Monday, December 19, 2011

Living The Life: Valencia #2

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event. Today, part two of the European Grand Prix in Valencia.]

Saturday Afternoon, Qualifying, Cloudy 

I was a little more enthusiastic about Qualifying after the improvements made in P3 earlier this morning. I had no expectations, of course, knowing full well that my 10-spot grid drop penalty would seriously affect my ultimate starting position. Despite this I was still anticipating getting out there and attempting some Quali-style laps so overall the mood wasn’t as bad as I thought it might have been. Virgin, on the other hand, did have expectations, their desire for Valencia being 20th place or better. The team also added a new electronics update to the car between sessions, giving me that throttle map after my tests during Practice. 

As always, allow me to detail the events of each segment of Qualifying before speaking about the end result and my feelings towards it.


The first run of Qualifying was clean with no dramas, although I did have a slight brush against the wall on my third lap which was enough to cause me to abort it and come in early. No damage from the touch, though, so that was nice. 

The second run was a little more eventful, however, an issue with Pedro De La Rosa on my first lap being particularly frustrating as he blocked me on the bridge. It’s already incredibly tight and narrow on that thing -- not to mention so abrupt, too, since it is such a short section of the track -- so it’s definitely no fun when there’s a Formula 1 car in the way as well. I also almost lost the car in turn 13 on my third lap after sliding the car to avoid running up against the wall, but I was able to control it and continue with no real impact on the lap. Otherwise the run was good, yielding a time of 1:43.868 which was good enough for 14th and progression into the second segment.


Things happened fast in this segment, my first run being great with no issues whatsoever and a nice time delivered instantly. I didn’t want to go out for a second run to save my tyres and, more importantly, my engine, but I was forced to due to how my rivals were performing and as such I went out for a quick dash near the end of the segment. It didn’t result in any improvement, however, so my fastest time from the first run was all I could manage and, therefore, my Qualifying session ended with me in 11th place on a 1:43.220. Obviously my penalties ensure that I will actually be starting in 21st tomorrow, but I’m still satisfied with my time regardless because it was very close to being another progression into Q3, and I also exceeded Virgin’s expectations as well. That lap was my best of the weekend, too, which is a positive sign after starting Friday in less than ideal circumstances. 

As per Practice form, Vettel, Webber and Hamilton grabbed the first three positions for tomorrow’s race. Clearly Red Bull are on form here although it is nice to see that McLaren are giving them a run for their money, too.

An interview after Qualifying asked about my title hopes, which I thought was a little curious, as well as my thoughts on the session and how Virgin are faring with car setup for each circuit. I replied by suggesting that my championship hopes are probably non-existent this year given I am a rookie and in a brand new team; that I have been and will continue to give it my all with each Qualifying session; and that so far Virgin have been doing pretty well with car setup considering we have been punching well above our weight, something that is evident in rounds such as Turkey and Canada.

I may be starting at the back of the field tomorrow but, after today’s efforts, I have to say I am actually looking forward to the race. It remains to be seen if my decent results in recent rounds will continue, though.

Sunday Afternoon, Race Day, Sunny

I go into today’s race with little to no expectations, instead preferring to just do my own thing and be happy with whatever I can get. Virgin are approaching the race differently, however, expecting a position of 18th or higher in the race. I think that’s certainly achievable, especially given recent form, but there’s no denying that my penalties are already affecting my chances so we will just have to wait and see what happens. Despite not making Q3 and thus, not being required to start on them, Virgin have given me a fresh set of Option tyres to start the race with, no doubt hoping that I can use them to gain a few places early and start things off positively. Being a street circuit I’m not so sure that’s the right move to take but it is their choice, of course, and I will be happy to have good rubber under my belt to get things started, so I’m certainly not going to argue with them about it. Being Options, however, the grip will no doubt fade quickly so right now the strategy is to pit at around lap 18 or so and switch to the Primes. I guess it depends on the race’s pace this afternoon, and how much dirt and dust is hanging around off the racing line as well. Anyway, I have some sponsor commitments to attend to so wish me luck.

Race Start; 57 laps

Despite feeling like it was slow initially, that was probably my best start in Formula 1 yet, my quick thinking and success in taking advantage of the opportunities that were before me resulting in a nice advancement up the field whilst everyone else slowly -- to avoid collisions -- sorted themselves out. By the bridge and turn 10 I had made up 3 or 4 places and I took another position -- around the outside I might add -- by the end of the first lap. Not long after that I grabbed another one in the fast series of corners after the hairpin (turn 17) in sector three due to cars going slower than usual, yet again, as they sorted themselves out. As I commenced the third lap, I was already in 17th -- not a bad start given it is a street circuit. By lap 5 I had made it to 15th, where I stayed until my pit-stop on lap 18. On lap 10 my (Option) tyres started to go away from me which ensured that I ran wide a few times at various corners but Liuzzi, who was behind me, was unable to pass and I gained some time back in sector three where I appeared to be more comfortable and confident than some of the others. He came close a few times to be sure, but I was able to hold position for the first stint and even as I entered the pits, too, as he followed me in. Virgin even complimented me on the stint while I was driving down the lane because of how many positions I gained -- who said passing in F1 was impossible? 

I left the pits on lap 19 in 16th after Buemi passed me on the straight. I quickly received another compliment over the radio for a “perfect pit-stop” which was nice to hear and certainly wonderful encouragement for the rest of the race. I should ask Virgin to say things like that in every race. Anyway, I managed to get 15th back on lap 25 and then went on to have an eerily quiet few laps between lap 25 and 31, especially on the bridge and the subsequent (first) back straight. Like Bahrain and Turkey, the lap around Valencia feels somewhat like a journey, a feeling exacerbated by just how long the circuit is. Unlike those two venues, though, Valencia does stick close to itself so it was only in that particular section where things were rather quiet. The frontrunners began lapping me on around lap 32, and I had a small brush with the outside wall of turn 3 on lap 38. After that things were good, clean and consistent, with nothing in particular occurring and my driving remaining smooth and at a steady pace. On lap 55 I had a lockup in turn 2 that I couldn’t get out of in time as I had already committed to the corner, meaning that instead of running down the run-off area like I did a few times in Practice, I collided with the wall instead and lost my front wing. Naturally the team ordered me into the pits to get it replaced but when I heard the margin I had over Liuzzi who was (still) behind me, I decided to try and nurse the car home instead. This decision paid off as I kept my position and finished 15th, a decent result considering my starting position and the mistake at the end of the race. 

Despite that mistake and my woes earlier in the weekend, particularly with the penalties, I’m really happy with that result and that race as a whole, so much so that I think it has to be one of my best yet. That makes three consecutive races in a row where I’ve had a positive weekend with better than expected results so, right now at least, I’m really satisfied with my performances and how my season has progressed so far. I think Valencia is one of my better rounds because of the general consistency I showed throughout the majority of the race, and for my many passes during the first stint -- not many passes happen at the start of any race let alone on a street circuit, so to do what I did today was remarkable and something that I am definitely pleased with. Perhaps my love of street circuits is starting to show after all? 

Virgin was also happy as, obviously, I was three places ahead of their expectations today. They also seem pleased with how things have been progressing thus far, so it feels good knowing that my efforts aren’t just doing wonders for my development but for theirs as well. Interestingly, Valencia reminded me of a few of the street circuits I used to race at in America, probably because of the way in which the sunshine lit up the track. It helps, too, that the track is so modern and looks wonderful. 

