Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Will First Place Be Decided?

In the past few weeks I have been asked a question by quite a few people including my girlfriend, my cousin and a few online friends. When my girlfriend asked it I thought nothing of it and happily answered it to the best of my ability. When my cousin asked it a few days later, I again answered it with the answer I thought was correct. When I got asked it a few more times by some people online, I begun to question my own answer and then realised that I actually have no idea what my answer is. Basically, consistently being asked this question saw me realise that I hadn't actually decided on an answer. So what's the question?

What is my favourite racing game of all time?

Now if we were to be more precise and say, ask what my favourite Arcade racing game would be well then the answer to the question would probably be rather easy. Same thing applies to the Simulation racing genre as well, it wouldn't be too hard I don't think to answer the question. However, include the entire racing genre (which would then include Arcade, Simulation and Fictional racing titles) and the more I think about it the harder it seems to be for me to choose a particular game and nominate it as my favourite. I mean, I have played so many fantastic racing games over the years across all sub-genres and naturally having so many wonderful experiences makes it hard to just choose one. I do plan on doing so though so I can answer such a question again if it ever pops up in the future (and perhaps I will also do it for other genres) so that means it's time to make a list! A list of games from three sub-genres (Arcade, Simulation and Fictional) that I had an absolute blast playing and that I feel are best examples of their particular sub-genre.

F-Zero GX

This was my introduction to the F-Zero franchise so naturally I hold it close to my heart and regard it as my favourite game from the franchise. However even if it wasn't the first game I played, I dare say it would still be my favourite of the franchise. Only one word comes to mind when I think of this game and that is perfect. Why perfect? Well it just seems to be as such; the track design, sense of speed, character choice and perhaps most importantly, the difficulty curve are all perfectly balanced as far as I'm concerned. It's quick and easy to get into but it also happens to be one of (if not the) hardest racing games I have ever played. The desire to master this game gets stronger with every race and while normally such a challenging game would become frustrating to the point of it never being played again, F-Zero GX was just different. Sure it annoyed me when I failed a race or mission but that constant failure only drove the desire and dedication to beat it even further. I did manage it eventually too and it is one of my most proudest gaming achievements to date. Add in a beautiful looking game and some really awesome tunes from the soundtrack and like I said, perfect is the only word that seems to come to mind.

Mario Kart DS/Mario Kart Super Circuit

There was always going to be a Mario Kart game on this list but when I think about it I just can't choose just one. So instead, I nominate both handheld versions as being the best but for different reasons. I won't go into those reasons (subject for another day) but both games have provided me with endless hours of entertainment. Mario Kart is perhaps the best pick up and play racing game around and no race will ever be the same. Most people go for Super Mario Kart (SNES) or Mario Kart 64 (N64) as their best Mario Kart game and a few years ago I would have agreed with them but after experiencing a portable Mario Kart I don't think the console versions will ever match them anymore. They will be fun of course but for me I feel that Mario Kart is the sort of game that is perfect for handheld gaming. Perhaps I'll elaborate on why I feel this way in the near future, but for now the handheld versions remain my pick of the franchise.

Burnout 2: Point Of Impact

Ah my beloved Burnout franchise. I love each and every installment and don't expect that to change any time soon. I love the fact that every couple of versions or so Criterion change things up and completely reinvent the series to make it fresh, unique and yet ever so familiar at the same time. I can't think of any other franchise that does that (regularly anyway). Anyway while I also hold Burnout 3: Takedown (the majority's pick as best Burnout game from what I can gather) and the recent Burnout Paradise in very high regard my favourite Burnout game is still Burnout 2. To me it was the exact definition of what Burnout was; fast and crazy racing through a variety of very well designed tracks that had you on the edge of your seat the entire time. It also introduced Crash mode which was absolutely awesome fun and took advantage of the destruction engine perfectly. I still play this game regularly and it still looks absolutely gorgeous too. This is what Arcade racing is about.

