A New Era…

Last night I had cause to look something up on this blog – a quip I’d made at some stage – and happened to notice that it was nearly three months since I’d posted an entry here. That caught me a little by surprise, really; and now it’s time to make amends, and time to get back to writing. And I’ll open with a grandiose statement:

It’s a new era at The Moobaarn.

Indeed, it’s a new Moobaarn.

In the three months since my last post on this blog, I’ve moved house, bought my first new TV in over 15 years, and – gasp! – acquired a brand spanking new PS3. Luckily, those last two events were linked, thanks to Sony’s latest promotion; I’ve not assisted SCE’s ledger by actually purchasing one of their now-profitable bits of gaming hardware. And the out-of-box experience is great; it’s a lovely chunk of kit, and was set up with no real drama.

Turning the PS3 on yielded another story. It strikes me that the XMB at the core of the PS3’s interface is every bit as cumbersome as the original blade interface of the 360, and completely at odds with the ten-foot interface paradigms of the Wii and the NXE. I reckon the interface – like the DualShock controller, something I’ve never really got on with – was designed by engineers, for engineers; the organisation and design is very clean and regular (symmetrical, in the case of the DualShock), but it fails to compensate for the volume of information… it just doesn’t feel fit-for-purpose, lumbering under the load of the options forced upon it by the opportunities afforded by the hardware.

Anyway, enough bitching.

Having a big HD telly for the first time led me to crack out some of the more graphically impressive 360 titles; Bayonetta‘s arse looks spectacular, Prince of Persia a cel-shaded work of art, and Space Giraffe even crazier than I remember. I tried getting my eye back into the twin-stick-shooter genre with little success (Mutant Storm Reloaded and Geometry Wars Evolved^2 both rebuffing my advances), and there was even some Halo 3 multiplayer during a zombie-themed Double-XP weekend that netted a few new achievements. Yes, the acquisition of a HD TV certainly performed wonders for my flagging gaming mojo.

Prior to delivery of my new TV, though, I was stuck in my new Moobaarn with most of my possessions trapped away in a barely stable structure of boxes. Sure, my old TV had been setup, but the 360 and Wii were buried underneath scores of books and old videotapes that had (perhaps mistakenly) also made the move. Desperate to make some impact on The List, I dug out my original Xbox and started flicking through the pending titles there; Panzer Dragoon Orta got a bit of a bash, but surprisingly I spent a fair wodge of time playing TimeSplitters 2. Now, I’ve ranted at length at this game on various internet fora, especially targeting those that recommended that game to me; as the second console FPS I ever played, it was a woefully abysmal experience compared to Halo. In fact, the in-game stats indicated that I’d spent a scant six hours playing TS2, completing it on the easiest difficulty setting, before running away to play something that felt right. I really didn’t like it at all.

Those same in-game stats, however, indicated that I’d only “completed” 10% of the game on offer… and that just doesn’t sit well with my OCD. So I started churning through some of the Arcade and Challenge modes, determined to attain Gold Trophies in all events… and, lo and behold, I found myself actually enjoying the game! What a pleasant surprise. Anyway, the percentage had crept up to about 34% by the time the new telly arrived and the old Xbox was consigned to a disused part of the entertainment unit; I will return to play more TimeSplitters 2, though, you mark my words.

My sole PS3 purchase so far has been the original Uncharted, and… well, colour me unimpressed. Woolly controls, glaringly shiny teeth, and paint-by-numbers action has done little to warm me; it really does feel like a prettied-up Tomb Raider clone with an awful lack of precision. In its defence, I’m only about half-way through the game, but my favourite bits thus far have been the oft-maligned jetski sections. Sure, Uncharted 2 may have been the critic’s choice for 2009, but on the strength of its predecessor I’m not sure I’ll bother.

But the good thing about this experience is that I think I’m starting to crystallise what appeals to me as a gamer. Without wanting to sound patronising in any way, Uncharted conjures up the same feeling, the same approach and mood, as Gears of War did for me; not in the gameplay (though there’s certainly some similarities there too), but in the way it’s presented: linear progression with well-defined set-pieces. And, just as GoW irked me massively (co-op hijinks with friends notwithstanding), I think Uncharted is going to pan out the same way.

Ummmmm, what else have I been doing in the last couple of months? Well, I’ve knocked two Wii games – The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Super Paper Mario – off the list, the latter being a paniccy weekend completion of one of my aforementioned In Case Of Emergency games when I realised that I wasn’t getting my skills together to complete Wii Play. Yes, the best part of five grand dropped on a nice new HD telly, and I’ve spent most of my time playing Wii games. And that continues even now, with the local release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 last Thursday… a couple of days solid play has allowed me to gather 118 Power Stars, enough to access one of the finest levels of gaming I’ve ever encountered… but more on that later.

Next week? Crackdown 2… and I cannot fucking wait. Which makes me reflect on the fantastic world we live in; only a fortnight ago, I wandered into my preferred vendor of gaming goodness and slapped down pre-orders on Super Mario Galaxy 2, Crackdown 2, and Halo: Reach, and two of those are released within a week of each other. How awesome is that?

