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.

DeceptionAmongIco

A year ago, if I’d have said that – some day – my PS3 would receive an absolute caning one week, I’d have laughed at my own words.

Yet, this week, the 360 was only turned on to watch a documentary on iView, and the Wii only for Wii Fit; the PS3 was home to all of my gaming.

Firstly, I pushed on and finished my Hard playthrough of Uncharted 2, which was – surprisingly – pretty good fun. Running alongside a Crushing walkthrough was interesting, because the tactics contained therein made some parts of Hard laughably easy – the train wreck gunfight, for example, or the big Shambalah fights were achieved on their first attempt, which was a relief. There was also a little bit of a cleanup of Uncharted 2‘s medals, and a few excursions into co-op with another friend online… co-op is actually quite a bit of fun, with tension a-plenty as the last team-mate struggles to stay alive while the others’ respawn timer ticks down.

Uncharted 3 also got a look-in… eventually. There’s a common complaint amongst the Uncharted 3 community that their discs aren’t read all the time, leaving them stuck on the “spinning ring” loading screen; such was the case with me this weekend, with all attempts to get the game to load requiring a reboot. Eventually, I cleaned the tiniest smudge of a fingerprint – seriously, it was less than 5mm across – from the outer edge of the disc, and it booted, allowing me to snaffle a few Trophies.

But the major achievement of the week was the crossing off The List of Ico after a tense speed-run. In attempting to get under the two hours required for my final Trophy of the game, I found a speed run guide that presented a plethora of tricks that I’d not discovered myself. A bit of dedication – and swearing at Yorda – saw my error-ridden run clock in at 1:56:09; the Castle Guide and Platinum Trophies popped soon thereafter.

But, right now, I’m feeling a little bit burnt out after an incredibly frustrating boosting session for Uncharted 2‘s multiplayer Trophies. It had the lot: uncommunicative cowboys, people who ignored instructions, streak breakers, kill stealers… I left the last game in a complete huff. I play these games for fun; I do this boosting for that little surge of delight that appears when a Trophy pops. I don’t need to be feeling rage from these activities.

So, for now, a little break. Or maybe some Mario Kart

ThirdUnchartedJourney: PortalFlowerKart

I’ve got a life-long friend who loves getting his game on, but is somewhat stymied by his work and family duties; four kids will, I guess, devour a chunk of (what I’d consider to be) prime gaming time. But every so often he gets a day-pass from the family, and we get to sit and eat junk food and play video games – on the couch, making a nice social day of it.

But I struggled with inspiration for stuff to show him this visit. Eventually I kicked things off with a bit of Uncharted 3, pushing through some couch co-op… which was great, until the game failed to present a checkpoint that we had, by all accounts, earned. Then came Portal – he’d heard of it, but never played it, so I just let him play and kept quiet until help was needed. The same went for Journey – whilst he laughed and joked early on in his experience, when that moment occurred the room went quiet.

“That’s… fucked up,” he quietly offered. It was great to be able to see him get that affected by the game; I think it surprised him.

We wrapped things up with Mario Kart Wii – and really, is there any better competitive game when two people are in the same room? In all, it turned out to be a fantastically fun day, and a real mixed bag of experiences for him.

But, in terms of solo play, it’s been a real tale of three consoles this week, with my gaming time split pretty evenly across all three of the major platforms. And, despite the odd niggle, it’s almost all been universally great.

The 360 got a look-in when I finished off the second (of seven) playthroughs of Saints Row: The Third. The protagonist dialogue – the real reason for the multiple runs – actually started diverging quite significantly towards the end of the game… but the subtitles did not, which was interesting. I toyed with the purchase of Fez, but decided against it… for the time being.

The Wii’s drawcard was, of course, Mario Kart Wii, which provided oodles of fun and swearing – even on the slower speeds. A brief look at the harder levels indicated that it’s going to provide the madcap bedlam that I’d expect, with items zipping across the courses and my kart spending more time in the air than on the road. Fantastic, sweary stuff.

But the central focus of the week was most certainly Ico. A lazy first (PS3) playthrough reminded me of how remarkably emotive the game is, with the second (back-to-back) run an absolute delight that I celebrated with Yorda, eating watermelon on the beach. It really is a beautifully constructed experience, though some of the “high-def” work left a lot to be desired: the clean definition of Yorda’s face during the bridge cut-scene took away from the ethereal white glowing beauty that I experienced on the PS2.

There’s just one speed-run required to wrap Ico up, and this week saw the final Trophies for Flower and Journey claimed. But the most significant effort – in terms of weight of expectation – was that I finally started putting some serious effort into the Uncharted 2 multiplayer trophies.

By boosting, of course.

