Friday, June 18, 2010


My personal favourite surprise from E3: Donkey Kong Country Returns.

So E3 is over for yet another year and, as countless other people are doing, it’s time to offer the obligatory impressions on the show this year. I don’t want to dwell on my personal interests too much -- as frankly, who else cares other than me? -- but I figured I’d still jot these thoughts down in order to dump them somewhere and also have a record for future use.

Before I comment on the three conferences proper, there’s something I need to get off my chest.

What the hell was that “speech” in Sony’s conference by Kevin Butler? I’ll admit straight away that I do not and probably never will understand the appeal that he has garnered in recent months, but irrespective of that, the outburst of hyperbole he so confidently demonstrated on Tuesday was, in a word… baffling. I get the idea that it was done to inspire a certain demographic -- namely the hardcore -- and as a direct result, give Sony the attention and perhaps even ‘victory’ at E3 they so desperately want to achieve, but its presence in a conference clearly focused on new technology and dedicated to other, perhaps new demographics is not only ironic, it’s just simply discordant. The problem is that, as intended, the crowd responded positively, perhaps even egregiously, and so too did the fanboys. But shouldn’t that be a good thing? By achieving a reaction in both the hardcore and, hopefully, the “casual” -- or in other words, everyone else -- surely that makes their conference a success, as a demonstration they have products for everyone and as a clear, perhaps blatant, indication to their competition that Sony are coming? Well no, I don’t think it does. Like Microsoft -- and I’ll discuss this further in a minute -- Sony segregated the markets by allowing this tirade to feature prominently, and promptly did it again when they showed the video with the PSP kid. Where their boasting about their new technology and where they expect it to be in the next few years was intriguing but otherwise nothing extraordinary, their appeal to the hardcore was outrageous and elitist: an extreme example of Sony fueling the fire just for the sake of it. And really, what did they have to lose? Microsoft already separated the industry into two categories with their showing while Nintendo surprised with nostalgia; it’s not about the games anymore, it’s about the image, and, especially with 3D in tow, that’s all you’re going to hear about from Sony in the years to come.

Right, in an ironic twist (or not), my little rant is done; onto my own personal opinion of the three conferences.


It feels somewhat strange saying it, but not a single game (or should that be product?) that Microsoft presented on Monday was interesting. What was shown was intended for markets that, for now at least, aren't for me: starting with the shooters and ending with a variety of Kinect related software that I’m either uninterested in, have seen before or just can’t understand until I get to experience it for myself. I don’t care about Call Of Duty, Halo or even Gears (a series I have enjoyed in the past) nor can I care for Fable III or Metal Gear Solid: Rising when I’m still yet to thoroughly play their predecessors. I am burnt out by the industry’s emphasis on all things shooting, weapons and violence and all the supposed core titles shown at the start of MS’s show just weren’t for me.

As for Kinect, I’m intrigued by it but, like every other new piece of technology this medium has seen in the past, it will live or die by its software and right now, the software I saw is limited in its potential to capture appeal. Yes it will inevitably appeal to consumers already familiar with Nintendo’s recent offerings; yes, it could indeed captivate new audiences, increasing the popularity of our medium even further; and yes, it might even eventually have some really fantastic, unique, ways to enjoy interactive entertainment. But in the meantime, their persistence to chase the unknown, to go after markets that might not necessarily be there, winds up leaving the audiences they already do have behind, and I’m not sure that will be beneficial to them in the end. But then again, does it matter? According to them, we’re already two different industries anyway.

What I don’t understand, though, is why such a small crop of games? Yes this year’s demonstration was always going to be about their new technology, and yes, it was always going to feature the big three blockbuster franchises too, but even so, why did Microsoft choose to hold some of their games -- some of which we already know about I might add -- back, such as Crackdown 2? Just further proof that it’s not about the quality of games anymore but rather the experience these consoles can provide for you, me, and your entire family. I guess it’s up to you whether that’s a good thing or not.

Gorgeous. Definitely looking forward to this level.


Nostalgia sure does have a way to get everyone talking, doesn’t it? Whether it was the sighting of Nintendo’s three crucial characters -- Mario, Link and Samus -- or new additions to franchises we may have left in our memories, the variety of games they showed this year was an incredible grab for the hearts of those who have grown up with Nintendo or at the very least have a history with them, no matter how large or small. But it wasn’t just an appeal to the loyalists, the supposed hardcore, which made their conference interesting: it was a genuinely enjoyable demonstration to watch because, unlike the other two, there were no smoke and mirrors; it was just genuine product after genuine product.

