Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Ahh, Christmas. Now that that's over with, Sonic Generations and Donkey Kong Country Returns. Yes.

Comparative analysis was always fun for me (I was a weird kid). I could never understand why it got such little use; so robust! In any case, I figured wheeling out the ‘side-by-side’ approach could be amusing (with the magical powers of editing I can say, in retrospect, that I may have been slightly over-optimistic). This kind of style has the advantage of being light on requisite experience: a vague familiarity with just a portion of a segment of a morsel of the series—either series—is all that’s needed for some concise (maybe slightly constricted?) points to emerge. And there was a smooth, even crisp, overlap of genre here. First, though: what are the threads that tie these two games together more than anything else? What is the unifying synergy? After a few minutes of thought, it struck me: rolling. Then, several minutes later, it struck me again: rolling is a stupid and arbitrary choice. So, instead, 2D platform games are happening.

I’ll go through some similarities first; differentiation is always better served in context. Despite variances in the end-products, the foundations bear more than a little resemblance. For one, Sonic Generations and Donkey Kong Country Returns—as far as throwbacks go—are executed with noticeable care. So you can expect an experience that is consistent with whatever demos or test-plays are available to you. It’s the kind of focus more often reserved for projects that push things forwards (or, at least, are trying to.) Make no mistake: these games do not do that. They are, for the most part, the antithesis of innovative. While this in no way means they’re bad, it is highly evident in the design choices that ‘How do we mix things up?’ was not at the top of either team’s agenda.

The fundamentals are simple: a combination of original content (updated visuals, all-new map designs, gameplay flairs) and highly refined mechanics. It’s the kind of gameplay that developers have had centuries to experiment with; over time the fundamental formula can, apparently, be twisted into a smoother and more idealised state. I guess it’s kind of obvious that most of what comes from this is dependent, not just on the taste of the player, but also the goals of the designers and what they have to work with. For me, both experiences delivered sustained entertainment. Sadly, the variance of user mileage is a thing that exists, so I’ll continue.

As I pushed through the campaigns here I grew more and more confident that they were each built on this consistent basis: a kind of ‘homage and sustenance’ thing. It’s a strong design goal. Drawing attention to sturdy conventions strikes as a worthy objective that money can get behind. That said, this should raise some warning flags if you hate things that aren’t new. I don’t know who this theoretical ultra-hipster is, but I think they would certainly hate the idea of these games. I would challenge even this hypothetical creature not to enjoy the products, though. This is where I need to differentiate a little.

With a simple framing device Sonic Team transforms the idea of a tribute into an actual functioning story. Our blue protagonist, the modern 3D Sonic, is thrown into time-travelling escapades with his non-talkative 2D self from the past. It’s the perfect excuse to split the gameplay into a clear dichotomy: the first act of every stage is played in the classic style, with the old guard of spin-dashing and platform negotiation taking the fore; the second act is a more mercurial beast. Ostensibly these levels are the 3D answer to the first stages, but to leave it there wouldn’t give the full picture. The fact is, there are depthless sections in every ‘Modern’ stage. If I had to pick one way this game stands out more than previous try-hard Sonic titles over the last decade, it would have to be this dimensional refrain.

Our 'Classic' protagonist, passing through some familiar territory. The Havok physics engine makes some of the older gameplay elements slightly off. Other than that, it handles very much like the Genesis/Megadrive titles.

Outwardly, Donkey Kong looks like the more original experience: it has an all-new set of banana-thieving antagonists in what I can only describe as Sentient Tiki Mask Guys; there is a vista of unique stages (which come with original enemy designs) and, promisingly, a revamped co-op mode. These facets aren’t out-and-out deceptive: they are new things. Still, I prefer to err on the side scepticism and say that the skeleton of this game resembles every other DKC game. In fact, there are several qualities which could easily provoke the idea that this is the least original title in the series yet. Some of the sections—the jungle area, the industrial area, the cave area—are more than a little familiar in concept; half of the music is lifted from the first entry in the series, imbued with smoother tones and mild remixes. The Donkey & Diddy Kong setup can’t really be faulted, but it seems relevant to this emulation theme that this was only used once before in the 'Country' titles, to begin the series. I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but the pronounced lack of risk-taking is kind of impressive. Maybe it’s the confidence that borders on swagger.

I take only a slither of joy in the irony that Generations—with a story that is singularly based on reliving the SEGA mascot’s past—looks to have a much fresher approach to progression. While DKC has a lot more levels than Generations, the tried and tested linear island-hub is not nearly as enticing as Sonic’s simple 2D time-scape. The freedom to choose between progressing through the conventional levels and tackling the many challenges that surround them was neat. And I mean that in the sense of economy and tidiness: no elements of the experience are ever more than a short sprint and a couple of jumps away.

Here's 'Modern' Sonic in the same place. As you can see his mere presence is, ahem, explosive.
Like most modern games, the creeping RPG influence makes itself no stranger here. Actually, all Donkey Kong has to answer for is the gathering of coins with which to procure throw-away items. While this system is open to ruthless and/or shameless abuse, it is not invasive. And its ease-of-access ends up making for a useful counter-balance to that most arcane of conventions: a limited number of lives. In Generations the need for a number which increases over time is sated by the passive acquisition of points as content is cleared. These points can subsequently be spent on extra lives and optional techniques that make the two Sonics even more savage. If you get a good rank, or simply complete a challenge, you’re gifted concept art and, our old friend, re-hashed music. It’s like a honey-comb of incentives: there are five ‘Red Star Rings’ hidden in every stage, too, that affect the aforementioned music, pictures and points; certain challenges will unlock new techniques to be bought from the shop, prompting you to gather yet more points. This kind of stuff almost pulled me away from the simple fun of rushing through some well-rendered scenery, but it’s all relatively auxiliary until the temptation of skill customisation takes over. Even though you’re not compelled to, I couldn't help but go through every challenge in order to gather more things. Extra music tracks, in particular, are irresistible to me. Choice aside, I think it is safe to say that some of the concepts to these challenges are half-assed. Perhaps even quarter-assed. 

