Word Dump

Right, it’s about time I started writing again… but time seems to be at a premium at the moment, so let’s start with a little word dump from the last couple of months.

A quick recap of the last three (three? really?) months, then: Deadly Premonition is a Twin Peaks rip-off (not homage) that still manages to find a bit of heart amidst its self-referential quirkiness. Spec Ops: The Line is a really wonderful bit of gamemaking, with possibly the least dissonant gunplay I’ve ever experienced, and comes highly recommended… if only for the monstrous FUBAR difficulty. Uncharted 3‘s multiplayer is alright, apart from the community and random Treasure drops; its single-player campaign, however, is still the polar opposite to Spec Ops in terms of gameplay-narrative cohesion, and it proved to be laughably easy on the hardest difficulty setting. Paper Mario is still a gem, but has now been crossed off The List. Dyad is still a mind-melting joy; I’ve not touched BioShock Infinite‘s poorly-received DLC yet.

Oh, and Psychonauts is still one of the best-written games ever. So get it played.

A Word Dump of Intentions: more Uncharted 3, praying for those Treasure drops. More Psychonauts and Zen Bound 2 and Monotaur. And then… PDZ. Oh yes, this is the year. I can feel it.

KartOps DyadShock

Once again, it’s been way too long between posts for me, and the excuses are many and varied: getting sucked into extended play sessions that eat into my allocated writing time. Much more local theatre-going than I’d expect at this time of year. Unwanted time spent in hospitals supporting family members. The onset of Cabaret season here in Adelaide, with both a Cabaret Festival and Fringe to investigate.

But there’s been plenty of playtime, though. Oh yes, plenty.

When I last wrote, I’d just completed my first play through of BioShock Infinite; I gave myself a couple of days of palate-cleansing, then went back in and wrapped up a 1999 Mode run. Whilst it was nominally the highest difficulty level of the game, my familiarisation with the game’s expectations (not to mention the “Return to Sender” trick on the final battle) made this feel far easier than my first run through the game. I still love the story, and I still think the gameplay adds nothing to it – but I wait to see whether the forthcoming DLC will be able to bridge the gameplay-narrative gap.

As soon as I had finished Infinite, I ducked into XBLM and bought Spec Ops: The Line from Games On Demand… and, after two back-to-back playthroughs, it’s a chin-stroking contrast to the polished sheen of BioShock. In no way could Spec Ops‘ gameplay be considered superior: there’s way too much awkwardness to entertain that idea, with the cover system a particular source of great frustration. The visual and aural aesthetics, whilst pleasing in their own way, are also a notch below Infinite… and the narrative could only just be deemed on par (which is excellent).

But where Spec Ops: The Line excels is exactly where I hoped it would: in the ludonarrative realm.

In encouraging (not telling, with one notable exception) you to perform some truly horrific acts of war, Spec Ops creates a sense of inner conflict with the player’s character – and, as strange as it may seem, that soon becomes congruent with the clunky controls. Walker fights your control because he’s fighting with himself; the uncomfortable extended periods of checkpoint-free play has the effect of forcing you to sit there and ever-so-slowly tiptoe through the horrors of the battlefield, contemplating each move as if it were your last.

At least that’s how I react to it. Maybe that’s a little fanciful, but it seems entirely consistent with my experience.

I loved my two playthroughs of Spec Ops: The Line, and only today did I finally gather the courage to start the slog through the FUBAR difficulty level. And it is, without a doubt, the most punishing third-person experience I’ve had; popping out of cover for less than a second at the wrong time can mean instant death. There’s a high degree of chance involved with this difficulty – if you even blindfire at the same moment that two enemies fire upon your location, you’ll die – but I’ve made it through two of my ScaredyPoints already, so I’m feeling like this will just be a grind. A good grind.

But, in late May, with the prospect of being out cabaret-ing five nights a week for the month of June, I didn’t want to necessarily start a game with a heavy narrative thread. So I decided to start a game that I could just tinker with… you know, just play an hour or two here and there, whenever I got the chance. I decided on Mario Kart Wii… completely forgetting how sucked in I get by a lot of Nintendo games.

And did I ever get sucked in by Mario Kart Wii.

And I discovered a whole bunch of new ways to swear.

My goals were simple: unlock all the content available within the single-player modes. This boils down to unlocking all the Expert Time Trial Ghosts (largely a straight-forward affair, with one or two exceptions), and one-starring all the Grand Prix (including Mirror Mode). And one-starring essentially means: stay in first place most of the time, and win most of your races.

On 50cc? A doddle, even whilst learning the tracks. On 100cc? After experimenting with a few new karts and drivers, pretty easy.

On 150cc? Oh fuck you Mario Kart, fuck you right in the eye. Imagine three flawless races, leading from start to finish, and then – on the fourth race – getting double-blue-shelled on the second lap (the second time whilst in the air over a drop) and falling from first to unrecoverable last because your items turn out to be little more than chaff.

Yeah, that happened to me. So did double-blue-shell mere metres from the finish line; blue-shell-red-shell-POW on the final turn; triple blue-shell on the second lap.

But I eventually one-starred 150cc.

On Mirror Mode? Fuuuuuuuck.

I’ve never sworn more at a game… yet immediately returned for more. It’s an incredibly well tuned piece of software that can keep you interested, even when it’s cheated its arse off and abused you in the process. But, despite Mario Kart Wii being a planned gaming distraction for the month of June, I played and I played and I played and… I eventually won. Or rather, one-starred everything (and even managed a few three-star rankings on easier levels). So Mario Kart Wii is now off The List.

Which leads me to one last piece of gaming news: a game that I’d been looking forward to for nearly a year.

Dyad.

A particularly industrious procrastinative mood saw me finally set up a US PSN account so I could purchase Dyad; even now, months after the European release, it’s still not available for sale in Australia. So: I bought; I downloaded. I eyed the game on my XMB with some deal of hesitancy; I know this is going to be a List-Lingerer, I know this is going to be a game I want to love and adore but which I will be astonishingly poor at actually playing.

But I took a deep breath, and started playing anyway.

Initially, I was… well, disappointed. For all the talk of minimalist presentation, the level introduction screens felt cluttered; for all the promise of transcendental visuals, my Space Giraffe-ready eyes weren’t really challenged. It looked pretty, yes, and it sounded lovely, for sure; but it was not what I had expected.

Mind you, I had expected it to change my life… so the problem there is with me, clearly.

But I decided to force myself through all the levels (as recommended by creator Shawn McGrath) before attempting any of the “Trophy Levels”… just a couple a day. I’d come home from work, duck out to the theatre, come home, push through a few levels of Dyad. Every new level introduced a new mechanic, or put a slight twist on an established mechanic – it’s a relatively linear learning curve.

And that plan worked well… until I got within a handful of levels of the end. Some of those later levels required many, many attempts to garner even a solitary single-star rank; I was actually starting to get demoralised by Dyad. Depressed.

But then came the level “Giraffes? Giraffes! From Outer Space”.

And if my first play of this level doesn’t win my Best Moment Of Gaming Award for 2013… well, something pretty unbelievably fucking special is going to have to come out.

It was amazing. Exactly the kind of experience I was looking for.

Dyad is brilliant. I’ve yet to sink any time into the Trophy Levels, and there’s a fair few of the “story” levels that are still at one-star rankings, but I am so looking forward to getting to know this game better.

The Narrative-Gameplay Contrast Project

So… I’m embarking on a little project.

I’ve been insanely curious about Spec Ops: The Line since its release, with many (somewhat trusted) media sources raving about the use of narrative in the game. See, I’m a big fan of narrative… but only when it makes sense in a game. Which is a backwards way of saying that I’m not a fan of narrative/gameplay dissonance.

Now, I must be honest here: I was sorely tempted to write “ludonarrative dissonance” above, because that’s what all the Kool Kids are writing about at the moment… especially regarding BioShock Infinite (which I’ll talk about a bit more later). But I’m not quite sure that’s the right fit for what I’m talking about.

Ludonarrative dissonance – as I understand it – contemplates the conflict between the narrative aspects of what the game projects, and the actions that it asks you to perform as part of the game. In my mind, any game that tries to engage in a real-world scenario is always going to have some sort of ludonarrative dissonance: the need for scoring mechanics, and the simple mapping of such a mechanism onto “winning” (usually “killing”), makes it difficult to reconcile any narrative arc (which usually tugs on emotional heartstrings for effect) with that mechanism. Curiously, that implies that Call of Duty-type games suffer less dissonance than, say, Uncharted.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m more interested in the feel of the game… the physical expression of the player in doing what the game is challenging you to do.

The Wii (oh, that’s so last generation) had it easy with its motion controls: Wii Sports Tennis is the very epitome of this type of engagement, but that’s cheating a little bit… that’s mimicry. I want to dig into the games that somehow conjure up a physical correlation between what the game wants, and what you – as the player – deliver.