Wave Race: Blue Storm

Some might be surprised if they read this and saw Wave Race being included but I'm happy to include it. It provided a different take on the genre which I'm always welcome to and it was definitely awesome to hoon around on a Jet-Ski while jumping over waves and weaving in and out of those buoys. It helped of course that the water effects were lovely to look at and the music wasn't half bad either. Some would argue that the original on the N64 was the better game and I can certainly see why they choose it, but for me Blue Storm was the better game as it included everything that made the original awesome and added a few more things to make a better overall experience. Out of all the franchises that could be released on the Wii, I really hope Wave Race sees a return.

Gran Turismo 4

The Gran Turismo franchise was also guaranteed to be on this list. The original showed me what was possible with racing games in gaming and provided an experience I had been craving for ages before it was released: that of being able to drive any car of my choice around a circuit and have the experience feel as close to the real thing as possible. It's obvious that games won't completely mimic what it is like to drive a car around a track, but Gran Turismo is certainly close enough for me. As the franchise continued on we saw new tracks that became classics, more cars and of course graphical upgrades as well and all were awesome additions. The franchise has also taught me a lot about cars, from who makes what (although I knew most of that already) to manufacturer's histories to what certain car parts do. The fact that a game can teach me things and provide a fun experience is fantastic as far as I am concerned and I'll always admire and appreciate the perfectionism that Polyphony aim for with this franchise. I nominate GT4 as my favourite from the franchise because I feel it is the most complete version yet. I dare say that Gran Turismo 5 (when I finally get a PS3 and when that finally releases) will take that crown though.

Forza 2

The other simulation franchise close to my heart, Forza again provided another take on an experience I love so much: the ability to drive cars of my choice on a race track. Forza introduced what I feel to be a much better tyre based physics system than Gran Turismo and as such, it was quite the different experience as a result. Forza 2 improved on that physics system dramatically and because of this reason alone I feel that Forza 2 is the best simulation racing game I have played to date. Gran Turismo 5 could beat it, Forza 3 could beat it - I don't know and I don't care at the moment. Forza 2 is where it is at for me at the moment and I still play it regularly a year on from its release. It might not have the best graphics around or the biggest choice in cars or tracks, but that is irrelevant to me. I mean come on, I can sit here lapping the same track for 100 laps and not even notice...

Project Gotham Racing 2 and 4

Arcade crossed with Simulation crossed with style = one unique but massively fun racing game. I absolutely love this franchise and feel that each installment has been brilliant. If I had to choose a title as the best my choice would be with PGR 2 as I feel it had the best of everything. The best cities and therefore track design, the best cars, the best difficulty curve (PGR 2 is still the hardest game to obtain those Platinums in as far as I am concerned and is also one of the hardest racing games I have played so far) and also perhaps the best online play of the series as well. I still fire it up to race around Sydney, Mexico and the other cities and I still have a blast each and every time. PGR 4 gets included in this segment though because it is pretty much on par with PGR 2 for me. It may not have the best of everything like PGR 2 does, but what PGR 4 has provided is the same sort of fun that PGR 2 did and that's why it is included. Plus it had a fantastic weather system which also happened to look beautiful. I've talked about how I feel about weather and games in another post and its inclusion in PGR 4 was a welcome one.

Note: PGR 2 also had weather.

Test Drive Unlimited

Not really a racing game and more of a driving game, Test Drive Unlimited is included purely because it again provided an experience that I was craving for a long time. The chance to hop into any car I wanted and just go for a cruise. Whether it be cruising in a city or out in the countryside, it didn't matter to me as long as I got to go cruising. The fact that TDU had both because it was set on the Hawaii island of Oahu was just the icing on the cake as far as I was concerned. It had some flaws and wasn't as gorgeous as other racing games on the market but who cares? I certainly don't because I was (and still am) too busy just enjoying the fact that I can just drive.