I mentioned earlier that there is a lot more levels to Kong than Sonic. Part of the reason for this could stem from a greater effort on Sonic Team’s part to cut redundant content and keep the game concise, though I don’t entirely buy this. I’m sure design philosophy is a larger factor: as Sonic, speed is a thing you are conditioned to want. A density of visually stunning set-pieces flies past; twists into the fore and background are not uncommon, along with divergent routes and hidden paths. To contrast, the many stages of Country—while constructed smoothly and superbly—do not have any qualms with recycling their tricks, or following a linear path.

The speed element is seductive, to be sure, but it is also the main constriction of Generations. In short, inertia is a bitch. If you’re unfamiliar with a level, a suicidal jump is sometimes too easy. And I don’t think it was an unintended consequence of the fully-three dimensional areas that the speed is difficult to control; when it works (which is most of the time) the fluidity and power feels great. Sometimes it doesn’t work, though. While I’m talking about the new-age Sonic I should mention that camera failure is at an all-time low. It’s still a thing that happens, but in manageable doses.

The real issue with the new-found focus on the speed is that it limits the scope of gameplay: it sets a tone of necessary hurriedness. There is almost an audible clunk upon transitioning from blistering speed to careful platform-hopping. It's not that Generations can’t handle jumping sections, just seldom to a sophisticated or sustained degree. Again: inertia is a bitch. Donkey Kong Returns ends up feeling much more stable in this regard: the tenets of careful timing and patience root this game in place. The player is given the ability to move and change direction with rapidity and precision, and in this mode, much possibility is created.

I feel like this screen-shot is misleading. It gives absolutely no warning that giant waves will periodically crash into the foreground, and that said waves are more lethal than fire.

So, re-hashed music is another recurring element that I feel deserves some attention. Again, that pesky issue of unoriginality. In the case of Sonic Generations, its explicit emulation of past stages earns it much leverage with regards to re-mixing: it’s something that, given the story, anyone should reasonably expect. What follows is two distinct remixes per area: like the stages themselves, a ‘Classic’ and a ‘Modern’ version. It’s hard to pin down a predictable relationship between the two, though the strongest distinction seems to lie with the tones: the first act’s music makes heavy use of synth, while the second act reaches for more real sounds. ‘Rooftop Run’ makes for a good example of this. There’s a respectable variance in the styles Generations makes use of, and the over-all vibrancy is refreshing.

I found it harder to reconcile myself with Kong’s musical direction. Like the ‘Donkey & Diddy’ thing; none of the other Country games borrowed music from their predecessors. This is a reboot, though, so, we should be charitable? I don’t know. It is an overall strong soundtrack. More interestingly, it is very consistent in tone. The variance in Sonic’s music fits each disparate stage in turn, which itself serves the time-travelling theme; the over-all aesthetic is necessarily unfocussed. The tones of DKCR all fit an acoustic theme, and the layers of percussion, woodwind and synth here further feed into Retro’s model of consistence. Hell, the Evil Tiki Mask Guys are even shaped like instruments. It doesn’t stand out as much as the music of Generations, but it serves the synergy of the whole, which is probably a harder challenge for a composer.

All that’s left to comment on is the visuals, and, well, that's tall order. There are very few snags or ambiguities here that I can mercilessly attack with red-pen. Important visual cues are intuitive yet non-invasive, while vibrancy and variety fill the rest of the screen.  The size of your avatars and their position in front of the camera are traits one could predict, and with great accuracy. For the sake of these particular games, the developers couldn't move away from their roots: everything about the construction and appeal demands adherence to the formula. It's hardly surprising, then, that visual innovation is marginalisedlike other aspects of these gamesin favour of a mirror-shine. That sprinkling of new is nice, though. The example that sticks in my mind the strongest would lie with Kong. A few of his stages utilise a smooth, almost monochromatic, colouring style that ended up playing out far more handsomely than I had expected. Nothing so simple or suave for Sonic’s outing, but the clarity of viable paths and the variety of fantastic locations are sweet enough.
Simple, vibrant, mechanically synergistic and surprisingly relaxing, too. It could be the accompanying jazz remix of 'Jungle Hijinx'.
So, there we have it. The puzzles may not wrack the mind so much, but that doesn't matter: the main attractionto both of these gamesare the delicious mechanics. Also, I am a sucker for these kinds of reboot-spectacles. As much as I fear that this imbues me with overt bias, I know that this also corresponds with a pretty wide experience of analogous titles. The likes of Yoshi's Island DS and New Super Mario Bros. are the first that come to mind: Sonic Generations and DKCR laugh at them. As I said earlier: the kind of care taken on these two is not the norm.

Oh, one more caveat: DK was not marketed well. At all. These games match each other's quality (with their own unique grotesqueries), but Nintendo did themselves no favours with only a limited release. Generations was in  the Steam sale a couple of days ago, a service I would recommend to anyone who enjoys games on their PC. It was pushed to about seven pounds (so eleven to twelve dollars, I suppose.) On the other hand DKCR, a game that came out a year ago, is difficult to find and, when you do, somehow much more expensive than Generations. Words lose me at this. It's a sad thing, but they are still there. It is my hope that lessons have already been learned, and all we are left with now is good product.

Monday, 28 November 2011

A Dubious Marketing Technique

I don’t know if this phenomenon applies to other countries, but retail pricing of games is a strange thing in the UK. Or, at least, it has been for the last couple of years. Amid a tough economy Nintendo pushed Donkey Kong Country Returns upon us, and it hit the markets at £45 in November of last year. I found, over a good few months, that this was the case in every game shop I visited: I decided to ask an employee why. Apparently it was much more popular than expected, and few copies were distributed. Flash forward to a year later and new copies are still extremely rare in public, with pre-owned boxes marked around £40. Online sellers seem to be maintaining a high price, too, with a £35 tag on Amazon.

