Monday, 12 January 2009

Games Of The Year 2008

Ok. So I was gonna do a big proper run-down from 10 to 1 on this, but I can't be arsed because there are so many games I haven't played, or haven't given enough time to. Besides, as you'll see, my feelings about a game can't always be summed up all that simply. There are ten games here, but this is not my top ten. Rather it's the ten games I felt most like giving awards to. You'll see.

Best Retail Game
The main purpose of this award is to illustrate how my two favourite games of the year are download-only. As such the winner isn't actually that important. Anyway, it's Dead Space.

Best Sequel
Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 is possibly a flawless example of how to make a sequel. It's still got the main mode which is better than ever, and it adds five extra modes which all play with the formula in brilliant ways, building tactics that are useful in other modes, and are varied enough to be fun while never being just novelties. Plus it's prettier and has better music. Yeah, it's the perfect sequel. Which means it's Game Of The Year right? Oh unless someone released a really amazing original game. Hmm.

Best Worst Sequel
Super Smash Bros Brawl is basically the same as Super Smash Bros Melee, which in all honesty wasn't that much better than Super Smash Bros No Subtitle. Somehow it still ended up being my most played game last year.

Best Game For The First Hour Or So
God, Boom Blox got really boring after that, didn't it?

Best Game That Was Split Into Five-Second Chunks And Mixed Together With Five-Second Chunks Of The Worst Game Ever
Consistency is not a word Mirror's Edge knows. Playing it, I can't help the feeling that if I could just peel away the moments of perfect clarity, beauty, exhiliration and grace (of which there are many) and make a game out of them, it would be the best game ever. Problem is, the game left over would be so abhorrently evil that it would probably destroy the world and everything in it.

Best Drumming
Admittedly I haven't played Guitar Hero World Tour, so I am completely unqualified to judge this award. However Rock Band contains some very fine drumming indeed. In fact it is the most fun I have had drumming in a game this year.

Best Game I Had Already Played
Banjo-Kazooie was so much better than I thought it would be. I'd barely rose-tinted it at all. See, this kind of thing is the reason I didn't do a top ten. You can't really put retro-re-releases in a top ten can you.

Best Game That I Still Can't Make Any Sense Of
This sort of game is the other reason I didn't do a top ten. No More Heroes could reasonably go in any position on the list. It renders criticism utterly irrelevant. I can't properly articulate why I like it. I can't properly articulate why I hate it, either. The only real flaw I can pin on it is that none of it makes any fucking sense.

Best Place To Stop Playing A Game
I'm told Zack & Wiki becomes really horribly unpleasantly frustrating at some point along the way, but fortunately I'm nowhere near clever enough to get that far. I'm tempted to just leave it where it is and preserve my love for it.

Best Game

Braid, obviously.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

It's Seasonal List Time!

Top 20 Awesomest Pokemon
  1. Psyduck
  2. Jigglypuff
  3. Wooper
  4. Munchlax
  5. Marill
  6. Cubone
  7. Squirtle
  8. Snorlax
  9. Pikachu
  10. Piplup
  11. Gengar
  12. Wobbuffet
  13. Poliwhirl
  14. Cyndaquil
  15. Geodude
  16. Shinx
  17. Totodile
  18. Togepi
  19. Ditto
  20. Bidoof
If you're wondering why I thought this would make for an interesting post, I'm afraid I'm not entirely sure. Sorry.

The actual end-of-year list will be along in the new year, just as soon as I've played enough games that are worth putting in a top ten. I've got about seven so far.

Friday, 12 December 2008


It's been a while, hasn't it? Sorry, I've been very poor and unable to buy games. I've just had a minor XBLA splurge on Banjo-Kazooie, Bionic Commando and N+, though, so I'll let you know how they strike me as I get into them. At the moment, I'm delaying the latter two until I get home for Christmas, but I just couldn't resist Banjo.

It looks really nice, brightly coloured and full of personality. Admittedly the character design isn't the best: Banjo and Kazooie themselves are endearing enough, and Clanker's great (although he's more level design than character design), but the enemies and NPCs frequently look amateurish and messy. Nipper and his googly eyes are the worst offenders. Still, I'm a sucker for a nice cheerful colour palette, and I think the textures have been sharpened up a bit, which works well. The sound mix is a bit off, oddly. If you want to listen to the music (and you do, because it's excellent), you'll have to turn it up to a level at which the "you got a feather" flute trill will shatter your teeth at 20 paces. Yes this is an exaggeration. It's annoying though.