Consider Ico – a stunning game, to be sure. One of the best, in my book. But part of the reason I feel that is because holding Yorda’s hand – which you’re doing for much of the game – is accomplished by curling a finger around onto R1 on the DualShock controller. When I’m playing Ico, and my index finger isn’t on that button, I’m anxious – Yorda’s in danger.

The game did that to me. I suspect it’s a glorious combination of narrative and control tuning that works for Ico; but other games manage without narrative… and I usually describe them as having “responsive controls” or, more often, not notice it at all. The absence of engaging controls is, after all, easier to describe: games can feel “floaty” or disconnected.

But then there are games where the physical interaction is so at odds with the narrative aspects that it’s jarring – proper harshing-my-gaming-buzz jarring. But more on BioShock Infinite later.

So I’ve decided to embark on a little project. I was originally just going to play the aforementioned Spec Ops: The Line, fully expecting the narrative to be completely divorced from the gameplay: everything I’ve heard suggests that the gameplay component is an average third-person shooter, but that there are Decisions to be made… and I want to see how that process is presented by the game. But, with BioShock Infinite getting a lot of positive comments about its narrative aspects from reviewers and punters alike, I thought I’d give that a bash as well… and then there’s the Director’s Cut of cult-classic Deadly Premonition, a game lauded for its great story and cack controls.

Three games of wildly varying perceived quality, all with reportedly strong narratives, none of which are really in genres that elicit enthusiasm in me: I call this the The Narrative-Gameplay Contrast Project (NGCP).

But before I launch into that, there’s a little tidy-up and context-setting to be done: in the last fortnight, I managed to conquer the last of my Colossi, knocking Shadow of the Colossus off The List (a game that also has a wonderful physicality to it… even though I think it’s a poor game in comparison to its spiritual prequel), and rushed through a playthrough of Uncharted 3 on Normal, mopping up treasure and weapon Trophies. Uncharted 3 is, of course, a long-term project, with a squillion multiplayer Trophies to be hunted down; I’ve started playing it a bit online, and it’s a much more accessible game than Uncharted 2 ever was (though there’s issues with balance being skewed by high-ranking perks). But the single-player campaign is absolutely devoid of narrative engagement; as I’ve mentioned before, the game presents itself to me as an asset tour, but I’m not necessarily one to be wowed by those assets.

Which brings us – finally – to BioShock Infinite.

Now, let’s get one thing straight: I love the narrative of BioShock Infinite. I think it’s on par with movies like Inception (which I quite enjoyed, but not to rave-worthy levels), and I think that it’s fantastic that Irrational have chosen to deal with issues like racism and class warfare and personal engagements, all steeped in waves of cheesy nostalgia that evokes The Truman Show. And it certainly presents a wonderfully realised environment; there’s lots of assets to be toured there.

But as for the gameplay

Well, it’s functional, at least. But there’s something about the gameplay that keeps the story at arm’s length for the entire game; it’s almost like it belongs to some other story. Or that Infinite‘s narrative belongs in some other game.

I’m really shocked at how disjointed it made me feel; and that prevented me from actually engaging with the characters, and emoting in moments that were described in the Game|Life BioShock Infinite SpoilerCast (which really is quite spoilery, so only listen to it after you’ve played the game!).

But then there’s the ending.

Not the final “battle”, which is as jarring as the realisation that Brütal Legend is actually an RTS, but the significant end-game sequence (seriously: put aside an hour for it).

The ending is, for me, BioShock Infinite done right. And I know that I say that as someone completely divorced from the history of the game (I’ve only played the demo of the first BioShock, and neither of the System Shock games)… but there’s lots of other disconnects there for me, too. The pervading nostalgia for Americana of a bygone era is lost on me, and it’s only today that I discovered that the oft-referenced Wounded Knee was a real (and horrific) event. But that end sequence absolutely nails the physical engagement with the game for me: every button press was considered, even though there was no bearing on the outcome.

But…

That end sequence that I enjoyed so much? There’s an indie game that does something similar, but so much better. It’s only five dollars, it’s maybe thirty minutes of your time (if you’re a nosy explorer like me), and it’s a really, really wonderful experiment in game-ified narrative. It’s Thirty Flights of Loving, and it’s… well, I’m glad I played it; I’m glad it exists.

Further thoughts on The Narrative-Gameplay Contrast Project as they arise…

Je Retourne (2013 Edition)

Hello once again!

This is just a (relatively) quick post to placate the few readers who are still subscribed: no, this blog is not dead. Yes, I will endeavour to post more frequently (i.e. more than once per calendar quarter). But something has just happened that I wanted to scream from the rooftops in joy, and I figured this is as good an excuse as any to start posting again.

But first… what have I been up to?

Well, since you (by which I mean me) asked, I started the New Year by tackling one of the games on my Resolutions: Shadow of the Colossus. I’d already completed this game on the PS2 way back when, and couldn’t actually remember much of the process, so I figured I could knock it off relatively quickly in January. Of course, I’d neglected to take into account the hundred-ish posts I had to write for my other blog in January, so I managed to push my way through the game on Normal… but in doing so, the memories came flooding back.

Colossus is not a particularly difficult game to finish; even the Hard difficulty is not particularly tricky. But when it comes to completion – or, in the PS3′s case, the complete set of Trophies – the Time Attack mode is the killer. In particular, Hard Time Attack (HTA). With the memories came the sense of time and practise required to clear HTA; another reason why I abandoned Colossus mid-January.

But I still felt obliged to complete something in January, so I picked up The Unfinished Swan off PSN. It’s an easy game to wrap up, looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous, and performs some absolutely wonderful storytelling. If you’re PS3-friendly, it’s well worth picking up for something a little different; even the trickiest Trophy is an absolute delight.

Back to the Resolutions I went; February and March, which host my beloved Festivals, are always “short” months, so I tried to find something that I could finish; with only one Achievement left to obtain, Geometry Wars Evolved^2 seemed to be a reasonable choice. The missing Achievement, Smile, required about eight minutes of perfect play… which I was not able to master before the start of my Festivities, leaving February barren.

My Fringing and Festivalling was amazingly fun – friends made and re-made, some amazing performances (including one of the best dance pieces I’ve ever seen), and way too much fun. Unfortunately, the last four days were marred by a premature bout of Fringe Flu… well, more like Man Flu, but it made the closing days physically draining… and caused me to collapse immediately following the close of activities.

But, once back in front of the consoles, I returned to Geometry Wars Evolved^2 – another thirty-or-so hours of practise saw me Achieve my goal (after one heartbreaking attempt that saw me fluff the very final level). At that point I decided to return to Shadow of the Colossus; Normal Time Attack was a little tricky, but – in between squeezing in twenty(!) movies at the French Film Festival (yes, another festival!) – I managed to scrape through those Attacks with only a couple of problems.

A quick query of Google reveals that most people have problems with Colossi 3 and 15; I’ve also had massive issues with 13, and only managed to scrape through that on Normal Time Attack when a chance physics glitch worked in my favour. And, true to form, Colossus 15 was really tough; three hours saw it sorted.

Then came Hard Time Attack.

I remembered Colossus 3 being particularly tough, and Google once again revealed that most PS3 colossi slayers struggle to get anywhere near the five minute mark. Apparently there’s been a few changes in the physics handling between from NTSC PS2 version that frustrate the majority – the PAL version was the basis for the port – and so much of the grumbling was due to that; I, on the other hand, was buoyed by the fact that I knew that I’d managed this once before. I seem to remember that I relied on a sword jump to claw enough time back; I’ll just do that again, I thought.

But could I reproduce those skills? Could I fuck.

I struggled. I really struggled. I figured I could do one HTA per day and – whilst the first two colossi took maybe an hour of practise each – I figured that was relatively doable. The third one, though…

I checked all the online tutorials I could – there’s still lots of sword jumps, but also mystical discussion of Perfect Grip (which I am convinced is a myth) and a few other tricks… but none of them worked for me. But then I found this video, and practised and practised and swore and practised and shut off the PS3 in disgust and practised and…

…I just beat that fucker. With fifteen seconds up my sleeve.

So I’m pretty bloody happy right now. I know that I’ve still got Colossi 13 and 15 to go, but I’m hoping that I’m over the hump.

And with that… well, I’m back. You’re up-to-date. You don’t need to know what I think about the PS4 or anything – there’s more thoughts on the next-gen that I’d like to collate first. And, hopefully, I’ll write that sometime soon… but first, I’ve got another seven Colossi to kill.

My 2013 Gaming Resolutions

You know what? I’ve grown to love writing this post every year. Looking at the cold, stark numbers, trying to figure out whether the lofty goals I arbitrarily gave myself this time last year have been satisfied… and then creating another list of arbitrary goals.

Because it should be obvious to all and sundry that I Love Lists. Especially The List. Although that’s probably more of a love/hate kind of thing.

So let’s first review how I performed with 2012′s Resolutions…

…to leave 2012 with The List pared back to… 64. Yep, the same target as two years ago. Soft, but – on previous efforts – pretty unlikely.

