Fuck you blogger

August 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

You’ve killed my blogroll and now you’ve come back for me!

Sorry it’s not a proper post but I felt I needed to justify deleting the blogroll. You see blogger seems to have this annoying habit of well…deleting everything on our blogroll at a moments notice. Over time it might reappear but for now it’s been lost. Sorry and all.

I’ll be back soon, promise.

Peace out,

Jon

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How to Cope with the Increasing Cost of Gaming: A Shameless Promotion

August 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Gaming is an expensive hobby. There, I said it, you can come out from wherever you’ve been hiding now. It seems with each generation that goes buy us honest gamers (and by honest I mean those of us who don’t pirate games) suffer with higher and higher costs of games. It gets hard to justify spending £50 on each new game you buy. This is especially true if it’s a risky purchase, one recommended by a critic, but something a bit off the beaten track as far as your tastes are concerned.

You may have heard of a service called LoveFilm, where you pay a subscription fee and in return you can rent as many films as you want for one month. SwapGame is the gaming equivalent. You pay £10 a month, and in return you have unlimited rentals, albeit only one at a time. (Though you can pay more to receive two games at a time etc.) You set up a list of games you want to play, and they’ll send you a game from the top of the list, which you then send back in a provided envelope when you want another. On receiving their game back they’ll then send you the next game on the list.

When you’re someone who’s constantly playing through games this service is a miracle, but it’s not for the casual gamer. If you’re someone who’ll only pick up a game once in a while you’re probably better off just buying it as the £10 fee forces you to be constantly playing through something if you want to make the most of your money. There’s also about a three day wait from when you send back a game to allow for postage, but if you pay to rent two games at a time this ceases to be an issue. Additionally you’ll need to obtain a (free) proof of postage every time you return a game in the unlikely event the disk gets lost in transit.

I’m not affiliated in any way with SwapGame, I’m simply a happy customer who would recommend them to others. So if you find yourself with far too many games that you never touch on your shelf you might want to have a look. It certainly allows you to try out some more obscure games without risk.

Sorry for the shameless advertising,

Peace out

Jon

(Note: As far as I’m aware SwapGame is only available in the UK, if you live in the USA then you might want to try GameFly)

SparkiJ’s Top Ten Compilations – Part 2: Top Ten Protagonists in Games

August 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

Back from Reading (which was awesome! Saw fucking Rage!) and slept all day.. So now I’ve decided to keep my promise and continue the “Top Ten” compilation. Also, look forward to a shiny new podcast feature you can download from the site every once in a while as soon as we all get our act together. Anyways here you have it, the top 10 protagonists in my opinion in gaming so far.

10. The Prince of Persia – Why is the Prince at no. 10 you ask? Why he’s even on this list at all is probably because of how much I love the Prince of Persia series but there’s something rather annoying about him. For one, he tries to act older and wiser than he is. He tries to talk and think like Yoda sometimes and finally he’s a bit of an emo. However his free running and combat abilities make playing as him rather enjoyable and the fact that he can rewind and slow down time effortlessly must mean he has to be awesome. All I want is for him to stop being so depressing and perhaps crack a smile once and again. Seriously, get him to take that stick out of his ass please?

9. Cortez – The legend, steroid pumped protagonist of Timesplitters 3 is at my number 9 for many reasons. He provides humour and is a brilliant asset to the Timesplitters storyline however his abilities on the battlefield aren’t really all too great. You don’t really experience any moments where you feel Cortez’s personality and skill are a part of the gameplay experience. The best way to put this is when you actually play as him. As a first person shooter, you feel very detached from Cortez. He deserves to be on here though, he’ll make you laugh for sure and Timesplitters is a game worth having so the protagonist may as well also bask in the glow.

8. Jak – I say Jak with an open mind because although I love the Jak and Daxter series, the only reason he’s at number 8 is because of inconsistency. The Jak in the first Jak and Daxter doesn’t actually speak and he follows the strong, silent type. In the latter he’s still withdrawn but a little bit more sarcastic and aggressive in what he says. Daxter is a much more consistent character but fits the sidekick role to a tee. What I love about Jak is that he’s probably more human of the people on this list but still when you play as him you feel so very kick ass. His unique ability for everything he attempts is something that can’t be ignored and at the same time we forget that he’s driven by his family and friends which is the only reason he’s put himself through so much. He’s the big friend you hide behind when there’s a bully taking your lunch money.