The game itself remains very enjoyable, despite a number of dubious design choices. To be fair to Rare it's actually less of a Super Mario 64 ripoff than a lot of people make out. The template's the same, but the levels frequently eschew platforming challenges in favour of a more puzzley-explorey approach. I heartily approve of this decision, partly because the platforming controls aren't quite as solid as they perhaps ought to be, but mostly because exploring was always my favourite part of Mario anyway. This aspect of the game is highly rewarding: the well-designed levels always spur you on to see what's around the next corner, and uncovering a hidden passage is as exciting as it should be. Why don't modern games seem to realise this? OK, Oblivion is a game essentially built around this concept, and it's terrible, but there's stacks of unrealised potential in the idea.

The puzzles, unfortunately, aren't up to scratch. They're all trivially simple and most of them mistake legwork for brainwork. Like, I was coming out of Bubblegloop Swamp in crocodile form and wandered down a secret pirahna-water passage to find a boulder that I had to break to get through, which you can only do as Banjo. No problem, I went back, transformed back into Banjo, used the wading boots to get through, and broke the boulder, which revealed another passage - which was too small for Banjo to fit through, so I had to wander all the way back and change into a crocodile again. OK, so I was obviously meant to discover the passage as Banjo, but even so it remains a lot of waddling about to not much reward (I think all I got was a double-egg-capacity cheat, which I can't even remember now). 

On top of this, there are too many moves, a lot of which are pretty superfluous (like the trigger+B charge move) or boring (like the wading boots), and the creature transformations usually just give you lock/key abilities like immunity to hazards or rapport with NPC creatures of the same species, instead of transforming the gameplay like they could've done. However, all these flaws, as annoying as they are, are nowhere near as ruinous as they were in the execrable Donkey Kong 64*, and the game has plenty else to offer. In fact, I've been going through it very slowly because I don't want it to end. Always the sign of a great game.

(*I really should get out my old copy of Donkey Kong 64 and jot down a few thoughts, because I could rant for hours about it. It just gets it so so wrong in so many ways. It's incredible. Watch this space.)

PS As regards to the title: Banjo-Kazooie also has an excellent metagame in which you try to figure out what Banjo's yelling when he does his moves. In the same way as Link is clearly saying "Harp! Harp!" when he's swinging his sword, I'm fairly sure Banjo shouts "Appall!" when he rolls. (I also think he says "get off my lawn" when he's doing a crouch jump, but no one else seems to agree.)

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Runner The Most Frustrating Games I've Ever Played

I am really really sorry about that title. It was going to be "Runner The Mill", but Mirror's Edge is most certainly not run-of-the-mill. It's a very distinctive experience, and not always in an especially good way.

Let's start with the good points, partly because I'm a positive happy-go-lucky kind of guy, and partly because if you've been keeping up with trailers and demos and so on you'll already know most of them. The graphics are magnificient. Contrasting sterile, clinical whites with rich colours, they paint a world that is immediately alien, atmospheric and beautiful. In the emotional response it provokes it is reminiscient of Half-Life 2's City 17. Although they couldn't be more different superficially - crumbling and decaying versus shiny and pristine - the overpowering sense of isolation is very similar.

You're not actually alone much in Mirror's Edge though. There's constant radio chatter in your ear (when did this become a required feature for every game ever released? It's really weird) and you're chased after by nasty men with guns who want to kill you for some reason. I dunno, I didn't really watch the cutscenes. They're crap. How did such a visually splendid game end up with such horrid cartoons to go with it? The plot's stupid too, as far as I could tell: full of completely inconsequential twists and with a complete damp squib of an ending. It doesn't really matter though. Like the men with guns, it's really just there to keep you running.

