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…

Notes from Skyloft…

As I suspected, all I’ve got room for is a collection of scribbles that I recorded in between playing Skyward Sword. Long story short: the first three hours were mind-numbingly boring. The next thirty-seven hours, however, were utterly fantastic. I’m just heading into the final dungeon, ten minutes shy of hitting forty hours, and it feels like there’s so much left to do. In the last couple of hours the game has opened up yet again.

Put simply, Skyward Sword is a Proper Game. A bloody brilliant Proper Game.

And now, here’s some notes.

2011 11 28 :: Just finished second dungeon/temple… boss fight was fucking fantastic. Forgot to mention the inbuilt hint system and all-round approachability… I’m vowing to avoid GameFAQs for this playthrough :)

2011 12 01 :: End of the first act… who needs HD? This 480p stuff looks pretty bloody good.

2011 12 03 :: Wind Waker Redux? Hell no – it’s so much better. The time shifting mechanic? Chasing the pirate ship? Magnificent.

2011 12 04 :: Christ, this just keeps getting better and better.

Hopefully this will wrap up soon, because it’s becoming quite enveloping. On the other hand, I don’t want it to end…

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.

Reach for the Damned

Last week? 225 words. This week? Fewer.

Of course, this week saw more Halo: Reach… plump dailies make the cRedit snaffling easier. Less than 102,000 cR to go until Field Marshall rank.

The only other game that got a look in? Shadows of the Damned. The Legion Hunter difficulty has been conquered (and the last of its Achievements popped), with the only tricky bits being the last two bosses. The earlier of the two has a well-known “issue” that, whilst easy to work around, still makes the battle tough; the final boss was more difficult, with ammo in scant supply and constantly consuming my (thankfully well-stocked) health-providing drinks. But, as premature congratulations popped into my TrueAchievements feed, I leapt back into the fray on the hardest difficulty level: Satanic Hell. And if the jump to Legion Hunter was significant, it was bettered by Satanic Hell; one hit from a demon leaves the screen throbbing red, and George possessed a one-hit kill (guess how I found that out).

But my gems have been glitched already, and I’m pushing ahead – lord knows how I’m going to manage that final boss, though. That will probably be the reason Shadows remains on The List.

Nothing to see here…

Last week, I opened my post with the blunt promise that it would be “short, sharp and shiny” – then proceeded to blather on for another seven hundred words.

No chance of that this week, simply because there’s precious little to opine on.

Halo: Reach, with its 343 Industries-fattened Daily Challenges, gets a look-in every second day; less than 200,000 cR to Field Marshall, now. And Child of Eden gave up an Achievement for hammering through the easiest level on the Hard difficulty setting. But the only game that’s got any serious playtime this week has been Shadows of the Damned.

Whilst a good sixth of my second playthrough was spent glitching Red Gems (to ensure that Garcia Fucking Hotspur’s weapons were at their most powerful), the second run – on Normal, or “Demon Hunter” difficulty – proved to be four hours quicker than the first, weighing in at a lazy twelve hours. The game didn’t really seem that much harder than the easiest difficulty; but, now that I’ve leapt straight into a Hard (“Legion Hunter”) playthrough, the difference is more apparent: being struck by a demon is now a worrisome event, with the potential for the second strike being fatal. Still, I’m in the midst of the gem glitching again, and looking forward to the rest of the game… although tales of buggy final boss encounters concern me somewhat.

225 words. Now that is short.

ThievesDamnedEden

Short, sharp and shiny this week, since not much gaming has taken place in the last seven days (due mainly to a spot of sickness, the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, and offering oodles of moral support to a friend in need).

After belting through Uncharted 2 last week, I wanted a bit of a palate cleanser; I decided to push on and finish my first (Easy – or “Lemon Hunter”) playthrough of Shadows of the Damned. I noted in my last post that the game’s writing had been improving as the game went on; later chapters are a cunning mix of frustration (there’s lots of instakills) and glee, especially once the weapons get amped up and the demon parts start flying. There’s some wonderful nuttery (the oft-cited segments where you control the protagonist as he runs over an enormous rendition of his girlfriend’s lingerie-clad body) and a few choice bits of dialogue; the bosses aren’t too obtuse, and it was all a good bit of fun. Lemon Hunter complete; three difficulties to go!

