Monthly Archives: December 2016

Sir Gaulian’s Most Agreeable games of 2016

For me the year 2016 in videogames is notable for a couple of reasons.

The first is that this year marks the moment Forza Horizon shtick wore out its welcome, and that despite its slavish dedication to paying homage to Australia’s unique auto history, I couldn’t force my way through the now by-the-numbers open world racing of Forza Horizon 3.

I played the fewest games in 2016 I probably have in any other year of my adult life. Which makes this a rather hard post to write. I haven’t followed what’s been happening in the world of video games terribly closely – which has been wonderful truth be told – but if there was a year to be ‘out of the loop’ this was it.

Because although I’d made a conscious decision to completely block out video games media and coverage, when snippets did creep their way to my attention through the information cracks and crevices in modern day living, it felt like I’d been picked up and sent way back in time. A return to Willamette Shopping Mall? A trailer featuring Watch Dogs’ T-bone?  Rocket-launching Revenants? In many ways – whether it be through the return of some of my favourites from years past or the release of games long in the making – my abridged experience of 2016 felt like a year designed to remind me personally of the things I love about video games. And the things I love about video games were encapsulated perfectly in my favourite games of the year.

Doom

Classic Doom always will hold a very special place in my video game lexicon. It is the one game I’d say without reservation every human being should – if they have any interest in pop culture of any kind – at least experience once in their life.

I’d probably say the same thing about this year’s Doom.

Doom is quite simply the same as it ever was. It’s prettier sure, and there are some more modern day trappings sprinkled across the top, but Doom is now as Doom was then. It’s impossible to know what would or could’ve been, but I can’t help but feel that if the Masters of Doom had the latest technology in the 90’s, this is what they would’ve unleashed upon an unwitting society.  It’s fast, it’s violent, it’s frenetic, and it’s fantastic.  From the moment the first zombie-soldier shuffles on to the screen, it feels just as it did more than 20 years ago. The masters may have changed, but Doom is back in a big way.

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Watch Dogs 2

Watch Dogs 2 is perhaps the perfect follow-up to what I still consider one of this generation’s finest video games. Although I found Chicago the more interesting place to hack, San Francisco is clearly the more logical place for cyber-shenanigans, what with most of the world’s social media hailing from the city by the bay.

The feel and flow of the series’ storytelling also got a significant overhaul; which despite not being as brooding aired as much of modern humanity’s dirty laundry as the grittiest pop culture yarns, with gender, sexuality and racial discrimination all getting subtle yet powerful cameos in such a clever and understated way that it’s not far-fetched to hope it paves the way for smarter representation of social minorities in video games.

But it was the story about how a ragtag bunch of activists bond – and I mean really become friends who care for one another – that wins the game my highest of praise. Watch Dogs 2 is a thoughtful game wrapped in a veneer of fun and frivolity, a game that successfully tackles some of western civilisations’ greatest challenges from living in a hyper-connected world, and a game that treads that fine line between preaching and informing.

The fact Watch Dogs 2 is incredibly fun to play is nothing short of a miracle, and why it’s without a doubt my favourite game of the year.

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So there you have it; a shorter list than most previous years, but one that is filled with two games that for mine have packed a far harder punch than any in previous memory. Please let us know your favourite 2016 games in the comments.  Happy New Year and I hope to be around these hallowed halls more frequently in 2017.

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Review: Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones

fire-emblem-sacred-stones-cover-art-gbaNintendo’s Virtual Console policy continues to frustrate me. Certain titles are exclusive to the Wii U or 3DS, which makes sense up to a certain point – Wii games wouldn’t really work on a handheld, for example. But why make Game Boy Advance games exclusive to Wii U? Surely the only reason is to drive sales of the ailing console, yet these games would be much better suited to playing on the 3DS. Why can’t GBA games be sold on both consoles? Why not have the option to buy the games once and download them on both platforms, like Sony offers with the PS3/PS4 and Playstation Vita?

What’s especially irritating is that Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones was previously made available on the 3DS as part of the 3DS Ambassadors programme for early adopters of the console. Yet five years down the line, these games have still yet to be made available to ‘regular’ punters. Come on Nintendo, open up the vaults to everyone, regardless of which console they own – there’s pure gold to be had in those game coffers.

And Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones really is pure gold. I remember at the time of its release, it was criticised as essentially being a reskin of the previous title in the series, which was simply called Fire Emblem in the west. Even though the latter was the seventh game in the turn-based strategy RPG series, it was the first to be localised for western audiences, and it was an absolute cracker. I reminisced about it for 1o1 Video Games That Made My Life Slightly Better a few years ago, particularly about its unforgiving permadeath mechanic, which ended up leaving me with the thousand-yard-stare of a war general who’s seen to much. So many purple-haired youngsters sent to their deaths…

Good old Seth, what a powerhouse that man is.

Good old Seth, what a powerhouse that man is.

Actually, I never quite managed to see that game to its end – by the later levels, I’d lost so many characters that it was becoming impossible to get through the stages with my weakened band of war heroes. Sacred Stones on Wii U, on the other hand, benefits from the ‘Restore Point’ mechanic that’s added to all Virtual Console games – which essentially lets you save at any point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I abused this mechanic to the full, so by the end I still had a full crew of warriors (until the brutal final battle, that is).

I’m still a little conflicted about this: by carefully saving regularly and replaying sections if a character died, I was able to see the inter-character relationships develop across the game. But it also felt a little like cheating, and it meant I never quite experienced the highs and lows of seeing a favourite character just about scrape through to fight another day, or see a dutifully raised knight perish suddenly thanks to a silly mistake or unexpected ambush. Still, at least I finished the damn thing.

Ah, Dozla - so playful with that axe!

Ah, Dozla – so playful with that axe!

It’s clear that Intelligent Systems realised that people love seeing characters bloom and get to know each other, hence why this mechanic is hugely beefed up in the most recent games, Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fire Emblem: Fates. They also saw the good sense to add mid-level save points.

Sacred Stones isn’t quite as good as series pinnacle Awakening, but for my money the story is much better than its prequel, Fire Emblem. The pixellated graphics also have a wonderful charm to them – in many ways I prefer them to the more beefed up graphics of later entries in the series. Having said that, they look utterly shit on the big TV screen, as pixels become the size of fists and lose all their charm – I played the game using the gamepad screen instead, on which the graphics seemed much more at home.

Finishingo Sacred Stones has left me hankering for more Fire Emblem, although thankfully I still have the DS title Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon waiting in the wings. Although again, it’s on the Wii U and not the 3DS, its natural home. Why, Nintendo, why?

Franz starts off as a bit of a weed, so it's satisfying to see him grow up into an armoured death dealer.

Franz starts off as a bit of a weed, so it’s satisfying to see him grow up into an armoured death dealer.

Hopefully all this Virtual Console nonsense will be sorted out the the Nintendo Switch, so finally we can have all of our Nintendo games in one place, as well as the option to play them at home or on the go. And while I think about it, I would love to see the big N localise the initial six games in the Fire Emblem series, which still haven’t made it to the west. Go on, Nintendo, you know you want to.

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The best free console games

The Kotaku UK ed asked me to take a look at the best free-to-play games on console, as a way f0r people to quickly expand their game libraries if they received a new games machine for Christmas. Here’s the resulting article, which came out on Boxing Day:

The Best Free Games For Your New Console

After researching what was out there, I was surprised by the breadth and depth of the free-to-play scene on consoles. It barely existed a few years ago, but now there’s a wide variety of games, many of which are extremely professional – it’s not all match-three puzzlers.

Let It Die - wonderfully bizarre. Note the cameo from 'Uncle Death'.

Let It Die – wonderfully bizarre. Note the cameo from ‘Uncle Death’.

Warframe and SMITE are excellent and gorgeous-looking multiplayer violence ’em ups, but the newly released Let It Die from Suda51 is the most blood-soaked of them all, with layers of wonderful bizarreness to top it all off – as you’d expect from the creator of Killer7 and Lollipop Chainsaw.

But perhaps the most interesting was Neverwinter, a full-on PC style Dungeons and Dragons RPG. It had tonnes of content, and it just goes to show how the gap between the PC space and the console arena is narrowing, especially as titles start to offer crossplay between the different platforms. Whatever you think about free-to-play, it’s a fascinating time to be a gamer.

