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 ;)

My 2012 Gaming Resolutions

So… Gaming Resolutions, eh? These are rapidly becoming a bit of a joke with me.

Every year I present a collection of commitments, any of which in isolation look completely manageable, and every year I fail to satisfy those commitments. Every year, I plan to pare The List down, and every year it is merely whittled.

And, more to the point, every year I feel myself drifting further away from the mainstream gamer. As I write this, I’m listening to Giant Bomb’s 2011 Deliberations, and I’ve played precisely zero of their Top Ten. True, I want to play Saints Row: The Third, Bastion, and Portal 2, and they’ll undoubtedly be picked up next year, but still… none of them.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at last year’s Resolutions…

…to leave 2011 with The List pared back to 50. No shit. I’ve just pulled that number out of my arse, and I’m sticking to it.

Verdict: Fail. The List currently sits at 67. So that’s actually a Big Fail.

…to keep on top of stuff obtained through the year. Again. Last year’s goal of 50% was completely reasonable, yet I missed it. Try harder!

Verdict: Thirteen new games appeared this year; seven of those were off The List by year’s end. Success!

…to make an impact on every platform. Again. But do it this time!

Verdict: Fail fail faility fail. The only platforms that were touched were the Wii (and I only just scraped that in), 360, PS3, and DS. Sounds like a comprehensive FAIL.

…to clear up some of the doubles. This will feed in nicely to the pruning of The List indicated above; after all, I’ve got two copies of No More Heroes 2. Three copies of Jet Set Radio! Two copies of Ikaruga… ummm, let’s not fret about that one too much ;)

Verdict: Gimme an “F”. Gimme an “A”. Gimme an “I”. Gimme an “L”. What does it spell? petee.

…to clear up some of the lingering 360 titles. There’s a bunch of games in which I’ve acquired all the Achievements, but haven’t crossed off The List. Ninety-Nine Nights needs a bit of OCD collection lovin’, Rez needs some 100% levels. Let’s get some of those wrapped up, yeah?

Verdict: What starts with “F”, and sounds like “tail”? That’s right – me.

Clearly, 2011 was outright shithouse in terms of Resolution adherence. So what do I do – choose more resolutions that look attainable, then dismally fail yet again? Or do I pare down expectations somewhat?

Let’s find out…

In 2012, I resolve…

  • …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.
  • …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.
  • …to knock Perfect Dark Zero, Skyward Sword, Uncharted 2, and Halo: Anniversary off The List.
  • …to beat Luxor 2‘s Normal skill level.
  • …to make some inroads on both WipEout HD and F-Zero GX. Racing ahoy!
  • …to clear up some of the lingering 360 titles… fo’ real this time. Ninety-Nine Nights, Rez, Shadow Complex.
  • …to break at least 500 GS in Child of Eden.
  • …to play something new; something outside the stuff I know I like. To take a risk!

So there you have it – my targets for the next year. Fewer broad sweeping statements, and more focus on the current generations (because there’s a technological change a-comin’, kids).

And, cut’n’pasting a line from previous years… What are your Gaming Resolutions for 2012?

2011: The Year in Review

And so, as 2011 draws to a close, I have this lingering feeling that – for me – it was a pretty rubbish year for gaming. Which seems like an odd thing to say, with so many big titles that should have tickled my fancy. But there were massive tracts where I completely lost my mojo, and where I couldn’t bring myself to write at all; there were some foolish purchases, and a lot of buyer’s remorse.

The List barely shrank, a result of thirteen new games being ever-so-slightly outweighed by fourteen completed. But only seven of those new titles were released in 2011, which really limits my ability to talk about the “current” state of gaming. So, as a result, my annual collection of half-arsed awards will likely span a number of years.

But all that sounds rather morose, and that’s not the point of these awards; so let’s bring the fun!

