Thursday, 3 January 2013

Game of the Year 2012

Part of the problem with blogging on a game of the year, is that the games industry skews its releases to the back end of the calendar, to better catch a bigger slice of the lucrative Christmas pie. It isn't really possible to play all of those last quarter releases before Old Father Time brings his scythe down on the dying year, unless that's all you do in November and December. As attractive as that plan sounds, there are lots of calls - enjoyable, festive ones, mind - on my time in those months and I'm never going to be able to play them all.

Last year, there were two games, released in 2011 but which I only played in 2012 that would probably have kicked their way into my 2011 top 5 - the sublime Rayman Origins (bought in the post-Christmas sales) and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (a Christmas present). This year, I own but have not yet played, several games that have featured in others' GotY lists - Journey, Hitman: Absolution, Far Cry 3 and maybe even the heavily criticised (but I still have a soft spot for the series) Resident Evil 6.

In any event, it hasn't been a vintage year for gaming - this generation is teetering towards its, somewhat delayed, end and console games (on at least the 360) don't seem to have progressed, technically at any rate, for a couple of years.  This is only to be expected when a hardware cycle nears its end and, in certain respects, actually whets my appetite for the next generation.

There have been two new hardware releases - the WiiU and the PS Vita - both of which I bought on the day that they were released but only one of which has provided a game in the list below.  There was also the revamp of the Nintendo 3DS, in the far superior 3DS XL - another day 1 purchase from me. I've enjoyed all three devices and, in the Vita and WiiU, there is a lot of potential for the future.
 Anyway,  in reverse order, these are my top 6 (couldn't narrow it to 5 this year) games (of those that I have played) released in 2012.

6. Resident Evil Revelations The first game on my list and also the first 2012-released game I played this year (unsually for a big name game, released in January). I found the demo near unplayable without the Circle Pro Pad add-on but, having bought the game bundled with this Franken-device,  it played very nicely.  A welcome return to old school Resi 1-3 style gameplay (in part, anyway - there were some action-oriented levels too).  I love the newer style Resis too but this was a great change of pace (and also had some great shout-out-loud shocks, particularly when played with headphones - not a game for the daily commute).

5. Lego Lord of the Rings - all the Lego videogames are great fun but this one, based around the films, made me laugh out loud several times.  It  makes a few tweaks to the normal Lego game template, all for the better.  One of the new aspects that I did not think would work, was using the actual voices from the film dubbed onto the Lego Minifigs but this was one of the most refreshing features, enhancing both the Lego-ness and the LotR-ness of the subject matter.

4. ZombiU - I bought ZombiU bundled with my WiiU.  As the name suggests, another to add to the growing list  of zombie videogames. This time, though, the action is set in London, a setting I thoroughly enjoyed, given my familiarity with the city (one area featured in the game is Bethnal Green - where I used to live - and another is Buckingham Palace, near where I work).  Innovative use of the WiiU's gamepad, a harder than usual (these days) difficulty level and perma-death for your character should (when) the zombies catch up with him or her, made this one of the scariest games I've played for years (possibly, ever)

3. Xcom: Enemy Unknown - A fantastic, cerebral, turn-based strategy game with RPG stylings - think human vs alien chess.

2. The Walking Dead A throwback to point and click adventure games, Walking Dead coupled a very strong voice cast to a powerful and genuinely shocking narrative.  Based in the same world as the comics and the TV series (and occasionally  sharing some of the same characters), it tells the story of escaped convict Lee and the child he befriends and protects, Clementine.   There's a large ensemble of characters who interact with Lee and Clem and decisions that you, the player, take have an influence on the direction the narrative takes, even across different episodes.  Released in 5 episodes through the year, I shotgunned the first three just after the third was released and then impatiently waited for the final two.

1. Dishonored -  its rare that a new IP launches so late in a console's life cycle and even rarer that it is as finely-moulded as Dishonored.  The central story of revenge and (to some extent, optional) retribution, was straightforward enough.  But the developers created a believable, cohesive world within which the events take place, with a rich mythos hinting at much more (for sequels, perhaps) than was needed or used in the game itself. A range of psychic and combat abilities give  the player a fair degree of freedom to complete the levels how they choose to (for example, I got through the final level without killing anyone at all but I know from other players' tales that that level can be a bloodbath.   Reminiscent of the sublime Thief series, I enjoyed it from start to finish.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A warning to the curious

First things first- I like Peter Molyneux. He gets a lot of flak from some gamers but a games industry with figures like him in it is far more interesting than the one without. Yes, he may oversell his games prior to their release, trailing features that never see the light of day and I'm sure that makes him a nightmare for his employees. However, his games are always interesting and, at the very least, they stoke debate. As if the Internet needed any stoking.