2009: The Year in Review

2009 was quite a weird one for me; even as I acknowledge my dearth of console gaming knowledge, I’ve never felt more distant from the gaming mainstream. I managed to ignore the miniscule lure of the PS3 for another twelve months, I still don’t do Rock Band, I’ve avoided Borderlands and the Fallout series like they were OCD quicksand, and semi-realist games like Forza 3 and Modern Warfare 2 tick none of my boxes. In fact, the only mainstream toe-dipping I reckon I’ve done this year are with Halo 3: ODST, New Super Mario Brothers Wii and, maybe, Brütal Legend.

Despite that, The List has largely been treading water; throughout the year, I bought sixteen new games, and I completed a total of sixteen games. It didn’t help that a cleanup led me to discover previous purchases, conveniently forgotten, plumpifying The List somewhat; just a lazy 71 games outstanding now, helped along by cheap end-of-year deals on Xbox Live.

But hey! This is supposed to be a flippant, if not light-hearted, awards ceremony blog entry written by an uneducated guy you don’t know, recycling ideas that were never that flash in the first place. On with the show!

Proudest Achievement of the Year: Wrapping up Burnout Paradise. Every collectible, every Achievement, and – most chuffingly – every Challenge :)

Disappointment of the Year: Wii Fit still hasn’t had any impact on my weight (though that could possibly be due to the fact that it hasn’t been played… nor has it’s younger brother, Wii Fit Plus), and the much-anticipated GridRunner Revolution sadly failed to light my fire. But the biggest disappointment of the year was provided by MadWorld – so much potential pissed away in immature monotones.

Surprise Discovery of the Year: We Ski, bought nervously at the same time as MadWorld (with the nervousness instantly replaced by regret as soon as the “Checkout” button was clicked) proved to be stupidly good fun. Sure, it didn’t last long, but that flame burned unexpectedly bright enough to be memorable.

Under-Appreciated Game of the Year: A game that had a release window of about a fortnight over here, that local distributors didn’t want to know about, and wound up being sourced for less than five quid (new!) from Amazon in the UK… Soul Bubbles is a gorgeous little game, completely at home on the DS. Please try to buy a copy! :}

Multiplayer Moment of the Year: Halo 3: ODST takes this one easily. Firefight, all my team-mates dead, being chased around by half-a-dozen Brutes… and I had no ammo. Black Eye skull was on, meaning no health regeneration. And I managed to get the Team through. Fucking magic feeling :)

The “I Love You… Honest” Missive of the Year: A toss-up between all the games I’ve bought, but not played, this year. Shadow Complex, Space Giraffe on the PC, The Maw… but Chrono Trigger takes the gong here.

The “I am the King of the World” Throw-Your-Arms-In-The-Air Trophy: Finally – finally – conquering Level 64 of Tempest 2000. It’s just a pity I’m now stuck on another level only a little farther along.

What Was All The Fuss About? Award: This is going to look like link-bait, but… The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. I’ve been chewing through a bunch of Zelda games this year (hey, I 100%-ed Ocarina thrice in 2009!), but I’m utterly perplexed by the adulation this game receives. Takes all types, I guess – and I definitely seem to be in the minority. “It was good, but not great…”

The “Go Fuck Yourself” Dismissal: The Grand Theft Auto series, on the basis of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. I swore I’d never speak of it again.

The Everything Old Is New Again Award: Sure, PAC-MAN Championship Edition is a wonderful extension of the original game, but Bionic Commando: Rearmed takes the cake for a superb re-imagining of the original, with just a tiny taste of the original Commando rolled in as well. Gorgeous.

Blast From The Past Award: After a straight month and two 100% playthroughs, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker provided some of the year’s gaming highlights, with gloriously solid gameplay.

That’s What Gaming’s All About Award: Easy one, really – New Super Mario Brothers Wii eschews modern gameplay “essentials” and delivers a stunningly fun, taut, and challenging single-player experience.

The “Friendly Tumour” Award: An award for the game that initially hides its charms, but grows on you, Brütal Legend snaffles this with ease. The first playthrough had it odds-on for the Almost-But-Not-Quite Award, but repeat visits opened up the glory that Schafer built.

The “Flow Like A River” Natural Gameplay Award: Well… I had to give something to the most recent Prince of Persia game, because it was a real revelation early in the year. Fast, fluid, and rewarding gameplay, backed up with charm and gorgeous stylised graphics.

AAA-HypeTitle I Missed Award: Again, pretty much all of them… though it was pleasing to see that the gaming public may be becoming a little sceptical of the hype machine (after the rapid deflation of Modern Warfare 2‘s bubble, and a retrospective post-coital “meh” being applied to memories of GTA4).

And BOOM! There goes 2009. Big props to Prince of Persia, most of the Zelda series, New Super Mario Brothers Wii, Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Soul Bubbles, and We Ski… oddly enough, only one of that lot was released in 2009. But let’s start looking forward to 2010, and Bayonetta, lots more No More Heroes, and a return-to-form for Llamasoft on the iPhone.

