Monday, January 31

Blankets and Yardsticks

On Monday I received the earth-shattering news that I had "Two Lives Left." That means that only two more issues of Gameinformer (Australia) magazine will be delivered to my doorstep.

I am indebted to my brother for the one year subscription to Gameinformer magazine that he gifted me with last year. Not because it's a particularly well-written publication (which it is not), but rather it has often provided me with inspiration to continue writing. Why? Because it is the highest-selling gaming publication in Australia, so I have decided to use it as a yardstick for this blog. I'm not saying that this is the definitive source for all your gaming information needs, nor is it the best written one. Throughout my time writing however, I believe I have shown an ability to engage with videogames critically, and make some bold statements (at least when compared to the yardstick).

Why all the hate, you may ask?

Is it jealousy? Possibly. I must admit that being paid to write about videogames would qualify as somewhat of a dream job. Further to that, having access to review code would allow me to save thousands of dollars for any hopes and dreams that I (and/or my lovely wife) might have for life away from the living room.

Is it a difference of opinion? Not exactly. Gameinformer have run two features within the past three months that have infuriated me to no end. The first of which I had discussed previously in the post "Response to Kotaku AU's Open Letter to Metacritic," where I highlighted the contradictory nature of some comments found in their list of the 30 characters that defined a decade. I disagreed with their list, not only in terms of order but content as well. My latest beef is with their "Top 50 Games of 2010," visual feature. That's right dear readers, fifty (5-0) games. To put this into perspective, the list of titles I considered for the High Horse Audit totalled forty-one. I am aware that Gameinformer features the work of more than two writers (sorry I didn't consult you for the list, Dawson), but you might as well have stated that every game released last year was awesome, a must-own if you will.

Am I being a little too dramatic? Of course! But then again, people wouldn't bother to read opinion pieces (or pages worth of forum trolling) if they weren't looking for drama. More to the point though: how much thought goes into a list of fifty good games released in a calendar year? Final Fantasy XIII, Darksiders, Modnations Racers, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World: The Videogame, and several other undeserving titles are included in this feature; as are those that are of high quality like Just Cause 2, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Red Dead Redemption (Stead, 2011:1-2). But so are those that were good, but definitely not "Game of the Year," qualifiers like Alan Wake, Mafia II, Fable III (which I'm currently being led through by a trail of tinsel), and Blur. It is a list bereft of integrity, designed so as not to offend anyone, and celebrate everything.

I have a great many gripes with Gameinformer, from high review scores, to the ratio of preview to review space (Ninety percent hype, with ten percent post-mortem). I understand that the publication needs to cater to as many EBGames customers as possible; but is it possible to perhaps engage with games on a higher level? I'm not talking about the Games = Art debate either. If I want pre-release hype, I'll hit up YouTube for a trailer rather than turn to Gameinformer for a six-page spread with large text and big screenshots. What I want from a gaming publication is a second opinion. A thoughtful rebuttal to my praise, or another soul to join the angry mob. The review for Scott Pilgrim Vs The World: The Videogame, one of "The Top 50 Games of 2010," is forty-seven words long for fuck's sake (Stead, 2010: 97)!

Finally, I'd just like to share some gaffs I've come across over the course of my subscription. The most obvious of which can be found in issue 12, where rumours and speculation regarding the PSP2 are put to print. The short story ends with the following embellishment "C'mon Sony it's time to fess up: we've even found this leaked image!" (Stead, 2010: 21):
Now you may not have seen this image before, but I have. Several times, and well before November 2010. I did a quick search for "psp2," at Kotaku, and this image surfaced as early as November 2008! Apparently the guys at Gameinformer took more than two years to catch up to the online competition (perhaps even funnier, the newly announced NGP looks nothing like the mock-up above). Also worthy of a laugh (and I'll admit that this is very petty of me) is the September issue (released in August), where it's claimed that "Batman: Arkham Asylum rocked the gaming world two years ago," (Stead, 2010: 5). Batman: Arkham Asylum was released on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 on September 3rd, 2009. Now mathematics is not my strong suit (particularly when time is involved), but by my calculations, when this rubbish had been printed not even one calendar year had passed since the game's initial release.