Proudest Achievement of the Year: Whilst I could happily slot Uncharted‘s Crushing Trophy in here, it’s pretty hard to go past the mountain of sweat and hope that had to be scaled for Gears of War‘s Seriously Achievement – even though it was almost entirely boosted. Whilst not a patch on the latest version of Seriously (which one of my friends acquired after an estimated 1100 hours), the uncertainty behind the original gives it a special place in every recipient’s heart. Massive kudos to my boosting crew for their seemingly endless help, without which I would still be stuck on less than 200 kills.

The “Friendly Tumour” Award: Another award for the game that initially hides its charms, but grows on you, this has to go to the original Uncharted; despite having picked up last year’s Shrugging “Huh?” Award, the harder difficulty levels completely won me over… yet another instance of difficulty making a game better.

Disappointment of the Year: Uncharted 3 (and, to a lesser extent, Uncharted 2). After the joy I (eventually) found in their predecessor, it was sad to see the much-lauded sequel stray away from that open-combat formula into tightly choreographed set-pieces which, whilst gorgeous to look at, eschew gameplay for storytelling spectacle. The latest chapter just epitomises style over substance.

Multiplayer Moment of the Year: Teaming up with gibajon to tackle Kameo‘s Time Attack Achievements. Each level became a puzzle, a carefully choreographed piece of complementary teamwork, with massive relief when we successfully got each A-Rank… and to then discover that our scores were all within the Top 50 in the world – well, that was pretty bloody special.

Under-Appreciated Game of the Year: Despite being another potential victim of style over substance, with simplistic and extremely limited gameplay, Enslaved gets the nod here for its astounding graphical presentation, genuine heart in the storytelling, and amazingly good DLC extension. Totally recommended as a gentle, enthralling game.

The “What Have I Done?” Time-Sink Tentacle: A lot of people raved about the free-roaming nuttery of Just Cause 2; for me, it was an OCD nightmare. Two playthroughs of over one hundred hours each, with every possible side-mission, destructible, and collectible covered off. And, due to a bug in the game, the maximum you can get is an annoying 99.95%.

The “About Bloody Time” Conferral: This could go to the insidious Wii Play, a List-dweller for far too long (until a recent sick-day saw me twist my way to Pose Mii victory), but instead it goes to the mainstream gaming press, for growing a pair of balls and daring to say something negative about some of the recent AAA-titles.

AAA-HypeTitle I Missed Award: More Modern Warfare? More Elder Scrolls? More Assassin’s Creed? Well, I at least played the first of that series. Still, I appear to remain well outside the mainstream gaming zeitgeist.

The Ingénue Infrastructure Gold Star: Come on… you didn’t expect me to forget about Sony’s little problem earlier in the year, did you? Well, at least it got me playing the PS3 again, with a couple of decent freebie games as compensation for wide-open web servers.

The Nutball of the Year Coconut: I love me some crazy game stuff. Shadows of the Damned brought tawdry schoolboy humour, coupled with a talking skull that transforms into a gun that transforms into a motorcycle, hallucinatory sections where you run over your girlfriend’s lingerie-clad body, and boss fights that included giant goat-headed demons pissing evil onto statues. But it was pipped by the non-stop visual orgasm that is Child of Eden – and there’s no better demonstration of that than Giant Bomb’s Quick Look. The whole video is pretty great (“September 11, 2019… too soon, man”), but if you’re after the infamous Space Whale comments, skip about 22 minutes in.

Boomshankalank – that’s 2011 over and done with. And, as with last year, I don’t have a post ready-to-go about my game of the year… but that’s okay, because my Game of the Year is a bit of a no-brainer. While it arrived late in the year, the game that impressed me most was such a wonderfully deep experience that it almost wiped the memories of the games that preceded it.

My 2011 Game of the Year is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Despite an almost impossibly slow opening, the latest Zelda iteration has such wonderfully emergent gameplay that there doesn’t seem to be a wasted second as you progress through the plethora of tasks at hand. It’s a game that I cannot wait to re-visit – something my OCD will accommodate, with another pair of playthroughs required.

