Luck of the Draw

Bloody hell. My earlier post must have jinxed it, eh? Well, reverse-jinxed it. Positively affected future outcomes.

It did good, anyway. A Royal Flush is mine, after a mere 11,086 hands of Texas Hold’Em on XBLA.

And when I say “mine”, I really mean “the power brick which sat atop the A-button for the last 2,000 hands.” And before the power brick was a Charles Petzold book.

No matter; I’m now sporting a shiny “Luck of the Draw” Achievement. Yay!


My avatar is crouched upon a rooftop, my foe on a rooftop two buildings away. A tiny overhang protects me from their gunfire; a city bustles around me. I leap up, instantly targeting an enemy in the middle of the group. Away scoots a homing missile. Or maybe two, I’m feeling feisty.

As I fall back to the rooftop, an explosion rocks the screen. Seconds later, a collection of tiny little orbs of light stream to my body, increasing my avatar’s competencies; I level up with a glorious feeling of power, accompanied by an awesome bass-heavy ‘FFFFFWOOOOOOOOMPSSSSSSHHHH’, my avatar erupting with new-found strength.

This is the joy of Crackdown, a game that is almost impossible to categorise. The popular description would include words like “open-ended sandbox” – after all, there’s no load times as you roam the three districts of Pacific City, and you’re free to tackle the tasks of the game in any order you please. But there’s so much more to it than that; RPG influences are blended with a fantastic selection of weaponry and vehicles, a refined sense of grittiness, and huge dollops of tongue-in-cheek thrown in. Racing, time-attacks, head-shots, stunt jumps, and some of the fiendish collect-em-ups ever… it’s all in there.

And then there’s the map. The world. Pacific City. Never before has a gameworld been so convincingly three-dimensional. Sure, you can run/kick/punch/drive your way from La Mugre to The Den, but why bother when you can leap from rooftop to rooftop, with a tense nail-biting ascent of the Agency Tower on the way? Granted, it’s completely devoid of “plot” – relying instead on the snippets of stories surrounding the three tribes and 21 bosses. As the game ends, there’s a sinister little twist that you kinda-sorta knew was coming, but it feels like an afterthought; after all, Crackdown isn’t about plot; it’s about a place, a premise. And it doesn’t suffer because of it.

I’m one of the few people that bought Crackdown on release for the game itself, and not the Halo 3 multiplayer beta that it carried with it; I’d seen demo movies of the game as part of a previous E3 showing, and became utterly smitten with the comic-esque graphic treatment. Sadly, that effect was toned down somewhat for the final release, but Crackdown pulls no punches in the visuals, with a tremendous draw distance and the ability to inspire vertigo with the sheer verticality on offer. Sonically, it’s functional – but with a great selection of tunes on offer whenever you jump in a car. And there’s no denying the aural power of the music in this clip of sample Achievements.

And what a collection of Achievements! At once tempting, difficult, and ingenious, they extend the playtime by hours… and, most importantly, encourage you to explore the co-op multiplayer. And here is where Crackdown claims the GotY crown for its own: whilst Halo 3‘s multiplayer provides squillions of laughs (especially when you have 7 mates joining you for Rocket Races), nothing comes close to the co-op of Crackdown. Nothing quite compares to dropping into a mate’s game, helping him attack a tower packed with bad guys; covering each other’s ascent whilst racking up a massive body count. Suddenly, you accidentally pop him in the head with a rocket launcher – a completely innocent shot of extreme accuracy – and the enemy is forgotten, with pistols at dawn as you hunt each other down.

With rockets.

And you continue to hunt each other, silently cheering your own death (because it results in you getting more rockets).

Hours later, you remember why hooked up in the first place; you meander back across Pacific City and finish the intended attack. Then you shoot each other some more, before trying to help each other jump through suspended purple rings. With the help of rockets. Of course.

And that, my friends, is why Crackdown is my Game of the Year. Still compelling after 10 months, still able to generate a cheesey grin, still capable of providing challenge and laughs and entertainment… and wall-to-wall fun. The only game I’ve started playing on a second GamerTag, just so I can have the thrill of gaining those Achievements again. Yes, it’s that special.

Space Giraffe : Final

So – job’s a good ‘un, then.

My final Space Giraffe task – to at least equal my pre-update level scores – is complete. A surprisingly hard slog, too, but such was the joy of Super Ox Mode.

“Super Ox Mode,” you say? Yep – when you ERROR_SUCCESS (beat level 100 for the first time) you also unlock the ability to play the Giraffe in a far more aggressive manner. I start Super Ox Mode by holding down the Y-button whilst I hit the A-button on the pre-Level select screen.

What’s Super Ox Mode all about, then? Well, it’s harder – from just-a-smidgeon-harder to completely-fucking-impossible. First up – enemies nearly always get an upgrade. Passive grunts start shooting, feedback monsters become aggressive feedback monsters, dull ploddy boffins become aggressive boffins. Apart from that, the waves stay pretty much the same.

…but the webs do not. They’re still the 100 webs we know and love, but every time you get a “New Start Bonus Set” (or somesuch) message, their order is randomised. So you play Level 1 and face the simple Level 1 waves on the heinous Level 53 web, or you might select Level 100 and be presented with an easier, circular web. Or it might go pear-shaped, and you’ve still got the Level 100 waves on the Level 64 web. Christ that was bad.