Anyway, Lewis Hamilton won the race with Alonso coming second and Vettel rounding out the podium for third. Lucas Di Grassi, my team-mate, finished in 23rd. Without being cocky or arrogant, I think it is fair to say that I am performing at a much stronger level than he is right now, something that has been consistent for most of the season so far. Hopefully this works to my benefit later in the year but, of course, we will have to wait and see on that one. My result today means that I am still 21st in the drivers’ standings, while Virgin remain last (11th) in the constructors’. 

With the way things are going lately I’m beginning to think that a points-finish can’t be too far off, surely? Here’s hoping I’m right, first and foremost, and that it happens at the next event in Britain and the world-renowned Silverstone circuit. I have mixed feelings towards Silverstone which I will elaborate on when we get there. It’s undoubtedly a classic track but they have been making changes to it recently, too, so we will see how I feel in a fortnight’s time. 

Note: All images, save for the course map, are courtesy of Xbox Live friend and fellow F1 fanatic Rossa Au.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Living The Life: Valencia #1

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event. Today, the return of the story and part one of the European Grand Prix in Valencia.]

Arriving in Valencia this weekend for the next round of my first season in Formula 1 means three things: it’s a new venue that I need to acquaint myself with; it’s another street circuit which makes its learning curve difficult but more enjoyable, too, as I love racing so closely to the barriers and within tight chicanes and corners; and, on a personal level, that this round is interesting due to what it represents.

While this isn’t the first time that the Valencia round has been held in Formula 1, it is still interesting to consider because of what it means. Technically, this round is classified as the European Grand Prix because Spain already has a round in Catalunya and Bernie Ecclestone -- the head of Formula 1 -- doesn’t allow two rounds in the one country. Previously, the ‘European’ round has been held at tracks such as the Nurburgring GP circuit in Germany but since that now alternates with Hockenheim each year, the new round takes place here in Valencia and on the still reasonably new street circuit that was built along the harbour. This particular venue is also interesting because it represents what a modern F1 race circuit should be, with exceptionally smooth tarmac, wide corners and long straights; carefully placed marshal points and easily visible LED screens for when the track is under yellow conditions or there’s a red flag; and a unique visual style that screams modern rather than the well-worn appearance of classic tracks such as Canada or Australia, or even the still relatively young (but not compared to Valencia!) venues at Malaysia and China. It is almost an insight into where Formula 1 racing will be in the near future, if you will, but regardless of that it’s an interesting circuit to consider because it is visually distinct, and because it’s such a contrast to some of the recent rounds we have had. Naturally, it is even more impressive for someone like me who is new to the circuit and has only seen it on TV previously, so it should be fun driving those first few laps in P1.

Also notable this weekend is the presence of the press or, rather, how much more people there appears to be when compared to previous rounds. I have been asked for interviews and have had cameras following me around a lot more than any other round prior to this one, so is that something exclusive to this round only or are people starting to notice me after my great performances in Turkey and Canada?

Speaking of which, at the end of Canada I honestly thought that I would be kicking myself a little bit for some of the mistakes I made during the race and that, as a result, I might be feeling a little less enthusiastic for this weekend. Instead, I’m feeling fantastic and I can’t wait to get out there and tackle the street circuit for the first time -- am I maturing as a driver by having a much more relaxed, motivated attitude or am I just going through a decent and positive period right now? Either way, I’m going to enjoy it while I can.

Friday Morning, Practice One, Sunny

As seems to be the case every race weekend these days, I got some laps in early whilst everyone else was focusing on preparing their cars and running installation laps. This gave me a chance to get familiar with the track while it was quiet, which was nice, and to begin learning what makes it unique as well as what it takes to put a decent lap together around here.

Valencia appears to have a good flow but it is also incredibly busy -- there's a lot of corners,  25 in fact, and as a result the lap is rather long when compared to some of the other venues we've visited thus far this season. Even the straights, of which there are three main ones, feature steering wheel input of some sort as they turn slightly as you progress down them. These corners, including turn 1, can be taken flat out of course but it's still worth mentioning because there's little time or room to take a breath around the lap; it's maximum concentration, all of the time, and for a longer period than other venues -- exactly what a street circuit should be. The track looks sleek, too, despite our driving perspective being so close to the ground and the barriers obscuring the view. It's somewhat pleasant, in a way, to be driving along the lap and realising that you just passed a couple of luxurious yachts while doing so. I like the contrast of raw speed against blissful exuberance.

My initial laps weren't entirely perfect, though, the usual mistakes and run-offs that always happen when learning a new circuit occuring as you would expect. I also got confused in one corner (I can't even remember which one), taking it far quicker than I should have. This resulted in some front wing damage after I clipped the outside wall and was sent careening into the opposite one. This ensured some lost time in the pits, too, as the team got to work on fixing it.

Subsequent runs brought to light some issues with traffic, as well as personal problems with turn 2 -- I ran wide and off twice there while exiting the pits because it sneaks up on you so fast -- as well as turn 10 which is the hairpin coming off the bridge, and the final and very tight corner leading onto the front straight. I also ran wide at turn 4 and had to completely back out of things as I had to cut turn 5 in order to get back on track. No penalty, though, because I slowed right down. I also had some minor struggles with turn 17 at the end of the second back straight, as well as an amusing moment when I recovered from running off at the corner at one point: I had to let a gaggle of cars through upon getting back on the circuit and couldn't help but laugh at them because they have all the room in the world on this long track and yet they're all together like that? Why waste your potential behind other cars when you can find plenty of space if you just wait a bit? It didn't make sense and I chuckled as a result, but it is their weekend that is (or could be) getting affected, not mine, so it's not my problem.

My third run was about tinkering with the car's setup as well as taking care of Virgin's R&D requirements. They wanted a lap time of 2:12.622 to test for a new throttle map setting, another time that was easy because I had exceeded that well before I even attempted it, probably even achieving it on my first lap around this new (to me) circuit. That's fine, though -- I prefer lenient goals like that because it means I can get them out of the way and focus on other things, such as testing what the changes we made to our setup did to the car and, of course, it gives me a chance to learn the intricacies of the place, too, particularly important at a track like this. I took care of it within the first lap and went on to have a slow and quiet run as there were few cars out at the time, and I wasn't able to find any pace or develop a rhythm, only improving my time in minor increments. I also had a minor spin on the curb exiting the bridge (turn 10), and my final lap was impeded by a bunch of slow cars. On my way into the pits I was also given a 5-spot grid penalty for speeding in pitlane. This is the fourth grid drop penalty I've had in as many rounds and it was frustrating because I wanted to break that trend this weekend, but the penalty itself was fair as the reason I was speeding was due to the tricky entry pitlane has. Situated on the final hairpin turn, it's rather abrupt as you still navigate the hairpin, sort of, and then as soon as you have done so you need to hit the speed limiter because you are directly in the lane. Most other circuits have a bit of tarmac that preceeds the lane that gives you the chance to prepare for entry, but as it is immediate here it caught me by surprise and I was reprimanded (rightfully) as a result.