Neverwinter is proper D&D on console.

Neverwinter is proper D&D on console.

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Spiffing Reads: Shadow of the Colossus and a Lament for Strategy Games

Not a huge amount has caught my Spiffing Reads eye over the past couple of weeks, hence the thin selection below. We’re well into the season of end-of-year lists, gift guides and reviews of AAA games, none of which makes for particularly thrilling reading – unless a hugely anticipated game gets a critical mauling, of course. But so far, this year’s Christmas games seem to be a pretty good crop, with the only real news being relatively poor sales of some long-awaited titles.

Anyhoo, we’ll be farting out some end-of year lists of our own in due course, but in the meantime, cast your peepers over these beauties.

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Where did all the strategy go? (Eurogamer)

I have fond memories of playing through Hidden & Dangerous on the Dreamcast, a game where every move was fraught with danger, and the tension was stretched so tight you could cut it with a blunt spoon. The one fly in its camouflage ointment was that your team mates’ AI was terrible – they couldn’t be trusted with grenades, for example, as they blew themselves up with alarming regularity. Still, I miss strategic war games like this one, especially as bombastic FPSs like Call of Duty hold little appeal now my reactions are withering with age.

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The Colossus That Casts No Shadow (Kotaku UK)

This is a superbly written article by @SamMGreer (check out her work at http://sammgreer.tumblr.com, she’s definitely one to watch). It manages to sum up everything that makes Shadow of the Colossus work so well, and laments how few games have managed – or attempted – to copy the formula. A spiffing read, indeed.


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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Will Final Fantasy XV make its development costs back?

Short answer? I doubt it. Although it might just scrape through.

Kotaku has reported that Final Fantasy XV sold 670,471 copies in Japan at retail in its first week. That might sound a lot, but it’s well down on the sales figures of previous entries. Final Fantasy XIII sold 1,516,532 copies in Japan in its first week, Final Fantasy XII sold 1.8 million and Final Fantasy X sold 1.7 million. Meanwhile, the behemoths that are Final Fantasy VII and VIII sold 2.03 million and 2.5 million, respectively, in their first week on sale in Japan.

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Admittedly, the 670,471 figure doesn’t include digital sales, and Square Enix noted that the game has broken the record for first-day digital sales in Japan. But even with those included, it seems unlikely that Final Fantasy XV topped the million mark – which must be worrying for Square Enix, considering that the game cost millions to make and was in development for ten years. And then there’s the huge marketing push in recent weeks, which will no doubt have cost a pretty penny.

There are no official figures on the total cost of development and marketing for Final Fantasy XV, but at a guess it’s likely to be above $100 million. Final Fantasy XV director Hajime Tabata revealed earlier this year that the game needs lifetime sales of 10 million copies to recoup its development costs, which, to quote this Kotaku article, is “more than any Final Fantasy game has ever sold except Final Fantasy VII, almost twice as much as The Witcher 3 has sold so far, and twice as much as Metal Gear Solid V has sold to date”.

Judging by the initial sales in Japan, it seems like it will be hard for them to get anywhere near the 10 million figure needed.

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However, it’s not all bad news. In the UK, Final Fantasy XV was the second-fastest-selling game in the Final Fantasy series to date, and worldwide, the game’s combined shipments and digital sales topped 5 million (note that’s shipments, not sales). So it seems that although the latest Final Fantasy game has seemingly underperformed in its native Japan, it has benefited from a strong following in the rest of the world.

The lower than expected Japanese sales aren’t particularly surprising. The country has seen a shift away from consoles towards mobile gaming in recent years, even though the gaming sector continues to grow in size overall. And it’s seeming increasingly unlikely that PS4 sales in Japan will eclipse Japanese sales of the PS3, even though the PS4 is selling like hotcakes everywhere else – the latest global sales figures put global PS4 sales north of 50 million.

There’s also the waning popularity of the Final Fantasy series as a whole in Japan, as shown by the gradual decline in sales figures through the years. And the switch to real-time combat in Final Fantasy XV could have put off many Japanese fans, even if it might appeal more to gamers in the west – but this is just speculation.

