Destiny, I fucking love you!

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I can’t think of another game that has polarized opinion as much as Destiny. When I hear complaints about the game, I usually react by nodding my head in agreement, before returning to work on adding to the 350+ hours I’ve already sunk into it. I’ve even concluded that had I’d been reviewing the game, I probably would have given it a seven too. Despite all that, I love Destiny. Regardless of its many flaws, Destiny is quickly becoming my most played console game, ever. With that in mind, (and before I write about the things I don’t like) I thought I’d go through the things I love the most about Destiny.

Destiny_20141119212713 Hand Cannons. Oh my god, Hand Cannons! I love these bad boys so much, I very nearly made two of these things Hawkmoon and Thorn. Once in a while, I come across a weapon in a game that has the magical X factor, and I fall in love with it. In Halo 3 it was the Spartan Laser. In Gears of War it was the Longshot Rifle. But In Destiny it’s a whole damn class of them. Nothing else feels as good as headshotting enemies with a Hand Cannon – not even killing a Hunter in PvP just after they’ve popped their Bladedancer special. Hand Cannons are so much fun to use, if I had an actual physical version, I would do dirty, dirty things to it.

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Raids. When I first started playing Destiny, all the talk from those further along than I was about the Vault of Glass, and just how good it was. After a frustrating few weeks of no raiding, I eventually lucked in to a group of friends tackling the Vault, and found out for myself what the fuss was all about. Without a doubt, the Vault of Glass is some of the best designed, and most enjoyable video game content I’ve ever played. I could go into more detail, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. What I will say is that in my opinion, the Vault is the perfect example of how you create co-op gaming where every player has a meaningful role.

Destiny_20141124221420 The Iron Banner. Version One of the Iron Banner was not good. All that weaponry and armour we’d been carefully gathering and levelling was more or less meaningless in IB v1, and players were not happy. Bungie went away, reworked the mode, and sent Lord Saladin back to the tower. The first few minutes into my first game, I headshotted another player on the other side of the map with Bad Seed Down, and instantly I was converted. Power finally fucking mattered. Oh boy, did it matter. Since then I’ve taken part in every Iron Banner, and learnt the joy of headshots with a fully levelled Hawkmoon. After a shaky start with destiny’s PvP, I can honestly say that Iron Banner is one of my very favourite parts of Destiny.

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Warlocks. Apart from having an exceptionally cool sounding name, Warlocks are also blessed with having some of the best looking armour in the game. The Iron Banner set for example is simply beautiful. And if there’s anything better than swishing around in robes, firing off Nova Bombs – I’ve yet to find it. I do have a Hunter and Titan, and I’ve found them quite fun to play, but they don’t have the same sort of swagger the Warlock does. Flying electrical fists and golden guns are all well and good, but let’s be honest, they’re not the same as tooling around in a cool outfit, wielding Hawkmoon, and fucking shit up with purple balls.

 

Destiny: Crota’s Cheesy End

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Sorry about the title, I couldn’t help myself.

Cheese. Bungie does not like it apparently. Not if the content of their latest update is to be believed, anyway. If you’ve been following Destiny’s progress, you’ll probably know that the new Raid – Crota’s End, has been suffering from a particularly cheesy odour since it’s introduction as part of the Dark Below expansion. Tales of Guardians using various cheesy methods to run through the raid easily, hoovering up loot, were becoming commonplace, and it was only a matter of time before Bungie stepped in.

Not cheesing this time round.

Not cheesing this time round.

Now that they’ve at least begun that process, I thought I’d talk why I’m glad they’re trying to de-cheese the Raid. Firstly, I’d like to say that I’m not against cheesing per-se. As someone who’s crimes include hiding beneath the stairs in the Cerberus Vae Strike, I’d be a massive hypocrite for a start. But mainly it’s because the whole thing is a massive grey area. Where does cheesing end and exploiting a game bug begin, for example? If its possible (although highly unlikely) to be killed whilst hiding in a “cheese spot”, is that cheesing? There’s no right or wrong answer in my opinion.

So why don’t I like it in the Raid? I’ll explain. Destiny is a strange game when it comes to challenge. Unlike similar games within the genre, its possible to replay the entirety of Destiny’s story mode content whilst being hugely over-levelled. The gear and weapon levelling mechanics eventually render the game’s “normal” difficulty curve meaningless, and beyond the odd Heroic stipulation on various Bounties, the game never really insists you turn the difficulty up. The vast majority of Destiny’s PvE content therefore, relies upon the player choosing to be challenged to remain meaningful, and that’s why I have a problem with Raid cheese.