My fourth run was fairly lackluster despite my attempts to wrestle the car (on purpose) around Valencia as I tried to find some pace. I didn't improve my time at all and received another warning for corner cutting, too, on the brief right-hander before the final turn. There was also another minor spin at turn 12, the corner at the end of the first back straight.

I changed my setup again for the fifth run opting for lower downforce and higher top speed. This, combined with more grip now that some rubber had been laid down around the track, should have resulted in some improvement but ultimately didn't as I had some more issues during the run. I had to abort my first lap after brushing up against the wall exiting turn 3 and had my second lap affected by some slow traffic who were entering the pits just prior to it, ensuring a less than ideal entry onto the main straight to commence the lap. I was also still feeling uncomfortable, too, my efforts to find pace or push the limits resulting in no gains, despite how quickly I learned the track's layout earlier in the session. Unlike other venues my ability to learn a circuit quickly just wasn't paying off here, and it was definitely starting to affect my mental state for the weekend.

This continued into the sixth run, too, as I had to abort my first lap yet again due to traffic. I also had another spin in the corner at the end of the first back straight (turn 12) which was fine until, as I waited for traffic to pass so I could recover, I was given three warnings for illegal blocking by the stewards. I understand that it's tight down there and as such, I was close to the racing line, but what else was I supposed to do as my rivals approached? I didn't want to get in their way or block their laps while I was recovering, after all, so I thought it was best to just wait. Guess I was wrong, however, as these warnings resulted in another 5-spot grid penalty -- my second for the weekend and this session -- which I thought was unfair but the officials obviously deemed it to be unsafe. In frustration I threw the car around a bit for my final lap which, ironically, was faster initially but didn't yield any improvements as you'd expect. I finished the session 14th on a 1:45.731 which isn't too bad but I definitely felt as if it should have been better, too. It doesn't really matter now, though, with two penalties basically ensuring a race at the back of the field. Hamilton topped the time sheets and Button and Vettel followed him closely behind.

Friday Afternoon, Practice Two, Sunny

I had mixed feelings about the rest of the weekend entering the second Practice session after my guaranteed 10-spot drop. I wasn't feeling particularly motivated, and I was debating with myself as to how I'd approach things now that my chances weren't as positive as I felt they should have been. On one hand, as a response to my situation, I felt like approaching it lazily and perhaps being a bit blasé, but on the other I'm a professional race driver with a job to do and who should always be striving to do their best, so I was torn between a more relaxed attitude (with any decent results being a nice surprise) and doing what I'm paid to do.

Somewhat unusually, this was perhaps a little evident in my actions as the session commenced, as I went against my normal trait and sat in the garage for ten minutes letting the others do their thing while I waited. This was nice as I was able to watch the timing monitor for a while and see what the others were up to, but when I did eventually go out it meant that I was doing my first run with a busier circuit, with more cars on track. This meant that I had to abort my first few laps due to slower cars in front and traffic in general, an issue that was becoming particularly prevalent here in Valencia. I also made some mistakes and had another spin off the bridge (turn 10), too, which didn't help things.

My second run was fine, if a little lackluster, the only thing of significance being two warnings for corner cutting. The first of these happened at the final turn and the second at the end of the first back straight (turn 12), but since I have never actually been penalised for cutting corners (yet) I didn't mind too much and ignored the warnings, for the most part.

The third run was, once again, about fulfilling Virgin's testing requirements, a time of 2:12.755 (which is actually even more lenient, slightly, than P1's goal, interestingly enough) being the goal this time around. As usual I took care of it immediately then went on to find a little bit more pace throughout the run, despite still feeling a little unmotivated and as if I wasn't "in it" this weekend. I also got another warning for cutting the right hander that preceeds the final turn (turn 24), but like before I didn't take much notice. I did pay attention to the spin I had off turn 5's curb, though, as it highlighted to me that I just wasn't concentrating enough as I got front wing damage, once again, as I was sent towards the wall. Despite being minor damage overall this put a damper on the session -- not that it changed my mood all that much anyway, considering I was already feeling down -- and I went on hoping for the session to end so I could put the day behind me.

I had no time improvements in the fourth run and also had a somewhat strange issue where the team told me over the radio about yellow flags in sector three, yet every time I arrived (it probably happened about three times) there was nothing there. That was off-putting because I was intentionally slowing down each time to be ready for anything that might be there and nothing eventuated, which I found to be a little bizarre.

Virgin informed me to watch my revs in the final run as my engine was apparently showing signs of wear, news that added to my seemingly negative weekend as you might expect. The run also ended up being a non-event, too, as I got some wheelspin as I changed gear out of turn 3 and clipped the outside wall as I corrected it, sending me spearing into the opposite one and damaging my wing yet again. I recovered to the pits with no hassles but there wasn't enough time to go out again, so that was the end of the session for me. I finished 15th with a time of 1:45.215 which was faster than my P1 time but still average and off the pace. Vettel was on top whilst his team-mate Webber and McLaren's Hamilton were second and third respectively.

For someone who is supposedly good at and enjoys street circuits, my performance and circumstances thus far at both Monaco -- an abysmal round for me -- and here in Valencia have been terrible. Here's hoping tomorrow is a little better.

Saturday Morning, Practice Three, Sunny

I woke up feeling better today and a little more optimistic too, something that should and did help with confidence, concentration and enthusiasm during the morning Practice session.

It began with more R&D testing in the first run, a time of 1:55.842 being expected and something that, as always, was easily achieved on the first lap. Interestingly Virgin elected to keep my worn engine in for this session and, indeed, the weekend, opting to try and save some of our others (out of an allocated eight for the season) for future rounds. This made sense strategically considering that Virgin are a new team with limited resources but it was a little frustrating for me personally, because it could have affected our car performance for the weekend but didn't appear to in this session. Thankfully.

Like yesterday, traffic became an issue quickly and made itself known in my second run, as did my personal problems with turn 10 off the bridge and the final turn. My first lap was hampered by Adrian Sutil who was exiting the pits and decided to swerve abruptly to get on the racing line, as opposed to waiting for me to pass. This forced me down the run-off area behind turn 2 in a similar manner to my offs leaving the pits in P1, which was a little unnecessary. My third lap also had some drama with Karun Chandok causing Hamilton (who was also in front of me) to hesitate and thus slow, the two of them together blocking my path heading into turn 4. This was entirely Chandok's fault and Lewis even came up to me after the session finished to make sure I knew that he didn't mean to get in the way, which I thought was nice of him. While preparing for the next lap (still on lap 3), a slow Vettel moved aside at the last minute as I approached the final turn, forcing me to throw the car at the apex in order to make it. Naturally this caused me to cut and I was warned, but I accepted this warning in my stride as I didn't feel as if this particular mishap was my fault. The last lap of the run also saw another minor spin at the turn 10 hairpin exiting the bridge, but there was nothing to be concerned about with that one.

My third run was fine save for more traffic issues. Seriously, if someone is exiting the pits as you navigate the flatout turn 1 then that lap is basically ruined because no one moves out of the way or stays offline until you pass. It's so bad I actually collided with Sebastian Buemi on my third lap -- my front right with his rear left -- because he didn't see me coming and went straight onto the racing line. I didn't receive any damage but he didn't receive any penalties or warnings over it, either, so it was incredibly annoying. And what's with the traffic problems anyway? This track is huge and far wider than most other venues we visit. There shouldn't be a problem at all.