After leaving Microsoft/Lionhead earlier this year, he formed a start-up company by the name of 22Cans. Its first game, Curiosity, was released on iOS and Android a few weeks ago. It has a very simple premise - there is a cube, covered with hundreds of millions of small tiles. Players chip away at these tiles, slowly over time revealing the layer below. Layers feature artwork and 'Guardian Eye Witness'-style photographs, alternating between plain layers but those are the only changes in 'play' from one layer to the next.

The cube has many, many layers - no one outside of 22Cans knows how many - and, at the very centre, there is an, as yet unknown, prize. And that's where the game gets its title - all the players are chipping away because they are curious as to the cube's contents and want to win it for themselves. One of the key concepts of Curiosity is that all players worldwide are chipping away at the same cube, held on 22Cans's server, with only one possible winner (increasing the curiosity still further). In some ways, this makes it is a lo-fi version of Ernest Clines's book Ready Player One, with Molyneux's spoils only available to the ultimate winner. All he says, with uncharacteristic coyness (yet still managing hyperbole - quite a feat), is that the contents are 'life-changing'.

I doubt that they are but still...chip-chip-chip.

There isn't much 'game' here. Playing it, even with multi-tile destroying bombs, firecrackers and super-chisels that you can buy with the gold coins that can be uncovered under some tiles - is quite a laborious and monotonous task. It's not really much fun. You can write short messages, if you have the patience, or if you have lots of patience you can use the removal of tiles to create simple pictures.
The Internet being what it is, at times the cube has essentially looked like a school blackboard without a teacher in the class - there have been lots of drawings of cocks.

My daughter's addition to Curiosity.  I'm so proud

To be fair, incidences of cock-art have decreased over time. My theory is that this is because, as the numbers of players has increased, you have less time to create art - basically, there's little worse than another player chipping out your midsection halfway through your Penis de Milo.

I really don't think Molyneux and 22Cans have created a game in Curiosity. Molyneux has taken his artistic leanings to their logical conclusion - this isn't a game, it's an interactive art installation. I became a lot more comfortable with the app when this realisation dawned on me. We - all the tens of thousands of players - are just elements in this installation (and I have no problem with this). That installation will reach its completion when one of us reaches the middle. And then we'll find out what it was all about.

If anyone is having a 'game experience' out of Curiosity it is 22Cans itself. On one level, this is the ultimate god game - 22Cans has its world (the cube) and we, the players, are all the little workers in it. Given Molyneux's creation of the original Populous back in the 90s, he has come full circle albeit on a much grander scale than was available in 16-bit days.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Dishonored Special Edition

I've not bought a special edition of a game for a while but, as some of my other posts attest, I am a sucker for a fancy deck of playing cards. For that reason the special edition of newly-released stealth/slay 'em up Dishonored - complete with tarot deck - was a no-brainer.

Unusually for me, I preordered instore and picked the game up on day of release (yesterday, at the time of writing) for £45. As is generally the case these days with a special edition, there is a code for in-game downloadable content included in the set ('Arcane Assassin pack') but the only physical extra content is the afore-mentioned deck of cards.

The cards are quite slick, as the pictures show and come complete with the rules for 'The Game of Nancy' that can be played with them.

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Sunday, 23 September 2012

My New ZX Spectrum Collection

As I've said elsewhere, the first videogame machine I ever owned was a rubber-keyed Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k, received for Christmas 1983. I'd played my brother's Pong-a-like Binatone TV Master prior to that but this was the first that was a) mine and b) any good.  For the next 5 or so  years, the Spectrum got some heavy usage and a fair amount of wear and tear (and that was just from Daley Thompson's Decathlon).  I still owned it (and it still worked, miraculously)  up until the late 90s, when, like a great many other 8-bit computer owners I'm sure, I was told by my Mum that "You've moved out of my house, can you now shift all of  your old junk, please, thanks very much?".  At the time I was living in a small starter home and, despite (I'm sure) an understanding wife, had nowhere to stow my Spectrum and its games and so had to give them away  - my loss was Warnham Church jumble sale's gain (and some lucky proto retro gamer, no doubt).

The collection in full (well, as it was a couple of weeks ago, anyway...)
Fast forward 12 years (and two house moves) and I'd been thinking about buying a Spectrum again for a while. Not a rubber-keyed wonder - I fancied getting a 128K version, so I could give those larger games I'd missed out on back in the 80s a go. Most Spectrum games were only available on magnetic tape and, as I've not had a tape recorder for about 15 years, I decided to go for a 128k +2 , which came with a built-in tape recorder. This machine was produced after Amstrad bought out Sinclair's computer range in the mid 80s and has a passing familial resemblance to Amstrad's earlier  CPC464, bar the numeric pad.

