Thursday, December 31, 2009

Games Of The Year 2009: Forza Motorsport 3

[My apologies for the slight delay with this one. An unexpected interstate trip meant I had little time to get online. Thank you for your patience.]

I suppose it's no surprise for anyone who has been reading this blog for a while to see this game as one of my choices. In the short time that I have been blogging about videogames, I have intentionally tried to establish myself as someone willing to give the racing genre a more critical eye. For whatever reason, the genre doesn't garner the amount of attention or discussion that others do, despite the fact that it is one of the more prolific (in terms of releases) genres out there and generally one that people play for fun when they have a break from the next big FPS, RPG or blockbuster title. It's like the sports genre -- no surprise considering that, depending on which game you're talking about, racing is a sport -- in that, a huge amount of people play these games but rarely do they ever speak about them. It's a little puzzling to me as I've discussed here before -- Surely these games are just as ripe for discussion and analysis as your BioShocks and Fallouts? Apparently not... so far at least.

Anyway, Forza Motorsport 3 is quite simply the best installment in the franchise yet, iterating on everything the previous two games did whilst adding enough new features to not only justify the sequel, but open it up to more players as well. The biggest selling point for the game is how accessible it is now: despite being a simulation racing game at its heart, there's enough driving aids, options and mechanics (such as the rewind feature) to allow players of any skill level to enjoy Forza Motorsport 3. Such additions might be irrelevant to people like me, hardcore racing enthusiasts who eat these types of games for breakfast, but in terms of mass appeal they're worthy additions and as such, are notable inclusions to the formula. Some new and welcome tracks, the obligatory graphical upgrade, refinement of the game's already superb handling physics system and a fostering of a passion for car culture through its online community, tuning and painting options are just added bonuses for a game and franchise that has established itself as one of the best simulation experiences available on consoles. Whether it's the definitive racer -- the description overused throughout the pre-release hyperbole -- on consoles is up to you, but it certainly is the most comprehensive one. Car enthusiasts the world over can't wish for much more than that.

I'll have much more detailed thoughts and discussion on Forza Motorsport 3 soon.

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009's Best

Every year a multitude of publications post their Games Of The Year. In 2009, a lot of them are also reflecting back on the decade that was, reminding us what has come out within that time frame and demonstrating, even if unintentionally, just how far videogames as a medium have come. Ten years ago, the phenomenon that is Guitar Hero and Rock Band didn't exist; Nintendo's Wii and its dominance was unthinkable, as the company was the joke of the industry -- to some people at least -- thanks to the GameCube's clear and unfortunate last place in the console wars; Big name franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Call Of Duty didn't exist, or were nowhere near as popular as they are today; and a little something called World Of Warcraft was nowhere to be seen.

Reading these nominations, reflections and opinions of a year and decade gone by has been amusing, while choosing my own games has been a struggle. Basically, I always thought the process was pointless -- the choices were always going to be subjective for one, and for two, no one's going to remember once the new year's games distract us with their flashy graphics, fancy mechanics and general splendor -- and beyond that, I could never choose anyway. Last year I thoroughly enjoyed the likes of Fallout 3, Burnout Paradise and Grand Theft Auto IV -- among others -- while in 2007 it was BioShock, Forza 2, Portal and The Darkness; How, just how, can one choose a favourite title amongst that lot? I always figured the answer was simple: one can't.

This year has been a relatively similar process, but then I started to think about it some more. I realised that my point of view has always been that of a gamer or consumer: someone who devours the games that pique the interest, enjoys them for what they are and then moves on, forgetting their relevance to the overall medium as soon as the next big thing becomes available. Meanwhile, the past two years, but particularly 2009, has seen my perspective evolve from just your average gamer to one who thinks about the medium: someone who contemplates the meanings of the games they play, who enjoys reading and discussing videogames in any manner you can think of and, obviously, someone who enjoys writing about them too. This blog wouldn't exist without this newer perspective of mine, but it does and now that I've established my little corner of the blogosphere, I thought it was time to change my previous way of doing things and offer my own games of the year. In doing so, I can reflect on the year that was, but more importantly, I can also offer a little insight for my readers by showing them the games I thought were relevant, important or interesting in 2009.

So, starting tomorrow, I will be posting the games that I believe were the year's best, and that I hope future games in development aspire to.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Australia's Inconsistent Videogame Classification, Revisited

Apparently too horrific for Australian adults...

Regular readers of this blog would remember a post I did in October about the inconsistencies inherent in Australia's classification of certain videogames. At the time, it was the banning of Left 4 Dead 2 that inspired my post but as I mentioned in it, so far the games that have been refused classification in this country haven't really concerned me. Regardless of this, just a mere two months later, some interesting developments have occurred.

First and foremost and as I expected, Left 4 Dead 2 was released in Australia. Valve, the developers of L4D2, submitted an edited version of the game while they appealed the banning of the 'proper' version. The end result was that the appeal was unfortunately unsuccessful, and the edited version was released at the same time as the 'proper' version in the rest of the world. Australia's Left 4 Dead 2 is a laughable excuse of a game, with Valve essentially neutering their own game to accommodate our classification guidelines. The edits are severe, with bodies disappearing as soon as, or even before, they touch the ground; blood and gore is basically non-existent; while footage of the game looks like it is taken from something in the Nintendo 64 era, just with higher production values. Certainly not an image any developer would desire in the high definition generation. It's a joke, but it's up to you as to whether it's Valve (for making such severe edits) or Australia (for banning the game in the first place) being the comedian.

