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Sunday, 30 September 2012

Indie, Retro, WiiU and the Odd Surprise: Eurogamer 2012

I found the 2011 Eurogamer show-floor surprisingly disappointing, so, to be fair this year didn't have to do too much to beat my expectations. Pleasantly though, there were a number of little gems hidden around Earls Court One that reminded me why I'm in this industry in the first place. So, in no particular order, let's go...


Now, I refuse to actually play anything that I already know I want - it spoils the excitement of unwrapping the cellophane and getting it going for the first time when I eventually get it home. This was the case with the WiiU, but I couldn't turn down the opportunity to at least go and have a good old nosey. Thankfully, Nintendo opted for a much more open display area this year than they have had previously, and this was an excellent decision, judging by the number of people gathered around the outside. The queue to get the chance to play some games was pretty lengthy too, so no shortage of interest.

My main area of intrigue was ZombieU, as I wanted to see just how much of a jump the U's graphical prowess had made. Certainly not disappointing, that's for sure, holding its own quite happily alongside the nearby Dust514, and looking substantially smoother than current 360 or PS3 titles. Admittedly, the screens being used can't have been more than 22-inches, so whether they upscale as nicely is something I couldn't comment on.

What did impress me was the ease with which new players were able to pick up the new GamePad and start playing, with only the simplest of instructions from the Expo staff running the display. Getting the hang of moving the GamePad around to view the environment on the smaller screen seemed to be the only area of difficulty for some, but as with all new types of interaction, that is to be expected. The console itself is perfectly serviceable in terms of aesthetics, although I'd certainly opt for the black option.

All in all, the only thing I'm gutted about is the lack of a new Zelda in the release line-up. 


Indie Arcade

The Indie Arcade was very strong this year, with some really innovative and downright fun games on show.

Sokobond provides minimalist, but taxing, puzzle gameplay in swathes.
First on my list of ones to give your support to is Sokobond, an ingenious puzzle game in which players must manoeuvre atoms around a grid-based area to form different molecules. In their own words, it is "Logical, minimalist and crafted with love and science". Just like all good things in life.

I found myself engrossed in this game for a good fifteen minutes or so without even realising - a clever and satisfying little title with added value of teaching you a bit of chemistry. What's not to love there?

Kairo is an intriguing experience, and I do like intrigue.
Next up is Kairo, a surreal title that exudes a certain quality that is difficult to pin down. Watching it, it definitely touched on some of the same qualities that Dear Esther did in terms of oddness and ethereal-ness, but with added puzzle elements to boot. Indeed, the developers highlight environmental storytelling and music as being key features of the game - could this perhaps take the formula that Esther used and make some successful adjustments to it?

Graphically minimal, but with some robust lighting choices throughout, it has an immediately recognisable style. I also give the developers Kudos for crafting this in Unity - but only because that engine hates me for some reason... I'm not entirely sure this will be to everyone's taste, but if like me you don't mind some obscurity and weirdness in your games, this is one to keep a beady eye on for sure.

Support this game on Steam Greenlight here:

Gear Up is surprisingly good fun, if a little rough around the edges.
Lastly then on my shortlist is Gear Up; a multiplayer focused, vehicular warfare title with some beautifully stylish vehicle design and speedy, hectic gameplay.

The game allows players to construct their weapon of choice, with a wide range of chassis types, armour, weapon types and propulsion types. Dropping in to battles of up to 32 players (or 3 to 4, in the case of Eurogamer, but even that was fun), the game feels a lot like Robot Wars - you know, when it was still good. 

Unfortunately, the game does suffer slightly from some balancing issues that I noticed (hovering tanks can outmatch a caterpillar-based vehicle easily), and the inability to flip over a vehicle if you roll it onto its roof is just daft (unless I missed that button somewhere). With some further fine-tuning though, this a great little time-waster that could waste a lot more than you might expect.

Unexpected Surprises

I usually pay very little attention to the majority of triple-A titles at Eurogamer, as they rarely pique my interest. There were a few this year though that I did bother with, and I'm glad that I did.

The new Tomb Raider I felt deserved a play, to see if it could match up to my love affair with Uncharted. Happily, it played really very nicely indeed, with a few nods to Uncharted to boot. The mechanic that requires players to hammer a button to get Lara to regain her grip on a ledge is moderately tedious - it's a QT event in the middle of a perfectly good platforming section after all - but, as a whole package, I was impressed. Probably will be a purchase for me.

Dishonoured  isn't really an 'unexpected' surprise, but nonetheless should be mentioned. An interesting graphical style, somewhere between Borderlands and Deus Ex provides a gritty edge to the game which works well with the satisfying combat. 

Assassin's Creed III was a spectacle to behold and no mistake. The trailer shown off at E3 involving some very impressive ship-to-ship combat amidst a raging tempest came to beautiful real-time life, and if anything, is even more impressive. Of course, one does have to question the decision to show something so fundamentally different to the usual Assassin's Creed gameplay - let's hope this isn't the most impressive bit of the game, because that would be a real shame.

Far Cry 3 is a joy - having only been playing Far Cry 2 just recently and being incredibly bored by the monotony of the desert landscape, and repetitive enemy encounters, the little segment of 3 that I played reminded me why I enjoyed the first game in the series so much. Lush environments, lots of routes to choose from, clever enemies (more so than in 2 for sure) and very satisfying weaponry. This is going to be good I think, unless they do something daft...

