Assassin’s Creed / Assassin’s Creed II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And then there’s the DLC.

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s very much my problem.

Gears of War

With the upcoming release of Gears of War 3, I thought I’d take the semi-topical opportunity to clear another little bit of writing from the hopper… and that is a look back at the original Gears of War.

Absolutely nothing about the pre-release hype sparked any interest in me for Gears; even the positive murmurs of the online enthusiast press failed to inspire curiosity. It all seemed so drab, so cynically testosterone-driven; the graphics that had other people drooling didn’t impress, and the constant giddiness surrounding the chainsaw-led enemy dismemberment was a genuine turnoff.

And then Gears was released.

My XBL Friends List went wild. All my friends seemed to be playing it, and my international forum-friends – having an extra week (or two) before the Australian release – started agreeing with the critical response, breathlessly raving about the graphical quality and storytelling approach. Now my curiosity was piqued: innovative storytelling, you say? Hmmmmm…

I found myself visiting my mailbox, as I am wont to do, after work on a Thursday evening; my regular bricks-and-mortar gaming store was just a block away. Maybe I’d just pop in, to… y’know…

I blame my frothing friends and retail therapy for the Limited Collector’s Edition tin I purchased; I even managed to snaffle the t-shirt (a laughable XL that fit like an S on my frame) and some (pointless) COG tags that had been reserved for pre-orders. I went home, the words of friends swimming through my mind in anticipation, and fired up my 360.

Straight away, I knew I’d made a mistake.

For all their detail, the visuals were as drab as I’d initially imagined; the chunky characters, lethargic controls, and forced dialogue left me genuinely distanced from the game. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, the bullet-sink enemies made combat feel unsatisfying; so much so that I couldn’t bring myself to finish even the first Act that evening, getting scared off by the guttural snarls of the Berserker. Returning to Gears for the weekend gave me a better glimpse at the “innovative” storytelling; alas, it failed to impress me. The comic relief of Dom, intended to contrast the overblown machismo of the player’s Marcus, barely raises a smile; most of the dialogue continued to feel B-movie-strained, with the storyline being propelled by the demise of previously unknown characters.

Act 3, in particular, demonstrated the best – and worst – that Gears had to offer; opening with wonderfully understated and atmospheric weather effects, the game turns to almost survival horror (a loathed genre) with the arrival of the Wretches. Abhorrent monster closet action breaks to a thrilling mine-cart ride and assault into gorgeous underground caverns; muscular macho posturing after the death of the Corpser, followed by the stereotypical jump for safety, make it feel like a Michael Bay-esque Hollywood action-fest.

But I hate Michael Bay’s movies. I prayed for Gears to end.

It took a lazy week to finish the game on Casual, and a peek at the Achievements left me depressed. Still, a friend in England loved the game, and wanted to play through it in co-op; off we went on the Hardcore difficulty, with most of the hosting being done in the southern hemisphere. It was noticeably tougher, to be sure, but with a friendly off-sider it was infinitely more enjoyable. The arrival of Cole inspired a bunch of friendly memes (“my throat is parched… woo!”), there was silly panic as we struggled through the Kryll driving section, and the surprise when the Corpser actually ran away from us… they were the memorable moments for me. The moments surrounding the game, not within it.

When we turned things around for the Insane difficulty, with the hosting being performed in the UK, I was gobsmacked: there was a tangible lag in the controls, with about a third of a second between squeezing the trigger and bullets being fired. To my mate’s credit, he’d never mentioned it when he’d played as Dom; I, however, was rendered useless. Unable to mentally compensate for the lag, my attacking moves were pointless, my defense comical. Separated, and unable to rely on my offsider’s host advantage, the mine-cart section took ages to push through… and the Wretch rail-car was almost Benny Hill-ish, as I ran around firing my shotgun in a seemingly random (and certainly ineffective) manner, waiting for my partner to pick off the enemies. Once RAAM got stuck on some geometry, it was over.

With the Campaign conquered, I looked at the remaining Achievements… shit. All were based on ranked matches, and I was reluctant to go online with strangers; my experiences in other games had left poor impressions of ranked games being packed with selfish shitulent children. So, against every OCD fibre in my being, I reluctantly reconciled myself to the fact that there were a huge number of Achievements that would not be Achieved… completion percentage be damned. But then the Annex-related DLC hit the Marketplace, with 250 GS that could be achieved outside of ranked matches… I broke out the second controller and ground out (what felt like) the millions of Annex matches locally. Then, stuck in the middle of an Achievement-per-Day run, I swallowed my fear of the unknown and ventured online to score my “Always Remember Your First” Achievement (for my first online ranked match) – and my fears about the online community were confirmed. What a bunch of wankers! Two games, a lot of juvenile smack-talking (to a n00b, no less), less-than-a-handful of chainsaw kills, and I was willing to kiss Gears goodbye, languishing in half-completeness.


Late in 2010 I found myself aimlessly drifting between little gaming projects; sadly, none of them were sticking. None of them were compelling enough to persevere with. I’d start a seemingly small task, spend a couple of days making significant progress, before letting it slide off with indifference.

I felt the need for something bigger to sink my teeth into; a task that was big enough that any progress represented Good Progress, but was daunting enough to not immediately burn out on. Something with numbers that accumulated would be nice, something with accumulated statistics that I could plonk into a spreadsheet and extrapolate expected completion dates, then attempt to drag that date ever closer; those sorts of things really tick my mental boxes.

And that massive number associated with Gears‘ most revered Achievement sprang into my mind: ten thousand kills in ranked online matches. Ten thousand… that’s a pretty big number.

I thought I’d start by researching. The boosting community in 2010 was far far far more substantial than that of previous years, with the advent of sites like True Achievements facilitating the congress of likeminded people hankering for the same goal; I signed up for a couple of Gears boosting sessions. Now, I had no idea what to expect from the boosting, but after the first session, after I saw the 30 minute breaks afforded by the spawn boosting method, I thought that this would actually work in well with other little projects of mine. I figured I could do something else productive in those breaks – write blog posts, do my taxes, clean up e-mail, pound my way through Chrono Trigger again.

That never happened, though.