After looking around to see if any communities like TrueAchievements exists in the PS3 world, I discovered a real mixed bag; there’s two sites that are somewhat obviously named, ps3trophies.org and ps3trophies.com (there’s also the much newer PSNProfiles, which looks like it could approach the glory that is TA, but doesn’t quite have the weight of people behind it yet). Both offer Trophy lists, guides, and forums, but they both seem to be populated by a mix of people that actively sneer at boosting (horror stories abound) and those who just want their Trophies any way they can get them. I eventually found a dishevelled boosting thread on .com (as the kool kids call it), with one bloke recently posting that he’s about to start working on the game; “I’ll be in that,” I offer, and hesitantly we organise and plan.

I start my Hard playthrough of Uncharted 2 as re-familiarisation exercise: Ico‘s use of Triangle to jump makes things quite laughable for a few minutes. Then my old 360 boosting buddy Mitchell joins in, and we start tackling the co-op missions… and are mercilessly slaughtered.

The boosting session starts, and it becomes immediately apparent that we’ve had it incredibly easy on the 360 – comms via text chat is painful (must set up a keyboard!) and the party system buggy. Eventually we get going, though, and things go relatively smoothly; after a couple of hours, we’ve all claimed the trophies widely regarded as the trickiest in the game. The Americans eventually drift off, leaving Mitchell and I to attempt more co-op… and we’re joined, quite unexpectedly, by another player.

And they were bloody brilliant.

In an experience not unlike that of Journey, they guided us through the co-op levels – picking us up when we fell, guiding us through the tricky bits. They were headset-less, so there was no communication with them… but that didn’t stop Mitchell and I from profusely offering thanks every time they dug us out of our own shit.

Of course, we must have sounded like those pricks you always mute in games, and my subsequent friend request has been sadly denied… but that certainly was a fun couple of hours.

But as I leave my solo Uncharted 2 to write this post, I’m cowering behind cover as Chloe picks off my opposition for me. “I’ve lost him,” calls one enemy soldier as he exchanges shots with her; apparently, her gunfire is of little threat to him. Clever writing, eh? Using an undercurrent of patriarchal dismissal to encourage you to hate the baddies even more?

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

But the crux of this missive is that I reckon I’m enjoying Uncharted 2 now, far more so than in my earlier efforts. Whether that’s because of the boosting factor (and the socialising that it provides), or whether it’s another case where (as with the original Uncharted) familiarity breeds contempt respect, I cannot quite figure out yet; regardless, I’m quite looking forward to hopping back into it again soon.

Like, right now.

A Grim Realisation

In the middle of the protracted writing session that produced last week’s blog post, I had an impromptu visit from my brother and his son. I’ve mentioned my nephew a few times on this blog, often wanting to use our twenty-eight-year age gap as a (hopefully) interesting contrast in attitudes. After he mocked me because his PSN profile level was higher than mine – Level 6, 83% versus Level 6, 13% – I pointed out the fact that he had four times as many games on his profile as I did. In doing so, I was challenging him to play like me – and that, in retrospect, was a pretty silly thing to do. After all, he should feel free to play games the way he wants, finding the joy he wants… I should just be a guiding force, not a dictator.

But his goading triggered a competitive spark in me, and I quickly wrapped up most of the remaining Trophies for Flower and Journey early in the week. Then, during a moment of procrastination (and somewhat prompted by the fact that my nephew claims – he’s got a habit of cheating occasionally – to have beaten the game on Hard), I flitted over my 2012 Resolutions and started considering at my commitment to knock Uncharted 2 off The List. So I started digging around a bit to see what I’d be happy with… I was thinking all Trophies (naturally), as well as all multiplayer add-ons – boosters, skins, et al. You know, all the game had to offer.

Now, I was well aware that the multiplayer components required a fair bit of work – the Trophies, especially, would probably need some significant boosting. Some perusal of various PS3 community sites led me to believe that the support for boosting Trophies is… well, almost non-existent; still, the challenge of forming a reasonable boosting crew wasn’t daunting at all. To get things started, I popped online midweek for a bit of multiplayer action… and failed to find a game. There didn’t seem to be anyone still playing.

And then I started looking at the character skins… and my hopes plummeted. Some of the skins only became available at Level 80 – eighty! – and that, quite frankly, is a bridge too far. With my current rank stuck somewhere around Level 14 (with maybe $300,000 earned), and knowing that the levels between 60 and 80 required fifteen million dollars apiece, Level 80 felt like it would require many Seriouslys worth of effort.

I came to the grim realisation that my ideal Uncharted 2 completion would be bloody difficult. This was further backed up when I discovered that a number of skins were one-offs – only available for participants in special events, or as rewards for selected offers. It became apparent that there was no way to get them all regardless of the (seemingly impossible) Level 80 requirement.

My goal was, thus, impossible to achieve.

And, of course, my incredibly mature reaction to that realisation was to mentally throw my toys from the pram. “Fuck it,” I thought, “why bother with this stuff at all? What should my goal really be?”

So I started thinking about what would make me happy with all this content-experiencing stuff that I like to do. I can’t escape Achievements and Trophies, that’s for sure – there’s too many numbers associated with them to allow me that freedom. But if I were to accept that the primary reason I buy these games is for the single-player content, than can I dismiss any extended multiplayer hijinks?