The Unfinished Swan once again is not unexpected, but is possibly not so well known, so should be mentioned also. A game in which the entire world is invisible until you start throwing balls of ink at it is wonderfully surreal, and should make for some very interesting play experiences. If this doesn't do well, it will be a real travesty.


Despite all the games present on the show-floor, even in a year which admittedly had some pretty great stuff to see, it does say something about the state of the current market when the Retro section of the Expo was so packed out. I personally indulged in some Duck Hunt, some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a little bit of coffee-table Galaga and Bubble Bobble and a bunch of other things. 

What was most impressive, and I think every publisher in the world should be forced to watch, was the number of people crowding round the living-room-esque sofa setup surrounding 4 televisions, with people playing 4-player titles such as Mario Kart 64, Goldeneye, Micro Machines and the like. The coffee-table arcade machines again were drawing people together, complete strangers sitting down to have a quick blast of Pacman, for example.

If ever there was an argument for games being a social medium (by which I mean real socialising, not socialising via a microphone), then this display was it. It was made even more wonderfully poetic when you consider that these people were happy to sit down and play games that were 5, 10, even 15 or more years old, because they were having fun playing with others. Oh, if only today's publishers would stop for a moment. Stop pumping endless money into your online modes, and just let us play local multiplayer. The 360 and the PS3 support up to 4 controllers for a reason. Use them, it's clearly something that players still want to experience!

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Why have I been paying Microsoft?

No, I haven't suddenly decided that piracy is the way forward for my gaming habit. I've instead been slapped around the face by a recent, very lovely offer from Sony on their PlayStation Plus service. 

Having only owned my PS3 for a couple of years, and having had my Xbox for a couple of years longer than that, I had grown rather used to paying my £40 per year for an Xbox Gold account. This year though, when I got the email reminding me my automatic renewal was due, I stopped for a moment and actually asked, why on earth do I pay this?

The primary reason for a Gold account is to play online. I'm not very social, especially not when I play games, so that can't be why I pay for an account...

But, it gives me access to lots of exclusive offers - which recently, have been for games and add-ons for titles I will never, ever play. I think in the last year, I have purchased only 3 or 4 specially discounted titles. Hardly enough to warrant the cost of the Gold account. So that's not the reason either...

What about all of the streaming and media services that are Gold membership reliant? Um, no I have a computer, a PS3, a Wii, a laptop and a phone for those. Which don't cost extra to use. 

This leaves me with only one possible reason that I have kept paying. The little, shiny number on my profile that says how many years I have been a Gold member for. Damn.

With that realisation, and the convenient timing of a 25% discount on PlayStation Plus memberships, I investigated the benefits.

Not only do Sony provide online play as standard (a topic that has been much argued over the years, so let's move on), but as a service, PlayStation Plus is considerably more comprehensive, and caters for a much wider audience with its selection of freebies. For my £30, I have, until my membership expires, access to a plethora of titles that I would have been happy paying £30 for alone. Borderlands, LittleBigPlanet 2, Motorstorm Apocalypse, Just Cause 2, and more. For a single payment. That's more bang for my buck than I've probably got from 4 years worth of Xbox Gold. Couple this with access to exclusive content, early Beta releases and demos, exclusive discounts on other PlayStation Store items, cloud backup for my save games, and the ability to have my PS3 automatically download game patches and updates overnight, and it's a mighty fine service indeed.

Now, I'm fully aware that the battle between these two services is one fought fiercely by fans on each side, and this is by no means intended as a put down for Microsoft - I'm still going to use my Xbox, it has some great titles on it after all. But if you're looking for a premium service that offers a huge amount, and like me, you don't really care about online play that much, you can't really go wrong with PlayStation Plus in my opinion. I just wish I'd found that out a bit earlier.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Still Alive...

Well now, it's been a rather hectic month and no mistake. I thought I'd write a short post to just confirm I'm still in existence. While there are many, many half-written posts sitting in my Drafts folder, I simply haven't had the time to write any of them to completion yet.

So, what's occurring?

Well, it's that time of year again - all the lovely students are rolling their way back to Portsmouth, and suddenly I've remembered I have responsibilities. Sitting around working from home for nearly 4 months does cause one to become a little apathetic, even if those 4 months have been spent feverishly working away on AAMFP. This year though, not only do I have my usual selection of classes to teach, I have the pleasure of running Mr. Pinchbeck's Games Research unit myself too. No small undertaking, that's for certain. And because I apparently think I don't do enough, I've taken yet another teaching job at a local college as well. Some may call me insane. Some, indeed, already have. But if you could spend your days developing, teaching, and discussing the medium that you love, with the added bonus of being paid for the pleasure, wouldn't you do it as much as possible too?

Add to my already full schedule a wedding to plan for the end of December, and the small matter of some looming, important build deadlines for AAMFP, and you can start to see perhaps why my blog has been less than buzzing recently. I shall, of course, be quick to update as soon as we have some more news to share. I wonder when that might be. Hmm.

Oh, lastly, I will be at the Eurogamer Expo in London on Thursday 27th of September. Anyone that fancies a bit of a natter, track me down. I'll likely be hovering around anything with a Nintendo logo nearby (I'm not a fanboy ¬_¬) sporting one of our lovely Dev Team tees.