Sour grapes? Yeah. I want to work in the industry, and I'm sure that attacking a popular publication is not the best way to put my name out there. With that being said however, I can't believe that so many people turn to this magazine for information, opinion and validation.

After I lose my final two lives, I will not dispose of all the glossy trash as I may need it somewhere down the line. To inspire me, to ignite my will. I know one thing for sure however, I will not be searching for a 1UP from Gameinformer.

Does anybody else read Gameinformer? What are your thoughts?

References (any web references are linked in text):
1. Stead, C (Editor) (2010). Contents. Gameinformer, Issue 9, p4-5.
2. Stead, C (Editor) (2010). The Score. Gameinformer, Issue 10, p97.
3. Stead, C (Editor) (2010). The 30 Characters Who Defined a Decade. Gameinformer, Issue 12, p26-49.
4. Stead, C (Editor) (2011). The Top 50 Games of 2010. Gameinformer, Issue 14, p1-2.
5. Stead, C (Editor) (2010). The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Gameinformer, Issue 12, p21.

Saturday, January 29

Weekend Update: Gimme' Shelter (from the Bulletstorm)

Bulletstorm asks players to kill a "metric-fuck-ton," of enemies with skill. There doesn't seem to be a compelling motive for this undertaking; if there is, it's not apparent in the demo recently published on Xbox Live and the Playstation Network. Apart from the obvious objective of survival, the only other reason you're given to play is to out-score your friends; there's no greater good that you're fighting for, and no civilians to save. People Can Fly have tasked gamers to kill throngs of people and monsters in elaborate fashions because it is amusing to behold, and humans are by nature, comtpetitive. The me of 5 years ago wouldn't have had much of a problem with this; however these days, the older, infinitely-more principled (read: boring) me needs some greater purpose to take a life. Bulletstorm may be a reasonably good-looking game, with some interesting weapons and score mechanics, but ultimately (at least in its demo form) it seems pointless.

Don't get me wrong: I chuckled the first time I scored a "Gag Reflex," and a "Voodoo Doll." I laughed out loud (lol'd if you will) when I performed the "Mercy," skillshot. The mirth began to fade after I played the game as intended; witnessing these gory, sometimes humorous death animations several hundred times over on repeated playthoughs, trying to best my previous scores. I'm sure the full retail version will have some form of narrative, and enough change-ups in pacing to engage me for a few hours (maybe even a single plathrough); but at the moment I can't help but feel it will be Vanquish all over again. A squad of potty-mouthed, murderous rogues exhausting me with their radbaditude.

In other demo-related news, the multiplayer demo (or closed beta as its advertised on the XBLM) for Crysis 2 went live on Wednesday, and I must say that I am disappointed with what I have seen and played. For all of Crytek's huffing and puffing, the game does not appear to be any more attractive than most recent FPS releases, and plays much like your average Call of Duty instalment. Granted you can cloak, and jump a fair bit higher thanks to the nanosuit; but in the end Crysis 2's multiplayer offering doesn't appear to be the breath of fresh air I hoped it would be (to qualify once again, at least in demo form). The game also features a now, clichéd rank and unlock system. I'm sure once again, that the full version will feature some interesting upgrades to your nanosuit which should hopefully serve to differentiate it from the competition. There is of course, a single player campaign to consider as well, which is not featured in the demo: so I'm not quite ready to remove Crysis 2 from the list of potential purchases in 2011. With that being said however, I wrote to a friend recently:

"I was hoping to spend less on games this year, but if there is any hype behind it, odds are that you'll find it at my house. Shooter or otherwise."

I know this may read like a future FPS troll-fest, but I was hoping that at the very least, Bulletstorm would not be a blood-soaked, one-hundred-dollar ticket to the Gears of War 3 beta. I guess that "Kill with Skill," is the first tagline in recent memory to hold a candle to that of Bizarre Creations’ 2008 release, The Club. “The Club rewards stylish kills,” after all.