Instead, I found myself talking to people.

I’ve written before about the start of my boosting escapades, and of the joy contained therein, so I won’t cover that again (except to thank nearly everyone who helped me out over that mad month – you know who you are!). But as I wrote the opening paragraphs of this piece, I realised that my time with Gears of War was largely enjoyable; not because of the game itself, but more because of the social interactions it inadvertently encouraged. From taking the piss out of its testosterone-fuelled “story”, through to a silly New Years Eve boosting session consisting of wine and smoke grenades, and that shared thrill within the group when someone’s Achievement popped… they were the bits that made Gears of War a special game.

Not some stupid bloody chainsaw on an ineffective machine gun held by a chunky nouveau-emo muscle boy.


You know, when I get thoroughly sucked into a game, life gets a little one-dimensional. I get a little focussed, a little bit rabid, and pretty much everything else in life takes a back-seat. Anything that’s not involved in the game is simply in the way, an impediment to playing; it dominates my thoughts, and I often find that my fingers will involuntarily exercise themselves in anticipated execution of their functions. Such is the nature of my affliction.

My obsession lately has, of course, been Halo 3: ODST. My Solo Legendary run through the game was smooth as silk – if you ignore the plethora of grisly deaths along the way. But those deaths revealed some wonderful truths about ODST‘s balance; the checkpoints are frequent and sensibly triggered, and when forced back to a checkpoint there always seems to be another way around the problem. Getting mauled when running out of an elevator one way? Try the other! Forced back against the wall in an indefensible position? Push forward to open areas! Swarmed by enemies in the open? Fall back to confined spaces and create a choke-point! So many options are available to the player, and – unlike any other Halo game I’ve tried so far – the Legendary difficulty was an absolute delight.

Of course, that leaves the small matter of the Firefight Achievements; so I found a few like-minded souls and started forming a team of crack Firefighters. Well, “crack” may be too strong a word; one chap had distinctly “good” days (where he appeared to be a Halo ninja) and “bad” days (where he would frequently run into situations we urged him not to… and die). Many of the attempts on some Firefights with only three people ended in abject failure; some attempts died with the network connection (one with the score at 188k of the required 200,000). But, in the end, all the Firefights were done (thanks mainly to a lad in the US whose remoteness lagged the game just enough to allow slightly slowed, but still fluid, action), and even the brilliant Déjà Vu Achievement was earned. All that remains now is Vidmaster Endure… anyone know a team of three ODST ninjas who can carry my fat arse over the finishing line? :}

There was also a bit more Halo: Reach… there will always be more Reach to do. So many Commendations to earn, so many cRedits to whore… This week, however, was a bit special for me: I’ve just attained the rank of Commander. And I’ve just discovered that the “incremental” upgrades are now 50,000 cRedits apiece. Blimey.

The very wonderful Costume Quest got some DLC this weekend – and, aside from the fact that it doesn’t integrate all that cleanly with the game, and a slightly disappointing final boss battle – it’s still very wonderful. So much charm and humour is packed in there; make sure you try out all the new costumes’ battle techniques… the Eyeball is hilarious.

Finally this week, I started work on a massive project… a year-long project, I reckon. It’s name? Gears of War. Yes, I finally decided to start nabbing some of the outstanding Achievements in Gears… including (deep breath) Seriously, for 10,000 ranked online kills. Now, clearly that’s going to involve a hell of a lot of boosting; and my few experiences playing Gears online in the past had led me to expect the worst from the community. However, my first selected boosting session was an absolute blinder; once everyone got settled in, it ran like clockwork, with a comfortable rhythm and plenty of kills for everyone. Just the one Achievement so far, but the bedrock for others to follow… and a mighty mountain to climb. After all, I’m only about 1% of the way there…

HaloHaloHalo (and a little bit of Crackdown)

Just a really quick one this week (or fortnight, as the case may be), because I’ve been doing bugger all for the last five weeks while I’ve been off work but I’m heading into the office again tomorrow and I’m completely unprepared and I’m worried that my sleep pattern is all out of whack and stuff.

With my little writing exercise successfully completed, I thought about giving myself a nice little project for my remaining holidays: visit the folks? Did that. Finish populating The Moobaarn? Well, I did a bit of that. Have a nice relaxing read? Did a tiny bit of that. Resurrect one of my coding projects? Avoided that like the plague.

Play a shitload of Halo games? Oh, alright then.

But first, I wrapped up Crackdown 2 with a sizeable amount of multiplayer. Now, more will be written (hopefully) about Crackdown 2 later on, but the multiplayer components are definitely its strong points. There’s lots of fun to be had, even if it is derived from people who quit a game because their team is losing, then immediately search for another game… and get matchmade with, surprise surprise, the under-manned team they just left. Again and again and again.

So – Crackdown 2 off The List. And I looked at the vast amount of time I had off, and at the remaining multiplayer Achievements I had on the 360… and I thought I might clear a few of them up.

First stop: a Halo 3 boosting session, abandoned by its “host”. I’d already committed to the session, and had created a little spreadsheet of all participants’ required Achievements and cross-referenced them with maps and gametypes. Three hours later, everyone who joined in had every Achievement they required; I cajoled the group where necessary, kept everyone focussed, and reveled in their delight. And when the sole Achievement I required popped… well, I was pretty damn pleased.

But that left one Halo 3 Achievement outstanding: the Vidmaster Annual. Final level, Iron Skull, four players, all finishing on ghosts. My usual crew seems to have disbanded (or, more accurately, gained aspects of life that I’m too immature to indulge in myself), and I’d read a guide on Vidmaster Annual that had mentioned the Spartan I Project, who were “available for hire” (worry not – no items of value change hands).

So – one forum post later, and I’ve got a team, well versed in the art of this Achievement. And, with their guidance, it doesn’t take long before the Achievement pops – and it was a lot of fun, too, whetting my appetite for a Solo Legendary run through Halo 3. Instead, I started a Solo Heroic run, and got about three chapters in (on the road to Voi) before becoming irritated by the lack of friendly checkpoints.

