Monday, March 30, 2009

Networked Gardens

The first couple of months with my Playstation 3 wasn't that exciting. That was not the console's fault though, it was mine. As I purchased it around the same time I was feeling overwhelmed with other games, it was unfortunately neglected while I focused on playing them instead. It even got to the point where I had considered returning the console, getting my money back and then buying it again once I was able to give it the time it deserved. Thankfully, I did not end up doing that and instead had my epiphany (if you will) with the console thanks to three games. Gran Turismo 5: Prologue was the first game, but more importantly both Flower and PixelJunk Eden surprised me in such a way that I stopped playing other games like Fallout 3, becoming increasingly addicted to both and falling in love with them.


To be honest, I needed this game. I needed it because of how overwhelmed I was feeling with all the shooters and darker titles I had been playing and thankfully, it came out at the perfect time. Before release I expected it to be relaxing and because of how drained I was, my anticipation for it was a lot higher than it might have been under 'normal' circumstances. It met the expectation I had created for it and also surprised me with just how exhilarating and gorgeous it was. If words like "stunning" can describe most of the good looking games out there, then the word beautiful is how I would describe Flower. It is beautiful -- not just visually but the whole package. The minimal soundtrack, the implied narrative, the sense of discovery and the simplicity. All of it, every single element, combines to make what is just simply a beautiful game. It is unique, amazing and if you own a PS3 and don't give it a go, you are doing yourself a massive disservice. Buy it, now!

PixelJunk Eden

I had no expectations going into this title though I had seen quite a lot of praise for it so after a quick purchase, I was ready to play. What a surprise it was, then, to find such a fascinating little game. I was shocked by its simplicity, how easy it was to become addicted and also how strong I felt about it after putting the controller down. I could not stop thinking about it. It reminds me of Flower actually, two completely different games in design and intent and yet similar in terms of simplicity, beauty and even subtlety. It can also be frustrating though, especially when you misjudge a jump and end up falling all the way back down to the bottom of the level. Later levels can also be frustrating, but the onus for that is more on you than the game as you need to take some time to adjust to the different ways of play. The other notable thing that I love from this game is how you can record in-game footage, either saving it to the PS3's hard drive or uploading it to Youtube. It reminds me of the theater in Halo 3 and the Skate.reel in Skate, and I can only wish that the feature was in other games.

I will be changing Internet providers this week and as a result could be offline for a few days so unfortunately I won't be able to extend my thoughts on Flower or PixelJunk Eden. Hopefully these small paragraphs give you a hint of what I think of the games and when I return, I look forward to looking at each of them in more depth than I did in this post. Until then, be safe, have a great week and happy gaming.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Museum Of Banjo History

I have not been the only one to play my copy of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts And Bolts since its release. My girlfriend has played a significant chunk of it and so has my little three year old sister. Watching them both play has been rather fascinating. My girlfriend, a seasoned gamer like myself, approaches the game's challenges in a completely different fashion to me by building different vehicles and trying new methods. Seeing this different play-style is intriguing as it gives perspective on how I approached them and also demonstrates how everyone plays games differently. I noticed this the most when I realised that my girlfriend was engaged with the main aspect of the game, building vehicles, a lot more enthusiastically than I was. As a result, her progress ultimately reaped the reward of her patience. My sister on the other hand, well, all she really does while playing is run/drive/fly/swim around the levels. I assume that their size is overwhelming for her yet extremely compelling, possibly exciting her as she discovers more and more things that she could see or play with. Again, I find this intriguing but I also find it exciting because her enjoyment is different to my own, or my girlfriend's -- that and it suggests that I will have another co-op partner as she continues to grow up. Watching them showed me something else though, something that was a pleasant surprise yet ultimately something that I should have expected from the game and Rare.

The attention to detail in Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts And Bolts is simply mind-blowing. Rare has always been known to include subtle references to their own products (or even others' like the Nintendo 64 that was in Wrinkly's Save Cave in Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie's Double Trouble) and they also have a reputation for their attention to detail. This continues in Nuts And Bolts with the game's levels absolutely filled to the brim with self-referential nods to other games -- none more so than the level Banjoland.