What’s your favourite regrettable quote or tagline from a videogame? What have you guys been playing recently?

Friday, January 28

Back To The Future, In The Present

I’m not one for movie games but when I noticed Back To The Future: The Game (BTTF) had been released, I was so excited I was tempted to go out and buy a red puffer vest. Then I realised that was a stupid idea – puffer vests are not cool. And where was I going to get one in Brisbane? It’s the middle of summer. I haven’t been thinking straight lately.

Created by Telltale Games, BTTF is an episode based graphic adventure game taking place six months after the finale of the trilogy.

Marty is trying to move on and accept Doc Brown’s decision to live in the Wild West with his new wife and kids (even the one who stares down the camera, points to his junk and nods confidently). With no sign of Doc, the bank is moving in on his estate, selling off his belongings to create a new parking garage.

While rummaging through Doc’s lab, a new DeLorean appears outside, prompting Marty to rescue Doc from jail during the 1930’s American prohibition era. Suspected of burning down bootlegger Kid Tannen’s speakeasy, Doc learns he will be shot the next day unless the situation is resolved.

By freeing Doc, Marty manages to subpoena his grandfather, Tannen’s accountant, only to find himself yet again fading away from existence. From here the story is set up for the next episode, which is to be released in February. A new episode is released every month until the climax in May.

If the visual style and game play seems familiar, it’s most likely due to the fact the developer is Telltale Games; a group of former LucasArts designers who were responsible for such titles as Sam & Max, Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle.

Telltale are also responsible for the newly released episodes of Sam & Max, Monkey Island and the upcoming Jurassic Park game.

From what I’ve seen and played of the game so far, I’m unsure of how challenging it will be. Graphically it isn’t anything special but it seems to have a deliberately goofy feel to it, which reminds me of Marty and Doc in the movies.

Christopher Lloyd does a great job (again) as Doc Brown, while Biff Tannen and George McFly were quite annoying. If you recall in the movie, Biff goes from bully to submissive household gimp and in the game, George doesn’t let him forget it. At times he’s like a whiney old lady, watching and commenting about every move Biff makes. Biff just takes it, reminding me of a dog – he potters from one position to another and seems to enjoy whatever attention he can get.

Unfortunately Michael J Fox doesn’t reprise the role of Marty McFly; however his actor does a good job. His voice seems a bit scratchy at times but it has all the nervous enthusiasm you know and love from the films.

Although I’m unsure if I’ll pick up the rest of the episodes, I can say I’ve enjoyed the game more than the recent Sam & Max episodes on Xbox Live - I suffered a case of lost interest and didn’t even finish the demo. The appeal of BTTF may be a result of the games’ story telling style – it’s a continuation of the film with a fresh and relevant storyline, as opposed to a side story, retelling of the film or prequel which is often found in mainstream and boring movie games.

Episode One of Back To The Future: The Game is available now on PC, Mac, PS3 and iPad.

What do you think of this emerging style of episode-based gaming? Would you prefer five or six episodes spread out over time or just hit the game running with all your enthusiasm and finish it as soon as you can?

Tuesday, January 25

The Best Reward For Stealing Bread

The world’s perception of Australia is narrow to say the least. When travelling abroad, you will encounter a number of things: poor (yet humorous) attempts at Australian slang and accents, questions about kangaroos jumping through major city streets and sincere empathy for the loss of Steve Irwin.

However, Australians are more than just ‘shrimp on the barbie’ catch phrases and drop bear propaganda; we are pioneers, innovators and able to constantly prove to the world we can hold our own in a number of industries.

For example, Australians invented the bionic ear, the dual flush toilet, the first commercially practical ultrasound scanner and solar hot water. Oh, and let’s not forget the rotary clothes line (Hills Hoist) and wine cask; two inventions that have brought bogans together since 1965.