And then the DLC for Halo: Reach was released. Cue a somewhat painful boosting session for that, with one participant continually whining that he wanted another specific Achievement… even after being politely told “no; set up another session for that”. Over and over. Still, Achievements were achieved, and another session wrapped up the last of my Reach Achievements… for now.

Finally came ODST. Now, my memories of ODST were not fond, but I found myself in a Firefight with another Aussie and a couple of Americans that went really quite well. We cleaned up a couple of Firefight Achievements, and then I thought (as with Halo 3 previously) that I might start a Solo Heroic run, just to see what it was like. But I slipped, and accidentally selected Legendary… what the hell, I thought, I’m going to play that eventually anyway.

So I started playing through the levels on Legendary. And bloody hell ODST is good. In fact, I couldn’t stop playing it all weekend – cricket and work-prep be damned! – and I’ve only got the final level to go before it’s done. Boy, knocking ODST off The List would make a pretty nice Christmas present…


Sure, I’m trying to write a novel and get other things in my house in order, but you’d expect that I’d be able to conjure a focused, concerted effort when gaming, wouldn’t you?


The week started promisingly enough with a direct attack on Halo: Reach. I was determined to reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel this week, which I easily managed early on, and have occasionally returned to the game in order to whore cRedits to buy pretty armour trinkets. But then I got the wild idea that it might be a good move to distract myself by playing a little Halo 3.

Now, I love Halo 3. It’s a lovely game. And, starting a solo Heroic playthrough, it felt fantastic to be back inside Master Chief’s armour.

Until the first firefight.

That’s when I realised just how comfortable I’d become with Halo: Reach‘s control scheme… because there’s a few key differences between the games. There’s nothing like running up to a grunt to punch it in the head and instead swapping your beloved battle rifle for a plasma pistol. Where’s melee? How do I reload?

So: I was playing Halo 3 (badly). I’ve only got two Achievements outstanding on the game, so I thought I’d join a boosting party (via TA) to try and snaffle one of them. I find some like-minded individuals and am happily (or sadly, depending on your viewpoint of gaming as a hobby / lifestyle choice) sitting in front of the 360 at 1pm on Saturday.

Expect I’ve got the dates wrong; it’s 1pm next Saturday.


I quickly find another boosting session starting later in the afternoon. Hurrah! In the meantime, I poke around TA some more, looking listlessly at my remaining Achievements… and I begin to think weird things. Things like, “I wonder if there’s any Australians who want to work on Perfect Dark Zero Achievements? Or Kameo co-op stuff?”

I poke around and find a likely name, and fire off a message to them. The Halo 3 session is a bust; the “host” doesn’t bother turning up. Then the chap I’d messaged about Kameo pings me back – let’s go, he says.

You’ve got to admire that enthusiasm :)

We played nearly three hours of Saturday for no result (well, all the Achievements we’re shooting for have zero GamerScore associated with them, so technically they’re all for no result), trying to obtain a Time Attack A-ranking on the first level. We failed dismally but, on the first attempt the next day, we romped it in. The next Time Attack fell soon thereafter, as well as a brace of Expert levels on co-op.

I’ve always sung the praises of Kameo – I think it’s a lovely little game, and these extra modes of play really work out well for it. As for Joe, my partner-in-crime… I doff my cap to you, sir, for putting up with a buffoon like myself. A couple of brilliant sessions so far, with more (hopefully!) to come.

Finally this week, I also started playing Braid again. I’ve no idea why. Blimey that Speed Run is going to be hard.

Reach for the Twin Sticks…

This is likely to be the first of a month’s worth of short, perfunctory posts. Mainly because there’s not a whole not new happening (or likely to happen) in the gaming corner of the moobaarn in the next four weeks, but also because I want to preserve my typing digits for NaNoWriMo, in which I’m participating for the first time this year (follow my progress here!)

Luckily, there’s no monster stories about Reach left to tell. I’m on the final cRedit grind on my way to Lieutenant Colonel, and trying to ease my progress by taking advantage of the cRedit bumps given when you receive a Commendation upgrade… which, in turn, has led to plenty of Checkpoint restarting and Gruntpocalypse. But I’ve also taken the opportunity to start playing with a number of Reach‘s other gameplay modes, including online Firefights with randoms. These have been, with one exception, a genuine delight: the firefight scenarios, with their infinite-life / infinite-ammo / fixed-time-limit options, lead to some downright silly, thrilling, seat-of-your-pants, explodey goodness.

Of course, the first time I played one of hese online firefights, I netted an Achievement (for scoring 20K in the game). This caused me to reflect on my GamerScore a bit more and, harking back to my stats on TrueAchievements, I realised I was getting close to a milestone: 94% of my possible gamerscore. And, knowing that Crackdown 2 and Halo: Reach DLC is incoming (with more percentage-mangling Achievements), this was my chance to set a new high-water mark.

The Halo: Reach achievement had left me with a mere 21 additional GS to hit the 94% mark; scouring my gamercard, I noticed that Geometry Wars Evolved^2 had a solitary 25 GS Achievement outstanding. If I could snaffle that, then I’d knock a game off The List, and clear 94%. Two birds with one stone.

Brilliant idea, huh? One little problem, though.

I’m shit at Geometry Wars Evolved^2. Bloody rubbish. I gave Smile a good old bash, and got nowhere near comfortable with it. Buggered if I know how I managed to complete Sequence previously.

It’s all so pretty and neon and… overwhelming. So, to hone my skills, I thought I’d drop back to the rustic Robotron 2084. And wouldn’t-you-know-it, I’m shit at that, too.

So – I’m no closer to nailing my 21 GS. I look further afield… Halo 3: ODST. One of the VidMaster Achievements in ODST has long been regarded as pretty straightforward, so I gave it a bash… and in less than thirty minutes, the Achievement popped. 25 GS, piece of piss. Welcome to 94%-land.

Of course, that led to me looking at the firefight score attack Achievements in ODST, but that’s a task for another month. Given it was November 7th today, I did pop in the Halo 3 multiplayer disc from ODST to chance my arm on the 7-on-7 playlist, hoping that the opportunity to snaffle my final Halo 3 multiplayer Achievement would pop up… that’s when I discovered that there’s 301 people still playing Halo 3 online, and they’re all ninja good. I got one kill, and that’s only because someone else softened up my target with multiple rockets.

