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I’ve just finished three delight-filled weeks of gaming with Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.

This was entirely expected. AC4 was pretty much guaranteed to be a good time.

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Hijinks on the high seas

For starters, as the title of this blog may indicate, I love pirate games in general. Over the years, I’ve managed to enjoy some pretty mediocre pirate games – including almost all the Pirates of the Caribbean movie tie-ins, simply because they reminded me of Monkey Island.

So suffice to say, AC4 was set up to succeed. It was my first game on the PS4 so it was almost certain to be a stunning game, showing off rich tropical environments on the most powerful computing hardware I’ve yet connected to my TV. Furthermore, I already knew that I enjoyed their sailing/naval combat mechanics from ACIII.

I’m sure I was not alone on many if not all these points.

For many games and game designers that would have been enough, but unlike many of its pirate protagonists Assassin’s Creed 4 does more than profiteer from easy wins.

The gameplay is excellent. Tight, focussed and with enough high-seas swashbuckling to keep me interested for 50 hours. I can’t give it any higher commendation than to say that this was the absolute first game where I’ve gotten 100% across all the challenges and collectables. Quests, location of collectables, reasonableness of the additional challenges and the level design were all extremely well designed and executed.

I really have to talk about the shanty system too. Simultaneously one of the best collectables and music implementations I’ve ever seen in a game. The shanties are essentially little pages strewn around the world that you have to chase through the wind, it’s basically a test of your parkour skills as you sprint across rooftops and tree-branches to catch them. But, best of all, once you catch one you have a little double-entendre laden sea shanty to read. Even better, your sailors sing from the list of the shanties you’ve collected while you sail around! I’ve never come across a collectable that contributed to an audio cosmetic before.

Beyond the level design, they also deserve massive commendation for the world they have created. The game steers clear of pirate cliché’s, hardly an Arrr! is uttered as the game instead sticks to a quite historical portrayal of the period – including a cast of characters straight out of the seminal 1724 tome A General History of the Pyrates.

While many characters seem motivated, pretty much unavoidably, by gold, booze and women, the game does also make some effort to fall on the right side of social issues. It deals with the slave-trade history of the Caribbean, including a substantial part of the main story and making the liberation of slaves the central focus of both the single-player DLC extensions that currently exist to the game.

AC4 even does a decent job at having a pair of strong female characters, and just, barely, passes the Bechdel test. And importantly, despite being a sailor, the main character doesn’t make cringingly lewd passes at every lady he sees. It’s not enough to call it a feminist game by any stretch, but it’s not a laddish game like GTA either.

It does somewhat undo its good work in the moral/social conscience stakes by encouraging you to harpoon whales.

Moving on to the storyline. As pirate yarns go, it starts out a little dull, but really picks up as it goes along. It’s the classic tale of man finds ship, man wants treasure, man meets shark, man finds treasure, treasure turns out to be different from what man expected, man needs to save the world from what he unearthed by finding the treasure. It’s a good enough tale, and putting the Assassin’s Creed twist on top of a pirate yarn prevents it from being too derivative.

One of the problems is that I found the main character Edward Kenway to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. He has very simplistic motivations that don’t really develop much through the game. You never really feel like you ‘know’ him, although to an extent that does make it a little easier to project yourself into the role. Fortunately, the other major characters are much better and you develop quite an attachment to some of them. Setting up Blackbeard, who by most accounts is one of history’s great psychopaths as a sympathetic character was an interesting, brave and ultimately quite rewarding decision.

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Just some of the motley cast of characters in AC4

But something irked me. Unlike Arkham Asylum, where I really felt like I was Batman, or the Saboteur where I felt I was back in wartime Paris, I never felt like I was a pirate of the Caribbean. This was surprising because on paper a game which allows ample opportunities to unbuckle your swash in a historical world should have been an easy sell. While I can’t quite put my finger on why, I attribute this primarily to two things, the overall feel of the world, and the way the central character progresses.

As I’ve indicated earlier, the game world is probably the most beautiful, historically accurate representation of the golden age of piracy ever developed for a game. Yet somehow, it still doesn’t quite feel alive? This is a game that has largely missed the current trend for ambient/environmental storytelling. While the larger locations like Havana, Kingston and Nassau do have distinct and recognisable architectural styles which contribute to the overall feel of the Caribbean, the little villages around the world felt very same-y, existing only as a source of collectibles and side missions. This was not a Bethesda or MMO-style game where every town has a storyline and progression of its own. With the exception of Nassau which does transform along with the main storyline, none of the other locations were really anything more than a place to visit.