Another game was recently banned here in the form of Rebellion Entertainment's Aliens Vs Predator. As is usually the case with banned games here, it was violence and gore that was the primary reason for AVP's ban, with the classification board deeming it unsuitable for minors. One look at the game reveals that yes, absolutely, it is not suitable for children, but adults should have every right to play it and simply could not after it was banned. All because our ratings system doesn't have a rating that complies with the type of content seen in such a game.

...While this is all fine and dandy. Bizarre, no?

I say "could not" for a reason; today it was revealed that an appeal of Aliens Vs Predator's ban, made by Sega the game's publisher, was successful, meaning that Australia will now be receiving the game when it releases next year, unedited and all. Just like the rest of the world. This is great news for anyone interested in the game, but its release is not something that concerns me.

What does, is that this decision by Australia's classification board to allow Aliens Vs Predator into our country with an MA15+ rating -- our highest one -- highlights the inconsistency I referred to in my previous post, demonstrating precisely how random it appears to be and how some games can get through fine, while others can't or get edited to a ridiculous state. The fact that it happened so soon after Left 4 Dead 2's joke of a situation only exacerbates the problem, and reflects upon Valve's edited game -- arguably more popular than AVP will be -- in a more significant way than the original banning did. One glance at both games, side by side, makes the differences between the two pretty clear, but to prove the point the pictures I have included in this post show you everything you need to see to understand what I am talking about. Aliens Vs Predator is clearly the more brutal game, so the fact we will be getting it completely unedited while Left 4 Dead 2 looks like a poorly made Nintendo 64 game is bizarre. The inconsistency is a joke and looks like it will continue into 2010.

The good news is, a discussion paper has recently been released to obtain public opinion on whether Australia needs an R18+ rating or not; the bad news is that regardless of this paper's outcome, a decision on the rating is still a fair way off, meaning there is every chance more games will be in the spotlight for their inevitable refused classification status. On a personal level, I am awaiting the day that it does involve a game I'm eager to play, but on an objective level, it appears the situation is only going to get worse before it gets better. As someone who enjoys watching the progress of the videogame medium as it continually matures, that is one seriously daunting prospect.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Living By The Creed #2: A Discourse On Assassin's Creed II

Welcome to part two of my mini-series covering the Assassin's Creed franchise, but mostly its recently released sequel Assassin's Creed II. Once again my good friend Joseph from PALGN is joining me, and in this particular exchange we discuss our initial thoughts about the game. We are both about halfway through and already the game has presented a wide range of topics to think about. Some of those are discussed below, but there are many more in my head. We've got a couple more exchanges after this one, but after that don't be surprised to see even more Assassin's Creed II coverage here. There just seems to be something about it that has put my mind into overdrive. Anyway, onto the good stuff.


Steven: So Joseph, I have spent a few nights with Assassin’s Creed II, as I’m sure you have as well, so I figured it was time to discuss some of our initial thoughts and impressions of it. To change things up, I’ll go first this time.

The first thing I noticed with Assassin’s Creed II, when comparing it to the original game, is the difference in how Ubisoft have approached Ezio’s story when compared to that of Altair’s; effort has been put in to ensure that Ezio’s story is more involving and, arguably, the end result is a story that’s more compelling than Altair’s. As we discussed in our first exchange, I felt like Altair was a conduit at times for the main gameplay, with the narrative enjoyment coming from Desmond’s side of things instead. It is different here and I actually find myself interested in Ezio’s story. Part of that, I think, is how the story is introduced: the tutorials don’t just serve as explanations for the game’s mechanics; they also introduce you to Ezio’s family. More importantly, they allow you to interact with his family – from racing his brother to helping his mum as she visits a friend – and it is this short time that draws you into the overall narrative. Sure, bells and whistles aside it’s just a prelude to the main thing, but unlike the original Assassin’s Creed it does a better job of immersing you within the game, and that’s impressive.

It’s not perfect, however; these tutorial or ‘ease the player in’ missions as a whole take far too long and there are too many of them. Maybe it’s just me, but there is something wrong when 3 hours into the game, I am still being taught how to play the game or how to use a newly acquired item or skill. Sure, they’re designed to ease you into the narrative as well as new players into the mechanics, but then again, they’re not; I think it is the third mission that sees you racing against your brother, the endpoint being a marker that’s on a rooftop not far from where you begin. Despite having experience from the first game, I actually had to retry this mission because I was still getting (re)accustomed to the controls, as well as getting my bearings. The game, in my view, assumed I had played the first one and expected me to be more efficient with my skills as a result. I’ve noticed other, minor examples of this throughout so if I’m right and assumptions are being made, then that is in direct conflict with the amount of tutorial missions there are and the length they go for. Just something I observed and thought was odd.

I don’t want to discuss the characters or the narrative too much, as I’d like to play more of the game for one and I think it’s deserving of its own exchange for two, so let me change pace and mention the structure of the game as well as the design of the cities.

Another thing I noticed instantly was how easy it was to get my bearings. Maybe it’s a credit to the early mission design, maybe not, but so far it seems like the game’s cities (I’ll pause there to mention that I’ve only seen three so far: Florence, Monteriggioni and Tuscany) are designed a lot more fluidly than the ones in the original Assassin’s Creed, with more landmarks and distinctive buildings than before. It makes navigation down in the streets a lot easier which is nice because it’s not always feasible to be traveling across the rooftops. The immersion of these cities is as good as it was in Assassin’s Creed, if not better, with an atmosphere that makes them feel as if they are occupied with living, breathing people. It just exudes a sense of active, yet relaxed activity that makes them feel populated without being cramped, making it a joy to just walk around in but irrelevant when it comes to the proper meat of the game: the various missions and objectives.