The lovely, score-maximising potential of Super Ox Mode mainly comes from the extra bullets the aggressive enemies lob your way. Juggling bullets is an incredible score maximiser; each time you bounce a bullet back by shooting it, you seem to add more “value” to it; the next time you juggle it, it appears to net more points. So with a fleet of bullets hovering at the end of the web that you can keep at bay with careful sweeping, and a friendly rotor hovering at the other side of the web, it’s possible to get some massive scores on seemingly insignificant levels.

Of course, the random allocation of the webs is a bit of a bastard; what I did was to ascertain whether the web currently allocated to my Level-of-focus was doable. If not, I’d drop back to normal mode and get another Start Bonus Set, inching the score up slightly; when I got a “good” web, I’d sweat on it until I thought I had it nailed. Remember – as soon as you see that “New Start Bonus Set” message in either mode, it’ll randomise the Super Ox Mode webs again; so, if I felt I could rinse the level better, I’d quit the game before the message appears at the start of the next level.

By the time I’d finished, my score of 857,640,088 had me second on the world rankings. Of course, the score above me was over 2 billion, and the score below me was a touch over 800 million… at level 76. So there’s obviously massive opportunities to snaffle even more points; but for me, the Giraffe is done.

And it was a wonderful, wonderful ride :)


Coincidences are weird, aren’t they?

I’ve just finished getting my final Achievement for Dig Dug and, in between pumping my fist into the air in triumph, started drifting through the gaming-news-of-the-day.

I spot an article by fellow Aussie Luke Plunkett on Kotaku: I’m Free of my Achievement Complex. It seems that, due to a minor snafu with multiple accounts, he lost about 6,000 GS of Achievements.

Ouch. Double ouch, with a stabbing on top.

But, rather than being mad as hell (as I would have been in that position… after I dammed the river of tears, anyway), Plunkett saw it as a liberation, a chance to be rid of the Curse of unachieved Achievements. Which I can kind of appreciate: I’d trade a kidney – and probably a testicle – to have not had Astro Pop grace my Gamer Card.

Back to the coincidence – during my Space Giraffe scoring spree, I thought a quick blast of Dig Dug was a good palate-cleanser. Coincidentally enough, I’d only bought Dig Dug during another Giraffe break because (a) it was a mere 200 MS Points, and (2) I still harboured some guilt from having a dodgy copy on the C64 all those years ago. The night I bought it, a quick game or two gave a lazy 8 (of 12) Achievements – but a bit of research revealed that one of the remaining Achievements, “Dig”, was… well, a bit of a bitch, frankly. Tales of woe exist everywhere – whinges about failures to unlock were countered with helpful tips and “works for me”-isms which were subsequently followed by more whinges and threats that Microsoft had better fix this game or else.


I finally returned to Dig Dug, and was adamant that my brand spanking new Hori EX2 Arcade Stick would provide oodles of assistance (as opposed to the deservedly-maligned 360 controller D-pad). An hour or two of frustration later (much musing over whether it was better to tackle Level 1 with two Pookas, or Level 2 with two Fygars), and the Achievement was mine. The remaining collect-em-up Achievements quickly followed, and Dig Dug was complete – ticked off the To-Do List, probably never to be played again.

But the fact remains that I had returned to it, and the only reason why was because of those outstanding Achievements. For the O/C Gamer, it makes it very easy to define the extent of the game: get the full allotment of GS, tick the game off – it’s done. Which is, in a way, much easier to handle than something like “complete the game on every skill level, collecting every item, one-handed”. Sometimes Achievements set the bar low – Dig Dug‘s item collection is a rudimentary “completion”, at best, and EDF 2017‘s brace of tasks were just plain thoughtless. Sometimes Achievements are a bit silly – 1 point for Bullet Witch‘s Hell Mode? Nearly half of Gears of War‘s points coming from ranked online matches? People attempting to subvert ranked online games to speedify their GamerScore plumpification?

But many other cases provide lovingly selected, gameplay-extending ideas. The meta-game targets in Halo 3. Crackdown‘s grinningly loony little destructive side-quests. Even the Ridge Racer 6 No Crash Victory takes the original game and squeezes it into a new shape, yielding hours more enjoyment.

So – Achievements can be good, and they can be bad. I admit that, if a game is teetering on the edge of purchase, I’ll consider at the perceived difficulty of the Achievements before making a decision. But could I turn my back – as Plunkett did – on my gameplay? Hell no. The O/C Gamer requires proof of Achievement, for better or worse – and those lovely little icons and common nomenclature between gamers really hits the spot.

About that coincidence… bugger it, it’s in there somewhere. It made sense when I sketched this piece out :}

Space Giraffe : Update 2

So – a week later and, having lost some time to a spot of illness and a spate of Halo 3 hijinks, my Space Giraffe quest continues…

As you can see, there’s a teensy bit of daylight opening up between the new scores and the old. I’m pretty happy that I’ve managed to best every level score so far, though some (which, no doubt, were inflated by an opportunistic Bonus Level or two) were bloody difficult. Of course, on the other side of the coin are levels that I managed to improve by over 40 million points. Needless to say, the Giraffe is still brilliant fun.