The reason this whole situation re-kindled in my imagination (other than the fact that I was able to borrow DKCR from a friend a couple of weeks ago) is that Nintendo recently registered a loss in excess of £500m. I’m not going to draw a line from the Kong title to Nintendo’s apparent failure (not with the piece of fail that is the one-trick-3DS in the picture), but there is something deeply unsettling about this: such an obviously well-polished title being pushed so gently into the market. Competing games at the time (with similarly high praise from critics) were experiencing cuts at a shocking rate: Assassin’s Creed 2 and then, about a year later, Bioshock 2, dropped £10 from their respective tags within a fortnight. They can now each be bought new for less than £10. I think the thing to take away from this is that Nintendo has maintained a very… interesting business model, at least when viewed against their competitors’ approaches. They produce quality games, and then try to not sell them.

That quality can be assured, though. At least in the case of DKCR. The term ‘solid platformer’ isn’t solid enough to convey this thing’s solidity. It’s dense, even: the kind of re-play value that the older Country games could only dream of. It’s like it was finished, and then Retro decided to finish it again. And perhaps a third time. But that would be it. I do need to level one complaint, though, and considering the cavalcade of issues that can crop up when a platformer is just off, think of the lack of further grievances as proof of a robust product. That said this is a very fundamental issue. I’m not talking about how there are no longer those certain bonus stages where you collect swathes of bananas as a rhino, ostrich or swordfish (though I’m sure this is a disappointing fact for some.) The control scheme leaves a purposeful vacuum. There is no support for the classic pad; no way to re-map controls; and flat-out shoe-horned waggle-tech.

Okay, so that sounds bad. I can’t imagine that Retro made this decision by themselves, because it’s pretty stupid. But which is the dumber thing to perceive: when one of the best titles on a machine makes absolutely no use of that machine’s specific abilities, or if said title ignores a superior control-scheme to facilitate said abilities? In my head it’s a no-brainer. I’m biased by the fact that I had the latter option include the words ‘ignores’ and ‘superior’ in close proximity, though. What I don’t understand is how Nintendo thought this design choice was beneficial: how could limiting player control options possibly result in more sold units? Or is it about obfuscating the fact that this, some of the best gaming the Wii has to offer, could be done better on the competitors’ machines? Like I said before, though: this game is strong. I let a lot of these outward flaws push me away from getting it, but some very poor marketing decisions shouldn’t keep us from games that are awesome.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

With particular regards to Starcraft 2.

So MLG happened and, by the end, I was happy with the result: an un-seeded player beat the odds and smashed the conventional ‘Koreans vs. Everyone Else’ story. Between this event’s popularity, Blizzard’s own well-attended convention and the numerous other successful organisations around competitive gaming, it's a bit much to take stock of. I end up with the paradoxical feeling that the blockades to further growth are either wildly exaggerated or just extremely difficult for insiders to actually perceive. But I’ve skipped ahead a little.

This scene didn’t exist as a living thing to me for years. To contextualise, I was simultaneously consuming its richness piecemeal. It was a place where I could see the best strategy, tactics and mechanics, and take stock of what made certain games sharp enough to sustain a strong player base. In short, I was interested in the gameplay. Everything that surrounded it—the thrum of small-time sponsors, the unique logos, the numerous gathering places—just patiently sat there, waiting for me to pick up on their legitimacy.

But something happened (or rather, didn’t happen) as my interest grew, and I browsed Replayers years ago. It also didn’t happen when I stopped to admire the Counter-Strike talent at London Expo. Then, a year later, it continued to not happen while I perused Team Liquid’s live streams and investigated YouTube commentaries. What I’m talking about is the voice of dissent: the people who just want to criticise things because others are enjoying them and, apparently, they’re not supposed to. Each community that forms around the games we find truly strong doesn’t care about this unless you are talking to them specifically about growth. And rightfully so: the internet affords the opportunity, not just to pay no attention to such people, but to be in a place that is definitively away from them. The problem is that this is almost wilful obscurity.

I feel like just the act of ignoring vapid sentiments, or understanding that there is a potential for them in a given environment, constitutes a decision that affects how we go about sharing the scene with others. Our discourse will always pre-suppose a certain level of interest and knowledge. This makes for deliciously organic communities: we can spark up a theory-craft conversation in just about any live-stream chat. We can enter any given channel dedicated to our games of choice and know that the people there share our fascination. As soon as we feel like broaching the topic to a newcomer, though, our lexicon suddenly sinks to comedic levels of uselessness and verbosity. Words like ‘Baneling’ become meaningless in the time between choosing what to say and identifying who you’re speaking to. Moments later something akin to ‘acid landmine bug’ can (and will!) fall from your mouth. There’s a strange kind of barrier there.

Competitive gaming has grown a dramatic amount in the past year. That is, if you consider a factor like ‘Sheer Numbers’ anything to go by. Commentary figures have pointed to the drawing power that simple, human stories will need to play in the future, with regards to further growth. In a sense, though, I feel like these stories will exist in perpetuity, so long as there are people that care about the game. Appreciation of complex mechanics—even simple mechanics—enhances understanding (and enjoyment) of every game and/or sport, but it has to be voluntary. For now, think of the simple joy many kids get from watching a sport like Football, with barely (if) any grasp of strategy or tactics. Remember that old trope? The one where a bunch of guys, hanging out in front of a TV, start bitching about a player’s decision, or a coach/manager’s choice? That cliché exists for a reason: some fans (or viewers) do not care about high level analysis, or the weighing of tactical risks. They’re not trying to see it through the eyes of professionals, or for every intricacy available. People, quite simply, want the game to entertain them: acid landmine bugs are entertaining.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The MOBA Muffin

So, Defence of the Ancients. It always struck me as odd that the territory carved out by DotA didn’t have a genre with which to define itself for a period of time best measured in the decay of Carbon-14 isotopes. It lacked a box in which we might place (and judge) it, and people love placing things. DotA’s weighty legacy is almost clear by this point, save for a few minor ambiguities. For one, folks can’t seem to decide what to call the follow-ups. There are only three prevalent genre-titles, but that’s enough to draw confusion as to whether there are actually any fundamental differences that come with the tag. There aren’t, by the way. The first I encountered was ‘Action Real-Time Strategy’, which sounds like Command & Conquer with Bruce Willis and a generous helping of quick-time events. The worst thing about ARTS (other than the fact that at first glance it looks like I’m talking about some kind of Humanities pressure group) is that a key part of this genre is that it has removed almost every conventional aspect of RTS games: the ‘A’ may as well stand for ‘Antithetical’ in this scenario. It’s completely unintuitive.

