QUICKFIRE REVIEWS

Reviews, reviews, reviews. I love writing reviews, but there’s just so much I want to slag off or praise that I never seem to have the time to do all of them. So let’s pick up the pace a little. I’ve been on holiday recently and been absorbing more culture and media than YouTube does in a year, so let’s highlight some games, movies and shows that I want to talk about, each in less time than it takes to boil an egg. Go!


 

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

Pardon me for asking, but isn’t the abbreviation of “versus” usually written as VS and not just the singular letter? It wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case, because it feels about as well thought-out as everything else in this movie. I caught it for the first time on the plane over, interested to see if this were the legendary train wreck that everybody had told me, and honestly I’m disappointed even on that level. No point-and-laugh marathon like The Room or Birdemic to be found here, I’m afraid.

That said, there are a few moments of unintentional comedy – such as Bruce Wayne’s employee scratching his chin over whether he should leave the building that’s in the path of the black hole machine – but most of the time BVS is just boring or even frustrating. Boring because most of this is stuff we’ve seen before in a more joyous form, and frustrating because there’s a few parts that do work well, but never get space to develop. Ben Affleck captures both personas of Batman better than any recent incarnation, Gal Gadot gets kinda badass when she suits up as Wonder Woman, but neither of them can reach any sort of potential in this poorly-edited mess, brought down several notches further solely by the power of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Keep twitching and jabbering, Lexy – it might get intimidating if you do it a few hundred more times.

2.5/10


 

OVERWATCH: LUCIOBALL MODE

Do you like Overwatch, kids?

Yes!

Do you like Rocket League?

Yes!

Then good news! We’ve made a tedious compromise of those two games, done by reducing all the scope and variety of Overwatch to just one character and dropping a fairly dodgy physics object into the mix, to be batted around like a cat with a dented ball of wool! Say thanks, kids! This’ll entertain you for whole minutes at a time!

… Thanks, Blizzard. Can we go back to playing the main game now?

3.5/10


 

STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES

Ah, shit – I’m a Trekkie. I always held it close to my heart that even though I wrote about games online, even though I played Dungeons And Dragons, even though I collected rare comic books and memorabilia, I wasn’t a total geek, because I wasn’t a Trekkie on top of all that. There was still some hope.

It’s all changed now. I went into the original Star Trek series thinking that if I did like it, it would be ironically, sniggering at the campness of at all. “Ha ha, Shatner sweats all the time and all the alien women wear glittery miniskirts,” that sort of thing. I practically had a tally ready for all the red shirt deaths that would occur.

But I realised not halfway through the second episode that I was genuinely hooked. Though some aspects of the Star Trek saga haven’t aged well, the basic concept of an exploration ship charting unknown space worked then and works still, an endearing and exciting idea that promises anything and everything on a weekly basis. Not to mention that Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian human society still holds water as a legitimate and exciting idea, with all these concepts working as the platforms for some rather interesting stories and plotlines.

It’s not perfect, of course. The third season is fairly hit and miss at best, certain episodes have very weird editing and pacing, a few of the actors could’ve been working a lot harder; and though progressive in its ideals of a racially-equal cast, the show occasionally gets a little uncomfortable around the female characters and their role in these stories, though no worse than anything else would’ve probably been at the time. But if you can see past those errors, you realise that there’s something very charming here, a rough stone that shines despite its flaws and blemishes. I have to recommend it – it’s just too fun to miss.

7.5/10


 

THE TRUMAN SHOW

Bloody hell, that was creepy. For those of you who don’t know, the Truman Show was a 1998 Jim Carrey movie in which he plays Truman Burbank, an average shmuck who has been the unknowing star of a global reality TV show since his birth. Confined to a single town solely constructed to be his personal backdrop, and with the most irritatingly convincing hauteur executive controlling every event that happens to him, Burbank has no idea that his family, friends and everybody he meets are only well-paid actors, provoking him into TV-worthy situations all his life. When things start to go wrong on-set and Truman realises that something is amiss, he slowly starts to lose his mind to paranoia, whilst the world watches him break down with gormless fascination.

I was already thinking of The Twilight Zone even before I found out that there was a direct inspiration, and it works very well, with the whole thing having an intentionally creepy, artificial feel that made my skin crawl.

So this movie occasionally made me wonder if it was made to push my buttons, but not in a bad way. It’s very well made and Carrey is really working hard to convince us that he’s on the edge of a psychological breakdown in the second half, but I suspect I was more unnerved by it than I was meant to be. I hate reality TV, I hate having my privacy invaded, I hate the idea of being lied to, and so Truman’s secret prison of Seahaven feels like some ghastly hell to be trapped inside. I actually found myself loathing Ed Harris as Executive Producer Christof, desperate to see him get some sort of comeuppance as punishment for his revolting treatment of Burbank, whom he goes so far as to traumatise and install a fear of water to prevent him from leaving the town.

And that’s where the film flops slightly – the ending. Spoilers for this paragraph, but it HAS almost been out for two decades, so here we go: Basically, what you think would happen, happens. Truman finds the edge of the enormous set and escapes as the world watches, even going so far as to give his signature goodbye to an audience of billions. He leaves, they cheer at his success, change channel to see what else is on… And that’s it. No subversion, no surprise, nothing. I get what Paul Weir was trying to say, that the important thing is that Truman has found his freedom and life just goes on as usual for everybody else, but it still feels like a slightly weak cop-out, especially when there’s been a sense of pressure building for ages before it. I was really hoping he would start screaming a profanity-filled rant at the camera and all of the people who supported his isolation, before storming upstairs and punching Harris in the face. But no, guess we just have to do with the safer version. It really is like the end of most TV shows – an anticlimax.

That’s not a truly damning criticism though, not by a long way. The Truman Show is rather compelling and very intelligent, managing to be one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a while. What’s that? You DON’T think it’s a horror film? In that case, I’d be really happy if a) nobody gives you a camera phone, and b) you stop reviving the show Big Brother for additional seasons, please.

8/10


 

POKéMON MYSTERY DUNGEON: GATES TO INFINITY

Goddamnit. How can something that started off so strong at the beginning of its life end up as this tepid mush on the 3DS? Then again, I suppose it happened to the main Pokémon series too, so you can’t say it’s not fitting for Mystery Dungeon to go the same way.

I played Gates To Infinity when it first came out, and found myself really rather disliking it, yet unable to put my finger on why. Fortunately, I now have a lot of practice at dissecting games to see where the infection lies, and this one has a disease I like to call “Nintendoitis.” Obvious symptoms include the loss of any meaty challenge, the alarming spread of pointless, unwarranted mini-games or secondary mechanics, and the regurgitation of anything popular from previous games in order to try and elicit the same response from players. Oh, and you may notice that your eyes have turned inside out as the result of playing with the 3D function on. Take two cartridges of Super Mario World before and after going to bed, and you should’ve forgotten about this tedious entry in no time.

3/10


 

UNDERTALE

Yep. Still awesome, still the best game of last year, still one of the best written games in this decade so far. Just thought I’d remind everybody. Carry on.

10/10


 

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Sigh… Another film I watched on the plane ride over, nestled between Hail Caesar! and the new Peanuts flick with the embarrassing pop songs thrown in. And on paper, I should’ve been invested in this. I love old-school science-fiction, and Midnight Special looked to be the perfect reimagining of – again – those old Twilight Zone episodes, with a hefty scoop of E.T. and Close Encounters mixed in for good measure. Except that this episode of the Twilight Zone lasts for two hours, and that’s a serious problem.

Christ, I was bored, to the point where my eyes kept flicking to the screen in front where my sister was watching Deadpool quite happily, the lucky bugger. The basic idea of three weirdos hiding from the police and trying to escape across the country with Michael Shannon’s magical child should’ve been interesting, but this film seems to view “interesting” in the same way that a vegetarian views a steak sandwich. At one point Baby Blue Eyes telepathically destroys a surveillance satellite in orbit, the wreckage of which proceeds to obliterate the area around them, and that was exciting, jolting me out of my disinterested half-snooze and making me sit up. But then it’s just accepted that lil’ Jimmy can blow up spacecraft with his brain and everybody moves on, leaving us to witness the continuation of the most awkward car trip that ever was, perhaps excluding The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

The cast are not to blame for this, I should emphasise. General Zod, Mary Jane Watson, Kylo Renn, Rameses II, and the kid who’s been in nothing I recognise are all straining against this stilted, uncomfortable script, trying to validate the weirdly unnatural dialogue. There’s something very Shyamalan-esque about the whole thing, with everybody talking in hushed whispers to try and sell the underwhelming concepts that are being pedaled to us. But it ends up feeling forced and very dehumanising, to the point where these don’t feel like real people any more. Thus identifying with them is impossible, and rooting for them feels like a chore.