Catching up on some reading recently, I’ve noticed a few of the more… ummmm… thoughtful blogs level the (sadly common) “visual overload” criticism at the Giraffe. My take on the pyrotechnics is this: every game requires the player to learn the visual presentation of information, whether it’s a representation of a maze or a fancy new HUD. Space Giraffe offers one hundred opportunities to learn, to experience, to manipulate; all the information is still there, it’s just a matter of learning how to see it. A great example is Level 52, where the camera perspective shifts; initially, it’s nigh-on impossible to ascertain exactly what’s going on, let alone where it’s happening… but suddenly something in your brain clicks, and the information is as clearly presented as it would be in print. I loved those moments of realisation, coupled with the moments where you can step outside your head, look at the cacophony onscreen, and think “woah – that’s a mess. And I’m going to win because of it.”

Space Giraffe : Update 1

Despite a chunk of the day being taken up by OC-ing Super Paper Mario (and other bits of “life” – sigh), progress on restoring my Space Giraffe score is going pretty well… swimmingly, actually. I’m about 30 million points up on my pre-update scores, and only up to Level 18! Level 15 was a complete bastard, though, and took the best part of 2 hours to nail an adequate score… here’s hoping further progress doesn’t hit too many more snags like that :}

Space Giraffe : The LNLM

As you (and by “you”, I mean “me” – nobody else reads this shit, do they?) might have guessed from my last post, right after I posted my six-weeks-in-gestation Tempest post, the Space Giraffe patch was released onto Xbox Live – removing the old exploits and resetting the Leaderboards as a consequence. So I updated, and leapt into a game… which just happened to launch me to the top of the Leaderboards for a second or so.

The most difficult Achievement in the Giraffe is, undoubtedly, the Long-Necked Long March – starting at Level 1, ploughing through every level in the game ’til you beat Level 100. Last night’s game was the second time I’d seen my LNLM attempt bomb out at Level 88; this morning was the second time I’d bombed out at Level 92 (after a particularly hideous brace of levels in the late 80’s). So, instead of beginning another assault (hey – these attempts were over two hours each!), I thought I’d start trying to resurrect my Level scores, and start the climb back to 400+ million.

Several attempts at Level 1 (using the time-honoured slow-start-left-inch-bull-left technique) saw me better my previous best by about 60,000 points. Level 2 went pretty well too, and before I knew it I was in the thirties, forties, sixties. The seventies sailed by, and – as usual – 88 and 89 tripped me mightily, reducing my lives dramatically. I only just scraped through Level 92 with one life in hand – I was stoked, though, as I’d never managed this before. I glean an extra life or two, and start playing ultra-conservatively…

…and suddenly I’m on Level 97 with 5 lives in hand. Holy shit, I think to myself, I can do this. I whore for lives, snaffling an extra three. I’m starting to shake; I sense the adrenaline starting to cause jitters, my hands shake when I take them off the controller. I take a break, try to calm down… Level 98 is smooth sailing, but I’ve never had problems with it before. Unlike Level 99, which has always given me grief.

I take another break, thinking calming thoughts.

I return to Level 99, and it becomes apparent that something is different. I’m playing this level completely differently, and have one of those weird out-of-body experiences where I look on in wonder. My giraffe dances about the rim, leaping over those bastard spiky buggers before blasting them to smithereens; I am ZONING, I am at One with the Game. The level ends; I’ve got 9 lives in hand, with one level to play.

I risk the ZONE and take another break. My legs are jelly, my hands are trembling mush. I return to my 360, pick up the controller; I try to recall my previous mental state, then begin Level 100. Its lazy opening jars me a little, the calm before the storm I know is coming – I just want the action, dammit! – but soon the zappy things appear, followed closely by spiky bastards and screaming flowers and feedback monsters…

…and then I’m through. The little Achievement toast pops up, and I view it with almost disbelief. The game is over; I have won. 377 million points are on the board (4th on the new Leaderboard), when all I really wanted was the 320 thousand from Level 1. I throw my hands in my air when it hits me – I have walked the Long-Necked Long March.

And so, but one task remains before I put a tick next to Space Giraffe in the To-Do List: return my scores to their original, pre-update levels. But, having missed my personal best tallied score by a mere 25-odd million on a LNLM run, I’m beginning to think I’m going to aim higher…

On matters Tempest…

I never really had much experience with the 1980 Tempest arcade game, but Jeff Minter did. He absolutely loves it. So much so that, when offered the opportunity by Atari, he created a glorious interpretation of the game – the Jaguar’s Tempest 2000.

T2K made the Jaguar worth owning. Nothing else in the console’s brief lifetime had anywhere near the playability, and it introduced a whole new generation of fans to Minter’s Llamasoft. But it was not the first of Yak’s Tempest re-workings that I ever played; that honour goes to Tempest 3000, written for the Nuon processor that managed to find a home in a mere handful of Samsung and Toshiba DVD players. An eBay win and shipping from a helpful mate in the US netted me a Samsung N501; a quick trip to DSE for a 230-to-115V transformer saw me in business.

T3K is a visual feast, pure and simple; the vast majority of the game looks like it’s in some glorious mild soft-focus, a soothing “come hither” effect that makes the plethora of death you’ll be dealt seem as daunting as a Mills & Boon novel. But that’s the beauty of it; T3K seems so innocuous, so sit-back-and-let-it-wash-over-you with visuals that are at once brilliant neon and soothing pastel. Blurry and indistinct, maybe – but spend half-an-hour getting into the groove of the game and they become second nature.