Verdict: Success! The List currently sits at 63, albeit mostly because of a self-imposed buying freeze post-Wii U. Even so, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever managed to hit an end-of-year target (regardless of its mediocrity).

…to (still) keep on top of stuff obtained through the year. 50% is fine, since it means that some of the back catalogue is getting wrapped up.

Verdict: Another success! Seventeen games were bought during the year, and fourteen of them were completed – the only stragglers being the inadvertent Mario Kart Wii (which is currently serving as a nice Christmas break challenge), Nintendo Land (which will probably be a List-Lingerer, much like its spiritual ancestor Wii Play), and Shadow of the Colossus (which has been installed, but never played, on my PS3).

…to knock Perfect Dark Zero, Skyward Sword, Uncharted 2, and Halo: Anniversary off The List.

Verdict: Ooof. I played the first level (or, more accurately, the tutorial level) of PDZ, and Skyward Sword progress halted at the quest to get the Hyrule Shield on Hero Mode. On the other hand, Uncharted 2 was sufficiently completed after some of the most painful multiplayer boosting sessions I’ve ever experienced, and Halo: Anniversary was completed early in the year. Two out of four should be a pass… it doesn’t feel like one, though.

…to beat Luxor 2‘s Normal skill level.

Verdict: Comply… and exceed! Not only was Normal conquered, but I turned right around and played through Expert and the extra Challenge of Horus levels, blasting Luxor 2 off The List. Hurrah!

…to make some inroads on both WipEout HD and F-Zero GX. Racing ahoy!

Verdict: Early signs were good – I created some comprehensive spreadsheets to help me track progress in both games, and started playing both earnestly. Then something else distracted me… I returned to WipEout eventually, pushing through to 41.92% completion on my spreadsheet (my goal was 33%), but F-Zero GX remained untouched for the rest of the year – languishing at 5.06%, well short of the target of 25%. Conceded Pass?

…to clear up some of the lingering 360 titles… fo’ real this time. Ninety-Nine Nights, Rez, Shadow Complex.

Verdict: Fail. I played one game each of N3 and Shadow Complex, and the odd boozy game of Rez HD, but nothing to threaten The List.

…to break at least 500 GS in Child of Eden.

Verdict: Oh man… Success. I’m so bloody proud of this!

…to play something new; something outside the stuff I know I like. To take a risk!

Verdict: You know what? I’m giving myself a pass mark here. Early in the year I decided to chance my arm on Journey and, not only did it turn out to be one of the most wonderful games I’ve ever played, but it encouraged my OCD to pick up the rest of thatgamecompany’s work, which I had never previously contemplated. Both fl0w and Flower proved to be flawed gems that I feel glad to have experienced.

On the basis of the above, 2012 was probably my best year yet when it comes to Resolution success. So should I now up the ante? Or stick with this apparently maintainable workload?

In 2013, I resolve…

  • …to leave 2013 with less than sixty games on The List. That’s six-zero, a nett reduction of at least four – which may be tricky, given that there’s no clusters similar to the Jet Set Radio triple that helped so much this year.
  • …to give some attention to the games I wish I had played this year: The Unfinished Swan, Fez, Spec Ops: The Line. And Dyad, if it ever gets released over here.
  • …to knock Perfect Dark Zero (a fourth attempt, I believe), Shadow of the Colossus, and Uncharted 3 off The List (the latter being particularly problematic – I’ve seen estimates of 100+ hours minimum for the multiplayer trophies, with one friend sinking over 500 hours into it).
  • …to remove two twin-stick shooters off The List. So that’s probably Geometry Wars^2 and… ummm… oh shit. That’s a tough one… The original Geometry Wars, that I’m insanely shit at? the monumentally difficult MSR? or even more monumentally difficult Robotron? Eeep.
  • …to continue with this year’s good work in Child of Eden and nab two five-star levels – and one gold star – in that game.
  • …to see a nett reduction of three games on the Wii, one game on the Jaguar, and four games on the 360.

At first blush, that’s a pretty good list – some stuff that looks well within reach, some stretch goals, and – no doubt – a whole lot to panic about come September.

And, cut’n'pasting a line from previous years… What are your Gaming Resolutions for 2013?

2012: The Year In Review

As I suspect no-one has noticed, I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog lately. Absent, even. I just haven’t felt like writing much about gaming; sure, I could say that I’ve just been distracted by stringing words together on my other blog, but the fact of the matter is that I feel like I’ve absolutely, one-hundred-percent, left the gaming mainstream behind.

I haven’t even felt like I want to be part of that conversation anymore.

It’s become more and more apparent to me just how abhorrent I find the idea of violence against humans in video games. Sure, I’ve mentioned before that I’m not desperate to see attempts at modelling “reality” in games; realism feels like such a lazy art-style choice to me. The fact that it’s so often coupled with gameplay that involves the slaughter of other human beings is a step too far; alien abstractions I can deal with, but realistic depictions of someone’s child? That’s too much for me.

Now, I’m not trying to be all holier-than-thou with these statements; I’m not suggesting that other people follow suit. But I recognise that these are things that I feel, that I believe, and I’m going to be putting my money where my mouth is. I do not want the gaming industry to become a race to see who can create the best stabbing-people-through-the-face simulation; gaming can – and should – be much more than that.

What I want to see is what gaming can do that other mediums cannot. I want to see new ways to tell stories. I want to be subjected to new ways of conjuring emotions. I want meaningful abstractions that engage my mind. I want to be treated as an intelligent human being.

But, by the same token, I don’t want to eschew fun; nor do I want to avoid the glitz and glamour of sexy sights and sounds. But “realism” isn’t a style that I want to partake in; cartoonish-realism is only barely tolerable to me now.

So I’m not supporting those games anymore. I’ll purge my OC tendencies on some of my existing titles through clenched teeth, but I’m now going to try and find the glory of gaming through more… well, passive avenues. The one exception will be Spec Ops: The Line, which I will purchase first thing in the New Year. I’ve heard that it does some pretty interesting things with character development and storytelling… and, as I indicated above, that is the stuff I’m interested in.

Another reason for my absence is that I’ve been paying attention to a… well, I guess it was another type of game. Throughout my thirties I managed to pack on the weight to the stage where I was… well, lardy. I objected mightily when a gastroenterologist I consulted classified me as “obese”; when Wii Fit gave me the same summation, I started to take it a little more seriously. What this says about me – that I trust Nintendo over a qualified doctor – is left to the reader’s imagination.

Still, somewhere between Christmas and New Year in 2011, I decided to clean my act up a bit. I know myself well enough to recognise that I had to make a game out of it, and – believe it or not – Wii Fit provided the perfect framework for that. And, just to be quite clear, I’m not saying that Wii Fit is a substitute for any type of combination of decent diet and exercise; it’s just that I was able to use it as a motivator. I’d weigh myself every day: that’s a data point. I challenged myself to get a certain number of Fit Credits every week: that’s motivation.

Long story short: I dropped twenty kilos in the last year without any real “effort”… well, it didn’t feel like effort, anyway. But I acknowledge that it did eat into my gaming time (and especially my writing time, which is always the first thing to feel any pressure) somewhat.

But anyway… what a year 2012 was. Some great games, for sure, but I just wanted to note that there was some other stuff at play, too. So now, let’s focus on the fun stuff!

A cursory glance at my spreadsheet reveals that I bought seventeen new games during the year (of which fourteen were off The List by year’s end), and there were no real Retail Therapy lapses. On top of that, I knocked off eight older games this year too, leaving The List at a rather slimmer 63 on New Year’s Eve. That would have been more svelte had I not picked up a Wii U on launch day, though that – so far – seems to have made about as much of an impact on me as my initial PS3 acquisition.

But now… onto my crapulent GotY Awards!

AAA-HypeTitle I Missed Award: So… I swore off Assassin’s Creed. I was never into Mass Effect. And I even left Halo 4 alone. As usual, mainstream AAA-gaming has little appeal to me.

The “Someone’s Cutting An Onion” Emotional Punch-In-The-Guts: Oh god, will anything be able to top that climb up the mountain in Journey, especially when you’ve just been led through the secrets of the game by your playing companion? It’s an astonishing piece of game design, to conjure such compassion out of nothing. To Nivekien: thankyou thank you thankyou.

Multiplayer Moment of the Year: In a year where I spent over three days playing Uncharted 2‘s multiplayer (discovering that “boosting” in PSN-land can be slower than just earning multiplayer Trophies legit), two positive multiplayer moments stand out: assembling a cross-continental Bling Brigade (at 4am!) in WipEout HD that was full of considerate, respectful, and fun people was certainly worth a mention. But the standout multiplayer moment was playing through Portal 2‘s multiplayer with my not-frequent-enough accomplice, Lita. The bits that she knew well were bloody brilliant fun to breeze through… but when we hit the DLC levels, that neither of us had seen before, I encountered some of the most rewarding online experiences in recent memory. Even if we did get a little snippy with each other :) Thanks, Lita!