There, the racing games I feel are my favourite out of all the ones I have played so far. As is evident by the fact I had to include more than one title in some instances, it was extremely hard choosing between titles to form this list. Some were obvious standouts while others took quite some thought before I could decide. Now I get an even harder task as I decide on what I think is my favourite racing game of all time. Excuse me while I figure it out and once I do, I will reveal the answer here.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Second Look At GTA IV

It wasn't too long ago that I offered my thoughts on Grand Theft Auto IV. At the time I was still aboard the hype train and was completely addicted to the game.

I still am actually but for different reasons now. Instead of being drawn into the game through the wonderful story or interactions between characters, I am now back to my "old self" in the sense that I am now working on finishing the game 100%. I am a completionist after all so it was only going to be a matter of time. My time spent in the game lately has been dedicated to finding all the Stunt Jumps, Pigeons (IV's hidden packages), delivering certain cars to a garage and anything else that I needed to wrap up after finishing the main game. Sitting on 93% at the moment means that it won't be too long until I reach those three digits and when I do it will then be time to dabble in some GTA multiplayer.

In other words I still have many hours of Grand Theft Auto IV ahead and when you consider that I have already spent over 70 hours in the game already, that's an interesting thing to think about. It is rare for a game to keep you interested in playing for so long and while the reasons for playing have changed for me now, it definitely says something about the game if it can keep me interested in playing for such a long period of time. That is not including the idea of me playing through the story again for one particular achievement. That alone will take another 20 hours or so but I am fine with that anyway as it will allow me to experience some things in the story slightly differently.

Speaking of the story, as I said in my previous GTA post it is definitely one of the better gaming stories I have participated in. Whether it was the characters, the actual events of the plot or a combination of the two that drew me in remains to be seen. What I do know is that I was immersed in it the entire time and as a result there was quite a few shocks that I certainly wasn't expecting. There were some moments that were a bit questionable but for the most part the overall story and events provided one hell of an experience and one that I certainly won't be forgetting anytime soon. In fact, the story made me think about what had happened and what I had experienced in the same way that say, BioShock or a Final Fantasy game has. Needless to say it is definitely a story that can only be experienced. Words might be able to describe what happens but it certainly can't describe the experience of it all nor the feeling you get while you play.

So that leaves me with the question that many people are pondering at the moment: Is it the best game of all time or at the very least, the best game of this generation?

My answer to that is no but it is pretty damn close. It is one of the best games I have played though and totally deserves any and all the praise it gets.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Achievement Unlocked

It has almost been a month since my last Achievement update so it's time for a progress report.

Progress in Mass Effect has slowed quite a lot due to the fact that I'm actually stuck in the game. That is weird for me to say as it implies that I don't know what to do but in this case, I do know what to do I just can't do it. I'm on my third and final (or so I hoped) playthrough of the game and as a result, the difficulty I'm playing on is Insanity. Now Insanity isn't hard as such but due to some mistakes, I think I have gotten myself stuck in a particular section. This section (being vague to avoid spoilers) can't be escaped and must be completed for me to progress and due to having no Medi-Gels left and still being on the lower levels for my characters, I'm finding it extremely hard to get past this point. If I get hurt, I can't heal so I have to be really careful otherwise I will die and due to my low levels my weapons/characters/abilities aren't as strong as they could be and yeah I'm just finding it really difficult. I have two options: keep trying with the hope that I may actually pass it (and have a frustrating experience while I am at it), or, drop the difficulty level down to get past the point and use the playthrough to pick up all remaining achievements except for the Insanity one.

If I take the latter option (which I'm leaning towards) then that will mean I will have to do another playthrough just to get the Insanity achievement. Originally my intentions were to get everything done in three playthroughs, but the idea of a fourth isn't sounding as bad as it could do because really all I would have to do is the main story. So far on this third playthrough though, I have picked up a few of the tech ability achievements so it hasn't been all bad.