I aspired to be great at Tempest 3000. Being “good” wasn’t good enough; I wanted to be able to hold my head up high and say “I rock at this game.” And so, with guidance from the ever-faithful Llamascores, the nightly practise sessions began: about 15 minutes to settle in, and then the time just flew by as the game and I became a Competitive One, yin and yang, and blissfully so. Early attempts saw me bowing out of proceedings whenever the dreaded Pulsars hit the web – I had no bloody idea what was going on, no idea where they were, and was merely whizzing around the web in hope.

Dropping the trancey music volume down a few notches allows the imperative audio cues to come to the fore; suddenly, the soft “warning” and “pulsar firing” messages (being audible) were actually useful, and more progress was made. Alas, high scores in T3K seem to be reliant on (a) not using the jump (or “hover”) powerup, and (2) being able to traverse the bonus levels. I suck at the bonus level. And I can’t stop using the hover. My multipliers aren’t collected, and my score remains puny.

But what a lovely, lovely game. “Lush” is a word that suits it especially well. If only the Nuon had the ability to persist high scores… Aside from that, though, the Nuon was criminally underused hardware. Apparently hard as hell to program (with a VLIW instruction set that, with the benefit of hindsight, must be a secret shame of someone right now). The controller I snaffled was very N64-ish, and perfect for T3K: a lovely loose analog stick, perfect for thrashing about the web, before switching to the precision of the D-pad. And, of course, the Nuon was also home to Minter’s VLM-2 audio visualiser… but that’s leading to a much longer conversation.

Later, after having positively failed in my attempt to be “great” at T3K, I acquired a Jaguar and a stack of games, T2K included. And – most important of all – a rotary spinner controller, given the Yak-tastic thumbs-up as being the definitive way to play T2K. Fire up the console, give the game a nudge and a wink to engage rotary support, and we’re off – playing the game as Yak originally intended.

First thoughts were jarring; after the plasma-fied smoothness of T3K, the Jaguar’s pixel-shattering graphics felt positively coarse. It also didn’t feel as balanced; early levels carried on way too long, especially when compared to the svelte level designs of T3K. Colour me unimpressed.

Several months later, though, in the midst of a glorious break from work, I decided to return to T2K – if only to try and remove it from the To-Do List. And it managed to dig both fangs in and dig hard. After getting to grips with the controls (and, more importantly, learning how the T2K pulsars worked), I settled in for some quality Minter gaming.

As usual, his progression though levels is beautifully calculated; there’s no massive leaps in difficulty, and you always feel as if you’re learning, and being rewarded for doing so. The T2K “Key” mechanism – whereby you can restart at any odd-numbered level, as long as you’ve completed it – allows short targeted bursts, tackling three levels at a time.

I progress – slowly. My “completed” goal of unlocking Beastly Mode (by completing all 100 levels) seems quite doable as I scoot through the forties, battle manfully through the fifties, and leap into the sixties…

…only to be greeted suddenly with a blank, black screen at the end of a level.


I reboot the Jaguar, restart T2K… to discover that all my high-scores, all my progress, had been lost.

Double shit.

I start from Level 1 again. Things are much smoother this time, and before I know it I’m into the late-fifties. Then the black screen returns, dismissing any gains made.

A quick poke around the InterNets revealed that this problem was symptomatic of dodgy chips – Jag cartridges have tiny slivers of flash in them to store save-states, but the early nature of the technology used led to a relatively low write limit… which I assumed my cart was approaching.

Triple shit. Harrumph.

So, a quick poke around has netted me another (assuredly “almost unused”) T2K cart; it’s yet to be played, though. Yet another little project on the back-burner.

And so to Space Giraffe.

Let’s get one thing straight: Space Giraffe is fucking magnificent. But it’s not Tempest. In fact, were Minter anything but a chilled hippie, he’d kick your teeth in for saying so. It certainly owes a lot to Theurer’s classic (or, more accurately, Minter’s previous re-interpretations) – the webs, powerups, and baddies all seem somewhat familiar… but it’s the gameplay that sets the Giraffe apart. And that’s something I’m not even going to attempt to explain; there’s a squillion other sites out there that delve into details of bulling, juggling, and dealing with rotors.

As expected, the reviews of Space Giraffe have been all over the shop; Edge gave it an 8, OXM famously slated it with a 2.0. Everyone’s favourite opinionated netizen Stuart Campbell loved it (brilliant review there, personal insults aside), and Consolevania‘s fleeting mention (in the tricky-to-find “25677-3” episode) was right on the money too. But, as a lifelong fan of Minter’s work (well, about 90% of it, anyway), I slapped my 400 points down for the Giraffe without looking at the demo, without reading a review. And, from the outset, I knew that we were going to have a good relationship. The Neon engine that pumps forth the brilliant (in both senses of the word) visuals proved no impediment to me (up until Level 52, which required some serious brain re-wiring to comprehend), the music was a perfect fit, the audio cues perfect. Straight away, I knew that I was in love with this game – and, once again, I wanted to be able to call myself “great”. Luckily, the (frankly brilliant) level- and score-save system seems tailor-made for obsessives like me to leverage for decent ranks.