Having got that out of the way, I thought I’d bounce back to Uncharted 2 for a second playthrough; I managed to get to the first of the stealth bits before turning the PS3 off in disgust. I didn’t mention hating the stealth segments in my last post, but my word I thought they were awful. And far too plentiful! So that’s a nice little turn-off.

Feeling spurned, and having snaffled a fair few GamerSmarties from Shadows, I started poring over my 360 titles for more gettable Achievements… and decided to give Child of Eden another bash. Playing through the earlier – and hence familiar – levels was fine, but when I attempted the fourth level again I was reminded at why I found it tough going previously: the “game over” mechanism amounts to little more than a very sudden (and occasionally disorientating) message that can be crudely translated as “fuck you”.

And that, y’know, doesn’t really inspire me to leap back into the fray.

Still, I was convinced that Eden was at least beatable… and, after many attempts, I managed to squeeze through the end of the Passion Archive. That unlocked the final regular level, and when my first attempt lasted for a good fifteen minutes before that blunt message reappeared (doubly galling given the glacial pace of the Journey Archive’s opening minutes), I had a peek at YouTube for a level playthrough… only to discover that I’d died within about ten seconds of the final “danger” spot of the game.

On my second attempt I breezed through… grabbing a nice, fat, hundred-point Achievement in the process. But the end-game… oh my. For all that Rez managed to emote in its final stages, Eden completely misses the mark for me. Now, I’ve raved about Miz previously, but there’s one crucial bit of evidence that indicates that he and I aren’t on the same page: he thinks Heavenly Star is an awesome and inspiring song, and I most certainly do not. So that’s a bit of a bummer.

My OCD quakes at the thought of having to gold-star all those levels, especially when my first attempt at the Hard difficulty ended in shameful failure. So that will be an interesting learning experience…

One last note: I was sorry to hear of the passing of Steve Jobs. The first computer I ever coded upon in anger was an Apple ][e, and once upon a time (in the System 6-7 days) I was a massive Mac Fanboy – I’ve still got the “Windows 95 = Mac 88” t-shirt to prove it. Whilst everything I’ve read (and heard, from people who’d met and worked with him) indicated that he was a… difficult man in the workplace, I’ve nothing but admiration for the bloody-mindedness that Jobs applied to his companies to ensure they produced the products he thought the public wanted. Without his focus, I’m certain the smartphone market would be nowhere near as vibrant and exciting as it is now, and the computer market in general would be stuck with beige-box aesthetics. But most of all, I respect Jobs for not caving to the music industry – and for setting a precedent for the paid digital download of media. That’s something that I really do believe in, and without Jobs’ efforts the digital delivery landscape would be a far more fragmented beast than it is now.

Rest in peace, Steve.

ReachAmongShadows

After wrapping up my Uncharted Platinum last week (and writing a few thoughts about the game), I decided to return to the previously-disappointing Shadows of the Damned.

My first impressions of Shadows had not been kind; once I got past the fear generated by the awesome soundscapes, I didn’t like the awkward aim-then-fire control mechanism, and it felt like my avatar (the gloriously-named “Garcia Fucking Hotspur”) was a lethargic blob. Enemies were difficult to target, and…

Blah blah blah.

That line from my Uncharted piecemy first impression can be useless – should be tattooed on the backs of my eyelids. Whilst Shadows is by no means brilliant, I had a shitload of fun with it this week; I’m about two-thirds of the way through it, I reckon, and – after ditching my existing save-file and starting again from scratch – it’s been a real romp. I took advantage of a well-known glitch to max all my weapons out very early on; this had the unexpected effect of making me play with a much more carefree manner – a recklessness. Without The Fear, the game become much more engaging for me, and so I got to experience Suda51’s wacky bosses… and the dialogue has just been getting better and better. Garcia struggling to read a storybook was an absolutely brilliant touch.

But, being quite honest, Shadows was only a placeholder, something to pass the time – because I was absolutely gagging to play Uncharted 2. I wanted to hammer the first playthrough, so I fired it up for the first time on Friday night, expecting to spend the weekend romping through Drake’s second outing. Unexpected Grand Final plans on Saturday stymied my intentions, though, but (after a little recuperative snooze) I leapt back into it on Sunday… and finished it that evening. Two big sessions is all it took.

