Picks of 2008

December 31st, 2008 Strident Posted in Comments & Thoughts 4 Comments »

Originally written for the Cranky Gamers UK blog

Burnout Paradise (PS3)
Burnout Paradise’s open world gameplay was a blast of fresh air for the series and successfully combined a solid solo racing experience with seemless online multiplayer. Initially great value for money, it was the game that just kept on giving. Criterion’s “Year of Paradise” saw the retail offering totally transformed by the addition of new online challenges and events, a day and night cycle and the introduction of motorbikes.

Lost Odyssey (Xbox 360)
This four disk opus was my favourite RPG of the year. Managing to deliver a story both epic and intimate, it’s a game that had grown men weeping over their Xbox controllers. The strong narrative will enable most players, even those usually frustrated by JRPG conventions, to overlook any minor technical niggles and the fairly standard gameplay. Completing this title is forty hours well spent.

Civilization Revolution (Xbox 360)
Achieving the almost impossible challenge of distilling the essential elements of the classic PC strategy game into a cool console cocktail, this release deserves the “Civilization” moniker. Even in its slimmed down form, this turned-based game of world domination is still capable of eating into your free time like a famished piranha. Stock up on the morning coffee. You’ll be spending some late nights with this one.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village (DS)
Although little more than a collection of brainteasers, this story driven package with clever twists on classic challenges kept my wife glued to our DS for a week. With sales figures that prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a demand for more cerebral entertainment, the game’s greatest puzzle still remains unsolved… Why did it take so long to reach us in Europe?

LittleBigPlanet (PS3)
Forget the locked down, tightly controlled, commercialised world of Playstation Home – nothing showcases the community potential of the PS3 better than LittleBigPlanet. Level design tools and gameplay fuse together to inspire the player to take on the role of creator themselves. It’s one of the few Playstation exclusives this year that managed to both turn the heads of Xbox 360 fanboys and also fully reward those who chose to pledge their allegiance to Sony’s monolithic machine. LittleBigPlanet may have seemed a little forgotten and unloved these past couple of months, pushed aside by noisier releases offering instant gratification, but it’s a game that you’ll potentially be putting back in your console for years to come.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Merging Offline and Online Experiences

May 22nd, 2008 Strident Posted in Comments & Thoughts 2 Comments »

If you’re a developer, how do you successfully merge single player gameplay with an online co-operative or multiplayer experience? It’s simple. Take a leaf out of Nintendo’s book. They produced one of the best hybrid game experiences around… Animal Crossing on the DS. Not convinced? I’ll present my case below.

Animal Crossing: Wild World is one of my favourite Nintendo games. In my mind it successfully takes some of the best multiplayer features around and combines them with a solid single player game. An extremely solid single player game, as they’ve basically crammed the entire Gamecube console version into a handheld cartridge.

Does it really have decent online credentials though? I think so. How many other games feature four player co-op where friends can easily drop in and out of your single player experience? How many games allow you to show off your progress in the main game? What about titles that allow players to carry back items or “experience” from online sessions to their own single player “campaign”?

The towns in Animal Crossing are persistent worlds that link together online. Friends have the ability to make a real impact on your game. They can dig holes in your town, chop down your trees or steal fruit and other items from your garden. They can even convince your animals to move to their town. Eat your heart out, Fable 2.

The game’s multiplayer experience includes social elements (text chat, emotes), competitive events (such as fishing) and informal co-operative play (you can work together to look after your town).

Online play can really help your single player experience which gives you a good reason to visit other people’s towns.

To get what you want in the game you’ll often have to trade and share items online. You’re initially given a single variety of fruit tree in your garden. If you want a different crop then you’ll need to swap your native fruit with someone else.

Different towns have different items in their shops. You’ll have to visit others to collect all the items. You can also use time zones to your advantage. If it’s late and your shop is closed you can go and visit a friend in a different country where their shop is still open. How many other games let you use multiplayer to help you make progress in your solo game?

There’s also a lot of data exchange behind the scenes. Messages in bottles, animal residents, phrases and other information spread from town to town like a viruses. Clever stuff.

I’m not saying that Animal Crossing DS is a perfect online experience. Nintendo’s friend code system makes everything more difficult than it needs to be. You’ll either need to know someone else with the game or use a site like Animal Crossing Community to exchange your code with other players.

It’s still a great, groundbreaking title and I can’t wait for Nintendo to improve on it. My perfect sequel would involve both a DS and a Wii game that can communicate with each other. Come on Nintendo, you know you want to make it. There’s no need to turn it into a Massively Multiplayer Online game, though. It’s fine as a Marvellously Miniature Multiplayer game.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Beyond Wii Fit

May 7th, 2008 Strident Posted in Comments & Thoughts No Comments »

I’ve had Wii Fit and the Nintendo balance board for about a week and a half now and it’s still getting used every evening. On the whole the software is telling me that I’m losing weight (which is an unexpected bonus) and it continues to be quite motivating.

