Sunday, 9 February 2014

Xenoblade Chronicles - Soulful Gamer review (GamePeople)

As the Wii stumbles anaemically towards the end of its life cycle for core gamers, Xenoblade Chronicles provides a surprising stab of adrenaline for those starved of soulful Wii titles. As a parable about Man versus Machine it delivers a dramatic story leaving the setting of Bionis to shine has a truly unique world to journey in.

Three Years?

Bloody hell. Three years?

As you might gather I've left the videogame writing business behind and focussed on other pursuits - like making enough money to support a family of three boys!

To be honest it became blindingly obvious that writing in the manner I wanted to about games was simply un-economical. Nobody really wants to read about someone finding meaning or emotion within a gaming experience, not enough to make it financially viable, and definitely not enough for me to warrant the time I was spending on it.

Besides, my focus these days has turned away from gaming - sure, I still play and I still find myself wanting to write about them but it's not a skill that comes naturally to me. Bashing out quality work used to take me far too long and when that work payed barely anything the incentive to do it quickly evaporated.

So why the hell have I kept this website around? Good question, not sure I know why precisely but I still have that nagging feeling that I have it within myself to write something good about this form of media. Challenging even. Whether that falls under the 'Soulful' moniker I'm not sure, but I'll give if I do it, it'll be here.

One aspect of gaming that has bugged me for a while was it's tiptoe into the same bullshit propaganda that the rest of the world's media has fallen into. Too many games reinforce stereotypes, repeat cliches and serve up bogus retellings of history. I even outlined a book about these issues that never got beyond my whiteboard, but the seed of that idea is still good to go once I find the time to do it.

So for now this is me just dusting the place down a little. Don't know if I'll be back soon or later but I'll put up my final review that I did for Gamepeople back in 2010. Seems so silly now that I thought I could make a living out of doing that!

Glad I went out with Xenoblade Chronicles. It remains one of my favourite games of all time and, I think, I wrote a pretty good review too.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Majin, Venetica and Winter Voices


Namco Bandai's Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom was a really interesting game to play. Not just because I enjoyed (eventually) the characters and the setting it sometimes struggled to portray but because it was the first time I'd played code well before its release. As well it being pretty damned nice to have several weeks before a deadline when I'm busy working in the day, it also meant I didn't have to tear my hair out at some of the puzzles in the game. I'm one of those gamers that will quite happily refer to a walkthrough to get past most of the gameplay elements so I can continue to experience the story or characters.

Majin doesn't give you much help with its puzzles and I shudder to think how foul my mood would've been if I'd had just a few days to play it. Anyway, what intrigued me most about Majin was how very reminiscent its tone and atmosphere was of ICO. It didn't achieve this by the same methods that Team ICO used - with subtle and almost near-silent narrative - instead it uses the developing partnership between Tepeu and Majin as the focus in gameplay and during moments of exposition.

By making each role essential to the other character you begin to rely on the Majin for all combat situations and he relies on you for guidance and instruction. There's not much in the way of groundbreaking mechanics here but I loved the way your role in the game wasn't to be the muscle-bound dude who cracked skulls and farted out one-liners like a crappy movie. This made Majin feel much more thoughtful and it's a slow and ponderous experience unlike most other games on the console.


My review is over on GamePeople right now along with another from Jon Seddon and I'll be reviewing it again for Strategy Informer in the next couple of days. Which comes with the added bonus of putting a score on it. Oh the controversy.


Soulful Gamer review - Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom.htm


Dressup Gamer review - Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom.htm




Venetica


I had hoped to cover ArcaniA: Gothic 4 as well but I've no idea if they actually released the game on the Xbox 360 yet. It was meant to be out in October but the last I saw was that it won't be out until March 2011. In the meantime I've dived into Venetica - which was out last year in Germany and just released last week in the rest of Europe and the US. After about 11 hours it's a fairly typical European RPG with some awful frame-rate issues and subtitles that are nearly always mis-spelt or wrong. Even an achievement couldn't spell 'Complete' correctly which goes someway to showing how rushed this port to the console was or how inexperienced some developers are away from their platform of choice.