Best. Joystick. Ever.
The 15-year old me actively disliked Baron Hardup-esque businessman, the-then Sir Alan Sugar for his buying out seemingly friendly*, if slightly inept at business, inventor Uncle Clive Sinclair. In that young man's eyes, I've probably sold out by getting an Amstrad machine (even the copyright message when you boot up is 'Amstrad', rather than 'Sinclair Research Ltd' [sniff]). Still - and you'll have to take my word for this - the 15-year old me really talked a load of old cobblers.

Beyond made some absolute classic games

Over the past few months, I've been harvesting eBay for the cream of Spectrum releases from the 80s and 90s. I'd initially decided to only buy great games that I'd not owned or played back in the 80s, such as  Elite, for example, or maybe 128k versions of games either not available (or hosting cut-down, inferior versions) on my old 48k machine (like 128k-only Where Time Stood Still, or the 128k version of Glider Rider). However, over the weeks after my initial purchase of the 128k, I became aware of games that I'd not known about back in the 80s, or that were released after I stopped playing an active interest in the scene (around 1987/88). The fabulous online resource at lists thousands of Spectrum games and links to contemporaneous reviews and, through that, I discovered (and subsequently bought on eBay), a number of great games that I'd never heard of before.

I'm a fan of 2000AD, but these games (box-art apart), aren't much good

And that brings us to another question - are these actually great games, or am I playing them for nostalgia reasons alone? I'd be lying if I said nostalgia played no part in my enjoyment of these games but, equally, there are some Spectrum games that are intrinsically great games, regardless of the era. I would argue that their relative simplicity is present in many successful iOS games, though with the Spectrum this simplicity was caused by constraints of the system, rather than the input control method, or the throwaway (given the price points) of many iOS games. Games like Green Beret, Skool Daze, Batman, Bobby Bearing (a sequel to which is available on iOS), Gyroscope, West Bank and many others are still very enjoyable to play.

In any era, these games originally developed by Gargoyle, would be considered excellent

One of the things I found surprising in my trawl through eBay was how many games associated with later, more powerful systems, were also released on Spectrum. Games like Smash TV, Lemmings, Sim City were all developed for the Spectrum (and now owned by me). I suppose this is similar to how games like FIFA or the Harry Potter games were released on PS1 and PS2, long after the focus of mainstream gaming had moved on to subsequent generations. And for the same reasons - if there are gamers gaming on them, there's money to be made for publishers from selling games to them.

Another facet of  late-era Spectrum gaming, was budget-priced re-releases

It has been great to see the works of long-standing names from the UK games industry, which disappeared in the 90s, again.  Chief among those was Ocean Software, a UK behemoth in the 80s, that  was bought out (like another great old developer, Gremlin Graphics) in the 90s.  Great Bob Wakelin artwork on many of their games, they were best known for licensed games (films and arcade games), though my favourite of their games was an original IP, Match Day (if football games can be considered original).

A small selection of the games Ocean released in its life

For the last few generations platform holders have exercised a degree of control over game cases. Other than special edition steelbooks, game cases are pretty uniform. Even big limited editions will generally have a DVD-style 'normal' box secreted in them somewhere. In the Spectrum era there was no such control and boxes of all shapes and sizes were released, from sensible single cassette boxes to big ugly VHS-rental style boxes.  I was surprised, particularly having become used to this uniformity, of how many different styles of cases there were, even in the small selection of the over 10,000 games released on the system that I have purchased.

There are some fugly boxes there
Sports games have always been big business, dating back to the minimalist look of Pong and the Spectrum was also graced with some great sports games (the hours I put into Match Day...). Sports games, like driving games, rarely date well, even between single generations, and that is certainly the case for the Spectrum sports games I've picked up and shown below. Definitely a 'nostalgia only' section of my new;y-obtained collection (I'll own up to still loving Match Day though - nostalgia rules).

Sir Trevor Brooking  was my childhood hero; I had no idea he'd lent his name to a game :)

I've really enjoyed bidding on, winning, owning and playing on my new Spectrum collection and, while I've slowed down my purchasing over the last couple of months - I've got most of the games that I really want now - I think that I'll be scouring eBay for a while yet.  My postie delivered my factory-sealed (though not for long - games are for playing) copy of Sim City only yesterday (together with Solomon's Key, Cybernoid II and Trap Door)  - I'm sure there are plenty more  great Spectrum games out there.  Time to log onto eBay again.

Such quality here

* maybe not completely friendly (if you're Acorn's Chris Curry), though 'fucking buggering shitbucket' is one of my all-time favourite insults

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Nintendo 3DS XL - 2nd iteration trumps first, AGAIN

I've just bought a Nintendo 3DS XL, part-exchanging the original iteration of the device to fund the purchase (I got £100 for it - only £8 less than I paid for it, new, 9 months ago). It struck me that I'd bought the original iteration of the last three Nintendo handhelds - 3DS, DS and GBA - and part-exchanged them all on the day of release of the new, improved version of the device when it became available.