There’s a lot more variety here, all of it breaking up the pace by changing things up and distracting you, and that’s a marked improvement over the repetition seen in the original. Throw in the emergent pace enacted by the player – the ability to do whatever, whenever -- and it keeps things fresh without being overwhelming. With all that said and done, however, I do get the feeling that it is perhaps a bit conservative. While I still enjoy climbing up to another viewpoint or racing across the rooftops in an allocated time, I do wonder if that style of play is going to get stale if it continues in future installments. Even the new additions such as the underground tombs aren’t as compelling as I feel like they could be. I mean, at the end of the day, all you’re doing is exactly what you can do outside: jump, climb, and run from one location to the next, usually because of a desired goal. To me, there’s not much difference between the hunt for another sarcophagus and an attempt to reach another viewpoint; one is inside, directed and a bit more passive, while the other can be approached from any angle but ultimately there is only one, maybe two ways to reach the top. Don’t get me wrong, as it is now it is enjoyable and I’m glad Ubisoft added these tombs – admittedly, I’ve only seen a handful – but if it continues in future installments then I’m not sure whether it is something I will continue to enjoy, that’s all. It just feels like what we’ve gotten is iteration on what came before – a good thing – wrapped up in a better structure that doesn’t get repetitive. Iteration is welcome, but so is innovation, and that is something I’d like to see alongside the main stuff in the inevitable sequel.

I have much more I could say about this game and it’s still only early days, but I’ll stop it there to allow you to respond and offer your own thoughts about your time with the game so far. So how are you finding it? I think it’s safe to say it’s an improvement upon the original game, but how much of one, do you think? Take it away.


Joseph: Hi Steven. Much like you said in our previous exchange, I too seem to be noticing and liking the same things you are.

After watching some trailers for the game I immediately knew Ezio’s story would be much stronger than Altair’s. I like how the game opens up showing him as a cocky, obnoxious teenager who gets into fights and what not. But, you also get a sense of just how much pride he takes in his family – escorting his mother to the shops, looking out for his kid brother and sister, and of course the level of respect he displays for his father and older brother. I thought it made the tutorials a little more interesting as it introduced you to Ezio’s family and gave you a little more insight to their relationships, but as you said it did feel a little slow to start off with. In fact I felt the game didn’t truly pick up until Ezio had met up with his uncle, of course that isn’t to say the game was boring up until that point.

Again, I am simply enjoying walking around the environments and exploring my surroundings. The various streets and suburbs are definitely more recognisable this time around, arguably due to the inclusion of landmarks and other unique structures. If we look back at the original Assassin’s Creed, while the cities were huge and had distinguishable areas (rich/moderate/poor districts), you could easily get lost walking in the streets as everything looked the same. Churches were the same height and width, housing was identical on nearly every corner, and evening gathering spots looked like they had been recycled. In Assassin’s Creed II however, I’m seeing these marketplaces, prisons, unique housing structures such as apartments and villas, and churches that have distinguishable towers and courtyards. Ubisoft has clearly put a lot of effort into designing levels, and the result is an even more engaging experience than the original.

A few other things I’m enjoying at the moment are the economy and notoriety systems. When Ubisoft first announced these would be a component of the gameplay I was skeptical if it would suit the game’s atmosphere and setting, well, more so the economy system than the notoriety system. The economy system is a relatively minor feature actually. I mean, you’re rewarded money for completing missions, so it’s not like you have to do any mundane tasks such as chopping wood or bar tending (ala Fable II). But, I like how there’s a small emphasis on being careful how you spend your money. At the top of my head you have to restock throwing knives and poisons, as well as repair your armour, make regular trips to the doctor to heal yourself, and hire henchmen to do your bidding (I’ll touch on this a bit more later). Various armour and weapon upgrades become available later in the game, so by the time you spend your money doing the former, you won’t be able to purchase that stronger sword from the blacksmith. Or if you wanted to do it the other way around, you might not have sufficient funds to heal Ezio if you bought a new weapon. It’s not necessarily innovative to the industry, but it adds that extra element to what was already established in the original. As for the notoriety system, again it’s just a step up from the original and makes things feel a little more realistic. If Ezio committed crimes in a real-world city, chances are people would be on the look out for him. He wouldn’t be able to stay hidden for a few minutes then duck out I broad day light all fine and content with being in public view. I must admit though, I probably like the feature as it’s reminiscent of the Hitman series, only more refined.

I made a quick mention before about hiring henchmen (courtesans, thieves and mercenaries). Again, it’s something that isn’t new to the industry but adds to the Assassin’s Creed experience. I must admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for hiring the courtesans. The way they flirt with the guards, how crowds whistle and cheer as they walk by, and how Ezio is standing in the centre of the group like a pimp spending a night out on the town; it’s just plain good fun. Of course, when I’m scaling the rooftops the thieves are my companions of choice, although I have noticed they tend to be a little less mobile than Ezio and can sometimes end up a fair distance away from you -- certainly not good when you’re taking on enemy watchmen. The mercenaries are my least favourite. I don’t know why exactly, but it’s probably because they lack the style of the other two. That said, they do manage to help me out in sword fights by distracting guards long enough for me to creep up behind them and deliver a fatal blow to the neck. CLING! Got to love that sound effect.

