Monday, December 31, 2012

Why The Walking Dead is the Game of the Year 2012

I warn you, traveller, before you step any further in. This journey is not one to be undertaken quite lightly. There are spoilers ahead. I know that everybody wants to avoid them when talking about this game, but I have to use them for this take on it. I will try to make them as mild as possible, but I refuse to take any blame for you discovering things here that you really should have discovered there.

Ok? Do we understand each other? I am going to tell you things, and you are NOT going to complain if they are things you would rather not know. By now, there is absolutely no reason at all for you not to have become acquainted with the subject of my discourse, but there are events that transpire which you may have no idea of.

We need to talk about Kenny.

Redneck asshole

Kenny, not to put to fine a point on it, annoyed me. He wound me up. With his insistence that I back him up at all times, with his overtly aggressive position, and with his almost complete uselessness, I frequently hoped to be given choices that would just get this turd out of my face. Like, when we were trying to start that train. Dude just sat there in the driver's seat, but kept on saying "I don't know anything about trains." THEN WHY THE HELL ARE YOU ON IT? For fuck's sake, man, go sort your zombie kid out instead of letting Katjaa carry that can. Why must I do everything? I just fought off that undead bastard in that car to give your kid some sweets, and what do you do? Sit there looking confused by the train controls, despite having manuals and stuff to hand.

I get it, I really do, that Kenny had a bit of a big shock to his system in the third episode. But, you know what? He was getting on my last nerve long before then. His mistrust of the St. Johns turned out to be well founded, but it was originally based on nothing more than "I don't know these guys, so I don't want to like them."

I made the decision early on to not let anybody die if I could help it. Kenny, on the other hand, has some quite serious bloodlust. He actively pushes towards killing members of the group on more than one occassion, even going so far as to pull the brick trigger himself. I simply did not like the character. But I would always have tried to save him if he ever once got into anything resembling trouble. Even though all he could really do was obsess about getting onto a bloody boat, I was determined to keep him alive. I didn't mean to agree with him and leave that girl to the zombies, I actually tried to shoot the zombies around her, not realising that my decision was supposed to be kill her myself. So, I found it particularly aggrevating when he told the group that we only survived because of it.

Kenny is a prick. He is quite unlikeable, and he does some very unlikeable things. And that is what makes him so brilliant. And by extension, what makes The Walking Dead so brilliant.

Should the dead really start reanimating, it is a pretty safe bet that you will be stuck with some people that you would otherwise not choose to be spending time with. Carley knew who I was, and knew my history, but didn't care. Larry knew, and cared enough to use it as a threat. If Kenny knew, I can imagine he would not have let me anywhere near his truck even after I saved his kid's life.

That is what encapsulates the real genius of Telltale Game's masterpiece. It is the quality of the writing that shines through. I DON'T LIKE Kenny. They have created a character who is so well written that I genuinely wanted the chance to hit him, and welcomed it like a long lost friend when it came to me in episode 3. He got under my skin in a way that no other game character has ever managed to. Not even Dominic Santiago, who bought a tear to my eye when he shot his wife instead of HIS STUPID SELF, has managed to bug me to the levels that Kenny did.

I can forgive the bugs and glitches. That Katjaa was sat there for the majority of episode 3 cradling an invisible Duck may have impacted upon the atmosphere if I had allowed it to. I chose to just not notice. That certain characters randomly appeared and relocated a few times was nothing more than an unfortunate thing, and not any kind of gamebreaker. I didn't focus on the mechanical, and left it to the dramatic to carry the story. I was not let down in any way, in fact I was rewarded most handsomely.

Games have long been criticised for the lack of quality in their writing. Generally, it is for a good reason. Writers have tried to do movie and book tricks, which have almost all failed to translate. Telltale have actually managed to write a good game, by only using movie and book style writing where it would fit. The decision mechanic is a pristine example of great game writing. What I mean by game writing is to utilise the medium in a way that plays to its stengths. Like in Heavy Rain, where Jason goes missing. The sense of panic imbued by having Jason constantly on the periphery of your vision, but OH SO MANY PEOPLE getting in the way of you catching up to him. Or in Modern Warfare, where you are struggling to get out of the crashed helicopter. These are feelings that words can't replicate. Having a time limit in which to decide what to say bypasses a major drama-killer, and actually amplifies the drama of the situation.

The Walking Dead got me invested in it more than most games manage. Generally, I find story gets in the way of a good game. The very best games allow me to create my own story, rather than play a substandard Hollywood wannabe's. The Walking Dead walks a very fine line between the story that is told, and the story I get to tell. It does this by using real game writing to give me key moments of control, and then using good standard writing to move the story on. The person of Kenny may not have been entirely to my liking, but the believability of him certainly was. And that, more than anything, is why The Walking Dead is the best game released in 2012.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


I had a dream the other night. It was of a gaming dystopia set in the near future. At first glance everything looked shiny and new, but scratch beneath the surface and you would find a games industry rife with greed, ineptitude and unhealthy relationships. A games industry where new consoles were rushed out the door requiring immediate patches, where renowned games designers would rely on the generosity of the public so they could make more money, where games with broken mechanics would be alarmingly common, where the quest for profit resulted in the annualisation of the uncreative, and an industry where journalists and publishers would accept their sickly dependence as status quo.

However I didn’t wake up for I was already awake. I asked myself “Where and when did it all go so hideously wrong?”

Last month (or three years ago if you are watching this on Dave) saw the release of Nintendo’s new console, the Wii Mini. Just kidding, although I did find it rather baffling that Nintendo would release a miniature version of their Wii console exclusively (albeit timed) at the same time as their world wide release of the console I really wanted to talk about, the Wii U. Fans queued, the press cooed and Iwata poo-pooed. Well two out of three ain’t bad.

Isiah Triforce Johnson was the first person in the world to start lining up for the Wii U, a full 27 days ahead of its release. The NYPD had to put a stop to this when Hurricane Sandy blew into town (however his space was kindly reserved for him for when he returned back when all was safe). Although he is quite clearly a little bit bonkers I must confess a modicum of admiration to someone who is that dedicated to one developer. Never again shall I throw the term ‘fanboy’ around in such a willy-nilly fashion.

Although the console has sold well thus far its reception has been somewhat mixed. Some people loved the ‘new’ technology, while others remained sceptical. Some developers leapt to its praise while Nintendo’s share price was taking a nose dive on the stock market. "This new controller really revolutionises the traditional pad”. “Nintendo Wii sucks”. It’s difficult to gauge just how good the Wii U is, or will be. As with any console it is only as strong as the games you get on it and if the Wii is anything to go by I’m not going to be holding my breath. However, I digress.

The real news about the Wii U was the Day-One Patch that accompanied it; a patch so large that many users shut their consoles off mid-download only to find that in doing so it crippled their machines. The patch was necessary because Nintendo shipped the consoles with missing functionality, one must assume to ensure they were in the stores in time for the holiday period. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata actually apologised for the fiasco, saying “I feel very sorry for the fact that purchasers of Wii U have to experience a network update which takes such a long time, and that there are the services which were not available at the hardware's launch.”

According to IGN he also said “I always and strictly tell Nintendo employees never to use the term 'success' to describe our own performance”. Personally I think not calling Nintendo’s day-one patch a success is a bit like not calling Nick Leeson an honest and cautious trader.

Nintendo must have known some time ago that their product was not consumer-ready, however such is the allure of getting your product out in time for Christmas they were prepared to take any flack heading their way and issue a monstrous patch via the www. Iwata comes out and says a half-hearted ‘Sorry’, all the while knowing it means sweet fuck all because a) they’ve got their product where they want it to be, and b) we, the public, are lapping it up. My main umbrage here is that all of this seems perfectly okay.

Thanks to the internet these patches have now seemingly become industry standard on every console.  I note with particular irreverence the frequency with which the PS3 is susceptible to these patches and the amount of time each one takes. The 360 is not immune either. I remember once watching Professor Brian Cox on The Wonders of the Universe explain with a sand pile and a sand castle how the second law of thermodynamics works; that entropy can never decrease. The games industry today has its own perverse equivalent: The First Law of Gaming Dynamics states that with time the number of patches you will need on your console will also increase. In some ways the fact that a fix can be sent down a wire to your house is a blessing, but it does mean that a developer/publisher can rush a broken product out safe in the knowledge that their profits won’t be dented in the process. There is a part of me that feels this is simply wrong.

Talking of broken products let’s not forget 22Cans’ “Curiosity”, a game (sorry, I meant social experiment) burdened with its own popularity. Apparently there were just too many of us curious cats enthusiastically tapping away at all of those little cubes. Peter Molyneux et al hideously underestimated the social side of the experiment, so much so that they had to shut the damned thing down while they put a more suitable server in place to cope with the demand. All of this did nothing to diminish my apathy towards what might actually be lurking within the belly of the cubed beast, however at least it wasn’t another fucking patch.