And so, without further ado… Happy New Year!

HaloHaloRearmed

A couple of months ago, I lamented on my OCD’s intentions towards Halo: Reach. I broke down Reach‘s driving forces to three elements: a co-op Legendary run, all Commendations, and hitting the rank of Inheritor.

Absolutely no effort has been put into the Legendary run, and Commendation progress has ranged from slow (Firefight) to steady (Campaign) to non-existent (Multiplayer). cRedit accumulation, though, had been consistently around one hundred thousand cR per week… pretty slim returns, really, considering that the prized Inheritor rank requires a mere twenty million cRedits.

But this week, after having pushed through my Normal run through Halo: Anniversary (clearing up a heap of the Achievements as I went), I made a couple of discoveries. The first was a rather easy hundred thousand cR (a “reward” for finding all the Terminals in Anniversary) – not bad for ten minutes work. The second discovery, though, has a far greater impact on my OCD… for it has the ability to net about a hundred cRedits per day.

I remember laughing at the cRedit cap, knowing I’d never come near it; I’ve hit it twice in the last week.

Two words: Custom Challenges.

They’re like Reach‘s Daily Challenges, but… bigger. Plumper.

So the couple of days has seen a lovely little routine play out: hammer out some Custom Challenges. Scoot across for a bit more Anniversary. Back to Reach, across to Bionic Commando: Rearmed (for some more attempts at those dexterously brutal Challenge Rooms), back to Reach, out for Christmas drinks.

It’s a pretty tough life, this.

Zelda: Combat Evolved

Ever since I started dicking around with the idea of mungifying the names of the games I’d been playing as a cheap way of coming up with a title for blog posts, it’s been a little piece of joy each week twisting the words around to fit the mood summoned by the games.

This week, however, the title – whilst cheap – was just too easy.

The namesakes (or gamesakes, right readers?) should be easy to figure out – and rightly so, because the gaming time I could scrounge together in the last week (in amongst work, acting classes, and more christmas celebrations (or cellarbrations, right readers?) was completely and willingly devoted to Skyward Sword and Halo: Anniversary.

After around fifty-seven-and-a-half hours, my first playthrough of Zelda: Skyward Sword wrapped up with a thumb-numbing final boss battle. And (apart from the previously-mentioned, dreadfully slow) first three hours of treacle, it was an absolute delight. I stuck with my commitment not to consult GameFAQs until after I’d finished the game, and that turned out to be a great move; combined with my self-imposed media blackout prior to the game’s release (early review scores excepted, of course), it meant that each and every step was a surprise. The boss battles were just fantastic: the second dungeon battle, as I briefly mentioned before, stands out as being wonderfully creative and stupidly good fun. Dungeon puzzles were both subtly signposted and devious: the collection of Link’s collected items included a few regulars, but the introduction of the new items allowed a freshness and depth to the puzzles that always left me grinning like a loon.

And that’s the great thing about the latest Zelda installment: it leaves you feeling good. And, more surprisingly, it made me feel smart. And that’s a wonderful feeling to get from a game, and certainly not something that’s been conjured up for quite a while now. But now the freshness – and surprises – have passed; I know what the game’s got up its sleeves. It’ll be interesting to see what my Hero Mode playthrough will yield (yes, there’s a “hard” mode to do, along with a mere handful of collectibles to snaffle that I missed on my FAQ-Free run) when I can apply myself to the task…

…in the meantime, though, I’m playing a game which offers the very opposite of surprises: Halo: Anniversary. Now, I’m no Halo guru, but I played the original on the Xbox a lot – so the levels are very familiar to me.

So why did I find it so hard to get back into the Anniversary love-letter? Normally it’s the fear of the unknown that prevents me from plunging into games; this week, however, it was almost like the fear of the familiar.