So: the whoring in Reach goes on. And I’ve just written 500 words on this blog post that could have gone into my novel. There’s the odd oblique reference to gaming in my novel, you know… ;)


Looooong ago, seemingly a lifetime away, the Xbox 360 was released in Australia. I was there on launch day, picking up my pre-ordered-four-months-ago collection of hardware and software, and I remember urging the SO to drive home faster, swiftly whisking the bits from her car and then bidding her adieu for the day… she went to work, I stayed home and played and played and played. Yes, Thursday the 23rd of March 2006 was a great day.

Unfortunately, after the initial rush of all these shiny new games (and the compulsion to overtake some of my UK mates’ gamerscores) passed, I began to feel a little… well, bored. My three launch titles were Perfect Dark Zero (which I didn’t get on with at all), Kameo (which I finished within a couple of days), and Ridge Racer 6 (whose charms didn’t grab me for another couple of months). Because my international friends had a four-month headstart with the console, I’d been subjected to their ravings about various XBLA games… and so I snaffled, sight unseen, Robotron and Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm Reloaded (I’d been a fan of PomPom for years).

You see the problem, don’t you? Two games that were rubbing me the wrong way, one that was a doddle to plow through, and three twin-stick shooters that I’m rubbish at. Not a whole lot of delectable variety there.

So again I turned to my network of friends: what next? what are they enjoying? A few more titles were mentioned, and so I took advantage of the wonderful demo feature of XBLA to snaffle a few tasters: Wik: Fable of Souls, Gauntlet (an old arcade fave), and the focus of this blog post: Astropop.

Now, I don’t recall who recommended Astropop to me, and I hope that the forum responsible for that interaction has since lost track of that post; because I never want to associate that game – that horrible game – with someone’s name, someone’s face. That person surely has loved ones who need not know their mistake.

The thing is, I initially wasn’t even aware of how truly awful the game was; I’d downloaded the demo and fired it up – only to be told that it wouldn’t run in PAL-50 mode. Which was news to me, since I was running my 360 through VGA… but whatever. I deleted the demo, and thought nothing more of it.

It wasn’t until I discovered MyGamerCard that the GamerScore bug really bit me… and then, hiding on the left-hand side of my profile, I discovered a number that would taunt me forever: “GS Completion %”.

My percentage was depressingly low.

“But why?” I asked myself. After all, I was getting a fair few Achievements in all my games; why was this number so low?

I looked, and it became clear: the percentage took into account demos.

I checked my GamerCard on; it, too, kept a record of these demos. There didn’t appear to be any way to remove these unwanted guests, so the only way to get my percentage up to some reasonable level was to purchase and play them.

Look, it made sense at the time. And I viewed it as appropriate punishment for not having played the demos on a separate profile.

Now, some of these miscreant demos actually led to some enjoyable games: I actually quite enjoyed Wik. But Astropop, on the other hand…

I eventually discovered a fix for the PAL-50 problem, and finally got to play the game. And I truly sucked at it. Block matching games aren’t really my thing at all, especially block matching games with cluttered graphics (worthy only of two generations of hardware past), annoying music, and a piss-poor attempt at a “story” to hang the whole thing on. I would’ve felt I’d received an unfair deal if I’d bought this for my Commodore 64; but here I was, playing this abomination on my shiny new Xbox 360 – “next generation,” indeed.

Sure, one Achievement popped straight away… but it was another seven months before I could bear to return to the horrid little Match-4-fest (and in that time, Microsoft saw the error of their ways and started allowing 0-Achievement games to be removed from one’s GamerCard. I was furious). A few more Achievements, some through luck and some through bloody-minded determination, brought my GamerScore from the game to 60. Of 200.

Another year passed, and I discovered that you were actually able to save the game. Judicious use of memory and a shitload of rebooting gouged another handful of Achievements out, leaving just two remaining… but I just couldn’t do it. I had grown to loathe Astropop so much that I simply could not face it again.

Until last week.

“This has to stop,” I said to myself. “I have to get this game – no, this spectre – out of my life.”

So I started practising. After a couple of days, I tried the well-known attack on Level 3 for the Captain Quick Brick achievement… and got it on the second attempt.

Somewhat elated at seeing that little toast appear, I immediately set forth on another Survival game… my previous best time (from two years ago) had been something around 7 minutes & 10 seconds, but I needed 9 minutes…

My next attempt floundered at five minutes. I – again – felt The Rage. But I started another game regardless.

At the four minute mark, I started noticing that things seemed a little different. I seemed to be the recipient of some good luck from the game; a horrid wall of iron bricks? Here’s a handy row buster. Disparate obstructions? Why, your SuperWeapon has just powered up. An outbreak of poison blocks all over the screen? Why, they just happen to all be right next to red blocks, and here’s a red Nuke block! Uncanny timing, maybe, but the last thing I was prepared to accept was this game’s pity.

Suddenly, I realised that I was in the 8-minute region… I held on as long as I could, frantically blocking and memorising and pausing for breath and unpausing and going again – and then I saw the clock said 8:48… and my SuperWeapon was available.

Haha, you fucker. I have you now.

I let fly. I cleared the screen. The Achievement toast popped up. I cleared the screen again. “Fuck you,” I seethed. I wanted the game to suffer. I wanted the game to pay for every shitty moment I had spent with it, suffering because of that demo left on my GamerCard, because of that one Achievement. I cleared the screen yet again before the SuperWeapon exhausted itself and the bricks marched onwards towards my doom… and the end of Astropop.

9:42, or thereabouts. I could check the leaderboards, but I refuse to let that game poison the memory of my beloved console again. The game over screen bleated some message along the lines of “Try again to beat your high score!”… fat fucking chance.

I hated Astropop. I hated it with every fibre of my being, with every beat of my black little heart that pumps thick bilious hateful goo through my veins. I hope it drops to the bottom of my list of games and keeps going, not stopping its descent until it is incinerated in the bowels of a fiery hell. Yes, it only cost 800 points, and yes, I eventually “conquered” Astropop, but at the end of the day I’m left to wonder as to what the true cost of my accumulated suffering will be.