Through practise, determination, and sheer bloody-minded beligerence that I was not going to let this get to me, I managed to scrimp and save enough points to climb as high as 11th in the world… Then the exploit-abusers came in. Yes, there’s a minor exploit to be exploited that allows massive scores to be accumulated; many have taken the opportunity to get wonderful leaderboard rankings. Many more have used it as a reason to not play the Giraffe in anger until it is patched.

Not me, though. I was practising the hell out of this puppy. By the time I cracked the 400-million mark, I’d crawled back up to 13th. Hurrah!

But now I’m taking a break from the Giraffe until the patch – and resultant leaderboard wipe – has come out. Then the graph below will have a new line – the line where I’m trying to beat my own score. Already, I’m concerned about some levels that I completely fluked my way through the first time; but if any game is going to cajole me, it’s Space Giraffe.

If you’ve got a 360, and haven’t played the Giraffe yet, then download it forthwith and play the demo. Better yet, just cough up the measly 400 points and buy it outright.

Fantastic, fantastic game… Massive props, Yak :)

There’s one last game that I should mention in this little Tempest-fest, and that’s Tony Crowther’s N2O. It differs from the original Tempest in almost exactly the opposite manner to T2K; if anything, the two games are complementary.

N2O sees the player piloting a craft through tubes blasting baddies, with the player freely rotating around the outside of the tube as you travel through it. The opaque and twisting nature of the tubes is a key differentiator from the more traditional treatments, but the lovely thing about the game is the weight that’s afforded your vehicle – it’s got a lovely heft to it, and handling subtleties between different models of craft offer one of many minor tactical aspects.

By no means have I hammered N2O – in fact, I’ve only seen about a third of the levels, playing on the easiest skill level. But it’s another game on the To-Do List – like T2K, T3K, and Space Giraffe – that I’m really looking forward to immersing myself in. If only to be “good”.

Earth Defence Force 2017

It’s been a pretty miserable week for me. Flu-ridden, hazey and dazey, throat infections that make it nigh-on impossible to sleep. Spitting up fresh blood last thing at night, then lying in bed feeling the blood coagulate in the back of my throat, knowing that the first ultra-painful coughing fit of the next morning is cough to result in more fresh blood and sputum of an unnatural colour. Not to mention the anticipation of discovering what new twists and turns my disease will take the following day. Oh yes, it’s been a rubbish week.

And yet, I’m utterly happy.


Because I never, ever, have to play Earth Defence Force 2017 again.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fun game to play… casually. If your mates happen to drop by and there’s a few drinks involved, EDF is a blast. But for the obsessive/compulsive amongst us – ie, me – it’s complete fucking rubbish.

OK, OK, that’s going a bit far… maybe. So let’s go back to the beginning: EDF 2017 is a 360 title from the Master Purveyors of Japanese Tat, D3 Publisher. It’s cheap in both price and presentation; graphics are decidedly cheap-PS2-era, sound is clear and repetitive, menus are basic (options even more so) and there’s no multi-player over Xbox Live (but, thankfully, a split-screen co-op mode). The storyline must’ve taken all of one solitary man-hour to write (“We don’t know whether they’re friends or foe – but The Government have named them The Ravagers”), and the voice acting probably took less time than that to record, edit, encode and embed. But where it’s cheap on aesthetics, it more than makes up for it in enthusiasm.

Pushing your simply-animated chap into battle against hordes of giant acid-spitting ants, giant goo-shooting spiders, and giant plasma-rific robots, you initially get blissed out with the silliness of the scale and spectacle. The discovery of new weapons is a treat: your first rocket launcher encourages you to level the city in front of you with scant regard for the civilians within. Your first decent sniper rifle is a revelation, enabling you to knock massive carrier ships out of the sky from the other side of the map.

Your companion AI kinda helps out along the way; early on your Earth Defence Force chums seem quite adept at killing the buggy foes. Later, though, your mates are absolutely piss-useless, frequently running into certain death with little more offensive weaponry than bad BO. Or – worse – running in front of you just as you decide to fire off your uber-powerful rocket launcher… KABOOM you’re all toasted. Best of all, though, are the comments that they’ll make when in earshot:

“I’m out of ammo… Give me some!”

“I’ll do it!” / “I can’t do that right now!”

“When this is over, I’ll buy you a steak.”

“Damn you Mothership, did we wake you?”

Pushing through the levels actually takes determination, grit; it can feel pretty samey in the mid-thirties, but there’s a few oddball boss-ish levels thrown in to spice things up a bit. The last half-dozen-or-so levels are insane, with waves of ants and spiders and robots and carriers swooping in to hasten your demise. The final battle with the alien Mothership – in level fifty-fucking-three – evolves into a massively chaotic mush of plasmic colours; greens and reds and purples fill the screen in ways that would make Minter proud, and all the while you pop away at the craft with your pea-shooter.

So you finish the game. After 6 or 7 hours. And your first Achievement pops up: “All Stages Cleared (Easy) – 50GP”.

Fifty. Bloody. Points.

Righto. Time to start on Normal, then. I guess.

It’s a touch trickier, but you’ve got the benefit of all the lovely weapons you found in Easy. Five hours later, the second Achievement toast appears: “All Stages Cleared (Normal) – 100GP”. And the O/C in me niggles a bit, saying “I know you don’t really want to play all those levels, but… you have to.”