The Screaming Child Plead-for-Sanity Pacifier: OK, so I probably wouldn’t have bought The Walking Dead even if it was for sale in this country. But can someone please explain why Dyad can’t get Classified over here? Please, OFLC, please let this one through.

Disappointment of the Year: After hearing endless success stories with people transferring their Wii content to their new Wii U, I was saddened to see my attempts to do so blocked by an “error”. No description, no suggestion… just a quiet little “go fuck yourself, Pete, your purchases are staying on your old Wii.” Add on the dreadful menu load times of the Wii U and I’m left thoroughly un-enchanted.

The “I’m Out” Moment-of-Realisation Deep-Fried Tofu: The audience cheering for shotgun-in-the-face “fun” at The Last of Us‘ E3 showing this year. Au revoir.

Griddy McGriddle’s Spreadsheet-of-the-Year Calculation: Phwoar, you should see my F-Zero GX sheets in Google Docs. I can tell you – with absolute certainty – that I am 5.06% of my way through GX. And that’s the easiest 5.06%. It’s depressingly uphill from here.

Blast From The Past Award: Two playthroughs on each of three different versions of the Dreamcast’s Jet Set/Grind Radio series taught me to love the game… and even Mew, who I’d previously regarded as a Rhyth wannabe. Bless her :)

The “Go Fuck Yourself” Dismissal: Uplay. So I’m wrapping up Assassin’s Creed II, and I’ve a couple of sequences left to go. I grab the DLC, for completeness’ sake, and it’s pretty… well, awful. But the final thing I need to do to get my sync to 100% is to grab one sequence from Uplay, Ubisoft’s own online gateway… but could I get access to that content? Could I fuck. Ubisoft’s “support” was essentially “restart your console,” and then they questioned my competency to do so; what they should be telling people is that they’ve turned off the servers. Well done, Ubisoft – you’ve ensured that I’ll never buy another game that has any interaction with your shitty Uplay service.

The “I am the King of the World” Throw-Your-Arms-In-The-Air Trophy: I flew to Melbourne to see Tetsuya Mizuguchi speak. Arriving early, I went into an exhibition that featured some of his work; after unlocking Area 5 in Rez for all to play (god knows why that hadn’t been done already), I set about unlocking the Hope Archive in Child of Eden. About three-quarters of the way through the Journey Archive, I was interrupted by staff who wanted me to leave; I turn around to discover that Miz had been standing behind me for the last couple of minutes, watching me play his game. We chatted, I had my picture taken with him, and – after he’d left the vicinity – I threw my arms into the air with joy. Another Hero met :)

The “What Have I Done?” Time-Sink Tentacle: Saints Row: The Third is silly, cartoonish fun. Thirty-five hours, I thought… easy. And then I discovered that each of the seven character voices offered to the player at the start of the game have their own unique script lines… After playing through the game another six times, some of the jokes wore a little thin. But not too much ;)

That’s What Gaming’s All About Award: Sound Shapes may have appeared to have squidgey platforming mechanics, but its gorgeous visual aesthetic – and stunning soundtrack – results in an amazingly rewarding gameplay experience.

Under-Appreciated Game of the Year: Buy Sound Shapes, you fuckers. Buy a PS3 first, if you must.

The Start-Fuck-Start-Fuck-Start Cycle-of-Pain Sushi Roll: My high-score in the easiest mode of (the glorious) Super Hexagon is 20.48 seconds. I’ve got time for another ten or twenty goes before typing the next category.

The “Flow Like A River” Natural Gameplay Award: There’s a bit in Journey where you’re introduced to sand-surfing… and it feels like the most natural thing in the world. And you’re surfing along, and the camera pans to the side to show you surfing through this structure, through which you can see this incredible landscape, but you’re still in control and you realise that you’re drooling and awestruck and overfilled with joy and that you’re playing a game. Yep, that bit takes this award.

…aaaaand that’s all I’m going to write about 2012. There’s been plenty of fun, plenty of joy, and a little bit of grief – but it’s certainly within my purview to minimise the latter in favour of the former. But there’s two special games I want to call out before New Year’s Eve rolls around.

Sound Shapes is a flip-screen platformer that may put people off with its deceptive simplicity; graphics are initially plain and bold, seemingly lacking in subtlety. But as the game opens up, different visual variations and game styles are introduced, and the use of sound throughout is stunning – it creates an adaptive audio soundscape more effectively than anything since Rez. I’d even argue that it betters Rez in creating an enveloping audio landscape within which the game can thrive. All that, and it brings forth the grins, too.

But – as if it isn’t obvious enough already – my Game of 2012 is Journey.

I honestly believe that Journey is one of the most important games in years. It manages to conjure an incredibly emotional experience out of something apparently so simple; creates a social engagement out of isolation. But why’s it so important? Because Journey uses the medium to tell a story like no other game before it; it uses the medium to encourage you to emote like no other game before it.

It is the knockout punch in any “games as art” argument.

And so, without further ado… Happy New Year!

Ten Years

About a decade ago, back when I actually enjoyed my day job, I used to work as a contractor. I was good value for my employers, and I went out of my way to maintain a morally consistent stance when it came to the tools of the trade – the thing about contractors, I (and the tax office) argued, was that they provided their expertise and tools to their employers.

So I had all my own hardware, and bought all my own software. Anything that was required, I bought – that seemed completely logical to me. Someone wants money for something they made? Fair enough. Hell, I even bought WinZip once upon a time – and how many people can say that?

Anyway… at the time I programmed in Object Pascal, using a fantastic IDE called Delphi. The latest version, Delphi 7, had been released in August 2002, and I’d promptly upgraded through my usual software supplier, Microway. It was a great upgrade, and I fired it up every day in joyful anticipation of the development process.

But this post isn’t about programming, or my tools of choice… it’s about gaming.

And, at that stage of my life, gaming was a very sporadic pursuit – twice a year, a game would arrive with the purchase of a new piece of PC hardware (graphics card purchases presented me with Deus Ex and Soldier of Fortune, amongst others), and I was a big patron of the Quake series; whenever a new game was acquired, I would play it incessantly until completion (usually requiring a couple of non-working days)… but between those episodes, there was precious little gaming going on. And there was certainly no video game consoles in my house. Ever since I became a C64 owner at the age of thirteen, I was a PC snob: how could a console – a toy, emphasised by the departments in which they were found in stores – possibly compete on any term with a computer?

But then, on the 9th of October, 2002, I received a phone call that would change my attitude… and most likely changed my life.

“Pete… it’s Chris, from Microway,” was the response when I answered my mobile. Chris was my regular contact there.

“Chris! What’s up?”

“Good news! You remember that competition you entered a few months back?”

I did not. I had no idea what he was talking about, and relayed that to him.

“Oh,” he said, slightly taken aback, “…well, when you bought your copy of Delphi 7 you were entered into a sweepstake. And you won!”

“Great!” I said, still completely unaware of what he was talking about, but excited nonetheless. “So… what’d I win, then?”

“An Xbox console,” he replied.

Now, quite honestly, my heart sank a tiny little bit upon hearing that. My head had gone racing ahead with ideas like “ten year MSDN subscriptions!” and “a new monster PC workstation!”… so the reality felt a little less impressive. Still, the gears started grinding, and I figured I’d be able to sell the Xbox to one of those silly console “gamers” at work and pocket a couple of hundred bucks.

After a bit of stuffing around – Chris wanted me to clear the prize-winning with my manager, which wasn’t really a problem due to my self-employment – the Xbox was given an address, and dutifully shipped.

It came into my possession on Thursday, October 10, 2002. Ten years ago today.

I thought I’d give it a look, and unboxed it, hooking it up to my TV. The weight, the textures, the styling of the Xbox was fantastic – it felt significant, and the controller (an original Duke) felt like a weapon. The rumble of the Xbox boot sequence tantalised on a bass-rumbling level, too.

But… there was no game to play. I thought these things had always come with a pack-in game? So – off to the local video store, only to discover that they only stocked PS2 and N64(!) titles. Into the city I went, to the closest department store; their range was brash and colourful, and the names meant nothing to me. But then, at the bottom of one green-tinged case, I spied a logo: “Bungie,” it said.

Years earlier, I’d played a demo of Marathon on my Macintosh IIvx – I’d loved the tone and feel of it, but not enough to go out and buy it in the software-starved Mac market of the mid-nineties. But that flicker of recognition encouraged me to pick that game up, purchase it, and wander home, curious as to how one could possibly control an FPS with that massive controller.

By the end of that weekend, I was convinced: it was doable. In fact, it was more than doable… it was perfect.

I was not merely convinced… I was converted.

Jet Set Luxoruga Adventures

Well… it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Thankfully, sheer laziness has been only a secondary cause for my lack of blogging; the primary reason is that I’ve been to busy actually playing games. And procrastinating. But, spurred on by a (necessary) resurgence of my other blog, I’ve decided that the words need to flow on this one, too. Too much of a blockage can get uncomfortable, y’know?