Quicker and Dirtier…

A couple more Bayonetta notes is all you’re getting this week.

Firstly, finish the game to unlock the Couture options. Purchase the Witch Queen Couture Bullet, then change to that costume (RB at the Chapter Select screen). Now play the game again, watching all the cutscenes. It’s filthy… but in a totally good way.

Now do it all again, but with the P.E. Uniform. And then the Various – Type B costume.

Oh my.

Lest this blog become a teenage-ish outlet for physical lust, let’s mention the game again: it’s still bloody brilliant. My complaints last week about the difficult of Hard have been completely scotched after a bit of experimentation with the purchasable items; some nice combinations led to a Saturday-afternoon hammering of Hard mode, and an eventual completion time of a touch over three hours. Replay one botched level, and bang – 2:59:58, enough to unlock yet another item in The Gates of Hell. And now I’m coasting through the Non-Stop Infinite Climax skill level; that should be wrapped up by Australia Day.

Then there’s the simple matter (ho ho) of wrapping up some of the Alfheim Portals (little challenge levels within the game), and I’ll have nabbed all the GamerScore available to me from the game. But that doesn’t mean that Bayonetta will soon be off The List, oh no – there’s so many little unlockables within the game that I don’t even really consider myself a third of the way there yet. And that’s after nearly sixty hours!

I’ve got a few other games like that hanging over me on the 360; Rez HD really does require 100%-shot-down runs, and Ninety-Nine Nights has a whole lot of random drops to collect. But that’s the price I pay for being me, for letting my OCD have its way with my gaming hobby.

And I think about the sixty hours invested in Bayonetta so far, with the prospect of at least a hundred more, and I quiver with joyful anticipation :)

Prince Of Persia

Once upon a time, in a generation of computers several orders of magnitude less grunty than those we enjoy now, ran a game called Prince of Persia. Like its predecessor, Karateka, it was stunning in motion and utterly, interminably boring for me to play. Not enough aliens and shooting and monstrous scores, y’see (oh how those words make me feel old now). But when the Prince of Persia franchise was rebooted in 2003 (with The Sands of Time), popular and critical acclaim led me to at least stickybeak into the demo on the Xbox. Looked lovely – still – and had sweet controls, but a rumoured difficulty spike (and a pile of other games on The List) stopped me short of purchase. Later games in the series allegedly detrimentally tinkered with the gameplay mechanic, according to trusted sources, so the franchise dropped off my radar.

And then Ubisoft Montreal announced another entry in the Prince of Persia series. And lo, did the internet have a field day! “The graphics look stupid and kiddy,” said the fictitious xI HardCoreShooter Ix (amongst others). After release, MetaCritic was filled with comments on the lack of difficulty, the fact you couldn’t die, and the broken combat.

And, in a marked change for internet forum fanboys everywhere, they’re all right – but that actually makes the game more appealing to me.

Opening with a suitably broken and abstract movie, The Prince (who is never actually identified as such) emerges from the desert, and plunges into a short and simple tutorial section. Within minutes, you know all that’s required of you – the difficulty curve is pretty flat, and there’s very little to break up the wonderful free-running platforming and occasional combat. Well, three puzzle sections, and the odd stop to chat with your off-sider, but that’s it.

My first glimpse of the protagonist annoyed me, for The Prince’s head scarf is annoyingly off-kilter. That drove me mad. I’m arsed if I know how a poncey, buffed-up thieving Prince could bounce around the place with one eye almost completely covered – surely that would affect his sense of spatial awareness, of balance? It doesn’t seem to bother Our Prince, though, as he hooks up with his hot magical playmate, Elika.

Now, I like female game characters. Really, I do. They don’t all have to look like Vanessa Z Schneider (although some of the Burnout Bikes girls do), but a decent, strong female character is always a treat. And, whilst Elika is easy on the eye, I’m not sure that her character design is what I’d call strong – she readily morphs from flippant to ponderous, flirtatious to prudent. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to her mood – but, given the open manner in which you can tackle the various areas in the game, that’s kind of understandable. And game-engine cutscenes are, generally, far from horrible – though there’s a ton of typical talking-torsos, some of the mouth and eye animation is delightful. I swear I saw a sparkle in Elika’s eye as she flirted, a dullness when she felt glum, and The Prince’s usual cheeky grin loses its edge with dialogue of weight.

And the dialogue… well, it’s a mixed bag. Some of it’s quite wonderful – touching, emotive. Some of it is dire – the “you should buy her a pony” line that pops up early on is, thankfully, not representative of the rest of the game. There’s some common threads – a constant luck-versus-fate debate, and repeated lewd, tongue-in-cheek references to The Prince’s relationship with his donkey. Rarely does the incidental dialogue get annoying – and, indeed, occasionally it generates some corkers. “This isn’t such a bad view,” said The Prince, with Elika’s arse parked just above him as he climbs a fissure. I laughed, then agreed.

As previously mentioned, it’s surprising that the central plot to Prince of Persia seems to have been “acquired” from Bullet Witch – but let’s face it, the story is merely a means to an end here. What we’re here for is platforming and combat – and what we’re given is slick, polished, and gleaming.

The combat is combo-based button mashing, limited to certain areas, and not very frequent. In fact, there’s only really six enemies in the game – four bosses which are tackled six times each, another recurring character, and the soulless soldiers of darkness that guard the paths between levels. Sure, they gradually increase in difficulty over time, but – as mentioned above – the curve is very gentle. And the combos themselves are almost as much as a delight to perform as they are to behold; it’s possible to string together massive links of sword slashes, Elika bashes, jumps, and throws that are pretty bloody impressive to watch. Mistakes are mostly inconsequential; as soon as you’re in perilous danger, Elika magically appears and yanks you to safety.