It’s not irredeemable by any means, it’s just a decent idea being poorly executed. It’s a little too pretentious and a little too boring, and any child presented as a condescending messiah figure will always go down like a ton of bricks, no matter how many LEDs you put in his eye sockets. I know I’m the minority on this one, but I just wasn’t hooked, even though I really, really wanted to be.

3.5/10


 

ELITE: DANGEROUS

Ah, my permanent on-again/off-again relationship with Frontier’s revived spaceship saga. Why does everybody seem to treat this game with such disdain? I really like E:D, I’ve been playing it since it was released and I still find myself coming back to it. Yes, it’s imperfect. Yes, it’s not very good at telling you what to do or how certain mechanics work. Yes, the matchmaking is woefully poor at hooking you up with other Han Solo wannabes in the Arena mode. But I still love looping through the void and blasting pirates with my phaser guns, and anybody who considers that tedious may just be insane. Treat it with that same “what do I feel like doing today” attitude that takes you through Minecraft, and you should be just fine. It’s exactly the same, except that you blow things up instead of building them, and the creepers have been replaced with supernovas. These things are nearly always improvements.

8/10

 

 

 

POKéMON MYSTERY DUNGEON: BLUE RESCUE TEAM REVIEW – “IT’S LIKE THE OTHER GAMES, BUT BETTER”

Why is it that nobody seems to remember my favourite Pokémon game? I’m not talking about Pokémon Go, more than enough people have their hooks in that, and besides – PG is only passably good fun, and no more than that. You heard me.

No, my personal sweethearts of the franchise were the early members of the Pokémon: Mystery Dungeon series, namely because they seemed to tie up a lot of problems that the main games had always been afflicted by. Right from the beginning, the original “Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team” focused more on the narrative, featured some legitimate character development and worked on building on top of the established battle mechanics. Not only that, but it did all three rather well.

Because, to geek out completely and paraphrase Mr. Spock: “It’s Pokémon, Jim. But not as we know it.” It seems that at some point in Nintendo HQ, somebody with the brief of “make up a new spin-off series” happened to move into a position where a Pikachu plushie, a copy of XCOM, and a Dungeons and Dragons box were all in their eyeline simultaneously. And before you could say “it’ll never work,” Nintendo Employee #103487 had pencilled down the beginnings of a game that would, at its high points, eclipse the main franchise in quality to a great degree.

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There’s something depressing about a floating PC accessory being so disinterested in you.

The premise to the first game was pretty absurd, but also kind of absorbing, working to earn the “mystery” remit in “Mystery Dungeon” straight off the bat. You are a human, presumably from the brightly-coloured land that the main games take place in, and are turned into a Pokémon whilst being teleported through time and space to another world altogether. A world where the little monsters you’ve spent years catching and enslaving are the only living beings around, having built an odd kind of society that feels like a Japanese interpretation of Sylvanian Families with a bit of Wind In The Willows thrown in, though sadly without the car crashes and catchy songs from the latter. And because you have no idea why any of this is going on, not to mention that your memory is suspiciously patchy when it comes to recollections of your human life, there’s clearly something going on behind the scenes that needs unveiling. Perhaps it has something to do with a recent spate of natural disasters?

Nah. Of course not. I mean, what are the odds of that?

What specific Pokémon you morph into is up to you, and yet completely out of your control, because the game begins by giving you a personality test, then resculpting you into whatever best suits your attitude. Admittedly, the options it picks from are just the starters from the pre-existing games, plus a few select others (so no chance of growing into a Gyarados straight off the bat) but there’s a simple intrigue in finding out your Japanese spirit animal and getting a brand new body to match. I was just happy to find out that my childhood connection to Squirtle wasn’t only because of the kick-ass sunglasses he was always sporting.

So you appear in The Land That Team Rocket Forgot, then to be paired up with another Poképal who asks you to join his adventuring team, because there’s not much else to do when you’re a two-foot tall blue turtle with Jason-Bourne memory loss. Your task is to take a series of mercenary jobs that all involve leaping into randomly generated labyrinths and locating either an item, a friendly NPC, or a specific enemy, one who you’ll have to give a good kicking in the Oran Berries to make him come quietly.

Thus the basic concept for the whole game is laid before us. And the critic smiled, and he saw that it was good, because it really, really is.

Part of it is because of a supporting cast of good and bad characters with clear personalities are orbiting around you, and a few of them even manage to be somewhat nuanced, in a Bambi’s forest sort of way. Sure, nobody’s going to give the subtle complexity of Tony Soprano or Walter White a run for their money, but they are fun to be around, and go through little arcs and moments of growth in times of adversity that never feel overly forced or manipulative. And when compared to the blank-eyed humanoids and two-dimensional archetypes that float through the main games, that’s a real step up in quality.

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Oh, bloody hell. This is going to be brutal.

And of course there’s the ending. Consider this paragraph a minefield of spoilers, so leap ahead if you plan on playing this for the first time, but it really bares discussing… Because I may have cried a bit when I finished this game for the first time. It’s a genuinely tragic finale. Your work in the Pokémon world is done, and you must return to the human world forever, having your mind scrubbed of all your memories and never being permitted to see your friends again. There’s a fairly obvious metaphor for death hanging around this event – your cartoon buddies openly weep as you ascend to the heavens in a shower of golden light, never to remember them or come back at all. So when the divine powers that are recalling you suddenly change their minds, and drop you back to continue playing after the credits with all your buddies again, I was so happy to see it happen that I didn’t even care that it didn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Basically the story isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s so well-intentioned that it’s hard not to feel it growing on you. It’s very earnest, full of wide-eyed heart and charm, the spiritual descendant of older tales like The Famous Five or The Magic Faraway Tree.

But without a mechanics it would just be a Japanese soap opera, or the most graphically minimal walking simulator I’ve seen yet. Thankfully, though the gameplay is a little odd, I found myself rather enamoured by it. It’s the Pokémon combat we know and love, but with a new dimension of gameplay added in – which I mean entirely literally. Because although it’s still turn-based, now you have to pay attention to space and positioning in a grid-based system, navigating enemies and paying attention to whether you’re about to walk into pool of lava that’s completely ruining some Magmar’s Feng Shui.

You have to keep all this in mind whilst battling, too. Some attacks will only hit the square directly ahead, some will keep going forward, and one extremely overpowered technique that Charizard knows will roast everybody in the same room as you. And running isn’t a matter of selecting an option on a drop-down box anymore, no way José. Now you just turn and hightail it out of there, with whatever beastie you pissed off following in hot pursuit.

But it’s not perfect, not by any means. I like that the dungeons are randomly generated, keeping players from getting complacent, but I would’ve liked to have seen the same effort put into the monsters occupying them, because fighting the same four enemies over and over gets old quickly. Yes, there’s hundreds of Pokémon programmed into the game, but you never get more than half a dozen showing up in each dungeon at one time. They might get swapped out for different ones as you head deeper into your own hellish labyrinth, but that doesn’t happen often, and I think an opportunity was missed for a proper rogue-like experience.

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“I thought you said you remembered where we parked!” “SHUT UP, I KNOW IT’S AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE.”

Which is strange, because the game gets utterly lethal in the late game stages. Those without the proper training will find themselves having a really rough time in the last act, but it’s the late-game optional dungeons that’ll separate the kiddies from the adults, which manage to be slightly harder than a blindfolded game of Dark Souls played with a DDR dance mat.

It’s hard to stay frustrated about it, though. Between missions you come home to Farthing Wood, sip a Ginseng with your best pal Alakazam, and plan where you’re adventuring next, stockpiling on equipment and finding the best missions available. It’s just honest, uncomplicated fun that ramps up naturally as you push forward, with a simple but compelling plot holding it all together.

But Metacritic tells us that Blue Mystery Dungeon scored almost thirty points behind Pokémon X and Y, so what the hell do I know? I’m clearly just some idiot who likes his characters to be relatable, his mechanics to be challenging and his games to be forward-thinking.

What a fool I am.


 

8.5/10

The pioneer that is the first in the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon franchise is working its hardest to be accepted by its peers, and manages to succeed on most accounts. Imperfect but ultimately lovable, it reaches excellence enough times to earn a place on the Pokémon pedestal… And also to overshadow the failures of later entries like Gates To Infinity. Bleagh.

HAND OF FATE REVIEW – “GAROTTE WHILST YOU TAROT”

Oh, thank god. Just when Steam Early Access and Kickstarter seems to be all but dead in the water, some brave developer has the ovaries to stand up and make a solid game that’s worth playing on its own terms, briefly reinvigorating hope in both of those rather sickly systems. Ooh, and it’s a game inspired by Dungeons And Dragons, with rogue-like elements, a sexy-voiced narrator, and the “reaction brawler” combat system (still determined to get that phrase off the ground) from older works like Arkham Asylum, Sleeping Dogs, Shadow Of Mordor, Mad Max and Assassin’s Creed, sort of.