So I start on the Hard difficulty. And something has changed; all of a sudden, the game isn’t a pushover – something you merely have to tolerate to win. It requires a bit of forethought, a bit of strategy – and weapons. The right weapons. And stamina – both in-game and perseverance.

Level 8 on Hard convinces me something’s gotta give; I’m getting slaughtered on the simple levels. Dreading the potential repercussions, I engage the assistance of my Significant Other, hoping to use her lack of gaming ability to at least distract the enemy long enough for me to make the kill. Trying to keep things simple, I empower her with one of EDF‘s most useful weapons, the turret. Careful instructions conveyed as to the handling and deployment of the turrets are ignored as she promptly drops them on the ground directly behind me and fired them off, causing them to decimate my meagre armour and leave me a sad corpse upon the ground. My SO remained blissfully ignorant of my demise – despite sharing the same screen as me – and wandered about looking at all the bugs.

Slowly we progress. Farming a few key levels for weapons, we manage to find (all weapon drops are random – cue biting of the O/C Lip in frustration) the mother of all turrets – the ZE-XR. Suddenly tricky levels become easier, and we progress through Hard with only minor disruptions. The first time we attack the Level 53 Mothership, my half of the screen was a frame-droppingly stuttery green-and-purple mess until, by fluke, I get blasted through the bottom of the map… only to re-appear at the top of the map, whereupon I drift slowly to the ground, able to dispose of my foe in relative comfort. My SO, meanwhile, is happily laying turrets and shooting nothing in particular… but her turret-handling is getting better.

“All Stages Cleared (Hard) – 150GP”.

I hate those Achievements.

The poorly named penultimate skill level – “Hardest” – is another noticeable step up, and encourages more early-difficulty-level farming, this time for health. Many many many more hours are spent farming key levels, building up the EDF’s health/armour/stamina (it’s never made clear which is the correct term) stocks. Many hours. I swear, I could play Level 52 blindfolded now. Eventually, I stick my wetted finger in the breeze and declare that our health/armour/stamina stocks are sufficient, and we engage in our quest. And, by and large, we do alright. There’s a few levels that we barely scrape through, and they lodge themselves in my mind with The Fear… The Fear of facing them one last time.

“All Stages Cleared (Hardest) – 200GP”.

One last difficulty level… Inferno.

For the most part, it’s smooth sailing… if a little tough. Choppy sailing, then. We claw our way through the levels, only occasionally being forced into repeat attempts. And, sitting to my right, my SO is actually starting to play well; she’s thinking strategically, she’ll revert to a support role as appropriate, she’ll manage the frontline when necessary. And we’re starting to act as a team, with the fallen one urging the other to complete the level.

We’re genuinely enjoying the game now: the first of the levels of The Fear that I was afraid of tackling – the final attack on the quadruped fortress – sees us both giggling with relief at the bizarre “woohoo” noise at the level’s end. Level 43 takes many, many, many attempts, but the joy we both felt at its completion (after 10 minutes of tense dodging) was tangible. The Tricky Trio – levels 50, 51, 52 – were wonderfully white-knuckled battles, the two of us side-by-side, methodically tearing the enemy apart. Then came the final level, the Mothership.

It’s no spoiler to mention that the Mothership becomes more difficult over the different skill levels; each more difficult skill level adds an additional element to its evolution. This time, though, we tackled things differently… my SO rolled and turreted her way around the Motherships strike-zone, whilst I took pot-shots from afar with the gorgeous Lysander Z sniper rifle. She got belted mightily by the Mothership’s offense, I was barely noticed. I almost teared up when I saw her die onscreen, saw the Mothership start to focus its weapons on me… just before the final, fatal shot.

“All Stages Cleared (Inferno) – 300GP”.

We whoop in joy, but I notice a little sadness in my SO’s eyes; as much as she doesn’t want to admit it, she’s really enjoyed her role in this task. And it’s over now.

But not for me… there’s still 200GP up for grabs for collecting all the randomly-dropped weapons. So, it’s back to my favoured farming levels for what could be an age… but 30 minutes later, I’ve got my 171st weapon. I thank my lucky stars as I see the Achievement toast pop up…

“All Weapons Acquired – 200GP”.

I go to save my game with a big, stupid grin on my face, and…

…my 360 hangs.

The grin freezes, teeth clench, and I can feel the corners of my mouth start to agonizingly droop down. I check my profile online – EDF 2017 shows 1000/1000, but my heart knows that my saved game is anything but complete. I throw my head back and howl – I know that I’ve got to farm and farm and hope and farm to get that final weapon again, just so I can know that I’ve 100%-ed the game. Undeniable proof. The curse of the O/C Gamer.

It’s OK, I’m all better now. The weapon has been found, the game has been saved. And despite all the fun and joy and togetherness(!) that 70 hours with this game provided, I’m safe in the knowledge that I never have to play it again.

Ridge Racer 6 :: Redux

When I first wrote about Ridge Racer 6, I was focused on the completion of the game, on climbing the Australian Achievements leaderboards. That task complete, and daunted by the final remaining Achievement, I left Ridge Racer 6 alone for a few months.