There’s so much that’s appealing in that premise: imagine being able to give Uncharted 3‘s multiplayer only the barest of investigations. Imagine being able to write off Halo: Reach‘s horrendously convoluted Commendations! It’s a tantalising idea, but not one I can commit to… yet. I’m still ruminating on whether I can, in good conscience, accept such a shifting of goalposts.

But, speaking of Uncharted 3, I also wandered online to play a bit more of it’s multiplayer modes. The difference between it and its immediate predecessor are enormous, as is the skill levels of the players that inhabit those worlds; but I found a fun pastime in playing co-op missions in both Uncharteds, yielding minor Level increases (now up to 17 and 11, respectively).

And – deep breath – I also fired up Perfect Dark Zero for the first time in years. It’s really not a friendly game, is it? The introductory level on the easiest difficulty setting was all I could stomach; completing that game is going to be a real test of mettle. But there was one really nice thing about playing PDZ again: the opening movie is the first game-related thing I ever saw on my (then) brand new 360… my introduction to this generation, if you will. And, as a big fan of the Bond franchise, I was immediately sucked in by the movie, and even today it still generates genuine excitement in me.

Pity about the game behind it, though.

Finally, this week I had cause to buy a new Wii – and, in a vain attempt to future-proof, I wanted one of the old-style units with Gamecube compatibility (my Gamecube is really tetchy with my F-Zero GX disc, whereas my Wii has never locked up with it, so I figured I’d play all my GC games on the Wii in the future). The only new Wii unit I could find was a Mario Kart bundle… so now I own Mario Kart Wii, a somewhat unwanted – but not unappreciated – addition to The List. After being staggered that the copyright notice on the title screen says that it was released in 2008 – nearly four years ago, now! – I settled in and played the first Cup – with the Wheel, naturally. It feels good: solid, playful. But I know it’s going to be a List-dweller, though I may grant myself some leeway with regards to three-starring all Cups.

And, just to be sure of the unit’s quality, I played F-Zero GX again. Two attempts at the easiest Cup on the easiest difficulty: the Blue Falcon took me to five straight wins. The Wild Goose, on the other hand, was a twitchy fucker that I never had any semblance of control over. That game will also be a perpetual List-dweller.

The next week? Well, Wednesday should see me claiming the last of my Flower and Journey Trophies, and I’m almost finished with my second play through of Saints Row: The Third (after being stymied by a missing Stunt Jump). But then what? More tortuous PDZ, or Uncharted 2? Or maybe the tasty treat of Ico that I’ve got waiting in the wings?

FlowJourneyFlowerRow

So… how did Perfect Dark Zero go then, Pete? That’s the question on everyone’s no-one’s lips after my bold proclamation last week.

Ummm… well… at least I installed the game on my 360. So that’s a start.

But apart from that, the only real action on the 360 front was a little more progress in Saints Row: The Third; most significantly, all the GPS shortcuts have been found – it turns out that the aforementioned map is actually complete! So that’s a significant step forward, and now I’m just tidying up a few remaining Challenges before surging through the rest of the game. I’m currently sitting at 81% on Playthrough 2 (Female Voice 1); probably only another ten hours left on that one.

But most of this week’s gaming action has been on the PS3. I’ve been listening to various podcasts (most notably Giant Bombcast and 8-4 Play) rave about Journey, and the idea of the anonymous Companion player really intrigued me; sure, I’ve had pretty good luck with online players, but the guys (and, let’s face it, they are always guys) who have irked have really, really irked. Taking that opportunity for disappointment out of the equation sounded like a brilliant move.

But the OCD in me wouldn’t let me just leap into Journey; I had to trek back and engage in thatgamecompany‘s earlier works. PSN obliged with their March sale, putting both flOw and Flower up for cheap; I finally got into flOw‘s groove last week, and I started cleaning up Trophies one-by-one this week whilst absorbing the gentle vibe of the game. The final impediment to completion was the Cannibalism Trophy, an annoyingly finicky task whose precise requirements did not really gel with the loose nature of the motion-only controls. But – one extra controller and several dozen attempts later – it eventually popped, and flOw was crossed off The List. I’m not sure it’s something I’d re-visit, though there’s some soothing distractions to be had (if one chooses to ignore the “goal” of the game).

Cannibalism popped on Saturday morning, and a plan hatched in my head: if I could power through Flower in the afternoon, I could have my first of no-doubt-many Journey playthroughs on Saturday night (yes, that’s right: super-social party-person that I am, I opportunistically decided that a Saturday night was the perfect time to play through Journey for the first time). And my first impression of Flower was far more positive than that of flOw – that’s not to say that I disliked flOw per se, it’s just that Flower was immediately more engaging, with less ambiguity as to what you were actually doing.