Definitely cheesed this one

Definitely cheesed this one

Players solo-cheesing their way through Crota’s End are rendering the most meaningful content in the game meaningless. They’re rendering the achievement of earning Raid gear meaningless. And in a game that relies upon the player to keep content relevant, I don’t understand why you’d do that. What is the end game anyway? You cheese your way to a full set of Raid gear, and then do the Raid as intended? That doesn’t make any sort of sense. Destiny is all about the gear you’re wearing, and the guns you’re wielding, and I personally don’t know how you can take any pride in that when you’ve cheesed your way there.

As I’ve said, cheesing is a ridiculously grey area, and something I myself have partaken in, so I don’t want you to go away thinking I’m making a judgement here, because that’s not my intention. This is an expression of bewilderment at the specific issue of soloing Crota’s End to short-cut your way to Raid gear and weapons. So by all means, feel free to ask me why I’m not also questioning whole Raid groups cheesing bits of the Vault of Glass, or to tell me I’m taking a bunch of pixels way too seriously. I won’t mind. Yes, its ridiculous the Raid can be solo-cheesed. Yes, Bungie should fix it PDQ. But also yes, I think the players have a responsibility to resist the cheese, no matter how fragrant.

 

The Obligatory Festive Blog Post

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Seasons greetings!

As we’re all in that weird period of stasis – between Christmas and the New Year, I thought I’d bore you with some words. Hopefully you had a great Christmas and enjoyed all the traditional seasonal things like turkey, too much chocolate, and PSN outages. Personally, having spent Christmas Eve night throwing up, I spent the holiday gingerly eating things in an effort to work out what made me sick in the first place.

Obviously from a gaming point of view, the big news of the holiday was the attack upon Xbox Live and PSN. Both services went down at one point, and rather predictably, Xbox Live recovered quickly whilst PSN stumbled around for days until users patience had run out. I know a lot of people got hot under the collar about the outages (probably justifiably so), but I simply can’t bring myself to be angry.

Maybe it was the Christmas cheer, or maybe it’s my time spent playing Eve Online (where the best way to beat the griefers is to just ignore them until they go away), but my response was to simply play Far Cry 4 offline and ignore it all. The ONLY time I got slightly fretful was when I realised Xur had the Hawkmoon upgrade for sale, and even then my panic was quickly alleviated by PSN coming on for long enough for me to buy it.

Apart from that, my Christmas was spent either sighing at the sight of all my children’s presents spread across the living room floor, or wistfully glancing at my unfinished modelling projects, and wishing this could all be over so I could get back to doing them. Pretty much the same as usual then! Hopefully you enjoyed your festive period as much as I did. Come the New Year normal service (whatever that may be) will resume, until then, have a good new year!

The Game Jar Files: The gaming clichés that need to die

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Originally published on The Game Jar – February 7th 2014

Clichés are funny old things. Usually they sound kind of right, and if enough people repeat them often enough, we all convince ourselves they must be right. The thing is though, most clichés are nonsense, and once you stop repeating them out of habit, you soon come to realise they simply don’t stand up to logical scrutiny. The world of video games is no stranger clichés, our hobby has a fair few of them, but I think it’s time to shine a light on some of them. Below I’ve listed the five gaming clichés that irk me the most. By exposing them, I hope to drain them of their powers, thus removing them from our collective conversations. So buckle up everybody, as I take some gaming clichés down!

The PC Master Race.

Apart from being mystified as to why you’d want to use a term like master race given its historical connotations, I can’t work out what PC gamers are trying to say with this one. That they’re some sort of superior gaming life-form perhaps? Or that console gamers are of sub-human intelligence maybe? Whatever it is they think they’re saying, I’m willing to bet its nothing like what everybody else hears. Because here’s the facts when it comes to PC gaming versus Console gaming; they both have their pros, they both have their cons, and one isn’t vastly superior than the other. It’s that simple. Trying to pretend you’re part of some special elite because you use a mouse and keyboard doesn’t make you look cool or special, it makes you look like a jerk. So instead of trying to insist your part of some special group with a vaguely fascistic sounding name, why not celebrate the fact that we all get to play cool games, regardless of the platform we choose.

I can’t use that controller!.

If you’re staunchly loyal to one brand of console or another, you’ve probably (at some point or another) declared that you simply cannot use the opposing brand’s controller. If you have, I won’t judge you, but please, allow me to illustrate just how silly that statement is so that you can avoid future embarrassment. Homo Sapiens have roamed the Earth for approximately two hundred thousand years now, and during that time, our very survival has depended on our ability to adapt to our surroundings. We’ve gone from flint tools to outer space, all because we have the mental and physical dexterity to overcome the challenges that lay in our path. And yet, despite all the evolution that has gone into producing us, some of you are flummoxed by a small piece of plastic. Do you have similar trouble with unfamiliar door handles? Or perhaps you take your own cutlery to restaurants? No, of course you don’t, you get used to it because human beings are infinitely adaptable. Not liking a controller is perfectly fine, insisting you absolutely cannot use it? Not so much.