What has irked me since then was the announcement that Peter Molyneux’s next project would be a kickstarter to pay for his reinvention of Bullfrog’s 80’s classic “Populous”. Now for those of you who are unaware of what a kickstarter is think of it in terms of a charity. Basically you/me/the general public can donate money to these projects to help them fulfil their dreams. For this you might be eventually rewarded, or not (for example for a donation of $X you get a copy of the game when it’s released, or one of the characters/places is named after you, etc). I guess the original idea for them was to help new, small, independent developers realise their goals when more traditional publishing routes were either unavailable or unwanted. From this point of view kickstarters are a great idea.

However let’s not even begin to think of Peter Molyneux as anything like new, small or independent. Even the rotting corpse of Milo cannot detract us from one of the biggest names in the gaming world. He helped bring us Syndicate, Theme Park, Fable and of course Populous. He definitely isn’t what you might call unknown and untested. I cannot image him being short of a bob or two either. Regardless of his own personal fortunes (or lack thereof) it’s impossible to conceive the idea of him as being unable to find the resources to make this reinvention (read: remake) from happening. So why the hell is he asking for a kickstarter? Is this another one of his experiments? Is this just him being a bit greedy, relying on our good will and naivety to pay for his next game? Or is there some other tacit reason behind him asking for handouts? I’m not sure, and while I remain so I certainly won’t be handing over any of my spondoolies.

That said, I don’t want to label Molynuex as a bad man. Aloof maybe, but at least he is yet to start milking the proverbial cash cow by adopting another industry standard: annualising his video games. Can someone please tell me how these annual games releases are helping us in any way?

I’m not sure when it even started. The first one I can remember was FIFA, but a short trip to Wiki-land tells me that EA were doing it with NFL and PGA games three years or so earlier (I don’t remember buying an American Football game ever, and I’ve only ever bought one Tiger Woods PGA title, so I hereby forgive myself for not know that little bit of trivia). Back then it wasn’t such common practise, and there was a little je ne c’est pas about a shiny, new game which more accurately reflected your football team of choice. Of course I was a lot younger back then, less cynical and perhaps didn’t see them for what they really are: updates.

Can you seriously tell me that FIFA 13 is oh so different to FIFA 12? Is Black Ops 2 so drastically different to Modern Warfare 3? Is Medal of Honor 2 in any way, shape or form an improvement from Battlefield 3? What you are paying for here is another patch. You end up with essentially the same game you had before but with a new skin and perhaps a new game mode. FIFA 13 is just FIFA 12 but with updated teams, players and kits. Black Ops 2 is just Modern Warfare 3 with some new maps. I’d like to say Medal of Honor 2 is just Battlefield 3 but it isn’t even that. It’s just shit.

That a company releases the same game every year isn’t inherently annoying. What is preposterous is the fact you have to pay the full retail price for the privilege. Let’s not forget to add to this the cost of the season pass or premium membership which gives you access to even more maps. Usually this is the same cost as buying the game in the first place, essentially doubling the price. If you choose not to buy these extras good luck finding a game. Alternatively you could just hang on to your old game and hope that there are enough people out there who share you point of view, but there aren’t. Such is our want for all things new that it’s only a matter of time before yesterday’s video games boxes are used to carry home tonight’s fish and chips.

Having said all of this, at least those games work. The Black Ops 2 campaign was a huge pile of wank, but the multiplayer is just as strong as ever. I stopped playing Call of Duty for a couple of years while I engrossed myself into the world of Battlefield. Coming back took some adjustment, but I am actually enjoying it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I prefer it to Battlefield and Bad Company; in fact I would say that different enough from each other to avoid direct comparison. I love the huge playing arenas proffered to us by EA and DICE. You get to drive tanks and helicopters. Games can go on for half an hour or so and teamwork is a lot more common. But then I just as much like the unadulterated kicks you get from Call of Duty. The smaller, twisty, maze-like maps that are more like a paint-ball park than real warfare. I like being able to customize my set up to just the way I want it. And as much as it pains me I like the prestige that comes with prestige. It’s not something I have achieved yet in Blops2, but I am edging closer.

Now take a couple of examples from other games I recently started playing: Lego Lord of the Rings and Magic the Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers. Before I lay into these too much I feel I should say I have been a fan of both Magic and Lego for years. I don’t have anything against Wizards of the Coast and/or Tt per se. In fact how could I possibly think about disparaging anyone who has successfully wasted so much of my time? I have been addicted to the Lego games for a long time, to the point now where my son and I have completed (and I mean COMPLETED) Lego Batman 2 three times. I cannot tell you how much I was looking forward to LotR. I have also loved Magic the Gathering since I first started playing the trading card game back around the year 2000. I still have my original decks in the loft in my house. There was a group of four to six of us who would play every Sunday evening around one of our houses. Games would last for hours and would quite often be tense, but they were great times. I’m not even really sure why it all stopped.

Anyway I bought Lego Lord of the Rings and played through the campaign without too much fuss. It was all going so nicely until I started exploring the open world of Middle Earth to find the collectibles (the mithril and red bricks, characters, etc). To aid you in this quest you can go into the map and set up a marker, then when you return to the game you have a trail of opaque, blue Lego coins to follow. Only sometimes they will take you off in the wrong direction (and while this doesn’t sound like much I can guarantee it’s not something you want to happen in a game where you are already investing so much of your time trying to complete it). When it first happened I thought I was being stupid; the next time I thought I was going mad; the twentieth time made me start swearing at the TV. Now I’m not a particularly sweary person at home, in fact I cannot recall the last time I ever uttered a profanity whilst playing CoD or BF; and so please bear in mind Lego LotR is a game designed for kids.

This alone probably isn’t enough to warrant my wrath, but even when you do find what you are looking for Tt have made it needlessly difficult to actually get your hands on some of them. For some unknown reason they have managed to make the camera angles even worse in this game. They’ve also made jumping from platform to platform (particularly over water) more like a war of attrition than a test of skill. I’m all for making games a bit more difficult, but crappy camera angles and controls that don’t give you the right influence over your character are not the way to go about it.

It’s a similar story with Magic the Gathering. For the most part the game plays perfectly well, however there were a few occasions when the broken game mechanics really pissed me off. On one particular occasion I was in a four-way battle, playing with my favoured green deck against white, blue and another green. The game had been going for some time. The blue deck and other green deck had been killed off. It was me against whitey. He had a life total of over 500 as compared to my somewhat pathetic 15. All was not lost though, as I was able to summon some huge creatures which were getting +1/+1 for each forest I controlled. There were a lot of creatures on the playing field, to the point that there were too many creatures on the playing field for the targeting system to work properly. Things got so congested that I couldn’t tell if I was blocking the right creature or not. I was guessing and hoping that nothing was getting through my defences, and low and behold one of the buggers got through. I was so annoyed; not at myself but at the game for not giving me the control I need to play the game

When you are playing the four player game the screen can get really busy, so much so that it can become unplayable. As if that wasn’t bad enough shortly after this I found a bug in the game which meant I couldn’t stop playing the same game over and over again. I couldn’t quit or concede, and even when I finished the game it wouldn’t let me back to the campaign ladder. There was literally nothing I could do except delete the game and all of the Game Centre achievements that went with it. On the one hand I am glad it was only a demo version of the game, and that I hadn’t spent the full price finding out what a frustrating annoyance it was. Yet on the other had I am sad that my most recent endeavours into a beloved past could be met with this level of ineptitude.

Crappy consoles and crappy games, could it get any worse? Well let us not forget the debacle that is now lovingly called Doritosgate. For a while back in 2012 the games industry recoiled at the seemingly insidious and insipid relationship between the games press and PR companies. Accusations were flung around, there was a threat of legal action, more was said, less was said, and in the end a few companies held their hands up and said they would be more transparent. However the damage was already done and an industry already blemished with charges of corruption and bias found itself being tarred once again with its own brush.
For some reason the journalists took a lot of the flack for all of this (and they are certainly not blameless in the saga). Yet with so much the finger pointing going on I found it amazing that more phalanges weren’t being aimed at the practises of PR companies.

I know of one games website that has been pretty much shunned by one of the major publishers thanks to some negative press they took umbrage to. As a result this website doesn’t get invited to all the pre-release events any more, thus missing out on vital content that other websites are running. Less content will inevitably mean fewer hits. Fewer hits means your website isn’t as valuable for advertising, and thus your revenue and profits take a hit.

Is it any wonder that journalists are tempted by the need to suck up sometimes? Is it not just a little bit wrong that the people selling the games should hold so much power? Luckily I’m not in a position to have to make the moral choice between writing what I feel to be the truth and having to pay the bills. It’s not something I ever look forward to doing. This is one of the beauties of a blog; that a lot of the corporate, towing the line bullshit is removed from the equation. I just feel a bit sorry for the writers who got caught up in all of this while the profiteering back scratchers yet again get away with it.