Now – as I’ve said before, my first impression can be useless, so I’m not overly concerned at my comparative lack-of-enthusiasm regarding Uncharted 2 at the moment. But I will tap out a few notes: I love the new grenade mechanism. I hate the new armoured enemies. I love that the Shiny Teeth from the first game have gone. I hate that they’ve been replaced by shiny eyeballs that make Chloe look like she’s wearing mirrored contacts. Speaking of Chloe… I hate her voice acting – it sounds like it was recorded separately to everyone else. Hate the city bits. Love the temple bits. And it’s still a pretty poorly signposted game, though I know that only annoys me on the first playthrough.

Here’s the thing, though: for all the “hate” mentioned above, I really quite enjoyed belting through Uncharted 2 the first time… certainly far more than I enjoyed the first run of its predecessor. But – and that’s a big “but” – I couldn’t shake the feeling (once again) that I was disconnected from the game somewhat, like my actions didn’t really matter. It really feels like the player is flung from one spectacle to another – and whilst these set-pieces are really quite exciting, and certainly well scripted, I always felt a little cheated when I reflected on them.

But hey – this gaming thing is still a relatively new artform. Uncharted 2 is pointing us in the right direction in terms of storytelling – that moment in Chapter 17 is really, really well done – but we’re not there yet.

Of course, that’s just my first impression, so who knows what I’ll think in a month’s time ;)

Oh – Halo: Reach remains a constant. I’ve just hit General Grade 4; now begins the long climb to the last of the military ranks, Field Marshall. 344,841 cR remaining…

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

I’ve got a pointless story that’s full of impotent venom for a large corporation that doesn’t care what I think… but this is a largely happy post, so let’s not dwell on that too much. Suffice to say that I obtained my Playstation 3 via a Sony promotion for the princely sum of AU$25 post-and-packing; the day I received it, I wandered down to my local gaming retailer and looked for something to impress me. Uncharted 2 had been critically lauded, but the original game seemed to be highly regarded, too – and I’m not one to leap into a series halfway through. I slapped down AU$50 for Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and went home to put the third pillar of this gaming generation through its paces.

When I first played Uncharted, I hated the controls – the DualShock deadzone made everything feel loose and sloppy. The story, whilst interesting, lost the plot quite disgracefully in the last quarter, and the characters – though well formed – didn’t compel. The mêlée combat felt onerous, and the gunplay unsatisfying, with enemies that appeared to be bullet sinks. And, worst of all, was the fact that the game didn’t feel very well signposted: there were a number of spots where I had to look up a FAQ or walkthrough just to figure out what I was supposed to be doing, or where I was supposed to be going.

I pushed through to the end of the game (on Easy) with the help of vash12349’s playthrough – and, to be quite honest, I almost preferred listening to vash’s commentary than playing the game itself. After sinking seemingly endless bullets into a seemingly endless stream of pirates and mercenaries, I was dreading my inevitable attempts at the harder skill levels – and, worse still, I was ruing the AU$75 I’d spent on my Playstation 3 so far.

But then, over a year later, I had that feeling in my fingers, and I picked up the controller again.

Returning to Uncharted was a surprising experience: I expected to engage in more bullet-sink drudgery but, in an attempt to snaffle Trophies, I discovered the simplistic joy of the pop’n’punch – running up to an enemy, firing a single pistol-shot from the hip, then following up with a quick mêlée for a near-instakill. This form of attack turned tedious cover-based battles into gloriously silly games of chasey, where I’d try and separate one foe from the pack before running straight at him for the pop’n’punch kill. That shifted dynamic, combined with the fact that I actually knew where I was going, made my return to Easy difficulty a delight.

As soon as I (re-)finished Easy, I started a game on Normal. And, whilst Nathan Drake’s tolerance to bullets was noticeably decreased, the pop’n’punch still worked a treat. A couple of post-work plays and Normal was done; and then I went straight back in on Hard.

And Hard was… well, hard. Opportunities to utilise the pop’n’punch were limited, as running into the open became untenable; old habits returned, and I’d cower in shelter before popping up for headshots. And, for some reason, this felt OK: the characters didn’t feel like bullet sinks anymore (god knows what I was doing on my first playthrough!). Despite the marked increase in difficulty, the Hard playthrough was completed in less than a day.