I obtained the last two achievements I wanted from the XBLA game Battlestar Galactica and in the end it wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be. I thought beating Scar without dying was going to be extremely hard but once I learned how he reacted to my moves I worked out a way where I could attack him a fair bit before having to retreat to find health. Once I worked that out it wasn't that hard and I managed to do it within three attempts after that. I also finished playing the 50 matches I needed to for the other achievement so it's nice to finally put this game away and class it as completed. I mean sure I could go for the 5000 kills and really finish it with the 200/200, but honestly I can't be bothered.

On the Guitar Hero side of things I have given up on trying to obtain the achievement you get for completing the career on Hard (or Expert) with the controller which is a shame. Why? Well I came really close to managing it by finishing every song except the very last one, which ironically is called 'One' by Metallica. The majority of the song isn't hard at all and I can hit all of the notes but the end section is another story and is frankly impossible if you ask me. I swear it is physically impossible to press the left trigger button on the controller (the green fret) THAT fast and even with the aid of Star Power, I cannot pass the song. So I have given up and instead begun practising playing on Hard with the guitar which actually ended up being a good thing as I'm definitely a lot better now than what I was. I can't hit all of the notes of a song yet and I'm still confusing my fingers a fair bit, but progress has definitely been made which I am proud of. Continue the progress and hopefully I will reach my goal of being able to finish Expert in both games. I did finish the Guitar Hero II career on Hard actually although that was with the controller...

I have also returned to Rez HD recently and picked up a fair few achievements in that. I have only got two left which are time consuming rather than hard. One is for completing Score Attack 30 times and the other is for finishing a particular version of Direct Assault which doesn't unlock until the other Direct Assaults have been completed (Direct Assault sees you going through the 5 Areas of the game in a row so it's quite a long session each time). The 200/200 is definitely possible for the game though and it is more a case of when rather than if.

Last but not least is of course Grand Theft Auto IV, a game which has given me a fair few achievements. Too many to list here anyway. I think the game's achievements are quite good actually with some easy ones and some more challenging ones. There is the typical collection ones as well for the hidden packages (flying rats) and stunt jumps. I'm sort of annoyed with the idea that there are multiplayer achievements though. I can understand them but the idea of having to rely on other people for achievements seems to misrepresent the idea of the system a little to me but most games have multiplayer achievements so it's something I am used to.

As you can tell I haven't obtained all that many achievements lately (aside from GTA) and that is mostly because I don't really have any new games to play and therefore to obtain achievements in. Still, I am happy with the progress I have made and I should be able to break the 30k barrier in the near future now that I'm playing GTA to death.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Progress (or lack thereof)

You would think that after such an enjoyable first time session with Metal Gear Solid 2 that I would have played it again and perhaps even be finished with the game by now, but unfortunately that is not the case.

I have already gone against the guidelines for my commitment to completing older games by not playing the game within a week of the last session with the game which is really disappointing to know.

The reasons behind it are relatively simple. After returning to Mass Effect to finish off some achievements and my second play through (now onto my third), the game drew me in again and I got hooked on it. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it as much because I had seen most of what the game had to offer but it turns out I was wrong. I was loving the idea of playing through it again and because I was playing it differently (as a Renegade and making a few different choices), it almost felt like my first time with the game again.

The second reason is because of Grand Theft Auto IV. Not only did I fall completely for the hype, I got to the point where nothing except GTA IV mattered in the lead up to its release. Even Mass Effect lost its enjoyment in the last few weeks before GTA's release and as such, I just completely ignored MGS 2 as a result. There were quite a few nights where I considered firing it up and at these times I knew that if I did, I would enjoy what I was playing but the lack of motivation for anything other than GTA just changed the way I played games for a while. Fast forward to the last week or so and naturally with GTA being out, that is all I have been playing. Last time I checked I have clocked over 50 hours of the game and I'm still not finished with the story and I still haven't tried half of the things that you can do in the game.