The final run was also fine save for the inevitable traffic problems, my plans to use the Option tyres (which I had finally switched to after spending the entirety of yesterday using the Primes) not coming through -- I did improve my time and progress forward as you would expect using the softer compound of rubber, but I couldn't nail any of my laps because of the aforementioned traffic so I didn't get to see their full potential. I finished the session 11th which was a nice enough improvement, on a time of 1:43.702, my fastest for the weekend. That was because of the Options, of course, but I also felt as though I found some pace and picked up my performance in that session, so it was a nice reward to see myself move forward after the less than ideal events of yesterday. Vettel was on top again and Webber and Hamilton rounded out the top three, repeating the front results of P2 yesterday.

An interview after the session asked if the team have been happy with my Qualifying performances so far, and how I have been coping with the testing ban. I responded by saying we’ve been doing okay with Quali so far this season, and we are dealing with the lack of testing the same as any other team, really. Now that things seemed to have turned for the better, I look forward to tackling Valencia under Qualifying conditions later this afternoon.

Note: All images, save for the course map, were provided courtesy of Xbox Live friend and fellow F1 fanatic Rossa AU -- thanks yet again man for all your help.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Some Thoughts On Reviews

It's nice to see superheroes get some love, but full marks?
Videogame reviews are an often contentious subject, their broad significance and final scores usually the biggest topics up for debate. They’re constantly complained about; their integrity is often contested; and it’s not uncommon to find people question the meaning of scores, particularly these days after the creation of aggregate sites like Metacritic. Add in the fanboy ingredient -- where people are so infatuated with their favourite franchises and/or developers that they can’t see things rationally or objectively, nor accept another person’s opinion -- and you have an egregious, somewhat explosive (unnecessarily) subject that does more harm than good, and which causes pointless hostility between people who should be sharing in their passion, videogames, rather than arguing over it.

Personally, it’s a topic that I have mostly avoided because I find the discussion over reviews to be, mostly, redundant, and because I’m open-minded enough to be interested in what other people think about a particular game, and how they felt about their experience with it. I couldn’t care less whether a big blockbuster game scores a perfect ten or only receives a seven; I have no interest in whether a review should be a “buyer’s guide” or if it should approach a game critically; and I certainly don’t care about the perceived narrow spectrum of scoring, where videogames are supposedly only scored between the seven-to-nine range. I’d much prefer to be talking about something else, in other words, so I have kept quiet about reviews because I know which ones are the kind I would like to read, and whose opinions are most likely to represent (or at the very least, correlate with) my own.

But lately, there has been a semi-related issue regarding reviews that I am more interested in, and one that, if I am to be honest, has me feeling somewhat concerned and uncomfortable.

As most gamers would know we are currently in the midst of what I call ‘Onslaught Season’: the period in which most developers and publishers release their biggest titles, and where we as players are insanely excited for these games as well as worried that we’re not going to be able to afford them all. This means that blockbuster franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Uncharted make their return, and publishers like Activision will make a lot of money due to yet another release in their Call Of Duty series. It’s crazy season, basically, and definitely one of the most enjoyable times of the year due to the enthusiasm and anticipation that drives it. A byproduct of this period, however, is the way in which these giant games are reviewed and, more importantly, whether the authors of these evaluations are able to cast aside their personal preferences and elation to make a better informed and more meaningful assessment.

Yet another GOTY in the making?
This year alone, we’ve already seen three titles that have received 10/10s at various publications. And while such scores might not be consistent with every website and magazine, the general perception is that these games -- Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and, seemingly, The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword -- are the year’s best thus far, and the cream of the crop of modern gaming. Now I have no problem with games receiving full marks and actually believe they should get that level of recognition if they deserve it -- unlike others who believe that the aforementioned spectrum of 7-9 is more applicable -- but I do have some concerns if these scores are seemingly thrown around in a carefree manner.

By giving these titles top marks, whether they deserve it or not (I can’t comment on that since, aside from Uncharted 3, I have not played them), the reviewers of this industry send out a message that suggests that these titles are some of the finest you will ever play. That’s fine if these authors mean it and can justify their opinion, but it isn’t good if the result of that message insinuates something that mightn’t be necessarily true later, once this exciting rush of games has passed. It also suggests that these games are better than some of the big name titles from previous years, the ones that are otherwise agreed upon to be this generation’s defining games.

Are we really sure that -- as a collective industry that includes critics, developers and publishers, and players -- we want to claim that Batman: Arkham City or Skyward Sword is better than, say, Portal* or Assassin's Creed II, both games that are regarded exceptionally highly and yet didn’t necessarily receive those elusive 10/10s on release? What about the reputation that such high scores bestow upon the developers behind these wonderful games -- do we want to imply that Rocksteady or Naughty Dog** are better than a Rockstar or Irrational? If yes to both questions, why? Now I’m not saying that these developers or games don’t deserve such praise and adulation, especially when I haven’t had the pleasure of playing them yet, but what I am saying is that do we really want to convey that message -- that these games are better -- because they’re the ones getting perfect scores when other high profile games may not have received similar recognition? If we do then fair enough, but if we don’t because next year when the insanity has died down and we’ve gotten over the initial awe of playing these brilliant games we’ve realised that maybe they aren’t as good as this generation’s best names, then how are we going to deal with that? How are we going to assess and analyse these games, and their position within the wider medium, when we’ve already sent the message out that they’re so phenomenal that they deserve the best scores. When singing the praises of Portal or BioShock, yet again because they really are that good, will we put them above or below the games that have received full marks this year? And what of next year’s titles which have the potential to go even higher?

I’m not arguing any particular point here nor am I trying to suggest these games -- or any others in the future -- don’t deserve 10/10s. What I am saying, however, is that full marks have been appearing quite frequently lately and I just want to make sure it is for the right reasons, rather than because the people awarding these high scores are influenced by the gorgeous graphics, spectacle and riveting gameplay that these titles have to offer. I’m saying that the industry as a whole needs to be careful, because once it has committed to a perspective there is no changing it and we should be wary of the future whilst we are enjoying the present. You only need to look at games like The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess or BioShock 2 to see an example of the way in which these titles can have a backlash post-release, so just be mindful of what you’re doing when assessing these games and please, ensure that you own your opinion and mean every word you use to convey it -- failure to do so is failure to represent the medium sincerely, and none of us want that.

**It should be noted that The Orange Box, the package that Portal originally came in, did receive full marks at a variety of publications, but it wasn’t until subsequent rereleases (such as on XBLA) that the game itself got judged individually.

**Disclaimer: I personally do believe that Naughty Dog deserve to be seen in the same light as a Rockstar or a Valve, and can only hope that the success of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception will get them there. Guess time will tell on that one.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Preparing For GTA V

Tomorrow, after a surprisingly long duration of silence, we will finally know what is happening with Grand Theft Auto V. Announced last week with nothing more than a suggestive logo (seen above), the appearance of the game came out of nowhere after a few years of Rockstar focusing on their other titles, namely Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire. We all knew a new GTA was coming but when was another story, so the arrival of the game's trailer will certainly be interesting. 