Australia is also the first country in the world to open a dedicated console video game cocktail bar. Located in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, Mana Bar provides a new way to socialise within a club environment, engaging both discerning and casual gamers alike.

The concept has been so successful that Mana Bar is looking to expand into Sydney, Melbourne and internationally.

To be honest, combining drinks and video games is a no brainer and I’m surprised it wasn’t done (and done well) years ago. It’s no secret that Australian’s love a good drink – with a former Prime Minister holding a record for downing a yard glass of ale in under 11 seconds, it’s essentially an official past time. C’mon Australia. What else have you got?

How about a vast history in gaming? Despite little recognition on the world stage, Australia has deep roots in the industry both domestically and internationally. With a presence in the industry since the arcade moved to the home in the 1980’s, Australians have produced a number of award winning games.

In 2005, Brisbane was declared a breeding ground for entertainment talent when The Veronica’s took over the airwaves, Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning was (for some reason) praised on his debut solo album and Pandemic Studio’s released Destroy All Humans!.

Despite Pandemic being shut down in 2009 after being bought by Electronic Arts, the company is still considered a successful Australian game developer with series such as Star Wars: Battlefront and Mercenaries under their belt.

Another temporarily successful (read: now defunct) Australian games developer was Krome Studios, who were responsible for the stereotype spouting Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, a Spyro the Dragon resurrection and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

Closures aside, we’ve been, and still are, host to some of the world’s largest gaming companies including THQ, Sony, Sega and Microsoft.

But it’s not all bad news when it comes to Aussie game developers. Although it pains me to see home grown heroes falling to their knees, developers such as Halfbrick Studios are reviving hopes, with a number of mobile game titles such as Fruit Ninja taking the world by storm.

While it may not be 2005 anymore, Australia is still unveiling and refining some outstanding talent, ready to take on the world and present the next Hills Hoist of games in a new era of entertainment.

Will it be enough to kick start the Aussie game development industry? Who knows, but rest assured we’ll soon bounce back; proving to the world that we are more than just khaki’s and bush tucker.

Have a great Australia Day everyone!

Monday, January 24

Play It Again Sam

You may care to disagree with me, however I believe Replayability or Replay Value is a dated concept. It may have meant something to me when I was much younger, and opportunities to acquire games appeared solely at the whim of my parents. It may have had something to do with games often being more solo-oriented experiences, where online multiplayer, patches, title updates, downloadable content and achievements (trophies, or what have you) were futuristic concepts. I would also wager that the huge amount of sequels and franchises with annual instalments have contributed to the notion of disposable gaming experiences, where the idea of playing a game again sounds like a waste of time.

To further qualify my argument, the concept of replayability can't properly extend to modern multiplayer- centric titles, as these games (particularly in the PC scene) are often modified to the point where they can be drastically different when revisited months (or years) on. Not sure what I mean? Consider Valve's infinitely playable, Team Fortress 2. I first engaged with the game as part of The Orange Box on the Xbox 360. I earned every single achievement, and played it for hours after accomplishing that feat. After my first encounter with the Red Ring of Death, I purchased the game for my somewhat-capable laptop via Steam (Valve's digital distribution service, for those unaware) a year later. There were several (as in many) new maps, new matchtypes, a new item system had been implemented, and there were even class-specific achievements rendering my past glories on Microsoft's console redundant. Even more confounding was how I was unable to adjust to this new monster. Players were equipped with weapons that had frightening new capabilities, leading to strategies that I had not encountered on the game's console counterpart. I was in way over my head.

After purchasing a new computer recently, I resolved to play TF2 once again, and once again I was confronted with a bevvy of new maps, modes, matchtypes, achievements and now, an item crafting system. I wasn't replaying anything, I was enjoying new experiences. One match stands out more than the rest. I had joined a game on the map, DeGroot Keep where most players had been restricted to engaging in melee combat only, while a small group of selected combatants had access to a bow and arrow. The attacking team had to capture two points on the map before storming the castle. It was madness, it was so unbelievably distant from any game of Team Fortress 2 that I had previously played, and more importantly, it was still fun.

