Three's a Crowd

  12:44:15 pm, by   , 189 words  
Viewed 56190 times since 01/06/11
Categories: Games

I mentioned at the end of April that the end of the year was going to be a busy one because both TESV: Skyrim and X: Rebirth were coming out then. Well now Saints Row: The Third makes it a perfect trilogy of games that use a colon in their titles and that I want to play.

I never played the original Saints Row, but picked up Saints Row 2 after it got a Yahtzee review that was so positive he later described it as an overlong marriage proposal. It wasn't a very realistic game, but it gave several hours of utterly mindless fun and was well worth the money. Saints Row: The Third looks like it keeps the mindless fun while ratcheting up the graphics quality by some distance. The game is due out (in the US) on November 15, which probably means we'll get it a week or so later in Europe.

The full gameplay trailer is available here (warning - lots of violence), but for a better feeling of the sense of humour that the previous game had, take a look at the initial trailer, released on April 1.

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Absolutely Not Fabulous

  06:14:53 am, by   , 1166 words  
Viewed 6086 times since 23/05/11
Categories: Games

Well that was a let down.

I've wanted to play a Fable game ever since I heard about the series, but not being an XBox owner I've been denied that opportunity because the game has always been exclusive to that platform. Always until last Friday, because Fable III has finally been released for the PC - months after the XBox version. From a few reviews I've seen it appears that Lionhead Studios have used the time to fix a number of bugs and irritations from the XBox version, so even though we PC users will have to put up with being called out-of-date by XBoxers, at least we got an error-free game, and frankly that suits me fine.

Part of my desire to play Fable came from the subtle dig that Bethesda had M'aiq the Liar make in Oblivion, where he was heard to say "People always enjoy a good fable. M'aiq has yet to find one, though. Perhaps one day." Lionhead return the favour at least once in Fable III: there's an odd quest where you end up as a character in a roleplaying game, and pull a lever only for a swarm of butterflies to appear. "Butterflies?" remarks one character. "Worst. Game. Ever", says another; a not-so-subtle reference to the start of the Shivering Isles expansion for Oblivion.

One of the first things a Brit will notice when playing the game is that it's a who's who of British stars in the voice acting department. John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg, Sean Pertwee and Zoë Wanamaker all appear - and that's just the biggest names; there are loads more. All this talent isn't necessarily a good thing though. It means there's a pressure to overuse them, leading to another thing, and one that emphatically does not change as the game progresses: you spend an awful lot of time in cutscenes. These come in two types: obvious cutscenes where you can't really do anything except watch the cinematics, and ones where you can move around as normal, but can't do anything except go where you're supposed to go and listen to whoever you're supposed to listen to. There's far too much of this. Very often your only feeling of interactivity comes from a small amount of running down a corridor to another cutscene, which can get incredibly boring.

The next things anyone will notice is that the graphics aren't that great and that the controls are awful. Okay, I got the hang of the controls a bit more as I got used to things, but at first it was like trying to steer a shopping trolly with several wonky wheels. The graphics... well okay the backgrounds are nice, but the NPCs walk an odd line between reality and cartoon, and it doesn't work for me. They all end up looking... odd. And almost identical.

After a while, you get given the tools you need to fight. As in most games, combat comes down to melee, ranged and magic, but the twist is that magic comes from the gloves you wear rather than spells, and that the ranged combat is done using guns rather than bows. It's still either a sword or a hammer for melee though. At first I tried my hand with a sword: during the tutorial section you have to practice combat against your mentor for a little while and it seemed pretty simple. Unfortunately, one-on-one combat in Fable III is as rare as a sequence of ten minutes without a cutscene, and you can't use all your fancy moves because someone will stick a sword in your back while you're trying to deal with the thing in front of you. After a while, therefore, I switched to magic, because as well as a one-on-one spell, you get an area-of-effect spell that helpfully hits any enemies in a certain radius around you but not allies. The problem is that this quickly becomes unbalanced: when you find yourself charging into the middle of a crowd of enemies just so you can kill more of them with your ultra-powerful AOE spell, something has clearly gone wrong. The gun can be useful in some places because you can use it to aim from a distance, but generally charging in worked just fine for me.

You don't level up as such. Rather, you acquire points called Guild Seals that can be spent on upgrades to your weapons or spells, or on perks that let you buy shops, chat people up, have kids and so on. In a few places you also need to acquire enough of these seals to convince a faction to join up with you. I'm not going to go into why because I don't want to start spoiling things if you're going to play the game.