When I last posted something on this blog, I was battling with Ikaruga – in attempting to get an A-Rank on the first (and, by far, the easiest) level, the best I could manage was a B++… 1.86 million points, and little idea of how I could realistically up my game to get that extra little points bump. After watching a pile of replay videos (a wonderful feature of the XBLA port), I realised that I was missing out on some serious use of the energy absorption / release mechanism: not only was the homing super-weapon useful for chain maintenance, but absorbing bullets actually scores points.

I switched from Easy mode to Normal mode, with the result that slain enemies dispatch little clusters of same-polarity bullets… and there was an immediate pay-off, with a score bump to 1.93 million. Another day of practice and I hit 2.03 million – and with that Achievement unlocked, my Gamerscore completion percentage hit 96%.

The following weekend I accompanied my nephew to AVCon where, as luck would have it, they had a Gamecube running Ikaruga in an unofficial high-score competition. Once I got (re-)used to the wonderful Gamecube controller, I figured I knew the level well enough to get into the 1.5 million range… but, after about half-an-hour of play, I managed to snag a score just over 2.1 million – better than my own local highscore, a fact that is likely to play on my mind in the future. When I left AVCon that day, I was still the highest score by about 1.8 million points(!).

Ikaruga [1] 2,182,540

After moving furniture around to accommodate the camera, I managed to rope my ex into helping me out with Kinect Adventures… she was incredibly sceptical of the Kinect initially, but we were soon leaping around, sweating up a storm, pushing through for the co-op Achievements. She gracefully retired, and I spent another couple of nights flailing around to get the requisite platinum ranks… and knocking Kinect Adventures off The List.

Quite unexpectedly, I found myself playing Luxor 2 again, pushing through the Normal difficulty level and into Advanced. Things seemed to be pretty easy going early on, but I hit a tough patch around Stage 9: some levels were taking up to two hours to tip-toe through. Perseverance paid off, though, and I breezed through the final handful of stages in one grumpy after-work evening; a weekend of more troubling levels in the tricky Challenge of Horus netted the final skill-related Achievement. A few hours of whoring, and Luxor 2 was also off The List.

With that large project off my plate, I started looking for another to tackle… and, with the imminent re-release of Jet Set Radio, I decided to tackle the three Dreamcast variants of the game that I had squirrelled away (two of them still shrink-wrapped!). After discovering the extent of the game’s unlockables – and its annoying peccadilloes – through a play through of the PAL version, I threw away my progress and started from scratch, stepping through all three versions of the game in parallel. The differences with the Japanese version were most noticeable, of course, but even the US and PAL versions had their (inexplicable) differences… but by the time I finished all three games, I was well practised in the game.

So when the 360 version was released on September 19, I leapt into it with gusto. I surprised myself by Jetting most of the levels on my first attempt – muscle memory really pays off, I think! TrueAchievements had me pegged as the sixth person to “complete” the game (though I seem to have dropped to eighth now), and I would’ve been much higher on that list… had I not taken a little trip to Melbourne to see Tetsuya Mizuguchi speak. Oh – and to meet him. He watched me play Child of Eden, don’t-you-know. But there’ll be a (longer, painfully detailed) post about that later ;)

Miz and Me

There’s other games that’ve been played – Child of Eden, Rez, Burnout Paradise, Mario Kart Wii – and most recently I’ve returned to Uncharted 2 (in an effort to wrap that up before year’s end, as resolved). I’m still champing at the bit for Dyad (which is caught up in Certification Hell), but there’s not really that much else that’s tickling my fancy at the moment. I’m just cleaning up older games at the moment – or, as I like to think of it, following through on prior commitments.

Oh – and the Wii U? I’ve only got one thing to say about that…

RocketChild LuxoRuga

Bugger.

That’s what I though to myself on Tuesday evening after scouring the PSN Store – to no avail – for Dyad. I should have read the fine-print on all the announcements – Dyad‘s July 17 release date was for North America only, with the EU release (which should result in an Australian release) still a couple of weeks away. Deflated, I had to make do with watching poor YouTube videos of other people’s first encounters with the game… but I soon realised I was hyping myself up too much.

Of course, this week’s Giant Bombcast contained a good deal of Dyad discussion which did little to temper my longing, but there was a quick remark in there that made me a little sad – apparently Dyad‘s creator, Shawn McGrath, has been trying to contact Jeff Minter to see what he thought of the game, but Jeff hadn’t responded to any of his messages. From the look of it, Dyad seems like it really could be Minter’s cup of tea, but I wonder whether it’s a cruel reminder of the failed Unity project…

The Bombcast also lead me to another podcast, too – the GameSpot GamePlay Spoilercast for Spec Ops: The Line. Now, I had absolutely zero interest in playing this game prior to hearing the Giant Bomb crew flubber about its narrative, but the Spoilercast – featuring the lead writer on The Line – was absolutely fascinating, making it sound like the story arcs are indeed worthy of investigation. But that interest is curtailed somewhat by the mention of a rather straightforward third-person shooter that sits atop the narrative, and the potentially jarring content within; maybe it’d be asking a bit much of myself to actually enjoy such an experience. In fact, I’m pretty sure that enjoyment would be out of the question, and that I’d be playing it to experience a confronting narrative experience… and I reckon I prefer that sort of thing in the cinema.

So, apart from talking myself out of buying one game – and not being able to buy another – it’s been a pretty solid week on the 360 for me. Plugging along with Luxor 2 (98 levels left!), snaffling another few Achievements in Kinect Adventures (whilst leaving the rest for a co-op session with my ex). I overcame my fear of the Passion Archive in Child of Eden to 100% it and, along with the last Archive, unlocked enough GamerScore to boost my tally on the game to 540 GS – and with that, another Resolution fell.

But, rather than moving on to the next Resolution, I started prodding one of my spreadsheets… and noticed that I’ve got a bit of a milestone coming up. In 222 GS time, I will hit a new personal best completion percentage for my Xbox Live profile – and that number is a pretty significant driving force for me. Now, Kinect Adventures has 350 GS up its sleeve, so I’m not really too concerned about that milestone… but, earlier this morning, I needed 40 GS to hit 96%, and 468 GS for 97%.

That 97% level is tickling my fancy a little, and it should be doable once Kinect Adventures is taken into account; but I thought it’d be nice to get that 96% mark out of the road today. So – back to Child of Eden I went, attempting to snaffle some Achievements for completing levels on the Hard difficulty level… before being rudely rebuffed. So I returned to a game I’d not touched in yearsBoom Boom Rocket – and, with TA hints, a twenty-cent piece, and a lot of swearing, I managed to eke out two Achievements and 20 GS.

So… 20 to go. I search my pending Achievements again… oh alright, let’s give Ikaruga a bash again.

After a couple of hours it was becoming clear that I wasn’t really improving all that much – I need another 700,000 points to hit an A rank on the easiest level. But it’s still a bloody brilliant game – tight as a duck’s chuff, though. But it was a welcome distraction from settling down with the next thing on the Resolution list, which will probably be Perfect Dark Zero… again…

Child of Luxor Adventures

Short and sweet: I managed to push through the remaining Luxor 2 levels to finish off the Normal difficulty, earning myself two Achievements in the process… and, more importantly, successfully fulfilling one of my Resolutions for 2012. I flirted with the idea of pushing on, wondering whether I could commit to finishing the game this year – but I’m all too aware of what would likely happen if I chose to do so: I’d hammer through the first thirty-or-so levels, burn out, and then buy a whole bunch of new games in a cycle of guilt and inadequacy that I can recognise, but not seem to do anything about. So I’ll put Luxor aside for now, perhaps only tinkering with a level or two (of the 108 outstanding) if I feel a real hankering.

I also quickly wrapped up another Kinect Adventures Achievement, but the bulk of the week’s game-playing time was taken up with my attempt to tackle another Resolution – breaking 500GS in Child of Eden. I scored a few 100% Purification runs, and a couple of small cleanup tasks, raising my total to 450GS… and I was feeling pretty good about things. Confident, even. I’d originally planned to just hammer playthroughs of the game until I unlocked all of Lumi’s Garden (a handy little 50GS), but I’d had pretty good fun working on those 100% levels… maybe I could clear them all out for 90GS? Or hammer through a few more levels on the Hard difficulty?

All those plans were scuppered the moment I decided to play through the Passion Archive again. I’d only completed that level once before – no big deal, I figured: that was back when I was trying to push through the game as quickly as possible. And my first revisitation was going oh-so-well – I was actually on pace to 100% the level until I fluffed the very last wave of patterned squares. Not bad, I thought, I’ll pick that up next run. But then came the boss fight…

…oh dear. Purple bullets filled the screen in seemingly incomprehensible patterns; my reticle digitally flailed in response to my panic. Death came quickly.