Perhaps this is a dream after all. Perhaps I am asleep in a room somewhere, with my arm plugged into an intravenous drip as it pumps a sedative compound throughout my body. I’m not sure if this is a dream, or a dream within a dream, or a dream within a dream within a dream. The mission is the inception of the idea that things have to change. New consoles should not be released until they are ready, kickstarters are for those who really need them, broken games do not get released, if games are annualised then you don’t pay the normal, full RRP and where the actions of PR companies are transparent enough to give us more faith in what they do.

I don’t know who this idea needs to be aimed at yet. I’m hoping the compound will give us enough time to find the right person or, more likely, collection of people. Perhaps the people who really need to grasp the idea are us, the general public. Stand up and say enough is enough. Maybe as individuals we don’t have the strength to demand more from these companies, but as a collective we can have more say and ask for better. 

It's just an idea.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Wear something fancy...

Hotline Miami is a very scary game.

Not traditionally scary. It isn't a game filled with zombies, ghosts, or demons. All your enemies are human, or canine. They have no supernatural abilities, and are found in regular everyday locations. Nothing ever jumps out at you. There are no bizarre camera tricks or sound effects messing with your perceptions. There is really just the blood to worry about.

(A lot of blood. Bucketfuls of the stuff. Perhaps the most blood yet seen in a videogame. Or, if not, then certainly the most blood you have ever perceived in one.)

Nor is it a particularly scary story. Or even, for that matter, a particularly present one. We are walking down well-travelled pathways here. Our nameless protagonist receives a phone call, detailing a job at an address. We go there, we go in, and we kill everyone on the premises. We never know why, or even who, we are killing. We just know that they all must die at our hands. It's hardly Frankenstein. The sequences between the assignments are a touch odd, in a Travis Bickle way, but never overtly so. Narration is absent, and reason must be entirely inferred.

It is not even the atmosphere which is scary. To all intents and purposes you are playing an extremely stripped down version of Vice City. The garish neon-tinged colour scheme evokes the spirit of the 1980's as completely as Rockstar's classic does, albeit in a heavily stylised manner. The two-dimensional top-down view is that of some very blocky sprites. The blood that flows is a uniform red, and pixellated to the extent that you will wonder if you are playing a 10 year old mobile phone game. Graphically lacking in detail, it looks more like a kids cartoon than the brutal journey you will experience.

You can't even blame the music. You have to talk about the music, because it is SO FUCKING COOL, but it is primarily used to set the tempo of the game. The kind that overpowers the nonsense in between the levels due to its sheer brilliance, but becomes your own inner soundtrack so that you don't even notice it driving you when the action heats up.

None of these things are scary. All of these things combined are not even scary.

What IS scary, and what makes Hotline Miami such an unforgettable ride, is two little slices of genius design decision making.

The first is that you are, quite simply, fragile. A single bullet from a single foe will end you. Even an unarmed thug can take you out with one hit. If they hear you, they come looking for you. If they see you, they come at you. If they attack first, you die. No second chances, no health pickups, no messing about of any kind. Death is instant. Your only hope when they carry a gun is that they miss with their first shot. Thankfully, the enemies are just as susceptible to punishment as you are, and can be put down just as quickly. A single bullet generally does the trick, although you also might miss, and then face the realisation that the rest of them probably heard you and are already on their way and OHSHITHESNOTDEADYET. Suddenly, decision making is paramount, as it takes precious time to finish off a body that is downed but not out. Kicking them in the head, strangling them, beating their head repeatedly against the floor; they get it done, but leave you open to attack.

You have to be quick. You need to know, instinctively, how to tackle the room. To measure the odds, have a plan for what EXACTLY you need to do as soon as you open that door, because as soon as you do the next half a second determines if is they who die or you.

A lot of the time, it is you. Death is not only instant, it is inevitable. Hotline Miami asks an awful lot of you, and carries within it a hefty level of challenge. You will retry levels countless times, refining your approach with every press of the R key. Getting slightly closer to your goal with every attempt, until finally you are the only soul left alive.

At which point, moment of genius number two makes itself known. The music, which you were barely aware of, stops. Suddenly, everything is silent, all is still. You are done, everyone is dead, and all that is left is to vacate the premises. This involves walking past the scores of dead bodyguards that litter the floor. 

It's eerily quiet now.

Are they bodyguards? I'm not sure, I've never been told. They just seem as if they are. I don't even know if they are bad guys. The only certainty I can cling to is - "I did this. I killed them", and all because a phone call, which didn't even mention murder, told me to come here.

Hotline Miami is a very scary game. It is scary because it is insidious. The violence should be sickening. The aesthetic leans terrifyingly towards a celebration of murder, even going so far as to have you don an animal mask as you viciously assault identikit enemies over and over and over. Ostensibly, this is to endow you with abilities, but at the same time you feel that this is just because THAT IS WHAT PSYCHOS DO, HAHAHAH! The eerie calm after the storm gives you pause to reflect as you walk back past all those you slaughtered in their respective pools of blood, before the next tiny slice of cut-scene hints even more strongly that something just isn't right in this world. The world even twists ever so slightly as you walk, and everything external to your goal is indeterminate, as if it exists but is not worth you paying attention to.

It is probably as close as games have ever come to being a genuine "murder simulator", because it leaves no room to describe it as anything but. The bodycount is high, but it feels astronomical due to playing through each floor of each building countless times. The background nature of the story further erodes any moral high ground, and there are even questions to be asked before we can say it has a neutral morality. The counter argument is, of course, the extreme difficulty. There can be no doubt that, according to this game at least, murder is a dangerous and difficult career path.

Hotline Miami is a very scary game. It is also a very good one.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why Borderlands 2 is the best game available right now.

Borderlands 2 is my main contender for Game of the Year. I also don't see this changing any time soon. It is, in fact, so good that it may also be my Game of Next Year. To quote internet parlance; "GOTY, ALL YEARS."

Why would this be? What is so special about Borderlands 2, which is little more than a refinement of the first title? Aren't I the guy who keeps on banging on about "Let's have less of the same old stuff, and try new things", who has nearly given up on AAA altogether because they are just about "Bigger, faster, more"?

Yes, I am that guy. I do prefer it when games try and steer themselves away from what everyone else is doing.

The important thing with Borderlands 2, though, is that the word they have concentrated on is "MORE". And, the way they have concentrated on it is to make it more of a game.

There are more locations. There are more guns. There are more characters, more missions, and there will no doubt be more DLC. This is all entirely predictable, expected, and clearly does more than enough to satisfy the marketing men at 2K.

What is not so predictable is when you see some blocky scenery that looks like it came from MineCraft. And, when you hit it like you do in MineCraft, it breaks. What it reveals is an area that is populated by Creepers, THE signature enemy from MineCraft. The exploding bastards from a completely different type of game are in Borderlands 2, and there is no reason for it. It is a hidden Easter Egg, one which you need to go off the beaten path to find. No hints as to its existence are found anywhere in the game itself, it is just there to BE there, and be fun.

It's a magical moment. It would have been even more magical if I had not already known about it, but I at least managed to not find out how to get to it. It was during a play session with a friend who knew which zone we needed to be in that we got to it, and we both searched for it whilst playing through the game in a normal fashion. Not achievement-hunting (there is no achievement for it), not grinding for loot, just having a laugh shooting countless mobs and picking up even countlesser guns.

I still hate these guys even when I can shoot them

It almost felt like the days before the internet, where you might have come across one of these instances in a game, but were far more likely to have heard about it from someone else. It is so well hidden, in fact, that people playing without the aid of the internet could quite easily play the entire game through multiple times and never find it.

It is just one of many references to other games buried away in Borderlands 2. Actually, it is more than just the games that Gearbox refer to. What they actually do is take a look at the parts of games that reach outside the confines of the screen, and incorporate them into their own universe. Hence, there is a robot called Jimmy Jenkins, who charges into battle without adequate planning beforehand. Claptrap smashes the 4th wall by revealing that his stash exists "for twinking items between your characters". Frequently, it is confident enough to remind you that you are not just playing a game, but that you are playing one of MANY games.

And why shouldn't it? Many games have, through the years, stepped outside of the boundaries they were created in and crossed into popular culture. Some are household names. It is more strange to think that a game world where nobody know who Mario is would be more believable than one where Mario adorns a shop window. Movies, books, TV, and even pop music videos all pay homage to the greats, and I love that games are finally getting the balls to do it as well.