Taking the time to show off the new Zelda first was a clever move. We knew it was coming, we weren’t sure what to expect, and within minutes we knew that, yet again, there was reason to be excited for a new adventure. I’ve already mentioned briefly in the past that my interest in the franchise isn’t as strong as others, but even I’m intrigued by what was shown and keen to learn more, so kudos for grabbing the attention of someone who usually just observes from the corner. Aside from that, focusing the conference on the games instead of the hardware was also clever, the 3DS sounding genuinely impressive but largely irrelevant to me until I can try it for myself.

Ultimately I believe what Nintendo showed with this conference is something more important than an impressive line up of games or indeed future hardware: they proved that they get it when it comes to videogames, something that only a select few other developers (think Valve, Rockstar, Blizzard) can manage consistently in this industry and for me, that is why their conference was the most enjoyable. It’s not about the profits, image or corporate ego -- though, in yet another clever move, they manage to succeed in those areas too -- it’s about the medium, past, present and future.

Oh and Donkey Kong, a game I’ve been wanting to happen -- regardless of which console it appeared on -- ever since I finished the original SNES trilogy the first time, let alone the fifty times (each) after that.


I’ve already explained my disdain for the way Sony approached their conference this year, the blatant segregation of markets as if they were totally different industries really unnerving me in a way I didn’t expect, but to their credit they did show games, it’s just a shame that yet again hardly any were for me.

I’m sure Killzone 3, in 3D, will be great. Maybe not Avatar* levels like Sony suggest, but I highly doubt the game will be terrible, especially as the forebear for Sony’s push for 3D gaming. It, alongside other games both old (Wipeout HD, PAIN) and new (Gran Turismo 5, MotorStorm: Apocalypse), will probably prove that Sony’s massive commitment to 3D was justified, if not necessary, in much the same way that Move will demonstrate that motion controls do have their place in the videogame medium -- just not as much as Sony would have you believe. Their lineup was filled with variety, something that everyone will likely appreciate, but even so it wasn’t all that original, and the impact of their presence throughout the conference was hindered by leaks and announcements in the week prior. InFamous 2, MotorStorm: Apocalypse and Killzone 3 were already known about, as was, for the fourth consecutive E3 in a row, Gran Turismo 5. Speaking of which, nothing new was shown about that game except for the release date, something the game has already had in the past and can’t be trusted until it actually does come out. The Top Gear track, highlighted as if it’s more important than other tracks, was already known about and while seeing The Stig was admittedly new, it was also expected (as, unlike the show’s three presenters, licensing or legal issues wouldn’t be as complicated), just like previous GT5 reveals in earlier months were, such as the inclusion of the Nurburgring or night racing. It was nice to see LittleBigPlanet 2 (though unfortunately for me I missed some of that as I had to get a drink for my little sister) demonstrated, and no doubt, for those interested, the Twisted Metal reveal at the end is welcome, if unsurprising news.

All in all, Sony had the games which earns them some respect, but the focus on their new technology and the separation of their potential audience, combined with blatantly obvious, derivative and completely unnecessary digs at the competition (Kevin Butler’s rant included) brought it down for me. A personal shame because it really feels like for every step forward Sony make, they take another two back, leading to confused and mixed feelings about how I feel about them, the PS3 and their piece of the gaming pie in general.

So that’s E3’s conferences from my perspective. For someone usually regarded as a Microsoft fanboy (I will never understand that), I think I did a pretty good job of keeping things fair with my comments. I realise that what both Microsoft and Sony are doing aren’t for me right now, and that part of Nintendo’s appeal this year was inspired by nostalgia, but even so if there are any examples of unfair bias I really don’t mean to communicate it. My love is for the medium overall and, after a mixed affair of excitement and confusion, I am struggling to work out where it appears to be headed. But that’s okay, I’ll continue to observe with interest and in the meantime, there are plenty of games already available that I need to spend some time with, so that’s where my thoughts will lie for the foreseeable future. Past, present and future -- it’s all good.

*I’m still yet to see this movie.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Trio Of Impressions

Three brand new videogames have held a firm grip on my attention lately, two of which are all the rage right now -- Alan Wake and Red Dead Redemption -- and another which is seemingly praised by the community but has otherwise been overlooked (perhaps because of the supposedly bigger titles) ModNation Racers. All three were anticipated by me for various reasons and now that they are here, it has been interesting to not only see if my excitement was justified, but also how I have responded to their remarkably different but thoroughly compelling approaches to entertainment.

All three have inspired some thoughts I will elaborate on in future posts but in the meantime, here is what I have gathered from my initial hours of play.