Another tag used for these games (I’ll save the best for last) might actually be the laziest label I’ve ever seen. It is, simply, the Dota genre. That’s right: the name of the game that brought attention to this genre is this genre. Talk about dicey positions to occupy: all I need to do to irk a fan is imply that Dota represents its own genre like Halo games aren’t really FPSs. That is, imply DotA’s attraction amounts to bells and whistles. Not that I think that this is true (although prolonged exposure to Warcraft 3’s ladder will induce this sentiment), but this kind of low-hanging categorisation invites incredulity.

And I come to an abrupt rest with the suddenly-not-so-silly-seeming moniker ‘Multiplayer Online Battle Arena’ (MOBA): simple, to the point and, as an added bonus, kind of rhymes with ‘DotA’. It’s always a good thing for people to be able to say ‘I want to play more games like this’, with the correlation in mind that they can then punch that genre acronym into Steam and go nuts. Even with this convenience at my finger-tips (and ignoring the fact that there’s a certain degree of ambiguity surrounding the genre’s name) I still feel that there’s a slight futility in it all. Like the best one can hope for is a tag that isn’t too obtuse, deliberately euphemistic or outright vague. These tags come to mean far more to people who have experienced a genre than they could possibly mean to the curious newcomer, and that isn’t really the case for more traditional media. The fact is, ‘MOBA’ could stand for almost anything and still be more useful than say, ‘JRPG’, whose highly informative components advise us that these are indeed Japanese Games in which you Play Roles. Okay, so this is a kind of shaky analogy, but the point is there: JRPGs have many common themes. There are conventions which familiar players will pick up on and expect, but they lie ruthlessly unapparent to the new. MOBA games are just like that.

I realised a little while ago that I was around at the dawn of this stuff. It sounds kind of clichéd, but I couldn’t believe what Defense of the Ancients turned into. This was due in large part to the fact that I backed a losing competitor, Tides of Blood, and bore DotA a special kind of hate. It wasn’t just that its popularity gobbled up Warcraft 3’s custom games lobby, but that it held onto some philosophical premises that were pretty harsh to me: choice and capability superseded simplicity and balance, and the general community struck me as somewhat insular. It was equal parts prejudice and calculated self-dissuasion on my part, but I’ve since come full-circle to find a rekindled interest in MOBAs. In any case, this kind of digression deserves its own space. For now, on with story-time!

Back when Warcraft 3 was my game of choice I hit the custom games a lot, trying out new or familiar maps on-and-off for half a decade. The idea of League of Legends, Heroes of Newarth or million dollar tournaments coming from this was not insanity to me, because ‘insanity’ implies that I had given this outcome any thought. There are only so many permutations for how things can unfold—factors go in, results come out: never a missed communication. (relevant)—and the branch where the originally-awkward, chaotic Hero Arenas eventually coalesce into an actual genre was unexplored.

When you take away the tech trees, the production timing and the unit placement of traditional RTS games, you’re left with the Heroes of Warcraft 3. Hero Arenas were the earliest manifestation of this sentiment, pretty much as I just put it: stripped down, pick a Hero, go crazy. This all came from Blizzard’s ideal of special units you may equip, can gain EXP, but are not some form of deity to whom the player-camera offers eternal tribute. Shit’s happening elsewhere. This general principal was rinsed and repeated by map-makers for years, while the consuming public would allow the superior products to shine and the inferior to fall by the way-side. As I mentioned before: the idea of a genre growing from this was beyond my conception. The scale for success for a custom game on Warcraft 3 (or the one I would conventionally ascribe, anyway) was that I saw people hosting it with frequency. Genre-creating wasn’t on my scale.

There were many maps that applied the basic principal of Warcraft 3’s Heroes to their design, with extremely diverse sets of circumstances, and equally varying degrees of success. As a simple example of the tool being pushed in a very different direction to MOBAs, there was the popular Enfo’s Team Survival, which held—other than a couple of key oversights in its earlier builds—a sound principal in equipping your Hero to defend from waves of monsters which would eventually over-run you. The meat of the competition here was the ability to either cast supporting skills to bolster a failing defence, or to hurl annoyance at the enemy team’s heroes in an attempt to throw off their survival. The very controlled and limited nature of the human element in competitive gameplay meant that it was possible to plan out what you would do for the majority of the game. Sadly it also sapped at the map’s lasting appeal.

Defence of the Ancients emerged as the dominant map for a number of reasons. For one, it had an impeccable support community; new versions were frequent, adding Heroes, options, items and bug-fixes. But if I had to guess why it really stuck, it would have to be the game’s encompassing focus. As I mentioned before, the MOBA genre is essentially the concentrated innovation of Warcraft 3, minus every conventional RTS aspect: it needed a similar appeal to stick. The way you micromanage your Hero and distribute ability-points mirrors that of Warcraft 3; the optimisation of limited inventory space; the importance of choosing when and where to engage—all rooted in this genre’s make-up, just as they were indispensible pieces of Warcraft 3’s standard game. It seems stupidly obvious, in retrospect, but if you’re using an RTS interface for something that is fundamentally not an RTS (and what you are playing is certifiably Not Dumb) then it must be something else.