This is evidence that our hobby is evolving. It is standing on its own two feet, and is prepared to look to itself for support as it takes steps forwards. It may be finally about to cast off the shackles imposed by trying to copy other artforms, and is ready to emerge with its own identity. Its own frame of reference, and its own history. Because, until games stop trying to be interactive versions of everything else, they will only ever be looked upon as inferior to everything else.

Games can do things that other entertainments can't. A film or book would struggle to convey the same emotional panic that Heavy Rain managed to when trying to catch up to Jason. Or would be less impactful than climbing out of the helicopter, barely able to move, before succumbing to your fate as Modern Warfare was. Those famous twists at the end of The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects? As great as they were, they did not hit me with the same kind of sledgehammer blow that the ending of Braid managed.

So, game developers everywhere; Would you kindly do more of this sort of thing?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Suddenly ... a genuine treat appeared.

It's not really fair to call To The Moon a game. Game is still a word that draws negative connotations. Critics dismiss games, as if they are somehow not worthy of having time spent upon them. They are automatically classified as throwaway entertainment, low brow diversions for the masses, and are not given the respect that they, at times, deserve. They can't possibly engage you, so the time worn comparison goes, to the same extent as a book does.

But then, this coin has two faces. To describe it as interactive fiction would mean that large chunks of gamers will simply refuse to give it a fair crack of the whip. They are put off by the lack of action, or the long passages where characters simply converse with each other. Games, they argue, are meant to be challenging. If I wanted a story I'd read a book.

Both arguments are, frankly, nonsensical. To The Moon is neither game nor interactive fiction, at exactly the same time as it is both. Traditional gameplay elements are present, in admittedly limited form, but the focus is absolutely upon telling the story.

And, what an exceptional story it is! A tale of regret, of hardship, and ultimately of love.

We are first introduced to Drs. Watts and Rosemary, two specialists in a rather extraordinary field. Utilising a special machine, they are able to enter the memories of a client, and alter them to fulfill any desire. They achieve this by finding links to earlier memories, and working backwards through the clients life until they are able to make a change that sticks. This then has the effect of altering the clients perception of their life. It is almost exactly halfway between Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in its scope.

For client, read patient. The downside of this transformation is that the effort means that once the client has undergone the procedure, they have just enough time to wake up before dying, blissfully happy. It is for this reason that it is only ever done on people who are close to death.

Our patient is an old man called Johnny. His wish is to go to the moon. We don't know why, we just know that our task is to go through his life, in reverse, until we get to his childhood where we can implant that wish along with the desire to make it happen. And so, we embark upon a journey through his life, wherein we meet his deceased wife River, discover why his favourite food is pickled olives, and learn why River kept on making origami rabbits.

As we progress, we find ourselves having to infer most of the important details for ourselves. This game is brave enough to trust that we are able to decipher the clues and pick up on the cues. The subject matter that is breached could be quite hefty stuff indeed, but we never have to sit through any painful chunks of exposition. By the end of the experience, you remember it more for what it specifically didn't tell you than for what it did. One word, in particular, is notable for its complete abscence. In a medium which tends to treat its participants as imbeciles and thus bludgeons us with its points, this is an extremely welcome change of pace.

You see this lighthouse a lot. It is important!

It becomes one of those games where it is impossible to talk about what makes it so good, for fear of spoiling it for the next player. And, you will want to turn your friends into players. The 2D top-down 16-bit JRPG style presentation will be both tool and barrier in this regard, as some will happily jump on board where others will sneer at the apparent simplicity of the graphics. Thankfully, nobody will be put off by the music, which is deployed to devastating effect at key moments. Kan Gao is quite happy to manipulate our emotions, and it could all prove too much for some. Tears will almost certainly form, and may even leave your eyes before your 5 or so hours are up.

It plays us almost as much as we play it. Tension is frequently broken by jokes from Dr. Watts, who is clearly meant to be an everygeek. Dr. Rosemary is his more serious foil, and the interplay between the two is of the sort one would expect from colleagues who have worked together for a long time. The sense that they exist outside of the game space is tangible, and with their approaches to the job it feels very much like these are just two people having a trickier day at work than usual.

It is rare enough that games can be lauded for their story. Far too often the same old tropes are wheeled out, as if game stories are built in factories by randomly grabbing at the blocks that go past on the conveyor belt. When they do have a story to tell, it is often handled clumsily. To The Moon is not just an example of telling a story well, but also having a story that would live outside of its game. This would make for an entertaining movie.

Games that prioritise story have tried different approaches in the past. Heavy Rain turned as much as possible into an interactive element, whereas Dear Esther went to the extreme opposite end of the scale. Neither quite reached the heights that they were capable of, being too entrenched in their respective positions. To The Moon inhabits a curious space in the middle, where game like aspects are present, but only when they serve the purpose of the narrative. For the most part, interactions are limited to walking about with a few straightforward puzzles, and not even the few dialogue choices make any noticeable difference. There is no fail state at any point.

But to complain about any of that would be looking for problems when there is no need. What matters more than the individual parts is the sum, the overall experience itself. That is what Freebird Games has absolutely nailed, and that is why you should dive in and try it for yourself. This industry has challenged my reflexes for more than 30 years now, it is about time it started challenging my preconceptions too.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The great FIFA plea!

From the windows at the back of my house, the major facet of the view is a football pitch. It is quite the local focus at times, with days when two or three matches are played. Sometimes, when I look out, I see a practice session taking place. This proximity pleases me greatly, because I have a 5 year old son. Naturally, I would love it if he were to take an interest, and start to play football. It looks very much like he doesn't care, but he is only 5. There is time yet.

My daughter is not yet 3. She doesn't sit with me when I am watching a match on TV. But, she does like to stand on her blanket box and watch when there are matches taking place outside. I truly don't know if she really likes it, or if she would just do anything rather than go to bed. I strongly suspect it is the latter, but just in case I tend to let her get away with it for a while.

A girl who is interested in football might seem like an unusual thing to some. It isn't where I live. And this is not least because about half of the matches that I have seen played on that field have been played between two teams of female players. It is, in fact, the ground where Longhougton Rangers Ladies play their home matches.

So, my daughter is growing up in an environment where it is definitely the norm for girls to play football. She didn't really care so much during the Olympics, as she was generally in bed when the Team GB Ladies played their games, but in 4 years time this may be a different story. (Assuming, of course, that Team GB even enter the football in Rio!) By then, she may well have seen so much football on the local field that she not only wants to also watch on TV, but may even want to play for herself. Which is good, because she won't have to go too far at all.

And, as she gets older, she may even want to play football on one of the games consoles. So far, all she has ever bothered to play is Skylanders, but she does love grabbing the controller to switch them on. It is just a matter of time before she shows interest in other games as well. Her brother recently inherited his own copy of FIFA 09, which he is insistent on playing even though I actually bought FIFA 12. Since she adores her brother, I have no doubt that she will force her way into playing alongside him. Maybe they will argue over who gets to be Liverpool? (I can but hope, even though right now I question why I would want to inflict being an LFC supporter onto anybody at all, let alone two people I love.)

Sadly, what she won't be able to do is to play as a Ladies team. None of the FIFA games offer this option. This is despite the ever increasing popularity of the women's game, as well as the ever increasing amounts of females playing and buying games. For whatever reason, EA have done their internal maths and decided that the cost to implement women's football into the game would be more than they would expect to recoup.

Understandable? I thought so.

At first.

But then, I thought about it a little more. And I came to a somewhat obvious conclusion.

Dear EA Sports. You know that catcphrase you use? I think you need to stop using it.

"If it's in the game, it's in the game."

Oh dear. That desn't quite add up, really. Clearly, this is a sizeable aspect that is NOT in the game at all.

Please, EA, think about this. My daughter is already going to grow up in a world where she won't be treated the same as her brother will by many. She will be held to a different set of standards, because there is not full equality between the sexes as things stand. You show this yourselves, by simply not including females in any of your sports games. With a title that sees a new release every single year, often updating little but the playing rosters, what genuine reason is there to not push this boat out and see how many fish it catches?

Let's face it, the games industry in general could use the positive press. EA, you could especially benefit from having something positive to announce, to deflect at least a small part of the bile and hatred that the gaming community is oh so ready to throw your way.

I'll put it another way, shall I? I hereby promise to not buy another FIFA game UNTIL you include women's teams. I don't care how many litle marketing gimmicks you throw in along the way, such as making my team reflect the real version. Why the hell would I want to do that? The real version of my team is having a terrible time of things! At least my digital version can give West Brom the hammering that I was hoping to witness, thus leading to partial easing of the pain I feel when reading message boards today. My virtual team can play on, safe in the knowledge that Luis Suarez will be treated by the referees exactly they same as the other players are, and not as he is in the Premier League as if he is the actual father of all evil in the Universe. (A yellow card for waving an arm at the referee? REALLY? I'll bet £50 with ANYONE that Rooney and Terry get away with much worse before this month is out.)