As I watched my sister fly around and crash into various things, I was simply astounded by all the references to past games in the series. Being a theme-park about Banjo, it obviously has main attractions from previous games such as Clanker from Banjo-Kazooie, but what I am talking about here is the less obvious stuff -- the subtle nods to games gone before and even other games from the company's line-up. Whether it is a garbage bin filled with copies of Grabbed By The Ghoulies (Rare poking fun at how unpopular it was), cabinets featuring statues of Banjo's various transformations or posters on the walls of characters and levels that we all know and love, the level is just full of references. Even the infamous 'Stop N Swap' gets a reference via the ice key which is situated below the Freezeezy Peak Snowman exhibit. Banjoland isn't the only level to feature this stuff though, other levels like LogBox 720 have small hints here and there, namely the spinning discs of Rare's previous games: Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo Tooie, Viva Pinata, etc. Dialogue between characters also contains references to previous games, as well as other franchises not owned by the company such as a reference to a certain Nintendo mascot. Even the character LOG parodies the industry's traditions by claiming to have created the many mechanics we've come to know and love over the years such as losing all of your health in a challenge resulting in "Game Over". This subtle fan service is essentially unnecessary, yet, Rare chose to include it anyway. It's enough to make a massive fan like me cry. Okay maybe not cry, but there was certainly a big grin on my face as I was seeing it all.

The game's attention to detail doesn't stop with self-referential nods to previous games though, the way the levels are built also demonstrate just how much Rare enjoyed revisiting the franchise. Take the first world Nutty Acres for instance; in the distance you can see cogs rotating and controlling things such as the clouds, while on the ground you will see parts of the grass peeled back, revealing the framework of the level below. Banjoland features a snow-making machine where you can literally see the ice cubes being destroyed, while the Jiggoseum has sporting equipment from nearly every sport that is featured in the Olympics - the references even extend to the massive scoreboards hanging from the roof. The level also has its own Torch that you get to relay in one of the level's challenges. It is awe-inspiring to see so much attention to detail and I have only just scratched the surface.

What can I say? I love it when developers take the time to include this stuff. Rockstar has a reputation of doing it with their games, the most obvious one being the Grand Theft Auto series. Nintendo also do it, though they mostly go about it in a subtle matter. A few other developers are known for it as well but beyond those, the majority of developers don't and I honestly find that disappointing. I understand that it takes time away from more important agendas and that they have a schedule to keep (not to mention budget), but as a consumer who doesn't have to care for those things I can't help but crave that more games are given more attention to detail. It is fan service through and through and as a fan, I love it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nuts And Bolts: A Love-Hate Relationship

Earlier in the week I added Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts And Bolts to my completed pile and it was a great feeling. It has been a while since my last completed game and with so many other games to still get through, it's nice to not have to worry about Banjo anymore.

After reading the above paragraph it wouldn't be too hard to sense some negativity towards the game and well, I'd love to be able to point out that I love it, because I do, but unfortunately I also have some negative thoughts about it. Despite admiring the new vehicle-based direction Rare took with the game, I just can't help but feel as if overall Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts And Bolts was not for me. The structure of the game and its challenges are the concern for me here, with the idea of doing various challenges such as racing and transporting objects being fun to participate in but not all that compelling. The use of vehicles dictates the kinds of challenges you end up doing and while, as mentioned above, I admire the idea, it definitely started to grate. Maybe I am not a creative person but having to build a vehicle for every single challenge got tedious after a while and I certainly did not have the patience to continue doing it. The vehicle builder is the game's best asset and yet I just could not engage with it when I needed to. For a while I enjoyed experimenting by creating my own vehicles with the process reminding me of the many hours I have spent building Lego throughout my childhood. With 97 challenges to complete however, I soon lost the motivation needed and I just wanted to progress without having to worry about what parts or weapons I would need beforehand. Seemingly easy challenges were instead frustratingly difficult because I didn't have the 'right' vehicle and my frustration only escalated once I realised that it was my own fault by not having the patience to continually build vehicles suitable to the tasks at hand.