None of that impacts the actual game too much and I'm vaguely enjoying it - probably because my lack of a decent PC means I'm restricted to what European RPGs I can try. Playing as Death's daughter and hunting down some undead nasties has nice ring of irony to it and I'm looking forward to seeing if it goes down a cliched path towards the end or tries to veer off and do something different. I say that because it isn't shy of killing off characters from the beginning and even though it wraps the whole experience up in typical RPG fodder I'm finding myself strangely intrigued.



Winter Voices


That could also describe the brief period of time I've spent with Winter Voices - an episodic RPG available on Steam for £3.49 for each chapter. I'm about an hour into the prologue and so far it's done a great job of presenting something completely different and unexpected.



Set in a frozen and snowy village the game opens with the unexpected death of your father and whilst in the house with his body, malevolent memories appear from the shadows and begin to attack. Sounds corny as hell but Winter Voices is presented in such a delicate and beautiful way that the threat posed by these Will'o the Wisp entities feels tangible and perilous.

Combat is a different too. The game is presented in an isometric view and a grid is overlaid for turn-based combat. But instead of using explosive magic to obliterate these enemies you have only evasion and suppressive skills to employ. It's a completely different way of dealing with the threats of old memories and evokes a very unique atmosphere.

It ain't perfect though and I've already come across two battles where my objective was to simply survive for 15 turns, with no real purpose or relation to the story. Ostensibly it's meant to portray memories creeping into your subconscious and threatened to engulf you - but it comes across in this instance as just damn annoying.

The best part to Winter Voices is the narration and writing in that first hour. It seriously sent chills down my back and if they can keep this up throughout all seven episodes then Winter Voices cold be a very special indie game indeed.

Oh, I almost forgot - I played Fable 3 as well. The very fact I almost forgot to put it in here says a lot about the latest title from a franchise I've always liked. Quite simply it's an unremarkable, unmemorable effort that feels half-mauled by the Kinect integration that appears to have been ripped out 6 months before launch. For all its accessible-focused design, Fable 3 lacks any soul whatsoever and portrays the same black/white morality system that made Infamous such a disappointment as well.


 


Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Getting Vanquished with viral marketing

As much as I love my vidjagames I'm as cynical as the next guy when it comes to marketing and advertising. It's one of the main reasons why I don't watch TV as nothing gets me more riled up than the latest pretentious arsery of car commercials.


The recent Halo Reach campaign was also full of bullshit. Nothing stinks more than trying to make a product or game seem holier-than-thou or emotionally moving when you go around and shoot alien fools in the face.


But this recent gem from Sega that puts a personal slant on the trailer for Vanquish struck me as pretty cool and interesting. Type in your postcode and you should see your street appear towards the end of the trailer, being obilterated just like San Francisco is in the beginning of the game. Try it out below.



 


It's the first time I've been impressed with an advert about a videogame. It's nothing groundbreaking but by offering some interaction rather than smacking you in the face with its message, I feel a little more receptive to its presence.


Is this an indication of a new type of marketing? Or just a one-off by someone bold enough to push through a crazy idea to fruition? I bring this up because I'm intrigued as to the current trend of interactive content prior to a game release.


With Dead Rising 2: Case Zero we have a prelude to the main game and also the ability to transfer content over from to the main game once it's released. The same with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit - the demo allows you to begin levelling up and will transfer that progress on acquiring the full game. Could advertising be next on the agenda? What do you think?


Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Comic Jumper, Dead Rising 2 and moooovin'

I hate these guys SO MUCH


It's been a while since Comic Jumper came out for XBLA and it's offensive presence in my mind has remained despite other, more important games, and real life stuff popping up in the meantime. I reviewed it for GamePeople and XBLAFans were kind enough to republish it on their site. I have to admit that it's not my best work by any stretch. When a game infuriates me so much, as Comic Jumper did, it can be very difficult to condense your thoughts into something readable and cohesive. I task I didn't quite live up to.


I know my problems with the game's attempt at parody and portrayal of women is in the minority (this is only a videogame we're talking about right? So those subject don't really matter...) but the core gameplay itself was so unbalanced, uninteresting and dull that I'm baffled as to how it could get such high scores across the board. Anyway, if you want to read a much better dissection of the game's problems then check out Jeffrey Sandlin's review over at Bitmob. It hasn't got anywhere near the attention it deserves - give it a boost and make him happy!