Conversely, I've finished games like Uncharted 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, which were incredibly polished, and enjoyable games that I would hardly classify as replayable. I contend that this has much to do with the high amount of cinematic, scripted content in these titles which largely remains static when played through a second (third, fourth and so on) time. You can always play through these games more fluidly, memorising attack patterns and completing sequences faster (picking up a few more trophies/achievements while you're at it), but ultimately you know what is about to happen; there'll be no clinch rocket from the opposing team to cinch an unlikely win. Lazaravic, Joker, Ocelot and Cesare will all fall in the end: there's no lasting victory in store for them (unless of course you don't finish these games, then their crimes will continue to go unabated).

Some might contend that there are some recent releases that allow for players to make choices that have significant impact on the narrative at large, and that if you were to play a game like Fallout 3 twice that you would hear multiple trees of dialogue, and have several events play out in entirely different ways (if at all). But on the other hand, there are a lot (several hours worth) of common actions and experiences that would discourage me from engaging with these titles more than once. Especially when you have hours upon hours worth of downloadable content to play through after the principal narrative has reached its conclusion. Who has the time to best Fallout 3 with a good, neutral and evil character? I certainly don't, and even if I did, I'd probably rather play a few matches of Bad Company 2, Team Fortress 2 or Halo: Reach in that time instead.

There a few single player-focussed games released in this hardware generation that I have had to experience more than once. I finished Bioshock, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune two times each. I'm up to my fourth playthrough of Grand Theft Auto IV, and I must have finished the original Dead Rising three or four times (although with Dead Rising, that is sort of the point).

Maybe I've got it wrong somewhat. Maybe the highly scripted nature of recent single player releases has diminished the notion of replayability? Maybe the amount of time I'm able to spend playing games has diminished to point where if I'm not playing something new, I feel like I'm wasting my time?

Do you believe that replayability (or replay value) is a redundant concept? Should we perhaps explore this in a little more detail? What did you play this weekend?

Friday, January 21

The Bacardi Experiment

It’s happened to all of us at one stage or another. You get together with a friend for dinner, have a couple of drinks, which leads to more drinks and then next thing you know it’s morning, you’ve woken up on a disassembled couch and your friend’s wife is looking at you funny.

Maybe not exactly like that but you get my drift.

What did I do last night? What’s that taste in my mouth? Why have I been cold for the last few hours when there is a perfectly good blanket beside me? These were all questions flowing through my mind the morning after The Bacardi Experiment.

You see, I decided to have a couple of drinks and see where the night would take me, all the while attempting to document my actions for my own amusement, or possible demise.

7pm Dinner has arrived and we’re both fairly civilized. I make an astounding discovery - pizza tastes better with more pizza and Bacardi and Coke. As the pizza fills my stomach, I hunger for something else – cartoons and games.

8pm Three drinks in and I’m feeling loose. We start up Guitar Hero and I’m happy with my dexterity and performance. So happy in fact that I attempted to play and sing Foo Fighter’s Everlong (sorry). I move from guitar to drums seamlessly and don’t appear to have any problems with keeping rhythm.

9pm I’m somewhere around six drinks now. There’s a slight mess in the kitchen from a Coke over-pour but no one has noticed (especially since it was ‘cleaned up’ with a pizza box). Guitar Hero is put aside for TV and more cartoons which just fuels the drinking.

10:30pm There’s about a quarter of the bottle left and I’m a little more than tipsy. Guitar Hero is back on and suddenly everyone else in the band is playing out of time. I should mention I’m the only one with a controller. I move from drums to guitar and the band seems happier with that decision... until I can’t feel my little finger and ensure the entire neighbourhood knows about it. Guitar Hero is put away and out comes the Wii for a spot of Wii Sports tennis. Unfortunately it requires a little too much movement for my inebriated state and I need to sit down.

11:30pm Let’s just say the night blew my mind.

The next morning I get the low down on what happened and it turns out I didn’t embarrass myself... too much. Unfortunately the hangover is severe and I’m not looking forward to my two-hour flight back to Brisbane.