7. Tommy Vercetti – To the beaches of Miami Vice! Tommy Vercetti, flown into Vice City in the 80s. Just left prison, owes Sonny Forelli a lot of money and almost gets killed in the middle of a gun fight. Seizes control of Vice City basically alone, killing the traitors along the way. Never during any of this do you see genuine emotion or regret to anything he does. This guy seriously though is the person to make you fall in love with Grand Theft Auto. He in my eyes is the epitamy of everything outrageous Grand Theft Auto is meant to be about. This was before it took a turn down the realism path and stealing cars and killing pedestrians was fun because you could. Tommy was just the person to be for you to do that. His personality is that of a nutter and his sarcastic cutscene comments are cringe-worthy to the point where you think whatever, it’s just a game that doesn’t take itself seriously. If you’re someone cynical, you’ll love this guy because he’s one of the most detached protagonists you’ll ever meet and is just what Grand Theft Auto is all about.

6. Dante – You can’t kill Dante. Period. This is why he’s on the list. The son of the legendary demon Sparda, Dante is the most powerful being in this post. His personality is also rather inconsistent in my eyes as he seems to be a cocky arrogant powerful toerag with the world at his feet when he was young to a silent, strong creature of sheer hidden power back to the cocky arrogant Dante, except he doesn’t care for any of the things he stood for before. Still, I retain that if you can consistently watch someone have 6 ft swords enter and leave their body without them feeling a thing then you’re playing as a pretty cool character. The half demon half human seems to be the most stylishly blessed with kills and nature favouring everything he does. He mixes sword skills and gun play in one and effortlessly leaves everything sliced in half. You’re basically unable to not love him because you can play as him and you too can stylishly kill everyone near you.

5. Ratchet – Ah the protagonist of my favourite platformer franchise, alas I wish you could be further up the list. There isn’t a reason why he wouldn’t be further up the list aside from the fact that the ones further up are kinda just more deserving. Ratchet, a furry lombax who knows nothing about his ancestors or purpose of life just takes everything on the chin and stands firmly for what’s right and fair. He’s made me laugh more than any other person and the reason for it is that the story and script behind Ratchet and Clank is gold considering the fact that it’s not to be taken too seriously. Everything unfortunate that happens, he solves with getting a bigger gun and he’s not a protagonist like Dante where the world sort of revolves around and you can’t do anything wrong. Ratchet unfortunately makes plenty of mistakes and the world is out to get him but he doesn’t care. He’ll crack a joke and move on. If your best mate was a squirrel, Ratchet’s your closest bet.

4. Kratos – If I wanted Dante dead then this is the person I’d call to give it a go. Kratos, under the bidding of the ancient Greek Gods, will kill anything and anyone for himself. Everything he’s done so far is for his own personal sense of well being as he wants the disturbing nightmares and voices in his head to subside after killing his wife and daughter in blind rage. Kratos was a character created almost as a shadow to humans. Devoid of emotion and called the “Ghost of Sparda” the warrior is not allowed to do anything but to kill and be used. Some play him and think “Wow, this guy is hardcore and brutal” and yet some might see a reflection upon themselves and feel sorry for him. You have all the power in your hands but you are never in a position to do anything you want. The simple truth of the matter is you play as someone who is brutally powerful and can kill almost anything but in exchange for this he has given away his humanity. The series itself makes you question was exchanging power for humanity worth it and makes you act and think like Kratos. The even more smarter thing is that if you play God of War then you know what Kratos would do in exchange for humanity however the killing and brutality must continue without question.