I’ve virtually unlocked everything now. Since my last Wii Fit blog entry I’ve tried boxing (which uses the Wiimote and nunchuck), a bizarre but fun fish catching game and a strange “I’m never going to be able to sit on the balance board” Zen concentration task. The expected “Karate Kid” pole-balancing hasn’t yet made an appearance, although some of the yoga positions get close.

I’m finding that I’m concentrating most of my time on aerobic activities with balance games used as breaks. I’m sure that doing more yoga and muscle activities would be a good idea, long term, but I feel that I’ve achieved more if I’ve done a ten minute jog.

I’ve had a chance to test out the free step mode and it works well. You can switch your TV to watch a different channel while the remote bleeps out the pace and keeps you updated on your progress. It’s very easy to spend half an hour stepping up and down without it spoiling your enjoyment of your favourite programme. I do think that the free jogging mode might be a little more distracting.

I’m already wondering about Wii Fit’s long term appeal and my thoughts have been turning to ways that the balance board could be used in future titles.

To me, Wii Fit really is just a taster of how a games console could help create and track your daily fitness programme. There is no way that I’m going to be getting the same enjoyment from these initial activities in six months time. Hopefully Nintendo will produced new versions of the software at the same rate it manages to churn out endless “training” titles for the DS. I already have a wish list for Wii Fit 2.

The software would benefit from the inclusion of more step routines. Two different activities (three if you count free step) just aren’t enough especially as this part of Wii Fit works really well. I can easily see, with the addition of a selection of decent dance music, how this section could be expanded out into its own game.

I find the jogging really interesting even though that is an area that doesn’t even use the balance board. The use of an onscreen world is really motivating at first but the included island is probably going to get old quite quickly.

It’s already nice to see your family and friends running around. One idea I’ve had of a way to make the current jogging section more interesting in the short term is simply to download a load of “celebrity” Miis.

Imagine if you could download new routes or, seeing as this is Nintendo, buy them on additional CDs. You could jog around game worlds (Mario Kart tracks for example) or run through recreations of famous places.

What I don’t want to see is whole “traditional-style” games where the control system is completely based around using the balance board.Although the skiing and snowboarding mini-games are fun, directing an onscreen character this way for any reasonable length of time would just be too tiring and ultimately quite awkward. I can see, however, how it would work well in a collection of shorter mini-games. Mario & Sonic at the Winter Olympics has got to be a strong possibility.

A new WarioWare game has also got to be in development. They could just adapt some of the mini-games from the GBA’s Smooth Moves tilt-sensor version (which we never saw in the UK thanks to the mercury-hating EU). There are also rumours of a new balance board enabled Mario Party. That makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve never played any Mario Party game myself but one that uses the balance board and the wiimote properly might be worth checking out.

Nintendo, as a company, are very good at creating very polished initial concepts or games. What they’re not as good as, I don’t think, is refining their ideas in future iterations and moving things on as quickly as they should.

I really hope that they’ve planned for the future of Wii Fit and are going to actively develop titles for the balance board. I really don’t want to consign the new peripheral to the cupboard under the stairs any time soon.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Me and the Wii

April 21st, 2008 Strident Posted in Comments & Thoughts No Comments »

(Or should that be the Wii and I?)

I was really excited when Nintendo announced the Wii, or the Revolution as it was back then. It’s the only console I have ever purchased on launch day. (I usually wait until a machine has got a decent back catalogue.)

I’ve not got a long history of Nintendo console ownership. My first Nintendo was a Game Boy Advance SP on which I played games like WarioWare, Advance Wars and the Pokémon series. I put off getting a DS until there was something interesting to play. It wasn’t until the first Christmas after Nintendogs came out, here in the UK, that I thought it was worthwhile upgrading. And yes, I purchased the virtual canine as well.

I still really love the DS. I thought it would never win out over the PSP but it just goes to shows that good games, and a decent control system, can make a system successful, no matter how powerful the opposition is. My DS, a slightly battered original “phat” model, is mostly being used by my wife at the moment to play Picross and Professor Layton and the Curious Village. (I’ll post more on DS and other handheld stuff another time otherwise this entry will become even more bloated.)

During a particularly obsessive Pokémon collecting phase I picked up a second hand Gamecube really cheap (it was just before the Wii came out) to obtain some of the rarer critters from the disc-based titles. Grabbing a version of Pokémon Box from Ebay was also a good investment as it allowed me to move the poket monsters between cartridges. I also took the opportunity to check out some of the Nintendo exclusives that had always interested me, such as Pikmin.