But one night I forced myself to load up my most recent save – right at the start of the Truth and Reconciliation sniper spree. Goading myself to pick up an Achievement associated with the start of that level seemed to be the tonic; suddenly, I was sucked back into the realm of Halo. The completion of Skyward Sword gave me time to run-and-gun my way through the next level-and-a-half, with a slight sidetrip to snaffle the tricky Bandanna skull. But I’m feeling it again… that Halo joy is back.

Next week? After I finish my first run through Anniversary, I might start on some of those more belligerent Achievements – speed running The Library on Legendary? Oh, alright then :)

Then again, Skyward Sword‘s Hero Mode beckons…

Reach Among Assassins: Anniversary Sword Deception

Sure, there’s been many weeks of non-blogging, but that’s not to say that there’s not been many games played at The Moobaarn… quite the opposite, in fact. In between festival shows and acting classes and 80’s Brat Pack film sessions, I’ve been squeezing in Silly Season games wherever possible.

So welcome to this brain-dump. All signs point to it being a mess.

Let’s start with the easy stuff, first: I’m now a Field Marshall in Halo: Reach – with only 579,000 cRedits required to my next rank bump! Oh Reach, you’ll be the death of me.

Alongside the Reach Dailies, I’ve been trying to regularly squeeze in a couple of games of Uncharted 2 multiplayer… and I feel compelled to say that I’m really quite enjoying it. The twenty-odd-thousand people still playing online seem to be remarkably similar in ability – certainly compared to (say) Reach, or even Uncharted 3. There seem to be kills available for everyone, with the best players (everyone else) maybe only doubling the kill-count of the lowly (i.e., me). And I think the relatively even playing field makes it a bit more fun to play right now, as opposed to its sequel – I popped on for my second session of Uncharted 3 multiplayer and was quite soundly trounced, despite ranking up a couple of levels (I’m up to 12 and 6, respectively. A long way to go!)

I also pottered through my second playthrough (on Normal) of Uncharted 2‘s campaign. And, I have to admit, it was a touch more enjoyable on that run – though the emotional leaps-of-faith the game wants the player to take are still absurd (let’s all shed a tear over the team-killing Nazi who we’ve known for five minutes). And with that completed, I started my second playthrough of Uncharted 3… and, again, was disappointed.

I have to admit that it’s kind of satisfying (in a self-validation kind of way) to see some of the (admittedly soft) backlash against Uncharted 3. The game seems to be walking a fine line between game-of-the-year and starting-to-creak; criticism is rife. My favourite analysis was Michael Abbott’s piece over on Brainy Gamer (which also has a great podcast); truthfully, I’m a bit pissy about it, because I had ten half-coherent lines written that have been rendered pointless by Abbott’s far more eloquent take on things.

Abbot’s central assertion – “playing Uncharted 3 is less about watching a film than shooting a film” – is pretty much beyond dispute. But my contention is that, with the game trying to act like a movie director, with the player reduced to the role of an actor (or, more appropriately, a stuntman), there’s an implicit limitation to the freedom on offer; as my acting coach tells me, the writer fucking hates it when an actor drifts off script.

But what other options are available to the gaming world if we chase the action-movie trope? The player cannot be the director in an interactive storytelling experience; after all, we’re all griefers at heart. You can imagine the YouTube clips of Drake leaving Elena to die, hot-footing away with Chloe at the first available opportunity… it’s impossible to constrain the player, and yet still make them feel in complete control of a rolling storyline. There’s no real answers out there at the moment, but I’m pretty certain – despite all the plaudits – that Naughty Dog have done pretty much the best they can do within that style of narrative… it’s just that they’ve chosen a dead-end path.

And I’m buggered if I know what the “right” path forward is.