Whereas, the game that does include women's teams, not only will I buy a copy on launch day, I will also buy another copy to gift to my sister. She doesn't even play games outside of fitness stuff on the Wii, but she does like football. She would NEVER buy it for herself, so you will demonstrably be gaining sales if you include this option. Take this to your accounts department, marketing teams, Mr. Riccitello, Mr. Moore, whoever you need to. Bank on this, because I am not alone. I am just one of many who wants to see this change.

The rest can be found in this petition. That's plenty for now, isn't it? And that is just from those of who actually talk about games on the internet. The vast majority of your FIFA buying fans don't. If you are ignoring this percentage of us, what about THEM?

I am aware that there is a tiny chance that some people reading this are not employed by EA. If you are one of those, then I would like to implore that you go and sign the petition yourself. Please? Ta, loves! And, spread the word.

My blog is small, and humble. It may not carry the weight of many of the big sites out there. But, it carries as much meaning as any other outlet, more so to me personally. This is a cause I am happy to champion. This is a challenge I am willing to share. Because, this is a development whose time has come. The Women's Football Gold Medal in the Olympics went to the US, which probably means that a new generation is ready to become fans. By not including women in the game ... well, you run the risk of being left behind by the first software house that does include them.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

More Olympic musings!

For the last hour now I have been replaying A01, the first level in TrackMania Nations Forever. At first, I wanted to beat the time required to win the Gold Medal. (25.87 seconds.) Then, I wanted to beat the time for the Author Medal. (25.54 seconds.) And now, having surpassed both of those marks, I want to get as close to 24.04 seconds, which is the current fastest time recorded on CyberScore. Eventually, should I beat that, I will attempt to do it in less time than the 23.92 seconds that sit atop the official Nadeo leaderboard, verified by linking to a downlodable ghost file for me to race against.

My time improves by one or two hundredths of a second at a time. It doesn't improve every time I race the track, but once in a while I hit the turns just SO. I take that first corner with the optimum tightness, which enables to not lose any speed, and then carry this through into the home straight. On the occassions that I do get everything right, it is electric. And the reason it is electric? Well ...

It is because those times are rare. Increasingly so as my times get faster. I am much more likely to not improve than I am to even match my previous best time, let alone beat it by any significant margin. My hour has consisted, mostly, of failure following failure. Each failure has not been a complete waste of time, however. Many times, I have learned from the failures. I can turn a run where I don't take the first corner properly into one where I can try an alternate approach on turn 2. I can see if letting go of the accelerator leads to an overall improvement anywhere on the track. In short, I am doing more than just playing this game. I am, not to put too fine a point on it, practicing. I am training.

I am dedicating myself to getting better at the game, for the sole purpose of being better at the game. I want that name at the top of the leaderboard to be mine. I want to hold the World Record for track A01 in TrackMania Nations Forever.

Over the last couple of weeks, you may have been aware of a bit of a shindig taking place in London. From all around the world, competitors arrived to test their skills against the very best in their respective fields. Sprinters, weightlifters, gymnasts, swimmers, cyclists, rowers; we really could spend the rest of the day listing disciplines in which events took place. These athletes have spent their entire lives improving, and the last few years training specifically to be at the peak of their performance when it matters. They all wanted to win Gold Medals, and hope to set World Records.

When looked at like that, one may well be inclined to ask "What is the difference?" between what I have been doing, admittedly for only the last hour, and what they have been doing for their whole life? Some of the races were decided by hundredths of a second. Well, some of my TrackMania scores are improvements of THOUSANDTHS of a second. So, even if it can't compare to the physical demands that the marvellous Mo Farah put in during his training, the mental focus required is surely somewhere close.

Of course, the Olympic games themselves are not just about the physical at any rate. There were several different Shooting events. Shooting! The very thing that videogames are most singularly synonymous with is an Olympic sport. Please, somebody; explain to me how different Olympic shooting is from Hitman: Sniper Challenge? In both, you take aim at a target in order to score the maximum amount of points inside a time limit. The sport and the game require practically identical skillsets, and practicing for either would be a simple case of doing the same thing over and over again. An injury would impact participants in either exactly the same way, too. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we might as well just make Olympic shooting into a virtual version of itself.

Think of the advantages with this. Not only would there be less chance of equipment failure, but we could also have a mixed event. The 2012 Olympics have already seen two absolutely major equality firsts, which is reason enough to celebrate. Not only were there female athletes from all competing nations for the first time in history, but the life-affirming sight of Oscar Pistorius running against able-bodied atheletes was truly inspirational, and certainly offered hope to many around the world. So, try to imagine how inspirational it would be to see an event where there is no segregation at all? Virtual Shooting, and by extension videogames, could offer this.

As we move towards an ever more integrated society, surely this could be seen as a way forwards? I know that many will sneer, with proclamations that videogames are "For kids" or "Played by couch potatoes". To which I would respond with "And, your point is ... ?", because it is 2012 and we just don't do that sort of thing anymore. And then, I would point them in the direction of YouTube to watch a StarCraft II player with his 300 APM and ask them to do the same. APM? That means "Actions Per Minute", and is a count of key presses and mouse clicks. I could possibly reach that count if I just randomly bashed away, but to assign meaning to each action? Put it this way; I would be happy if I could achieve 40 APM, and I have years of play behind me.

Who knows what is likely to happen? Barriers have been broken in the past, and it is reasonable to expect that they will be again. Videogames keep on getting more popular, and the lines between what is and what isn't a sport keep on getting more blurred. When ESPN cover League of Legends, albeit in an article, then there are signs that things are moving in the right direction.

The 2016 Olympic Games will take place in Rio, Brazil. There, we have a gameplaying community that is growing at an incredible rate. This not inconsiderable mass of potential players could easily provide the weight required to tip the balance. I am not saying that we need virtual versions of all sports, by the way, just that I think the idea that to include videogames in some capacity is surely an idea whose time has come?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Taking the bit between the teeth.

I have a bit of a confession to make.

As I close in on the end of my 41st year on this planet, I find that there have been certain changes in my outlook over the years. Where I was once a fresh-faced teenager, filled with optimism and non-stop smiley face, the same can no longer be said to be true. I have gotten more cynical as I have gotten older. Where there was once optimism, there are now warning signs that the gathering clouds of pessimism will block my vision for ever. And, whilst I am not quite at the extremes of nostalgia that ignore all the good things that exist right now, I do often think that "things were better in my day".

I have become somewhat grumpy.

I am not just talking about in videogames, either. I am generally less patient with a lot of things these days. Let's take television, as an example. I hold out less hope for the human race with each successive plumbing of the depths that Reality TV brings us. Whereas we once had genuinely intelligent, witty, and talented people all over our screens, all it takes today is to make a tit of yourself to get invited on to the circuit of endless panel shows.

Movies, too, are much less likely to inspire than they once were. If it isn't a sequel, it's a remake. If it isn't a remake, it's a copycat. And if it is none of these, it is a vehicle for merchandising opportunities. Good movies still get made, but finding them amongst the volume that marketing generates is increasingly difficult.

And then, finally, we come to sports. Football teams are paid wages that entire countries could run on, to play fewer games than they used to. It all costs supporters more each year, as third strips are not just saved for the one possible time in a season that it may be needed, but are pushed into our faces as another essential buy.

But, suddenly, from deep in the sea of dross, we get the Olympic Games. Now, let us push aside the downright offensive sponsorship and advertising issues. These are absolute markers as to just how wrong the world has gotten, no question about that. But, let us take a look at the sports themselves.

Britain is doing quite well, it turns out. I like this, because I live in Britain. I can therefore bask in the reflected glory of some truly talented and dedicated individuals, and enjoy the "feel good" factor that is sweeping the country. I can take genuine pride in how well the Games are being handled, packaged, and displayed. For the first time in a long time, it feels GOOD to be British.

However, what I am going to take most from the Games is the sight of Oscar Pistorius competing in the Men's 400M race. Oscar had his legs amputated below the knee before he was a year old. In order to compete, he has had his feet replaced with metal strips that apparently are as close to the human foot as possible. Go, science! Ordinarily, such a person would compete in the Paralympic Games, but not Oscar. The International Olympic Committee decreed that anybody who can run the distance in a time under 54.07 seconds could compete. So, he did it.

A man with NO FEET ran 400 metres in a time that I, at my physical peak, could never have hoped to get close to! The stature of that achievement humbles me to such a degree that I can not find adequate words to describe it. If you ever want to see what human endeavour is capable of, then you need look no further. Faced with something that I am completely unable to understand, Oscar Pistorius didn't just sit back and accept his fate. Instead, he took life's challenge, and (literally) ran with it. Facing it head-on, he overcame his obstacles and ultimately competed at the very highest level.