The memories came flooding back: I’d been stuck on that level for weeks on my first run through the game (in fact, three months elapsed between the conquering of the Beauty and Passion Archives). All of a sudden, my confidence was sapped – did I actually think that I was even capable of learning to tackle this boss? A boss which required ten minutes of slog before I even reached it?

And, of course, that just brings up more Fear – these are the easy bits of Child of Eden, I’ll say to myself; I haven’t even started to look at the high-score runs yet, let alone Gold Star runs. All I’m doing at the moment is brute-forcing my way through the game… there’s no skill there yet, and I need plenty.

And that inadequacy just makes me want to go and buy something new. Luckily Dyad is out this week…

Of course, beyond all Dyad‘s glorious technicolour synaesthesia there will be a game that I’m monumentally shit at… but damn I’ll look pretty while I’m being shit!

The Temptation of Spelunky

A bit of a slow week for me, gaming-wise; Ubisoft have been resolute in their claims that nothing is wrong with the Assassin’s Creed II Uplay service, and none of their suggestions have helped me claim my final mission of the game. So I reckon I’ll give them a fortnight to try and sort something out before dismissing the game as Completed.

I’ve been pottering around with Child of Eden most nights, just trying to brute-force my way into some additional Achievements. I finally cracked the Evolution Archive on the Hard difficulty setting, though it was a close-run thing; I seem completely unable to handle the speed of the incoming enemy fire during the phoenix stage of the boss fight, and I’m buggered if I know how I’m going to gold-star that level (on Hard or Normal). But I’m up to 400GS for that game now, with my Resolution‘s target of 500GS well in sight.

Today, though, found me in a mopey kind of mood. I didn’t want to return to Eden, I’m too scared to practise the boss rush in Skyward Sword, and – despite loading Perfect Dark Zero and watched the superlative opening FMV – couldn’t face that, either. I paired up with a random for the sole online Kinect Adventures Achievement, which inspired me to look at some other games that need some work… but after giving both of the 360′s Geometry Wars games a bash, and been staggered by the poor voice acting in Ninety Nine Nights, I decided to fire up Luxor 2 for the first time in ages… and there I stayed for the rest of the day, grinding out a handful of levels. Only six more levels before I get another Achievement in that, and another five levels for more GamerScore… but it’s getting much, much tougher now, and exploiting the gamesave feature is genuinely nerve-wracking; several times now I’ve made poor calls (with hindsight) that have left me fighting to recover.

But the big game – kinda, sorta – of the week is Spelunky. Now, let me make one thing clear from the outset: I’ve not bought Spelunky (yet), but that doesn’t stop me from being head-over-heels in love with what it is. With what it does. With how it unashamedly brutalises all who choose to play her. The random level generation and deep mechanics, in conjunction with its rich visual lexicon, are a joy to behold; the difficulty cliff and unrepentant intolerance for mistakes is absolutely charming. Giant Bomb’s Quick Look had me giggling away, with back-to-back yelps and sighs of “I fucking hate this game” / “I fucking love this game” warming the blackened areas of my heart. And the demo agrees with everything anyone has said about the game: it’s cruel. It’s vicious. It’s brilliant.

And yet… I’m not sure I’m going to buy it.

As I’ve mentioned before, The List weighs heavy on my psyche, and Spelunky – with it’s chance-influenced Achievements and demand for devotion – would undoubtedly be a List-dweller. And I like enough of what I’ve already played to want to be able to play the game well – even really well – but that would take an almost obsessive amount of time… time which I don’t really have. Time which should be spent becoming better at F-Zero GX, or Metroid Prime, or Geometry Wars… because these are all games I love too, and games that I want to be good at.

Sadly, I don’t think there’s enough room in my life for Spelunky… at the moment…

Assassin’s Creed / Assassin’s Creed II

I’m not usually one for AAA-franchises, Halo notwithstanding; I usually perceive their popularity as symptomatic of the compromise necessary to garner mass appeal. And so, when Ubisoft released the first Assassin’s Creed game way back in 2007 amid a torrent of refined media releases (mostly accompanied by then-producer Jade Raymond), I maintained my distance. The first mutterings around the webosphere were overwhelmingly positive, but they were tempered somewhat with comments about the repetitive nature of the gameplay.

Assassin’s Creed II came and went without piquing my curiosity, as did Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood; some of my online cliques raved about the later games, but I remained largely uninterested. One friend, however, was so ebullient towards the Assassin’s Creed universe that her enthusiasm started rubbing off on me; I secretly added the series to my “Must Try” list. Of course, once I vocalised that I’d done so, I was constantly hounded (in a good-natured way!) until I took the plunge: Assassin’s Creed was grabbed (for a damn good price, I might add) off Xbox Live Marketplace.

Now, it must be stated that I knew a little bit about what I was getting into when I elected to start at the beginning of the series: I was fully aware of the grind required by the first game, of the tedious collectible quests, and of the potential for glitchy achievements. But the start of the story is important to me – and I figured that it would be a pretty good introduction into the mechanics of the games. Besides, if the series grabbed my attention in spite of the original game’s foibles, it might be interesting to see how the mechanics of the later instalments develop over time.

And the opening is absolutely engrossing: you’re tossed headlong into a world that twitches with unknowns, and is unafraid to let you wallow and grasp for a moment before pulling you out and explaining the premise. And there, in the cleanliness of an Abstergo lab, the gorgeous desaturated graphics are offset by some perfunctory voice acting and animation; Nolan North’s efforts aside, the rest of the voice work is workmanlike at best, and suffers from some terrible pacing. But then, thrust back into the world of the alter-protagonist Altaïr, you get to experience thirty glorious minutes of gameplay that combines all the fluid movement of Prince of Persia (understandable, given they run on the same game engine) with combat options that – at that early stage – appear to allow you to be as elegant or button-mashy as you’d like.

But then you pay for that glorious opening by having all your weapons and skills taken from you, like a stabby Metroid episode; reclamation of the fun stuff drives the rest of the game, albeit accompanied by the need to assassinate pivotal characters in the historically-influenced storyline. And some of the writing around these characters and events is really quite clever; certainly, the dialogue between Altaïr and his victims – which takes place in a clinical white space afforded by the Animus – is full of bite and intrigue. When Altaïr returns to his Master, however, the writing becomes almost unbearable: there’s a disassociation between the action and the storyline, with the driving force behind the action limited to cutscenes that – for some reason – absolutely failed to grab my attention. Seriously, this is the first time I can remember being so completely annoyed that a cutscene was playing; even when removed from the Animus, protagonist Desmond Miles engages with even more stilted conversations with his Abstergo captors. Whilst atmosphere is (somehow) generated from these exchanges (as opposed to the drudgery of the Al Mualim lectures), it’s not necessarily an atmosphere that encourages me to keep playing.

And, whilst I was expecting a grind, I was not prepared for the extent of it. There’s comparatively few types of mission to be played, and they’re all plagued by horrid voice-work. The civilian-rescuing missions were the worst, with an awfully over-enunciated “another minute and they’d have made off with me” making me cringe every single time, and that made it feel like it was far harder work than it actually was… because it’s a blessedly short game.

Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed never really quite lives up to the strong opening; the fun of those opening thirty minutes is simply replicated (and, in the process, somewhat diluted). But despite its failings – the lack of variety, the poor audio work, and the charmless collection-fests – the storyline was intriguing enough for me to continue on to the next chapter of the series.

By the time I purchased Assassin’s Creed II it had dropped in price (again, in the Games On Demand section of XBLM) to equal that of it’s predecessor. Once the unnerving swagger of the intro movie was over, it soon becomes evident that the gameplay has only slightly evolved from the original game – but what really makes AC2 work is the polish.

Most overt is the much-improved voice acting, married with improved character models (though there’s still a bit of mannequin in the faces). But it’s only after sinking into the game that you realise that Ubisoft quite deftly took care of the biggest complaints of the original game; there’s much more variety in the missions, and far fewer voice hooks that noticeably repeat and annoy. And the gameplay itself… well, AC2 improves on the original’s glorious half-an-hour by adding in reams of extra content, and streamlines some of the processes (hurrah for fast travel!).

There’s still some quality collection-fests there for me, my magic RT+X magic-win bump combo still works, and the rough edges of the original’s conflicts have been smoothed away; there’s nothing quite like dashing over rooftops, throwing money at a group of thieves in your path to encourage them to intercept the enemies in pursuit. And there’s some gorgeous little touches in there, too: the animation of poisoned victims as they flail towards death, or approaching a woman who is going to request the beating of her philandering husband as she hides behind a tree, sobbing, wiping tears from her eyes.