Thinking back on the events of my ‘experiment’ (read: excuse to drink with interstate and seldom seen friends), I’m pretty happy with the fact I didn’t have any mishaps with the Wiimote. I’ve heard of and read countless stories of broken LCD TV’s and windows thanks to a snapped wrist strap or worst of all, a black eye on an unsuspecting bystander.

Wiihaveaproblem has a number of stories, videos and photo’s from back in 2007 when the Wii was released and was wreaking havoc on the innocent family TV. The site recently started to publish again, mainly due to the release of Kinectionlost, a sister site dedicated to the living room violence created by the Xbox Kinect.

With the Kinect not requiring a controller, it would seem the humble LCD TV is now safe(r), however family members should steer clear. A number of accidents are popping up, including a broken foot for an unfortunate lady from Colorado.

Have you witnessed or suffered a Wiimote to the TV/face? What about a unique or outstanding game related injury?

Wednesday, January 19

Sounds Like a Memory

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was an exhausting endeavour; and now I find myself unsure of which game I should play next. Pretty much anything sitting in my collection that has gone unconsumed is a third-person action game of some description: Vanquish, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Tomb Raider: Underworld, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Epic Mickey, Crackdown 2, and Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom. Rather than move onto these titles straight away, I'd like to reminisce a little bit; let's talk about the marriage of music and games. Not in a conventional sense though, I'm not referring to the increasing quality of original videogame soundtracks, or even licensed ones for that matter: sometimes the best soundtrack is the one you create yourself.

This goes back to the days of the Sega Mega Drive, when my older brother and I completed the classic Role Playing Game, Shining Force to the soundtrack of Madonna: The Immaculate Collection. That's right dear readers, each time I banished a skeleton warrior to the netherworld, old Madge would pipe in with the likes of "Holiday," and "Like a Virgin." There was something about the her chirpy, flirtatious sound that made saving the world all the more satisfying. This particular habit became all the more bizarre when I played Star Wars: Tie Fighter to the sound of Michael Jackson's twin album opus, History. While I was a huge Star Wars fan, and a lover of Williams' classic score, "Earth Song," and "Stranger in Moscow," accentuated the drama in LucasArts' classic flight sim.

Note: Play both clips together so you get the improvised soundtrack and the classic videogame action. You'll need to mute the game footage (even though in the case of Shining Force, you may not want to).

There were times when the music seemed to fit the action on-screen, such as when a friend and I played multiple sessions of Grand Theft Auto III to the dulcet tones of System of a Down. Try hitting one of the many stunt jumps with "Spiders," playing in the background. I get goose-bumps even thinking about it. If that doesn't suit your taste, you could always try a flamethrower rampage with "Sugar," blowing out your speakers. System of a Down was also on constant rotation when I played Mercenaries mode in Resident Evil 4. Sometimes it looked as though the chainsaw-wielding gonados were dancing to "Old-School Hollywood."

Recently (not too recently, mind you), I have found some winning combinations. I thoroughly enjoyed playing Gears of War with a soundtrack of Bruce Springstein, Prince and Mastodon. "Sleeping Giant," fits the crumbling vistas and wreckage found in the fiendishly-designed multiplayer maps so brilliantly, and I always loved to have "1999," to compliment a victory. In 2009, I spent many hours playing Battlefield: Bad Company to the sounds of Jay Dee (aka J Dilla); specifically the album titled, Donuts. I loved every moment of it, with the mash-ups of soul tunes adding to the impact of every structure-shattering explosion. I'd thoroughly recommend the combination, as it is one of the most memorable.

What about you guys? Has there been a time where a game's aural component has failed to measure up to your record collection? If you find the time, boot up Bad Company and J Dilla - "Stop." You will not regret it.

Also, what game should I play next? Do any of the above tickle your fancy, or should I just bite the bullet and play my first MMO, DC Universe Online?