But I found myself to be a bit conflicted with Flower… see, all I’d heard and read about it suggested that it would provide a peaceful experience. And that’s not what I felt at all; for one thing, the wind mechanic that you use to drive your petal protagonist along is far too active for me to feel at peace. It’s akin to a racing game at times and, whilst there’s (mostly) no penalty for failure or “crashing”, the speed of movement and dropped camera angle raises my heart rate, not placates it.

On completing the first level, there’s a slight key change to the score and an ominous rumble through the DualShock, and we’re treated to a view of a tree in a field – and I’m somehow reminded of the view at the end of Portal, where it’s quite obvious that you’ve “won”, yet are laying injured on the floor. It’s that kind of off-kilter view – though much more colourful, of course… but I realise that’s a very negative perception. The end of the second level makes me look at things more positively; with the rainbow in the distance, it’s almost like I’ve just woken up from a nap in a field.

The rest of the levels go by in a bit of a blur; the shocking power lines are an unwelcome change-up, and the final level’s paint-the-city mechanics yield some navigation frustrations and OCD niggles. But it’s an interesting experience, to be sure; I’ve snaffled less than half the Trophies so far, and am really looking forward to whisking around those environments again… though I’ll be under no pretences that it’s a “peaceful” game.

And then there’s Journey.

Now, squillions of people have already waxed lyrical about Journey – check out the abovementioned podcasts, or Brainy Gamer (this post is a good start). And, whilst my first playthrough was really enjoyable, I was left feeling… well, a little disappointed, actually. I wound up having five Companions flit in and out of my game, all of whom seemed to be as new to Journey as I was; there was little communication between us, and whilst there were some great team moments – tackling The Underground section was an interesting time as we both got battered before collectively figuring out the best approach to take – the Companion felt more like an Acquaintance. Heading towards the end of the game, I was separated from my final Companion somewhere in the snow… and so I wound up doing the (glorious) ascension alone. And that really made sense to me, at the time: it really felt like The Way it should be.

And when the list of my fleeting companions came onscreen after the credits washed over me, I bore them little heed. They were in the vicinity when I did Some Stuff, but they had little real impact on me.

Like I said – I turned Journey off last night feeling a little let-down. Disappointed. I felt like I’d let Intarweb hype get to me, building my expectations up beyond all reasonable hope.

But, since I only got one Trophy from that run, I decided to have a second play this morning. The first Companion I got matched with was clearly familiar with the game – they were wearing the white robes that are available if you’ve found all the Glyphs and Symbols. And, as we played, I allowed him to lead me through the game. Using a language of chirps, he guided me towards nearly every point of interest. I’d chitter a thank-you as he led me to a Glyph; he’d reply with a you’re-welcome… at least I thought it was, but his admonishment (when I missed one of the Symbols) sounded pretty much the same.

And their guidance provided a completely different experience to me. Their chirps of encouragement (well, that was my perception, anyway), of come-hithers, of get-ready-to-run… they fostered a sense of gratitude in me. When we took a moment to play – to “feed” off each other’s scarf-restoring properties as we flitted in the air (it makes sense, trust me)… it felt absolutely joyous. And we stuck with each other in the snow… and that bit before the ascension, my DualShock feebly rumbling in my hands, was genuinely upsetting.

In fact, I got a little mad at Journey at that point. You’ve allowed us to grow together, I wallowed, and then you allow that to happen?

But the ascension – which I’d found perfectly delightful solo, revelling in the experience – more than made up for it. A soaring experience, dancing in the bright colours, and a triumphant walk into the light.

And then Nivekien and I parted ways. I felt compelled to immediately send them a message thanking them for the experience… because I couldn’t believe how powerful that connection was, despite being mute and anonymous.

I’d love to say that Journey absolutely nails it, that it’s an early contender for Game of the Year. But I can’t. The game itself, despite gorgeous aesthetics and a wonderful sense of movement (walking uphill in the desert is perfectly done, and the flying mechanic is a joy), merely facilitates connections between it’s players. But it creates a space for those connections to evolve into meaningful relationships, and it does so in a way that no other game can even think about doing. And for that reason alone I’ll urge anyone and everyone to play Journey.

PortalRowFlow

So – Easter, then. A lovely four-day weekend over here, which is nice.

But not for me! The ticklings of a cold that I felt coming on when I last posted on this blog developed into a full-blown work-impacting annoyance, with a cough that turned my throat into sandpaper and refused to let me sleep. Thus, I ended up taking another couple of sleep-dep delirious days off work, leading to a six day weekend and (fitful attempts to sleep notwithstanding) more than a few opportunities to get my gaming on.