Then came a half-soothing, half-nervous two-day break.

Then came Crushing.

Uncharted‘s hardest difficulty mode starts off quite gently; the first couple of Chapters are very low impact. The first encounter with Eddy’s mercenaries, however, demonstrated just how fragile Drake was now: three quick pistol shots saw you killed, and the enemy were even occasionally capable of headshots. Running out into the open was suicide; the game became all about cover and headshots.

Chapter 4 was the eye-opener: a sequence of tricky gun battles, with swarms of enemies trying to flank you at every opportunity. But I started figuring out what made the game’s AI tick, and how I could use cover against them. Many battles were overcome through bloody-minded repetition: checkpoint, pistol, head-or-body-shot to slow one guy down while I push to cover, wait, grenade, stopping shot, move to next cover… then figure out what to do next. In fact, it reminded me of playing Quake on Nightmare: you’re initially overwhelmed by the brutality of ogres bombarding you with grenades, but you soon figure out their quirks; the game becomes more of a puzzle game thereafter.

And, far from being boring, I found this repetitive puzzle-solving to be delicious.

The infamous “plane wreck” sequence in Chapter 4 proved to be the trickiest of the game’s 22 Chapters for me. In about fifty attempts, I couldn’t replicate the behavior (or skill) in that video, so I started skirting around for other approaches. Experimenting with various other bits of cover proved useless, until I found two boxes near trees at the very back of the level. Hiding behind them seemed to anger the enemy AI – within seconds, the area was swarming with all five waves of enemies. But they seemed unable to navigate their way to the clear shot at me from the side, their persistent gunfire was stopped by the indestructible boxes, and the (ogre-like!) cascade of grenades were thrown in such a way that they bounced far enough away to not kill me (though there was most certainly risk involved).

All I had to do is line up the enemy’s head in the middle of my screen and blind-fire.

Of course, once that band of enemies had been dispatched, another wave poured in – and they did know how to deal with box-hiders like me. But I’d survived that wave, and managed to get to another checkpoint… and generous checkpointing is something that Uncharted gets very, very right.

The rest of the Crushing difficulty was… well, it wasn’t a doddle, but it wasn’t really daunting, either. I relished the opportunity to hone my approach to certain sections; I’d congratulate myself with a fist-pumped cheer if I cleared a battle at the first attempt. FinalAeon’s Crushing playthrough videos helped, to be sure, but the wonderful thing was being able to wage my private Pacific war my own way. After Chapter 4, the only bit that really worried me was the final church battle; it was only after being swarmed by shotguns a few times that I realised that the church door I’d suicidally barreled through was still open, so on my next attempt I waited for the enemy spawns and… left the church. Sully tackled some of the mercenaries himself, and the rest were easily mopped up with a couple of grenades and headshots as they emerged from the church in search of me.

So, having emulated vash’s battle cry (“Bitch… fuck… yo… life!”) as I punched out Navarro for the last time, I saw the Platinum Trophy toast appear. I kicked back with a nice glass of wine while I dug through all the unlockable art galleries and movies: the evolution of Roman’s character was a delight, as were the dev whiteboards full of feedback.

I felt really happy. It turns out, after a less-than-auspicious start, that I’d really enjoyed my time with Uncharted – and I clearly identified two big takeaways from the experience.

The first is that my first impression can be useless. I should have already learned that from my time spent with No More Heroes; still, it makes me wonder what other games I’ll love when I return to them. Maybe No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle isn’t shit after all?

The second big win was that I realised how glad I am that I possess this borderline OCD; that I had experienced this joyous fortnight of Uncharted because of a pathological need to check all those boxes obtain all those trophies. Again, something I should have learned from No More Heroes, but something that is (apparently) easily forgotten.

Yes, the story gets a little silly – but the voice-acting and motion-capture make it work. Yes, you do run around a jungle slaughtering hundreds of people with little-to-no emotion – but it’s a gorgeous looking (and sounding) environment, and (once I’d settled into the groove) the combat feels ever-so-satisfying. And yes, at times the game can feel like a grind – but it’s an exceptionally well-paced grind, liberally sprinkled with checkpoints, and pushing through one of the larger altercations elicits a rewarding response.

