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Archive for 2009|Yearly archive page

Neon Lies

In xbox 360 on August 12, 2009 at 3:07 am

fuckoff

Crackdown- Xbox 360

I may have mentioned this before, but I love Crackdown. Absolutely bloody love it; even if what I really adore about it is only a small facet of the game: gathering agility orbs. I enjoyed hurtling over the rooftops, grabbing those shining emerald spheres, and levelling up my agility skill so much that I erased my save game, just so I could start all over again- currently only thirty one left to find!

Now, there are certain issues I have with the game, but there is something that I really, really hate about Crackdown, and the root of the problem lies in the DLC.

I have no problem with the rise of downloadable content in games. If I don’t think it’s worth the money then I simply won’t buy it. I don’t hate the DLC for Crackdown, neither the new weapons nor the extra side missions, but I do hate how they are presented in the game. Everything was fine until I downloaded an update to the game several months ago, and then they appeared.

In Crackdown, all of the side missions are marked out on the HUD as glowing pillars of coloured light. After the update, more of these icons appeared around the city, but these aren’t new missions you can play, oh no. These are new missions you can buy. Adverts. Phantom Content. Neon lies.

This is what I despise about Crackdown and, more importantly, the people who thought it was a good idea to implement this feature in the first place. If I want to see what’s on offer I can use the option on the main menu or browse about on the dashboard, but no, Crackdown thinks that not only do I need to be told what DLC is available, I also need to have it waved in my face while I’m playing the game.

The Definitive Version

In Wii on August 10, 2009 at 6:06 pm

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Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition- Wii (durr)

It’s Resi 4, again. Just as brilliant, and just as annoying (fuck you, inventory Tetris). The new Wii-mote controls work even better than the Gamecube controller and, as with Metroid Prime: Corruption, it’s hard to think of playing it any other way now. Obviously, there’s a fair bit of remote waggling involved for dodging attacks, but I only found it aggravating on the few occasions where you need to mimic turning a crank, and most of the time all that’s required is a quick flick of the wrist.

On top of that, it also includes all of the additional content from the Gamecube and PS2 releases. The notable addition for those of us who only played the cube version is the Separate Ways side story from the PS2 port. In a strikingly similar fashion to Blue Shift and Episode One, that I talked about previously, Separate Ways is another collection of greatest hits from the main game- zombie swarms, el gigantes, bastards with chainsaws, all that stuff. None of this challenge/mini-game nonsense, but a smaller version the main game starring Ada Wong, with a few hours of play and some unique, if inferior, set-pieces.

Separate Ways is more of the same with a different character, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but despite being “five new chapters that reveal startling insights into the original storyline”- along with the variety of crap analogies that make up her reports -and detailing what Ada was up to when she wasn’t fulfilling her femme fatale stereotype duties during the cut-scenes (Answer: shooting zombies in the face), it’s nothing we didn’t really know before. Not bad at all for a bonus feature created to highlight a port to a new console, but nothing special.

Quality Time with the Living Dead

In xbox 360 on August 9, 2009 at 11:38 pm

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Dead Rising- Xbox 360

Seventy two hours, that’s all you’ve got. Seventy two hours until the chopper arrives to pull Frank Castle (that’s you) out of the zombie hell that Willamette Mall has become. Seventy two hours to uncover the mystery behind the outbreak. Seventy two hours to get as many survivors to safety as possible. Seventy two hours to run around in a dress putting funny hats on the living dead. Seventy two hours to spend as you like. That’s seventy two hours of in-game time, but still several hours sealed inside a shopping mall with an infinite horde of flesh-eating monsters.

Now, what elevates it beyond a simple zombie kill-athon are the various RPG elements weaved into the hack and slash. Take pictures, kill zombies, rescue survivors and you’ll level up- more health, better attacks, faster movement. All of these advancements make Frank stronger, and while being able to take a few maulings helps, you’ll also get to know the layout of the mall- where to find the save points, the weapons, the healing items, etc. What starts out as a desperate struggle for survival becomes much more manageable, and you can concentrate on taking pictures of a girl’s cleavage, using zombies as decaying bowling pins, or running from the escaped convicts in a jeep.

But while you can do as much, or as little, of the main quest as you want, the wait for a rescue gets tedious without a purpose. This is where the achievements come into play- even encouraging replays (with all your previously gathered stats and abilities) to focus on the more challenging targets, and why I spent the best part of a day last week ploughing through the 53, 594 living dead required for the Zombie Genocider achievement; an…achievement that left me feeling both satisfied and slightly ashamed.

Playing Them In Reverse

In PC on July 29, 2009 at 3:13 am

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Half-Life 2: Episode One- PC

Writing about Episode Two, and wanting to play more Half-Life, was enough to make me reinstall the first episode in an effort to refresh my memory (as I think I’d only played it through the once, all the way back in 2006) and organise some thoughts.

To put it bluntly, Episode One is a greatest hits collection of Half-Life 2, and more than a little reminiscent of the Half-Life: Blue Shift expansion, which chronicled Barney’s escape from Black Mesa, and was, essentially, the original Half-Life condensed down to about four hours. Episode One revisits most of the main set pieces: street fighting with the Combine, exploring the Citadel (a place that looked even more spectacular in ruins), strider and gunship “boss battles”, all that stuff.