But back to the actual game for a moment: despite the slick presentation (a noticeable improvement on Uncharted 2, with the exception of less in-game tweaking options… maybe a consequence of the tighter storytelling control?), it’s still an experience that’s story first, gameplay second. But at least Naughty Dog put some effort into melding the narrative and interactivity together…

…which is more than what can be said of Assassin’s Creed. After much good-natured goading from a dear friend, I finally decided to see what this series is all about – and, not being the kind of person who can start a series halfway through, I bit the bullet and launched straight into the original, knowing full well its reputation for being an occasionally glitchy grind.

What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the extent of the grind.

Now, I love a good grind, I really do, but Assassin’s Creed takes it to new levels. The game itself has some glorious gameplay – all half-an-hour of it. Seriously. Within half-an-hour, you’ve seen all the glory on offer. There’s some wonderful, free-flowing combat and counters and running; it’s genuinely exciting running around knifing people, and even when an attempt at a stealth kill fails and you become surrounded by a cluster of enemies, the rhythmic RT-X bounce eventually kills them all with little thought.

But that half-an-hour of fun? You’re repeating it another sixty times. And every time you hear a rescued civilian say “another minute and they’d have made off with me” in a rotten English accent, you start wondering whether you’re on the right team or not. Of course, the game’s plot likes to suggest that, too… but I’ve never – ever – felt more divorced from a game’s storyline. Plot is purely injected through awkward cutscenes, with absolutely no attempt to engage the player through the gameplay. I dreaded the cutscenes, watching them only through duty, and feeling painfully bored throughout. But then it was back into the game for another half-hour of bliss like the last one…

Still, Assassin’s Creed was only on The List for a grand total of eight days, so that’s reasonable enough… but I doubt I’ll be firing it up again anytime soon. And I highly recommend that anyone thinking of playing it not plan on speeding through it… for that way frustration lies.

With Assassin’s Creed all wrapped up, I waited anxiously for the release of Halo: Anniversary; the original Halo holds a very special place in my heart, and I was really looking forward to sinking my teeth back into it.

Why, then, have I barely touched it?

I don’t know, I really don’t. I started a Normal game (just to get back into the groove of the levels), and pushed through the first through levels in quick order… but at the beginning of “Truth and Reconciliation”, I just turned it off. I didn’t want to face that night-sniping cliff-face crawl, followed by the bastard Belly of the Beast battle, followed by the fight through the Covenant craft… it all felt a bit too daunting.

Luckily, the rest of my life saved me from worrying about it too much… and then the latest Zelda game was released, closing out my Silly Season.

Now – first impressions of Skyward Sword were not great. Yes, the graphics really are lovely, the controls take a bit of re-learning before regaining their familiar efficacy, but dear god it’s a slow opening (something I also mentioned when I wrote about Twilight Princess five years ago). But here’s the good bit: I’ve now played twelve-and-a-half hours, and I’ve only just reached the second dungeon.

So there goes all my credibility as a gamer.

Truth be told, I’ve had a ton of fun just piss-farting around: I’m constantly leaving my current task to see if any other side-quests have opened up. I’m constantly returning to the Skyloft hub to watch hint movies for tasks I’ve already completed! Now, it’s not smooth sailing yet: I’ve yet to figure out how to collect bugs effectively, I barely made it through the first boss fight with one heart intact, and Skulltulas are my most feared enemy… but I’m through the boring stuff. I can sense the good stuff to come. And I’m bloody loving it.

So get ready for six weeks of Skyward Sword updates ;)

The Silly Season…

With the start of the US-centric “holiday season” comes a glut of high-profile releases, with November seeming to suffer the most from the weight of numbers (and expectations, too, with all the “AAA”s being thrown around). Most years I find it easy to ignore The Silly Season: I can tune out of the gaming world, knowing full well that the hyperbole that gets thrown around will be forgotten – along with the games that encouraged it – in a few months time.

Not this year, though. Three triple-A titles, one on each of the major consoles, coming out in the same month… and all are likely to be List-dwellers for some time.