What a mission statement! Defiant Developers, have you been looking at my Christmas list? All you need to do is add jetpacks and Cadbury chocolate, and I’ll be so happy that I’ll practically be ready for the post-coitus cigarette. This “Hand Of Fate” game does seem a little too good to be true, and sadly, it kind of is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good game that’s worth playing, but when I think about what it could’ve been, I do get a little bit of the petit mort to go along with that aforementioned smoke.

Look at that. A French joke, a sex joke, and a joke that only about ten percent of the audience will get, all in one go. And my careers advisor said I’d never amount to anything. Ha!

So Hand Of Fate (not to be confused with hand of eight, a little-known trick for cheating in poker), came out properly at the beginning of last year, having been first seen at the 2013 GDC in a basic demo form. There was a Kickstarter campaign, a variety of stages involved, a lot of stuff that most of you don’t care about at this point, and now it’s available on all the platforms that matter. Sorry Wii U, you’ll have to sit down again. This is what you get for insisting on that silly controller.

Anyway, Hand Of Fate is playing with a decent premise that I’m surprised I hadn’t seen done sooner. The basic idea is that you’re playing a combination of fantasy Yu-Gi-Oh and the Munchkin games with an old man who lives in a Dark Souls cathedral. He draws random cards that you have to deal with the consequences of, managing food, health and gold as you move from one end of the table to the other. Except that when he flips a trap card to summon half a dozen skeletons, you get sucked into the flavour text to actually fight them, in real-time combat in that “reaction brawler” (REMEMBER IT) style we alluded to earlier. Any damage or penalties you take whilst cracking skulls carries over back into the card game, where you look for ways to cancel them out, or at least compensate with the discovery of a stonkingly big sword.

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“You enter a tavern. Roll a sixteen or above not to submit to the cliches.”

But because the Dealer is drawing from a randomly shuffled deck, you’re unlikely to get the same game twice, and this is where I could understand people getting turned off by Hand Of Fate. Like many rogue-likes, luck plays a disturbingly big part of this, and there’s every chance that even the smartest of players could get a run of bum cards, and end up getting curb-stomped by a gang of irascible minotaurs, without having made the poor decisions to justify it happening.

But the opposite holds true too. Keep playing, and you’ll suddenly find yourself in one of those matches where everything just lines up perfectly, as expensive loot falls into your lap and all the battles are against one guy with a blunt toothpick. You’ll wonder how you ever failed, at least until things go gruesome again.

And that’s kind of the point, as it is with all games of this stripe and genre. You’re not expected to win every time, it’s about the challenge, the variety, and the minimal progress made, even in failure. See, even when you lose you can unlock cards for subsequent playthroughs by managing to fulfil certain criteria on the cards you already have. Draw a card that demands you fight Kleztorol the fat goblin, and tearing his head off will earn you the “treasure of burger mountain” card for the next time you play, which may shower you with weapons and American cheese as a reward. And even when cards suck, the game is rich enough with its language and narration that finding new ones at all is an enjoyable experience.

In fact, if I have a problem with Hand Of Fate, it’s that it’s not hard enough. I assumed that this game would have a certain level of challenge, something that’s demanded by the rogue-like genre to ensure an extensive playtime, but I breezed through half the campaign before I finally died to a determined band of velociraptors with shield and axes. The game gets some genuine teeth in the final quarter, loading you with so many curses and penalties that you can barely move to avoid the attacks of the armies that descend on you, but it’s a little too sudden and feels less like a justified challenge. It’s more akin to Defiant Developers just hamstringing you for being too MLG, like the incestuous guy from Gladiator backstabbing Russell Crowe before they fight.

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“What could go wrooooong!”

I also wonder if it’s a little lacking in ideas. The combat mechanics are sound enough, if somewhat simple and without nuance, but they’re screaming for something more to substantiate them, to back them up, especially when one mission allows you to run around a trap-filled maze, looking for loose change and free gear. It felt like playing the underdeveloped foundational point of a whole new branch of stuff to do. And whilst the tactical card games are fun, it feels more like a framework for gameplay than gameplay itself.

Not to mention that Hand Of Fate is also a little rough around the edges in general. The combat arenas are restrictive and often have annoying traps concealed in them, the graphics are somewhat patchy whenever you’re not at the card table, and the game suffers from the occasional glitch, such as freezing your character in place for a moment. But that said, it’s never anything really awful, and it’s no more frequent than most AAA games I’ve tried, so I can’t really get mad at it for that.

And I couldn’t end the review without giving a personal shout-out to Anthony Skordi, who as mentioned previously is chewing some spectacular scenery as the eternally-present Dealer, with a voice that manages to be more commanding than a whole herd of military officers combined. Skordi is given the substantial job of being the man who’s got to hold the tone of the game together, and does it superbly as the ornery but threatening figure watching you with narrowed eyes and calculating mind. He’s playing it somewhere between a bad-tempered headteacher, Christoper Lee’s Saruman, and the archetypal mystic who lives on the edge of every fictional carnival ever written. He’s clearly having a whale of a time playing this conceptual chimera, and consequently so does the player.

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Yes, I thought of a Borderlands joke too. What makes you so damn special?

Basically, Hand Of Fate is a good game, but it could’ve been a lot better, probably lacking the money or imagination to make the most of its potential. But there’s certainly enough here to be going on with. There’s an endless mode for when you just want to play and earn cards, providing many hours of gameplay, and Defiant have been good enough sports to give out DLC card packs for free. See that, Blizzard? This little company has made a fraction of Overwatch’s capital, and they still had the guts to give out free content without resorting to cheap microtransactions. Tsk, tsk.

Speaking honestly? Give Hand Of Fate a go. It’s flawed, but it’s also a bold, clever little game that wasn’t afraid to take risks in the name of being above the rest of the stock. That’s worthy of a good review, and I hope Defiant keep that attitude up. I’ll be following their future work closely from now on.

 


7/10

Working with less than the big boys does show here, but it’s somewhat offset in comparison to a good concept, a sense of real heart, and a voice narration that’s the best I’ve heard since The Stanley Parable.

SHADOWMATIC REVIEW – “PRETTY, BUT SHALLOW”

This week I played Shadowmatic, which is a puzzle game for IOS in which you create various silhouettes on a flat surface by rotating objects in front of a light source. You try to deduce what you can make with the shapes provided and spin them around until you strike gold. So consequently we have a game focused around staring at a blank wall. Better break out the Valium, because I’m not sure I can cope with this level of excitement.

Oh, I’m being too cruel. I like puzzle games, honest. I like the challenge, the intellectual stimulation, the ponderous approach that rewards intelligence and creative thinking. And that’s why I’m going to play some of the excellent World Of Goo later, rather than what we have here.

The problem is that Shadowmatic doesn’t have anything to hold it together, beyond sheer stubbornness and an overexcited lighting engine. Good puzzle games, like The Talos Principle, Portal and the aforementioned Goo game have all had a narrative holding them together, or at least some strong central goal. Does Shadowmatic have a story? Does it bollocks. You just line up one mess of angular, twisted wood with another, without any context or reason to justify it. There is occasionally unintentional, immature humour, derived from the fact that the shapes can combine into ones you weren’t expecting. Thus what should’ve been a horse and cart manages to become something out of the darkest corners of the Internet. Even my flatmate, glancing over my shoulder at my iPad, immediately stated that the shadow I’d made looked like two people locked in an amorous soixante-neuf, albeit not in those words. A shame, considering that I was just trying to get the angles right on a toy train.

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I just made a really fat Xenomorph. You been packing on the carapace there, buddy?

But who cares about story? Well I do, actually, though I can manage without it if I have to. See, even if a plot is absent, it is possible to have a puzzle game that entertains and enthralls. Tetris, one of the most elegant games in existence, manages to achieve a level of tension equal to disarming nuclear devices, using only a set of falling tetrominoes and a kick-ass theme tune. Admittedly, Shadowmatic isn’t going for high-stakes tension, instead trying a zen-like state of contemplative thought, the kind of relaxing trance that accompanies easy crosswords on Sunday afternoons. And I have to say it does that quite well through the graphical style and overall tone. The pretty visuals and serene sense of calm (both of which seem to be the norm for puzzle games these days) did make me feel very chilled at first, almost to the extent where I didn’t feel the need to shoot the postman with a crossbow from my bedroom window.

But the challenges offered here don’t gel well with this kind of attitude. Firstly, you’re timed on how quickly you can complete them, which is totally at odds with the idea of languorous consideration. Even the most peaceful Tibetan monk will turn into an emotional wreck when locked in a room with a single task and a ticking clock. Every second that passes makes you feel as though the game is sucking air through its teeth and making a note that says “D-, must try harder.”