As for your little comments about the tombs, if anything I think there aren’t enough of them. I can see what you’re trying to get at, but I actually like how Ubisoft has focused the gameplay mechanics in an enclosed environment. The tombs make the game feel a lot like a platformer, and I’m not too sure which ones you’ve explored, but quite often you have to race against a timer. An example is flicking a switch which causes doors to open, and your aim is to race through a specific route before they close. In the ones I’ve explored so far I’ve actually had to stop for a bit and think how I’m going approach the challenge. Some sections are definitely head-scratchers while others are a walk in the park, but it adds variety and is a compelling part of the game. Going by the achievement list though, it seems there are only six different tombs to explore, so hopefully the recently announced DLC will include a few more locations.

To simplify everything I’ve said, from what I’ve seen so far I am liking the minor additions to gameplay and how Ubisoft has refined some elements from the original Assassin’s Creed. I’m particularly looking forward to how the story progresses as it’s interesting watching Ezio grow from a cocky kid into a mature adult. It’s certainly an inspiring tale of manhood and revenge, which is something I’d like to touch on further in a future exchange.


I hope you enjoyed our initial thoughts about Assassin's Creed II. In our next exchange, we will be discussing the weapons and enemies found in the game, as well as how the game implements its collectibles and the intriguing addition of Subject 16's strange videos. In the meantime, feel free to read part one of our exchange which discusses the original Assassin's Creed, and as always feel free to engage the discussion -- the more the merrier, as they say.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Learning With The Drakes

With the recent release of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves blowing people away with its consistency and absolute quality, it's easy to forget that the original game, Drake's Fortune, was also extremely good and consistent throughout. As the first game in the series, it introduced us to a lot of things that are now executed amazingly in the sequel, but more importantly the fact that these were successfully implemented the first time around is a feat that not many other developers can achieve with such subtlety, professionalism and composure. When considered as a whole, the end result is a game that feels concise, cohesive and controlled -- Everything is there for a reason, with very little fluff to be found in the game's 20-odd chapters. Below are just some examples.

Controlled Characterisation

Right from the get go, our introduction to the main characters reveals subtle yet crucial information that will shape our perception of them in the future. The first and obvious example is Nathan Drake, lead character and the guy the player gets to control for the next 10-15 hours. Within moments of the game beginning, we find out that Nathan is a direct ancestor of Sir Francis Drake and that he, along with Elena whom I'll speak about in a moment, is searching for Sir Francis' coffin at sea. Through dialogue with Elena, we start to form a picture of Drake's personality, revealing that he's quite the confident and cheeky man, interested in finding out about his ancestor but not too surprised when the coffin is found and revealed to be empty. Not too long thereafter, Nate instantly recognises the Pirate threat that is about to intensify things and reacts accordingly. When considered alone, this introductory sequence doesn't imply all that much, but once you've seen the rest of the game you realise that it subtly relays the necessary information to start forming the foundation of the player's perception of Nathan's personality, as well as starts fleshing out a backstory that is open to interpretation. Why is Nathan not more reactive when he finds the coffin empty? Why was he tuned in to the Pirates' presence? And why, aside from family ties, was he searching for information on Sir Francis anyway?

It doesn't just happen with Nathan, though; in the short opening sequences we also get a decent picture of whom Elena Fisher is, as well as whom Victor Sullivan is. With Elena, we learn that she's a TV or news reporter whose network has funded an expedition to find Sir Francis' coffin; it was because of her that they -- Nate and Elena -- were able to use a boat to find it. As Nate investigates the coffin, Elena is filming for her project back home, asking questions and expressing a keen interest in the events unfolding. When the pirate threat appears, she's a lot more agitated than Nate is, panicking at the situation but not worrying herself into a frenzy. When Nate asks if she knows how to use a gun, she reluctantly responds with "Yeah, it's like using a camera, you just point and shoot, right?!", instantly explaining why, when the gameplay begins, she's able to hold her own in the heat of the battle. The difference being that she's doing it because she has to, the tone in her voice showing her reluctance as she prepares to defend herself from a potential death. Nathan on the other hand fights with experience: he is more relaxed, a little arrogant and seems to have no problem with killing handfuls of pirates. This conflicts with his otherwise nice guy demeanor and is something that, for some, is an immersion-breaking sticking point. I'll offer my own thoughts on this issue in my next post. Returning to Elena, throughout the initial chapters we continue to learn more about her, another stand out moment being when she tracks Nathan Drake down after he, along with Sully, abruptly leaves her behind. It was her investigative instincts as a journalist that helps her here, demonstrating at once that she's not one to be put in her place and that she is in this journey for the long haul; ultimately communicating further aspects of her character to the player that will, and does, assist the overall characterisation and experience of the game.

Lastly we have Victor Sullivan, an old friend of Nathan Drake's and his partner in crime -- so to speak -- when it comes to pursuing the history of Sir Francis Drake. We first meet Sully as he flies his sea plane, lady decal and all, down to rescue a now stranded Nathan and Elena; as the door opens we are greeted with an old man smoking a cigar and laughing at their predicament. Within seconds, we learn that he's got a penchant for women (as shown by the aforementioned decal on the plane and also by his polite attitude towards Elena as he acts like a gentleman and helps her up, whilst leaving Nate to climb up on his own); has a jovial and relaxed personality and is considerably older than his fellow adventurers. Back ashore and through a conversation with Nathan, we learn that Sully is in it for the money, and we watch as he becomes quite serious once he realises the extent of the information that is learned by Nathan's findings in the coffin; the pair of them quickly ditching Elena in order to continue the search. In the proceeding chapter, Sully is alongside Drake as they explore and it is here that we learn even more. With some light platforming in this chapter, you -- as the player -- hear and see Nathan climbing and jumping with relative ease whilst Sully is grunting, groaning and panting as he follows. At times throughout the chapter, Sully even stops to catch his breath, letting Nate do the hard work to open a door or figure out a puzzle. It may be subtle, but the differences between the two couldn't be more revealing as the game communicates to the player their contrasting personalities, attitudes and, of course, their age.