If you have been following me on this blog for a while then you would be aware of how much love and respect I have for the last Grand Theft Auto: GTA IV. While I wouldn't necessarily consider it to be one of my most favourite games from this generation, the fascination I (still) have with the game's version of Liberty City elevates it to a level that few other games reach -- simply put, I believe Rockstar's achievements with Liberty City in GTA IV are incredible, and the place still manages to blow my mind every time I pop in for a visit. I've covered this many times before, however, so I won't expand on this point but it goes without saying that, due to my love for Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV, my anticipation for whatever Rockstar have in the pipeline for GTA V is sky-high. As soon as I heard the news last week that it was finally coming, it shot straight to the top of my most desired games from next year. Yes, even over BioShock Infinite and the new Tomb Raider -- how's that for excitement, eh? 

Anyway, I thought I'd take the time to make some personal predictions and disclose some of the things I want from the new game, particularly given that it's a numbered title rather than one with a subtitle. Usually when this happens it is because Rockstar believe they've made a ground-breaking step with the franchise, as was clearly demonstrated with the step up from the GTA III era (which includes Vice City and San Andreas) to GTA IV (whose continuation lied with the downloadable episodes, rather than individual titles). I know, I know, everyone jumps on the speculation train when it comes to something new in the Grand Theft Auto franchise so by doing it myself I'm just adding to the noise that, eventually, no one will even remember. But part of the beauty of the GTA series is the personal takeaways and anecdotes that its open-world, free-form nature allows for, so as a result it's only natural that its players have their own personal desires and expectations for each new title. That and, if you ask me, it's about time Grand Theft Auto as a whole started to do some things differently, so you'll find my desired changes below.

If GTA V can eclipse this, it's doing something right.

Things I Want To See 

A Continued Push Towards Realism: Grand Theft Auto IV divided the fanbase into two camps, those who enjoyed the more realistic and mature approach Rockstar took with the title, and those who missed the more zany, outrageous antics of the PS2-era GTAs. Naturally, as we approach details of GTA V these two camps are being very vocal about which direction they'd prefer to see the game take, complaining whenever the opposing one suggests something they don't like. Personally, I fall into the GTA IV 'mature' camp, but not because of the same reasons these people do. I want Grand Theft Auto V to continue focusing on maturity and, in particular, a more realistic approach because the ramifications of that direction appeal to me more. Rockstar have made some intriguing experiments with videogame storytelling in their recent titles and as someone interested in seeing games allowing us to inhabit these fictions, that's something I'd like to see continue with the new game. But if not for the narrative's sake, then I want a realistic approach to permeate Grand Theft Auto V because of the way in which it gave consistency and coherency to Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV -- put simply, I believe the game was more immersive because of the attention to detail and atmosphere that a more realistic style required. I thoroughly enjoyed the physics and handling of GTA IV's vehicles, for example, and how they behaved a little more like real cars (as opposed to floaty boxes) due to the sense of weight they now had. While obviously nowhere near the levels of racing simulations, this weight allowed for the game to communicate things like grip in a believable way, giving tactile feedback and a more informed sense of control to the driving mechanics of the game, as well as ensuring that these vehicles actually felt connected to the road and, more importantly, that they belonged in the environment. While Niko's (and later, Johnny and Luis') movement controls were inconsistent and arguably a little slow, his animations and weight also gave the impression of a connection to Liberty City, enhancing the ability to assume his character as we explored the environment and developed the story. These minor details, plus many more, really lifted Grand Theft Auto IV above other open-world games for me, something that continued in Red Dead Redemption -- it'd be nice to see GTA V follow the same direction, if not for the potential in storytelling than certainly because of the way in which it affects the game space. 

A Female Protagonist: It remains to be seen whether we will ever be granted a female protagonist in a Grand Theft Auto game, but if any developer was going to try it and actually do a meaningful job with it, it's Rockstar. You only need to look at a character like Bonnie MacFarlane from Red Dead Redemption to know what they can do with female characters, so extending that to a playable woman (or girl -- think along the lines of Bully) for GTA V would be an interesting outcome for the franchise. They've already experimented with characters of colour (San Andreas; Luis from The Ballad Of Gay Tony expansion) and other, less explored territory for their characters (Gay Tony would be another example -- it's up to you to decide whether these experiments have been meaningful or not) so seeing a female protagonist in Grand Theft Auto V isn't necessarily as big a stretch as it may initially seem, particularly when rumours abound suggesting that this new installment might contain multiple playable characters for the main story, rather than just one like its predecessors. But whether one dominates the game like Niko did for GTA IV is another story (if one is included at all), so I guess we will find out either through the trailer tomorrow, or as more details about the game show up as we head towards its release. Personally, though, I would absolutely love it if the whole game was led by a female protagonist, as the result of that wouldn't just be interesting from a Grand Theft Auto point of view, it'd also be interesting from an industry perspective, too. Rockstar are usually regarded as pioneers and it's not unusual for developers to follow their lead -- if Rockstar were brave enough* to use a female protagonist then that could indirectly motivate other developers to use them for their games, too, improving the videogame medium by making it more diverse and catering to a wider spectrum of players. Time will tell on this one. 

New Faces, New Places: While GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas were interesting from a character development point of view, it wasn't until Grand Theft Auto IV that I believe Rockstar begun to make real progress as far as creating decent characters was concerned, something that only improved as the two downloadable episodes were released, and then later again when Red Dead Redemption hit the market. Now that they've gained some experience in creating multi-layered, unpredictable and intriguing characters, I'd love to see what Rockstar can do with a completely new cast that is separate to anything and anyone that we've seen before. I don't want to see cameos by Niko, Luis or Johnny, and I certainly don't want to see Claude, CJ or Tommy Vercetti appear either; instead, I want new people to get to know, new people to make friends (and enemies) with, and new relationships to be born. It doesn't matter whether this is in the form of multiple protagonists (as is rumoured), an emphasis on relationships (family or otherwise) as in GTA IV, or in the list of characters that make up the rest of the game -- all I want to see is new faces who continue to embody the direction that Rockstar appear to be heading in and who, more importantly, become people we care about as they join the ranks of the medium's other wonderful characters, such as the aforementioned Bonnie from Red Dead Redemption, the cast from Mass Effect or the companions from the Uncharted series. 

On top of that, I don't want to see a return to Vice City or the large, diverse environments that made San Andreas so compelling, even though a modern take on them would be quite fascinating (think of the way in which Liberty City changed from GTA III to GTA IV). Instead, I want to see a completely new city or expanse of land, one that gives Rockstar the chance to take us somewhere new and to show us something different, and one that can join those wonderful places as being some of the best videogame locations of all time. Aside from rumours floating around about a return to Vice City or Los Santos (GTA's version of Los Angeles, suggesting that the new game could be set in San Andreas), there's also some suggesting that this time around the game could be set in Washington D.C, particularly poignant given the material such a setting would give Rockstar, political or otherwise, and because of the proximity of that city to places like Baltimore and Philadelphia (not to mention New York or, in GTA terms, Liberty City). While nothing more than a rumour right now, I actually really like the sound of a Washington setting so while I'm not going to commit to expecting it, I do definitely think it would be an interesting change to what we experienced with Liberty City just a few short years ago. Wherever Grand Theft Auto V is set, be it a return to familiar places or new environments entirely, I am sure that the same care and attention will be given to the setting and as such, I can't wait to inhabit and explore GTA V's locations, no matter what they end up being. But it would be nice to see something new, so here's hoping that Rockstar's feeling the same way. 