3. Niko Bellic – This is surprising to me. It’s surprising in my opinion the protagonist of such a recent game could be on my favourite list and it’s even more surprising to me that it’s someone from Grand Theft Auto almost completely different from Tommy Vercetti. I can write for pages on end as to why Niko is my third most favourite protagonist but I can condense it rather easily. Who do people look out for and love? Themselves. We all love ourselves and feed our ego so naturally we warm to people as like us as possible. Niko? In Grand Theft Auto we inject our own personality to the game. We decide who we want to save and kill. We decide what to do and which of our friends to hang out with. We like someone who we can relate to. Besides this, Niko reminds us the limits to which people are driven to in this world that some of us can never experience. To see our family and friends torn apart because of drugs and corruption. He’s the person that we would be if we were struggling with such problems in modern day. Dealing with racism, corruption, sabotage and murder. Never does he give up trying to attain the unattainable American Dream.

2. Cloud Strife – Ignoring the fact that I’m a huge Final Fantasy fan, the reason Cloud is at no. 2 is because he has similar attributes to Niko. In Gaia he too is alone. He’s seen his best friend die and is out of his depth in a world he is unfamiliar with. However, the good inside him opens up this hidden power that no one can touch which makes him a fantastically powerful person to play as in an RPG. As Final Fantasy VII is such a long and epic game, even if you don’t count the spin-offs, you get to really know Cloud and his background and why he feels so alone. You’ll have to trust me when I say there‘s good reason for everything but basically he’s a kind and powerful soul that will put his loved ones before himself because he feels he owes the world that. To base how you see life like this is something special and couple that with his Buster Sword, you’re in for someone rather difficult to take down.

1. John (Naked Snake) – Ooh la la. Shock horror yes? As a metal gear fan and fan of dramatic storytelling in games, Naked Snake or “Big Boss” is easily my favourite protagonist in games. Please remember that all Snakes, stealth and CQC combat originates from the original Naked Snake who solved the Shagohod crisis during the cold war in Metal Gear Solid 3. People could argue why not Solid Snake here to which I reply you don’t get better than the original and Metal Gear Solid 3 was the strongest of the series in my opinion in terms of gameplay. Also the ending of Metal Gear Solid 3 brings out true human emotion in terms of war and what soldiers go through because of the people in the suits. Big Boss is where the epic Metal Gear timeline starts and it’s a treat to play as him in Metal Gear Solid 3. By the looks of things it seems that Ryan Payton and Hideo Kojima agree, with rumours that seem to favour the return of Big Boss in the next Metal Gear game.

Also look out for our podcast which I’ve decided to call the “Monthly Hugs Podcast.”

Bloody hell Jon, four posts while I’ve done one? I’d also appreciate it if you didn’t put my mum as my no.1 protagonist between editing. Douche.

Apparently the download revolution is coming, but I’m not feeling it

August 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Analysts everywhere are proclaiming the arrival of the download revolution, a time when we will no longer have a need for physical game stores, when we can simply click on our desired game only to have it appear on our hard drive in moments. As much as I might like believe that this will soon be the case, several factors are getting in the way, all of which seem to point me to the conclusion that this change might be a little longer coming than we think.

Bionic Commando, the 2D remake of the original was released on Xbox Live and the Playstation Network last week amidst a flurry of praise and high review scores. In response the game enjoyed quite the commercial success, 130 000 copies downloaded in it’s first week on the market. This, I’m told, is a significant amount on the download scene, but then let’s give these numbers some context:

The Top 5 Best Selling Games this Year:
Grand Theft Auto IV–6,293,000 units sold
Super Smash Bros. Brawl–5,433,000 units sold
Mario Kart Wii–4,697,000 units sold
Wii Fit–3,604,000 units sold
Guitar Hero III–3,475,000 units sold

Somehow 130 000 doesn’t seem like that much anymore does it? In fact, it’s such a small number that it could quite easily win Gamespot’s coveted (no not really) award for best game no one played. Granted the game was probably cheaper to produce, what with the physical cost of producing disks being removed, but there’s still a very large gap between Guitar Hero and Bionic Commando.

This list highlights several points which lead me to believe digital distribution has a long way to go. Firstly three out of the five games could be described as “Casual Games,” ie games that someone who’s not heavily into games will play. This could be an indication that the only people downloading games are the so called “Hardcore” gamers, the one’s with all the knowledge of this system which may appear to be somewhat alien to your Auntie Maureen. The masses are flocking to systems like the Wii because of their ease of use: they don’t need to worry about setting up an online account or registering credit card details, they can simply plug it in, buy a game, and be on their way. When you start adding these complications the majority of people will get turned off by your idea, sure it’s ok to maybe spend an evening playing on the Wii, but why bother downloading a game when there are so many that can be bought in a shop for less hassle?