Anyway, back to the Wii. After launch, it was as my main console for several months and I was ready to wear my alligeance to the Nintendo flag. In addition to the innovative control system, the console featured so many nice little touches like the Miis and the different channels. I saw absolutely no reasons to even consider getting a PS3 or Xbox 360.

What turned me off the Wii, back then, was the lack of any decent games to play.

Sure, Wii Sports was brilliant. Everyone in my family who played it, loved it. Especially my parents. If there had been any systems left, that first Christmas after release, they would’ve definitely gone out and bought themselves one on boxing day. I wonder how many potential customers were lost back then?

I got a fair way through The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess but the game just didn’t really do it for me. I thought the control system worked well but the shadow sections totally annoyed me. To be fair, though, I think it was the wrong time to attempt this sort of game. Looking after a newborn baby daughter and playing long, immersive games don’t really mix well.

Excite Truck was a game I loved, though. You could fine me regularly playing it at 3am in the morning, with a sleeping baby balanced on my chest. I’ve never been much good at driving games but the Wii controls really helped. The controls certainly didn’t work in Marvel Ultimate Alliance which, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I couldn’t stand on the Wii and traded in virtually straight away. I only enjoyed it when I bought it for the Xbox 360 much later.

So, it wasn’t a very long love affair with the Wii. During the past year or so, especially since getting my 360, it has only been turned on a few times.

One of the reasons is that the Wii is always being put away for security and it takes a real effort to go and get it back out. It would take a special game to pull me away from the PC and 360. It says something that when the Wii is turned on that the first thing that my wife and I do is load up the voting channel and the Mii Contests!

During my time away from the system I’ve apparently missed out on some great games. Mario Galaxy, Super Paper Mario, Mario Party 8, Mario and Sonic at the Olympics Games …who says Nintendo are a little too Mario orientated? I’ve not even tried the latest Metroid Prime.

I finally decided to get the new Mario Kart the other day and bring the Wii out of retirement. I’m not a big Mario Kart-er. I’ve only played the DS version and, while I enjoyed that version I don’t see the Wii release adding much that’s new.

I’ve not yet got my head around the bikes. I’ve tried the different control systems and, at the moment, I prefer the good old-fashioned Gamecube controller. I’ve played quite a few online matches. I’m totally rubbish online but the games are fun and I think that’s where any real enjoyment from the title will come.

Although I’m not one for chatting over Xbox live, the lack of voice support does leave me feeling a little disconnected from the whole multiplayer experience. The spinning globe that shows where all your opponents are is a really nice touch, though.

So, how long will the Wii stay used?

Maybe a bit longer now than before. I’ve got Wii Fit on order and I’ll be interested in playing Super Smash Brothers Brawl (just not online!). I’m also going to try and swap a few games in order to check out some of the other releases I’ve missed out on.

I won’t buy anything for the Wii that is also available on the 360, but if something unique comes along (which really takes advantage of the control system) then I’ll probably give it a try.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

The Line

April 11th, 2008 Strident Posted in Comments & Thoughts No Comments »

I’ve murdered in Assassin’s Creed. I’ve turned to the dark side in KOTR. I’ve been a thief in Oblivion and I’ve completely wiped out entire species of aliens countless times! Yet there are some things that I just won’t do in video games or rather in certain video games.

I have absolutely no interest in the Grand Theft Auto series simply because I have no desire to play a game where the main objectives all involve committing crimes, even virtual ones. But I’ve commited crimes in other games so why not in GTA?

Where do I draw the line? Does it depend on the setting or genre of the game? Probably.

I’m more tolerent of violence in games if they are set either in the past or in the far future. Crimes against monsters or aliens are fine. Killing humans? Hmm. Am I fighting for truth and justice? Are they part of an evil organisation trying to take over the world? Did they attack me first? Do they have a bigger gun or sword than me?

I don’t think that I have a particularly prudish attitude towards violence. I recognise that it’s a key component in, not only a lot of my favourite films and books but also many of my favourite games. I am a bit of a wuss when it comes to blood and gore but that’s not really where I have a problem with GTA. It’s the focus on criminal activities that’s the main turn-off.

Yes, I like to play by the rules. I automatically take the good path in games if there is a choice to make. There was no way I was ever going to harvest a Little Sister in Bioshock. I was an extremely heroic dictator in Overlord. Even those games where I’ve strayed a little, when it’s come to the time to make the big, crunch decisions I’ve always chosen the “right” one.

The original Knights of the Old Republic was probably the only game where I managed to play “evil” all the way through. Well, mostly. And it really was more of a “comic book evil” anyway. After playing through “good” the first time it was certainly fun to see how the story played out differently when I chose the Sith route. I loved how my character’s appearance gradually changed to reflect my evil actions. One of my complaints about Bioware’s latest title, Mass Effect is that I never felt that my actions made any real impact on the game world or the ongoing storyline. Yes, I know there was that a bit of the end that impacted on the future of the council but that’s about the only major event I can think of. I suppose that’s the problem with a trilogy. You can’t let the player destroy the main story arc or you give yourself too much work to do in the sequels.