Towards the end of the month comes the latest Zelda title, Skyward Sword. I remember seeing some promo movies a while back, and wasn’t particularly impressed: the style for this outing seemed to be a non-committal cartooning of Twilight Princess-era graphics, without pushing all the way through to create something as unique (and stunning) as Wind Waker. The idea of Motion Plus-inspired controls didn’t fill me with optimism, either, so I was thinking that maybe I could sit this Zelda out.

And then the press started buzzing.

Typically stingy-scorers Edge gave it a 10, calling it “a triumph”. Pro-press and lucky bloggers alike waxed lyrical (within the constraints of their embargoes) about the game, many expressing their delight at how they were surprised by a franchise as familiar as Zelda.

So that’s pre-ordered, then.

A week or so before Zelda? Halo: Anniversary. I’ve literally been suffering flashbacks to my original Halo Legendary run, and wondering how the hell I’m going to manage the same again. And that’s before tackling the rest of the Achievements, some of which encompass the tricks I know and love… and some of which look insane.

So that’s pre-ordered, too.

The final game in my Silly Season is Uncharted 3, which I picked up last Thursday and pushed through on Easy over the course of a couple of sessions. And that first run was significantly more enjoyable than my first playthrough of Uncharted 2, with a notably improved graphics engine. But my most recent Uncharted misgivings remain, with all senses being co-opted to drive the storyline along, distracting the player from the loose gameplay.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like the game; lord no, it’s a genuinely thrilling experience. And it certainly encouraged me to go back and start a second playthrough of Uncharted 2 (and dip into the multiplayer of both, which has proved to be both surprisingly fun and exasperatingly annoying). But… the Second Coming it most certainly is not.

And, whilst the storyline of Uncharted 3 is quality B-movie action, it’s the conversation around the game that has been most entertaining. Eurogamer’s Uncharted 3 review spawned one of the most amazing comments threads I’ve read in ages, with the (UK branch of) EG awarding the game a healthy eight-out-of-ten score… raising the ire of many. Apparently, many readers are unable to comprehend the idea of modern “reviews”, leading to cracking messages like this:

How can this get 8/10 when Uncharted 2 got 10/10?!

Or this:

So is it 8/10 like you say, or is it 10/10 like Eurogamer Italy gave it today. I don’t want to hear that’s it’s your opinion man, opinions mean shit, is the game 10/10 or 8/10

Are you trollin or is Eurogamer Italy talking shit, because you can’t both be right

Which is, quite frankly, pretty funny. One of those things that, like drunk Facebook photo postings, people will regret having committed to the Internet in their middle age.

But then, you also find comments like this one:

You, as a player, are not required to do anything from a gameplay perspective. You’re carried along on a strictly linear Cinematic Emotional journey and are even bolstered, as mentioned in the review, at certain points, should you fail, just in case the “narrative” is interrupted. The player has absolutely no agency in this game at all; they’re not really the primary participant. They just get to press buttons now and then.

Indie designer Keith Burgun came up with a great term for games like Uncharted and Call of Duty (yes, I consider them products of the same school of thought): asset tours. It’s perfect. Because that’s what they are. The developers create a bunch of beautiful assets and then the “game” itself is just about dragging you along to look at them.

The narrative itself may well be compelling from a “storytelling” perspective, but the narrative the player tells through his or her actions is nonexistent. That’s not what a game should be.

And that is brilliant. That post captured so much of what I think about Uncharted‘s later iterations that I feel frankly embarrassed about my own ramblings. I’ll try and chat more about the player agency (or lack thereof) in the Uncharted series at a later date, but – in the meantime – let me just say that “asset tours” is a perfect phrase.

In the coming week, though, I’ll be forgoing my agency and looking at pretty pictures onscreen… and getting dragged into the emotional slipstream that the Uncharteds supply. And then hating myself afterwards for being sucked into a shallow experience. And then playing through it – and getting sucked in – again.