Secondly two of the games in this list come with extra peripherals essential to play the game. This point shouldn’t warrant much of an explanation, unless someone’s found a way to download a balance board to my living room.

So let’s compare what you get with a retail version of a game and a downloaded version. With a retail version you have a physical copy, and so long as you take care of it you’ll be able to keep it any play it on your system for many years to come. On top of that it’s very hard to run out of room for physical games, when the time comes you can always put them in boxes in your loft. Sure you may have had to go to a store to get it (you might have even ordered it online) but what you’re left with is a physical object, the safety of which lies in your hands.

Download a game and it’s a completely different story. You’ve skipped the time it may have taken you to walk to a store, but if you’re someone with a bad Internet connection you might not save as much time as you’d have hoped. Let’s also not forget that there’s a lot of people out there without Internet connections as well. Finally however you get your game, and it might even have the added bonus of running faster as it’s loading from a hard drive and not a disk. You play it solidly for two weeks and exhaust all possible enjoyment you may have gotten from the game. Then what? That hard drive space is precious to you, wouldn’t you rather clear some of it for a big shiny new game? Maybe you decide to keep the game on their as a tribute to your two weeks of bliss, but who’s to say your hard drive will appreciate the thought? Maybe one day it’ll just slip…and then your game will be gone.

Of course I’m using exaggeration to put across a point, and this may be a result of my love for a physical game collection, as well as a physical movie and music collection. There’s just something altogether a lot more impressive about revealing your shelf stacked full of games rather than browsing through a list on a monitor. Many of the points I’ve argued will disappear over time, broadband speeds will get faster, hard drives bigger and more reliable, and the general public more educated about services available to them.

There’s just one final point I wish to make. As I’ve said before gamers are stereotypically solitary creatures, spending much time alone, or socialising through the Internet. The games shop is very important in this respect, when you enter one you know you’re in the company of people who share you’re passion, and who can point you towards what you’re looking for. If you take away that human interaction completely communities which thrive around the physical store will wither and die, without any other meeting ground to replace them.

Also you can’t rent downloads, so count me out.

Peace out

Jon

Rainbow Six Vegas 2 – You’ve Probably Already Played it

August 26, 2008 § Leave a comment

Playing Rainbow Six Vegas 2 it’s had to shake the feeling that it’s all been done before. Sure in the past experience points may not have rewarded notable actions, or the press of a button sent Logon Keller sprinting, but for the most part this is the same game you played two years ago, albeit with a couple of minor tweaks and additions.

Contrary to what you may have believed after you saw the “To be Continued” message from the end of the original Vegas, it’s sequel doesn’t pick up immediately afterwards. It actually starts before the beginning of the first game which is important for two reasons. Firstly you’re no longer Logon Keller, rather you’re Bishop, a character who’s physical appearance is entirely at your mercy. Secondly this means that the game is set before the escalation of the terrorist ploy, and as a result you’re still in Vegas giving some anti-Americans a kicking.

Unfortunately the time line of Vegas 2 doesn’t allow for much of a shocking narrative. If you were a fan of the original you’ll know most of the plot points before they happen, and it’s only towards the end of the game when things get interesting. The story is mostly told through radio chatter between your squad and HQ, but occasionally you’ll overhear terrorists on the other side of a door discussing the intimate plans of their organizations, completely oblivious to all the gunfire from the next room. Thoughtfully the game never uses cutscenes, and so those less keen on this predictable tale are free to take no notice.

Rainbow Six’s trademark ultra-realistic urban warfare has stayed intact during the move to the sequel. On making your way through this lengthy shooter you will be required to plan your breaches into rooms carefully, and then take cover often to avoid a very quick death. Even taking cover is by no means a sure fire way of staying alive when bullets have the uncanny ability to pierce right through it into your back. The combination of these design choices will leave you very dead, very often, sometimes with little clue as to how your demise came about.