I didn't buy any of the original versions of those three when they launched - those purchases were driven by a software release (Mario Kart Super Circuit (GBA), Mario Kart DS (er, DS) ) or a ridiculously low offer (the afore-mentioned £108 3DS - thanks Toys R Us). Given I'm a sucker for shiny new things, the fact that I didn't feel the urge to rush out and buy the DS Chunky and its friends when they were released, is probably an indication that they weren't quite 'right'. The first, backlight-free GBA was barely visible other than under strong light, the DS Chunky was too heavy and plug ugly and the 3DS was (or is, I suppose) extremely uncomfortable after extended play (and looked a bit 'Fisher Price'). On the other hand, the GBASP, the DS Lite and now the 3DS XL are great pieces of kit - what Nintendo should have done in the first place.

Given the rise of phone/tablet gaming, I have my doubts that there'll be any future generations of dedicated handheld consoles but, if there are, I hope Nintendo's entries are finished versions of its consoles (as the lovely Sony PS Vita clearly is this time around) , rather than a late prototype.

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Monday, 2 July 2012

Jacked by David Kushner (book review)

When I started this videogames blog, I didn't expect to be reviewing many books. For a start, there aren't many written away from the game guide or 'greatest games ever' market. However, there are now a few books that seek to explore the cultural significance of games, gamers and gaming. Jacked is one such book - an entertaining tale of the rise of one of gaming's largest and most controversial franchises, Grand Theft Auto.

One of the criticisms of video games from those that don't play them is 'why don't you read a book instead?'. Putting to one side the fact that - hey - it's
possible to enjoy doing both, this argument is born of a lack of understanding. It can better be rephrased as 'I don't know/understand this new thing society is doing, so I'm against it. Think of the children!'.

Not only is this the editorial line of the Daily Mail, it also is a theme that runs through Jacked. Not the voice of the author, David Kushner, but that of noughties gamers' bĂȘte noire, sometime lawyer, full-time moral crusader, Jack Thompson.

Jacked maintains a twin narrative throughout - one featuring Sam Houser, president of Take-Two subsidiary Rockstar Games and one featuring the anti videogame campaigner Thompson. From a European perspective, this is a strange approach - at an ocean's distance, Thompson seems a curious figure, tilting at videogame windmills in an increasingly sclerotic series of tirades against his twin gaming hates, sex and violence. Kushner however, promotes Thompson to a leading character in GTA's narrative, focussing on his efforts to stop GTA (and other Rockstar games) as a juxtaposition to Houser's efforts to elevate videogames to an adult art form.

Even from an American perspective, I'm not sure Thompson merits this promotion. GTA was/is such a worldwide publishing phenomenon, regular writs from a Floridian lawyer were never realistically anything more than an inconvenience to Take-Two, particularly given the protection afforded by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Take Two's unrelated 'issues' with the SEC in the US were a far more resonant threat to its business than a green-ink-brigade Southern lawyer. Unfortunately for Kushner accounting irregularities make for unexciting reading. Fortunately for the reader, while they are covered descriptively, Kushner does not dwell on them overmuch. To have done so would have detracted from the central narrative of how a British videogame series (as American as it is in theme, GTA is programmed by pasty-faced - I assume - Scotsmen and women in Rockstar North in Edinburgh) broke sales records worldwide.

Kushner writes for magazines and, at times, that makes itself apparent - his prose style can be somewhat breathless. However, he tells the tale well (even if you know how it will end) and I would recommend what is an enjoyable read to anyone with an interest in the series (and popular culture generally).

Sunday, 24 June 2012

A Digital First

Last week, I bought what would otherwise have been a boxed game, via digital distribution - something I'd never done before. I have no doubt that, as broadband speeds increase, this will be the primary method of distribution in future hardware generations but I didn't think I'd buy into that method this gen.

The game in question was the fantastic Everybody's Golf on the PS Vita and the reason I bought it via a download was the simple fact that it was cheaper - Sony was offering it for £11.99 via PSN and bricks-and-mortar shops were selling it for upwards of £15. Often with download versions of boxed games, the price is the same, or even higher than their boxed brethren, so this pricing was the exception rather than the rule (at the moment, anyway).

I like the idea of owning a physical product when I've paid money for something but I think that this is, more than anything, habit. I am quite used to not owning physical media any more when buying songs and am getting that way with magazines. Games are just another step along that particular road and I'm sure that, in ten years' time downloads will be the norm.

Bringing retail doom to a High St near you. In a mini skirt

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