So back to Grand Theft Auto IV. On the whole, modern day setting games really don’t appeal to me but probably all it would take for me to accept the game would be to frame it differently. If my character was an undercover cop working to shut down a criminal organisation from the inside then perhaps I’d be more interested.

I would imagine that the chances of a demo of the game are unlikely. That game will sell itself to most people. I keep hearing about lots of cool features in GTA IV that I’d love to try out. At the moment, though, they’re not enough to tempt me to put aside my long-standing prejudices and actually spend money on a copy.

In a way I’m a little sad that I won’t pick up GTA. It’s going to be a bit strange knowing that virtually every one else is playing it. I’m probably going to feel really left out! Maybe there’s a “haven’t played GTA” club I could join?

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Windows Live

April 7th, 2008 Strident Posted in Comments & Thoughts 1 Comment »

I’ve experienced several of Microsoft’s Games for Windows Live titles. Indeed it was the first, Halo 2, that initially gave me a taste of the Gamerscore system. For a year or so my original Xbox Live Gamertag had been sitting there quite happy on zero Gamerscore, safe in the knowledge that I was too absorbed with PC MMOs. Then I decided to pick up Halo 2 and see how it had translated to the PC.

I’d played the game, when it first came out on the original Xbox. Although I’d absolutely loved the original Halo I never really got into the sequel, for some reason I didn’t take to the campaign mode (I never got past the first level) and only played multiplayer. I quite enjoyed playing through the PC version, completed the campaign, played a few multiplayer matches. It was fun. But that left me with a problem. I had now experienced “achievements” and the Gamerscore system.

The dormant “hunter/gatherer” instinct kicked in. If I bought an Xbox 360 then I could collect more of these shiny achievements. So buy one I did. Taking an entire shelf’s worth of Xbox, Gamecube and other old formats of games down to the local Gamestation, I dumped them on the counter and exchanged them for a brand new console. They covered the cost completely. Needless to say, I didn’t form a lasting friendship with the poor soul that had to process each individual disk.

Everything continued nicely for the next few weeks as I experienced the delights of “next generation” console ownerships. Games were played, achievements were earnt and the once zero Gamerscore was raised to, well, above zero anyway. But then, disaster struck. One day the console refused to boot up. It was completely dead.

This was just at the time when Microsoft was innundated with repairs and were about to launch their extended warranty. The news wasn’t good, I would be without my new Xbox 360 for about six weeks! Stupidly I had decided to send it back to Microsoft rather than simply take it back to the shop for an instant replacement. What an idiot.

I had plenty of time to reflect on my stupidity during the next month. I had been hooked on the console and on the Gamerscore system and now my new “drug” (albeit a sort of pathetic watered-down painkiller of a drug) had been taken away from me. There was only one thing to do, track down another Games for Windows Live title that I could earn points from on my PC.

And that’s how I ended up playing Shadowrun for so long. It was quite simply the only other game in the GfWL range at the time. Although it had some interesting elements I can’t really say I enjoyed it at first, or even when I eventually got my 360 back and stopped playing it. I think the only thing all my time playing the game really achieved was presenting all the Xbox players with an easy way of earning the “kill guys on the other platform” award.

I can’t say that Microsoft have really got the GfWL system sorted yet but I do like be able to earn achievements on my PC. I’ve played a few other titles so far. I’ve written quite a bit about my time playing Viva Piñata in this blog already. I think it’s a very faithful conversion. Too faithful in some respects when it comes to the control system. Also, the fact that you couldn’t transfer saved gardens between machines (even under the same Gamertag) was a real pain when I needed (for technical reasons) to shift from playing it on my laptop to my desktop PC.

Gears of War is just one game I do not understand. At first, I didn’t understand how to play it. Now I just don’t understand why anyone would want to play it. I know it’s a hugely popular title but it’s just not for me. I’m not adverse to first person shooters. I just prefer ones where the world isn’t entirely composed of dismal greys and browns and where I can actually make out at least some of the things that I’m meant to be shooting at. Don’t even get me started on the so called “hero characters” in the game, either. It’s just as well that I can’t tell the difference between them and the enemy or I’d be constantly team killing. Yes, I won’t be pre-ordering the sequel. Sorry, Cliffy B.

My latest foray into GfWL is with the PC version of Universe at War which I think I must’ve bought just to prove to myself that I lack any of the necessary skills in co-ordination or management to play real time strategy games. I’ve only booted it up a few times and I really can’t see myself spending much more time on it, the learning curve is too steep for me. Back to the turn-based stuff, I think.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button