But the thing that made the puzzles too tiresome to continue was the fact that the game doesn’t actually tell you what you’re supposed to be crafting, and this leads to some annoying results. When a few pieces of meaningless wood are dropped in front of you, Shadowmatic folds its arms, sits back, and waits to see what you’ll do next. So I flip them round, spin them on every axis, reposition them around each other, trying to see what secret is hidden in this mess. Is it a duckling? A teapot? A 1/67th scale model of Theo Jansen’s animated Strandbeest seen from a Northerly angle and partly obscured by both a copy of Queen’s “A Night At The Opera” on LP and Jeremy Corbyn’s left testicle? Your guess is as good as mine.

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… Yeah, this is going to get annoying really quickly.

And your guess is also the only chance you have of getting the answer organically, because the only other options are to drink from a finite pool of hints, or to use a little tracker that marks when you’re getting the trinkets close to the right positions. Allegedly, at least. Half the time it seemed to go off with no cause, and the hints are just useless, because even with the knowledge of what you’re trying to make it can be impossible to get the right position. You’re telling me to make a cat, Shadowmatic? Is that a cat standing up, lying down, sitting in place, or suspended in mid-air with my foot up its arse? Because something tells me that only one of these incredibly different poses will do, when it comes to your petty, bureaucratic mind.

That said, the game isn’t irredeemable. It’s just dull, which may explain why I got it for free from a Starbucks “Pick Of The Week” card. Seriously, I don’t hate Shadowmatic. I even think that the shadow-based puzzles could work if reimagined slightly, thought they’ll never be that original when games like A Shadow’s Tale or Contrast already exist. Maybe dial back the guesswork, throw out the timer and give a bit more purpose and variation? There’s some potential here, overshadowed (lol) by a lack of imagination and the need to be a little too artsy and pretentious. Make a game enjoyable before anything else, Triada Studio. When you’ve done that, let’s see what shows up.


 

4/10

Shadowmatic isn’t strong enough in any area to be more than kind of dull and a little bit irritating. It’s not without merit, but Pixar animating software and an aesthetic like an interactive screensaver can’t do enough to make it worth my time.

POKéMON X REVIEW – “RATED X FOR EXCRUCIATING”

You kind of knew that Pokémon was running out of ideas when we got to the Black And White generation. “Well,” one designer said, “I guess we’ve done all the primary colours, precious metals, rare gemstones and paint names that could work as titles. What do we do now?”

“Calm down.” Said someone else. “There’s still monochromatic shades, dimensional measurements and the Greek alphabet. After all, who doesn’t love monotones, geometry and antiquated dead languages?”

And so we got Black and White, X and Y, Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby. How lucky we are to have such relentless variation. Maybe they’ll even come up with some decent new mechanics in the next one, because they haven’t yet and this dead horse is starting to smell.

I’ve said before that I thought that the series has desperately been in need of some real advancement since Platinum, the last good game, and even put forward a few reasons what they could do for that (see here). But I figured recently: “what better way is there than to play through the most recent game and see what went wrong?”

Well, the most recent game but one. I’m not going to review Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby, because those poor creations are just the inexpertly reanimated corpses of better instalments of the series. So instead I’m going to review Pokémon X, my least favourite of the series.

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Sadly, there’s no option to open fire on these chumps.

Not that X doesn’t have its moments. I found great joy in trying to find a rude name that would break through the Nintendo-Brand Fun Filter, because just after you enter the world your new battery-farmed batch of generic anime friends ask what nickname you’d like. So after ten minutes of catchy but profane titles getting booted back in my face, I finally found one that made it through. My new pals all smiled at me and my choice.

“Alright, Ball-Licker!” They chorused with already-grating chirpiness. “See you up the road!”

And they bloody mean it. Aside from the fact that there’s four or five of these wittering losers clogging up your contacts menu, the little bastards refuse to leave you alone, showing up to stop you every alternate step. It’s a good thing nobody needs to go to the bathroom in this world, because I bet they’d be waiting in there for you, too.

And it just gets to be a pain after a while. In the first generation your rival Gary was annoying, but it was kind of the point, and he wouldn’t show up unless it was to battle. But here you can’t go ten minutes without these weirdos herding you into a new location and trapping you with mandatory dialogue. Any sense of flow or chance for exploration goes out the window when you can see them waiting with frozen smiles and glassy eyes up ahead to break up the pacing, and none of them are fun to be with. I want to give a personal shout-out to the fat kid with the dancing obsession, who could’ve easily been cut from the whole thing without any problems whatsoever. Then again, I suppose it would mean X was failing to meet the minimum level of irritating bollocks that most modern Nintendo games saddle you with.

And there’s yet more bollocks on show when you first dive into the long grass. Before you’ve even beaten the first gym you’ve got a diverse team of every type you need, appearing before you like hopeful prospects in an arranged marriage. By the time I was an hour into X I had everything necessary to win, and any possibility of challenge was a distant memory.

Again, compare that to the older games, like Yellow. “Here’s your electric Pokémon,” they would say, “And you can only catch bug, normal or flying types. Now there’s a rock-type gym – have fun with that, buster.” Not only does X do away with this, but in the second town they just simply give you a Gen I starter of your own choice. So combat just becomes boring when you can cancel out any threat with ease.

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This is the “breathe fire through your neck” power. It’s very underrated.

(And yes, I know you can catch a mankey in Pokémon Yellow prior to Brock’s gym, but it’s on a diverted route to the west and honestly, what kind of gimboid wants a mankey anyway?)

And of course there’s Mega-Evolution, the new gimmick that now holds the series back like a set of cast-iron manacles. For no cost at all you can infuse your Pokémon with the power of love, which oddly enough gives it the killing ability of Jason Voorhees. But considering that the game was too easy and poorly paced to begin with, a long, unskippable animation that pushes your pet into going Super-Saiyan isn’t what was needed at all.

I could stop the review at this point. The fact that the central gameplay has become a chore is the ultimate problem any game can have. It might’ve been able to pull out of that nosedive if the story was any good, but it isn’t. The turncoat villain is obvious the second you see him, sporting a black coat, fiery hair and musing about immortality, but I still found myself siding with him in spirit, if only in the hope that he’d kill the dorks who’d been pestering me from day one.

Beyond that, the game is filled with annoyances that make it too aggravating to recommend. The story is flaggy as hell, yanking you back every ten minutes for a chat and a cup of tea whether you want to or not, and the environment design team must’ve been drunk, because the whole world is laid out like a plate of spaghetti. Here’s a fun idea: stop off in the main city and try to find your way to a specific landmark in less than five minutes. The labyrinthine alleys and camera breathing down your neck makes the whole thing a claustrophobic mess. It’s entirely possible to walk past your destination several times without knowing it’s there, as I did over and over.

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“Help! I’m lost and can’t get out!”

What makes me really cross is that there’s bugger-all that exists beyond the combat mechanics, or even exists beyond fighting at all. I liked the contests in the old games, at least they gave you another purpose and had a little depth and nuance to them. Here all they’ve got is a boring character dress-up mode, where you can swap out clothes on your avatar for other clothes, none of which matters a jot. No reason or purpose beyond just being there at all, really. It’s also pretty unimpressive and incredibly undeveloped, to the extent where you can’t even take your hat off and only swap it out for others. So certainly no chance of getting a shirt with “#TeamBallLicker” stencilled on the chest, much to my despair.

But that’s the point. This entry of Pokémon isn’t offensive or broken, just tedious. It’s become more linear, more toothless and more poorly written than ever before, and manages to be both cluttered and anaemic at the same time. I went through all the motions I’ve done a hundred times, barely thinking about them, absent-mindedly tearing through any enemy that tried to stop me and not even considering tactics. The core of the series is still there, but every edge has been sanded away so as to become even more accessible and homogenised than before, to the extent where they’re even afraid to tell you to put some effort in for fear of scaring you away.

For a while now every entry in the series has had some unnecessary gimmick added on, like a dog collar with a barometer hanging heavily off it. But for what it’s worth, Pokémon X is more gimmick than game, the metaphorical collar weighed down with so many unneeded trinkets that the dog can barely move. Whatever the series needs, it isn’t this.

But what upsets me more is the attitude displayed all over, because Pokémon X seems to be terrified of its own identity. After peeling away the layers of challenge, exploration and strategic thinking, the series is reduced to an uninspiring husk. Instead, it tries to distract us from the obvious flaws with a thousand tiny toys, each as dull as the last one, too scared to do something new but too worried about returning to the old, tougher style for fear of alienating players. Pokémon needs updating fast, but X is a step backwards into the terrible void of Bill’s PC Box, not a step forwards into the mythical Rare Candy shop.