Building vehicles to help overcome the challenges is the meat and potatoes of the game so failing to engage with it is a shame. That is why I feel that maybe Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts And Bolts isn't for me, but it doesn't mean that I disliked it either. It may be my fault for not having the patience required, but it is Rare's fault for making a game that is so charming, so beautiful, that my frustrations are mostly irrelevant. Levels are expansive and it is an absolute joy to be able to see them from the land, sea or air -- in fact soaring through the skies and seeing the lush worlds below is so enjoyable that it is almost exhilarating. The vibrancy of colours helps this, and is a fresh breath of air after playing a darker game such as GTA IV: The Lost And Damned. It is, quite simply, gorgeous to see. Throw in some memorable tunes -- a lot of them remixed from earlier games -- and the self-referential humour that both Rare and the series is known for and you get a game that provides something a lot of others don't these days: fun.

As I mentioned in my previous post about Nuts And Bolts, the good far outweighs the bad. For every annoying challenge there is something funny, gorgeous or exciting and for this, Rare deserve to be commended. The problem, however, is that they aren't. They are not getting the recognition they deserve for the game and that is a downright shame. As far as I see it, there are two reasons for this: the game was released during the holiday rush of last year and went alongside other massively hyped and big-name titles such as Gears Of War 2 and Fallout 3. The other reason is, unfortunately, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts And Bolts fell off a lot of people's radars after the vehicle creation aspect was revealed. Long-time fans of the series jumped to immediate conclusions and cried foul, claiming the game was completely different to its predecessors and that Rare were making a big mistake with this new direction. Because it was not another platformer in the same vein as the original game a decade ago, these people chose to ignore it and weren't even willing to give it a chance. Again, that is a downright shame because after playing it myself I firmly believe that, had they given it a try, a good portion of them would have thoroughly enjoyed it. With that said, a good portion would have justified their hasty conclusions too, finding the creation of vehicles wasn't for them in the exact same way that I did, as I outlined above. What I think separates me from these people though is that I was willing to give it a chance, was rewarded with an immensely fun game and can recognise that Rare had good intentions with this new installment -- intentions that ultimately paid off by delivering a fresh take on the bear and bird duo and preventing the franchise from becoming stale.

Surely that can only be a good thing in an industry where profits are a higher priority than trying something new, advancing the medium or even bringing it back to its bare essentials by providing the mechanics and elements necessary to entertain the player and ensure that they have fun.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Damned Hesitation

Note: This post contains spoilers for GTA IV: The Lost And Damned!

Playing through The Lost And Damned was enjoyable for me, as I have already made clear in my previous two posts. I will admit however that none of the missions and objectives that I was participating in were that exciting or particularly note-worthy. Essentially, they were your typical Grand Theft Auto missions. I do enjoy these average and frequent missions so I had no issues with playing through them, but it was always blatantly clear that the majority of my enjoyment with the downloadable expansion was due to my immersion within the narrative.

It should be no surprise then that it was because of GTA IV's narratives that my perception of The Lost And Damned's missions changed with one mission in particular, one involving a character from the original game's narrative, one Roman Bellic.

As soon as I realised what this mission entailed, I hesitated. I did not want to participate in this mission and I actually sat for many minutes with the game on pause contemplating whether I would continue or not. Before I elaborate, first let me outline the mission's objectives: The mission involves you as Johnny heading to the bar where Roman always played Poker with the sole purpose of kidnapping him. Tied up and in the back of your car, you then proceed to take him to the warehouse that Niko had to rescue him from in the original game. Along the way Roman manages to escape briefly and naturally you have to coerce him back into the car by scaring him enough so that he follows your orders. You eventually reach the warehouse, exchange Roman for your reward and continue on your merry way.