After that nonsense I was pretty much convinced that Dead Rising 2 would be an equally difficult experience. I'd played only a brief part of the first game and as much as I enjoyed Case Zero, I thought the long and winding road of a full Dead Rising game would piss me off something stupid. Well I'll be Betty Ford if it hasn't blown me away with its madcap play and surprisingly meaningful moments. I don't mean in any full on, Nier-like meditation about a father-daughter relationship and the bitterness of the apocalypse. Rather, the blend of sheer fun you can have within DR2's setting is contrasted wonderfully with some of the psychopath encounters.


Dressed up in gore, slapstick comedy and pathos, these moments can contain some bizarrely poignant scenes. Slappy the mascot springs to mind immediately and despite being an absolute bitch to kill unless you're at a high-level, his final few moments were surprisingly melodramatic. Elsewhere this theme is repeated with survivors and psychopaths alike. Others are more overt commentaries on America or the West in general and although laced with irony and humour, still have a subtle power to them (well, to me at least).


This is what I love most about Dead Rising 2. You can be hacking down zombies with an augmented chainsaw motorbike one moment and then taking on a load of anti-socialist Southern Hicks the next - all the time searching for the next dose of Zombrex that your daughter needs to stay alive.


My review is over at GamePeople and it will be the last frequent contribution I make for that website. I'm moving on in order to widen my experience at other sites and I wish the editors over there all the best for the future. I'll still be maintaining a presence, probably once a month at the most, so I won't be gone completely but my days of providing large amounts of content are over.


My new gig is with Strategy Informer and you can check out my review for History: Great Battles Medieval over there. It's strange to be giving a score to a game after years of writing for a site that doesn't deal with them but I'm enjoying the challenge of writing mainstream copy instead of more niche and focused material. Hopefully it will help me improve my writing and put a stop to the bad habits I'm sure I've fallen into (just count how many times I write 'certainly')


So what happens here? Well, I'll still be farting out more navel-gazing guff when I can and I'll be putting some thoughts together about Vanquish pretty soon. This won't be a usual review (cos that'll go up on Strategy Informer) but more likely concentrating on the Voltaire elements that the game does its best to hide. Yes, I can even try to find some soulful stuff in Vanquish - what madness. If I get round to it I may even try to spruce up this plain old blog to look something like a proper site. I hear animated gifs are all the rage these days...


Links:


http://www.gamepeople.co.uk/soulful_360_comicjumper.htm


http://www.gamepeople.co.uk/soulful_ps3_deadrising2.htm


http://www.strategyinformer.com/ps3/historygreatbattlesmedieval/1256/review.html


Jeffrey Sandlin on Comic Jumper:


http://www.bitmob.com/articles/how-is-comic-jumper


 





Thursday, 21 October 2010

Vanquish - Review


Vanquish is a fast and frenetic ride that barely lets up for breath or to explain its reasons to the player. Delve beneath the power-sliding acrobatics, bullet-time action and explosive set pieces though and you’ll find a backstory that hints at Voltaire’s Candide and tells a tale of good intentions gone badly awry.

This subtle narrative is easily missed and the backstory which explains the immense space station and the hostilities between the US and Russia is hidden behind the amazing gameplay and abilities of the ARS suit.


It’s a shame that this level of detail is obscured so much but understandable considering the Vanquish’s nature. You wouldn’t want characters or locations getting too heavy with exposition while giant robots stomp towards you and big chunks of scenery are flying all around. Every moment in the game is tuned perfectly to make it as entertaining as possible - these nuggets of story feel all the more precious if they’re chiselled out of the dark corners of the game.

Those gems can be hidden in plain sight - the Doctor you’re trying to rescue is called Candide and there are many parts of the game, some intentional and some by accident that draw parallels to that work by Voltaire. The French philosophers work criticised Gottfried Leibniz and his concept of optimism and did so by being sarcastic with an erratic, fantastical and quick-moving plot. Identical aspects to Vanquish’s gameplay and dialogue.