And that just makes me hunger for the next Uncharted game. And the one after that.

Admitting You Were Wrong…

Not much gaming this week, primarily due to Social Distractions: a dear friend’s birthday bash, some slam poetry, and a creeping addiction to Treme. I still pottered around the edges of the Reach Daily Challenges, though, and I creep ever closer to the end of the General ranks – though at a much decreased rate. I just don’t have the passion for the two hours a night (that it used to take me to snaffle about 20k cR) at the moment.

And I really hadn’t felt inspired to push on with anything else, either; Geometry Wars^2 entertains, but not in a gripping manner, and I just cannot face Child of Eden or Shadows of the Damned yet. The mojo still hadn’t selected a target, and that was starting to get me down.

As another distraction, I thought I’d catch up on a few videos that I’d bookmarked for later viewing, and I started with Giant Bomb‘s Quick Look at the upcoming Ico / Shadow of the Colossus re-release for the PS3. I was on the fence as to whether I’d purchase this: I loved Ico dearly, but Colossus really didn’t work for me at all (even after I changed the controls to something that made sense to my uncoordinated fingers). But the Quick Look reminded me of all the utter loveliness of Ico again and, as I watched the video, I had an almost synaesthetic recollection of what it felt like to play that game.

Now, Ico was the first game I really played on the PS2, so it is inexorably linked to the feel of the DualShock 2 for me. And, as much as I dislike all editions of the DualShock controllers, it just worked for Ico.

But the video left me with a Sony-esque yearning in my fingers – something I’d felt earlier this year. I fired up the PS3 for the first time in ages, and started playing Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune from scratch.

And, after a quick ten-hour run through the game (on Easy, natch), during which I netted most of the available trophies, I have to stand up and say: I Was Wrong.

Because it’s a bloody nice game.

I think I can justify my earlier bitching (and my whiny “Shrugging ‘Huh?'” award): the DualShock 3 doesn’t help at all with control accuracy, and I’ve steered clear of enough mainstream games recently that I’ve not overdosed on Nolan North, so the writing and dialogue on this second run through the game felt fresher. In fact, it almost screened like an action movie.

And that’s how I decided to play it, running-and-gunning rather than sitting cowardly in cover. Isolating bad guys and giving them the old one-shot-one-punch combo. Actually using grenades!

In short, I had a ball playing Uncharted for the second time – and I’ve immediately started another playthrough. I know that I’ll wind up gnawing my own fist when it comes time to do the Crushing run, but hey – after my Reach Legendary heroics, I should be able to grind it out, I reckon. And then, maybe I’ll move onto Uncharted 2… just in time for the release of Uncharted 3.

A real up-to-date gamer, I am ;)

Teaching the Young’uns (Part 1)

After last week’s burnout missive, there’s precious little to report this week; despite the suggestions (some reasonable, some barbaric) that were proposed, I’m no closer to deciding on my next major gaming focus. Between cheap Reach Daily Challenge sniping, I took a lot of the suggestions to heart: I gave Geometry Wars^2 another couple of bashes (I seem to be getting worse with every attempt), I fired up Ikaruga for the first time in aeons (blimey, I need to work on my dexterity – and vision), and gave Shadows of the Damned another run (and gave up in scaredy-pants fear after two checkpoints. And I’m still in Act 2!)

My nephew – who knows little other than his blinkered world of gaming – dropped by with his father on Friday night, and – as usual – asked if he could play something. Now, I’m a real stick-in-the-mud of an uncle: he’s only eleven, and I’m very careful about what I will let him play. I’ve admonished him loudly about buying games like inFAMOUS for his PS3 (and then chastised his parents); while he maintains that he doesn’t like “shooting games”, and attempts to project himself as an angel as a result, he had no qualms whatsoever about running around as Evil Cole, electrocuting civilians with abandon. I asked why he never took the “good” option; his response was that he was just chasing the better weapons.

But I’m not going to moralise right now; instead, I’ll just recount what happens when he asks if he can play a game.