ModNation Racers

It saddens me, in a way, to admit that I have barely played this, but simultaneously sounds absurd as I've already played it for well over five hours. The first of the three to arrive, ModNation is perhaps the quietest of the bunch: a nice combination of racing, creativity and personality that is easy to enjoy in short bursts or in longer sessions, but doesn't seem as significant as the other two. Observing the general response people are having to these games reveals that, but I suppose I'm guilty of it too as I haven't touched it since that first session.

But what a session it was! Not only did firing it up allow me to discover a riveting kart-racer, it also pleasantly surprised me with just how easy it was to explore and, more importantly, enjoy every facet of its offerings. Sure it was heavily marketed as an accessible game, its track design tools yielding results far quicker than level creation in LittleBigPlanet, but even so I underestimated the game and perhaps as a direct result I'm enjoying it a lot more. It has already been neat stumbling across recreations of real-world race circuits as well as ones yanked straight out of other games, plus it brought a smile to my face to see Mario and Luigi standing on the podium of the game's ModSpot, where all of the game's modes are accessed and, when online at least, interactions with other players can take place. All in all my first time with the game showed me that it is right up my alley -- as I suspected back when it was announced -- and I definitely look forward to spending more time with it in the future. If only I could pry myself away from...

Red Dead Redemption

One of the reasons I listed as key in my anticipation for this game was the way it could potentially use its space to convey an immersive, believable world, and after spending a decent amount of time with it, I'm happy to report that it has achieved that and has done so with ease. But I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised; Rockstar are renowned for their attention to detail and intricate design when it comes to capturing a theme, period, era or all of the above. Whether it's in the school yard or a bustling city, they always manage to achieve a certain atmosphere and ambiance, and it's certainly no different in Red Dead Redemption. I realise that might sound a little hyperbolic but I definitely think that is one of the company's best attributes, regardless of whether the games that exist within those spaces are any good or not. Speaking of which, being such a large game, I hesitate to try and grasp my opinion on it until I've played more, so more thoughts in the future.

One thing I will admit though is that the game has been incredibly overwhelming. Not only have I had to learn new mechanics, dynamics, characters and locations as you would in any new videogame, I've had to do it all whilst also learning about what a Western is all about. As I also mentioned in my anticipation post, I am completely new to any thing and all things Wild West, having never experienced the genre before playing Red Dead Redemption. Living under a rock as I do, everything Rockstar's latest game has presented to me so far has been completely new, and that's why it has been a touch overwhelming. I've handled it -- it's not the kind of thing that you can't handle -- but it has still been interesting as I've reflected on everything I have experienced so far. The good news is that my curiosity for the Western has been piqued and I'd like to play more, so that's precisely what I will do. For months, I suspect; because games like these are more like secondary lifestyles than simple experiences -- but I'll elaborate on that in another post.

Alan Wake

Despite my intrigue with Red Dead Redemption and indeed the incessant conversation, praise and post-hype that surrounds it at the moment, Alan Wake has been the most enjoyable game of the trio so far. I'm reluctant to think about why that is, however, as I'm uncertain if my desires to play it -- lasting as long as the game was in development -- are influencing my opinion or not, but that's something to contemplate once the game is finished.

What I can say is that I really appreciate the more realistic characters I've come across so far; the sheer beauty that Bright Falls exudes (at least, during the day) and the genuine scares it has induced in me thus far. If you will recall, I wanted it to scare me or keep me on the edge of my seat, to tell me a compelling story, and I wanted Bright Falls to be a place that I enjoyed visiting -- omnipresent darkness be damned. So far, at the conclusion of the game's third episode at least, Alan Wake has achieved all of this, but we'll see how things go as I continue on.

Despite my messy, rambling impressions of each game so far, there's one conclusion I can offer after spending time with these games: I have a good understanding of what I want in the videogames that I play, and these three have delivered that superbly so far. I'll explain what I mean by that after I've played the trio some more.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Space Invaders: Bully's Brevity

[Part of an ongoing series of posts exploring the way videogames use their spaces to convey their overall experience, ranging from design and dynamics to aesthetic and artistic appeal, and everything in between. Be warned, there are potential spoilers ahead.]

The town of Bullworth in Rockstar’s Bully really surprised me, its design and appearance being a lot different to what I was expecting and its smaller scale enhancing the game’s approach to schooling in a remarkable way. Instead of a bigger is better approach, the developers went in the opposite direction and the end result is a demonstration, yet again, that Rockstar know what they’re doing when it comes to creating and forming a unique world that accommodates the theme they’re trying to convey, and the gameplay ideas they want to explore within.

The first thing I want to point out is the idea that Bullworth is a town, not a city ala the ones featured in the Grand Theft Auto games, and while this might feel like a step back after the evolution that franchise has seen, it is in fact a step down another path, a smaller and more concise one that suits the theme of the game and makes sense within the context such a theme provides.