The shipping suffered a similar malaise of pointless presence. Aesthetically it was amazing, you sail along and see ships with their national colours, occasionally even engaged in combat with each other. But as you watch them more closely the illusion is quickly broken. Ships seem to just be sailing aimlessly around, you never really get the sense that the various treasure fleets were going anywhere, or that you’d be able to get more rum by striking shipping near a port with a rum distillery rather than somewhere else. Instead there is a simple mechanic that the various regions of the ocean have ships of differing type, nationality and level, and that’s basically the extent of the variability. Even Sid Meier’s Pirates back in the black and white days had a treasure fleet which had to be tracked as it travelled across the Caribbean.

And then there’s the progression. Both your character and your ship develop in a very quick, linear fashion. You acquire resources, mainly gold, from quests and piracy and then purchase upgrades like better swords and pistols for yourself and cannons and hull siding for your ship. Within about 10 hours of playing the game both I and my ship were far superior to anything around me, meaning that there was little tension. So much so that I wound up accidentally taking one of the toughest forts in the game really early on. It shot at me, I shot back, 10 minutes later it was all over.

Character and ship customisation is a similar story. There’s a reasonable amount of options for outfits, sails and ship figureheads, which normally would allow me to make a character feel like my own, but I just never got there. This may have been partly because it was very much a case of choosing from pre-set options, rather than being able to do anything really creative like design a flag, or choose a combination of hat and coat. Not to mention the fact that it is simply impossible to find an outfit that looks equally at home behind the wheel of a ship and on top of a church steeple.

Assassin's Creed 4 outfit inconsistency

I can only assume the hat is glued onto his head.

So overall, it’s a great game. If I was scoring it on the traditional graphics, story, gameplay type categories then it would seriously be hard to give it anything short of perfect scores across the board. But unfortunately it’s like playing a game on the set of a movie. Everything looks perfect, almost too perfect, but inhabit the world for any length of time – something that you really want to do with this game – and you quickly start to see that there isn’t quite as much behind the façade as you initially thought.

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It was starting look like the world of Fallout could be that much closer to reality before I actually got around to writing something.  Not that that’s a bad thing – the world of Fallout is endearing, showing the truly amazing spirit that humans have in the face of adversity.  Of course, on the reverse of that, it shows the horrible things humanity can do to itself on a daily basis – even after the worst of human nature almost leads to the destruction the world through a nuclear war.

Fallout love aside my reasons for  absence are far less exciting, and rather than a journey across the Mojave desert, it was a 14 hour drive across mainland Australia from South Australia to Australian Capital Territory, which instead of being home to hordes  of Ghouls,  is home to hordes of public servants.  I guess many would argue that they are one and the same. 

Unfortunately the move has temporarily rendered me computer-less and internet connection-less, so the frequency of posts isn’t likely to increase anytime soon.  But rest assured while you’re finding bigger and better sources of video game rants, I am still aiming to grow the balls to actually sink my teeth into Soul Nomad and the World Eaters.  You know, ‘cause the PS2 was better than everything. Or something like that.

Oh yeah and I probably still won’t be playing my 3DS.

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Callin’ the Stubbs

At the moment Piranha Poodles resident Stubbsy and myself live in totally different States in this fair country we like to call Australia. For some reason though our Prime Minister calls it Austrylia. Different strokes I guess.

Anyhow, because of this we don’t get to hang out a lot.  Truth be told its been more than two years since I actually saw him. That’s a long ass time in anyone’s language. As such most of our communications occurs via the electronic means. Not ideal, but it suffices.

Sometimes however, we actually speak on the phone. Last week was one such occassion, and during our brief conversation I was reminded why we’re such good mates. It went something a little like this:

 

 

Stubbsy: (answers phone) – Dude, for what do I owe the privelage of a phone call?

Me: – Just thought I’d say hi mate, how you going? What are you up to?

(and here’s the kicker)

Stubbsy: ACTUALLY I’M JUST MAKING A PINATA.

 

Seriously?  Making a Pinata? You can’t make this stuff up.  Got to love the Stubbs.

Oh yeah and how great is Viva Pinata?

Did I fail to mention it was a video call? This is an ACTUAL photo of Stubbsy in the wild.

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After a long drawn out process of trying to work out what on earth the game for 1990 was, we finally got there with some time on Google (or Bing if you’re as cool as me) and a cracking hunch from Mr Lewis Packwood.  And like usual, I’ve fallen a further day behind which means my Christmas break and boxing day, aside from watching the Aussies win the Ashes will more than likely involve me putting together a few of these.  Fun times for all. (Updated 19 December 2010, answered correctly by LewisPackwood)

1993 – Rock ‘n Roll Racing

Even the behemoths had to start of small.  That’s really the story behind this game.  My history with this game is one that unfortunately doesn’t involve ownership – despite a chance to buy a port of the game on the GBA ten years later that I foolishly ignored.  It was one of those games that you rent.  And rent.  And rent.  And rent.  The strange thing is, despite the repeated rental of the game, parents still never manage to see the value in just investing in the goddamn thing rather than repeatedly having to spend money to rent it over night.  I’m sure it was in issue of liquidity or some such bullshit.  Regardless I still haven’t forgiven them.