The platforming is pretty much the same; watching someone else play is like watching a well-choreographed free-running movie, even if the player is in far less danger than they’d think. Initial plays saw me prodding the action buttons with rampant fury, jerking the control stick to and fro in an attempt to keep The Prince on track; acclimatisation leads to the understanding that you can get by with just a tap here, a nudge there. But it really does look impressive, and in many ways is a perfect demonstration of style over substance: the end sequence (with slow-motion fly-bys lighting the monstrous Ahriman in the dark) evokes great exhilaration, even if the danger is largely imagined. There’s another sequence, in the north-east level of The Warrior’s City, that is absolutely stunning – sure, it’s scripted to all hell, and only requires one real decision of timing to succeed. But I’ll be buggered if my heart wasn’t beating like a drum, holding my breath in anticipation, as I pushed through that sequence – brilliant.

At game’s end, you’re offered the choice – leave the world as it is, or destroy it, undoing all your work. And the Achievements encourage you to both consider the emotional weight of the story progression, as well as wreaking carnage; the player winds up fucking the world for those 80 points of GS. Whether intentional or not, it’s an appreciated mental engagement; as is the dialogue of The Concubine (with the only references to The Prince’s… erm, princeliness) and the final fight with The Warrior, flames lighting the arena in an eerie setting to the hulk’s demise.

In fact, more than once the Prince of Persia evoked memories of Ico – which is horribly unfair to both games. Ico is a stone-cold classic, the quality of which Prince of Persia could only dream of attaining; but the fact that those memories were brought forth at all is, I think, a good thing… it means that companies are trying to conjure something better.

Now, I’ve been waxing lyrical about Prince of Persia for awhile now, but I want to make one thing clear: I don’t think this is a brilliant game. That statement may seem contrary to the rest of this post, but I’d like to think I can maintain a critique of the work separate from my enjoyment of it. And, truth be told, Prince of Persia has too many flaws to be truly considered “great”; some of the dialogue is atrocious, and the essentially western characters don’t exactly evoke the feel of Persia (though incidental tunes and the curves & spires of the world do create a mid-eastern feel). A lot of people claim that the combat system is… well, “shit”, but I had no problems with it. Mind you, I neglected pretty much every attack combo button except “X” most of the time.

The second play-through was fantastic – familiar with the levels, I was able to romp through the game in little more than a handful of hours. And it was only then that I figured out the impact of the deflection in combat; boss battles turned from death-filled wars of attrition to simple romps. The initially daunting “Be gentle with her” achievement (awarded for only requiring Elika’s resurrection ability less than 100 times) took just over six hours, and less than thirty deaths.

And I reckon this was the right game for me at the right time. After subjecting myself to N64-era Zelda games for a month, to be blasted by a game of such visual delight (hey, I love the cel-shaded-lite look) was a joy; to feel compelled by such a straightforward collection quest was a surprise. Prince of Persia hit all the right buttons – visually and sonically impressive, above-par writing, a fantastic ending, gettable Achievements, a cheeky adolescent sense of humour, and – with Elika donning the delicious “Farah” skin – some cute white knicker flashes.

And that’s just fine by me.

Bullet Witch

Back in May 2006, there was a little event called E3. It was a different gaming world back then: the Xbox 360 had been released, but the RRoD complaints hadn’t started flooding in; Sony’s diabolical press conference was brushed aside by the joyous Nintendo press gig. But Microsoft were the only company there that had next-gen hardware in consumer hands, and they were bigging it up.

To press home the advantage – preaching to the converted, sure – they released all the promo movies they’d collated and curated over Xbox Live Marketplace. For me, this was brilliant; I’d get up every morning, sometimes two or three hours earlier than normal, just to see what had been released overnight. Publisher movies, Microsoft compendiums, I downloaded it all, devoured it. For someone on the opposite side of the world to the action, it was a genuinely exciting time.

One of the movies that, for some bizarre reason, caught my eye was this one. Although I’d heard of Cavia, it seemed that the company was not seen in the most positive of lights; the buzz around Bullet Witch was also muted, but there was something about that trailer that had me convinced that the risk was worth taking. A middling GameTrailers review only further piqued my interest and, after a long and protracted online order / sorry-it’s-unavailable / but-you’ve-already-taken-my-money-and-it’s-available-across-the-road process, I was ready to dive headlong into the world of Alicia, the Bullet Witch.

The game starts with a ridiculous mess of a FMV – it’s all very pretty, but any sense of immersion is immediately arrested by the near-future timeline – the demon hordes are on their way next year, folks! And in just another three years, “2012 – Nations Dead” forecasts the poorly written, half-translated on-screen exposition. And yet, none of that matters the first time you take control of Alicia; in third-person mode, you can move slowly with weapon at the ready, run a little quicker at the expense of a re-arming period, and – using your broomstick-esque gun – mow down hordes of Geist.

You leap through the air with reckless abandon – and, since you’re unable to be shot whilst you’re leaping, you’ll be watching Alicia perform her acrobatic split-leg flips a fair bit. And – let’s be honest here – she looks pretty nice onscreen; yes, her voice acting is pretty average, but nowhere near as bad as that of the leader of the resistance. The AI of all characters would be generously defined as “dumber than dogshit” – your pals do a splendid job of getting in your line-of-fire, and the enemy is easy to manipulate.

Of course, after the delicious titular character, the first thing you notice is her gun… her Very Big Gun. A quick prod of the B button lets you flip between any of four different weapons, once you’ve acquired them via a simplistic RPG-lite levelling system. The initial machine gun is almost pea-shooter-esque, but the gattling gun – by far the most viciously effective weapon – is totally worth the upgrade effort, and almost necessary on later levels. Ammo’s not a problem – you simply reload when the clip is empty, depleting your magic meter temporarily. This – in theory – should encourage you to not waste your shots, since killing your enemy is the only way to replenish your magic meter; in practise, however, you have to be pretty bloody shit to be in a situation where you can’t reload, leading to a practically limitless flow of bullets.

The spells – responsible for the “Witch” part of Alicia’s moniker – are pretty hit-and-miss. These, too, deplete your magic-meter, and there’s only one really useful low-level spell – the ability to push objects around with a blast of telekinesis. Some of the spells are downright impractical – the Rose Spear, which launches a cluster of spears from the ground to perforate & trap enemies, would be useful if it covered an area bigger than a twenty-cent piece. But couple it with a flame-throwing powerup and you’ve got a time-wasting, inefficient and very pretty way to kill demons.