So, Warcraft 3. If DotA represents a stylised version of Warcraft's innovation, was its creation and refinement—or something very much like it—inevitable? After all, if DotA hadn't accrued its enormous fan-base, another custom map would have. The hooks, the map-editing tools, the potential fans: they were always going to be there. Maybe I'm passively handing over too much credit to Blizzard, but it's not every day a game gives life to a new genre.

In the next post of, er, PLB? Ahem. Why e-sports is ruining e-sports, and why sensationalist previews produce a narcotic-like effect upon their writers.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

De-Netting and Generational Issues with Blue Hedgehogs

Far be it for me to impose my mortal wants on the technology-spirits. Their swirling whim decided a couple of weeks ago that I should be severed from the inter-realms. And, well, losing the internet sucks. Okay, so I guess it's hard to get more concise than that last statement, so I'll just head in the opposite direction and elaborate. I don't know the exact point at which TV became obsolete. There wasn’t a polite pop-up message when Internet 2.0 came out, advising that users may find TV slightly underwhelming within X amount of days. Still, it wouldn’t hurt thinking about some form of courteous reminder, as nothing draws a more jagged line under a useful service than its sudden removal. For one thing, news channels are woefully under-equipped to cater for viewers who would like to hear news. Unintuitive, I know, but there's enough stupidity on display to fashion a kind of rudimentary stress-test for your sanity. The repetition of ‘The Top Story', in particular, gets old very fast, especially when you know other things are happening. I noticed this before losing the internet, but lack of immediate alternatives makes the situation roughly fifty times more painful.

In the spirit of fairness—and since plain truths are apparently on the agenda—the internet could be considered humanity’s most robust model yet for an actual ‘Time Vampire’. But I want to contest this as a simple, negative truth on a couple of grounds, mostly the mind-bending dichotomy of the internet. It’s the same tools that enable us to whittle away an hour on F7U12 that give us the ability to gather swaths of information and communicate with peers. The theories of the best texts of history are bundled up with the most juvenile humour imaginable in the internet; pornography on one page, feminist discourse on another. It’s a kind of a big place.

For every task I was freer to follow without the assistance of a series of tubes, I was prevented from pursuing another. It becomes commonplace to, say, want to write about or look into something, only to come across a research block which hadn’t previously existed. That being said—and I understand this rant has reached evolutionary-levels of obviousness by this point—it is fucking sweet to perceive that difference in technology. After finite media and the narrow lane of TV's out-put, well, it's like turning on a fountain of Everything.

In any case, rant-concluded. Video games. This video review feels like some kind of mirage. You'll know what I mean when you see. Did you see? Good, now I can explain myself. Sonic games have not been good in a long time. I don't think there's a more concise way to put it. Simple truths are fun. The ten-year-old Sonic aficionado in me is trying desperately to make me check myself: perhaps there's some way I could couch the slimy spin-offs and disappointing lack of refinement more favourably? Sadly no. I draw the line at Hedgehogs on Motorcycles. I don't mean to so sound premature as something to the effect of 'This changes everything!' But seriously, this changes everything. Or at the very least cashes in on it in a pleasing way. Coming up: MOBAs. Why people should probably try them or, y'know. Something.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


Updates will commence in some form of regularity within mere days. Since gaming has its tendrils wrapped neatly around my attention at the moment (note: this has been the case since 1993), most of the posts will concern those nooks and crannies. Beside this some form of audio content is in the works, which will likely cover a variety of topics, though it doesn’t have a core concern at the moment. Lots of good games, though, both among us and on the horizon. It will probably be hijacked by that. Snap.

It did occur to me a little while ago that I never put in plain writing what the hell I’m attempting to accomplish with this blog. My lack of fixed topicality certainly hasn’t done me any favours in terms content consistency. I’ve been all over the place with theatre reviews and poetry. I’m sharpening… Something. It could be that I’m left with a pointed stick rather than a blade, but no matter. I think the main thing to take away is that something is becoming less blunt.

Gaming has always been my first interest, and will likely always retain primacy. That said there are topics which branch across, and I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention such things. For instance DC chose to reboot their entire comic franchise not long ago, and in doing so simultaneously pulled every main character back to their mid-twenties and destroyed unknowable amounts of continuity. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad move on DC’s part but, well, being provocative is fun, and this one’s going to be around for a while. My point is I’m liable to make lengthy divergences at any time. I’ll never wander too far, though. Hopefully.

The Diablo 3 beta is a touch passé by this point and, having represented only the tiniest slither of its actual might, may only serve as skeleton for what's to come. Still, that bone-structure, eh? There are whispers of a Wizard that is too strong and of broken Demon Hunters, but these things are probably the least of people’s concerns at the moment. It’s just nice to root notions of a new game in mundane fields like class balance. There’s a kind of instant basis for comparison that opens up. It may just be me, but the first thing that springs to my mind with the idea of a comically all-powerful caster is Diablo 2. Blizzard knows how to leave the right impression. In fact, everything about the gameplay resembles its predecessor. For one who enjoyed the previous instalment, it’s refreshing (worrying?) to see that everything which made the series alluring is entirely intact. Beyond that there is nothing but greener pastures: more stream-lining, production quality and customisation opportunities. It’s all sunshine and rainbows (dank tombs and temples?), until you see a guy pimped out in a £100 suit of armour.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Out With The Old, In With The Old. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn Review

Review: Golden Sun: Dark Dawn

It takes a series like Golden Sun to show a player where their favourite assets lie in RPGs. Not since Final Fantasy: Tactics have I felt normality to be displaced as rapidly as it is here. I should clarify: what makes these titles so thought-provoking for the genre isn’t any kind of ruthless casting to the side of conventions. No, these series embrace their roots with zeal, but minimise certain elements in favour of others. Tactics provided a level of strategy combat tools which can only be surmised as comprehensive. From racial deviations of combat ability, to environmental tinkering; the series was a succession of battlefields waiting to happen. But Golden Sun marks the antithesis to this approach: its simple turn-based fighting is tucked neatly to the side, as puzzles, narrative and aesthetical variety are thrown into focus.