I still spoke readily of my love for the game, however; and a bunch of other members of the Way Of The Rodent forums agreed with me. We’d congregate on Xbox Live occasionally (often necessitating a 5am alarm-inspired wakeup on a Saturday morning) and have an absolute ball. We were all bullish of the quality of the game; so much so that Ridge Racer 6 won the Way Of The Rodent Game of the Year for 2006.

And that felt very personal to me; I felt that, in some small way, I helped steer that Award to that great game. Ironic, then, that my piece on Zelda: Twilight Princess was selected to represent that game in the Rodent Awards issue.

Anyway, as homage to Ridge Racer 6 (and also because another chap on the forum expressed a passing interest) I decided to tackle that final Achievement.

The Impossible Achievement.

(Now, we all know that’s not literally true. There’s a ton of Achievements that are obviously more difficult – Mutant Storm Reloaded‘s Black Belt Grandmaster, and Robotron‘s Wave 100 spring to mind – but a quick perusal of many forums devoted to reveals the reluctance with which many approach this final Achievement.)

No Crash Victory: Single Races.

Win every race on each track (fifteen tracks plus their reverses) in every Class (five Classes) without hitting anything – other cars, scenery. “No Crash” is a bit of a misnomer; it’s commonly referred to as “No Collisions”, or “The Impossible Achievement.”

So – I started this task, unsure how long it would take – or if it was even possible (for me). I swore upfront that I was completely unable to even make it around some tracks in Class 4 without scenery collisions, let alone worrying about other cars. But, over time, I learnt some tricks, noticed some aspects of the game that weren’t immediately apparent, and… I Achieved :)


I’ve not idea how long it took to complete this Achievement, but I’ll hazard a guess and say it was 40-45 hours. And, as a service to my zero readers, I’m listing my notes here – if only to assure them that this isn’t as impossible as some would have you believe.

And so, in some semblance of order of importance:

  • Use Unlimited Nitrous. You’re already undertaking a heroic task; there’s no reason to attempt to be super-human. Unlimited Nitrous (unlocked somewhere within World Xplorer, and activated on the Car Select screen by hitting “Y”) gives you one huge advantage: it allows you to drop a double-nitrous on the start line. This, along with some artful dodging, can get you a third of the way through the field within seconds.
  • Change your viewpoint. Since I was the only person in the universe that doesn’t race with the in-car view, it pays to mention this: change to the chase-cam viewpoint (prod “X”). It really helps you judge your margins of error, as well as adding the teeth-gritting joy of squinting at the screen looking for those polygons of air that separate you from your foes.
  • Learn to take the pedal off the metal. I know it sounds weird, completely at odds with the Ridge Racer ethos, but sometimes you just have to slow down. I’ll be honest: I’d never used the brake (what? There’s a brake?) prior to Class 4 of The Impossible Achievement… but some tracks will require that you not be flying around at StupidSpeed (either use the brake, or just don’t hammer the accelerator all the way down) to avoid hitting walls; learn to deal with it.
  • Learn to use The Groups. You may have noticed that computer-controlled cars tend to hang around in Groups; these prove to be ultra-useful when attempting the No Collision challenge. In-between Groups there are little Safety Zones; once you successfully overtake a Group and get to the Zone, cars behind you are unlikely (note the careful choice of word, there) to try and overtake you by using Nitrous. There tends to be a Safety Zone around 8th or 9th place, often 4th, and 2nd; this varies depending on the course and initial layout of the opposition cars.
  • Use your strengths. Your Nitrous has far greater grunt than the oppositions. If the car you’re attempting to overtake deploys a Nitrous – even if it’s a triple – don’t be afraid to fire your own Nitrous; you’ll overtake them no problems, just make sure you can get sufficiently clear of their Nitrous-fuelled ramming after yours runs out.
  • Don’t Rush. Use the above two tips to your advantage… don’t try to overtake every car from the start line. Often you can use a double-Nitrous (combined with a Rocket Start) at the start of a race and settle nicely into the first Safety Zone (around 8th or 9th position), but don’t feel compelled to do so. Some tracks are easier if you let the opposition have ten seconds head start; if you’ve got Unlimited Nitrous, you can catch them back up no problems. Take your time, stalk your foe – you’re in no big rush. Remember – all you have to do is win. Without hitting anything ;)
  • Traffic patterns matter. It’s pretty easy to notice that Restarting a race in progress (hitting Start > Restart) doesn’t change the opposition cars makeup or locations. You might also notice that, if you drive exactly the same way, overtaking cars on the same side every time, that the race will pretty much pan out in an identical manner. This is really handy – it allows you to scope out paths through the traffic, and the reactions of different cars to various behaviors. If you bugger up – hit a car, get rammed, or just nick a wall – you can just restart the race and try again. In this manner, you can gradually pry your way through the puzzle that each race presents.
  • Random cars? Not quite. A corollary to the above note is that, while Restarting a race leaves opposition car patterns intact, quitting to the Single Race Menu and starting the race again from there creates a random car layout. This isn’t strictly true; each track seems (in Special Class, anyway) to have a selection of general patterns it will use to initially order cars. Thus, if there’s a pattern you want to return to, repeatedly Quit back to the Single Race Menu and start the same race until it returns.
  • Some cars really want their position. Another variant of the Pattern rules: some cars really want to be in a particular position. Through some vagaries of racing, you might see a car you normally expect to see in second place (for example) pushed way down the field – watch out! To get to its preferred position, it’ll boost and bash its way through traffic with scant regard for your Achievement gathering. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s really annoying to find a car that acts like this.
  • Beware the Leader’s Triple. The computer-controlled frontrunner will always fire off a triple-Nitrous when challenged. This can be a complete bastard to deal with whilst overtaking, so the trick is to milk it. Get right up the leading car’s arse and it’ll fire off the triple; keep in close proximity to the car and overtake when the triple runs out. It appears that each computer-controlled car can only manage one triple per race… which is nice.
  • Mild Drift rules. I’ve said it before – I’m a complete pussy at this game, so I chose to perform all my races using Mild Drift cars – the Wild Gang (Class 1 & 3) and the Eo (Class 2 & 4). The Mild Drift gives you extra time to correct your slides, not to mention allowing you to actually face the direction you intend to travel in for the majority of the time. As for Special Class, I used the Bass Cruiser… just kidding, what am I, a fucking idiot? Angelus all the way.
  • Have a Plan-Of-Attack. At first, I thought that I’d tackle the races one-track-at-a-time. I reasoned that it was best to focus on the track – learn every bump, every curve, every nuance, every drift point. I wound up having struggling through every Class on every track, until I hit the fourth track – Island Circle. Or “Island Fucking Circle,” as it became known. So I changed my POA – I focused on completing one Class at a time, starting with Class 1. The advantage to this approach was that I quickly became accustomed to the danger cars and approaches of each Class; it often meant that, once I hit the Reverse tracks, I was so attuned to the cars that I would win races easily. Or rather, more easily.
  • Don’t worry, it gets easier. Really, it does. Class 1 is tricky and tedious, a real test of concentration – after all, races can last five minutes, and one short daydream is enough to see you careening into a wall. Class 2, perhaps because of the additional speed, feels significantly easier; Class 3 is noticeably more difficult (due to the extra speed), and Class 4 only a touch trickier. Surprisingly, Special Class felt easier(!) than Class 4 for the most part… and, more importantly, the Special Class races are genuinely fun – I would literally speed-sweat bullets for the 180 seconds of some races. And maybe it was delirium, but there were times when an angry Terrajin rammed me going into the final corner and I’d giggle like a drunk schoolgirl. Then swear a lot, restart the race, ram the bastard off the road, and feel much better.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a massive undertaking – but it’s definitely not impossible. Hey, if I can do it, anyone can :)