But, at the end of the week, precious few games got a look-in. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Most of the week’s gaming was split between Saints Row: The Third and Portal 2. Early on, I tore through the third of The Third‘s DLC packs, which was another embarrassingly brief bit of story-driven content that felt woefully anaemic compared to the main game. But I surprised myself a little by leaping straight back in and starting another new game with the first of the female voices; it feels like there’s minimal script differences so far, and the delivery somehow doesn’t seem as natural as the default male voice. But I’ve torn through the game (playing on Casual now), and I’ve already hammered through all the side-missions and most of the challenges. But, given that this playthrough will be my “proper” run, I’m looking into 100%-ing this properly now – and, after a little bit of goading in the comments last week, that includes finding all the GPS Shortcuts.

And, try as I might this morning, I just couldn’t force myself to methodically trawl block after block in the city of Steelport in search of mystery shortcuts. Sure, I found a map that highlights most of the shortcuts, but it’s incomplete and a bit vague… so I’m fearful that many hours of searching will yield a tally of 262 (of 263) shortcuts. And that’s a bit of a turn-off for me at the moment; I’ll have to see whether I can convince myself to check out a couple of blocks each evening, and just hope that everything turns out alright.

But the better news this week was the completion of Portal 2. Friend – and occasional commenter – Lita had agreed to play through the co-op portion of Portal 2 with me if I’d bought the game, and she was good to her word: a couple of trans-hemispheric sessions (and her careful, and not-too-spoilery, guidance!) saw most of the multiplayer Achievements pop. Then came the Peer Review DLC which she’d been unable to convince anyone else to play with her; no Achievements, no point, seemed to be the unfortunate consensus.

And that’s a massive shame, because the DLC was fantastic.

Sure, the levels were perhaps a bit more clinical than the original multiplayer levels, and I’m under no illusions that my perception may have been coloured somewhat by the fact that we were both figuring out the levels as we went (which led to the odd trying moment… but they were more than offset by the shared joy of figuring a puzzle out). But – most importantly for me – the ending of the Peer Review content drew upon the themes presented in the single-player excursion, rather than the odd dystopian conclusion of the main multiplayer episodes.

The funny thing was that, after the multiplayer sessions with Lita, I still needed one in-game hug for the last of my Achievements… so I set up a Beacon on Xbox Live for the first time, hoping it may draw the attention of one of my other Portal-playing friends. And it was amazing how many people actually did send me a message saying “not right now, but I’d love to play Portal 2 again”; that’s a testament to the wonderful gaming experience that Portal‘s co-op offers that may have been missed by many in the next-new-game culture that’s around now.

With all Achievements popped, there was just one thing left to do… well, two things, actually. First up was a run through the game with the Developer Commentary feature enabled, which proved to be a bit of a pain at times: with Developer Commentary on, Portal 2 doesn’t allow saves… not even checkpoint saves. This meant that I was forced to become adept at some puzzles that I’d just blustered my way through earlier, and the final boss battle took a bit of effort before stumbling over the line. And I’m not sure the effort was worth it, really; the Commentary was all heavily scripted and, with very few exceptions, delivered in a less-than-engaging manner. But that run served me well on my final run through game: the Wheatley dialogue run.

See, I reckon I missed a few choice bits of Portal 2 on my first playthrough, especially near the end; I was getting tired and just started rushing everywhere. Taking the time to hear some of Wheatley’s wonderful lines was time well spent, though, as was the opportunity to absorb some of the other humour that escaped me the first time: the fact that Wheatley is too stupid to “get” the paradox, for example. And the opening of the first massive vault door, revealing a blank wall and a tiny door behind it.

A lazier run also allowed me to drink in some of the brilliant visuals, too: the lighting in that game is superb, with Wheatley’s flashlight flickering stunning shadows within the bowels of Aperture Science, and the emotive puppetry behind GLaDOS’ humanisation is just perfect. A dig around for more content within Portal 2 revealed the faux Aperture ads, voiced by Cave Johnson… and they, too, are wonderful, and served as a wonderful closer for the game for me.

But the week was bookended between two sessions with flOw. Now, all I knew about this game prior to playing it for the first time was that it had originated as a Flash game, and that it was deemed more of a screensaver for the PS3 than an actual game. My initial (post-blogging) session last weekend left me scratching my head a little; I was wibbling the DualShock3 around, Trophies were popping, and I was none-the-wiser as to what I was doing. It wasn’t until I ceremoniously removed Portal 2 off The List that I gave flOw another chance… and the next couple of “games” didn’t really alleviate the confusion. Suddenly, however, the visual language of the game clicked with me; everything made sense, and now I’m gliding around this peaceful world with ease.

I’d like to say I was having fun, but… I’m not sure that I am. To be fair, though, I’m not really sure that I’m supposed to be having fun; I don’t think that’s flOw‘s aim at all. It’s too laid-back, almost meditative, to actually raise emotions so high as to elicit “fun”. Still, some of those Trophies are going to be a bit of a bitch to snaffle, so maybe they’ll get the risk/reward neurons firing.

So – the next week? There’ll be more flOw, more Saints Row, and maybe – just maybe – I’ll start firing up… Perfect Dark Zero. Yes. I think it might be time.

Je Retourne (2012 Edition)

Hello again!

