huge Kinect sensor as well.

Speaking of which, why does everyone at Microsoft think that talking and waving at your telly is the future? I’ll be the first to admit that Kinect is clever, but is it any more than a novelty? As I was watching the reveal last night, one of a series of anonymous men in suits walked onto the stage and started barking commands into thin air: “Xbox! Trending!” “Xbox! Go home!” All I could think was: “My god he sounds like a tit.” But thanks to Xbox One, now I can sound like a tit in the comfort of my own home.

Speaking of that reveal, there was an awful lot of talk about using your Xbox to watch TV… but can’t we just, you know, use a TV to watch TV? I’m still not entirely clear on what the benefits of watching TV through an Xbox actually are. There was talk of ‘instant switching’ between movies, games and TV, like we’re all ADHD children with an attention span of 10 seconds. I can’t think of a reason I’d want to instantly switch back and forth between all of these things, unless perhaps I was watching a porn movie and my girlfriend walked in.

Apparently the control pad has "40 new design innovations", although we have to guess what they are. Perhaps it's made of cork so it floats if you drop it in the bath?

Apparently the control pad has “40 new design innovations”, although we have to guess what they are. Perhaps it’s made of cork so it floats if you drop it in the bath?

I’m aware that all of this sniping just makes me sound like an Xbox hater, but the truth is that there was nothing in the presentation last night that made me get excited about the new console. I don’t care about Kinect, I hardly ever watch TV and I never play online, so there was very little that appealed to me. Then when they finally, FINALLY got round to talking about the games, they were just the same old bombastic blockbusters – Forza, Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc. Not only do these types of games leave me cold, they’re also available (for the most part) on the PlayStation 4, so where’s my reason to buy an Xbox One?

Then there’s the really irritating stuff. Details are still a bit sketchy, but it seems that any games you buy will be downloaded to your machine and tied to your Xbox Live account, which puts a big question mark over the whole pre-owned market. It seems that Microsoft will ‘allow’ (huh!) second-hand games to be played on your console, but you may have to pay a fee for the privilege. Then there’s the question of lending games to friends – apparently you can play your games on a friend’s Xbox One if you sign into your account on their machine, but presumably this isn’t an option if you want to lend it to them long term. It all sounds a bit Big Brother to me, and these innovations benefit only Microsoft and the big publishers, not the consumer.

Oh, and it’s not backwards compatible with the Xbox 360 either. So that’s a bit shit. Looks like you’ll have to keep two big boxes under your telly for the time being.

So all in all, rather than being excited, I just got a bit annoyed by the new Xbox One. Aside from fancier graphics, I’m not entirely sure why it’s better. Feel free to enlighten me.

[As penned in perplexity by Lucius Merriweather.]


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I Can’t Believe They Made: A Task for Blockers and Bombers

Lemmings GBFor me Lemmings is video games.  Put a picture of a little man with flowing green hair and a blue body suit in front of anyone on the street that doesn’t remember the end of World War II and in all likelihood they’ll know what it is.  That’s not just because it’s wonderful.  It is, wonderful that is, but it also represents one of the many moments in video games where game designers just got it.  They got how to design games so that they aren’t impenetrable, so that they aren’t obscure or immature, and so that they’re appealing to everyone.  In short it could easily be argued that Lemmings was really the first game to be targeted at a mass market.  Call it casual, call it non-hardcore, call it dumbed down.  I don’t really care.  But it was an amazing piece of software that appealed to hordes of people and as a result has had an enduring run appearing on PC after PC and console after console.  The little men with green hair and blue suits were unstoppable and getting them to the exit was all the rage through the early to mid nineties.

But what if I told you that Lemmings in fact have green hair, green suits and green skin.

At least that’s what a Lemming looked like on the humble green-scale Game Boy as all of the life and colour  were sucked out of the sprites in order to fit them into the humble handheld, along with the graphical detail that made Lemmings so charming.  Despite this though – and some other shortcomings such as all too frequent sprite flicker – Lemmings was an impressive technical feat all things considered.  Some fantastic and creative use of the four shades the Game Boy was technically capable of made the game look far more advanced than it was, and although the port made obviously concessions in frames of animation and detailed backgrounds, the places where the developers did focus their attention show an incredible attention to detail.

Some of the design choices just suit the system.  The zoomed in Camera for example  allowed for far more detail in the Lemmings sprites themselves than would’ve been possible if it was having to animate more sprites at any one time.   The result of such concessions is that Lemmings on the Game Boy is a far more attractive and impressive game than would’ve been the case had no thought been put into accommodating the lacking hardware.  The version is far from perfect, but despite having access to the Amiga 500 version of Lemmings and its sequel the Game Boy version won out by virtue of its convenience. I wouldn’t recommend you play this version over the incredibly pretty PSP remake released in 2006, but as far as handheld curios go, Lemmings is certainly up there.  Just get a pen and paper ready because you will be writing down plenty of passwords.


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Fun With Phantom Hourglass

20130519-080530.jpgSeeing as a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was announced for the 3DS just the other day, it seems like a good time to write about that other great portable Zelda game, Phantom Hourglass. I only played it for the first time very recently, but I was immediately struck by how well it suited being played on a handheld console – unlike the 3DS version of Ocarina of Time, which tried to squeeze a console game to the size of a tiny box. Phantom Hourglass is designed to be played on the go for short stints, and it’s all the better for it.

I was also impressed by how well the controls have been mapped to the DS stylus. I wasn’t sure how combat would work, but it quickly became second nature, and the boomerang works particularly well with the touch screen. In fact I reckon that the Phantom Hourglass boomerang is the definitive version in the Zelda canon. I love the way you can scribble all over the maps too: it reminded me of making my own paper maps for Head Over Heels back in the old days.


It was great to see the return to the Wind Waker cel-shaded version of Link as well: I love this design, with his big ol’ head and tiny little feet. I remember how controversial it was when it was first revealed, so it’s funny how now cel-shaded Link is now as readily accepted as the Ocarina of Time version. I think I prefer him, to be honest.

Having said that, I’m very much looking forward to returning to the top-down Link of A Link to the Past 2 later this year, but before then I still have loads of Zelda to catch up on: Skyward Sword is still waiting on my shelf to be played, and Spirit Tracks sounds worth a look, plus I never got around to playing The Minish Cap or Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons when they came out. So many Zelda games, so little time…

[As dictated by Lucius Merriweather. Another game falls from The Mantelpiece.]


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As far as licensed fare goes, this is pretty great

Licensed videogame toys can range from good to bad to ‘don’t open me I’m horribly collectable‘, and they only seem to be becoming more and more prevalent accompaniments to big game releases. Like their film counterparts, sometimes they even start to show up in stores well before the product on which they are based is a twinkle in the retailer’s bottom line, with the local EBGames retail chain selling Bioshock Infinite figurines seemingly eons before the internet had a collective orgasm over the game (including our very own Lucius Merriweather).

Me, I’ve never been particularly interested in the videogame toys. But browsing in the toy section of a nearby department store for My Little Pony figurines of all things (why no Applejack guys, she is clearly the best of the bunch, what with all the sass) I stumbled upon these little gems of Meccano sets based on the latest entry in the Gears of War series, Gears of War Judgement.


Pretty awesome, right? For mine Meccano was always the superior of the ‘build stuff’ toy genre and recreating some of the art assets from the brilliantly designed Gears of War universe is something I think I’d like to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon. And coming up to Winter I am sure there are a few of those on the way. Worth a purchase to put away for a rainy day? I think so.

Now back to the search for an Applejack figurine…


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