Just Cause (and the Cost Of Content)

It’s a thrilling opening – Rico Rodriguez, your third-person avatar, gets tossed out of an aircraft; you deploy his parachute, drift over a lush tropical island, roll-land on a beach, arm your weapons and dispatch threats. Into the back of a jeep, speeding across the island again whilst shooting down aircraft and pursuing cars. Later, you’re pushing Rico to use his grappling hook to grab a car, deploying your parachute, and paragliding behind it. Suddenly, you spy a flurry of aggressive helicopters; you shoot one down with your rocket launcher, grapple to another, kick the pilot out to land on the forest below, and speed off into the glorious sunset.

The problem is, Just Cause never re-captures the thrill of the first couple of hours of play. You acquire the grapple gun very early on, and it’s largely the last time you feel genuinely thrilled by the game – but the freedom it allows, letting you jump around the lush tropical island setting at will, is wonderful.

The story is laughably cheesey and undeveloped – and hopelessly short. It’s also occasionally too easy – in fact, the last three chapters I completed without actually knowing what I was doing. The side-missions required for Achievements can result in a bit of grinding, but it’s only thirty hours max for your full complement of 1000pts.

And, believe me, that’s a good thing. The Achievements are all very achievable, and they contribute about 50% of your playtime. I’ve no idea how long I would have played this game on the PC or PS2; it’s only the GamerScore on offer that kept me interested in the end.

And that makes me sad. Just Cause plays well enough, and it certainly looks gorgeous – the tropical setting is lush, the environmental effects stunning… just wait for dawn or dusk, they’re utterly convincing and gob-smackingly beautiful. The expanse of the San Esperito islands is wonderfully realised (especially when you learn that it’s created with a simple heightmap), but it feels… empty.

And, in a way, I can understand that – the gameplay area is massive, and to actually fill it up with content would require a metric truckload of manpower… which means money. And it worries me that a game that may have a playable lifetime of 20 hours would require so much money to produce. News that Lost Planet cost Capcom $40 million dollars exacerbates these fears; to be fair, the development budget was apparently just half that, but that’s still $20 million for the tech and content.

Kotaku also posted a story indicating that Gears Of War cost a mere $10 million to make. I’d imagine that’s pretty much devoted to the content development budget, too – I think the Gears hype machine pretty much negated the need for marketing, and one would imagine that the Unreal Engine development came from a different budget. Let’s think about that for a second: sure, Gears is a polished bit of work, but it’s hardly the most bug-free or – at about 10 hours of single-player time – the most content rich title.

And so the emptiness of Just Cause is to be expected, really – but it plays well enough, and I certainly think my AU$90 for thirty hours interactive entertainment was about par for the course. At worst, the demo is still well worth the download from Live Marketplace. But it highlighted to me the Cost Of Content – and, pessimism heightened, made me apprehensive for upcoming next-gen gaming.