Developed by a studio formerly known as Silicon and Synapse, know known as something entirely different to millions and millions and millions more people.  Yep, I just gave it away but if on the off chance you don’t recognise the old name, just trust me that its a developer almost in a league of its own in terms of pedigree and strike rate of simply great games (and games with legs). Of course none of the games since have been anywhere near as good as the Lost Vikings. WoW I can’t believe I just said that (and i swear just then a brick with a death threat just flew through my window)…

The game itself is a true arcade racing game consisting of great multiplayer, exagerated but nuanced handling and a rocking selection of tracks and cars.  And as was the standard back in the day all this happened from an isometric perspective that sat somewhere between the all seeing eye of Super Off Road and the you’d better memorise the track view of RC Pro Am.

Oh yeah and there were weapons.  Which leads to my one and only complaint with the game: looking back at how the game worked it favoured first and foremost the better player in multiplayer scenarios.  Of course I was too young at the time to realise this (or even to think about it really) but if you were behind you were basically screwed.  The game incentivises ruthlessness first and foremost, scoring players money (used to upgrade and buy new vehicles) for destroying opponents and also rewarding you for lapping your opponents. You could never be knocked out indefinitely, and the only real set back was losing time – but in this game losing a race literally meant losing money, which literally meant losing the ability to upgrade.  But I guess its no different to any other circuit racer of the day in that respect.  And in the end who even cares, it meant I was winning.  All the time.

Did I mention there’s a Black Sabbath song on the soundtrack?

17 Days to go 17 Years ago

1993 – Rock ‘n Roll Racing

Do you know the game? Post your guesses in the comments section.  Come back tomorrow 0r link below to earlier entries in the countdown to 2011.

18 Days to Go – 1992

19 Days to Go – 1991

20 Days to Go – 1990

21 Days to Go – 1989

22 Days to Go – 1988

23 Days to Go – 1987

24 Days to  Go – 1986

25 Days to Go – 1985

26 Days to Go – 1984


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Tomorrow’s edition of this blog is proudly brought to you by:

See, its funny because we’re Australian. And its true because its from a Cinemaware classic.

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Anyone tried playing that classic game that you always loved and for 15 years have told everyone that you wish more games were like it, and that you wish they’d make a sequel?  I have.  That game was Killer Instinct.  And before you answer, no, you don’t wish that game had a sequel.  Go back and play it, and tell me its still relevant.  Tell me that its a good game, and if you can try and think back to playing it back in the day and whether it actually WAS any good or if your views had been tainted by your peers at school; by the snazzy graphics it threw out of your SNES back in the day; or – and don’t ever admit this to a brain professional, the violence.  I’ll answer all those questions for you.  The game really wasn’t that great and in fact Street Fighter II which by that point was pushing half a decade old, to put it bluntly, sh!ts all over it.

But ask anyone that played it back in the day what they thought of it, and they’ll swear by it.

I bet you don't remember it looking like this

I have been having a pretty hard time writing anything coherent lately.  If I’ve written anything at all, that is.  But I think I know why.  I like new games, yeah, they’re great.  But I’m not really passionate about them, if that makes any sense.  I could write ad nauseum about why Red Dead Redemption is a new benchmark in open world gaming, but I could also then go on to say that as great (fantastic really) that it is, it can get repetitive and struggles at times to hold my attention.  But that’s a symptom of my strange relationship with open world games in that I sometimes get so sidetracked by the plethora of stuff to do on the side that when it comes to the main quest I find that I’ve spent about as much time as I want to in that world.

But I digress

So while I spend money on these games, and play them, I have been finding it increasingly more difficult to write about them and make them somehow relevant to me.  Lets face it, you’re not coming to me for an opinion and honestly, I wouldn’t either when the great people over at Giantbomb are doing such a cracking job of that themselves.  So really there’s not a whole lot left for me to say about these games apart from maybe saying in a somewhat Daisy Steiner fashion “I Like them, I think they’re good”.

But one thing I do like is old games.  Or new games that are like old games. Or bat shit crazy games.  And portable games.  These really are the bread and butter of what I know and love.  And I know them well.  So rather than me ranting about stuff that I really struggle to write more than a paragraph on, and as such leave this good intentioned little blog somewhat neglected for large periods of time, I think a change in focus should make it easier (and hopefully more interesting) to continue putting stuff up on here.

