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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Je Retourne (2012 Edition)

Hello again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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