But

For all the improvements Assassin’s Creed 2 makes over the original game, it also takes steps backwards. The saving grace of the original game – clever and well-weighted writing – veers into self indulgence. For every tongue-in-cheek bit of writing (“Its-a me, Mario!” or the horrible “succour” dialogue), AC2‘s head often disappears up its own arse with suggestions of the Templar & Assassin interferences in history (and the entanglement of Da Vinci, the blunt side-quest references to Michelangelo, and the garish references to coffee all stand out as garish inclusions, too). And my favourite dialogue mechanism – the assassination exchanges in the Animus – lose their erudite edge, becoming a boorish way of reminding the player that their new protagonist is a noble man. And that’s a massive shame; the great thing about the first game was that the dialogue encouraged the player to think in shades of grey, no matter how obvious the outcome was going to be. There’s no grey whatsoever in the sequel… killing innocent civilians is even tolerated to a greater degree, because Ezio is clearly Fighting The Good Fight. And the denouement of the game, in what is clearly intended to garner a “WTF?” response from the player… well, it’s a bit disingenuous, isn’t it? You know there’s more sequels coming, and the ending cheats the story of the game you have been playing a bit… though the idea of breaking the fourth wall for your third-person memory protagonist is the smallest hint of cleverness in an otherwise staid storytelling effort.

My grievances don’t end there. Despite a smoother play experience overall, there were some disconcerting moments where the game would mystifyingly switch into Twitchy Control Mode, causing you to leap inexplicably to your death desynchronisation. The “puzzle” elements in the game (thankfully restricted to the Tombs) don’t even match Uncharted‘s “quality”, veering from the too-easy to too-obscure on a whim. And, in what’s fast becoming my pet hate, the world doesn’t work.

Sure, Assassin’s Creed II does a better job with the consistency of it’s world than the first game; but the problem is that the world – an admittedly visually lush and detailed world – of AC2 is set up with realism as a goal, using history as a guide. But the language of the architecture and its inhabitants feels forced – and the world fails to feel real. Worse still, it occasionally falls into what I call the Just Cause dichotomy – a big world with nothing to do in it (the walled harbour at Venice is a particularly egregious example of this). And then there’s the little things: visual cues for the Leap Of Faith that are inconsistently used (especially late-game), and the barely disguised efforts on Nolan North’s role as Subject 16.

And then there’s the bugs. The main game isn’t too bad, with the odd actionable door allowing me to inadvertently glitch through it and remain confused as to why my mission wouldn’t start. The side-mission system should be labelled buggy, too: Venice has four places you can start an assassination mission from, but it makes the same missions available from each point… so my initial inclination of a challenging mission was rendered moot by restarting from a geographically friendly position. And in one assassination mission, I paid for the help of some friendly rooftop criminals; they promptly killed my accompanying guide, suggesting there is no honour among thieves (though that very premise supports chunks of the game itself). Ironically enough, the mission was called “Honorable Thief”.

And then there’s the DLC.

After discovering that it was only possible to get a “game completion” score of 96.8%, I grabbed the downloadable content associated with AC2 – and what a load of crap it is. The first of the downloadable chapters, Sequence 12, announces its presence with a clumsy “reminder” when you fire it up for the first time; clumsy writing (“I have the instrument to make more” screams Caterina as she flashes her knickers) is only eclipsed by clumsier gameplay, which reduces the flow of Assassin’s Creed‘s usual gameplay to a barely-capable button-mashing hack’n'slash.

Where Sequence 12 felt bereft of ideas, Sequence 13 just seemed full of nonsensical design: secret doors in one area that lead to public spaces? Hardly “secret”, is it? And with this Sequence being little more than a series of simple assassination missions – with the only differentiation from the regular assassination missions being the scenes of the people of Florence reclaiming their city (which are reminiscent of “storytelling” in the previous generation of consoles) – it just feels… well, impotent. Ham-fisted.

The clumsy integration of this DLC is evident everywhere; the new fast-travel locations label themselves in a manner different to the in-game locations, and entire lines of dialogue are either dropped or missing. It all feels… unpolished. Lazy and unfinished, even. Maybe that’s why it was DLC, rather than a delivered part of the game. But it’s still a rip-off… especially when the last 0.79% of the game lies locked on Ubisoft servers which appear to be inaccessible at the moment.

Even worse is the fact that it takes the shine off the main game. And that’s a massive shame, because – despite my complaints above – I actually quite enjoyed the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed II… but favoured the storyline of the of the first in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Between the two games, there’s a single great game struggling to get out… but I’m unlikely to give the series another chance.

After all, I’m still running around and killing people by knifing them through the face… and, with my ongoing years, I’m starting to find that a little distasteful. Give me an emotional excuse to do so, and I can calm the ickiness a little… but in Assassin’s Creed, the emotional support is abstracted behind Desmond via the Animus. There’s a level of removal that, on one hand, could be seen to justify the killing: “it’s all memories,” one might argue. But there’s a little niggle inside my head that reckons that the abstraction is even worse… that the justification actually cheapens the act even further. And that’s something that I’m finding harder to deal with these days.

But that’s very much my problem.

Mid-2012 Recap

Hello again!

It’s been a lazy month or so (alright then… five weeks) since my last post, and so much has happened in-between… let’s get recapping!

The maelstrom of E3 hit and… well, colour me uninspired. Halo 4‘s showing, whilst pretty, ensured that I would no longer venture into the world that Bungie built – they’ve got interesting plans for the multiplayer aspects, to be sure, with ongoing story-driven arcs and oodles of stats. But I struggled to (or am struggling to) reconcile Reach‘s stats, so that’s actually a turn-off for me… and why was Cortana showing up in Master Chief’s HUD? Criterion’s new Need For Speed game looks to have all the addictive qualities of Burnout Paradise, but… I’ve already got Burnout Paradise. I’m not sure I need another one.

The biggest turn-off from E3, however, was the reaction of the crowds to the torture porn demonstrations of titles like the Tomb Raider reboot (and the subsequent she’s-being-raped-so-you-care-about-her idiocy) and The Last of Us. Justifiable context or not, the shotgun-to-the-face closing of the Sony press conference demo was one of the more disgusting public displays by anyone in this industry I care about… and the fact that I had to explain to my nephew why I thought it was wrong gives me reason to think that widespread sensory dulling continues unabated.

There were some lighter moments, too: Michael Pachter’s appearance on Giant Bomb’s podcast covering Day Zero of E3 had some brilliant moments, including analysis on Nintendo’s stock valuation, the admission of Assassin’s Creed overload, and Pachter’s contrary view that attempts to balance the Watch Dogs opinion. But the relatively poor showing of Nintendo, combined with ongoing concerns of asset generation cost (and the aforementioned torture porn response) left me feeling a bit despondent… though this apology from Kotaku for E3 (including the great line “Bad Art is not antimatter”, followed by Tycho’s “more art is always the answer”) leaves me with some hope.

Luckily, I’ve managed to stop worrying about the future of gaming by playing heaps of games. My dedication to my WipEout HD and F-Zero GX spreadsheets (as previously documented) lasted only a week or two – 8.18% and 5.06%, respectively – before getting replaced by a massive Skyward Sword kick. Playing through the most recent Zelda on Hero Mode proved to be tricky early on (no hearts are spawned, and you suffer double damage) until I managed to find the first Heart Medal to redress the balance. I pushed through to the penultimate battle sequence, but there’s the small matter of earning the Hylian Shield that is stopping me from going any farther – and that shield is only obtainable via an eight-battle boss rush challenge, which is something I’m finding too daunting to attempt. I’ll wait until I grow a pair before returning to finish Hero Mode, then duck back for my final play through that glorious game.

A few weeks back I decided to buy a new Xbox 360 – my Premium launch model and my spare Arcade are still going strong (having felt the tender hands of Microsoft once each), but I wanted to get a new 360S (and, more importantly, a new hard drive) before making any significant new game purchases. It turned out that it was only about $10 more expensive to buy a 250GB Kinect bundle than an unbundled 250GB model, so I grabbed that… and the pack-in games that came with it. A bit of furniture shuffling inside the Moobaarn produced a more Kinect-friendly space, and my short-lived assault on Kinect Adventures netted me about half the Achievements trapped therein before I turned my back on it, adamant that I would return when I could coerce someone into playing co-op with me.

The other pack-in “bonus” was Carnival Games, whose high TA-ratio – 2.92 overall – had me worried that it would be a List lingerer. But after a week of jumping, twisting, and posing, I managed to fool the Kinect sensor enough of the time that it was completed… but it’s far from an easy game, with inconsistent movement responses and emphasis on luck, rather than skill. Perseverance pays off, however.

More pestering from Lita ensured that I started playing Assassin’s Creed II on my our TA-Birthday, and the Achievements flowed thick and fast. The main game was wrapped up in about four days, with the terrible DLC falling thereafter… and I’ve currently got a support ticket with Ubisoft to see whether I’ll ever be able to obtain the last 0.79% of the game that is trapped on their Uplay servers.

The last game I’ve been playing recently is Child of Eden. I managed to get a couple of Achievements in that, too (after the best part of a year’s break), and I’m actually starting to get a feel for the game now. Maybe it’s not as bad as I thought it was… first impressions, eh?

But I only really started tackling Child of Eden again as a reaction to my 2012 Gaming Resolutions, which are worth addressing since we’re at the halfway point. So… how am I faring?