Will GTA V see the same level of detail?

Some Predictions

A First-Person Perspective: This may be somewhat bold (not to mention surprising), especially considering how crucial a third-person viewpoint is for things like driving and brawling, but I predict that Grand Theft Auto V will have (because I'd like to see) a first-person perspective because that would represent the kind of shift Rockstar like to make whenever they do another numbered installment in the franchise. Grand Theft Auto IV was already incredible due to its atmosphere and attention to detail, where walking around the city was just as exciting as participating in an intense battle was -- imagine if GTA V provided this in a first-person perspective, where we were even more up close and personal with the environment and where things like shooting could adopt the insane progress we've made in recent years from other genres. Imagine driving with your focus behind the steering wheel as opposed to the car you're driving, or the potentially visceral brutality of melee as you fight against your foes. By using the first-person, Rockstar could fix a lot of the issues that GTA IV still exhibited despite immense improvements over the PS2-era titles, because our medium's obsession with First-Person Shooters has resulted in great gun-play while things like movement have been advanced thanks to titles like Mirror's Edge. The likelihood of Grand Theft Auto V being completely in the first-person perspective is probably rather slim, despite my desire to see Rockstar attempt such a thing with the series, but I have a feeling with GTA V so I guess we'll have to wait and see. If anything, they could opt for a mixture of first-and-third-person, similar to what Bethesda does with their Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises. 

Multiple Cities: Whether it's revisiting old favourites or taking us to where we (and GTA) have never gone before, I believe Grand Theft Auto V will feature more than one city. The first reason I think this is because that's a direct way to improve on what was managed with Liberty City in GTA IV, signifying the next step up that the 'V' in the title represents, and the second is because Rockstar are ambitious like that and would want to send this generation out in a way that only they can. If the main game doesn't contain at least two cities (with rural areas and etc. in between), then I think they'll do it using downloadable expansions after the success they had with GTA IV's DLC. If the rumours about LA/Los Santos are true then it is quite possible that we will see the entirety of San Andreas, recreated as Liberty City was last time around. If it is a new setting altogether, like the aforementioned possibility of Washington D.C, then we could be seeing places like Baltimore, Philadelphia or Chicago appear for the first time. Wherever it will be, and whether it's on the disc or through expansions after release, I definitely believe GTA V will have multiple locations for us to explore and inhabit, so I look forward to seeing what those places will be when Rockstar reveal them. In some respects, they can't not offer more than one city: the fans have been pining for a new San Andreas for years and whilst what we may be getting with GTA V might not satiate that particular desire, I dare say the new environments -- and the fact that multiple locations offers the diversity that these people are after -- certainly will. 

Storytelling Progress: Whilst I already covered what I'd like to see Rockstar do with storytelling above, what I believe they will do happens to follow the same path -- after playing Red Dead Redemption I have no doubt in my mind that Rockstar have made it their goal, somewhat, to focus on and emphasise the importance of storytelling in videogames, and that they will be demonstrating their progress in this area with Grand Theft Auto V. Whether it is driven by a strong suite of characters, the journey that its protagonist(s?) will take or through the environmental information its setting can convey, I definitely think Rockstar are keen to continue telling tales and if they expand upon the progress they have made so far, then GTA V will be very interesting from a narrative point of view. Ultimately speculating on this aspect of the series is difficult because it's hard to know what direction they want to take the franchise in, let alone what they may or may not want to do on the storytelling front, but their approach to this generation thus far has all but confirmed to me that they are trying to advance the medium, once again, because few other developers seem comfortable in doing so. Will it result in the same levels of controversy that previous Grand Theft Auto titles have received? Maybe, but then again it is because of this controversy in the first place that we've made the progress we have in such little time, so I do think we will see it continue with Grand Theft Auto V. I just can't see them returning to the immature, juvenile antics that they used to revel in. Sure, it has its place in the medium as Saints Row clearly exemplifies, but Rockstar had their adolescent fun so now it is time to see how they're faring as an adult -- something I'm sure they are just as eager to find out as we are. Guess we'll find out with the trailer tomorrow!


So there you go, my personal desires and predictions for Grand Theft Auto V. I can't wait to see what Rockstar will be revealing in the trailer and, indeed, as the game gets closer to release (I strongly suspect Game Informer's next cover will feature the game, too). Despite having these preferences and forecasts, I'm excited for the game no matter which direction they choose to head in. The franchise is one of the few in this industry that transcends the medium it exists in and is truly a global, cultural phenomenon -- the explosion on the Internet after that simple logo was shown proves this -- so, no matter what the game actually involves, it's just great to have a new GTA on the horizon and something to reinvigorate people's passion for games again after an arguably dull period in recent times. A new Grand Theft Auto is an event as much as, if not more than, it is a new game in a successful franchise so yeah, absolutely, I'm going to indulge in the emotion and attention that such a thing inspires in so many people. Something like this doesn't happen every day so the fact it is happening tomorrow is an incredibly exciting thing. Bring it on! 

*It irks me having to call using a female protagonist a “brave move” but, let's be honest, male-centric campaigns dominate the medium currently and whilst some developers have made inroads (think BioWare, or Valve), the reality is that most are too comfortable with using male characters for their games' leads. Things are changing, slowly, but they would change even faster if Rockstar led the way and showed them how things can, or should, be done. Here's hoping.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

F1 2011

Pixel Hunt, an E-Zine and online website, recently posted their review of F1 2011... meaning that after many years posting here on the blog, I have finally been published elsewhere!

Yes, it's true, I wrote the review of Codemasters' latest installment in their rather wonderful Formula 1 series, and it was an absolute pleasure to try my hand at writing a review rather than whatever I feel like here on Raptured Reality. Writing a review means that you're writing for an audience, basically, so with that in mind I tried my best to keep things simple and cover a variety of things about F1 2011 that I thought would be beneficial to anyone who may end up reading it. F1 being what is, however, it was rather challenging as the sport is just too complex to be able to describe without venturing into motorsport jargon territory, or at the very least areas in which only automotive enthusiasts would understand. Still, I thought the review came out pretty well considering it was my first, so do let me know what you think.

While we're on the subject of Formula 1 games, I suppose I should address a few things. First of all, reviewing this year's title suggests that I have moved on from last year's F1 2010 and, by extension, that I might be done with my Living The Life story or, indeed, covering that game from an analytical point of view. Not true! Whilst I have slacked off, again, with coverage for the game and my story, I don't consider myself to be finished with either and will continue to focus on that game until I am. This means that you can expect the story to resume (sooner than you may think, too!) and that I am still dedicated to seeing it through to the last round, in Abu Dhabi. You can also expect me to start posting about why I fell in love with F1 2010 so much as well as pick up on some of the issues I think the game has -- some of which I actually mention in my review of F1 2011

Once I have done that, then I will shift my focus over to F1 2011 and begin discussing what makes that game worth playing, as well as why it is so different (surprisingly) from Codemasters' first effort with the license.  I will also elaborate on some of the things I covered in the review, and point out some of the things I left out. Then I'll begin the second season of my Living The Life story because I'm interested in what it would be like to experience another season using that mentality (or persona) and to then convey those findings, once again, here on the blog. 