As Johnny you don't know Roman, what he is like, who he associates with and what he is involved in; you are simply doing a job for your own benefit. As the player and as someone who has played both stories though, the impact of the mission is a lot stronger than other missions already concluded, especially when you take the time to consider what you already know about Roman and his relation to Niko. It reminds you of the encounters with Niko that Johnny has over the course of his campaign. Considering all of these elements provides a context to the mission and as I mentioned before, I hesitated and seriously considered not completing my objective. Had this been another set of characters who were unknown to me, chances are I would not have blinked at the objective and I would have carried it out without any hesitation or drama at all. Because it was a character I already knew though, I was fully aware of what the end result would be and it immediately impacted on my casual approach to performing the game's various missions. Of course to progress I had to successfully complete the mission and I did, with feelings of guilt consuming me the entire time and afterwards as well. I saved and stopped the game at that point because I literally could not take any more at the time.

This unwillingness led me to thoughts about some of the other things I had done in Johnny's past including a fairly significant murder of a more integral character to The Lost And Damned's story, Brian. I won't detail this mission but basically I did not think once about my actions in the lead up to his death, nor did I care when I saw him lying on the ground covered in blood. As far as I was concerned, he had to go because that's the way the game panned out and really there was nothing more to it than that. The event is on my mind now as a comparison to Roman's mission; I wonder why kidnapping Roman is more affecting than murdering someone as well as why the other missions that take place over the course of either story (Johnny's or Niko's) don't provide the same sort of feelings. Sure, some missions stand out for various reasons, as do some interactions with other characters but generally speaking I just complete my objectives without any consideration at all. I will be honest, I can't specifically articulate why these differences are there nor what defines them. I can acknowledge however these feelings that I have had are important. Not only do they make me analyse the experiences I have had, they make me consider my overall gaming and the traits that go with it such as how casually I approach killing in a video game.

The moment I had at the beginning of the Roman mission was marvelous as it demonstrated to me, indirectly, the power of games and their ability to tell a story. GTA IV's stories aren't exactly the best ever, but they must be something if they can make me pause to consider my actions. To put it simply, if we are starting to see moments like these in games now then the road ahead is bright. I look forward to a future where games take full advantage of our emotions and immersion.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

GTA: Growing Through Adolescence

Playing through The Lost And Damned recently, I randomly came to the conclusion that Grand Theft Auto as a series has grown up as I have. I can't remember them that well due to being about ten years old when I played, but the original isometric games were the ones that introduced the franchise; the players discovering what the franchise was about, the type of enjoyment that can be found within and experimenting with what's available in order to learn about them. For me this happens to coincide with the time where I was doing much of the same thing: discovering, experimenting, learning and enjoying. Of course at the time I wouldn't have noticed and would probably have been laughing at the fart sounds that you could make, but looking back upon it now I realise that the life of the Grand Theft Auto series started in a similar fashion to mine, that of immaturity that slowly changed as we tested the waters, learned and began to grow up.

Moving onto the next generation of consoles, we enter phase two: Adolescence. The release of Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City and San Andreas expanded upon and evolved the series by introducing a new 3D perspective, new game play mechanics, and stories featuring characters that were actually memorable. Liberty City, Vice City and the state of San Andreas were all populated with believable people who performed various mundane tasks that while subtle, added to the immersion and injected life into the game. It was this character that gave the games a personality, one which allowed Rockstar to experiment with comedy by parodying things like the gaming industry, modern culture and even the GTA games themselves. This humour permeated throughout the three games though they also contained a serious side, depicting a life of crime through the narratives and pushing the boundaries of what could be done – something that of course led to a lot of controversy. Rockstar continued to do it anyway showing that the company was keen to push the medium forward while also not taking themselves too seriously. Conveniently, this occurred while I was in my teenage years where I was also starting to experiment and push the boundaries of what I could and couldn’t do in life. I formed my own character, my own personality, which continued to mature as I learned to take things seriously. Importantly though, I was able to have fun, finding the humour in life and approaching things in a relaxed, laid-back manner. Like GTA, I was evolving, introducing new elements to my life and creating my own story complete with its own set of memorable characters.

The release of Grand Theft Auto IV sees both of us finally reaching the early years of adulthood. Rockstar made a defining choice for the franchise by pursuing a more mature game, completely reinventing and redefining the game's mechanics such as driving and shooting to ensure that it aided something else that was a high priority, the story. Their decision to focus on maturity sees them crafting a compelling narrative designed to engage and to make the players care for the characters. Whether they succeeded is up to you but one can't deny the effort is admirable. This comes at a time when I am making decisions that will go on to define the rest of my life, reinventing or redefining myself if necessary in order to ensure that my own story continues to be told. The set of memorable characters may or may not have changed, but the effort to craft a compelling narrative continues.