It's the little things like these that make the overall experience of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune more compelling. By including them, we care more about the characters because we are shown aspects of their personality that pique our interest and intrigue us, the end result being a bunch of people we can truly resonate with and a game where it absolutely feels like we are along for the ride with them, as opposed to just watching their story as in other videogames. It's a key difference, and just one reason why the game is so successfully executed.

The Mechanics Of History

Another is the game's mechanics. While their influences are obvious -- a cover system seemingly yanked straight out of Gears Of War, and an adventurous style of play that, if replaced with Lara Croft, could easily be considered another Tomb Raider game -- there is no denying that Uncharted's mechanics work, and work well. Seldom is a moment seen where animations clip between Nathan and the objects he uses for cover; echo the sentiment for how, and when, he moves to and from cover to cover -- it all occurs seamlessly and is all the more fluid because of it. With that in mind it's no surprise, then, that right from the beginning of Drake's Fortune we are shown a variety of mechanics that we will then go on to use throughout the game, the impressive thing being that it's all information we need in order to play the game but none of it is introduced in an overbearing manner. Importance over irrelevance -- Naughty Dog sure do have their priorities straight.

Examples of this begin instantly, as the pirates attack the boat where we have just met our new-found friends. The initial wave of pirates shoot from afar, opting to stay on their vessels as a means of safety and of distraction -- having a bunch of boats with pirates attacking all at once is surely going to keep Nate and Elena on their toes, perhaps putting them off their game and allowing an easy victory for the pirates -- and it is here that we briefly and, crucially, quickly learn how to take cover, aim, and shoot. Before long, the battle intensifies as more pirates come at the ship from all angles, their occupants quickly jumping off and climbing aboard. It's here that we learn -- again, quickly and briefly -- how to use the game's melee system: ranging from offensive attacks to counter attacks and even a special attack in the form of a Brutal Combo. The important thing to note here is that all of these attacks are taught within seconds, and they are all easy to perform. There's no unnecessary complexity here, just a few easy to remember button combinations that offers some variety whilst also allowing us to get on with things. The final onslaught of enemies brings out the bigger guns, with the pirates attacking the ship with grenade launchers. For a brief moment, we as the player are required to take cover and move around the ship in order to survive before Sully comes to the rescue. It's an intense introduction to the game but despite the action, it manages to cover exactly what it needs to in a pedagogical sense, teaching us what we need to know and nothing more.

In the subsequent chapters, particularly the next one with Nathan and Sully, we're shown the game's other main mechanic: the platforming. Again, Naughty Dog have kept it simple with only a couple of buttons covering the corresponding actions required: X to jump and generally climb upwards, leaving Circle to do the direct opposite by allowing Nate to drop down from a ledge. The game's context sensitive design takes care of the rest, allowing for some guided but accessible platforming that engages the player but rarely, if ever, frustrates them. We also see a few quick-time mechanics that aren't really all that quick. In one particular moment, Nate has climbed and jumped across a few ledges in order to reach a boulder which he then has to push off to open the way forward. A few presses of the Circle button (I think, it could be the Triangle button -- my memory is a little hazy) later and Nathan and Sully are able to continue onwards. This simple moment shows us there will be similar occasions in the future, but that they're not bothersome and don't hinder our progress like implementations in other games might do so.

All in all, the introduction to Uncharted: Drake's Fortune's mechanics is done quickly, but crucially, it is done effectively as well. There's no rubbish here, just an emphasis on form and function that a lot of other games would do well to incorporate into their own structure. Naughty Dog does what needs to be done, but none of it wastes the player's time, and that is a critical component to the engagement of the player.

The mechanics and narrative are not the only things considered throughout the opening act of the game. Others, like the gorgeous graphics (example: texture work of the coral and sea shells covering the bottom of Sir Francis Drake's empty coffin) and beautiful locations (example: the camera panning over the lush jungle setting as we hear Elena on the dock speaking into a phone, with Nathan and Sully inside a boat discussing their findings) are subtly yet effectively introduced to us, amazing us with their incredible attention to detail and immersing us further into the game. This continues as we see Nathan and Sully walk through some water in the second chapter, their clothes suitably drenched and, interestingly enough, accurately reflected based on how deep they have waded. Birds sing in the trees; lizards scamper as the guys get closer; and conversations are had as observations and jokes are made, revealing even more information about our protagonist and his allies.

It all culminates in an accessible, engaging experience that, if you can't half tell, I absolutely loved, and now that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has shown us how Naughty Dog have pretty much perfected their formula, I thought it was fitting to direct your attention to the original game to show you where it all began. I think it's safe to say that the Uncharted series as a whole, wherever it leads to next, is where Naughty Dog have finally shown us just how talented they really are, and for that alone they deserve our respect, but the series isn't perfect and in my next post I'll discuss some of the concerns many have shared over the past two years about Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Please, do come and join me.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of playing through Naughty Dog's magnum opus, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Critically acclaimed and well-received by the majority of PlayStation 3 owners, Among Thieves is one incredible game and deserves every accolade and ounce of praise it gets.