April Fool’s Day seems a completely appropriate time to return to this blog – much earlier than I’ve managed in previous years! My arty cultural sojourn was a lot of work (though nowhere near enough writing was done), and a lot of fun – 155 shows all up, with some absolutely blinders in amongst them. But, as seems to be typical with any holiday I take, I was itching to get back into some gaming by the end of the Festivals.

I seemed to avoid the post-Festival malaise this year, possibly due to the relative stability of “normal” life compared to the emotional turmoil that seemed to be attracted to me during the break. And I decided to ease myself back into things by grinding my first playthrough of Bastion up to the maximum level, and then turned around and belted through a New Game Plus run. It’s an undeniably gorgeous game, both graphically and (especially) sonically, with a wonderfully balanced storyline progression. Why it didn’t appear on more Game of the Year lists last years beyond me; it really is one of the best games I’ve played in recent years.

There’s a couple of other games that had appeared on such lists last year that had piqued my interest, and after spying shrink-wrapped copies in a cheap sale I picked them up during my cultural travels (only to leave them festering in their wrap while I stayed game-free). The first of those to be opened was Saints Row: The Third, which had been recommended by a couple of friends (and raved about by the Giant Bomb crew, who I’m really growing to trust). Opening impressions were great: suitably unrealistic graphics mixed with a stupendously silly storyline and solid third-person shooting mechanics.

The problems came with my OCD, of course, which was spurred on by advice from friends that it was best to get a lot of the Challenges out of the way early on in the game; focussing on those little tasks, as well as engaging in other sideline level-plumping activities, meant that I was seriously – and I mean seriously – over-levelled for much of the game.

And normally I quite enjoy that situation: I certainly love being maxed out at any particular point of a Zelda game, for example. But in the case of The Third, I’d hit the Level 50 cap before the end of the second Act – and some of the stuff unlocked at that level is pretty game-breaking. Immunity to bullets and infinite ammo, for example. Thus, I spent about half the game walking into battles without a care in the world, bazooka at the ready, just obliterating the opposition. Fights that – I’m sure – were intended to be taut affairs were mere busy-work, and there were precious few challenges in the late game. And that’s completely my fault… I am the game-breaker here. Sometimes min-maxing can suck the fun out of things… as it did with (curiously) the third Act.

But in no way do I want to malign the great qualities of The Third: for all the misogyny and stereotypes in the game’s script, there’s some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and some really well written dialogue. The music spewing from car radios is a fantastic selection, too: jumping into a car to race to a mission’s conclusion, and hearing Holding Out for a Hero come forth is a really wonderful moment, the glorious contrast of stealing a military vehicle after an explosive battle only to be subjected to the dry classical station was brilliant, and hearing a little FNM or FGTH never failed to raise a smile. For every half-mis-step The Third takes, there’s two leaps forward that the rest of the game gets right.

Until it comes to the DLC, that is. In particular, the Genkibowl VII DLC. Where the main game seems remarkably polished and well-tended, Genkibowl contained more teeth-gnashing than all of the main-game Snatch missions put together (and doubled). The Katamari-ish mini-game was a horribly clunky mess, and the rest of the missions felt like they were completely unbalanced… it really took a shine off the experience of the main game (in which I’ve just clocked up fifty hours). Worse still is the knowledge that I’ve mentally committed to playing through all of Saints Row: The Third another six times… apparently all the main character dialog was completely independently recorded, which my OCD tells me is a necessity to experience. So I reckon one more proper 100% game (on Easy this time… first time through was on Normal) is in order, and the other four will be hammered through using some cheat codes… as much as I liked The Third, I don’t think it’s worth devoting three hundred hours to…

especially after playing my other Festival pick-up, Portal 2. I’d previously mentioned that I thought that the original Portal was a bit short, and its sequel certainly rectifies that: but, if anything, the ten-to-twelve hours that it took me almost felt a little long. I was really hoping that the final set of Chambers would be seriously cut short… though, again, I accept that my (eventual) insistence that I finish the single-player content in one sitting might have coloured my impressions of the final couple of levels. I certainly enjoyed some of the levels a lot more when I returned to them the next day for a few little Achievement wrap-ups; I suspect that my dogged insistence on completing the game led to some grumpy thinking somewhere along the line (though I only had to look up two solutions to puzzles after about fifteen minutes of poking around).

What Portal 2 does bring to the table (in an entirely dissimilar – but no less effective – manner compared to Bastion mentioned earlier) is a remarkably fresh way of telling a story. And whilst the early parts of game stick in my memory the most – the Animal King Takeover instructional movie and GLaDOS’ weight jibes being two particularly giggle-inducing examples – the introduction (and backstory) of Cave Johnson halfway through the game is just magical. The manner in which his snippets fill in Aperture’s backstory is wonderfully clever: the player is given sufficient leeway to fill in the gaps themselves, and never feels like they’re being talked down to. That form of game-based storytelling really does set the bar incredibly high for the gaming industry.