Whatever the reasons behind the sales figures, it will be interesting to see where Square Enix takes the series next – and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next numbered Final Fantasy entry was exclusive to mobile. Square Enix might not go the whole hog and mostly abandon console development, like Konami did, but it would make sense for them to follow the money. The majority of their revenue came from mobile last year, and with mobile development costs so much lower than console, it makes sense to invest less yet make more money.

After the years of development and spiralling costs for Final Fantasy XV, I’d be surprised if Square Enix took such a big risk again for number 16.

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Spiffing Reads: Overwatch Fashion, Majora’s Mask and Games Versus Politics

I didn’t have time to post Spiffing Reads last week, so this week we have a bumper double issue of the spiffingist reads from the past two weeks, starting off with an insight into how a game idea can end up going nowhere.

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The Ant Man: my year in development hell (Eurogamer)

It must be heart-breaking to pour your heart into creating and developing a game idea, only for it to go nowhere. Often we never hear about the failed projects that never even get to the official announcement stage, so this is an interesting look behind the curtain.

Fail Forward: How Television Fails At Discussing Games (Rock Paper Shotgun)

Games get short shrift in mainstream media, that’s pretty much a given. But it was depressing to see how partisan the BBC was in its depiction of games in the recent ‘Make it Digital’ season.

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The Best Way To Play New Steam Hit Icey Is To Ignore The Instructions (Kotaku UK)

Clever. Very clever. This narrator of this game tells you where to go, but you’re free to ignore him and choose your own path – at which point he becomes exasperated and the plot of the game changes significantly.

Excellent Fan Film Captures the Horror of Majora’s Mask (Kotaku UK)

The production values of this fan film based on the Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask are simply astonishing. And it made me think again about the mask itself, as well as the characters of Skull Kid and the Happy Mask Salesman. Is the latter basically Gollum?

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Should games and politics ever mix? (Eurogamer)

Another cracking article from Ellie Gibson, echoing some of my thoughts about Trump, Brexit and the craziness that is 2016 – I just want to bury my head in games and forget about it all.

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Weak AAA launches are a precursor to industry transition (GamesIndustry.biz)

Why I think big console game sales are down (Eurogamer)

A pair of thoughtful articles on why sales of AAA games like Watch Dogs 2, Titanfall 2 and Dishonored 2 are so low. For my two cents, I think there’s a sense of lethargy in the industry at the moment, a growing discontent with FPS after FPS, interspersed with the odd GTA clone. The success of Farming Simulator 17 shows there’s scope for trying something different – and older gamers are a viable, rich target market. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Nintendo Switch can attract both older gamers and millenials…

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Overwatch Outfits, As Reviewed By People Who Know Fashion (Kotaku UK)

This is an excellent follow-up to an article on video game fashion by Kotaku Australia. It made me chuckle, and it’s interesting to hear an expert take on some of the OTT outfits that are commonplace in games.

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What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right’ (The Guardian)

Finally, a fascinating article by Shut Up & Sit Down‘s Matt Lees that links Gamergate with Trump and the rise of the alt-right. The signs were there all along…


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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Anyone remember Silent Bomber?

7169_frontIt turns out quite a few people do, judging by the comments on the story I wrote for Kotaku UK: Silent Bomber: A Forgotten PlayStation Classic

I’m surprised so many people remember it, to be honest. It sold less than 75,000 copies worldwide, and I’ve hardly heard anything about it since its release back in 1999. But it seems it was cherished by the few people who got to play it – and it really is a cracking game.

CyberConnect2 went on to develop the Naruto games and lately they’ve been working on the remake of Final Fantasy VII. Meanwhile Silent Bomber has only resurfaced once, being released on PSN in Japan a few years back. No sign of a rerelease over here, but we live in hope. And seeing the positive response from readers of the above article, a European PSN release would probably be well received.

It seems unlikely that CyberConnect2 will ever make a sequel to the excellent but chronically under-selling Silent Bomber. But I thought I’d send them a tweet, just to check.

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And if you want to see the game make a return, I suggest you do the same.

silent-bomber-explosion

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