But now, I’m leaving 2009 pretty much as I started it: banging my head against a brick-wall of an OCD Zelda requirement. Phantom Hourglass is demanding that I find four more ship parts, and I dare not keep her waiting.

Happy New Year!

Je Retourne!

And so I return from my self-imposed gaming exile, having seen a lazy 103 Fringe shows. Pity I’ve only written up half of them :}

In the five weeks since I last posted, I have got some gaming in – the Prince of Persia DLC was obtained and conquered, and proved to be a fair step up in difficulty over the original. Some great exposition (if you went digging for it), some lazy character design, but all-in-all a worthy 800-point purchase (on XBLA – no idea what it is for you PS3 peeps, and PC PoP fans miss out altogether). And towards the end of the Fringe, I got sucked back into the glorious world of New Super Mario Brothers on the DS – and what a magnificent game it is. Utterly, utterly fabulous.

I was surprised, though, how much I hankered for a bit of gaming during the first few weeks of my “holiday” – until I gave in to Prince of Persia, I was wandering home from theatrical sojourns each night feeling a genuine yearning for a bit of gamage… something, anything. Christ, I was even considering digging up FreQuency for a bit of a bash. Once the Fringe was over, though, it was on for young and old; Geometry Wars practice has recommenced, with an eye to getting my skill levels up, and already I’m seeing promising progress (not bad for someone who celebrated his 38th birthday a few weeks back). I’ve dug up a decent copy of Tempest 2000 for the Jaguar (my first copy had a dodgy EEPROM, hindering progress somewhat), and I’ve progressed to Level 64 so far… but getting beyond that may be an issue, since I’ve yet to make any impact on it at all.

But the big story (for me) has been Majora’s Mask. I was having a real problem even firing the game up; it’s left such an unsavoury taste in my mouth that I just couldn’t face it. Eventually, I pushed myself into playing it again, if only to start practicing the shitty Town Shooting Gallery minigame – which had all the hallmarks of being another Gerudo Fortress archery pain-in-the-arse. Surprisingly, I managed to nail the Gallery for a perfect score, yielding my desired Heart Piece, well before lunch today… looking at the clock, I bit my lip, grabbed a FAQ, and finished the bastard off. 100% complete (all collectibles), two saves – one penultimate and one with all Masks. And that game is finally out of my life.

I know there’s a zillion people out there who loved Majora’s Mask – but it really, really didn’t click with me. At all. Sure, there’s some nice bits – the beauty of the final level, the Kafei & Anju quest – but I found so much of the core game to be cumbersome, clunky, and oppressive, that I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I enjoyed it. Pretty impressive to think that the whole game fit in 64MB, though.

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.


The week started with my traditional games of Archon on Australia Day – after digging up my Stelladaptor and firing up VICE-64, the first game (playing as Dark) was a little dicey – my usual teleport-the-Basilisk-into-the-backlines technique only yielded a dead Basilisk, a panicked resurrection, and soon thereafter my Shapeshifter went MIA. A war of attrition followed, but exploiting the silly C64 AI yielded a win. Playing as Light was a much more conventional – but no less enjoyable – affair, and Archon once again proved itself a wonderful game.

A fair bit of work has been done on Majora’s Mask in the last fortnight, too – pretty much everything up until the final two dungeons is done, save the Town Shooting Gallery heart-piece (which looks like it will be a Gerudo’s-Archery-level of frustration). All the Mask quests are done and, whilst my attitude to the game has softened somewhat due to the touching nature of the Kafei & Anju side quest, it’s still a bane, still a thorn in my side; I suspect I’ll be finishing Majora’s sometime next month and never touching it again.

Finally, I had some wonderful guests from the UK staying with me over the last couple of days; and, as a “thankyou” for the accommodation amidst their backpacking odyssey, Andy & Jax treated me to a copy of Prince of Persia. Andy and I created a new account on the 360, then started playing with interest – we joked “let’s see how long it’ll take for the first Achievement.” And colour us surprised when the first toast appeared within two minutes, with another handful appearing at regular 2-3 minute intervals. Inside an hour we’d netted over a hundred GS, but at that point we stopped caring – because the spectacle of Prince of Persia is really something to behold.

For starters, it’s gorgeous to look at – the cel-shading-lite is delicious, owing a lot to Crackdown. The audio is lovely, but bemusing – I’m genuinely undecided as to whether the voice acting is brilliant, or shit! Having played a lot more of the optional cutscenes (that provide a lot of backstory to the Prince and Elika) I’m prepared to lean to the former; there’s a lot of humour and sensitivity buried in there, but it’s tempered by the fact that the plot appears to be a rehash of Bullet Witch (and yes, that’d be a spoiler… if anyone had actually played Bullet Witch ;)

So – next week sees more Majora’s and Prince of Persia; realistically, I’m expecting to Complete them in February and March, respectively.