Most RPGs paint the combat as the back-bone to the gameplay. We’ve all experienced it in some form or another, that point at which our customisation pays off with lethal precision. With such an enormous accumulation of conventions over the years, very specific predictions start to seem reasonable. New dungeons are expected to pose a threat. They are supposed to hold weapons and armour somehow superior to any area you’ve previously visited. They are inexplicable bastions of labyrinthine tunnels, unknown enemies and deadly confrontations. This is where Golden Sun: The Dark Dawn stands out the most: it is almost completely bereft of this danger. I found myself wandering ominous corridors, expecting to stumble across some Real Enemies at any second. Notice the capitalisation: this may be presumed to denote their stark paucity. No matter how malicious-looking the dungeon you’re never far from the gentle prods of the suicidal locals.

If the combat-vacuum this suggests worries you, perhaps the content which fills this gap can sate your appetite. Namely dialogue and puzzles. Your team of young magicians (or ‘adepts’ in this world) use their spells (Psynergy) to progress through tricky terrain and solve mechanical constructs. Is there usually a boss battle at the end of the dungeon? Would you settle for a long conversation followed by another fightless puzzle-section instead? There is one mainstay of combat here, though: the world map. It is, in comparison to other environments in the game, a savage place, with extremely frequent random encounters. It makes for an unpleasant contrast to Dark Dawn’s puzzle-hole, safety-first dungeons.

Maybe Golden Sun just doesn’t suit my tastes anymore. I’ve grown to love the combat of modern titles, and while a good story will usually take priority over a game’s mechanics, I know which component is most likely to keep me coming back. That said, I would question the elements this title chooses to emphasise anyway: the puzzles are practically the same as the first two Golden Sun titles, whose story I also felt was harnessed to a much greater effect. I was invested at the time for a number of reasons: the lack of alternative RPG titles on the GBA, a hunger for a title with a rich plot, and the general idea that dialogue was simply a good thing for games to have. Over-abundance wasn’t a consideration. At the same time, though, I feel that the musical quality has remained pretty consistent in strength. That is, above average, but nothing really ear-catching.
With Dark Dawn you find yourself in control of the sons/daughter of the original protagonists, as they set off on a thinly contrived adventure. I can roll with a lot of story choices, but this approach smacks of laziness. If nothing else it’s extremely difficult to invest in characters that are carbon-copies of their parents. It’s a shame Camelot chose such a weak basis to move into a story that clearly had a lot of thought put into it. Characterisation and shifting geographies develop to fine points as the game progresses, and it seems worth mentioning a certain proficiency with narrative hooks and convention here. The best example I can give is the reason you set off on your adventure to begin with. Though both irritatingly convenient and inexplicable all at once, the goal feels like a neat throwback to older RPGs. Your group is searching for a giant bird called a Mountain Roc with the intention of getting one of its feathers. Nice and simple, although the reams of dialogue which spurn this on would suggest otherwise.

Even with all of this said, though, I feel like I’ve undersold the game. The length here is considerable, and the narrative seldom falls into lulls. If you can see yourself enjoying an RPG where NPCs divulge their life-story at the drop of a hat, then you’re in luck. Maybe this game works best for newcomers. Every element is so rehashed that I find myself hard-pressed to consume Camelot’s leftovers, yet I know there are strengths here. I’ve bashed the puzzles, but they will fit many players’ palettes and are satisfyingly conceived for the most part. While many players prefer puzzles whose obscure, mind-wrenching answer bestows an almost divine sense of providence upon completion, I am more of the inclination to enjoy puzzles that don’t take the piss. And while this title would definitely suit the latter category, it does so at the expense of a challenging experience.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Taming of the Shrew, Nights at the Circus, and Miscellaneous Ranting

I saw a couple of really fun plays over the last week or so, and I wanted to write something about them. But writing about stage-shows is hard. As a relative newcomer to theatre it’s difficult to strike up much confidence in my views. Reasonable insight stems from a robust back-catalogue of comparative material; diverse experiences whose highs and lows set expectations and frame the significance of new performances. I feel like my available tools at the outset of any given theatre critique look suspiciously more like a shaky synopsis and a list of unremarkable facts. For instance, I can say with certainty that there were indeed actors, a stage, costumes, and dialogue at these shows. I’m still co-opted by the spectacle: having spent thousands of hours of my life watching bad television I seem to have developed a great deal of patience for other forms of story-telling. At this point it would take the most pronounced of poor stage choices to throw me off, and that didn’t happen at either of these shows.

So where the hell does that leave me for criticism? Tentative pokes and prods at the companies’ choices? Or are synopses and unremarkable facts all that can be taken reliably from an amateur critic? I’ll retreat to some of the details for now, then. I saw a production of ‘Nights at the Circus’ (based on a novel by Angela Carter) with a friend in Bath. To sum up briefly: this story follows cynical journalist Jack Walser (Jerry Fitzpatrick) who is smitten by an aerialist named ‘Fevvers’ (Emma Reeves)who, oddly enough, has wings. The themes focus on turn-of-the-century perceptions with a kind of feminist slant. From the seemingly weak-willed Walser to the abusive 'Buffo the Clown', the male characters seem to have all the power, and are each uniquely flawed at wielding it. But I can’t do the plot justice, and considering this was a graduate student performance I doubt you would have much luck seeing this precise show. If the book is half as good as I found this play, though, I would highly recommend investigation.