 

3/10

 Pokémon X is everything you’ve seen before, and then made a bit worse and a bit less imaginative. The loss of challenge or originality makes this installment about as appealing as porridge, and just as flat and grey.

 

BLOODBORNE REVIEW – “BANG BANG, I SHOT YOU DOWN”

When I heard the announcement of Bloodborne, I didn’t think it was going to be a hard sell. Here’s Dark Souls, the game that people love, but now with antique pistols, lovecraftian ickiness and grimy steampunk elements. Blimey, I think the Internet just crapped itself in excitement. What’s that? You can’t wait for it to be on the PC? No, don’t pay attention to that, look at the new boss monsters and original environment design.

The fact that Bloodborne was a PS4 exclusive was always a little concerning, not least because it put those of us without such consoles in an awkward position. After all, the better Bloodborne sounded, the more we’d be forced to resent Sony for hogging it to themselves. I don’t appreciate this, Sony. I know I recently waxed lyrical on the beauty of the PlayStation 2, but I don’t like having to take back all that credit when you refuse to share the better games, especially those that would normally be multi-platform releases, snarl, grr, snap.

And now I do have to resent Sony, quite a lot, in fact. Why? Because Bloodborne is everything I was hoping for. As mentioned, the fact that my flatmate recently got a PS4 means that a lot of exclusives I never got to try were suddenly open to me, and it wasn’t like I was hankering to try out The Order 1886. I had better ways to spend my lunch hour, thank you very much.

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The postal service has certainly suffered in recent years. They’ve had to resort to midget skeleton witchcraft.

So let’s be clear here: if you didn’t like Dark Souls, you probably won’t like this. It’s the same basic set-up, with stamina management melee combat, all the enemies resurrecting when you die, and the kind of difficulty that makes grown men suffer a brain aneurysm. And it seems that From Software have decided that DS1’s barrier to entry wasn’t vicious enough, and ramped up the initial stakes beyond belief. The Undead Berg looks like a basket of puppies compared to the lethal labyrinth that is Central Yharnam, filled with cockney arseholes wielding scythes and sporting irresponsibly large hats. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so cruel if the average distance between checkpoints wasn’t measurable in light-years, or the fact that the game won’t even let you level up until you either win a boss fight or find a hidden item eighty miles in.

But none of that’s bad, it’s what makes these games… Fun? Compelling? Certainly satisfying in a way that few things are. I beat the first boss by the skin of my teeth, and had the kind of adrenaline boost that can only be matched by five hours of professional tiger wrestling. The sheer level of challenge is so utterly unforgiving that when you do succeed it feels like you could take on the world, and that’s a genuinely rewarding experience.

And From Software clearly decided that if you push up the sense of danger then that feeling will be all the more impactful. The constant ambushes keep you in a permanent state of paranoia, enemies patrol around more than they did before in a way that makes them scarily unpredictable, and to top it off they took away my best friend from the previous games – that irreplaceable sweetheart, the shield.

Not that it doesn’t make sense for them to do that. The focus of combat has changed subtly but in a very important way. In the older games you were always on the defence, rolling around and smacking away any attack that came too close, looking for that moment to strike without getting pulverised into processed ham. But now there’s no shield, no parry, nothing to keep you safe. Instead, you’ve been given a gun in your off-hand and told to go nuts. Oh, bless you, From Software. How could I ever doubt you for a second?

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“I borrowed this gun from a cancelled Fable game. What? Too soon?”

Basically, players need to go berserk, as it’s probably the best way to stay alive. Stun-lock your enemies with flurries of blows, interrupt their attacks, and if you get damaged, hurting an enemy in the brief section of time afterwards allows you to regain that lost health. So yes, you’ve got to get angry to get through. A wonderful take on a familiar combat system that’s perhaps even better than the original, as nothing feeds panic than letting instinct take over.

Perhaps to match this emphasis on a single style of play, there’s a little less variation in the weapons and armour now. Some might think that it’s restricting but I consider it more focused, more tightly designed. It doesn’t hurt that every weapon is actually two, considering you can make nearly everything snap between two wildly-different forms at the press of a button. I’d like to give a personal shout-out to my gentleman’s cane (no innuendo intended), which could turn into an Ivy-approved whip with a single flick of my cuff linked-wrist.

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This is what happens when a… No, I got nothing. I’m not even sure what I’m looking at. Is it an old roast chicken? A zombie gorilla? The portrait in Jennifer Aniston’s attic that ages instead of her?

Yet where one scale goes up, another must go down, and Bloodborne suffers from being a little monotone in appearance and a little less varied than its forefathers. Admittedly the environment design is beautiful, with Victorian architecture and gothic imagery overlaid with a wet, sickly aesthetic, like the very country itself managed to contract some awful plague. The problem is that the whole place seems a little less varied in style than the older games. There are basically three types of location now – Jack The Ripper’s favourite network of alleys and Escher-like stair systems, looming cathedrals and mansions built for somebody about fifteen feet tall, and murky swamps with Eldritch mist hanging low on the water. All very prettily designed and enjoyable, but in comparison to the diverse locations and concepts in the Dark Souls games it is a slight step back. Still ahead of most games, but nonetheless – a step back.

But the story is as dense as before, which is certainly nice. Earlier today I killed a fat spider with baby fuzz hair, and still can’t say why it wanted to eat me, why it couldn’t get a barber and who decided to give it iceman powers. I’m looking forward to finding out why though, not mention why the main city has been overrun by hordes of beard enthusiasts and rejects from Battersea Dog’s Home. The monster design, perhaps better than ever, feeds the theme of corruption by lining up distorted versions of beasts we know already, whether it’s crooked humanoid figures or wet-feathered crows dragging themselves across the ground towards us.

And this is all good, because it makes the experience of banging your head on the wall not only tolerable, but pleasurable. Curiosity is the driving force that keeps us going when the stress of being murdered yet again threatens to become too much, and it more than makes up for it. A world of flat, grey corridors would lose appeal fast, no matter how detailed, but Bloodborne knows that discovery is just as important as victory and tarts itself up to compensate, proving that graphic design is still more important than graphical quality.

There are a couple of things I feel let it down, though. The loading times are pretty shoddy, especially when fast travelling now requires you to warp back to the hubworld and then set your destination from there, which brings us all the excitement of having to pull over for a Little Chef toilet break on the way to the beach. I also think that whilst tightening the focus of equipment was smart, there aren’t enough bits of gear to go round now. Enjoy the weapons and clothes you find yourself suited to, because you’ll be using them for quite a while before anything better shows up.

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Oh, bugger. I guess I should’ve been dropping those breadcrumbs instead of eating them, huh?

But on the whole I was rather delighted with Bloodborne. A change in direction is what keeps things fresh, which is rather ironic considering how everything in this game looks it’s been decaying for six months and nobody told it to stop moving. Admittedly I think it’s time for From Software to do something new, to put this and Dark Souls on the backburner for a time and try something completely different, but the danger and delights of Yharnam prove that this concept has still got blood in its veins – now go out and spill some.


 

9/10

From Software deliver again with a superb spin on a now accepted formula. Bloodborne mixes the mould of survival horror with the fire of the hack-and-slash RPG, and becomes something excellent because of it.

THE LAST OF US: REMASTERED REVIEW – “MASTERPIECE, MY EYE”

Recently I’ve been playing The Last Of Us: Remastered on the PS4 when my flatmate got one for Christmas, and considering I didn’t get the chance to board this particular train the first time round, I thought that it might be worth seeing how this alleged gemstone holds up. Will it still shine brightly after all the crap I throw at it, or will it shatter on impact and be revealed as nothing more than a cheap glass façade?

The Last Of Us is a story all about a bearded everyman named Joel (sounds familiar) who must struggle to endure the post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland and help to teach his adopted daughter Ellie the means to survival, at the potential cost of her ethics and humanity. Along the way they’ll encounter the darkness of the human heart, realise the need we have for companionship, be confronted by troublesome moral quandaries, and if you pull the camera back far enough you can see the smoke from the rubble spelling the words “we played a lot of Telltale’s: The Walking Dead before we wrote this.”

What bugs me about The Last Of Us is that a couple of minor cosmetic changes have managed to hide a whole laundry list of clichés. OK, so the zombies are based on fungus parasites rather than necromancy, or a mutated version of herpes, but at the end of the day they’re still zombies. Not to mention that there’s a lot of other tired tropes that I can’t describe in full, because I started writing the list and the article became too long even by my standards.

Even the much-touted intro sequence didn’t rank at anything better than “fine” in my mind. It’s a good blend of narrative and gameplay, if a little linear for my tastes, but the infamous emotional climax I’d heard so much about didn’t raise more than a brusque “well, sucks to be them” from yours truly.