The Big Spells are awarded at fixed points in the linear progression of the game; and they, too, tend to be more trouble than they’re worth. In fact, I reckon casting the Meteor spell has actually killed me more often than it’s helped me, and the Tornado spell is impossible to direct, resulting in a massive chunk of magic being used up with a spluttering tornado scooting off into the distance, cannily dodging your foes. In fact, the only thing the Tornado murders is your framerate. Lightning is the big winner, and it had better be, too – it’s the only way to dispose of a number of the bosses you encounter in the game.

And, speaking of bosses, I just have to mention the (inexplicable) fish creature that you have to battle whilst standing on the wings of an airplane traveling at 30,000 feet. Go on, read that sentence again – it just doesn’t make sense, yet is spot-on-the-money in the context of the game. This boss battle was an utter shitpig – more luck than skill was required – and the few opportunities for skill were subject to the distraction of the sheer ludicrous nature of the scenario.

The final boss, too, was a bastard… sometimes seeing you invest a good 45 minutes of cautious shooting before being killed by a single errant stomp. Which is demoralising enough in itself – but when you’re trying to complete the game for the fifth time, on the highest skill level, for the reward of a single solitary GamerScore point, that instakill death is doubly galling. The post-game FMV, another piece of poorly-written exposition, just reminds you how crapulent the writing for Bullet Witch was: “Demon numbers diminishing. No sign of increase” proclaims the front-page headline of The National Times – “the world’s daily newspaper.” Then again, Nations did die off in 2012, so maybe that’s fair enough. “Tower of Pisa struck by lightning. Italy loses national treasure” screams another headline, supposed to inspire questions in my mind of what becomes of Alicia in the post-game; but by that time I’m just waiting for the credits to finish rolling.

Still, it’s not all bad; with the exception of the Big Spells, any spells or power-ups accrued throughout your game (points are gained on the basis of kills, elapsed time, and damage taken) carry over to subsequent games… Hell Mode isn’t so daunting with a Level 3 Gattling Gun. Achievements are reasonable – apart from that 1-point insult – and the game itself is pretty short: maybe only a dozen hours for your first play-through, and there’s plenty of shortcuts (and the benefit of the accruing power-ups) to ease you through the harder skill levels. And then there’s the DLC – each level has an alternate task for a mere 20 Microsoft Points apiece (ummm… no), and then there’s the downloadable costumes for sweet Alicia.

…well, given that they’re free, it’d be rude not to check them all out, wouldn’t it? Nothing pervy in that at all.

Let’s cut to the chase: the schoolgirl and secretary costumes are both worth the cost of the game. Delicious. In fact, they provided the visual highlights of my runs through the harder skill levels – with the somewhat dubious nature of the character physics prone to send limbs akimbo, it wasn’t too annoying to die.

No, wait. It was still annoying to die, despite any potential panty-peeking opportunities, because Bullet Witch suffers many of the worst traits of gaming: it’s unbalanced, unfair, unforgiving, and – worst of all – unfun.

And that’s the big shame of a game like Bullet Witch; it had so much potential, but pissed it all away with lousy writing and shallow gameplay. It just goes to show that two key ingredients – hot female protagonist, and massive guns – do not, by themselves, a tasty cake make.

Oh Bugger…

So I’m still playing Mercenaries 2 a bit this moment, hammering my way through the game again using the “other two” characters. My OCD target for this game is to unlock all the unlockables (duh), fully explore the dialog trees – different for each of the characters – and check out all the FMVs in all scenarios, finishing up with three 100% character saves. Easy enough, I think – my first 100% play-through was about eighty(!) hours, but that included much faffing about capturing – rather than killing – key bad guys to garner a big fat 50-point Achievement.

This task is made particularly difficult by the fact that the enemy AI is so blinkered and trigger-happy that a careless assault can see enemy minions fill the very chap they’re supposed to be protecting – and who you want to claim alive – full of lead. Or explodey stuff.

Which is bad. And forces you to reload. And play that bit again. And, most likely, again.

Anyway, I was happy in that I’d performed that onerous task (there’s 50-ish of these High Value Targets to capture alive, rather than photograph dead) already, and subsequent playthroughs would be a doddle – I’d just airstrike them to oblivion, then stroll in and take a verifying photo when the area was scorched earth and bereft of life. But then I learned that the penultimate FMV is different depending on whether you’ve captured all the HVTs or not.

Shit. Shitting shit.

My estimate for completion for this game has just bumped out by another forty or fifty hours. And I have to chuck away a three-quarters complete playthrough with the American mercenary – by far the least fun of the three to play with. But such is life… *sigh*

Another Post About Music

With the turmoil in my life outside the nice fluffy goodness of gaming (yes, I didn’t completely give all other aspects of life to get No Collisions) reaching a stressful crescendo this week, I’m taking the soft option and pulling out an easy post this Sunday night. There’s not really been much gaming, anyway – I’ve been plugging away at Mercenaries 2, finishing the game through one path (of six), and giggling at some of the shitty voice acting and clunky programming – watching Agent Joyce call himself on the radio to alert himself that I was beating his face in was most amusing. So much more to do, though.

And so to the topic of this post: more gaming music. This idea was seeded by a post on the Llamasoft Blog a while back which announced that the soundtrack for Space Giraffe was available for free download. “So what?” I hear you say, “there’s only four songs on there.” Yes, but one it the super-wonderful Satipn, created by the equally-super-wonderful Redpoint who, by coincidence, have just released their latest collection of tunes, Nostalgia For Now – well worth the pittance they’re charging (and they offer a FLAC download, too). Most of Redpoint’s back-catalogue – including the stunning Firem – is available gratis (legit!) from Hidden Music… which is home to Covert, whose latest release Symbolic is a beautifully retro-tinged harbour of melancholic goodness. Highly recommended, all.

Releasing gaming soundtracks is, of course, nothing new – the number of CDs available of (say) music from the Final Fantasy series is, quite simply, staggering. In fact, my first ever purchase off eBay was a pair of (bootleg) Jet Set Radio / Future CDs. But the release of tunes for free is a little rarer; some recent releases include the score for Bioshock (as advertised on The Cult of Rapture on August 24, 2007 – check “Articles” for the original posting, and also an interview with composer Garry Schyman). Another recommended download is the soundtrack to The Longest Journey.