Luckily you won’t die alone as throughout most of the game you’ll be accompanied by your two squad mates, the British demolitions expert Michael and the Asian computer hacker Jung. These two men will bravely breach any room you dare to point your crosshairs at, and for the most part they’ll be able to hold their own in a firefight. Their AI however isn’t perfect and neither is your ability to order them around. In Ubisoft Montreal’s haste to make the game more accessible they didn’t see fit to allow you to order your squad mates to locations independently. In practise this means that you should only really order them to pieces of cover wide enough for the two of them, so as not to leave one out in the open. They may also get confused should you give them an awkward set of commands, in which case you’ll need to try again until they understand.

So far, so Rainbow Six, but the big addition this time around is the introduction of the RPG-like ACES system. The idea behind the system is that the more you play with your character, either online or offline, the more weapons and equipment you unlock. The game will assign you points in three key areas: marksman – for getting headshots and kills from afar, close quarters – for shotguns kills and the like, and assault – for grenade and turret gunner kills. Whilst it’s nice to know that you’re always gaining points in some manner, the system never changes how you play the game, aside from the brief moment of joy when you realize you’ve unlocked a new weapon.

In almost every other respect though, Rainbow Six Vegas 2 is almost entirely like it’s predecessor. The graphics are still capable albeit lackluster, and enemies rarely take on anything more intelligent than targets. The addition of a sprint button makes those dashes between cover slightly less nerve racking, but no single part of this game has changed enough to warrant it being called a real sequel. Worthy of note is some significant slowdown in the PS3 version in some parts of the game, it’s never a system-resetting problem, but it’s enough to damage your flow.

Vegas 2 is not a big step in any direction for the series. It takes what the first game did well, adds a few features deemed necessary in this post-Call of Duty 4 world, and sends it out on its way. Ultimately if you enjoyed the first game you’ll probably enjoy this, just don’t be surprised when the feeling of déjà vu hits. If you didn’t enjoy the first game though there’s little reason to give this one a try, unless the mere mention of experience points gets you frothing at the mouth in ecstasy.

Peace out

Jon

Uncharted Waters: Where’s the Ship Heading?

August 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

As much as we may harp on about gaming’s identity as an art form it’s sometimes hard to shake the feeling that it’s not as diverse an art form as others. Delving into the virtual realm we frequently engage in war and combat, in motor racing, or in sports, and whilst these may have any number of permutations in gameplay, taken as subjects in a much broader sense interactive entertainment starts to seem narrow minded.

When looking at the medium’s progression it’s often useful to chart the progress of cinematography, as this is similar to games in many ways (though still a way off). Such a comparison works well in terms of social acceptance – actors in films were at first scorned because they were believed to be failed stage actors – as well as diversity of genres. In it’s early years films were essentially recorded stage plays, often a romance or other such character driven story. Before the days of special effects, or even of stunts, cinema had to rely on characters and dialog to tell it’s stories, and action arose only in dramatic set pieces of which there were few. In this respect gaming has essentially worked backwards.

When games started to be hesitantly constructed the Atari’s and Mattel’s developers were working with an environment of pixels, where any movement made had to be exaggerated in order for the audience to understand. Character’s legs flailed comically front side to side, and spoken dialog was simply out of the question. Given time though, like CG making its way into film, speech slowly made its way into gaming via the written word. It took many years for something as simple as spoken dialog to make an appearance, something which has been a staple of cinema for over eighty years.

It’s perhaps for this reason that many high-brow art critics can look down their noses at interactive entertainment. Films, books, paintings, music, all were made with the desire to tell a story and illicit an emotional response. Games however were created for fun, to allow for children, and later adults, to assume a role and exist in a virtual world. Not surprisingly it has taken time for technology to progress to a stage whereby a digital representation of a person can display emotion.

My point behind all of this is that it took time for cinema to diversify into what it is today, and we’d be naive to see gaming any differently. But at least now we’re at a point where technology can no longer be seen as a burden. No longer must gamers play alone through the virtual world sculpted out for them. No longer must gamers be forced to listen to tinny MIDI soundtrack’s, and of course, no longer must gamers imagine the facial expression of Mario as he saves Princess Peach for the first time.