Bullworth feels like one of those towns where everybody knows each other and this feeling is exacerbated by the ubiquitous presence of the game’s many students. These teenagers don’t just populate the school’s many different areas as idol pedestrians to give the illusion of life in Bullworth; they actually live in the town and as such roam the various parts of it when they’re not required to attend their classes. Continuing the stereotypical parodying of school cliques, certain types of students -- nerds, preppies, etc. -- will appear at certain places in town, making it not only a more fleshed out place generally but also making it easy to find certain students if and when the need arises. The comic book store is where the nerds can be found while the preppies enjoy hanging out at the boxing gym; greasers can be found roaming the streets of New Coventry while the bullies can be found down on the beach, sometimes smoking, sometimes playing Frisbee. It gives Bullworth a sense of place as well as a sense of belonging for the game’s many characters, and it culminates in a community-like feeling that makes playing Bully strangely relaxing. Bumping into recognizable characters on the street such as Algie or Lola can yield a smile as you realise that, first and foremost, they’re not just quest-givers or conduits for information, and secondly, that you actually are getting to know these people: where they hang out, who they hang out with, what they represent (cliques) and what events they have been involved with. Unfortunately the technical limits of the game -- with it appearing on the Xbox 360 and Wii it’s easy to forget that Bully is a last generation game -- means that this illusion of community is ruined from time to time as you see the same characters appear repeatedly within the span of just a couple of minutes. It’s a small issue that you soon forgive and ignore, but one still worth mentioning all the same.

Bullworth Academy -- the place where most in-game time is spent -- is interesting in its own right. Existing almost in the centre of town, the place isn’t just important to the theme and story of the game, it also acts as a hub to the remaining areas, with roads and pathways leading to different sections of Bullworth. It doesn’t sound like anything special when described like that but it does make sense: the school is already the key focus of the game so by being the prominent building and area, its significance and familiarity is continually reinforced, reminding the player that at the end of the day -- quite literally -- that’s where they need to be.

The design of the school is also interesting, the aforementioned cliques each having their own section while the central and main building contains the majority of classes. The boys and girls dormitories sit at the front of the school while the football fields and observatory exist at the back. The greasers have their workshops; the nerds love the library; the jocks train on the fields and the preppies always converge outside Harrington House. Having these areas circle the main building makes sense both in terms of the stereotyping the game revels in as well as the cliques’ need to access their various classes. It also means there is always something to see while hanging out around the school, with rival students engaging in fisticuffs, couples walking together hand-in-hand and the school’s prefects constantly giving chase to troublemakers. As far as the player is concerned, the central focus Bullworth Academy maintains means that it’s always easy to access the classes that need to be attended or to find a particular clique at will, wasting less time when participating in the narrative or when performing a side quest such as taking student photos for the yearbook.

The Academy isn’t the only landmark that becomes familiar throughout play, however; Bullworth is punctuated by multiple landmarks that enhance the ease of becoming familiar with the town and provides neat little hot-spots to visit sporadically. Ranging from a dam to a lighthouse on the beach to the town hall and carnival, each landmark is recognizable, can be seen from a distance -- giving a sense of direction -- and is carefully spread out so that players never get lost. This is different from, say, Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV where landmarks are few and far between, spread out over a longer distance and can only be seen periodically. It once again leaves the impression of a more concise and compact game space, and while easy to overlook during play, really benefits the overall experience that Bully provides.

Last but not least, Bullworth also conveys the passing of time quite nicely by taking full advantage of a year’s given seasons. While related more to the game’s narrative than the town itself -- in particular the progress Jimmy Hopkins, the game's protagonist, makes as a student throughout each semester -- it’s still interesting to see the aesthetics of Bullworth change depending on the season. Most obvious is Winter, which takes place throughout Chapter Three. Snow covers the city; snowmen pop up everywhere; Christmas decorations adorn the school grounds; and a giant Christmas tree stands outside the town hall. While essentially just subtle tweaks, these additions as well as those that feature in the other seasons and the dynamic weather -- something I wasn’t aware of until late in the game as it took so long to occur -- add to the game and accentuate the feeling that Bullworth exists with or without you.

Ultimately the town of Bullworth is a neat little location that doesn’t rely on bells and whistles to awe its players and instead utilizes a quaint, dainty feel that makes the player feel at home as well as part of a community. It may not be that big, it may even get repetitive after a while, but it’s familiar, it suits the mischievous theme and presentation, and it’s unique in a genre that is arguably becoming over-saturated. It might not be a significant part of gaming history like Liberty City or Rapture may be, but it is a significant part of Jimmy Hopkins’ life, and really, isn’t that all that matters for a young delinquent such as himself?