What does that have to do with Killer Instinct?  Well I wanna be the guy that tells you old games were great, even when they’re not so great anymore.

So if you want more ranting about Powermonger and how its a human rights violation that it hasn’t appeared in any form since its release in 1990 (not to mention how great its intro cinematic was) or how badly we need to stop the successor to President Margaret – PC Bil, from being elected then this may be the place for you.  If you got that last reference then I think we both need a life.

So where to from here?  In the coming weeks you’ll be seeing a dramatic shift in the stuff I put up here; from finishing up that list of the Essential Game Boy games that has taken me far too long to finish, to writing about those games that don’t get enough written about them – starting with a love letter to Cinemaware’s classic It Came from the Desert.

In short, I’m sorry I ran away when I said I was just going out to grab some milk, but I promise that I’ll look after you and our baby from now on.  Wait, that’s from my other blog….

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Last night I celebrated what was probably my 50 millionth virtual kill in a video game.  It wasn’t the milestone I thought it’d be;  I was expecting to be opening a bottle of champagne over an adoring and cheering crowd while confetti or streamers fell from the heavens onto my head.  Instead, I got another dude wearing camo and body armour coming around the corner to try and blow my head onto the wall behind me. 

And then it dawned on me, all this, and for what?

There is certainly something empowering about taking it to a dude or dudette on your TV screen.  Hell we’ve been doing it for years, watching bullets flying from a floating gun slightly off centre at the bottom of the screen But what are we doing really?  I mean, for humanity.  Well dismantle those guns and pocket that cold steel because there are warm and fuzzy feelings to be had when playing the following videogames, even if you don’t get the public recognition you deserve.

Metropolismania

Yes, I will help your friend open a centre for families in my town.  I’ll file that paperwork straight away and Mr Thomson can move right on in.  Its moments like that in Metropolismania and its sequel, the town planning game series developed by japanese developer Media Factory, that help me sleep at night.

She saw KD Lang and said to herself, 'that's the look I want'

The games are relatively simple – to my girlfriend at least, who will go out of her way to satisfy the needs of these egg-plant loving people (if you’ve played the game, like me you’ll wonder why these people insist on telling me they like egg plant) by ensuring they have all the buildings, places and people they need to live a happy life. Me, well I’m perplexed by the whole experience.  But there is a certain charm to the game that keeps me glued to the screen watching her perform good deeds for the people in these bustling metropolii.  And the terrible localisation at times just seems like its too ridiculous to not be a joke, but it really adds to the charm of this quirky, if niche, town planning sim-lite.

Katamari Damacy

Aside from the charm of the simplistic visual design and the always awesome soundtrack accompanying the games, there is something that draws me back to each and every freakin’ Katamari game – despite them presenting me with a sense of deja vu every time.  But they say familiarity is comforting, and combined with the overwhelming sense of selflessness I feel each time I help the  prince or one of his  (way too cute for a grown man to admit digging on) cousins rebuild a world or galaxy that the King of All cosmos has inadvertantly destroyed, there is nothing not to love about the Katamari Damacy series.

Forget the big-bang, this is how the planet Earth was born

And all this is done by rolling around a giant ball, or katamari around the environment and picking up a whole damn lot of stuff – some is genuinely garbage, but as you get bigger it extends to everything from adult humans, to animals, fences, buildings and even continents and stars at times.

Okay, so this kind of makes it all sound like a megolomaniac’s dream, but grounding the games’ premises in righting the wrongs of the King makes it all okay.  And kind of humanitarian-like.  At least that’s what I tell myself each time I pick up a man who was innocently enjoying a picnic by the campfire…  And then i try and convince myself he lived through being crushed by entire continents.

Minon: Everyday Hero

 Have you ever played a game and had no idea what was going on?  Like none at all?  That’s what its like playing Minon: Everyday hero for Nintendo’s Wave-Cube.  A sequel to the 1998 PS1 title, Noone can stop Mr Domino, Minon Everyday Hero isn’t the greatest game in the world, but its charms, quirkiness and overall do-goodery is enough to just get it over the line from mediocre to okay.  Even if you have no freakin’ clue as to what you’re doing.

Yep, I don't know either...

Okay, so there’s a balloon in the tree and a kid is crying, I’m playing as a dude that kind of looks like a mixture between a ginger bread-man and Beat from Jet Set Radio, and I’m running on paths made of dominoes.  And that’s the extent of my knowledge.  But what I do know is that I’ll be damned if whatever I’m doing isn’t making the world a better place.  And the achievement and self fulfillment comes with minimal effort too – kind of like the game is playing itself.  Think of it as getting an undergraduate arts degree. 

 

 

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