It didn’t dawn on me until afterwards, but we had paid less for Nights than the price of cinema tickets. The venue (The Ustinov Studio) was perhaps a third of the size of the average screening room; no ads to endure; no scathing anti-piracy lectures; no awkward product-placement; no over-wrought cinematic conventions; and I should imagine a lot more people work to make a single instance of this show happen than a cinema’s projector. So that’s something to consider: you don’t have to put up with nearly as much crap at a theatre. Oh, and the seating was excellent. That sounds like an odd thing to say, but I have sat in too many theatrical venues whose chairs left me feeling like I was either tetrissed into position, or sat on a sack of potatoes. Sometimes both.

I obviously can’t muster this comparison for the majority of instances: The Taming of the Shrew production was certainly more expensive, as most productions are compared to cinema. But in this case the proceeds went to charity. Big cinematic releases need to make back their mammoth-sized costs, but again, I don’t think ease of distribution should excuse excessive budgeting. There’s a production quality argument in there somewhere, but it all depends on how bothered a given person is about using their imagination, which is an argument that sounds utterly fruitless to become embroiled in. Anyway, I’ve digressed a little.

The Shrew was put on by a group called the ‘Festival Company Players’, whose productions use an all-male cast. I’m not sure why they made this choice, but the most likely answer would be to capture something of the original way in which Shakespeare’s plays were staged. Although this authenticity might be undermined by the fact that they also decided to cut the induction scenes from the play, as well as to omit a few choice stage directions (In the concluding scene, for instance, Katherine did not put her hand under Petruccio’s foot. Oh, er, spoiler-alert?)

There’s something to be said for the gender issues of a play whose main story-arc sees a sharp-tongued young woman forcibly made to accept her subservience to her husband. It’s the kind of narrative that I just can’t imagine being accepted un-mitigated from a modern writer, no matter how sardonically it might be presented, or how well wrapped it is in characterisation. This play can really only function on the basis that a modern audience is well aware of its partial cultural obsolescence, as well as the fact that it is clearly a farce. The all-male cast actually went a way towards stoking the ridiculousness of the play, and in doing so seemed to soften the notion of the play as ‘Serious Business’. But it still seems more than a little counter-intuitive to suggest that a show’s potential for misogynistic interpretation is somehow reduced by there being no women on the stage.

The ‘Festival Company’ performers had to contend with intermittent downpours at their show (which, it bears mentioning, was outdoors.) It probably shouldn’t have been much of an obstacle to hearing the actors, but it definitely put a strain on some of the more affected voices of the show. I expected this to be the case for the actors playing Bianca and Katherine, but they performed well through the hail. The distinctive ‘old-man voice’ chosen for Gremio was the most explicit problem, and I felt the rest of the audience may have shared this experience: I glanced at them a couple of times and noted half were inclining their necks, visibly straining to hear. I guess it wouldn’t have been so noticeable had the lead actors not so effortlessly boomed over the torrent.

But back to that spectacle again, the farce: I was too busy enjoying the show and laughing at its excesses; its open silliness. And in truth I felt similarly about Nights at the Circus. Though both of these productions had no sparseness of music or comedy, Nights’s use of equal parts tragedy and absurdity made for a more novel combination to me. I found Emma Reeves’s Fevvers to have exceptional stage-presence, which I would attribute to her clear, commanding voice work. But maybe all this praise should be taken with a grain of salt: as previously mentioned, I'm a new to this stuff, and my positivity may simply fall into the category of newcomer’s infatuation.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Portal 2’s Reviews, and a Portal 2 Review

When a team of developers continuously transmutes their code into gold, people start expecting more. Or such is the argument reviewers put forward to justify the obligatory nit-picking that follows. Actually, the critical reception of this game has been pretty good; it’s praised like it should be. Although there’s only so many ways people can phrase ‘It’s funny, well-paced and the puzzles are ever so wonderful.’ More worrying are the reviewers who feel the need to point this out right from the get-go. Seriously, it’s Portal 2: quit insulting your readers’ intelligence. Aren’t those numbers-out-of-whatever supposed to mean something? There are certain pieces of information that any reader with half a brain can deduce from the information available: if your review is on the internet, and you have a giant number right at the top of it, do you really think the reader would be interested to learn that Valve has expanded on its use of objects which interact with portals? Do the Fast5 reviews point out that bright cars are driven amidst exploding scenery? Hang on, I’ll check.

It’s about half and half. And the reviews which indulge in the obvious car prominence tend to carry some vague inquiry as to whether the dumb simplicity sells it or not, but I digress.

In all honesty, I can’t be too harsh on the critics. Not when it’s the user reviews that have funniest content: cue hype-based angst. Portal 2 is significantly better than your average videogame, but because of Valve’s sterling reputation people expect—Christ knows what they expect! Get a load of user Stabby’s (Metacritic) ire: “If this is the game of the year, then it definitely is a bad year for games. I could see how this game could be challenging and funny to 10 year olds, but for adult gamers its[sic] just too easy and childish in its execution, don't believe the hype.” I love that they command anyone who reads not to ‘believe’, when perhaps they should have used the word ‘invent’. They clearly had some imaginative model cooked up for what this game should be and that can be a pretty dangerous mentality to adopt, especially around sequels. This guy abandoned any logical basis for reviewing the game, all because it didn’t fit their fantasy. Someone should have reminded them that the original Portal’s single-player wasn’t hugely challenging, either: it’s still fun.

The esteemed ‘Stabby’ raises another interesting point, though: game of the year. The year isn’t actually half way through yet, but I’ll let that go. This is like someone moaning about who the Oscar for best film went to, only even more dumb since there’s no real consensus-body for aggregating industry opinion. But if there was a de facto Gaming Oscar, it would be just that: opinion. Sure, it’s nice to back a winner and, by corollary, annoying to see something that disappointed you celebrated by everyone else. But a horde of professional approval is seldom misplaced.

This guy doesn’t even know that Portal 2 is going to be game of the year for any publication, but the idea infuriates him! So much so that he was compelled to place a sneering ‘four’ atop his review. It’s pre-emptive hate, in a sense: the belief that a title is so over-rated that its reputation must be just as over-tarnished if the truth is to carry forward. It happened to Final Fantasy VII, too: a huge fan-base, followed by a second wave of people who were told to expect some kind of playable Rembrandt painting. Hardly surprising that people walk away angry.