As far as other content is concerned, both the Metroid Marathon and Red Dead Ruminations posts will continue (apologies for the delays) and I will also be taking a look at both L.A. Noire and Test Drive Unlimited 2, finally, as I am now ready to think about my experiences with them.

It was an absolute pleasure to try something new and do a review of F1 2011 for Pixel Hunt. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my editor for the review, Dylan Burns (if he's reading this), for giving me the chance to experiment with my writing. Will I do more reviews in the future? I'm not sure yet but considering this experience was nothing but positive the entire way through, I am certainly willing to consider it if the chance arises once again.

Anyway, if you're interested then by all means give it a read and let me know what you think. Thanks again for reading my work, everyone, and happy gaming.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Red Dead Ruminations: Life In The West

Red Dead Redemption is a fantastic game. It was last year when it was first released, it continues to be now and, in a decade or so when people look back at important videogames (again, since we all love doing it so much), Red Dead Redemption will stand out as a significant and crucial release. The reasons for this are many and have been detailed plenty of times elsewhere, particularly last year when it was the focus of everyone’s conversation, but it is still worth pointing out anyway because games like this don’t come along very often, and deserve all the attention that they can get. That is why, over a year since it released, I’m still going ahead with my own series of posts about the game -- simply put, it inspires a lot of thoughts and discussion, and I’m certainly not excluded from that fact.

So, what do I think about the game? Well, as I’ve said twice now, it was my introduction to the Western genre, so it was especially interesting playing the game with that in mind, discovering and learning about the core qualities of that particular genre. Perhaps even more fascinating, however, was how I came to realise that Red Dead Redemption is an even better take on the old Wild West because it doesn’t specifically focus on the genre’s tropes or quirks, and instead treats them as mere details in a much larger, broader experience. Beyond that, my fascination with game spaces saw another intriguing game to consider, given how incredible RDR’s environment is -- both in scope, and in detail. Of course, being a Rockstar game the atmosphere and sense of place in Red Dead Redemption isn’t surprising, but it’s still very interesting to think about because, I feel, the game stepped it up another level again -- even over Grand Theft Auto IV, in some respects. Finally, I was interested in the game because it seemed like Rockstar were intending to continue their more mature approach to their storytelling, first seen in Liberty City and GTA IV. While some characters are questionable, for the most part it really came across as if Rockstar were trying to pioneer, yet again, with Red Dead’s narrative, and the end result of that is remarkable, depending on the context. I will address the game’s characters, general plot and my connections to both in future posts but, for now, let’s talk about my introduction to the genre, and the game’s interesting use of its environment.

Why hello, Mr. Marston

Entering into a game (or any entertainment product, really) that adheres to a specific experience with no idea of what to expect is, somewhat, surreal. Red Dead Redemption’s general adoption of Rockstar’s open world template, however, ensured that there were enough features in the game that were familiar to me whilst I learned about all of the elements that were foreign: I knew about their emphasis on atmosphere and a sense of place in an expansive environment; I knew how the game ‘felt’ due to its similarities to Grand Theft Auto; and I was also quite familiar with the game’s structure of cut-scenes, objectives, and then rewards. This allowed my attention to be firmly focused on everything that was new (to me), meaning that I was able to get engrossed a lot quicker than I initially expected to. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was how the Western status of the game took a back seat to the rest of the experience -- it is a videogame based in a Western setting, not necessarily a Western itself.

This was surprising to me because, before release, I was totally expecting the videogame version of a Western. That was how (I thought) the game was advertised throughout its hype campaign and the various previews and interviews, and that was what I wanted because, as I keep on repeating, I was new to the genre and wanted to use the game to see whether I liked it or not. And it did answer that question, too -- I did get to see what a Western entailed, and I did get to understand what my own personal stance on such a specific experience would ultimately be, but I acquired that insight indirectly as I engaged the whole adventure and not just certain aspects of it. On the surface, the tropes and incidental details that you’d expect from a Western -- duels, train robberies, cowboys saying “giddy-up”, etc. -- are present and accounted for but these traditional elements of the genre simply aren’t thrown in your face in Red Dead Redemption. Instead, they exist in the background: just like sheriffs and ranches do, like cacti and wolves, and, indeed, like the desolate landscape itself. They aren’t included in the game to ensure its authenticity to the genre or to inform its players that, yes, Red Dead Redemption is a Western; they’re merely details in a world full of them, and they give this world weight through their beautiful, delicate, coherency. Recognising that fact -- that RDR is a game with a Western setting, rather than one that is a Western -- took some time and didn’t occur until well after I had finished the game. But once I did acknowledge this subtle distinction, I realised that it enriches the experience in the same way that the little things do for other titles.

Attention to detail is one of Red Dead Redemption’s most significant qualities, but I think it would be fair to say that most people wouldn’t think about what it does or doesn’t do with the genre as one of the areas in which the game carefully creates its overall experience. I would argue, however, that this is why the game is so remarkable to begin with: it took a genre from another medium, adopted the essence of it for a new one, and masterfully turned it into something that wasn’t just unique, it was only possible as a videogame.

On The Lone Prairie

Not too long ago I wrote a post expressing my disdain with the notion that, eventually, Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV would be forgotten in favour of more impressive environments, perhaps even from another GTA. As technology and graphical fidelity continue to progress -- among other things -- I can see a future in which Liberty City is no longer considered a technical achievement or a sense of wonder, indirectly allowing for it to become a memory much in the same way that, say, the entirety of San Andreas has -- a particularly fond memory, undoubtedly, but a memory nonetheless.

Well, unsurprisingly, I feel the same way about Red Dead Redemption’s magnificent depiction of the Wild West. Like Liberty City, I believe that the game’s environment is one of the best examples we have yet of a world that feels like it truly exists; only this time the game’s particular setting ensures that we’re revisiting a bygone era, rather than a modern metropolis. The sense of place, life and, of course, atmosphere in Red Dead Redemption is unparalleled, and somewhat conveniently exists as the demonstration of what the opposite of Liberty City could and should be. Instead of the urban jungle we have an expansive piece of land which teams with wildlife, sporadic hints of civilization, and which features a surprising amount of variety. I will address that last one in a future post but the point is that there is simply nothing like Red Dead Redemption’s landscape, and the fact that it is so incredibly detailed and full of unexpected surprises is not only a testament to Rockstar’s prowess with creating these virtual worlds in which we get to inhabit, but to their ability to showcase some of this generation’s most significant technical achievements, too. Few other developers can pull off such a large environment that is full with things to see and do, and fewer still can also provide a place in which key, personal moments can occur for each and every player.

But it’s not about how impressive or special it can be; rather, it’s about how in the not too distant future I get the impression that, yet again, Red Dead Redemption’s landscape is going to be forgotten in favour of something else that is bigger, better, and certainly more beautiful. Right now that sounds absurd but we’re talking about a videogame, too -- the medium progresses at an insane rate and, as we’ve seen time and time again, it only takes a couple of years before a game is completely outclassed by something newer. Just look at the differences between The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for an example of what I am talking about: both games are amazing at the time of their release, but the inevitable iteration and technical advancements of the medium ensure that, eventually, they’re seen as less impressive and even, at times, ugly. As we reach and surpass the uncanny valley and photo-realism that problem becomes less significant but, right now, it’s still an issue and because of this I fear that, like Liberty City, Red Dead’s world will become nothing more than a memory for the majority of people because there simply won’t be any reason to visit it anymore. There will be better and, while I can’t wait to see what that might actually be myself, I also dread it because I personally believe that these environments that we already have now -- today, in the current generation -- should be cherished and even celebrated -- if not for their impressive coherency, than certainly because of all the resources, hard work and effort that went into making them.