This post isn't meant to be a review of the game, however. There will be no analysis or in-depth discussion of the game -- that will come later -- instead, this post is a simple overview of my thoughts on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

Design, Attention To Detail And Quality

The first thing I noticed while playing Uncharted 2 was the ubiquitous quality of the product. It's so good that it feels like Naughty Dog have thought of everything while developing the game. Of course, no game is perfect and when Uncharted 2 does show its flaws, it instantly breaks the immersion and jerks you out of the experience. With any other game, this would be a defining aspect of our impression and thoughts of it, to the point that it is absolutely plausible for a player to stop playing it -- not so with Uncharted 2. While it is sudden and obvious, it's seldom seen and within moments of having your immersion broken, the game has already drawn you back in, the slight hiccup a distant memory as you explore a new area, take out some enemies and advance the plot. This is aided by the enthralling attention to detail seen throughout the game. From the layout and inclusion of objects within the many environments Nathan Drake finds himself in, to the amazing texture work and draw distance -- it once again feels as if Naughty Dog have considered everything. Characters react to, comment on and engage with the events that take place; exposition on the story and its details can be found if you, as the player, choose to search for it; even simple combat is improved by the littlest touches. The best thing about this attention to detail and quality, though, is not that it exists in the game, but that it remains consistent throughout the entirety of it. Not many other games can lay claim to such a feat and for that alone Naughty Dog deserve to be commended.

Location, Location, Location

Wow, what a holiday Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is. Sounds ironic doesn't it? Drake and company find themselves in situations that are constantly intense, thrilling and unpredictable, but even so the locations visited throughout the game manage to be breathtaking in the same way that a trip to The Himalayas or Egypt might be. Despite being a linear adventure, these locations convey a reality that few other games manage, making Drake's presence feel foreign whilst revealing a culture, history and personality that begs to be explored. The insane pace with which the events of Uncharted 2 travels can mean it's hard to focus on these places at times, but the brilliance is that you will always have your chance. Naughty Dog were extremely clever about how they paced the game, but it's up to you to recognise when to stop, take a breath, and take it all in. If you don't, well, it is you who is missing out, no one else.

Don't I Know You?

If there was an element of the Uncharted franchise that I would pick as the reason anyone should play the series, it would be the story and its characters. I am so enamoured by Nathan, Elena, Victor and Chloe's story that I can't articulate -- yet, at least -- how awesome it is to be able to participate in, and be an audience to their story. Despite the insane situations they find themselves in, these characters are so compelling because they seem to be real. There's no overly dramatic stereotypes here; there's just a bunch of characters taking things one step at a time, reacting to and approaching everything if and when they have to. It's their improvisation that usually gets them out of their sticky situations, while the humourous banter and witty dialogue distractions are just the icing on the cake. They are archetypical whilst also being believable, and that's a breath of fresh air in an industry that is still defined by space marines, alien invasions and fantasy creatures.

You might have noticed that despite the above praise, I didn't really speak about particular examples. There's two reasons for this: the first, easy one is that I do not want to spoil the game for potential readers who may not have had the chance to play it yet; the second is that I'm saving the in-depth examples for a future series of posts I will have on the game. Needless to say, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was one hell of a thrill ride (literally) and one of the best gaming experiences I have had in recent years. It was a pleasant surprise, but then, Naughty Dog had already demonstrated with the original game just how talented they are, and just how awesome their new franchise is. With this in mind, I'd like to take the time to speak about the original game, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, before I delve into my proper thoughts on its sequel.

Look forward to my first post on the game next week.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The 2010 Conundrum

We are a mere month away from 2010. Due to the wonderful distraction of Christmas, the new year will be upon us before we know it, which can only mean one thing for us gamers: Our wallets will be crying.

I cannot think of any other upcoming year that has been so exciting in terms of the future of games. Whether it's anticipated sequels like Final Fantasy XIII and Super Mario Galaxy 2; a return to franchises that we haven't seen for a while such as Mafia II and Red Dead Redemption; or the introduction of new, potentially awe-inspiring IP such as Heavy Rain and Alan Wake, there is something for every kind of gamer and as a fan of the industry who is passionate about its progress, that's incredibly exciting.

Of course, the incoming year wouldn't be so packed to the brim with titles if a few (read: a lot) didn't get delayed from this year's holiday line-up. Extra polish, a desire to release in a not so hectic release environment or unforeseen events such as the economic climate are all contributing factors to the delays and while it allowed 2009's games a bit more breathing space, the end result is extra games to consider throughout the entirety of next year. As much as we may like to try, there is no way we can afford or play every single game we may want in the coming year. Even with the release line-up seemingly spread out (makes for a nice change from the 'pack everything into the one quarter' mentality of previous years, doesn't it?), it's just too much to take on in the short span of 12 months. Inevitably titles will be passed on until a more relaxed time, while others may be, unfortunately, overlooked altogether -- whatever takes place, there is no denying the year is packed and approaching it is a lot harder than it may sound.

Which brings me to my current conundrum: How do I approach it? Unless further delays occur or anything else unforeseen takes place, 2010 seems to be the year that I will finally get to play games I've been waiting years for. From BioShock 2 and The Last Guardian to Heavy Rain and a new Gran Turismo, my anticipation for these games is exponentially high, and I look forward to finally having the opportunity to play them all.

But, we're still in the year of 2009, a year that's seen some absolute gems released such as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Assassin's Creed II. Earlier in the year we had Flower, GTA: Chinatown Wars, Batman: Arkham Aslyum and inFamous, to name a few. Before that, 2008 inundated us with quality titles -- a lot of which I'm still getting around to playing. The point is, over the past three years or so a lot of fantastic, innovative, charming and exciting games have been released. Anticipation and hype aside, why should I be rushing to play the forthcoming games? Is there any reason why I should be getting these games on release -- regardless of my excitement towards them -- when I already have a lot of quality titles to choose from or catch up with?