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Holding someone at gunpoint is just the equivalent of a handshake in zombie America.

Which isn’t to say that the story is bad, just that it’s far less clever than it thinks it is. For god’s sake, the zombie apocalypse is more heavily-trodden ground than Mecca at this point, and takes just as much pleasure from watching people walk in the same circles as before. You might think then that the emphasis would be on the cast then, and to an extent you would be right, especially when it gets past all the dull set-up and changes the focus to the dirt-caked protagonists. Troy Baker, his wacky teenage sidekick and their rotating cast of supporting characters do tend to steer the story by their actions, and focus is given to their development, which reflects a certain skill in the writing. I especially like how one of the things that exploration rewards you with is additional dialogue moments, such as stumbling across a busted arcade machine that prompts a little expository chat between our heroes. Not to mention that the narrative pacing is superb, with long periods of contemplative quiet making the action scenes all the more exciting.

But I think the problem we have here is the one that so many games have in the struggle to make their characters complex – namely that the heroes run the risk of becoming unlikable, burdened with too many flaws and gruesome attributes. On the whole they manage to keep themselves relatively sympathetic, but certain moments, particularly in the last few scenes, made me wonder why I was rooting for these people at all. Yes, I know that’s the point – “the urge to live shall make people into monsters” – but I still found myself a little on the fence about it all. What made Lee and Clementine so endearing in The Walking Dead was their admirable struggle to keep their base humanity throughout everything, no matter how far they were pushed. But the rogues pictured here seem happy to drop it if it’ll make room for more ammo and shivs, the latter of which have all the structural integrity of a lolly stick.

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All right – last one to find a damp cloth to suck on is a rotten egg! Which is also our dessert for afterwards.

Which brings us to gameplay, which teaches us that there’s nothing more noble than the simple scavenger hunt. Hope you like shuffling around damaged rooms looking for bullets and medkits, or dragging ladders and planks around to find access into the next ruined street. And it’s easy to tell when enemies are coming up, because the area will suddenly be dotted with haphazard crates and chest-high walls, Mass-Effect style, perfect for taking cover or sneaking around in that strange crouch-walk that hurts your knees when you do it in real life.

On a larger scale, maps are vaguely open-ended with no objective markers and you shuffle around searching for the way out. As you do, you occasionally sneak-choke anybody who comes too close, at least until you inevitably screw up and have to start burning ammo and hitting bad guys with planks. Every now and then there’s an action set-piece, like running away from soldiers or shuffling across a ledge high in the air, so The Last Of Us is certainly holding the flag high for the rather unfocused but otherwise entertaining genre of “action-adventure.”

And I won’t say it isn’t fun, because on the whole it is, albeit very unadventurous. It’s also intentionally challenging to fit the survivor theme, but does seem pretty trial-and-error at times. The clicker zombies being immune to the regular stealth kill and melee attack is some “because I said so” bullshit if I’ve ever seen it, especially when they can turn around and end your bearded ass with a single, unblockable attack. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too bad if they didn’t blend in with the regular zombies so easily, so that in the middle of a fistfight I kept finding myself getting torn to shreds like one naan bread being shared between a whole table.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on the game. In fact, I know deep down that I am. The gameplay is uninspiring but basically enjoyable, the road trip-style story has some well-crafted moments and the environment and monster design is pretty impressive, managing to elicit that sense of awestruck scale that should come from seeing a half-collapsed moss-covered skyscraper loom above you. I’ll gladly praise those things, because yes – they are worth praising.

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The Walking Dead Redemption certainly has its moments, just none that are unique to it.

So at the end of the day, The Last Of Us is a decent game – even one worth playing, in fact – but it could never be anything more than that, taking the safer path every time a choice had to be made. Zombies, cover-based shooting, action set-pieces, the now-mandatory pseudo-parental relationship between our protagonists… It’s just a very competent version of everything you’ve seen before. Play it if you can, but just be aware that this isn’t exactly Half-Life. It’s more of a Pokémon Sapphire, and you can take that for what it’s worth, which is probably about the same as a tin of peaches, three revolver bullets, a dirt-flecked comic book and the world’s most fragile shiv.


 

7/10

Predictable but well-structured, The Last Of Us: Remastered manages to organise itself competently by putting all the least threatening pieces together. It might not be ground-breaking, but it is enjoyable, and that should be enough for most.

THE GREAT DEBATE: DIFFICULTY RATINGS

THE GREAT DEBATE is a series in which we discuss a question relating to video games, and leave it to you, the reader, to make up your mind one way or another.

In this issue, we will be discussing whether or not games should have a mandatory difficulty rating attached to them, in a similar manner to the already established age rating systems. For example, a game that basically plays itself, has obvious cheats, isn’t made to challenge or doesn’t have a fail state (such as The Sims) would have a rating of one. But supremely taxing games (like the first edition of Devil May Cry 3), would be classed as a five, with all games falling somewhere on this spectrum.

From this point onward, the arguments made in favour of this change will be written normally. All the arguments made against it will be written in italics.


Yeah, we should have difficulty ratings. Nothing wrong with an impartial observer translating challenge to a number, it’s all in the customer’s benefit. In these days where it’s considered normal to try and slip information by the customer until after they’ve bought the product, I can’t really see how it can really hurt to have a little indication of what sort of game you’re dealing with.

Nope, don’t agree with that at all. Why on earth would you need such a change to begin with? Nobody’s really made a big noise over this idea, it’s clearly not an issue.

Not true, but regardless, it doesn’t mean that people wouldn’t be glad to see this system put in place. Besides, what about the times where they wish they had known in advance?

What do you mean?

Think of it like this: If you’re somebody who isn’t very good at hack-and-slash RPGs, but likes the less challenging ones as an experience, what happens when you pick up Dark Souls and find yourself getting killed over the slightest error? You might not have known of the legendary challenge before starting.

Then they find they don’t enjoy the offered experience of a particular game. That’s no big deal, it happens all the time. Annoying, yes, but just the way things go sometimes.

But this isn’t like being given a shoddy story or an odd bit of design. A challenging game will literally stop people playing the whole thing, and if they don’t know it’s challenging before they begin they might find themselves with a genuine problem of not being able to get all the content.

That’s why we have difficulty settings. Easy, medium, hard and the one that unlocks after you beat the others, usually.

But not all games have those. And as I said, they don’t all mention if they’re tough or not, and leave you to find out for yourself. The problem arises when somebody discovers they don’t like the answer, when they just want a stroll through the roses and find too many thorns to proceed.

But what about maintaining the in-game illusion?

I don’t follow.

Some games need to pretend that they’re difficult when they’re not. Hell, think of Call Of Duty, which will make you a four-star colonel for moving a targeting system over a red indicator and watching it explode. Playing the single-player in particular is usually incredibly easy, but it’s set-up visually to make you feel like it isn’t, so that you feel like a bad-ass instead. Yet sticking a flowery two on the front of the box would break the spell, and make folks realise they were playing something about as challenging as a rugby game against a nest of ducklings.

Well, too bad. I’ll sure there are games out there that didn’t like the age rating they were given either, but that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong.

Maybe not, but you’re also forgetting that difficulty is a little more contextual than content. Some people are whizzes are puzzle games and have a different frame of reference for what makes a puzzle game tough or not. How are you going to account for those super-computer types?

That’s why these are more general guidelines than definitive rules. Besides, sooner or later people would start to work out what number equates to what level of challenge just from experience and trying them out, and then the problem is solved.

But it might not hold up even within the same game! What about generally easy games with sudden, brief, difficulty spikes like The Last Of Us? Or what about Undertale, where certain playstyles turn out to be much easier than others? How are you going to rate a game successfully when turning right might give you a Crawmerax boss fight, and turning left might bring you to Dear Esther?

You do it by the most challenging elements, just to be safe, like how age ratings are done by the worst content, instead of the most frequent.

I don’t think it’ll be that simple. And we haven’t even discussed games like FTL: Faster Than Light, in which losing is an expected part of the game and yet manages to reward people even in loss. It’s easier to rate something like age content as it’s based on pure observation, but measuring challenge against an estimated level of player skill is a lot more ethereal, especially when the intention of the game has to be taken into account.

It’s less solid as a concept perhaps, but it’s not just smoke in the air. Besides, this is just a general indicator to show how tricky it would be to most people playing. Whatever flaws the system might have would be worked out with increasing time and people’s understanding of them, and the benefit is a helpful piece of consumer information that would clear up a lot of unhappy purchases, especially in the kid’s market.

I can’t see it, myself. It’s just a minor detail that can’t even be trusted on its own terms. It’s too contextual, too vague and runs the risk of being an annoyance to developers.