My favourite point in the reviews of Portal 2, though, is how much bigger the single-player is this time around. It’s a fact: the solo mode is about three times as large as the original. But come on: this is a self-contained game. I think people would be a little pissed off if Portal 2 was the same length. When The Orange Box was on the horizon Portal was just that small game that came with the second Half-Life 2 episode and Team Fortress 2. It’s not a legitimate criticism to point to the lengthier campaign and bemoan some loss of concision; nor is it a particularly praise-worthy comparison to draw with its predecessor; this game had to be bigger. But it is interesting to consider how the developers tackled the issue.

Firstly, Valve made the decision this time around that the single-player is a story before a puzzle game. It captures both elements, but the sections with test-chambers are always leading up to something. The balance is undeniably impressive, but it’s an important (and unavoidable) distinction to make. There are about three or four separate test-chamber areas and, though it feels like each section could have progressed into harder and harder puzzles, the tendency, instead, is to stop short of jarring the player’s progress through the story. So, invariably, Valve had to sacrifice potential puzzles for the sake of the pacing here. The result? Well, there’s a clear aversion to punishing players over and over. But some people like to slave over obscure solutions; it’s practically a tenet of older single-player games. But it might be something best left for dedicated experiences whose aim is not to tell any kind of conventional story.

Once the clarity of the narrative took hold the part of me that wanted harder puzzles was supplanted by a dream of chronological consistence: alongside the sharpest of gameplay mechanics, as here, it turns into the pinnacle of conventional story-telling in games. Nothing is more jarring to this illusion than getting snagged on a hard section, and being subsequently forced to re-live a moment. So how do you go about solving the necessity and complicating nature of difficulty? Well, the pacing has a lot of stress on its seams in this regard: at the points of narrative-lull you can expect the more thought-provoking puzzles to crop up. But as you stand there, analysing the ways in which you might fling yourself to the next section, the muffled narrative pushes against the puzzle. The lack of time-frame in these sections almost becomes a detriment, with the imperative kicking against the fact of the diversionary puzzle. Then, just as quickly, the narrative springs into life; the previous mystery becomes a relic.

Any left over longing for a harder angle on the Portal 2 concept still finds its fulfilment in the form of the cooperative campaign: the final touch this game needed. While the single-player mode is primarily chamber-based, the concise narrative is the real, hidden backbone. Thus the cooperative focus on puzzles: a new take on the game, introducing the need to abuse four portals, and your friends’ free time. In short: the perfect outlet for the dedicated puzzle game experience.

So unless you’re looking for a stack of painfully difficult puzzles with little or no consideration for narrative pacing, I think it’s fair to say that most will enjoy this game. Now if only we could see a little restraint from the critical community’s love of the obvious. Oh, speaking of which, John Simmons and Stephen Merchant play prominent roles in this title. Are they amusing, well-implemented, apt even? Take a guess.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

And now for something completely different: The Hand

It came to my attention a little while ago that it's national poetry month. Well, what better excuse to post some of my unique poetry.

The Hand

Out of place, defunct, still in the centre:
By spring-time, cobbled stones and stately street,
The baths will stand. I note their shape, just glancing—
A gesture worth more effort than regard—
While moving by with constant, unchecked pace.
Around the structures nameless people shift
About their way; a thousand well-dressed statues,
Exclusively today: they live in sight,
But die outside periphery. And still,
To stare is wrong; a micro-transaction
With no foreseeable return. So long
As time and grace holds minds so far apart—
While the clutching commerce enthrals the throng—
Economy demands investment in our art.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

RPG fluff, and Castlevania stuff

Pieces of interchangeable equipment, augment-ready statistics and an EXP bar should be expected these days. I think the trend only seems insidious. It crept in so comfortably since the millennium that it took me a while to appreciate the fucked up notion that I was optimising the equipment on my Soul Calibur characters. I’m not certain this kind of investment marks an endearing quality for a game whose selling point is being able to chop up your friends. The RPG stuff cuts the game into two; the balanced, clean multiplayer, and the filthy, augmented single-player. Maybe that’s where my doubt’s coming from. But in single-player-only ventures, it’s tough to carve any meaningful criticism.

In any case, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It may just be me, but these kinds of visuals make me feel like I’m missing something. So rich. I’m left with the impression that the default pace of the game is fast. Mercilessly fast. Some games impart this feeling, typically AAA titles: you’re walking through someone else’s house, you want to check out the various furnishings in more detail, but everything looks so expensive, and you‘re being given some form of optimised tour anyway. The hours of raw labour behind what you’re seeing are quietly forgotten while you’re presented with the mere minutes of gameplay. Those minutes, though? Damn they look good.

My friend was irked at the acquisition of skill points in this title; it was the creeping RPG touch that slightly nudged at him. I pointed out that earlier Castlevania titles had used far more invasive RPG elements, and that this was a strong convention in third-person action games. The discussion didn’t move much further on that subject. It’s the kind of idea that works, and in a painfully demonstrable way. They’re these odd kinds of elements of acquisition and cumulative augmentation; do you want to find powerful equipment and gradually grow in power over the course of the game? Fuck yes, but there’s a problem on the horizon somewhere with this stuff. So far all I can muster is that it may lead to overly derivative productions, though I’ve yet to be jarred by the unexpected presence of the RPG essence. That might just be me.

The puzzles of this game waver between one of two positions: obvious and tedious, or obfuscating and tiring. With a couple of exceptions, they are old things; from a time when puzzles had just one answer. I’m not quite sure why it gives you the option to skip them, though. It might have something to do with the fact that the game is unusually long. I know what the developers would say if they were asked why they included such a mechanic: “We think giving players as many choices as possible is important.” Arguing against choice is hard.