Publishers are EVIL.

There’s a reason small independent shops are dying out and giving way to major chains. It’s because we as a society don’t care enough about keeping them open. As much as we might complain about yet another Starbucks or Tescos opening up on our doorsteps, we continue to give them our money. That nice little coffee shop on the corner closed because you never went in there. Your favourite game studio closed down because you didn’t buy their latest game. It’s simple, brutal economics. Games publishers are businesses, not empires of evil. They’re not trying to seduce mankind with their corrupt wares, they’re entities that respond to our buying habits. If we stopped buying games containing all the things we claim to hate; the micro-transactions, the on-disc DLC, and the Online Pass codes, they’d be gone tomorrow. If you really think EA or Activision are evil organisations out to ruin gaming, I have a solution for you: Stop buying FIFA and Call of Duty.

Gamers want a multimedia box.

No, they don’t. They want a games console that also delivers other forms of media in a convenient way. A games console first, a media device second. I realise some of you are probably shaking your head right now, but be honest with me here, can you name a single person that told you they wouldn’t be buying an Xbox One because it launched without an iPlayer app?When choosing your next-gen console, were TV and music streaming apps top of your shopping list? No, of course not. No gamer looks at the available media apps before they look at the games when deciding whether to buy new hardware. We’re gamers. We want to play video games. Media apps on a console are a great addition. They’re the sweet topping on an already awesome cake. But what they aren’t is the reason to buy a console. That would be the games, and no amount of PR spin is going to convince me otherwise.

Making games should be kept artistically pure.

One of the biggest gaming clichés doing the rounds today is that fans are having an increasingly worrying level of input into game design, and that developers are starting to pander to our every whim. ‘Leonardo da Vinci didn’t have to put up with this kind of shit!‘ they cry, upon reading about the latest assault on a developers artistic integrity, before going on to tell you how it doesn’t happen with films or books. The thing is though, that’s not quite true. Film directors will often re-cut a film, or even re-shoot scenes, based on audience feedback at test screenings. Authors don’t proceed straight to the printers after finishing their latest book, they hand it to a publisher who will give feedback and recommend changes based on the target audience. Creative changes happen in all these industries, all the time, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. So yes, Leonardo did indeed ‘have to put up with that kind of shit‘, as do film directors, and authors, and game developers.

So there we go, my least favourite gaming clichés debunked for all time. From this moment on, you are no longer allowed to perpetuate these clichés, and must correct all those that use them. Well OK, you’re not actually duty-bound to do any of that, but hopefully I have made you think a little. We should question these things from time to time, because if we don’t, they start to develope a weight they really don’t deserve. So do as I do, and laugh in the face of clichés everywhere.

The Game Jar Files: A Look Back at Ring of Red

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Originally published on The Game Jar – January 20th 2014

Somewhere on my ‘games I wish I’d never traded’ list, is a rather obscure strategy game called Ring of Red. It’s not the best game on there by any means, but it is the game I look for most when trawling through second-hand shops. Because despite not setting the world alight when it was released, Ring of Red had both an inexplicable charm to it, and a certain addictive quality that has meant that the memory of it is lodged in my brain, and refuses to go away.

Developed and published by Konami, and released in 2000 on the PlayStation 2, Ring of Red was a turn-based/real-time 3D RPG strategy game, that boasted giant walking mechanised tanks as its main selling point. Featuring some distinctly Japanese box art, and a variety of cool looking mechs, Ring of Red instantly intrigued me when I saw it on the shelf, and now, some fourteen years later I’m going to try express why.

Set in the 1960’s, Ring of Red takes place in an alternate post-World War II Japan. Having never surrendered in 1945, and with the US never dropping the atomic bomb, the war in the pacific comes to a very different conclusion. Operation Downfall – an actual Allied plan to invade Japan that never occurred – takes place, and despite many casualties, it is successful. The Allied forces occupy Japan, and, mirroring post-war events in Europe, Japan is divided up between the USSR and the Allies. Japan is split into two countries; the communist held North, and the Allied held South.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, and again reflecting real-world events, communist North Japan attempts to invade South Japan in 1950, in what becomes known as The Japanese War. Lasting for three years, the Japanese War sees the widespread deployment of walking mechanised tanks, called Armoured Fighting Walkers – or AFWs. Having been largely ineffective in the European theatre of war, Japan’s much more rugged terrain provides the ideal battleground for these giant weapons of war, and so the stage is set.

You play the role of Masami Von Weizegger, a soldier in the South Japanese army and AFW commander. Tasked with recovering a stolen prototype AFW, you must venture into the enemy-held north, track down the mysterious ‘Crimson Phantom’, and prevent him from turning the war in the North’s favour. Along the way, you encounter a selection of other AFW-commanding revolutionary’s who are also battling to free the north and end the war. Sympathetic to Von Weizegger’s mission, they offer to join him and add their own particular strengths to his own.