 
What do you think? If you have an opinion on the matter, know of an argument that didn’t appear above or just have ideas of what arguments you’d like to see done soon, please leave a comment below.

NEXT TIME: PICK ON SOMEONE YOUR OWN SIZE…

A BALLAD FOR THE PS2

These days, consoles are a rather sticky mess. They’re the necessary evil for those who feel unwilling to pay big bucks on a high-end PC. The Playstation Network gets hacked into more often than a log in a lumberyard, the Xbox One bursts into tears and breaks if you try to do anything more than look at it, and Nintendo appear to have just given up on the Wii U, already starting work on a new box of microchips that presumably won’t have controller hardware designed by a tea tray manufacturer. On top of all this they’re overpriced and restrictive with horrible user interfaces and a line of exclusives that’s more formulaic than Doctor Pepper.

But I suspect that this is about as good as it’s going to get for quite a while. Because the best console was two generations ago, and everyone seems to be neglecting what made it work. Hardly need to guess, do you? Yes, it’s the Playstation 2, Sony’s magnificent octopus (let’s see who gets THAT obscure reference), which set the bar for consoles at the time and was generally fantastic.

Not to say that everybody liked it, and I can think of one group of people who didn’t straight away – the Sega Corporation. Sony released the PS2 in March 2000, at which point sales for the Sega Dreamcast dropped like a cartoon anvil. The Dreamcast had only been out for two years, but the Xbox and GameCube hadn’t even been released yet, so the mighty PS2 was basically responsible for kicking the ladder out from underneath Sega’s final console. Within eighteen months of the Playstation’s release into the stores and homes of the world, the Dreamcast was discontinued in quiet sadness, much like the Sega Saturn before it.

The combination of two console failures seemed to break Sega as a company. Flagging profits, poor third-party support and rumours of disagreement at the upper echelons basically pushed them back to making games for other companies from then on.

So the PS2 had hit the ground running with blood in its teeth, but why was it doing this well? It was partly because the original Playstation had helped set it up, but it didn’t hurt that it had a massive advertising campaign that spanned the globe. Not to mention that backwards compatibility meant that those who bought it would know that their old games weren’t useless – remember what a nice feeling that was? Thus everyone who owned the original seemed pretty happy to buy the upgraded model. Ka-ching.

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Everybody – take off your hats in honour of this fallen hero.

To my mind, though, the big opening move that did them so much good was the DVD player. This was the first console that could play these new-fangled disc thingies, and would be the only one for a while. The GameCube and the Dreamcast had no idea what to do with such media, probably assuming they were some fragile form of coaster, and even the Xbox, released over a year later, would need an extra accessory to be able to read them properly.

But the PS2 could handle them right out of the gate, and that wasn’t nothing, especially when trying to get these consoles out to those who wouldn’t normally be interested in gaming. The Playstation 2 didn’t cost much more than a normal DVD player did, so picture this: you’re an average joe with a little disposable income and you’re out in an electronics store (back when you bought this kind of stuff in a physical store), with your heart set on a DVD player. But paying an extra twenty quid could allow you to get one, bundled with the brand new games console that all the cool kids are talking about…

Might as well, right?

And so the PS2 was suddenly a must-have both for the aspiring gamer and the film geek who likes their affordable home movie theatres. Sales just got ratcheted up another notch.

But all this is not to say that the actual launch was all onions and gravy. A lot of people were unimpressed with the lacklustre line-up of games for the PS2 when it came out, and it would have to make do with titles that were basically “good enough” like Timesplitters, a half-baked version of Unreal Tournament and the port of an arcade Tekken game.

However, this lasted it until Christmas and then to 2001, when a batch of high-profile, commercially successful games were released and really started making people sit up and take notice. Metal Gear Solid 2, Grand Theft Auto III, Tony’s Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Silent Hill 2…The list goes on, filled with games that are still beloved today.

But we haven’t addressed the crux of the issue – this has all made the PS2 successful, but it hasn’t necessarily made it good. After all, heroin, The Big Bang Theory and Burger King all seem to be pretty popular, but that doesn’t make them worth much.

No, what made the PS2 superb was a commitment to third-party support, and being in the right place and the right time for the perfect level of technology for developers.

See, back then Sony understood that a games console is nothing more than a medium through which people want to play the actually interesting stuff. Nobody wanted a PS2 for its interface or visual appeal, they only bought it because there were video games and DVDs they wanted to try out, and this black and blue cuboid was a mandatory to accomplish that end.

And so, reasoned Sony, the best thing to do was to make sure that those interesting games are as numerous as possible, because that’s the bit that people are interested in. It was pretty tough to manage individual quality, so they just allowed everything and kept asking for more. In fact, a lot of trends got their footing on the Playstation 2 – remember the EyeToy? That thing felt like the embryo from which both the Wii and the Kinect grew, for better or worse. And though it was done basically as a response to the Xbox doing it later, Sony started selling adapters to play games online in 2002. Another big fad is born, the idea of online console gaming.

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… A chill rushes through the room. This is where the nightmare began.

Not that allowing every game and gimmick ever made onto your console is a move without risk. If everybody is submitting ideas, you run the risk of being the vanguard of a huge wave of crap games. One of the reasons that the Games Crash Of 1984 happened was an oversaturated market filled with sub-par titles, turning people off the medium altogether.

And sure, there were some shitty games on the PS2. Anybody who owned one probably got unlucky at least once or twice, I know I did. But with this new internet thing rapidly growing at the time and more review magazines for fans to read, it became pretty easy for high-quality games to bubble to the top and gain recognition. If critics liked a game by this new company nobody’s heard of yet named “Team Ico,” then sooner or later those who pay even a small amount of attention will hear about it.

So Sony went to work expanding their games library, perhaps as a sign of apology for the restrictive line-up they began with, and they did this very well. By the time the Playstation 2 was finally laid to rest in 2013, over a whole decade after it was invented, it had almost four thousand games under its ample belt. By comparison, the PS4 has about a quarter of that. Now, that’s not too bad considering that it’s only been out for about three years at time of writing, but consider this – there are more developers today than ever, so shouldn’t there be more games than that, as the proportions increase? Not only that, but what happened to the diversity and originality that made the PS2 library so colourful?

For that, we have to look at the mechanics of it again. At the time, the PS2 was starting to knock against the final barriers of technological representation, by which I mean that most of the things you could imagine could now be portrayed on it, as the processors were powerful enough. It might look a bit angular and polygonish (that’s a word now), but you could present nearly anything, hence the increase in new ideas coming out.

Hell, it was in this generation that the open-world sandbox – now a staple of mainstream game design – really began to catch on and become something plausible. Metroidvania games had been aspiring to the same sort of thing in 2D before then, but now it was within people’s reach to make a big city full of stuff to play with. Remember how liberating it felt to swing around in Spider-Man 2? That had only become a possibility for most designers back then.

So with more disk space and better tech to work with, people were getting creative, egged on by Sony to make as many games as possible, who were practically sending around development kits to everybody with two thumbs and a functioning brain. Everyone had a different idea of what the new big trends might be, and so people started putting a LOT of stuff out, with a greater spectrum of genres and styles than a combination Blockbuster Video and hair salon.

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Anybody who says that The Two Towers tie-in game sucks had better be ready to fight behind the bike sheds after school. I’m serious, I’ll go for the eyes if I have to.

But the barrier to entry back then wasn’t as restrictive as it was today. Today you can’t get anything on a major console without either having a huge name behind you (hence the frequently delayed Mighty No.9), or sporting photo-realistic graphics (hence The Order: 1886).

Yet for a lot of people, this isn’t possible. Designers might have a nice little idea that’s worth trying out, but it won’t get much traction on the major consoles if it’s not pretty and superficial. So nowadays it either gets dumped into Steam Early Access or just sent to the recycle bin.

But thankfully, this wasn’t so much of a problem back in the early 2000s. The technology was a lot less powerful, a lot less baffling and Sony might as well have been calling “Avengers, Assemble” when it came to developers, trying to get everybody they could find to make games. Basically, the PS2 was then what the iPhone is today – the springboard for developers who didn’t have the credit for anything more impressive, but was completely accepting of larger projects too. To continue the Marvel metaphor above, they were calling for Hawkeye and the Hulk to join their team.

So the PS2 had the kind of nuanced, experimental and wildly varied library which modern consoles can’t have these days, because the development community wasn’t limited by restrictive genre trends, inflated budgets and unreasonable standards of graphical quality. And yet the second PlayStation was one of the most technologically powerful consoles that had been made at the time, inspiring a creative wave of “what could we do with this” for those in the development business. A lovely midpoint to be in, and one that ended all too soon.