But I’m also being unfair, as it does have some unique flourishes of its own, including a closer look at the Stalkers, running around the infested, pitch black bowels of the city, and the introduction of the “Zombine”- which, rather than being one-off foes, are now part of the standard Half-Life menagerie. And then there’s Alyx.

Episode One is Valve’s experiment with having Alyx go from being a supporting character, to someone who’s at your side for the entire journey. The concept of the two of you working as a team is reinforced constantly, most notably early on, in the pitch black areas, when she’s the only one with ammunition, and you’re reliant on marking targets for her with the flash light. You’re working together, rather than babysitting her.

That’s the success of Episode One, creating a sidekick that doesn’t make the game feel like the longest escort mission ever, by creating a competent, memorable character. One we’re still happy to travel with.

The Start of Something New

In PC on July 28, 2009 at 3:09 am

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Half-Life 2: Episode 2- PC

Both of the episodic follow ups to Half Life 2 have been great, brilliant even, but the second was easily the better of the two. Episode One had the problem of being more of an epilogue to previous events, and the escape from City 17 before it went critical was more of an assortment of things we’d seen before. Episode Two was the start of something new.

There’s nothing wrong with the opening trek into the Ant Lion den, but Episode Two is, basically, a road trip, and you really want to be getting on with it. But then it’s a hop, skip, and a jump over a toxic river to the car, and then you’re burning up the highway to White Forest, and the brilliant set pieces along the way, as you are constantly pursued and ambushed; including attacks by the Hunters, which are devious bastards, and agile enough to dodge incoming objects- like, say, a speeding car (Although, this does  makes finally lining it up right and bouncing one off the bonnet even more of a joy)

The car itself- a much more rugged alternative to the buggy from Half Life 2 is a major part of the game, and having to spend much the journey on the road makes it feel as much a part of the team as Alyx. If Episode One was about focusing on Alyx as a sidekick, Episode Two was more about a vehicle being a four-wheeled ally (or weapon) throughout the game, rather than something limited to specific sections.

Then it all wraps up with a gut-punch of an ending, but perhaps the saddest thing is that, even playing it now (almost two years since its release), Episode 3 is still so far away.

(having to keep typing “episode whatever” makes me wish they’d just given the bloody thing subtitles)

Scrapheap Challenge.

In PC on July 21, 2009 at 10:55 pm

R and D

Half-Life 2: Research and Development Mod- PC

Is Research and Development the mod of the year so far?

If I had actually played more than a handful of mods this year, I’d been in a better position to judge the barrage of superlatives being heaped upon this puzzle-adventure.

R&D puts you in control of an anonymous scientist attempting to escape the NERDS research facility, following a combine assault. The big issue here is that you have no weapons- not even a crowbar- and with the exception of ye olde zero point energy gun, that you discover later on, you’re entirely reliant on making use of your surroundings to overcome the many zombies and soldiers in your way.

The result of the author’s attempts at learning the Hammer editor, R&D is very much a series of map building experiments, but they’ve been stitched together so well that these separate puzzle rooms feel like a cohesive whole- to the point that the industrial wasteland of the NERDS facility is reminiscent of a lo-fi Black Mesa.

Every room is a new idea, with puzzles involving everything, from microwaves, to the flailing end of a head crab zombie. It doesn’t settle on any one idea for too long, though, and there’s enough of them that even the odd dodgy puzzle can’t overshadow the whole experience. R&D is a surprisingly polished effort, with some nice little touches- the level titles displayed on the scenery, the emails from other survivors, and the scrapheap challenge style building session to construct the EVISCIRATOR (or Mr.Whirly)-that elevate it beyond what could have been a chaotic first attempt, into something quite good.

Is it inventive? Yes.

Is it ridiculous? Yes.

Is it the best mod of the year so far? Maybe.

It probably is, though.

White Dragons are Dicks

In Tabletop on July 14, 2009 at 5:40 pm

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Dungeons and Dragons: Fourth Edition- Tabletop.

I spent last Sunday night in Watford playing the latest edition of the D&D rules, and subsequently spent most of the four hour train journey home trying to nail down the various thoughts kicking about inside my head into some kind of explanation as to what makes it so great.

D&D is about as low-fi as you can get. There are miniatures and tile sets to buy, yes, but unlike miniature-heavy games, such as Warhammer, D&D works just as well with a few bits of paper and some appropriate objects; we arrived at an excavation site, only to be set upon by a group of miniatures and Cluedo pieces.

Half of the group, including myself, had little to no D&D experience, which meant we had to get over the initial speed bumps of understanding the rules and the many “can I do this?” questions. Ferretboy had the most trouble with the rules, but made the most creative actions;  boldly commanding a young white dragon to stand down, before belching his Dragonborn Paladin’s electrical breath into its face after it laughed and stated that it would reward him, if he killed me and Yellow instead. It was pretty much pandemonium after that, as I tried (and mostly failed) to stab anything in range, while Yellow’s Sorcerer unleashed chaos bolt hell.