But this raises the question: why would anyone want to play this? You can talk to the various NPCs who fill up the towns and villages, but they're all totally without personality so after a few times I stopped bothering. You can get married to these NPCs and have kids, but again I didn't bother. All the quests boil down to "Go here, kill this thing, collect this other thing, come back again". Some people may claim that because I didn't bother much with the NPCs I missed out on the role-playing aspects of the game. I disagree. Since the only point of getting married is to have kids, there's nothing to role-play. It's just another game mechanic. The only places where any kind of roleplaying occur are in one or two laughably black-and-white choices where you have to either a) murder a sackful of puppies, or b) pet them and make sure they all go to good homes. Anybody calling Fable III a roleplaying game needs to be made to play Oblivion or Morrowind for a few hours until they learn the difference.

I finished the first part of the main quest in less than 8 hours only to be presented with the prospect of tedious grind spending the next in-game year raising money to avert an apocalypse, at which point I stopped and went to bed because I really couldn't be bothered. It's not even like you can really go off and explore the world: the game is similar to Dragon Age in this respect in that it looks like a sandbox but isn't really. Compared to TES games where there was always something new and interesting just over the next ridge, it's a really small world. This means that if I decide to go back and bother with the grind-fest, I'll have completed the whole thing in around 15 hours. That's not very long.

The good news for me is that I've finally played a Fable game so at least I've got that off my chest. I can't see myself bothering with Fable IV though. If Bethesda return Lionhead's compliment and insert another reference in Skyrim, I hope it's a suitably insulting one.

A Game Worth Watching

  03:37:05 pm, by   , 859 words  
Viewed 17992 times since 03/05/11
Categories: TV/Movies, Hobbies

I think it was about 18 months ago, or it might have been even longer, that Timenn and I were chatting in IRC about books. It turned out we both share similar interests in fiction so were swapping titles to give each other a few new items for their wish list. I think I recommended Adrian Tchaikovsky's (then new) series Shadows of the Apt - and I recommend it to anyone who likes good fantasy novels - and in return, he suggested George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series.

Somehow, I'd never heard of this guy, and I have to confess that after a couple of searches had informed me that he was known as "The American Tolkien", my heart sank. I love J. R. R. Tolkien's stuff. I got a copy of The Hobbit on my 11th birthday. I know this for a fact because my copy has the message "For Robert on his 11th birthday & for passing to L.R.G.S. 26/4/84, From your father and mother - We hope it will not be too hobbit-forming!" Unfortunately, this last hope proved false, because Tolkien was to prove hugely habit-forming over the years. Since then, I've read Lord of the Rings over 30 times, learned huge chunks of The Silmarillion by heart, read all the Unfinished Tales and every other book Christopher Tolkien released, and generally become a bit of a Middle Earth nerd - although not, I must emphasise, enough of a nerd to learn Elvish. The reason I mention this is not just to establish my nerdly credentials, but to help you understand why somebody described as a Tolkien has got a hell of a lot to live up to.

It doesn't take you long to realise that the comparison is total rubbish. It always is. Whenever anybody is described as "The New X", it's merely lazy journalism. Lionel Messi is not "The New Maradonna", Wayne Rooney never was "The New Michael Owen", and George Martin isn't "The New Tolkien". He and Tolkien both write rather good fantasy novels, but that's all they have in common - apart from the two "R"s in their initials. When I read A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, I was impressed. A lot of fantasy books seem to have been written from a cliché checklist: ancient fight between good and evil? check; low-born character eventually saving everything? check; improbable love interest? check. Many books fall into the trap of thinking they're mysteries, so we get sudden plot twists for no good reason. This isn't necessary: was anybody really expecting Frodo would fail to destroy the ring, or that Harry would fail to kill Voldemort? An ending that you're expecting isn't a Bad Thing by default - a book is about the journey, not the ending.

Anyway, so the books were good. That's not why I'm writing this. The point is that the books have been made into a ten-part TV series on HBO called Game of Thrones after the first book. For once, we can see it in the UK with only a 24-hour delay instead of the usual months or years, but only if you subscribe to Sky Atlantic. Obviously, if you don't subscribe it would be totally wrong to download the episodes using BitTorrent from the huge number of sources that appear within minutes of the program ending on Sunday evenings (US time).