I don’t think the writers of Vanquish set out to directly pay homage to Voltaire’s work but it puts the ridiculous setting and story into an interesting context. From destroying Pangloss collectibles (Pangloss is Candide’s mentor indoctrinating him with the mantra of “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’) to the depiction of a corrupt government and the frailty of best intentions.



That last point is the most obvious in Vanquish’s story. The relationship between Gideon and Burns evolves and breaks down at certain points and the twist, though obvious and hardly groundbreaking, still shows conflict and politics ruining the best of Man’s achievements.

When you stop firing and look at the scenery it’s amazing where you find yourself. At first I assumed this was a generic space station with grey metallic walls and floors that did nothing to differentiate itself from one level to the next.

A few Acts in and I realised that the US space station was a giant, circular Halo-like world with massive residential and industrial areas. For all intents and purposes a huge world orbiting the Earth. This was the 51st state of America and it puts the gory destruction of the opening cinematic into perspective - an outer colony of the States used to destroy one its own. A poetic use of a superpower’s technology - collecting solar energy to fuel the population expansion - turned on itself.




The decision to use the Russians as enemies isn’t just a way of using a cliched action-movie rule-set to get laughs, it’s just logical. This is a future that’s a natural extension of the present - all wars or disputes are about resources and as Russia owns a large proportion of petroleum it’s not hard to see this eventually escalating into conflict. And yeah, having a bald, thickly accented dude that says ‘Dosvedanya’ can’t be beaten for dramatic punch and hilarity.

The dialogue is equally fascinating. It’s overloaded with clichés and grisly one-liners that could easily be interpreted as stupid but actually parody the entire genre of space marine shooter, including Vanquish itself. Gideon himself, during one of the final encounters asks Ivanova that the increasingly bizarre situation is starting to sound like a bad videogame - actually the only instance where the 4th wall is broken.

It’s a restrained approach and shows that Platinum thought about every part of the game with great care. Eat Lead layered the parody on with a shovel and lost all humour by such blatant acts. Vanquish allows itself one throwaway quip and concentrates on being a great videogame first rather than pushing satire into your face with a big neon sign.

As a whole this game comes together to create an experience on many levels. The one that everyone will enjoy involves power-sliding under massive robotic behemoths, taking down enemies while looking cool and enjoying the corny lines spat out along with a cigarette. What I enjoyed the most was peeking behind the curtain, seeing the bizarre references to a French philosophers work and the story which, despite its smoke and bluster, is all about the fallibility of good intentions.

That kind of hidden depth is what makes Vanquish one of my favourite titles of the year. Along with Dead Rising 2, it can appear shallow and exalt itself with explosive videogame features to the most ridiculous extreme - and yet both of these titles hold precious moments of insight and unexpected allegory that, hardly meaningful, was still a joy to experience. And that is what Vanquish is in a nutshell - a joy to experience from beginning to end.





Friday, 24 September 2010

That Reach thing


My relationship with the Halo franchise has been as erratic as the fanboy ravings that accompany each review of every instalment in the series. Raising myself on first-person shooters on the PC and never touching one of those dirty consoles until the 360, I found the first Halo (ported to the PC by Gearbox) a strange and empty experience.


Skipping Halo 2 due to an international love affair (I'm not sure which was more anti-climatic) my next experience with the franchise came after giving into all the hype surrounding Halo 3. Thanks to a mixture of curiosity and peer pressure I caved in to see if I could understand what made so many people crazy about the Master Chief and all that jazz. Just as in the first game I enjoyed parts of the gameplay -- the well-documented open combat environments and variety of Grunt-killin' situations -- but ultimately the whole experience lacked anything approaching the meaningful tone the god-awful live-action trailers tried to convey.


The premise of Halo 3: ODST felt pretty cool and doing something different with the narrative - breaking up the missions and having a central lonely hub-world - gave me hope that this might be the Halo game to inject some meaning into its characters; if not its story. The problem this time came from the gameplay and I quickly found every combat situation dull or remarkably similar to the previous games. The story was pretty weak and the characters -- despite being voiced by some pretty sexy actors -- were flat and unconvincing.