With such a sombre subject matter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the actual game wasn’t that enjoyable, but strangely it was. Like Advance Wars, Ring of Red manages to take the reasonably serious subject of bloody warfare, and fashion it into a rewarding strategy game without simultaneously turning it into some sort of cartoon. The story very cleverly weaves in and out of real-world events respectfully, and remains interesting right till the end – even despite its poor localisation.

The gameplay is essentially divided into two parts; turn-based deployment and manoeuvring on the tactical map, and the real-time combat between the AFWs. At the beginning of each mission, players deploy their troops – one AFW and three squads of supporting infantry per character – on a map divided up into a square grid. Players then take turns to move their troops around the map in order to complete a variety of objectives. Like most strategy games, the map is covered by a fog of war concealing enemy deployment, and advancing across the terrain requires careful planning.

Once the mech versus mech action kicks off, the game switches to a time limited, real-time face off. Players can select from a variety of commands that either move your AFW to a more advantageous position, fire your weapons, or use one of your special abilities. During combat you’ll also need to issue commands to your supporting infantry as well. These guys are essential to winning the battle, and as you progress and upgrade them, protecting them becomes vital. Each combat phase lasts a maximum of ninety seconds, and leaving the enemy alive is not advisable, as surviving AFWs can run off and repair themselves!

Each character commands a different type of mech, and has a skill set appropriate to it. The Light AFWs are best suited to tackling enemy infantry, as they’re the lightest armed and have the shortest range. Standard AFWs are the most versatile. Heavier armed than the light’s, they’re also able to engage in close combat, should they need to. Finally, the four-legged Heavy AFWs pack the biggest punch, but need to operate at long ranges to bring that force to bear. Using each member of your team effectively is essential for success, as a poor choice of tactics will almost always cost you dearly.

Like all really good strategy games, every troop choice had a meaningful role to play, and no one unit was vastly superior to another. Your AFW wasn’t an automatic win button, and without the help and support of the infantry units, your walking mech-tank of death soon becomes a big pile of scrap metal. The AFW/Infantry balance was at the core of the game, and victory was almost always dependant on using the two in harmony, as was selecting the right troops to begin with.

Making a game about giant walking tanks, and then making them so dependant upon foot soldiers might seem a little bizarre, but by avoiding making the AFWs overpowered, the developers brought an amazing amount of depth to Ring of Red. Every unit was there for a reason. Each one was integral to your success. Far too many strategy games allow you succeed via a war of attrition, spamming units at an objective until the enemy is overwhelmed, but not in Ring of Red. skillful use of your assets really was the only way to win the game.

If all that sounds a little tough, that’s because it was. Ring of Red could be a punishing game at times. You couldn’t save during a mission, ambushes were frequent, and when units that you’d spent ages upgrading died, they were gone for good. This was war at its most brutal. Despite that though, it remains one of the most rewarding strategy games I’ve ever played. The games uncompromising nature meant you simply had to out-think your opponent to progress, and when you did, it was incredibly satisfying.

When it was re-released in 2011 on PSN in North America, I hoped it would mean a similar EU release was on the horizon. Sadly it looks unlikely now, but I haven’t stopped hoping. When researching this article, I found that it appears there aren’t many gamers that recall Ring of Red, but when they do, they recall it very fondly indeed. It may have had mixed reviews at the time, but very clearly, Ring of Red is one of those games players can’t help but love. I still have my PlayStation 2, and the memory cards to go with it, and on one of those cards is my Ring of Red save. One day, one day, I’ll find another copy, and be back in my AFW.

 

The Game Jar Files: Assassins Creed IV – The crisis of identity that works.

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Originally published on The Game Jar – January 6th 2014

So, did Ubisoft Montreal think they were working on two different games? I start with that question because it’s the one most pertinent to how the game plays. Never in my time as a gamer, have I come across a game with such a split personality. It simply never makes up its mind what sort of game it wants to be. Ordinarily, I’d think this lack of direction was due to a massive error on the developers behalf, but the more I play this game, the less I’m sure. Having played Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag almost exclusively since the middle of December, I beginning to think the game is the product of a deranged, but brilliant mind.

My first moments within the game were largely spent cursing myself. Once again, I’d relied on other people’s recommendations, and ended up buying a game I didn’t like. The problem is, AC IV begins by showing off the least interesting of its multiple personality’s first – the Assassins Creed one. I know it’s a massive franchise now, but to me, Assassins Creed is a series that’s never fulfilled its potential. In 2007 the concept of using technology to explore past lives was just about interesting enough to get you past the flaws and keep you progressing through the story. Today, five games on, they’re still relying on the same trick, only now it’s wearing exceedingly thin. In my opinion, Assassins Creed is a game with iffy controls, and a story that’s so convoluted, it’s nigh on impossible to understand. Small wonder then, that I was wondering what on earth my friends were talking about when they told me it was good game.