The series gained a lot of hype on the Internet, and when you see the sort of clips that were released ahead of time, it's not difficult to see why. It stars Emperor Martin Boromir Sean Bean, who gives a typically good performance as Lord Ned Stark. A lot of the other cast members are British too, the locations are all in Europe (Ireland and Malta, mainly), which raises the question "Why can't the bloody BBC make stuff like this?" Unlike most of the BBC's output these days, which seems to target the 10-15 age bracket and hopes that adults will be interested too, Game of Thrones sets out its stall from the first moments as Adults Only. After about ten minutes of the first show, the corpse count is already in double figures and we've had two beheadings. That's not even the most outré moment, the award for which probably goes to a scene where a dwarf is in bed with four naked prostitutes. Yup, this isn't for the children. Now I'm not advocating sex and violence for the sake of sex and violence. It's just good to see a program that doesn't set out to be safe for once. The disregard for safety can be felt in the story too. It doesn't take long before you have three or four different stories all progressing at the same time. Too many films and TV shows assume that the audience can barely follow one story, so this is a major departure.

I've waited until three episodes have come out before saying anything because I wanted to make sure that the quality stayed high. So far, so good. If you don't watch this program, you're missing a real gem.

Game Clash

  09:39:22 am, by   , 140 words  
Viewed 25019 times since 20/04/11
Categories: Games

Q: Which are my two favourite game series on the PC?
A: Elder Scrolls (Morrowind, Oblivion, etc) and X (X2:The Threat, X3:Terran Conflict, etc)

Q: Which two series have new games coming out in the fourth quarter this year?
A: Elder Scrolls (Morrowind, Oblivion, etc) and X (X2:The Threat, X3:Terran Conflict, etc)

Gah!!! Part of me is elated, but part of me is horrified. Both games are likely to require hundreds of hours of time, and I still have to do things like eat, sleep and work (washing can be skipped at weekends - this is an emergency!)

I assume you've all watched the Skyrim trailer by now, but you probably haven't seen this: the trailer for X:Rebirth. It's only a little one, but the game is already looking pretty good.

Steam's Potato Sack Part 4

  05:14:10 am, by   , 1525 words  
Viewed 8998 times since 16/04/11
Categories: Games

The penultimate post about Steam's Potato sack sees yet another game I hate, one I quite like, and one that's "Meh". In this case, though, the "Hate" was "Meh" for a while, and the "Meh" is so close to being both a "Hate" and a "Like" that it's almost in a category of its own.

The Wonderful End of the World
For a while, I was going to give this a "Meh" rather than a "Hate" but 1) I hated to break the pattern, and 2) Since I never actually enjoyed this game and was only going to give it a "Meh" because it was a little different, I decided to play it again and realised that what was different after one 5-minute play was already boring after a 10-minute play.

You start out each level as a tiny little.... thing. No idea what. It's probably specified somewhere but I really can't be bothered finding out. You gain size by eating things smaller than you, and because there's a set of objects in just the right sizes you keep getting bigger and bigger until you've consumed the whole level. Now that might not sound enough even to justify a "Meh" but I did quite like the way in which the perspective shifts pixel by pixel until you realise that what was small is now tiny and what was big is now munchable. The trouble is that it's so repetitive. On the second screen you find yourself in a maze filled with eatable pills and ghosts that will hurt you (make you smaller) until you get big enough to eat them. And the walls. Yes - you're playing first-person Pac-man. Now I'm just about old enough to remember Pac-man the first time around. I wasn't old enough to go to arcades and play it for real, but I had a Mini-Munchman during my primary school's craze for them (this would be... 1981ish [and BTW - Wikipedia is dead wrong: the ultimate achievement was to get HHH with six lives without completing a level, but I can't add that as it would be original research]) and I really have no desire to go back to it now.

It's worth pointing out that this makes a perfect 3/3 on "Hate" for Dejobaan games. I'm sure they don't care, but I certainly won't be thinking buying anything from them in the future.

BIT.TRIP BEAT
I live in a small flat. Very small. But I appreciate it a lot more after having played this game because the bathroom has a great feature. When you turn off the hall light, close the bathroom door, and turn off the light in there too, it's dark. Perfectly dark. Pitch black. There's not a single photon by which to see. I discovered this phenomenon a little while ago by accident, but I'm incredibly grateful my house has such a feature because I needed it after playing this game.