And the gameplay behind Portal 2 is pretty bloody good, too. The gels are brilliant fun, and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into the co-op over the Easter long weekend.

But that’s about all I’ve been up to, really. Oh – March’s sale on the PSN Store was pretty enticing, and I wound up getting sucked into buying the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus bundle for cheap. I love Ico, and cannot wait to play it again; Colossus, on the other hand, was a bit of a war of attrition for me when I played it on the PS2, so I’m not super-keen on getting back into that. But hey – I’ve made a cash-commitment to the game, so tackle it I will! I also picked up flOw and Flower, which I know next-to-nothing about, but I figure that those two and their youngest brother, Journey, will take care of my “something outside the stuff I know I like” Resolution.

In fact, I may just give flOw a bash now…

Time for another break…

Despite the fact that posts have been pretty infrequent and erratic lately, it’s time to take another little break – the Adelaide Fringe is starting soon, and will soon overlap with the (now annual – sigh) Adelaide Festival of the Arts. So, in an effort to not get myself into a blogging black hole (as I did last year), my gaming goes on the back-burner for a month or so.

As I seem to write cut’n’paste every year, though… please stay subscribed & keep reading. I’ll be back soon after March 18, and (if you were, like, really desperate for something to do) you can follow my exploits on my other blog, Festival Freak.

Apart from the blog re-design (or phase one of the re-design, anyway), I have a parting gift: great things for you to spend money on!

Having listened to (or read) a bunch of best-of-2011 information, I became intrigued by Bastion – and, with a half-price sale on XBLA a few weeks ago (and a relatively low TA-ratio), I figured it was a relatively low-risk opportunity to try something new.

And, to be honest, it’s absolutely bloody brilliant.

The presentation of Bastion is the first thing that struck me, with beautiful hand-drawn graphics evoking memories of (but not as minimal as) the gorgeous Braid. The second thing that hit me was the wonderful sound design – the soundtrack is stunning, the use of sound effects perfect. And then there’s the gameplay… and that just happens to tick all my boxes. A little bit of isometric action, plenty of levelling up, and OCD-triggering collection-fests. Just perfect!

So there’s the first thing you should be spending some cash on – Bastion (on the 360 or PC). I actually feel guilty that I bought it at half price! And even if you – for some bizarre reason – don’t like Bastion, you can still grab the soundtrack for US$10.

The second thing you should spend your money on is… well, it’s a cracker. My love of Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine is pretty unabashed, and as soon as I heard that Schafer had started a Kickstarter project to raise money for a new adventure game… well, I was sold.

Watch Tim’s video, and you’ll be sold too:

The really great thing about the Double Fine Kickstarter project is that it originally started as a way to side-step the traditional publishing model… by talking directly to the fans. And whilst Schafer declared that he only wanted US$400,000 to fund the game’s development, The Fans committed to that funding within seven hours… and within a day, that initial target was exceeded by over a million dollars – at an average of nearly forty dollars apiece. Even now, with US$1.6 million raised, the average is still north of US$35.

So let’s think about that for a moment.

This demonstrates that it’s possible to get a budget (albeit a frugal budget) for a game together quickly. It demonstrates that the advent of digital distribution allows game companies to deal directly with its fans. And it demonstrates that people are willing to pay more for their games!

Now, I’m not naïve – I know that Schafer already has an army of fans who adore his previous adventure games… it’s doubtful that a small no-name startup would be able to raise anywhere near one-tenth as much. And Double Fine Adventure would almost certainly have to be a PC-only game – the distribution of the game on third-party platforms (like XBL and PSN) would almost certainly be beyond the company (though with an extra million in the bank, one might imagine that Double Fine might consider submitting it for certification). And the average donation is no doubt heavily skewed by some of the massive, four-and-five-figure donations (some of the bonuses available to the top tier pledges are enticing!).

But hopefully this will encourage a little re-think of the game-publishing business. As with music publishing, the role of the “major labels” is being eroded by the shrinking of the gap between producers and consumers. And this is one reason why I happily support the evolution of digital delivery – because I want to have the ability to let People (who create the stuff I love) know that I Love Their Stuff. That’s entirely consistent with my other passion, too.

So go on – chuck a little money Double Fine’s way. I’m looking forward to seeing my name in the credits; I hope to see yours there, too :)

ReachRezAnniversaryDX

I’ve been beavering away on my other blog over the last fortnight, only permitting myself the odd hour or so for gaming. I’m still ducking into Halo: Reach on a daily basis, racking up cRedits while I can; I’ve just cracked into the Eclipse rank, with over eight-and-a-half million cRedits earned. Well over a third of the way there, and I’m still learning new techniques to further speed up the acquisition. And it is still, of course, a great game to play :)

Halo begets Halo, of course, and – despite being distracted by the upcoming Festival season – I’m still mindful of my lingering desire to get at least one game a month off The List. With that in mind, I looked at the remaining effort required to polish off Halo: Anniversary: a couple of tricky Achievements, and solo & co-op Legendary playthroughs.