As the opening moments of the game came to a close, and it finished trying to reassure me it was still an Assassin Creed game, I took to twitter to have a little grumble. What were people talking about I cried, to which the reply came ‘wait until you get your ship’ And so I waited. Many words were eaten as this point, as the game decided to introduce me to the most interesting of its multiple personality’s – the pirate game one. This is the part of the game where you get to drink rum, pick fights, and sail the Caribbean, and it’s so good, you can’t help but wonder what the hell it’s doing hanging around with the Assassins Creed bit. Being a pirate is so much better than being an assassin, the first question I asked is ‘can I just not bother with that other part?’ As I said in the introduction, did the studio making this game think they were making two, separate games? How can one part of it be so much cooler than the other?

Having a split personality could have been a major disaster for Assassins Creed IV, one part is awesome, one part isn’t… The whole thing would end up in a complete mess. Luckily, the game has a third personality, and its the one that glues the whole thing together. Personality number three is the bit of the game that’s been lifted directly from Far Cry 3 – the open world exploration and crafting. Think of this guy as the friend that brings two people together who don’t like each other very much, so that they can all have an enjoyable night down the pub. Sounds crazy I know, but without Mr Far Cry, the Assassins Creed part would become a workaholic that never went out, and the Pirate part would end getting over excited, blowing its load early, and never lasting the course.

Somehow, don’t ask me why, these three parts come together to create one of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever played. It’s not seamless by any means, but this Assassins Far Cry Pirates Creed game they’ve created is a work of maniacal genius. The lunatic destruction of Far Cry has been tempered down by Assassins Creed’s discipline. The character of Edward Kenway is more of a free spirit than Altair or Ezio ever was, and thus does away with the feeling that you’ve spent the entire game being told what to do. Your ship – the Jack Daw – offers you a fully explorable game world to play in. It is, in many ways, the very essence of three disparate parts coming together to form a greater whole. As much as I try, and despite my aversion to Assassins Creed, I can’t help but love this game.

Don’t get me wrong, Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag has it’s faults. When the game takes your open-world toys away and bogs you down in just Assassins Creed, it feels like going back to the gaming dark ages, with the promise of being a pirate again being the only thing pushing you forward. The Animus sections are as jarring as ever, and the plot makes even less sense. And, at times, the game does make you wonder whether Ubisoft hasn’t just inadvertently signalled the end of the Assassins Creed franchise as we know it. But despite all that, it’s fantastic fun to play. Whether you’re roaming the high seas blowing English and Spanish ships to match wood and stealing their cargo, or destroying sea forts and swashbuckling your way to the fort commander, you are a pirate king, and you do rule the high seas. Being a pirate has never been so cool.

The Game Jar Files: My crimes against gaming revealed!

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Originally published on The Game Jar – December 17th 2013

With the Christmas spirit in full effect, I thought I’d take advantage of you all. Whilst you’re all feeling warm and fuzzy about the prospect of spending time with your loved ones during the festive period, I’m going come clean about my crimes against gaming in the hope you’ll go easy on me. In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, I’m going to unburden myself of all my biggest gaming sins in the hope that I can begin the new gaming year with a clean conscience. So settle down dear readers, as I take you on a journey through the seedier end of gaming.

I’ll begin slowly by confessing to a crime I don’t really have a problem with – I’ve never owned a Sega console of any kind. I’ve played on family and friends consoles plenty of times, but never actually owned one myself. When The Gameboy was first released, I coveted Game Gear for its colour screen and TV tuner, but there was absolutely no way I was going to convince my parents to buy me one. During the great war between the Megadrive and Super Nintendo, I was firmly on the side of good, righteousness, and more controller buttons. From there I spurned the Saturn for Sony’s fledgling machine, quite rightly in my opinion, and so my Sega boycott continued. The closest I ever got to owning a Sega machine was the Dreamcast, which looked ultra-cool with its chiselled lines and special memory cards, but I never quite got round to turning to the dark side. I don’t really regret never owning a Sega machine because I thoroughly enjoyed the consoles I did have, but I do feel a little responsible for Sega pulling out of the hardware market. Perhaps if I’d had been willing to settle for an inferior console, Sega would still be making them. So I’m sorry Sega fans, it was all my fault.