Last time's "Like" was Audiosurf, a game that starts with one of those "Flashing lights can be dangerous" warnings that are always so annoying (unless, presumably, you suffer from epilepsy, when they're probably quite useful). I don't suffer from that particular condition, but I came damn close to a seizure while playing this baby. On my first playthrough, the relentless flashing lights got the better of me after about 10 minutes, and I had to quit and head to the afore-mentioned bathroom to stand in total darkness for a short time before my head cleared.

At first glance, BTB is a Pong game missing a paddle. Blocky balls come from the right of the screen and you use your blocky bat to hit them back. In the background, things start to explode, fire lasers, flash and do anything they can to put you off. Eventually, you're trying to return balls that fly through elegant parabolas, in groups, with changing speeds whilst doing it all through a fog of pixels caused by the various explosions going off in the background. If you miss enough hits, the same level continues but in black and white form and without the music. In other words, the sensory overload is part of the whole deal. It's intended. If you miss too many balls while in BW mode, the game is over.

As well as just hitting back a ball when you hit it, you play a note in an 8-bit style tune that goes on throughout the game. This is a brilliant feature, and the way in which incoming projectiles are scheduled to hit particular beats is genius.

Scoring is the ultimate bitch. When you hit your first ball back, you get a point. Your second gets you two; your third, three. You can probably tell where this is going. By the time you hit your 250th consecutive projectile back, you're getting 250 points per hit... which is roughly where I stop being able to do it. As soon as you miss one ball, it's back to 1... 2... 3... so obviously the big scores come by never missing a hit. I completed the first set of levels with a score of around 77000. The leaderboard showed that two people had got scores of ~68000000 - that's getting on for one hundred times higher than me. In other words, I suck.

You might have noticed that this is longer than any of the other reviews so far, and it's because - as I said from the start - I'm not trying to give you a full review, I'm just trying to write down my thoughts, so let's do that now. If I was playing this 20-25 years ago, I'd probably be awesome at it. One's reactions slow down with age, and a predilection for neat whisky doesn't help. This is a game at which I know I will never be any good. The constant flashing is enough to drive me to a darkened room. The graphics consist of big blocks of pixels. I hate this game. Every time I quit, I do it in a feeling of high dudgeon. On the other hand... I keep coming back. The music isn't brilliant in itself but the way in which the blocks you hit influence the tune is damnably clever. It's... fun! And why else do we play games?

Defense Grid: The Awakening
I've saved the best until last. This is the game that wins the rpeh "Nobody Cares What I Think" award for best game in the potato sack. The concept is fairly simple. There are MacGuffins called Energy Cores. Most of the time you need to stop some bunch of aliens stealing them but occasionally you have to steal them from the aliens. To achieve this, you build towers. These towers hurt the aliens in some way, and when hurt enough the aliens die, dropping any cores they hold. These towers start with simple guns that fire bullets, go through "Inferno" towers that are big flame-throwers, lasers that fire... lasers, to advanced things like "Temporal" towers, which cause enemies to slow down, and "Meterors" that hurl huge balls of energy at the invaders.

There are several catches. First, towers can only be build in certain places. Next, they only have a certain range - that varies from tower to tower - so you need to work out your killing zones. A gun tower only costs 100 "resources" but a laser costs 200, so you need to judge when to buy the expensive towers. Towers can be upgraded, so you also need to judge when one cool tower is better than two new towers. Later levels let you upgrade twice, but the cost is huge.

As you progress, you get enemies that can fly, and are immune to certain weapons; enemies that have shields, and are immune to "heat" weapons like lasers until those shields are gone; and huge powerful enemies that just take a huge amount of hittin' to kill.

Early levels are easy to complete, but there's a medal system that means you have to save a certain number of cores and get a particular score to really win. For instance, though I completed it on my first go - and it's almost impossible to fail - it took me seven goes to get a gold medal on the very first level

So far my one complaint is that the difficulty curve isn't quite right. I was doing pretty well until I hit a level (fairly early on - I'm really not very good at computer games!) where almost every square let me build a tower. I got my pasty white ass kicked all over the map.

You can learn from your mistakes, though, and there's a "checkpoint" feature that even lets you rewind within a level, so you can play around a bit with your strategy.

I suppose you can argue that this is another case of me liking the logic games, because when you only have a small number of options, it boils down to a set of choices that can be determined through fairly logical choices. There's much more to it than that, though. Definitely my favourite game. In fact, I feel an urge to play it again.