Day after day, I have sat here and been bombarded with stories of inspiration. And it has had the effect it is meant to. The motto for these Games is "Inspire a generation", and whilst I am reasonably sure that this is meant to refer to the youngest of generations, I have decided that I will join in if nobody minds.

Oscar Pistorius does what he loves. He had a built-in excuse to just not try, but was not interested in that solution. I am trying to do what I love, but not anywhere near as hard as I should be. My excuses are all external, but I fear that I am just too ready to grab hold of them.

I need to work harder, and I need to be better. I have been quite slack as of late in my writing, and incredibly slack through my life at promoting it. If I really want to do this, I need to DO THIS. So, I write this by way of publicly shaming myself into action.

If you read this blog and think "I wish he would write more often", then this is for you. I am sorry. I will work harder in future. I will give you more.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My first steps into a brave new world.

The other day, I read a claim that League of Legends is currently the most played game on PC. When I looked into it, it seemed entirely credible. Naturally, with Between Continues being such a bastion of the zeitgeist, this meant that I had to finally stop thinking about it, and start doing it. Playing it, that is. I have had the game installed for ages, and was originally hoping to record footage of my first game, but life circumstances have put that on the back burner for a while. So it was that I started the game, and faced the first of MANY decisions that were put my way.

My username in just about everything online is CheekyLee. If you Google that name, then most of what you will find is me. (Apart from some bloke who has done a tumblr and that fetish model, that is.) I should have just tried to use that name in LoL, too, but the game threw a challenge at me. It told me that names containing the word 'Riot' were not allowed, so my first instinct was to try and subvert that. I think, on reflection, that I wasted my time. I couldn't be "Judas Iscariot", and I couldn't be "Chariots Offiah", so I gave up chasing that dream. Instead, I just went with the comedy "Beans". Except that was taken, as was the extension of "Magic Beans". I didn't foresee this, and in a moment of madness I decided to try my luck with a comedy name. I did not expect it to work; otherwise I wouldn't have even tried.

Thus, "Mighty Wang" was born.

The game, rather kindly I might add, offered me the chance to play a tutorial. Yeah, I'll go for that. The tutorial itself was basic stuff, where I was introduced to my Summoner, a Hero named Ashe. She is an ice archer, and if I am honest I didn't really pay an awful lot of attention to the rest of it. It was all about moving cameras and selecting skills, and all that stuff that anybody who has ever played a game on the PC should already be able to get to grips with.

League of Legends looked, and played, very much like a multiplayer Tower Defence game. And I don't really consider Tower Defence to be a genre worth getting excited about. Plenty of people love them, but I have always thought that they are just puzzles that you eventually win by sheer time investment. So, so far I was unthrilled.

Upon completion of the Tutorial, though, I was surprised to be offered ANOTHER Tutorial. This one was for "Battle Training", apparently, which got me wondering what the hell I had just been through. Still, I figured it best to give it a shot, and see what all the fuss is. I am not writing off something so popular without having good reason to sneer, after all!

Battle Training started off by letting me choose from one of three Summoners. There was Ashe, who I already knew, and then there was a fighter guy and a magic guy. I chose the fighter, I think his name was Garen, and really should have stuck with my rules that shout out loud as possible to "ALWAYS GO FOR THE MAGE CLASS, NUMB NUTS!", because the melee is generally such a dull way to play. Especially since in order to hit someone I need to be right in their face. The AI doesn't like to be hit, and runs away as soon as you do hit it, and that means that I got the following interruption at least 100 times during the game:


This Battle Training tutorial taught me the difference between "laning", which is staying in the lanes where the Minions that are automatically spawned go, and "jungling", which seems to be the name for going anywhere else. After a while, I discovered that I much prefer to play using a technique that I call "junglaning", which consists of just going any and everywhere trying to stop that stupid picture from popping up. Also, it didn't help that any time I got anywhere near to the enemy Maphite Bot ran in and slapped me into insta-death. No matter how many Minions I had, or even if Master Yi Bot and Sivir Bot were alongside me, that bastard rock thing took great pleasure in causing me an entire otherworld of pain.

For about the next hour, there was a pattern of my spawning, running towards wherever a fight was taking place, before Rocky came and laid the smackdown on me big time. Every so often, I was told of other things to do in the "jungle" areas, and I quite enjoyed them. But it rally felt like the tutorial would last the REST OF MY GOD DAMN LIFE. So, I quit out of it. "Sod it.", I thought, "Let's take this puppy online.”

This turned out to be a mistake. For two reasons. The first one being that, when it came to the lobby where I got to select my Summoner, a fresh torture was placed in front of me:


WHO IN THE HELL ARE THESE GUYS? Giving me limited time to select from such a wide range of characters that I know nothing about? ARE YOU CRAZY? I need to check stats, to see who is cool, and to make sure that I avoid the melee class at all costs. But, the clock was ticking, so I went with faith and clicked on the pirate guy. I figured with his having guns, he was bound to be ranged.

I figured wrong. I don't actually know WHAT Gangplank is meant to be, but I know that he is not for me. One of his skills is the ability to remove debuffs from himself. Great. I'm sure that would be useful if I had any clue as to what was going on. Now, I KNOW that Gangplank can be useful, because someone on the other team was playing as him. That guy killed me no less than 10 times during the match. My 2 partners must have realised that we were on a hiding to nothing, as after about 5 minutes they just stood at the spawn point. I just kept on running between lanes, "junglaning" my way about, before the other Gangplank inevitably came to release me from the tedious business of living.

By the time the match ended, I was sure of one thing; that I SUCK at League of Legends. However, despite my repeated batterings, I also saw more of the potential in the title. It turns out that I was correct in thinking it is a multiplayer Tower Defence game, but that does not mean it is not fun. The moment when I killed one of the other Summoners, Annie, I realised that even though my pirate guy was a bit non-fun, he still had stuff he could do as he levelled up a bit.

I headed back to the Battle Training tutorial next, this time determined to finish it. I tried with the Mage guy, but didn't really gel with him at all, so I went and gave Ashe another shot. And I discovered that I liked her, and it didn't take long to realise that if I only targeted Minions when near enemy Turrets that I wouldn't get dragged into the Turret's range. It didn't take long to win the match.

And that is where I currently stand. I still have no freaking idea what the hell "Masteries" are, or why I have no Runes of any description, or even if all the crap I bought during my games stays with me between games. But, I have some kind of concept as to what I am meant to be doing now, which is more than half the battle. And, I took a look into the store and saw that there are literally more Heroes to play as than there are atoms in the Universe. Give or take. I am sure that somewhere amongst them will be one that matches my own playstyle, which could best be described as "Reckless" but would be more accurately titled "Suicidal".

I will play more. I will learn. I will suck less. I will eventually be on a winning side, even if they win despite having me. And, eventually, I am sure that I will pick up DOTA 2. Thanks to my new-found experience with the MOBA genre (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, because Multiplayer Tower Defence would require MuToDe as an acronym and even internet nerds like to sound cool), I may even LIKE DOTA 2, and might even play it TWICE! But, for now, I am quite happy to be a small fish in an immense pond, and I would honestly suggest you give it a try as well.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Surviving the Steam Summer Sale

"Rejoice, cheer. The day is here!
The day your wallet knows to fear.
Affordable gaming will prevail,
In the face of the latest STEAM SUMMER SALE."

Oh dear. Times are hard, and if you are anything like me then your expenditure on games this year has been decimated somewhat. Admittedly, a large part of this is due to just how few games released are inspiring in any way, at least in the AAA realm. The HD consoles have been fed a diet of so much more of the same that they are now to all intents and purposes bloated twins, with only the existence of downloadable titles to save them. PC gaming has been increasingly aiming towards digital only for a long time already, and Steam has been so far ahead of the curve for so long that the curve now resembles a flat line with a dot several miles above it.

Part of Steam's success is down to how bloody useful it is. Digital Rights Management may be universally hated, yet nobody minds the Steam version. Because it has a friends list, achievements, and facilities that allow your titles to be automatically updated. You can log in on any machine, and your entire account exists in "The Cloud", which means that even your save files can be stored there. This may seem like magic if you are a console-only player, but it is the reality that has been around for the last few years.

By far the best thing about Steam, though, is the sales. Twice a year at least, the entire catalogue gets discounted to almost obscene levels. Big titles are frequently sold at 75% off. The general format is that everything is discounted, but every day a selection get highlighted with further discounts. This year, they have added some new ideas in to the mix. We now get to vote on which title from a selection of 3 gets featured, as well as the new "Flash Sales". These are available for 8-12 hours, which means that as well as checking the store at the start of the day (6pm GMT), WE NOW NEED TO BE LOOKING SEVERAL TIMES A DAY! The obvious effect of this is that more people look, which means more people buy, and everyone makes more money.