I’m not proud of this one, but I did say this article was all about truth and reconciliation, so I will come clean: I have played through, and finished Too Human on more than one occasion. For those of you who that don’t know what Too Human is, it’s an action RPG game based around a futuristic take on Norse mythology. Now before you start to think that doesn’t sound too bad, let me give you a potted history of its development. Originally slated to be a PlayStation release in 1999, development moved to the Gamecube in 2000. Five years later, the rights were sold to Microsoft and it became an Xbox 360 title. Finally releasing in 2008, Too Human had spent nearly a decade in development hell, but the saga wasn’t over. Approximately a year before the game’s release, Silicon Knights and Epic Games (creators of Unreal Engine 3 – the game engine Too Human was built upon) became entangled in legal action. Silicon Knights eventually lost, and were ordered to recall and destroy any unsold copies of the game. Given its difficult birth, there was no way Too Human was ever going to be a good game, and so it turned out to be. During a third playthrough of the game, my 360 chose death by Red Ring of Death rather than play any more of it. Yes, that’s right; so bad, even the console wouldn’t play it.

Lastly, this is the one I’m genuinely not proud of. The rest of this article is fairly lighthearted – I don’t really think Sega consoles were bad, for example – but I do feel slightly bad about this. I knowingly traded in a broken Crackdown disk, and bought the rather excellent Dead Rising with the proceeds. Knowingly traded because I was the one that broke it. I’d thrown it across the room in a fit of gamer-rage, Frisbee style, and the result was a tiny, barely visible crease in the leading edge of the disc which rendered the disc unreadable. Having turned my game disc in to little more than a shiny coaster, I hatched a sinister plan. I removed any signs of damage from the disc, placed it back in its case, and took it into a game shop that I shall not name here. For one tense moment, I feared I’d be rumbled as the assistant examined the disc, but no! He smiled, declared how much it was worth, and rung up my new copy of Dead Rising, which I got for free. A month or so later, after I’d finished playing Dead Rising, I picked up a second copy of Crackdown during an Amazon sale, and picked up where I left off. Occasionally I felt the odd twinge of guilt about my deception, but not for long, because… well, Dead Rising was a great game!

So there we go, my deepest darkest crimes against gaming laid bare for you entertainment. I hope I haven’t shocked you too much, and hopefully my confessions have given you the courage to step forward, and unburden your gaming soul too. During this season of goodwill to all gamers why not indulge in a little group therapy, and get it all off your chest, we can even hug it out if you want. Come on, confess your gaming sins. You know you want to.

The Game Jar Files: What does Microsoft’s vision of the future mean for the Xbox One?

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Originally published on The Game Jar – January 9th 2014

One of things I’ve found most interesting since the launch of the Xbox One, is reading about, and listening to, gamers reaction to some of the changes made to the console’s operating system. As you may know, Microsoft have made a few changes to the OS during the transition from one generation to the next, and not all of them have been welcome. We can all have our opinion on whether these changes are good or bad, but what’s more interesting to me is whether Microsoft are either interested in, or indeed capable of, altering their design plan for the Xbox One. I’ve felt for a long time now, that the company has a very definite idea of where they’re going to try to take gaming in the future, and I wonder what that means for the future of their latest console.

I never went to an Xbox One midnight launch, but I can take a pretty good guess as to the kind of people standing in those lines; they were gamers. Hardcore gamers. I know that’s not a fashionable term for Microsoft these days, but they are the people who buy your console on launch day, and evangelise about it through the lean launch window. On the other hand, the people most unlikely to be present in those lines would have been the kind of users the Xbox One seems to be mostly aimed at – parents familiar with technology, and looking for a way to get the Windows 8 experience on their televisions. In other words, not the kind of consumers willing to part with a large sum of money, whilst putting up with a slim selection of worthwhile games.

What this means is, that even if we accept that a ‘multimedia entertainment box’ of some kind is the future, and that there’s a significant number of families out there desperate to use Skype on their plasma TV’s, whilst being utterly fed up with pushing buttons on a grey plastic box to change channel, the Xbox One still needs the support of hardcore gamers during it’s infancy. The trouble is, every signal from Microsoft seems to suggest that they now consider gaming as ‘something the Xbox One also does’ as opposed to it being the reason for making a console in the first place, and that gaming needs to develop in a direction dictated by them.

When the Xbox One was first revealed, the level of negativity surrounding some of their more controversial design choices shocked Microsoft I think, but not to the point that it demanded a change in philosophy. Reading interviews with prominent Microsoft employees, it’s my opinion that internally Microsoft genuinely do not believe they were wrong. I’m convinced that were you to be on the inside, you’d hear talk about how it was the consumers fault that they didn’t get the One’s original design plan. Despite what they say publicly, I’d argue that the company has lost touch with what their core base wants. Instead of questioning their own ability to listen to, and communicate with their customers, they’re repeatedly telling themselves that we weren’t ready to hear what they had to say.