Basically, I can't decide. I have been waiting years for some of these titles. Others, like Okamiden, have only just been recently announced. A quick glance at my collection reveals titles like Far Cry 2, Prince of Persia and The Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass all waiting to be played. Whether I look to the past, the present, or the future, there is an ubiquitous quality; choosing which to focus on is a problem I'm sure many share with me, but I don't doubt for a second that, if given the option, they would concede their position in favour of less overwhelming times. It may be a hard situation to approach at times, but it's a privilege I'm willing to be thankful for, and really, so should any gamer who is lucky enough to be able to head into 2010 with a mass of titles to look forward to.

So with all that said and done, bring it on -- it's going to be one incredible ride.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Living By The Creed #1: A Discourse on Assassin's Creed

When Assassin's Creed II was announced I knew straight away that I was going to purchase it. I thoroughly enjoyed the original game when I played it in the middle of 2008, but was disappointed that I never took the opportunity to write about it. My anticipation for the sequel running high, I decided that there would be no better opportunity to write about it than now, whilst writing about the sequel. Enlisting a fellow Assassin's Creed fan and my friend, Joseph Rositano, I exchanged some thoughts and discussion about the original game which you can find below. This is part one of an on-going series about the franchise.


Steven: First of all Joseph I want to thank you for taking the time out to play and discuss the newest Assassin's Creed game with me. I know you've got a busy schedule with your PALGN work, so let me just say that I appreciate you working with me on this mini-series of posts a lot. Onto the games then, I'd like to start by discussing with you the first game in the series. What did you like or dislike about it? Did anything in particular stand out to you? How did you feel about the setting, narrative and set of characters?


Joseph: Hi Steven, I’m glad to be on board for this Assassin’s Creed discussion.

I think for me one of the reasons the original Assassin’s Creed stood out was because I had only bought an Xbox 360 a few months prior to playing it. At the time I had barely even scratched the surface of the 360 game library, so the power of the console was still fairly new to me. Ironically Assassin’s Creed wasn’t originally on my “Want” list, but after listening to a podcast I got the impression it offered a unique experience, something which was definitely the case when I played it.

When I bought it I didn’t play it right away. To me it was a game that I was going to play when I felt like trying something new, and I was unsure if I would enjoy it or not. But the day finally came when I popped it into my disc drive, and I was instantly taken aback by the opening movie. If you can’t recall, it featured Altair running from a group of Templars and escaping them by blending in with a crowd of priests. The visuals alone made we want to dive straight into the action, but it also gave you a modest idea of how the game would play.

I’ll go a little more in-depth about my thoughts towards the gameplay a bit later, as I think now would be a good time to talk about the plot and setting. I found it interesting how Ubisoft split the game up into two stories. On one side you have Desmond who’s been kidnapped by Abstergo and is trying to work out what’s going on around him, while on the other we have Altair who starts out as a big-shot Assassin and is then demoted. Of course both parties discover there is more than meets the eye, and the stories quickly intertwine together. I actually preferred Desmond’s story to that of Altair’s. To me, Desmond was the bigger fish of the two as it was already obvious that Altair was successful in completing his mission (otherwise Desmond would cease to exist), so a lot was riding on Desmond and exactly where his place belonged. I also thought the story’s execution was tighter. With Desmond we see him do a little detective work and read emails between various Abstergo staff. It was just a little more unique than what we’re used to seeing in videogames.

As for the setting, I’ll be completely honest here and say I had no prior knowledge of the Third Crusade. History usually bores me, yet I was captivated by the world of AC. The thing that did it for me was seeing the scope of the cities and the amount of people that called it home. It was interesting to see how the poorer districts had these tatty run-down buildings while the rich districts featured large monuments that you could see from the other side of the city. Not to mention the beggars who’d ask for money or push Altair around the place. It’s amazing how crazy those times were, and it reminds me how lucky society is to be where we are today. On that note, since playing it I’ve done a little research on the Third Crusade and the countries that were featured in the game. It is inspiring to see how much effort Ubisoft went to in order to be historically accurate, and while not everything is 100%, it’s still a brilliant display.

As for the actual gameplay, I loved it. Before AC I had never played a stealth game or anything that had you walk in the shoes of an assassin, so it was quite a unique experience for me personally. I absolutely loved creeping up on guards and then striking them in the back of the neck. CLING! (I loved that sound when you used your hidden blade). I’d then walk slowly away and turned the camera around. I’d see this man suddenly topple to the ground and people started pointing at him wondering what was going on. “Who is responsible for this?!” a fellow guard cried, failing to see the smirk on my face as I high-tailed out of there. It was these moments which inspired me to purchase Hitman: Blood Money and Splinter Cell: Double Agent, the latter of which I’ve regrettably not played yet. Looking back I can see where Ubisoft potentially drew inspiration from, but it has opened up new franchises to me which is one reason why AC holds a special place in my heart.

I know a lot of people didn’t like the gameplay as the missions and combat became repetitive. I too thought it got a little repetitive at times, however, I mixed things up so that I was doing different things. I’d go for the Eagle Dive spots one minute, the next I’d collect flags for a fellow assassin who was in trouble. It prevented things from feeling redundant, but I can still see why people criticised the development decision.