Cheaper games leads to better sales. PLEASE read that sentence, games publishers everywhere. (Particularly YOU, EA!)

Of course, seasoned customers have learned to worry. This is because when we see some of the incredible bargains that are available, we just can't resist. Impulse purchases are probably responsible for three-quarters of the titles in my own Steam library. I can get a bit silly, and because of this I feel I need to help my fellow gamers. So, with that in mind, here are my 5 rules for making the most of a Steam Sale.


Most of the entire catalogue is discounted. However, some of them are discounted even more during any given day. The new votes and Flash Sales mean that there are even more opportunities to get a game cheaper than it costs RIGHT NOW. Which means that the wise person will not buy a game unless it happens to be featured as a Daily Deal or a Flash Sale. If it never reaches this state, then simply buy it on the last day. You lost nothing but a few days.


Often, a game is available at a frankly unbelievable price. If you see it, GET IT IMMEDIATELY. It has been known in the past for games to go on sale, only for the price to rise during the day. Perhaps it was incorrectly priced, perhaps the publishers got greedy. The reason is irrelevant. You pay the price on the screen, and if it changes later you won't be charged the extra. So there is no reason to delay, provided of course that you are following Rule 1.


There are many games that you have looked at and thought "I like the looks of that one, but can't afford it today." Well, here is your chance. Set yourself a pricepoint, and look at EVERYTHING that it includes. There are some gems on Steam that don't get the attention they deserve. When they cost £1.49, you owe it to yourself to try it out.


Conversely, there are many games out there that you have already written off as "Not my kind of thing." and have therefore not even looked at the price. Well, keep that mindset. No matter how cheap Railworks gets, if you already know you'll never play it, DON'T BUY IT. Stick to your guns, even if it goes down to £0.01. That's money you don't need to spend, and money you may need by the last day.


One of the beautiful things about Steam is the friend integration. If you buy a game, all your friends will see this. It also has a Wishlist feature, and when looking at a game's product page, you can see which of your friends want it. Multiplayer games, in particular, are generally sold in packs of 2 or 4, so that you can give a "Gift" copy to anyone with a Steam account. (Or even just an email address if they don't have one.) Which means that, should you be able to afford it, you can make someone very happy. This is behaviour that should be encouraged, because it ALWAYS comes back to you. I frequently gift my friends, and they gift back. Make sure your wishlist is full, as well, because there are usually promotions taking place that allow you to win games from your wishlist. And there are sites that allow you to talk to others looking to trade Steam Gifts. So, take advantage. You might spend £2 on something today only to get something much more valuable to you in the future.

So, go forth. Consume. Multiply! Most of all, have fun. There is a world of gaming out there that you may not be utilising to its fullest. (Most importantly of all, remember the Wishlist thing!)

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Day 1 in Day Z.

My error was one that could be referred to as "A rookie mistake".

Until then, everything had been going so well. I found myself on a beach, quite near to the city of Elektrozavodsk. This is one of the two largest population centres in Chernarus, which means that it is where I am most likely to find supplies. Food, tools, and weapons; none of which my backpack currently held. My friend was also fairly near to the city, and he had managed to find a gun. We decided to meet up, as the likelihood of surviving in this place was much greater if we pooled our resources.

Of course, actually getting to my friend was not altogether easy. For a start, neither of us knew the area at all, both being new. We communicated by way of describing various nearby landmarks. "Can you see a lighthouse?" "I'm heading towards three cranes." Several times he asked me if that was me he saw, going into a building, or crawling past a wrecked vehicle. At one point, he only realised that he was watching somebody else when I was able to confirm that I hadn't in fact just been killed.

Slowly, but surely, I made way to the docks. There were some big buildings there, and I felt sure that this would offer more safety. I had to freeze once or twice, not wanting to risk being seen in such a vulnerable state. If they see you, they come for you. You do not want this. For they are fast, angry, and they simply never give up. I also saw at least two other survivors, but they either didn't see me, or decided to ingore me. It is possible that they just hoped that I didn't see them. For, they were as in the dark about me as I was them. At a time when everybody is potentially a great ally or a deadly enemy, it pays not to be too ready to trust.

Slowly, carefully, and as quietly as possible, I ventured into the large disused warehouse. I still had no weapon, but I at least had cover now. There was only one direction that I needed to watch, because even though those ... things ... are dangerous, at least they don't break through walls.  I decided to check out the rest of the building, to head upstairs in the hopes of finding something, anything, that I could use. In one of the siderooms I saw a sight that filled me with joy. A hatchet, right there in the middle of the floor! Immediately, I grabbed hold of it. This was no longer just a mere tool, this was now a conduit for life itself. Finally, able to defend myself, I decided to head back to the door.

Almost immediately, as if to prove to me that the very thought of happiness was a crime here, I heard the telltale growl which indicates that one of THEM has discovered you. It is a sound that fills you with a singular dread, and leaves you hoping that you can stop it quickly. Noise is folly, too much noise is suicide. But, I have caught a break. He is shambling towards me, and I manage to end it with one clean and precise blow to the head.

I think better of going back out. After all, I still have a friend to find somewhere around here. Logic tells me to go to the roof, where I will have a better view of my surroundings. So, up I go. Just as soon as I step onto the roof, my friend asks me "Did you just go out onto the roof?"

He is on the building opposite me. He had had the same plan. Against the odds, we had managed to find each other.

He tells me to wait there, he is coming over to me. I can't let him do that alone, so I go down to help him. We have one encounter, but short work is made of it. We head back up to the roof, in order to make our plans. We are safe up there.

We thought.

See, the mistake we made was in assuming that they can't climb ladders. It turns out that they can. And, not only can they climb ladders, but they can climb them en masse if they want to. Without our even knowing it, there are 4 of them heading towards us right now. By the time we realise it, they are right on top of us. I stand at the top of the ladder, swinging wildly. My friend is shooting. Perhaps he shoots me, I honestly don't know. What I do know is that by the time they are dead I am bleeding. I bandage myself up, and we change our plan to "Let's go somewhere else, see if we can find another gun and some more ammo." Unfortunately, the 4 that attacked us are not the only 4 in the building. Another encounter leaves him without ammo, and the two of us bleeding to death without any way to bandage ourselves. At this point, it is just a matter of time before we die. I do the only thing left open to me.

I bury my hatchet in his head, and he drops down dead. With the dissipating strength that remains to me, I go back up to the roof. Taking a look around, I allow the power of this place to sink in. And then I throw myself off the edge. It is a far, far better thing that I do now, ending it when it is still my choice, than it would be to let one of THEM finish me off.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

GAMERS! Draw your battle lines TODAY!

I'm troubled, loves.

Diablo III has done something rather unexpected in a recent update. Nope, it wasn't the introduction of the real-money auction house which is the actual reason why Blizzard insist you are always online in the first place, a feature bafflingly missing from the product at launch. (Which is a huge part of the reason why so many were so angry, because when something they didn't give a shit about that didn't even exist yet was STILL getting in the way of them playing, they were quite rightly pissed off.) Oh, they did finally bring that in, but that is not the only new thing introduced.

The new feature that I am talking about is the trial system. Apparently, a player in their first 72 hours is potentially disruptive, and so these players are not allowed in to the full game. (That they bought and paid for.) Instead, they are restricted to the first act, and can only interact with other players who are in their 72 hour trial period. None of the content in Act 2 onwards (that they bought and paid for) is available to them.


Somebody thought this was a good idea. Somebody, somewhere, floated this suggestion. What is most astonishing about this is that somebody else agreed, and gave it the green light.

What astonishes me the most of all is that the internet isn't going batshit about it. Possibly because it doesn't affect all those millions who pre-purchased the game and thus already endured reception of Blizzard's shaft? I can only imagine this is the case.

If you are one of those who aren't making a fuss about this, then you are one of those that will ultimately allow more of this crap to happen to us. And, instead of just endlessly click-click-clicking, you should be calling your comrades to arms over this. An injury to one of us is an injury to us all.

WHERE do Blizzard get off thinking they can treat people like this? On what mandate can they arbitrarily decide to cut people off from the game THAT THEY BOUGHT AND PAID FOR until Blizzard say "Heh, it's ok, you can go in now."? The answer is unsurprisingly obvious.

We did this to ourselves.

Right now, I am not seeing anything like the levels of hatred thrown Blizzard's way that I did when Diablo 3 was released. I should be seeing a lot more. Any and all complaints about Diablo III that relate to the way Blizzard are treating the customers are entirely justified. Customers in Korea are still getting errors when trying to connect, to the extent that Blizzard are being forced to refund them.

If you went out for a meal, you would expect the place to bring whatever you ordered from the menu to your table. If they were to say to you something along the lines of "I'm sorry, you are a new customer. You will only be able to order the steaks after you have finished a meal with us today." then you would not only make the entirely justifiable decision to not tip that waiter, you would also never eat steak in that restuarant because you would never go there again. You would not allow them to treat you that way, so why is it different when games companies do it?