To my mind, the root of this problem is the fact that Microsoft aren’t used to being in second place. Last generation, they never really had a serious fight on their hands. Sony launched the PS3 much later than the Xbox 360, and at a higher price, which gave Microsoft a lead in the console arms race that they never lost. Having spent nigh on eight years leading their rivals, the temptation to assume that they could do no wrong with the One’s design must have been hard to resist, and perhaps they weren’t entirely successful. How else do you account for the fact that they’ve taken Xbox Live  – something which was pretty much perfect  last generation – and gone backwards with it?

Given that the Xbox One needs retain it’s base of  hardcore gamers then, the decision to remove or alter some of Xbox Live’s core functionality seems absolutely crazy to me. The Friends List system worked. The party chat system worked. Why touch those things at all if they didn’t need fixing? I’ve heard it said that it’s almost as if Microsoft have deliberately made the Xbox One’s UI awkward to navigate with a controller to enhance the appeal of Kinect. I don’t know if that’s true, but if users feel that way, it’s not a good sign. It tells me that Microsoft isn’t really invested in providing an efficient alternative to using Kinect, or that they want you to be free to use your console in the way that you want, and in the long-term, that’s a problem.

This generation, Microsoft are facing a totally different kind of Sony. The PS4 has launched at the same time as their console and for a lower price, it’s more powerful, and perhaps most crucially, it’s much easier to program for than it’s predecessor. For the first time in eleven years, when the original Xbox went up against the all-conquering PlayStation 2, Microsoft are up against a strong opponent, and I don’t think they know how to cope with that. At a time when their biggest rival has built a totally inoffensive machine, focussed on being the best games console it can be, Microsoft is busy trying to sell us features we never really asked for in the first place.

The Xbox One is not a bad console by any means, and many owners out there are happy with it the way it is, but not all of them are. Quite a few owners have been asking why familiar functionality has been changed or removed, and all they’ve had in response is vague assurances that things will get better. The Xbox One is at the beginning of its life-cycle, and as such, it will change over time, but will that change be for the good? With Microsoft still smarting over the initial reaction to the Xbox One, I don’t think they’re in the mood to compromise. In the long-term, if anything is going to hamper the Xbox One’s success, it won’t be things like a lack of pixels. It’ll be Microsoft themselves, and their inability to admit they got things wrong.

The Game Jar Files: Games are Too Cheap.

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Originally published on The Game Jar – December 2 2013

Writing a piece about games not costing enough is something I’ve avoided doing for a while now, but sometimes you just have to take the plunge. After reading the reaction to various news pieces covering the price of EA games on Sony’s PSN store, I decided some sort of counter argument was needed. Broadly speaking, the reaction was pretty much as expected – ‘what the hell, that’s way over the top’ – but I personally couldn’t help but think the commenter’s had got it all wrong. Every time someone voices their disgruntlement at paying more than £40 for game, I want to ask them one question; is the price of games ever allowed to go up? We’ve been paying £40 for games for nigh on twenty years now, surely you accept there’s got to be an increase at some point?

Now I’m not for one minute suggesting that £40 isn’t a lot of money, and I’m certainly not asking for the price of games to increase, but what I am asking for is a change of attitude, because in my opinion some of you are coming dangerously close to taking the value for money we get now for granted, and I think that needs to change. Some where a long the line, we’ve forgotten that videos games can be incredibly complex things to create, and so it’s my contention that the £40 price point that we all cling to so desperately doesn’t adequately reflect the level of quality we’re currently getting. As unpalatable as it is, £60 is very probably a fairer reflection of the effort, skill, and development time that goes into our games.

With the end of the year fast approaching, many gamer’s talk will turn to selecting a game of the year, and one of the candidates will almost certainly be Bioshock Infinite. Here’s a game that’s reportedly taken five years and a suggested one hundred million dollars to develop. Roughly two hundred people have given over years of their life to lovingly craft it. It’s one of the best games released this year, and light years ahead of anything we were playing when games still came on cartridges, and yet if I told you we should be paying more for it, most if not all of you would disagree. This reluctance to pay more for games of Bioshock’s undoubted quality is unsurprising, but no less troubling.

One of the games mentioned in the news reports was EA’s FIFA 14. Originally marked up at £62.99 and subsequently reduced to £59.99, the price has drawn a lot of criticism from gamers, but I do struggle to understand why. FIFA is not a game that takes you a week to finish before  you trade it in or stick it on the shelf and forget about it. It’s a game that fans play almost every day, for a whole year, until the next one comes along. When you take that in to consideration, is a whole year’s worth of gaming really not worth £60? I think if those FIFA fans were honest, they admit they’re getting incredible value for money right now, especially considering £40 won’t even buy you a ticket for a real football match at certain clubs.