This is the heart of D&D. With an understanding of the rules and a decent DM, you break the D&D sound barrier and BOOM, everything starts running smoothly, the dice rolls drop out of focus and it becomes all about the actions and the mad freedom that the digital realm simply cannot match.

This is why Sunday was not the night I rolled a lot of dice, but the night I was stabbed, covered in urine, and almost frozen to death.

Crossing Back Over.

In Tabletop on July 14, 2009 at 4:02 pm

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Dungeons and Dragons: Fourth Edition- Tabletop.

Somewhere in my head there’s a roughly assembled semi-rant on D&D influencing video games, and how we’ve learnt all we can from it (or, to be slightly more inflammatory “Cheers for being the foundation of the modern RPG, but could you piss off now?”). Minimal tabletop experience has probably skewed my perception a bit- with most of my understanding of D&D coming from versions of the rules shoehorned into games like Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate, but last Sunday I found myself in up in Watford, playing some fourth edition. Which has me convinced that the rise of the video game genre it helped create has lead to something crossing back over to the tabletop.

The core mechanics are still there, with a D20 roll plus ability score versus armour class/reflex/whatever being the meat of the system. What is new, and reminiscent of games like Diablo (and most MMOs), are the powers that you get with every odd numbered level. These are generally special versions of your basic attacks, and can be used just as often (with the exception of the daily and per encounter powers), to the point that they quickly become your default actions, as they usually grant bonuses or effects without requiring some kind of penalty. There are obvious similarities with, let’s say, World of Warcraft, in that every character has a basic weapon attack, but your spells and abilities take up the bulk of your actions in a fight. Think of powers as spells for all classes.

So, characters now get even more abilities to choose from as they level up, and, even at level two my rogue had a small repertoire of powers, rather than just a simple stabbing action, that meant I could do something a bit special, every turn.

New Thinking.

In PC on July 9, 2009 at 6:37 pm

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Portal- PC

I always think of the opening scenes to 28 Days Later while I’m playing Portal- the desolation, not the zombies. Much like Cillian Murphy’s character, as he wandered the abandoned streets of London, I’m watching the eerily empty observation rooms overlooking the testing areas and thinking: “Where is everybody?”. Whatever suspicions may arise, they are confirmed once you venture behind the scenes and find nothing but vacant offices; this place is deserted, either due to the Combine invasion, or the utterly barking machinations of GlaDos, but probably a bit of both.

There are obvious comparisons with GlaDos and,  gaming’s premier malevolent AI, SHODAN- as with System Shock’s self-proclaimed goddess, GlaDos isn’t just some final boss waiting in a room at the other end of the game, but a constant companion throughout your journey. Instructing, taunting, and deceiving you all the way, something about her just isn’t quite right, and what at first could be dismissed as technical glitches, or general quirkiness on her part, develops into clear signs that she is utterly mental, whereas SHODAN is an amoral monster with delusions of grandeur.

Portal affected me, but it wasn’t through the dialogue, the black humour, the bloody companion cube, the cake memes, or the world they had created in what was essentially an empty box. It was in the moments where you find yourself staring at an impossible puzzle and, in that same instant, your brain finally wraps around the required portal mechanics and rewires itself. What was impossible becomes trivial and, as the trailer says: “Now you’re thinking with portals”. At some point, on the second play-through, something crystallised and I had a revelation: I enjoy problem solving; from the elaborate dungeons of Zelda to the free-form nature of Deus Ex. This is why I play games.

Portal affected me, it helped me discover something about myself.

The Rules of the Game.

In PC on July 1, 2009 at 9:45 pm

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Left 4 Dead: Death Aboard- PC.

We haven’t done a complete run of this campaign yet, and I’m only going to be writing about one area, so don’t take this as any kind of critique. Left 4 Dead has certain rules that, despite the caveats and exceptions, make you a better team player if followed. Don’t Startle The Witch. Help A Downed Team Mate. Don’t Shoot The Alarmed Cars.

These rules are ground into you quite thoroughly during multiple replays of the Valve campaigns; mainly because going against them results in another fresh horde of infected, or losing one of the team, and in L4D the next fuck up could be the one that wipes out the team. Eventually, you react instinctively to the signals. Hear a witch? Flashlights off. Incoming horde? Look for a defensive position. This is what makes it so jarring when a map comes along and expects you to break one of those rules. Enter the ship’s cargo bay on the fourth map.

The way out of this area is through a precariously balanced container blocked by an alarmed car. It took us a minute or two of exploring the rest of the bay to see that we’d have to shoot the car into tumbling out of the container, which didn’t click with us instantly, because you Don’t Shoot The Alarmed Cars, and this grates quite badly with the design of L4D. It’s a nice puzzle (even if it isn’t much more than a disguised mini-crescendo), but there are no puzzles in the game because standing around deciding what to do (unless it’s preparation for a crescendo or finale event) just means the director is going to drop more hordes and special infected onto the team. More ammo wasted. More health lost.