But it seems unlikely that this will be repeated. The only way it seems that this could happen again would be if companies stopped caring about graphical quality (unlikely), if easily-accessible programming equipment for developers overtook the strength of console hardware (very unlikely), and publishers didn’t feel the need to hop onto various bandwagons for the sake of the opportunistic buck (Ha!). God knows what may be happening thirty years from now, but in the near future, we shouldn’t get our hopes up.

… I feel I say that a lot these days.

The thing I find most fascinating is the clear-cut difference in style between the old consoles and the new ones. When I logged onto my old PS2, only two options came up: play the disc inside it or delete some files from storage to make room for more saved games. If you wanted to do anything else, you could fuck off – this was a gaming platform and anybody who wanted to do more could go and find a computer to piddle around on. Alright, we’ll let you play movies now and then, but that’s only on sufferance and we’d better see some time logged in with 007: Nightfire or Godhand later, you follow me?

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Maybe it’s wrong to be nostalgic over a gangland-shooting simulator, but that’s between me and my psychiatrist, thank you very much.

But when I turn on my flatmate’s Xbox One or PS4, I’m getting assaulted with various options, clambering over each other in a slightly distasteful manner. “Ooh, would you like to log into Facebook? Or search for videos online? I’ve got Amazon or Netflix if you want them? Perhaps I could interest you in uploading some photos or making a customised avatar for yourself?

“Wait, what’s that? You want to play a video game? Are you sure? Well, I suppose if you really want to. Let me start installing it, so if you could come back in a couple of hours I’ll just – ACK! OH MY GOD, YOU JUST DISCONNECTED FROM THE INTERNET! ARE YOU ALRIGHT? ARE YOU DEAD? I’M CALLING AN AMBULANCE, THIS IS ALL WRONG! AAAGH! AAAGH!”

Think of it like this. When Microsoft released the Xbox One, they proudly flaunted the second half of its name. It’s called the One because it’s the only device you’ll ever need, they told us. In fact, it’s more an entertainment system than a console.

But all the functions up above, the social media bollocks and video watching stuff? Well… I’ve got all those already. And I’m sure all of you with consoles probably do too. You have a tablet, or a laptop, or a computer, or an iPhone. Hell, most TVs come with Netflix and Amazon installed on them these days. So what’s all this additional nonsense clogging up the consoles for? It might not sound like much, but all these extra functions probably added a fair amount on to the price tag, not to mention using up processor and memory space you could’ve filled with more exploding buildings and RPG characters.

Ah, well. All we can do is play the old games on PC emulators and give a fond thought every now and then to the PS2, that faithful hound that sat by our television, proudly giving us the best experience it could manage. Oh, and you could drop it or knock it over without the thing internally self-destructing, remember that?

Yeah. Good times.

ROCKET LEAGUE REVIEW – “SIMPLE, SHORT, STUPID, SATISFYING”

As a kid I was never really into sports. Partly because I wasn’t any good at them (I lost my first tooth to an errant football planting itself in my face), but also because they all seemed pretty dull, especially when I could just turn on my Game Boy and see monsters killing each other without having to go through the laborious experiences of wearing shorts, or moving anything more strenuous than my eyes and thumbs.

But I did once write a list of things that would liven up football enough for me to watch it, and this included a number of healthy diversions spread across the field, including hidden pitfall traps, a ball that would give a taser shock at random points in the game, and at half time you do the only logical thing and release the panther.

But I wish I knew then what I know now, because I could’ve saved a lot of ink and just written three words: “rocket-powered cars.”

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Subtlety and taste kind of goes out of the window with these customisation options.

Yes, I’ve been playing Rocket League, the spicy, snacky, sporty little game that popped up on Steam one day and refused to pop back down, probably because it was being held aloft by a jet booster. Or perhaps it won’t leave the charts because Rocket League is just good, solid fun, in a very uncomplicated and accessible way.

The set-up is very simple. There is a field. There is a goal at each end of that field. There are two teams of supercars that can use rockets to boost and jump around like gymnasts trying to get noticed by a judging panel. And finally, in the middle, there is a ball. You can probably work out the rest.

No seriously, that’s it. Two teams of cars throw themselves at the giant sphere between them and hope that chaos theory will somehow end up spitting it in the enemy’s goal, because with very little communication going on and no time to type proper instructions beyond pre-programmed little phrases, the best chance you have is to try to shunt everybody else out of the way, teammates included, and punt the ball up the field before somebody else can ruin it for you.

What I like about Rocket League is that it knows how to keep the pace up. The cars can all get from one end of the pitch to the other in about half a millisecond, the ball bounces like a space hopper doing a charity bungee jump, the games only last five minutes and even though cars explode if rammed fast enough, the respawn time is so quick that you can be back in the game before your former vehicle has finished raining on the ground in red-hot pieces.

And all this means that Rocket League is a good game for adrenaline junkies, especially when you start doing epic tricks like driving up the side of the walls on the edge of the pitch, or activating your boost mid-jump to fly forward like you’re auditioning for Iron Man. The sheer pandemonium and intentionally unwieldy controls means that your tactics will probably fail, but considering you can barely get around without barrel-rolling through the air, sheer probability means that every goal made can’t help but look superb in the instant replay, as you soar forward, farting a trail of glowing red smoke behind you like a hawk crossbred with an emergency flare.

That said, I do have some issues with Rocket League, issues significant enough that we’re just going to have to stay friends rather than getting married. The camera is probably the biggest bugbear. I’ve no objection in being able to toggle between the regular front-facing angle and the camera turning to face the ball, but both of them have their faults. You either can’t see where you’re going or you can’t see where you’re supposed to be going. This might be nullified if the camera would pull back more, allowing a wider view of the field, but for some reason it stays so close to the car that I can practically see the seat stains left by the couple who were making out in the back earlier.

Oh, and I’m not big on Rocket League’s bots. When some joyless prat decides he’s had enough of losing and quits the game (which seems to happen a hell of a lot), he gets replaced by an AI that seems to have all the driving skill and prowess of a crippled Canadian goose. One time I saw a bot-controlled car perform a perfect dribble up the field, running the ball expertly into the net at the end. Just a shame it was his own teams’ goal.

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This car comes with off-road tires, a V8 engine, and the ability to turn Spider-Man all emo and mopey. Or am I thinking of something else?

I also wonder how long Rocket League can last for the average individual. After all, my biggest problem with multiplayer modes in general is that they feel like the inevitable decay of humanity personified. When you start playing them they’re brimming with life, unexplored territory and new challenges to overcome. Then you finish all the material and become a little more cynical, a little less fun to be around, using all the techniques that guarantee you to win without remembering why you enjoyed playing it in the first place. And finally, when you’ve squeezed every drop of enjoyment you’re likely to get from it, you toss it to one side and it’s never thought about again.

The big deciding factor is the length of that first stage, and that’s why this game worries me. Sure, there’s none of the multiplayer garbage I dislike, such as having to earn equipment or getting more powerful as you level up, but there’s nothing to replace it either. No map editor, no obstacle courses, no racetracks or proper campaigns beyond a series of context-free games and the ability to tweak the physics slightly. Admittedly they just released a few new arenas, but they’re all kind of rubbish and this was the first thing of significance from a game first sent out in July last year. The best thing you can do is just pick up and wait to get bored.

And to be fair, I haven’t reached that point yet. So far I’ve been playing for eleven hours, on and off, and there’s enough raw fun that I keep coming back to it. Perhaps that’s the joy to be had in collecting TF2-style cosmetics for my car, like customisable jet streams and helmets straight out of an Asterix book, or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of thundering around smashing into people who don’t see me coming until they’re fiery wreckage in my wake, but whatever that magical little quality is, Rocket League certainly has “it.” It’s fun and stupid and colourful, and though it’s rather unvaried in content it makes for a good game to play with friends. Especially considering it’s the first game I played in ages to have splitscreen local multiplayer; a rare feat in this day and age.

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Is it me, or does this ice keep making cracking noises?

It’s funny I mentioned Team Fortress 2 earlier, because that’s what Rocket League reminds me of. A simple, fun little time-killer that’s best when experienced with friends, but perfectly serviceable on its own. The kind of game I play when I don’t have anything else I’m interested in. The only difference is that Valve’s odyssey of hats and gravel is free to play, and Rocket League will use up nearly fifteen pounds of your hard-earned income.

And is it worth it? Yeah, I think so. It’s energetic and exciting enough to allow for a good time, and the developers seem devoted enough to occasionally add new content or types of game mode. Maybe I’ll bore of it sooner or later, but my gut instinct tells me that it’ll probably be later – and that’s far better than most games manage these days.


 

7/10

Rocket League is a game that’ll be enjoyed by all, but probably doesn’t quite go far enough to earn genuine love, not without some more features added in or a sense of purpose. But there is a legitimately fun game at the core here, so pick it up if you feel you could use more backflips and explosions in your life