The Legendary playthroughs are nowhere near as daunting as they were back-in-the-day; with the advent of the Bandanna Skull and its infinite ammo capability, grenade spamming takes a fair chunk of the challenge out of it. But some of the Achievements looked a little trickier; The Library on Heroic without dying? The Library in less than 30 minutes on Legendary?

So off I went: grenade spamming my way through The Library netted the “no death” cheevo pretty quickly. The speedrun, on the other hand, took a bit more effort… and grenade jumps. A couple of key grenade jumps. But a lazy Sunday afternoon (after I’d got some writing out of the way!) saw them both knocked off without too much trouble.

A couple more Achievements (on the Keyes level) popped, but right now I’m feeling a bit guilty; I probably played a bit too much today (after all, there’s still about 28 posts left to write on the other blog), and I’ve still got fifteen levels to play through on Legendary before Anniversary is off The List. It’s not going to be a January game.

…but I pretty much knew that already. Last week, feeling a little bit desperate (even though only halfway through the month), I looked at one of my other Lists – the Things To Buy List. My objective? Something new that I already wanted that I could finish by the end of the month.

Solution: PAC-MAN Championship Edition DX.

What a bloody awesome game. As much as I loved the first Championship Edition, DX renders it absolutely obsolete with a ruleset that never fails to delight. There’s nothing like getting a 60+ ghost combo going, audio pitches going up as you urgently seek another power pill to stretch your combo even further. My HORI Stick (or one like it – mine, a much older model, lacks the turbo functionality) got a great workout as I pushed through all the Achievements in a couple of hours over two nights; another couple of nights saw me get an overall A-Rank on all maps, my personal completion requirement. A little more play to better a few key Friends, and I was done.

Finally, I had a little mojo lull a couple of days ago; rather than start something new (my standard response to any attack of the glums is to spend money), I decided to fire up an old friend: Rez. And I will state, here and now, that Area 1 is one of my most cherished gaming experiences; I love it ever-so-much, I really do. Most other Rez-fans will wax lyrical about Area 5, and I can understand that; but Area 1 is so beautiful, the music so joyous, the audio punches so perfect, that for me… well, it’s beyond compare.

That thought made me dig up my Rez (Part 1) post… which was made almost four years ago. So much has changed since then: the SO has since departed, and – rather than play on my old 23-inch widescreen monitor – this week I was playing on a 52-inch monster screen… with a decent sound system. As I played through it again in the dark, quite possibly annoying the neighbours with the bass-beat, I fell in love with Rez all over again.

In fact, there’s a task to the handful of you that read this: go play Rez. Area 1 if you like, Area 4 is a blinder too, Area 5 if you want the majesty. And if you don’t already own Rez? Well, you’ve got a shopping trip to do (to XBLA, or off to eBay for some PS2 or Dreamcast Rezzing). Go on; you won’t regret it.

HaloOutRearmed

It’s been a pretty grim start to the gaming New Year, all up. I spent a couple of days sick in bed (yes – too sick to hold a DS up), and 343 Industries can’t seem to keep their Custom Challenges running smoothly anymore, thus butchering my cRedit earning potential (but not before I catapulted myself to Mythic rank). Not to mention the fact that I’ve finally gotten into the groove of belatedly writing on my other blog… resulting in the mojo drifting a little.

Yes, I fired up Halo: Anniversary to try and claw at some Achievements… but after an hour, I felt like I was bashing my head against a brick wall. I tried memorising more of my final Challenge Room in Bionic Commando: Rearmed, but I think my muscle memory is full about ten seconds into the room. Finally – surprisingly – I found something to enthuse about: WipEout HD.

Now, let’s get one thing quite clear: I’m absolutely rubbish at WipEout HD. I’ve struggled to complete the first four grids of the Campaign on Novice, and that’s with the edge-autosteering Pilot Assist on… because if I turn Pilot Assist off, I spend most of the race rubbing walls until I explode. And that’s no way to earn loyalty points.

I find WipEout HD to be quite… ummm… loose in the control department; it’s certainly no Ridge Racer 6 (with its solid and dependable drift mechanic), and nor is it taut like F-Zero GX (or, at least, like many of the craft within GX). But I knew that was the case before I “purchased” it (as part of the “Wefucked uplcome Back” package following last year’s PSN debacle) – I knew that it would be a List-lingerer, that it would take some serious dedication. And that’s where I find myself now, at the foot of a mighty mountain to climb…

…but I’ve just found this fantastic Beginner Basics video – and I’ve already picked out some control tweaks to perform. But, most importantly, I’ve just spied the message 21:40 into the video… and I’m now switching off Pilot Assist. I’ll suffer, to be sure, but I have to learn sometime.

Buggered if I know how I managed to get 18% of the Trophies with Pilot Assist on, though ;)