Of course, there is an argument that with much larger console install bases, video games are far more profitable today than they were twenty years ago, and that of course, is correct. But does a game’s profitability have any bearing on our perception of its value? I don’t think so. The problem is gamers themselves. We’ve become so spoilt, so entitled over the years, that we don’t believe that companies should be able to charge a fair price for their products. Think of everything we demand from game developers today – cutting edge graphics, seamless online experiences, meaningful stories – all of these things cost an increasingly large amount of money and time to create, and yet we don’t want to pay a fair price for them.

My whole point with this piece is not that game prices should go up, it’s that we should stop complaining when publishers want to charge what they’re actually worth – £60. It genuinely baffles me that some of us can look at a game that’ll give us hundreds of hours worth of entertainment, and proclaim that the effort that went into creating it is only worth paying £40 for. Games are too cheap right now, so lets recognise that fact, and be grateful that they are. The next time you start to complain about seeing a £60 price tag, remember that when the all-digital world finally arrives, that £40 price point will likely be gone. So enjoy it while you can, because if Xbox One and PS4 game prices are anything to go by, it won’t be around much longer.

The Game Jar Files: Should Call of Duty and Battlefield bother with single-player any longer?

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Originally published on The Game Jar November 19th 2013

Right now, first person shooter fans all over the world are basking in the warm glow of the latest releases from two of the biggest franchises in the genre. Whether its Call of Duty: Ghosts, or Battlefield 4, a significant portion of those players will have jumped in to the multi-player without having touched the single-player part of the game, so do developers need to bother with creating it in the first place? Years ago, the idea of a major FPS title not having a single-player mode would have been unthinkable, but has that tide turned?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should make it clear that I’ve not played either campaign yet. I’m one of those gamers buying a next-gen console, and as such I’m waiting for the new hardware before I buy any more games. What I have done is read and watched numerous reviews of both games, and none of them have particularly praised the single player portions of either. Granted, many reviews have made a point of telling us that Battlefield 4’s single-player campaign is better than the last game’s effort, but as that was utter garbage, I don’t think you can really see that as praise. So if both Call of Duty and Battlefield are doing the bare minimum when it comes to single-player, why bother at all? Just ditch the single-player, and stop wasting our time.

Releasing an FPS without a single-player mode wouldn’t work for every game, I grant you, a Halo game without single-player would be utter madness, and Bioshock would be… well it wouldn’t exist, but they’re on much longer development cycles to CoD and Battlefield, and arguably, have a completely different type of audience. Unlike those two games, nobody buys CoD or Battlefield expecting an epic and meaningful story, so perhaps the quality of that story is unimportant. If it is unimportant, surely that means it plays no meaningful part in convincing gamers to buy the game? If gamers know that the single-player part of the package is not worth playing, but still buy it anyway, I’d argue that taking it away would have little to no effect on the game’s sales.

With the single-player portions of these games unlikely to get the development time needed to produce a really great experience, why not separate the two, and release the multi-player separately from the single-player? Make all physical copies multi-player only, and offer a separate, downloadable campaign mode for those who want it. Activision or EA then have twice the amount of games to sell, and anyone not interested in the single-player doesn’t have to pay for something they don’t want. In addition, the multi-player could stick to its yearly development cycle, and remain just as profitable, without impacting the quality of the single-player content, which could have more development time.

To my mind, it’s only a matter of time before EA and Activision go down this road anyway. Both games are already being developed by multiple studios at the same time, so a separate release for each half of the game is the logical next step. The only stumbling block in my opinion, is the price. Publishers have long felt that the current price point of £40 is too low and doesn’t adequately reflect the rising cost of development, but have had a hard time convincing gamers of that fact. Given that, they’re simply not going to offer a multi-player only game at a reduced cost, and gamers might have a hard time accepting that. It may be ironic, but removal of a mode they never play may just be a step too far for some.

In the past, I would have had a problem with suggesting that games like CoD or Battlefield shouldn’t have a single-player mode, but not any longer. My view today is that if developers aren’t going to do a decent job of making a single-player mode, they probably shouldn’t bother at all. Just give us the multi-player, and farm the solo campaign out to a developer who’s willing to spend time doing a decent job of it. OK, you could argue that we’d end up paying the same amount of money for half the game, but if you never play half of it, or if that half isn’t worth playing, what’s the problem? Surely, not buying a poor campaign to begin with, is preferable to paying for one that’s terrible.

Sooner or later, gamers and publishers are going to have to sit down for some FPS group therapy. We gamers are eventually going to have to be honest, and admit we no longer care for campaign modes in first person shooters, and publishers are going to have to come clean by revealing that they’ve wanted to stop making them for a very long time now. Until we do sit down for together and hug it all out, we’ll be stuck where we are now; paying for a mode that most of us no longer play, whilst watching its quality decline year on year. Nobody wants that, so let’s do the decent thing, shall we?

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