Once upon a time, it was simple: I’d just fire up the Wii. I was happy for him to play nearly anything on my Wii (No More Heroes excepted, of course), and he was happy to do so, even going so far as to carry a number of his own games around with him any time he thought there was going to be a Wii in the vicinity. Since his mother bought him a PS3, however, all passion for the Wii has fallen by the wayside: he’s now very much a graphics hound, and the first phrase out of his mouth when evaluating any game now is usually of the form “the graphics are[n’t] very good.”

Which rankles a bit.

A brief side-story: my ex had a couple of twin nephews that we would take from their parents about once a month. Pizza and gaming we traded for their admiration; we were most definitely the cool aunt and uncle (I was introduced to some of their young school friends at a social gathering with almost mystical awe). These boys, too, originally saw little beyond the images projected on-screen; but, over time, I was able to help them see beyond the visual quality, and to look for other aspects in a game: control, storytelling, feeling. Not my nephew, though. He has resolutely sidestepped any efforts to educate, to expand the way he thinks about games. And that saddens me a lot; he’s obviously passionate about gaming (quite possibly at his health’s expense), but that passion is only skin deep. Anyway…

The Wii’s not good enough for him anymore, and the only games I’ve got on the PS3 are Uncharted, inFAMOUS, and WipEout – one of which he lacks the dedication to play, the other two I think are inappropriate for a boy his age. So we’re onto the 360 – handy, because there’s a lot of XBL Arcade games on the hard-drive that I fire up without leaving my seat (after all, I’m a lazy bugger); on the other hand, there’s not that many that I actually want to see elevated on my gamercard. That’s OK, though, since I’ve got a house profile set up… but what to play?

I’ve tried arcade re-imaginings, like Pac-Man – no interest. Too boring. Costume Quest entertained for awhile, but his habit of not reading on-screen text stymied his ability to progress: no progress, no interest (that buggered up Stacking as well). Twin-stick shooters are an abstraction too far, and I’ve even tried goading him – using the phrase “this is one of my most favorite games ever” – with Space Giraffe.

This week, though, I was at a loss. So I fired up Rez. And he hated it. While he played, I tried explaining why I loved it, but he remained mystified. “Not very good,” surmised my nephew, putting the controller down and picking up his 3DS; “it should have some boss battles.”

“You want a boss battle?” I said, snatching the controller. “Check this out.”

I chatted with my brother as I hammered through the early levels of Area 4. The child was disinterested, and I could hear the beeps and boops as he flitted through various NES-era games that he downloaded as part of the 3DS Ambassador Program. Despite my brother’s blank expression as he watched the glowing abstractions of Rez flow by, I explained why I thought Rez was such an important game – both personally, and within annals of gaming – and, despite nearly being fifty and having limited understanding of the form, I could see some words get through to him.

And then came Area 4’s boss: the Running Man. “Now this is a boss battle,” I said, and the boy looked up, half-interested. That’s when Area 4’s music picks up pace, becomes ominous… the early stages, abstract collections of cubes, almost lost him, but when the Running Man appeared with a cacophony of crashing drums, his curiosity was piqued.

“Can I have another go?” he asked. He tried Area 4, convinced he was better gamer than his uncle; he died early. But I could see some absorption: a look beyond the screen. A foot almost imperceptibly tapping with the rhythm.

Then I fired up Child of Eden.

My brother was left murmuring to himself, for the sake of his child – equal parts of “what the fuck” and “bloody hell that TV’s good.” My nephew tried to play, failed to progress very far, tried again, then asked “this is out on the PS3, isn’t it?”

“Later this year,” I said (September 23 over here).

“I might ask for this for Christmas,” he mused, eyes on the screen.

Now, I’ve no idea whether he means that, or whether he was saying what his cool uncle just wants to hear… but I’ll take that as a win.

But his education isn’t over yet, not by a long shot. I’m still waiting for him to get old enough – no, scratch that, mature enough – to start talking about games on a deeper level. I want him to be astute enough to explain why he does (or does not) like Ico without making me bite my lip in frustration. I want him to be able to win me over and get me to try something new – because, even though he knows I hate fighting games, I’m not going to change my mind and admit that the latest Tekken is awesome because it “looks cool.”

But, since I’m the games-as-presents purchaser in the family, he’s going to get Child of Eden for Christmas anyway. And I’ll (ironically) be goading him until he gets the Platinum.