So that is why I haven't played Metal Gear Solid 2 recently and therefore, also why there have been no blog entries about it. As I said before it is disappointing to know that I have broken my guidelines, especially when you factor in that this is the first game I have committed to so far. Does that show something about me as a gamer, a possible lack of commitment? Or was it just a case of bad timing for starting MGS 2 in the first place? I can't answer that so all that is left to say is that, well, hopefully when I do return to the game (and I do intend to) I can get back into it and see it through to the end. When I do resume playing, I will also try my utmost hardest to stick to my own guidelines because if I can't, then what is the point in having them in the first place?

For now though, it's back to Liberty City for me...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Give Me Liberty

So, Grand Theft Auto IV has finally released and the good majority of gamers out there are playing the hell out of it. For good reason too, as it is definitely one of the best games of this generation (perhaps even of all time) and certainly met expectations and matched the hype.

And just like that, I've already mentioned what I think about the game. It is one of (if not the) best games to come out so far this generation and judging by all the extremely positive reviews the game is receiving, it could very well be one of the best games to ever come out period. I personally am not going to make my final call on the game until I have finished it and seen most of the content on offer, but I know for sure that I am loving absolutely every moment of it. So is my fellow Raptured Reality author GTPod, who as far as I can see is calling it his best game of all time.

I'm not too far behind him either as, well, I can't deny the fact that I am completely addicted to GTAIV. So much so that I spent 3 nights of this week just playing the hell out of it, for-going anything internet related in favour of doing anything and everything Liberty City related instead. I originally had planned to do an 'all-nighter' with the first night, but it ended up being an extra two. Hell, it was almost an extra three but I somehow managed to pull myself away from the game long enough to come online and catch up with things.

I can't deny that I completely fell for the hype train in the lead up to the game's release, but as I said before the hype was completely justified in the end. There is just so much brilliance in the game, so much fun to be had that in some ways I still can't believe that we're playing it. It feels like I'm in some kind of dream or something, where I only think I am playing it and yet, there it is sitting in my 360 ready to be played whenever I feel like. It might not seem like it now to the rest of you but this game release is a defining moment in gaming history I can tell you right now.

So why am I addicted to it then? Well like previous GTAs, it is all the small and subtle stuff that is in the game that just draws you in and hooks you. From the usual subtle humour of the radio stations, to the Easter Eggs, to the passing references to real life culture. The mockery of other games (or things within our industry), the three TV networks that have their own shows and advertisements that can last for hours, the in-game internet with news sites and ring tone sites and blogs too, the realistic weather system where it can be sprinkling, thundering and pouring down to foggy and completely clear and sunny; There is just so much to this game and Liberty City that it absolutely feels real while you play it.

Not many games can immerse you into their experience that well that it feels absolutely real while you play. BioShock did it recently and a few other games have managed it as well, but I would dare say that GTA IV does it the best purely because it's a indirect reflection of our own real world. We 'get it' so much easier in GTA because of this more realistic approach and it works absolutely fantastically to draw you in.

Naturally, the characters and story is another thing that adds to this and well this is easily the best story and bunch of characters in the GTA franchise. Forget Tommy and CJ; Niko, his cousin Roman and the many other characters that make up this game are absolutely brilliant. The story too has drawn me in and while I'm still yet to finish it, I'm quite tempted to say that it is one of the best game stories I have participated in yet. That's saying quite a lot when you think about it, but damn if it doesn't grip you in just like the living breathing Liberty City does. Hell, even when you're not necessarily progressing the story it keeps you drawn in thanks to the brilliant relationship system the game has. Whether you go on a date with your girlfriend or you hang out with one of the friends you meet, you'll still feel like you are actually Niko because of the excellent dialogue that references things that you did with this character in the past, or certain plot points or whatever. It's absolutely brilliant to experience and while I can write millions of words to try and describe it you, at the end of the day I simply won't be able to.

Grand Theft Auto IV isn't just the next GTA game, it's that and much more. So much more that it's an experience, one that absolutely shouldn't be missed.