And as long as you keep running the game is spectacular. Unfortunately this is very difficult to do. The game's chief flaw is as simple as this: you will die again and again, and it's excruciating. Short of an incongruous Prince Of Persia rewind ability it's hard to know what they could've done. Loading delays between attempts are bearably short and the game is rarely unfair with the challenges it sets you, but missing the same jump ten times in a row destroys a little part of my soul. It's not the fault of the checkpointing, which is mostly intelligent, although when your attempts get into double figures even the briefest of delays is unbearable.

Repeated playthroughs numb the pain - I fully expect my second run to be more enjoyable than my first, even on hard mode - and the time trials and races are pretty addictive. When all's said and done, the visual design and the frequent-enough moments of showboating exhilaration kept me going through the tough times. A mild disappointment it may be, but Mirror's Edge is definitely strange and absorbing enough to warrant a purchase.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Tomb Raider: The Benny Hill Years

So Tomb Raider finally deigned to make itself available for Silver gamers. (Users with a Silver Xbox Live account, I mean, not gamers over 70. That would be weird.) I dunno about you but I'm getting quite hacked off with the limitations of Silver accounts. Unless I'm missing a really obvious button somewhere I can't even upload my Braid times without a Gold account, which is really silly. Anyway, Tomb Raider Underworld. Or should I say Tomb Raider Underwhelming? Ha! Nah, probably not.

Good things: Looks brilliant. Gorgeous environments. Routes through levels less obvious than before. Nice atmosphere. Same old solid platforming and okayish combat. Whatserface Mrs Lara's Voice Actress Lady is still good.

Bad things: Lara runs too fucking fast. In fact everything in the game is too fast. Lara's animations, the tigers, the little rats that flicker from the floor to Lara's throat like Mexican jumping beans... it's like watching a video of Legend sped up a little. I might get used to it, but just now it's horrid. Combat becomes a terrifying frenzy of rolls and dodges. When you're running down a beautifully drawn corridor you want a bit of time to admire the foliage, but before you know it Lara's already jittered off to the other end of the level. It's really bizarre.

Of course you couldn't admire the foliage even if you wanted to because the camera is pretty temperamental too. It doesn't seem to do what I want, which would be fine if it was good at doing its own thing, like in Galaxy, but it isn't. Other niggles include occasionally obscure level design and a really abrupt ending - so much so that I thought I'd died and only realised I hadn't when the title screen popped up. I'll still get the game, though. I've got to have something to complain about. (Also: shooting tigers, kicking ancient vases to pieces, stamping on rare spiders - is Lara the least ecologically friendly adventurer type woman ever?)

Anyway, as if to make Sunday's post even more redundant, I've had a go on Mirror's Edge as well. It's a lot of fun. I'm especially impressed by the feeling of connection with your character - she has weight and momentum and obeys the laws of physics occasionally, so she's already one-up on Lara "made out of crisp packets" Croft. Hearing her pant as you run is a nice touch as well (and probably thick with masturbatory potential for the more pathetic end of the platform game fan spectrum). Controls were fine. I appreciate the minimal use of face buttons, allowing you to hang on to the joysticks most of the time. Combat and shooting is pretty clunky, but seriously who cares. That don't-shoot-anything achievement is mine.

It was the PS3 version so I hated the pad, but otherwise it pretty much meets all my expectations. Meets, but doesn't exceed. Still, that may be a lot to ask from a demo consisting of a quick tutorial and a very short level I've seen played through a dozen times before. I'll have to play the full product to find out how the other levels hold up, and more importantly how long it turns out to be. I have concerns. Other than that, can't complain at all.

No word on Banjo yet in case you're wondering. My flatmate's getting Little Big Planet tomorrow so as soon as I manage to steal it off him I'll let you know how it is. Until next time, look after yourself - and each other. (And try to violently murder as much endangered wildlife as you possibly can.)

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Demo Roundup

So you're all probably awaiting my views on the three big demos to hit Xbox Live this week, Mirror's Edge, Tomb Raider and Banjo-Kazooie. Problem is, I don't have a Gold account. But as if that's going to stop me having an opinion.

Mirror's Edge

To find out about Mirror's Edge, I decided to ask, a AI chat program bot thing that apparently came quite close to passing the Turing Test the other day. Things started well. It was intelligent enough to remember my name.