Ultimately this disdain I feel for the (potential) future of these game spaces is a personal thing that I have developed alongside my passion for virtual spaces as a whole, and while important it doesn’t necessarily reflect how I feel about the future. I’m eagerly awaiting what might appear on the horizon, and already have some idea of what that future entails with games like BioShock Infinite taking us to places that, once again, we cannot go in reality. The future is very bright when it comes to virtual worlds, but I’m not going to jump up and celebrate their arrival if, as a consequence, what we already have now is left behind and forgotten. That’s not the kind of approach I want to take with a medium I hold so dear, and that’s why I’m a little more reluctant to proceed than the majority of gamers out there.

That’s some of my initial observations about Red Dead Redemption. A review, if you will, of some of the things that stood out to me upon the game’s completion. Naturally, being a Rockstar game means there is plenty more to talk about, and what I’ve covered above is only scratching the surface. In my next post I will discuss the opening moments of the game, and how they effectively set up the overall experience whether we realise it or not -- where better to start covering such a large game than the beginning?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Red Dead Ruminations: Overview

I wasn’t supposed to play Red Dead Redemption.

That’s the feeling I have after finishing it a few months ago, and after many instances where I almost gave up on playing the game because of circumstances (mostly beyond my control) that tried to ruin my experience with it. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the game -- quite the opposite, actually -- but, for whatever reason, various things tried to get in the way of what should have otherwise been an awesome time. Anyway, I’m past that somewhat bizarre mish-mash of extremely positive moments and strange, negative situations, so now it is time to actually talk about my time with Rockstar’s Western epic.

In my preview of the game I mentioned the fact that before Red Dead Redemption, I hadn’t experienced anything in or related to the Western genre, and that I was using the game as my first foray into this unfamiliar territory. Sure, I had heard plenty over the years about the genre and had a fair idea of what made a Western a Western, but it was still interesting to head into the game with no preconceptions about what to expect or how I should be feeling. Not only that, I wasn’t sure whether I would actually like the genre, so I looked forward to using the game to satisfy my personal curiosity.

Now that I have played it, I have a fair bit to say and this series will cover everything that came to mind during my time with the game. While originally I was playing it when everyone else was, I stopped after just a short time due to an unfortunate spoiler that essentially rendered the game, particularly its story, meaningless and irrelevant (one of the aforementioned instances that nearly ruined my enjoyment of the overall experience). The spoiler was so strong that it turned me off the game and it has only been recently, months after release that I was finally able to return to it.

It has been incredibly interesting experiencing my very first Western. There have been some great moments and some unfortunate ones, some things that have captured my attention and others that I found utterly boring. All in all I recognise Red Dead Redemption for the great game that it is and firmly believe that it deserves all the praise and respect it continues to receive, but it isn’t perfect (what game is?) either, and I’ll discuss both my positive and negative responses to the game over the next few posts. I hope you’ll enjoy what I have to say about something that was so new to me.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Metroid Marathon: The Beauty Of Bosses (MP1)

[Part of a series of posts in which I discuss my favourite videogame franchise: Metroid. Today, some of Metroid Prime's bosses and how they are designed to teach players through intensity and strategy.]

The boss battles contained in each Metroid game are one of the franchise’s staples, their challenging but not impossible design sitting as some of the highlights of each installment. Metroid Prime’s bosses are no different and follow the tradition of offering some intensity to the isolated adventures of Samus Aran, not to mention ensuring that the skills learned prior to each battle and the abilities obtained throughout the game are utilized in an effective manner.

Combining organic creatures already native to Tallon IV and those created or influenced by the strong presence of the Space Pirates and their operations, the boss battles in Metroid Prime contrast nicely with the otherwise lonely journey of the game to create its diversity whilst simultaneously also appearing to enhance the game’s narrative, themes and overall outcome. Ranging from mutated (not to mention enlarged) creatures such as the Parasite Queen found on the space frigate Orpheon, to the giant, lumbering beast that is the Omega Space Pirate, each battle and each foe offers something new and distinct from what has been seen previously whilst also continuing the trend of more difficult and menacing foes as the player (and thus, Samus) progresses. What this means overall is three different things: first, the chance to test and master the skills that have been formed over the course of the game; second, moments to look forward to after long sessions of exploration and loneliness; and lastly, a change of pace (and intensity) after slow, gradual progress and enemies that pose little to no problems. It’s about challenge and strategy but not at the expense of progress or the other key elements that make up a Metroid experience, namely the exploration and discovery.

Interesting, too, is the way in which these battles take place -- and, perhaps more importantly, why. Right from the very beginning of the game, as players gently ease themselves into the 3D, foreign feel of a Metroid title viewed from Samus’ own eyes rather than from a side-on perspective, a boss battle exists, designed to teach a skill that will become key later on in the game: that of strafing from left to right (or vice versa) to avoid enemy fire. The battle is simple in that there’s hardly any strategy to defeating the Parasite Queen, with quick, rapid blasts or powered up singular shots from Samus’ beam cannon making quick work of the easy opponent. In fact, the only challenge the battle poses is from a spinning force field that protects the queen, but it has enough holes in it that it’s not a problem -- if there’s no gap, you don’t shoot, simple.
Samus staring Flaahgra down in the first major boss battle of Metroid Prime.
Contrast that with Flaahgra -- the mutated plant boss found in the Chozo Ruins and the source of the poisoned water that posed a small problem in traversing the remnants of a lost civilization -- who does offer a challenge and requires some strategy in order to attack. Not only is strafing important in avoiding Flaahgra’s acid attacks, confidence with locking onto the solar panels that is providing sustenance to the enlarged plant is key to efficient success as, later on in the battle, Flaahgra can knock them back down with one of its many stems. The goal of the fight is to knock the solar panels away so the sun’s rays are no longer providing energy to the plant boss, causing it to collapse with exhaustion and its tentacles to retract, allowing Samus to quickly morph into a ball so she can slip through the tunnels that were previously blocked and let off a morph ball bomb in the mechanical slot -- a technique learned prior to the battle not long after the ability was acquired -- in order to deal damage. Rinse and repeat the process -- a staple of Nintendo’s library of games and certainly not exclusive to the Metroid series -- and before long Flaahgra is down, alleviating the problems of a contaminated area by allowing the water supply of the Chozo Ruins to become clean and pure once more.

Future bosses provide even more complexity and challenge, the Omega Pirate and Metroid Prime itself standing out as the game’s most difficult boss fights, but regardless of whether it’s at the start of the game or at its end, the bosses in Metroid Prime serve a purpose in teaching, using (abilities) and changing (the game's pacing), even if only for a short period of time. They’re fun distractions more than anything else, but the lessons learned in fighting these monsters go on to serve the rest of the game, and in doing so only enhances the experience rather than hinders it. It’s a shame other games can’t get this process right more often, not to mention as elegantly as Metroid Prime does.