The Lost And Damned has already shown that it can maintain our interest in Liberty City with its new perspective and I think it is safe to assume the second episode will continue to do so as well, so it will be interesting to see whether beyond those, the franchise continues to run parallel to my own life and the events that go with it.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lost And Damned

I was really excited to see the release of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost And Damned last month as I had been anticipating it since it was announced, with it being my excuse to return to the unpredictable streets of Liberty City.

It did not disappoint either, with a smile instantly spreading across my face as I watched the introduction and realised that I was about to embark on a new adventure, one that was offering a different perspective on the Liberty City I had come to know and love. With the game handing control over to me once more, I soon forgot about the excitement and immediately focused on immersing myself within the story. I'm not quite sure what it is but Grand Theft Auto has always had a way of grabbing my attention from the get-go and keeping me entertained for hours with the new expansion being no exception. My first session lasted for over four hours and in that time I was able to get reacquainted with the controls, familiarise myself with the city again, learn about some of the new characters and enjoy some of the new things on offer including arm wrestling and air hockey. I was also able to look at the new in-game Internet and TV show content, as well as listen to the new songs available across the various radio stations. Combine them with the music and activities already accustomed to in Niko's adventures and GTA IV: The Lost And Damned ends up providing a new, fresh perspective on Liberty City that also remains familiar.

Rockstar's decision to set the majority of the expansion in the state of Alderney only enforces this further as the area is one rarely seen when compared to the likes of Broker or Algonquin in the main quest. With Johnny Klebitz's -- the main character of The Lost And Damned -- story running parallel to Niko's, subtle nods here and there are reminders to the player of what has happened before and provides a sense of familiarity to players while gently easing them into the new perspective. I found it quite fascinating and was reminded of my favourite show, The Wire, because of how it focuses on something different while retaining reminders and references to what has previously occurred. Even the credits at the end of Johnny's story contain subtle hints towards the events of Niko's story and I give full credit to Rockstar for successfully managing to pull it off, though it comes as no surprise given their extreme attention to detail.

As is obvious from this post, I thoroughly enjoyed playing through The Lost And Damned. I now look look forward to using the weekend to finish up on what I need to do in order to reach 100% completion as well as detailing some more of my thoughts here. Until then, stay safe and as always happy gaming.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Brief Look At Fable II

Similar to the situation I have with LittleBigPlanet, Fable II has been neglected while I played the other games I have posted about recently. Before delving into them however, I managed to play a decent amount of Fable II and therefore know what I think of the game.

If I were to take a guess, I would say that I am about halfway through Fable II. I have seen a significant chunk of the game's narrative, experimented with the game's social aspects, tried my hand at the various jobs you can do and I have thoroughly explored every location I have been to so far. I have loved every second of it too. Is that a cop-out given the praise I have given every other game I have written about lately? Maybe, but I believe it to be true. The consistent quality across all of the games I have been playing lately is astounding and I feel privileged to have been able to play them all, especially as it was such a different experience for me.

The neglect I gave Fable II disappoints me -- I loved every second that I've played and yet I suddenly stopped playing? -- yet it also inspires me. It inspires me because the neglect is a constant reminder of a game that I have enjoyed playing and would like to return to, inspiring motivation to see it through to the end and maybe even play through it again. To say I am looking forward to it is an understatement. I have many thoughts swirling around in my mind regarding Fable II and I cannot wait to compose them into some posts on this very blog. In the meantime know that I love what I have played so far and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys RPGs, you won't be disappointed.

That concludes the brief impressions I have given to the games I have been playing lately. In future any brief look I take at a game will be about one that I am playing at the time instead of reflecting on what I should have written about ages ago. Now it is time to actually do what I've been intending and look at these games in more depth. It is also time to look at what I have been playing in the last fortnight so expect to see a post on that in the next few days.