In 2012, I resolved…

…to leave 2011 with The List pared back to… 64. Yep, the same target as two years ago. Soft, but – on previous efforts – pretty unlikely.

The List currently sits at 71. Might be tough going from here…

…to (still) keep on top of stuff obtained through the year. 50% is fine, since it means that some of the back catalogue is getting wrapped up.

So far, so good: so far I’ve bought thirteen new games, eight of which have already been completed. There’s only a couple of must-buys on the horizon (Fez, Jet Set Radio, and Dyad), so I reckon I’ll manage alright with this one.

…to knock Perfect Dark Zero, Skyward Sword, Uncharted 2, and Halo: Anniversary off The List.

Halo: Anniversary has already been done, and significant work has been done on Skyward Sword and Uncharted 2. PDZ, on the other hand…

…to beat Luxor 2‘s Normal skill level.

Who said what now?

…to make some inroads on both WipEout HD and F-Zero GX. Racing ahoy!

Well, I’ve made some pretty spreadsheets… and I started playing WipEout properly… that counts, right?

…to clear up some of the lingering 360 titles… fo’ real this time. Ninety-Nine Nights, Rez, Shadow Complex.

I fired up Shadow Complex once. Ummm… I had a few boozy levels of Rez, too…

…to break at least 500 GS in Child of Eden.

Woohoo! I’m up to 380!

…to play something new; something outside the stuff I know I like. To take a risk!

I’m going to claim this one as “done” on the basis of Flower, Journey, and the Kinect rubbish.

So, there you go. In short, I’m hanging on my the skin of my teeth.

Less typing, more playing, methinks ;)

More Things I Love

You know what I really love?

A good list.

A list can create order from chaos; a list can turn a ramshackle collection of targets into a sensible to-do walkthrough.

But do you know what I love more?

A thorough spreadsheet.

The more cells the better: big grids with spaces for me to put a completionist tick (or, rather, a “1″) when their goal – or micro-goal – has been reached. And if there’s cells for “1″s, there’s the opportunity to thrown in an =SUM and create a satisfying completion percentage.

Phwoar. Just typing that out has got me a little flustered with excitement. Yep, that’s how much I love me a spreadsheet.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers (yeah, right, like I’ve got any of those) that The List is spreadsheet-based. I track all manner of dates and statistics for my tiny collection; other pages in that particular file cover specific games, my favourite being the nice permutations behind the Prince of Persia combo list. And then there’s my 360 gamerscore spreadsheet and PSN Trophy data munging, both fantastic little tools that I love tinkering with. But more recent spreadsheets have covered my Halo: Reach commendations, Bastion dialogue lines, and TimeSplitters 2 awards; my tracking of the Uncharted sequels multiplayer medals is, naturally, bordering on the obsessive (especially given Drake’s Deception‘s depth of ranked awards).

But, with my interest in Uncharted 2‘s multiplayer waning a little (due, in no small part, to flaky matchmaking often refusing to make me a match), I turned back to my Resolutions for inspiration (again). And re-reading the dot-point featuring my two bugbear racers – WipEout HD and F-Zero GX – caused me to reflect: the former’s requirements for completion are pretty well defined by the game’s associated Trophies, but what about the latter?

F-Zero GX is well known for its insane difficulty, and I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never be able to cross it off The List. But my Resolution was to make inroads into the game, not complete it… so I started gathering all my completion requirements, with the aim of having something to measure “inroads” against. Unlocking all the races and characters is a given; the races are easy enough with a custom vehicle, but unlocking all the characters requires completion of the stupidly difficult Story Mode (which I’ve not even managed to half-complete, even on the easiest skill level). And then there’s all the character interview questions and staff ghosts in Time Trials…

And so a spreadsheet was born.

My “Racers” spreadsheet has three pages of WipEout HD stats (Trophies, Races on all three difficulties, and multiplayer Badges), as well as five pages of F-Zero GX stats: Ghosts, Story, Parts, Interviews, and a collective Summary. And after switching Pilot Assist off on WipEout and starting again, I’ve got 7.78% of my Gold Medals; after starting a new game of GX from scratch, I can happily report that I’ve picked up a grand total of 16 of the identified 810 target points of the game.

That’s the easiest 1.98%.

But I’m still a little hazy as to what my Resolution’s “inroads” could be. For WipEout, I’m thinking that Gold-medalling all races on the easiest difficulty – or a straight 33.3% on my spreadsheet – would be a pretty reasonable target; but GX? A similar target would imply that I’m able to win Master difficulty Grand Prix with stock vehicles… and, on the basis of my efforts in the last couple of days, I’m so far from that level of skill that it’s not funny.

So consider that Resolution… unresolved.

But damn that’s a bloody attractive spreadsheet that’s taunting me…

ComplexDeceptionAmongLegend

Hello again!

I opted not to post anything last week because… well, it’s going to be a bit boring for the next month or so, I reckon. That’s mainly because my gaming has become dominated by the Uncharted series, with a single-player Trophy spree on Uncharted 3, and lots of Uncharted 2 multiplayer – chasing DLC Trophies.

Whilst there’s nothing really to report on the Drake’s Deception playthrough (apart from a realisation that it really wants to be a movie, rather than a game), there’s been much more action Among Thieves. A new friend, met during last week’s boosting session, asked if I’d help him and a buddy out on a Hard Co-op level. Thinking it’d be a fun way to make some ranking-up cash, I agreed… and, after we pushed through that level with considerable ease, we upped the difficulty to Crushing. There was a bit of nail-biting, but slow-and-steady won the race (eventually)… and a Trophy was unlocked.

Those two guys generously offered to help me out with a few other Trophies, too, with one turning the somewhat tricky Gold Rush into a piece-of-piss. It was bloody brilliant fun, even if I did feel incredibly guilty that they were carrying my ageing skills through proceedings; Uncharted 2‘s Co-op really is good stuff.

But then comes the regular online multiplayer components and their associated Trophies, most of which are of the “perform [something] in [some mode]” variety. The grindiest (look, a new word!) of them is Cold Blooded – kill 2500 enemies in Deathmatch or Elimination games. Whilst not as daunting as Gears of War‘s Seriously, it was pretty demoralising early on to go into games (with my lowly rank emblem like a beacon) and maybe only get three kills under my belt… if I was lucky. But I’m over a thousand kills now, and the last few days has seen a noticeable improvement in my game; whilst I still aim to get six kills a game, I’ve recently started hitting double-figures pretty regularly. This is having a pleasing effect on my spreadsheet-of-stuff-to-do… does it really surprise anyone that I have such a spreadsheet?

The dark side of Uncharted 2, though, is the boosting. Whilst I’m happy eking out my kills in a legitimate manner, there’s some Trophies that I know I’d never attain through normal play; off to a boosting session I thus go. And I’ve mentioned before how disappointing the PSN-based boosting community is: TrueAchievements really has spoiled my expectations with its vast array of boosting session setup options and – more importantly – accountability for its users. It’s a rare occurrence that 360 boosting partners don’t bother turning up, or fail to co-operate during the session; they know that doing so will result in negative feedback that is visible to all future boosting partners.

There’s no such service (that I’ve found) on any of the PSN satellite sites. Thus, when only four people of nine supposedly committed players turned up to one session, I was a bit peeved. Of the four that did turn up, two immediately leapt into another game (“I’m not wasting my time waiting for others”), delaying any potential start; their selfish nature helped push the “start” time out by forty-five minutes. The ragged nature of the hours that followed also had me biting my lip; the loudest people with headsets refused to read the chat session that was in use, and frequently misled the rest of the group. Misogynist comments abound; griefing occurred whenever one of the braggarts didn’t get what he wanted.

It’s really quite demoralising, and – as I indicated above – a stark contrast to the dedication that one tends to find in a 360boosting session. It makes me want to just get these tricky Trophies out of the way and leave these people behind; seven Triple Threat medals, and a bunch of Plunder captures, and I’ll be happily flying solo, leaving the thought of those selfish shits behind.

There were a couple of other games that got a look-in over the last fortnight, too; there was a brief return to the Zelda franchise via Skyward Sword‘s Hero Mode (still caught in the interminably long tutorial section). But I also thought I’d start tackling the Master Challenges of Shadow Complex – in-game Achievements that have no gamerscore associated with them. After finding a decent walkthrough video that demonstrates a decent route through the Complex, I figured it would be a piece of piss; unfortunately, I seemed to have completely forgotten how to actually play the game. Progress was slow and stilted… and off-putting. Shadow Complex returned to the back-burner.

So that’s me. I’ve got 1036/2500 Cold Blooded kills, and I want many more… it’s a long term project, spurred on by the fact that it was a Resolution. But, once I shake clear of the Bad People, it’s also an immensely fun project… and one that seems to be indicating that I still have the capacity to learn how to improve my play.

Which makes me feel… well, less old.

Page 1 of 1412345»10...Last »