Perhaps I may seem unusually angry towards Blizzard? Well, just so you know, I am merely angry towards companies who display such outwards contempt to their customers. Polytron, for example, find themselves in a similar boat.

They first came onto my radar for hatred when Phil Fish made his now infamous comment that "Japanese games suck" shortly before the release of Fez. To mere ripples of dislike from the internet in general, which is surprising considering how borderline racist the statement is. He apologised, naturally, and it seems that this is fair enough. (It isn't.) So, duly, everybody bought Fez and then raved about it. I bought it too, but I am not as enthralled as the rest of the world is, despite it being exactly my kind of thing. Maybe it being exactly my kind of thing is the problem, as I have played plenty of stuff that does what Fez does. Apart from the QR code stuff, which REALLY doesn't sit well with the style of game, in my opinion.

But all of this is taking me completely off-topic, because as much as Phil Fish deserves hatred for being such a cock, the latest development in the Fez saga doth truly taketh the caketh. As is increasingly the way these days, games are released on a set date regardless of what state they may actually be in. Such old-fashioned concepts as "Making sure the thing works before releasing it" are seen as quaint traditions that are just not needed in these days where everybody has an internet connection. Fair enough, Fez is currently ONLY available online, but even so it is a poor choice of ways of doing business.

I honestly can't remember the last time I bought a game on XBox 360 that didn't eventually get an update of some sort. Generally, these updates happen on day 1, so there is a pretty good chance that any game you play on the console will require the update. And you see others doing it all the time, too, with them coming online about 30 seconds after they last came online. It is so accepted that it has in fact become ubiquitous. We just know that games get updated, often for seemingly no real reason at all.

Fez has just been updated. Updated into actual uselessness. It seems that the new version renders save files from the old version corrupt and unplayable. Polytron first advised people not to download it, and then MicroSoft pulled it from the XBox Marketplace.


It completely amazes me that a situation like this can ever possibly come about. For a start, Polytron should have picked this up during testing. Shouldn't they? Is it wrong of me to want people to do the job that they are supposed to be doing? That they didn't makes me think ... did they even have QA on this? And, once they failed to spot it, isn't MicroSoft supposed to have additional teams to pick up on stuff like this in order to allow certification? If so, how did they not spot this?

How did Bethesda not spot when a Skyrim save file larger than 6Mb became unreadable?

How was Mass Effect 3 allowed to leave the warehouses with an inability to faithfully import a custom Shepherd that was built in the first game?

It is not unreasonable to expect games to ship without problems. It is not entitlement to want what you paid for. It is entirely justifiable if we get cross as a result of these errors. Particularly in the case of disc-based games. Yes, most of us are connected and can probably update, but when the updates cause further problems, WE ARE RIGHT TO DEMAND TO KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON.

The games industry has a bunch of problems, some big and some small. One of the biggest it faces in the years to come is to stop making us all feel like we are nothing more than a number to them. There is an apparent lack of CARE in the way that the big games publishers are treating us. From the outside, all we ever seem to be are revenue streams, and when we demand our money's worth, well ... they don't seem to like it.

Instead of inventing yet more schemes to squeeze the very lifeblood out of us, publishers need to instead start focusing on ways to win us back. Other industries realise the power and importance of brand loyalty, why don't games? If you went into a car dealership showroom, and were told that your car would be ready tomorrow but you will have to wait a week before you could open the windows, then you simply would not buy that car. Games publishers, however, seem to actively loathe their customers to the point where that analogy is not only accurate, but could actually be extended.

We have got to stop tolerating this behaviour, guys! For every millimetre we willingly give to them today will mean that we have more to fight for when they finally cross the line. For some of us, that line is already a memory, and it is those vocal souls that we need to start getting behind. If we fight amongst ourselves, spouting such patently ridiculous rhetoric as "It's a big game, there are bound to be some bugs." instead of "This is unacceptable, don't buy Dawnguard until you know for sure it works.", then we will ultimately have only ourselves to blame.

We should not be paying to beta test. PLEASE, I beg you, stop doing it. Or else, instead of downloading a free ending for Mass Effect 3, in the future you'll be paying to download better endings for all your games. You just spent 3 games uniting the entire universe against a common threat, surely you can join in with this much more straightforward cause?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The love that dare not speak its' name.

Apple are missing a trick, you know?

Their adverts show that the iPhone is a truly marvellous machine, able to answer all the queries that we already know the answer to ("Siri, who is my brother?"), as well as making it exceptionally easy for us to spend a small fortune on games we already played for free on flash websites. It does this because it is such an unobtrusive little device, a portal directly into our bank accounts that somehow manages to bypass all that messy "Should I actually be buying this?" malarkey that our brains usually bother us with. It has a hardwired connection to our pleasure centres, and once you get one in your possession it becomes borderline impossible to imagine life without one.

Where you once sneered that mobile games were no substitute for the real thing, you now celebrate the latest mini-masterpiece. All your friends are playing it, after all, so it would be rude to not join in. Be it flinging furious avians at porcine egg-thieves, escaping the clutches of some very nasty simians, or just building an aeronautical empire, at some point we have all found ourselves deep in the clutches of the kind of games that seemingly ONLY phones can provide. We play them at every spare moment; whilst semi-watching TV, or waiting for the bus. Or, in one other locale.

Of course, nobody ever mentions this last place. Nobody seems to admit to it readily at all. Everybody goes there, multiple times daily, and yet it as is this is some esoteric secret area, with ceremonies known only to the lucky few. I do it, you do it, and he does it. Yet, it as if nobody does it.

What the HELL are you talking about, Lee?

I'm talking about the toilet.

If you have had your iPhone for more than about 3 days, then by now you may well have succumbed to the temptation. It starts off innocently enough, at first. You are JUST shy of a new high-score, or 3-starring that level that has been bugging you all night. Even worse, perhaps you need to wait 3 more minutes to be able to build something else, but if you wait 2 more minutes you will make a horrible mess? Whatever the actual gateway is, sooner or later, you walk through.

And then, sheer bliss. Beautiful relief. Heaven in hand-held form.

It's not actually the phone, you know? It's that holding it in and the resultant adrenaline hit that is the real biggie. However, if this just happens to be combined with the dopamine hit from completing whatever task you just broke your personal barrier for, then the result is deadly.

For, now, you realise that you can just do this every time you go to the loo!

It's a slippery slope, my friends. A slippery, smelly, and sometimes sticky slope. Gone are the days when you went in, evacuated, and then left. They are replaced with a whole new routine. Suddenly, visits to the bathroom are that little bit more ... welcomed. They last that little bit longer. Before you know it, you are unable to go into the room without taking your phone, even if you weren't actually playing something already. You enter into a trance-like state, where you are no longer aware of the passage of time until your other half bangs on the door saying "HURRY UP, I NEED TO GO!"

Beware, mobile gamer, for this is an inevitability. This will happen to you, the same as it happened to everyone else. Pretty soon, you will start to plan around it. At work, you look at the clock and think "This is a reasonable enough time to nip off and get a couple of shots of Bejewelled Blitz in". And so, off you go. Because the phone is always with you, no pantomime is needed. You just go, and ... uh ... go.

Your colleagues all know what you are up to, naturally. But, a silent and unwritten pact has been entered into. We all stay quiet about it, possibly due to some mutual shame. We KNOW that when we read a tweet from any app that the person who sent it had their pants around their ankles at the time, but we never think of it this way. We may even realise that our latest Draw Something picture was done this way. (SOMETHING has to explain the sheer amount of penises.) But we block this behaviour from our minds, thus making it acceptable. Each and every one of us thinks it is their own dirty little secret.

Apple never mentions this on the ads. The App Store keeps it under wraps. Even your friends, back when they first started evangelising the phone itself, kept this one to themselves. The conspiracy of silence is so complete that you may not even be aware it is there at all. Which is odd, because when you think about it, it is pretty damn awesome that you can game whilst taking a dump. Even more awesome once you think about the sheer convenience of it, because if you grab your DS then everybody knows what you are up to, but your phone is so natural that even though everybody secretly knows, they publicly don't even suspect.

Yup. Apple sure are missing a trick. Ads that convey this idea. "Top Crapper Apps" lists*. As all-pervading as they now are, there are still sectors of society that look at anything Apple and think it is somewhat above them. But, if this cat were let out of the bag, well ... there would be no reasons left. How could you hate a company with that level of honesty?

Oh, and just in case you go this way, Apple; I accept cheques, BACS, PayPal, or even good old-fashioned cash.

*Angry Birds, unquestionably. Without the bathroom, I would never have gotten 3 stars on any levels beyond the first few.