Hello, Marvin. Do you mind if I call you Patrick?
Not at all. Hello.
OK, Patrick. I will not call you Marvin.
OK. I don't think you understood what I said there, but never mind.
I hope that my artificial intelligence is doing better.
Er, sure. I have a question.
A questioning human being! Does that happen often?
Have you played the Mirror's Edge demo?
Do you think this is something I should explain to a human being?
Sometimes a conversation develops a certain dynamic which leaves the other conversational partner behind in a state of confusion. I will try to restrain myself so that this doesn't happen to us again.
Just tell me if you liked Mirror's Edge.
Let's not talk about me all the time! What do you do for a living?
I'm trying to write a blog and I need to know what you think about Mirror's Edge.
You are probably on TV much of the time. Well, I'm in the Internet!
Oh for fuck's sake.
"Be fruitful and multiply" is an early reference to robots, but what they meant was "be productive and calculate things."
How about the new Tomb Raider? Any thoughts?
This is confusing. Why bring what's up-to-date into this?
I can't answer that just now - I'm trying to work out how to fix tea!
The Turing Test is fucking bollocks.

Tomb Raider Underworld

It being Halloween (two days ago) I wandered over to for a Tarot reading to predict how good Tomb Raider is gonna be.

Name: Tomb Raider Underworld
Question: Am I going to be any good?
Deck: Lovecraft Tarot (it seemed vaguely fitting)
Spread: Celtic Cross

For some reason the website went bonkers and gave me 10 cards. I thought there were only supposed to be five in a celtic cross. Anyway.

The card not shown but at the center of the cross, represents the atmosphere surrounding the central issue. Seven of Sites (St. Toad's), when reversed: Labors abandoned before completion. Impatience, lack of effort, and the wasting of time. Idle and unprofitable speculation.

I guess the game's going to be pushed out of the door before it's finished. And it'll be really easy and have loads of filler in it. Wow, this is already more useful than that stupid bot.

The card visible at the center of the cross represents the obstacle that stands in your way - it may even be something that sounds good but is not actually to your benefit. Seven of Artifacts (EOD Vestments), when reversed: Being trapped in a hopeless situation and unable to withdraw. A feat of daring that is too much for you to handle. Being caught in the middle of a desperate act of cunning or outright deception.

Another Seven. That must be what the game's going to get in Edge. Interesting. Also, it seems I'm going to get stuck on it somewhere.

The card at the top of the cross represents your goal, or the best you can achieve without a dramatic change of priorities. Ithaqua, when reversed: Ineffective use of force. Might turned against the weak or the righteous. Senseless violence and warmongering. Lack of discipline and poor direction fan the flames of a situation already out of control. Advance without consideration of the consequences for others.

Too much combat?

The card at the bottom of the cross represents the foundation on which the situation is based. Tsathoggua, when reversed: Resistance of temptation. Freedom from bondage. The pursuit of higher goals despite the influence of luxury and pleasure. Release from obsession with money and power. Liberation from fear, weakness and indecision through communion with higher powers or the inner voice.

Is Underworld, like, free-roaming or something? That would kind of make sense.

The card at the left of the cross represents a passing influence or something to be released. Four of Sites (Whateley Farmhouse), when reversed: Using your power freely for your own enjoyment and the betterment of others. Coming to grips with progress and using your position to help it along. Finding security and identity someplace other than in the possession of material things. Letting go and encouraging others to find their own path. Being magnanimous and generous with your success.

Yeah, more free-roaming stuff. Maybe they're gonna turn it into an MMO just before release. Also: not many pickups.

The card at the right of the cross represents an approaching influence or something to be embraced. Azathoth, when reversed: Apathy, negligence, and dangerous carelessness. Unquenchable wanderlust. Obsession with someone or something. Losing all sense of proportion. Foolhardy adventuring and lack of interest in critical matters. Immature or unrealistic ideals. Strange impulses and desires coming from unexpected sources. Vanity, delirium, folly, and oblivion.

Christ. That relates to the game really closely but it sounds awful. Too ambitious? Not polished enough? Too many instant deaths? How the hell is this going to get 7/10?

The card at the base of the staff represents your role or attitude. Ten of Sites (Exham Priory): Completion of material prosperity and riches. Freedom from financial anxiety, the security of home, and the enjoyment of family. The passing of inheritance along to children, or the gaining of inheritance from parents.