Of course, you could always do the somewhat-dubious perhaps-legit method of soundtrack acquisition – a modded Xbox yields all manner of raw source material, from ADX files of all of Jet Set Radio Future‘s rockin’ radio mixes, to raw WAVs from Panzer Dragoon Orta. There’s more goodies to be had by peeking into Super Galdelic Hour‘s PS2 disk, too, as well as the raw CD-format audio present on games such as Quake and N2O.

Shadier still are the torrent and rip sites. Poking around the seedier places on the Internet at the moment will probably have you tripping over complete compilations of all music from the Wipeout series – which, as much as it is lauded, really failed to impress me much. Give me the bright and bouncy JSRF soundtracks, anyday!

And now our mega-games seem to require mega-soundtracks. Check out the track listing for GTA4 – that’s an astonishing number of songs. And, as much as I can claim disinterest in Saints Row 2, the tracklist for radio station The Mix is just about perfect for this child of the eighties.

And if you followed that last link, it would just confirm what you probably suspected: that you should stop reading this post now. Because my cloth ears are hopelessly nostalgic and my opinions rooted in the eighties… and that’s good for maybe three people out there. One of whom is me.

So, music, yeah? Ummm… check some of the above links out. Throw some money Redpoint’s way. And next week, hopefully, I’ll write something about a game… fancy that.

Rez (Part 1)

The earliest reference to Rez I can remember reading was had Jeff Minter denouncing its gameplay, claiming it was “Panzer Dragoon with trance trousers.” Which meant nothing to me, until I snaffled Panzer Dragoon Orta on the recommendation of an Edge review. At that time, I had little-to-no understanding what a rail-based shooter was all about – but Orta sure taught me all about it. I still love the occasional bash at Orta (which, due to the Hard mode and all the fiddly little mini-games – and the original Panzer Dragoon – is still on The List), and it sparked an interest in the genre.

And then I recalled Minter’s words.

Rez, eh?

I already had a Dreamcast – Jet Set Radio forced my hand in that direction. A bit of eBaying led to a pricey, but mint, copy of Rez. Then came a period of days where I learnt all about the dodgy GD-ROM pressing that led to most Dreamcasts being unable to read the Rez discs. Worry not – it’s possible to adjust the GD-ROM laser (similar to the C64 Datasette’s azimuth adjustment) to read finicky discs; a bit of hardware hacking, a lot of time, a smidgeon of panic when the Dreamcast failed to read any discs, and finally Rez was booted.

And fuck me if it wasn’t magnificent.

The first level, Area 1, will go down as one of my favourite levels of any game ever – purely for the aural accompaniment. I feel like I’ve written this a million times before, but the sonic punch provided when you enter Areas 1-4 and 1-8 – “breathing” – has attained almost spiritual significance to me; the choice of Buggie Running Beeps as this (almost tutorial) level’s soundtrack is inspired. Visually, Area 1 provides a trippy introduction too.

But Area 4 is the one that I love the most (and yes, I realise this means that Rez has two of my favourite game levels ever – but I feel obliged to give credit where credit is due). For a long time Area 4 gave me grief – it was my stumbling block, the one that made me feel uneasy. But, with two years of hindsight, it’s also the level that excites me the most – I find the graphics to be the most arresting of the game (even over Area 5, which is the reason most people give for Rez‘s greatness) – the Running Man boss is simply incredible. Joujouka’s soundtrack is edgy, driving you on through the level with rising levels of adrenaline and concern, building to a thumping crescendo; end-to-end, it’s a wonderful level, surpassing Area 1’s dull boss and Area 5’s introspective length. Area 4 is simply a miracle of gaming, one of the few times that the audiovisual experience is all-enveloping, all encompassing.

And yes – I do have the Trance Vibrator for my PS2 copy of Rez (a far less pristine version of the game, I might add; a most-definitely second-hand eBay acquisition, the PS2 version makes the hacking rainbows more colourful). Whilst my SO looked at me with what can only optimistically be described as quizzical indifference when I indicated Game Girl Advance’s Rez exploits, I found that it was a brilliant addition to the game – playing the PS2 version, Trance Vib behind a cushion nestled into the small of my back, was a sublime experience.

And so we come to 2008, and the long awaited release of Rez HD – and I’ve never been more excited about a game’s release, never felt so much anticipation. Having to travel for work determined the release date, with 2,000kms deemed an attractive torture device by Fate. Whilst others were blissfully playing through Area 1, I was half-drunk; I lay on my bed in the dark and listened to the soundtrack rips that have accompanied me everywhere on my MP3 player for the last 4(-ish) years. The backs of my eyelids glowed with the recreation of the visual experience that I know all-too-well, yet not well enough; Areas 1 and 4 came alive for me.

The plane ride home Saturday night was nominally two-and-a-half-hours, but felt much longer; I listened to that soundtrack again, over and over, while clouds and land and sea drifted below me. The plane only had a smattering of passengers, so I was unabashed in weeping with joy, weeping with anticipation, grinning like a loon – for I was on my way to play Rez again. A bigger, bolder, brighter, louder Rez.

I got home, kissed the SO, and played.

Oh yes. Oh yes.

But more on that later. Another day, when typing is easier because the tips of my thumb (which prove to be ever-so-useful for hitting the space bar) ache so much from the mashing I’ve given them the last 24 hours. Easily my best Score Attack scores, and even a miraculous 98% run through Area 5. I love this game.

But I’ll leave with this little tale:

When I had my little jaunt around the UK in 2004, the RLLMUK rips of the Rez soundtrack never left my MP3 player. Not once. Pretty impressive when you consider that it was only a 512MB player. There were so many dream-like instances where I’d be coasting through the English countryside – by train, bus – and have sunlight streaming through the window onto my face, the greens and whites and blues passing by, enveloped in a state of bliss. At those times I’d often reflect, a little self-indulgently, that this life I was leading was just a game, a game that – like so many others – I was only moderately “good” at, but I was having an absolute ball playing. And Rez provides the perfect soundtrack, the perfect metaphor, for that game of life.