Perhaps the best thing about AC was when I finished it I already knew a sequel was well on the way. I wouldn’t have to wait two years like some people to find out what happens next. I wouldn’t go back to the laboratory and stand there gawking at those symbols for hours wondering what the hell it all meant. I instead began to get acquainted with a certain Italian named Ezio, and now I’m just moments away from starting my journey with him. Being Italian myself, I’m particularly interested in the setting of Assassin’s Creed II and how stereotypical the characters will be, but I’ll save my thoughts for our next exchange. Other than that, all I can say is I’m looking forward to seeing the new direction Ubisoft has taken the series, and from what I can tell the story of Ezio looks to be far stronger than that of Altair.

And now I’ll let you take the podium and tell me your thoughts of the original game.


Steven: Well it’s safe to say that I share a lot of your thoughts regarding Assassin’s Creed, so it’s nice to see I’m not the only one who took notice of what I’m about to speak of.

The elements of the game that stood out to me during my time with it were its mechanics, use of space and the narrative.

I have heard a lot of people describe Assassin’s Creed’s combat mechanics as being too easy or too simplistic because players could rely on the X button to win most fights. This is true and I can understand the point, but personally I thought the combat mechanics were very satisfying, so it makes me wonder if these people didn’t engage with them like I did, or if I’m just not as critical as they are? Anyway, you brought up one point as to why I found them so satisfying – the sound as Altair’s sword clashed with an opponent’s, or went in for the final blow. I found the sound effects for the fighting to be absolutely superb, to the point where they were empowering. Your description of sneaking up behind a guard or target and using the hidden blade to take him out stealthily was just plain awesome, the thud as he fell to the ground below putting the final touch on a well-executed, pre-planned attack and bringing a smile to my face. The feeling, great as it may be, never lasts long enough though as the intensity picks up and we are, as the player, required to run for it in hopes of escaping the other guards. With the first few assassinations I almost dreaded this, as I was still getting accustomed to the controls and learning the best ways to high-tail it out of there, lose their line of sight and then find a nice hiding place to rest for a while. As I did it more though, I noticed that I was gaining confidence – not just in my ability to take out my targets but with the pursuing guards, too. I found myself hanging around after an assassination, my sword ready to fight anyone who dared to attack me, and the end result was a different approach that not only worked for me, but complimented the others I had at my disposal (such as escaping and hiding). Plus, fighting multiple guards that have surrounded me, blocking, attacking and countering at all the right moments so my opponents get defeated and I remain untouched is just plain awesome. I thought it was so good that I remember thinking “damn, some other games would be better off if they took their cue from Assassin’s Creed”, but alas, it was not meant to be.

The next thing was the narrative and how, as you say, there were essentially two different stories within the same game. As soon as I realized what Ubisoft had done, I immediately thought of the possibilities they could do with it, impressed with the narrative potential they could tap into with the series. The release of Assassin’s Creed II demonstrates some of that potential, but as I’m still early into the game I will reserve judgment until after I have finished it. Delving into it a bit deeper, I agree with you – I found Desmond’s portion of the narrative to be far more interesting than Altair’s, to the point where Altair felt like a simple conduit at times. Sure, we started to find out more about him after each assassination, but even so, I just couldn’t resonate with Altair like I could with Desmond, Lucy and the Abstergo story. Perhaps that is a direct result of my assumptions of where Ubisoft could take it, perhaps not, but whatever it was Altair’s story was just not interesting to me. Whenever I was playing as him, the enjoyment came from the exploration, preparation and act of assassination – everything else was just irrelevant. Meanwhile, Desmond was gradually learning about what was going on, piecing things together bit-by-bit, aided at times by the conversations he could have with Lucy whenever another memory sequence was completed. My enjoyment of the two narratives was definitely at distinct opposites, but as a whole it didn’t bother me too much. In fact, it could even be said it was for the better, as Desmond was providing the story side of things while Altair was covering my sometimes sadistic, sometimes brutal desire to assassinate my foes. It struck a nice balance and is definitely one of the reasons why I liked the game so much.

Last we have the game’s setting. My god, the game’s setting…

I can distinctly remember the first time I synchronized my first view point in Jerusalem. Having seen it expand out below as I arrived on horseback, and being impressed with how nice it looked, I purposefully set out to climb one of the highest buildings I could find and see it from the bird’s eye view. It was, to say the least, incredible, and I remember sitting up there on that perch for ten minutes just taking it all in, slowly panning the camera to see another side of the city. It was at that moment that I realized just how detailed and incredible Ubisoft’s cities were in the game, and how their use of space was subtle but extremely effective. The best example to this point is one you have already mentioned, the difference between the districts. Walking around the poor district of say, Damascus and coming across the beggars, people struggling to make a life for themselves and the worn and torn houses was remarkable. Visiting the rich district after that and seeing gorgeous statues, monuments and the huge villas was awe-inspiring. The fact that each of the three cities contained their own unique personality was just the icing on the cake. The game’s locations were just cool places to explore, visit and most importantly, be in, and it stands amongst some other games as one of my favourites to just do my own thing and be immersed within the atmosphere.

Criticisms of the game from the majority of people were understandable. It was repetitive, the flags could be annoying and as outlined above, it was very easy to just fall back onto the ‘win’ button – the X button – and button-mash your way through the combat. My experience with Assassin’s Creed was a little different though, and those concerns didn’t really bother me at all. I broke up my approach enough that the repetition was rare; I enjoyed finding the flags as it was a nice excuse to explore and take in the environment; combat was brutal and exciting, thanks, in part, to the wonderful sound effects. All in all I’m very pleased that I was able to play Assassin’s Creed, and now, with the release of the sequel, I look forward to seeing what transpires in the continuation of Desmond’s story, as well as the introduction of Ezio’s.


Stay tuned for my next exchange with Joseph, this time discussing our impressions of the sequel Assassin's Creed II.