Nothing about those three games gave me any sense of meaning, of characters that I should give a crap about or a story that was anything more than a mongrel of Norse mythology, Greek classical history and Larry Niven's Ringworld.



Then something happened to change all that - I read one of the fucking books. The Fall of Reach by Eric Nyland was written in 7 weeks and published before the first Halo game was released for the original Xbox. As science-fiction literature goes it’s a barely passable read but as a videogame tie-in -- as backstory to a franchise that was planned to expand as much as possible -- it changed everything.


Master Chief wasn't just some vacuous, American smart-ass super-soldier that the games portray him as -- he was a person with a history worth knowing -- someone whose childhood was awkward and tough but who eventually worked through pain and challenge to become humanity's last hope against a demonic foe. The war against the Covenant wasn't just some generic space-opera but a conflict that felt rooted in the desperate battles of ancient mythology and legend.


The book gave me what the games never did -- a firm base to experience what little story they were willing to tell. Even if they did it badly (which they did in my opinion) I could now at least go back and try to understand what the hell was going on in the games or make sense of the religious overtones layered over the Covenant hierarchy. Because of this I hoped, expected even, that Halo Reach would be Bungie's crowning moment. They would finally use the solid foundation that the book laid down to tell a meaningful story or create characters that I would want to know more about.


It didn't quite turn out that way.



Halo Reach represents Bungie's most polished work in terms of shooting Grunt fools in the face and taking yourself online to be crushed by a mouthy 12 year-old. When it comes to basic story, narrative and characters however, it treads the same path as before.


You’re never given a firm understanding of what’s going on and while I love the minimalist storytelling that Half-Life uses, Halo never builds enough into its world to support such a narrative venture.


What they got right this time was the main character. Noble Six is the faceless cipher that you customise and make your own. It makes this Halo game feel much more personal than before as Master Chief always felt like non-ironic cliché and The Rookie from ODST too bland to register.


The simple feature of being able to alter your armour makes this character feel... inhabitable. It was a chance, I thought, to finally experience a Halo story from a connectible perspective without crass or awkward writing getting in the way.


But Reach's attempt at capturing the same desperate feeling of a disaster film just doesn't work properly. Aside from the initial recon of the first mission the game pushes you to and from scenarios without any indication of what's happening outside of your combat area. Considering the entire planet is being kicked in the crotch there's nowhere near enough peril being conveyed -- only Exodus tries to shove the casualty rate up into the thousands and it stands as one of the few moments that could conceivably elicit an emotional response.


The other moments should have come with the death of your squad-mates. It's an inevitable part of the story that almost everyone on the planet dies and building the tension towards each sacrifice could've given Reach the kind of nervous energy Mass Effect 2 worked so well with during its final push.



Whereas Bioware gave you hours with each character that would accompany you into the dragon's mouth, Reach only has minutes and as such has to work harder in order to build those characters up to be likable. In order to do this it seemed like Reach fell back to portraying stereotypes that felt cut out of any stupid action game/film and even though some of their deaths feel meaningful (namely George, Kat and in the post-credits), the impact of them is nothing compared to losing Tali or Garrus to the Collectors.


If I hadn't read the book I wouldn't feel quite so aggrieved. Halo Reach is good entertainment from a pure gaming standpoint. Everything about playing it feels great and the formula -- on its last repeat before it wears the needle down to the arm -- still has the ability to give you a rush unlike many other shooters. Yet the book gave me the idea that this Halo nonsense could be a little more than that. The touchstones of ancient history and the ingrained sci-fi that all of us have in our DNA give Halo a blueprint, an opportunity, to create something special. It shows that the formula I came to enjoy so much by understanding more about the back-story won’t, or can't, mature enough beyond shooting aliens in the head.


Halo Reach continues that erratic relationship I have with the series and even though I'm still having fun with the daily challenges and the masochism of Legendary difficulty, it still fills me with regret. Regret that Bungie seemed unwilling to dive headfirst into storytelling that could be more than 'heavy-armoured dude kill alien. Insert zinger here. Repeat.' Regret that I read that damn book and got into all the pseudo-religious nonsense that the Covenant has got going on. And regret that I just can't enjoy a game without thinking about it in a meaningful way.


I mean seriously... What the hell is wrong with me?