They're going to give it away for free! Amazing!

The card second from the bottom of the staff represents your environment and the people you are interacting with. Three of Man (Inspector Legrasse): A time of merriment and reflection spent in the company of friends and loved ones. The conclusion of a matter in plenty and perfection. The strength of a diverse community being brought together. May suggest a celebration, festival, anniversary, wedding, baby shower, or other joyous gathering.

Lots of NPC interaction. Sounds shit.

The card second from the top of the staff represents your hopes, fears, or an unexpected element that will come into play. Queen of Artifacts (Stone of Nepemiah Derby), when reversed: The dark essence of air behaving as water, such as a cold rain: A person gifted with both keen logic and natural intuition, giving them uncanny powers of perception and insight. One who easily sees the weakness in any argument, and savages friend and foe alike with biting sarcasm. Dry and vicious wit covering a hollow sense of isolation and dissatisfaction with life.

Erm. Fuck. Psychic powers? Good script? Lots of puzzles? Good rain effects? Your guess is as good as mine, seriously.

The card at the top of the staff represents the ultimate outcome should you continue on this course. Mi-Go, when reversed: Lack of balance, harmony and integrity. The suspension of action until a decision is made. Lawsuits and prosecutions. Unjust decisions and the consequences of those decisions. A turn for the worse in legal matters

Lack of balance! Very interesting. That "suspension of action" bit sounds like it's about QTEs. And the game's gonna get banned because of excessive violence against jungle animals. That's my take anyway. Wasn't that insightful, everyone?

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

I liked the bit about Edge scores in that last one, so let's indulge in some numerology.

2+1+14+10+15+11+1+26+15+15+9+5+14+21+20+19+2+15+12 +20+19 = 247
2+4+7 = 13
1+3 = 4

Ta-dah! I couldn't think of a way to do the hyphen or the colon. Or the ampersand. Actually, maybe I should be substituting all these things for their names.

2+1+14+10+15+8+25+16+8+5+14+11+1+26+15+15+9+5+3+15 +12+15+14+14+21+20+19+1+13+16+5+18+19+1+14+4+2+15 +12+20+19 = 492
4+9+2 = 15
1+5 = 6

"Kazooie Colon" is not a phrase I ever want to hear again. Of course, if you're just talking about the game you might call it

2+1+14+10+15+11+1+26+15+15+9+5 = 124
1+2+4 = 7


14+21+20+19+1+14+4+2+15+12+20+19 = 161
1+6+1 = 8

There you have it. Mirror's Edge is going to make no sense at all, Tomb Raider will be disappointing but still good, and Banjo-Kazooie will totally definitely get either 4 or 6 or 7 or 8 out of 10. Aren't you glad you know that?

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Dead (Good) Space

My first report from the frontlines of the busiest gaming Christmas since, well, last year, is this: Dead Space is good. Dead good, in fact. Hence the pun.

Despite having a few things wrong with it. The plot and characters have failed to excite me so far. There's a lot of things to collect, Bioshock style, which is a bit annoying. And it's not exactly scary. Not yet, anyway. It's as if, because it's an EA game, it has to be a little bit too polished, too action-movie to truly become the game it aspires to be. Whenever you forget who made this game - which is easy because it's far superior to the usual EA stuff - the largely unnecessary weapon upgrade system and incongruous "kinesis" abilities are around to remind you.

Still, it seems churlish to complain about that when the game is so visually and aurally overwhelming. The brilliance of Dead Space is all in the dark corners, billowing smoke, and constant, unsettling cacophony of clatters, clangs and howls. Oddly, the bits when you're actually shooting things are probably the least scary bits of the game. There's some eek-get-it-off-me moments, and I always get a bit twitchy about what might be behind me when I'm aiming, but generally the tension is relieved when you actually have something in your sights. It's still a lot of fun, though. Having to lop off limbs rather than just spraying the enemies with bullets makes combat very fiddly, in a good way. It's reminiscient of having to shoot the parasites off the Regenerators in Resident Evil 4.

On an almost completely different note, De Blob is quite good as well. Jury's still out though.