So where will gaming head in the coming century? Well it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that more and more diverse puzzle games will be developed with the massive popularity of casual gaming systems. Nor would it be wrong to say that more traditional genres will continue to be popular over the years. Rest assured there will almost certainly be Master Chief way into the future. But where will developers stray from the beaten path and take advantage of the technology they now have at their disposal?

How about a complex simulation of a relationship within a game. Each choice you make regarding a virtual partner has a consequence. For example, arriving late for a date or driving off without offering a ride home could result in a subtly colder conversation the next time you meet. Meanwhile kind and thoughtful actions could have equally positive consequences, and I’m sure you’re all aware of what those could be. Whilst we’re on this subject is it really too much to ask for tasteful sex in games? Is the deepest expression of love and affection between human beings not suitable for a medium where the average age of participation is now 35?

What about a survival game? Not surviving a zombie apocalypse or ghost infested village but just surviving in nature, a man lost on a desert island (see a previous post) or leaving home for the first time. The connections people would foster with their characters would be immense, a shared will to survive allowing the player to empathize with the protagonist on an entirely new level unrivaled in any other medium.

Developers need to take risks and not just create games for the mass market. Halo’s already been made, and so’s World of Warcraft and you’re wrong if you think they need to be made again. The industry needs to multiply and evolve, and maybe capital shouldn’t be at the top of every publishers wish list.

Peace out

Jon

Monster Hunter Freedom Review

August 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Monster Hunter Freedom could be called something of a cult game outside of Japan. It hasn’t garnered much critical acclaim, but fans of this traditional hack an’ slash don’t just like it, they love it, much to the confusion of everyone else. The sad truth is, MHF isn’t that good a game.

The basic gameplay revolves around your unnamed protagonist (completely of your creation) receiving quests from other inhabitants of the village. These quests will for the most part revolve around you setting out in to one of five distinct areas to kill a certain monster a certain amount of times. Completing these quests will not only net you cash needed to buy items and armour but by hunting around you can gather additional materials which can then be combined to make more powerful items or equipment.

All these ideas sound excellent on paper, you have an incentive to continue playing as well as sufficient reward to add to the sense of progression. The execution however lags well behind. Simple design choices such as having to return to your house to change equipment, the complete omission of a pause button and the inability to change direction whilst attacking hamper the experience to a frustrating degree. For most of my time with the game I was forced to stick with the beginning sword and shield combination – not because I preferred the play style but because using any faster weapon left me open to endless attacks due to how cumbersome they were.

It’s also very apparent that Monster Hunter pushes the PSP graphically very hard, sometimes to the detriment of the overall experience. Each of the five zones that you complete quests in is then further subdivided into sections with individual load times between them. This in itself wouldn’t be an issue, but tempers frequently run high when monsters exist which can knock you into a previous area, forcing you to endue two load screens in quick succession. The upshot of this is that Freedom is an amazing looking PSP game with vast backdrops and a large number of monsters on screen at once.

Monster Hunter Freedom’s finest hour comes with large dragon-like creatures (called Wyverns) which you will periodically have to dispatch. In these cases it’s not a simple matter of just running up to them and spamming their weak point with the triangle button but instead holding back, placing traps, or leaving poisoned meat whilst you remain out of sight to impede your opponent. These encounters, whilst hard, are the high point of the game, the point at which all Monster Hunter’s grand ideas fall into place.

Like Army of Two, the addition of up to 4 player co-op is a huge bonus for the game. Previously impossible missions fly by with ease, and the competition for the best loot makes it worthwhile to return to previous quests. Not all the missions can be played in multiplayer, which prevents you from enlisting help to complete the main game, but the co-op missions are still massively useful, both as training, as as loot gathering expeditions.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility for you to play Monster Hunter and enjoy it immensely but in order to do so you’ll have to consciously ignore all it’s flaws. It could never be called a great game, but the ideas it has are developed enough to make it an enjoyable experience, especially when combined with ad-hoc multiplayer. Perhaps the only sound advice that could be given on this game is to rent it first, and then you’ll know.

Peace out

Jon

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