Monday, January 17

In case you haven't played it: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood Review (X360)

Assassin's Creed is easily one of the stronger, original intellectual properties to be spawned during this hardware generation. While I dearly loved the original, the sequel improved upon it in every way possible with better mission design, more weapons as well as more likeable and better-developed characters. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood continues the adventure of series' protagonist, Desmond's descendant: Ezio Auditore de Firenze after his meeting with Minerva at the conclusion of Assassin's Creed II. What follows is an exciting, albeit frustrating return to Renaissance Italy that answers several questions, to then bludgeon you with another.

The Good
Tool shed - Brotherhood gifts players with a new set of weapons and techniques to combat enemies. My favourite by far, was the ability to fight enemies with a sword (or mace) and your hidden pistol equipped. If you're not having any luck with your swordplay, you can always end the fight faster with a bang. The dynamics of combat have changed significantly in Brotherhood as you no longer need to wait for your opponent to attack in order to deal significant damage with counter hits. Another addition comes in the form of Execution Streaks which, after taking your first victim, allow you to make any subsequent kills with a single blow; provided that you don't take any damage after your murderous chain begins. The ability to kick and shoot your opponents mid-combo, and dispatch them in great numbers with single strikes, results in a much faster and more offensive style of play. The new additions to the combat formula were initially welcome, but then I soon began to realise that the rhythmic swordplay that I had enjoyed so much from the previous instalments was now a thing of the past.

Micromanagement – The city of Roma presents many chances for players to dabble in activities other than murder most foul. If you are weary from clashing swords you can recruit assassins and task them with completing missions across the world for money and in some cases, treasure. For those that you haven’t sent to fight on foreign soil, they can be summoned to kill enemy guards silently, or in the midst of battle to aid you in your most desperate hour. Calling upon your Brotherhood in any fashion allows for each recruit to gain experience as well as access to more weapons and stronger armour. There is also an in-game economy that you can expand by restoring businesses and landmarks throughout Roma. It isn’t overly deep, but investing a little bit of time in this feature means more weapons, access to fast travel options, and less time spent backtracking (at least on foot).

That's amore - Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is an exceptionally beautiful game, with an environment that exceeds the size and scale of most recently-released, open world action games. From all accounts the PS3 version is a little more stable, and I can report that were multiple (however minor) instances of screen-tearing and pop-in in the 360 version. Roma is an intricately detailed, and well-designed play space that is easily as large, if not larger than the total area found in its predecessor.

Web of lies - The conspiracies that form the core of Brotherhood's narrative are thoroughly compelling. It's hard to go into this in any great detail without spoiling anything, but rest assured your contemporaries will keep you guessing in Ezio's quest to reclaim the Apple of Eden.

To be continued (Part 1) - Thankfully, the end of Brotherhood effectively ends the adventures of Ezio Auditore de Firenze. Not that I didn't like Ezio, rather the end of Assassin's Creed II was so ham-fistedly punctuated (in both the past and future scenarios) to lead into this current instalment, that the ultimate ending of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood seemed elegant by comparison.

The Bad
Master of none - The developers tried to throw in a bit of everything into Brotherhood. There are vehicle sequences, a few (as in, not many) epic sword fights, platforming, team management, stealth (ugh), and exploration. The problem is that many of the new elements that have been introduced for this instalment feel rough, and were to the detriment of the experience as a whole. Commanding the Brotherhood certainly looks cool and comes in handy on occasion, but it also obliterates any sense of challenge. To make matters worse, every single enemy seems to carry the most useful loot. While you could pilfer through your opponent's belongings in Assassin's Creed II, more often than not you would walk away with a few florins and a throwing knife. In Brotherhood you'll find money, meds and ammo on even the most modest opponent. The vehicle sequences are completely disposable, and while not overly difficult, they still managed to frustrate in the case of the naval battle due to a massive turning circle and a stubborn cannon.

Out of sync - I touched on this previously in the post "Stealth and its Opposite," but the addition of the new Full Sync challenges is a bit of a mixed bag. When they test skill they're a welcome addition, however when they involve the more unrefined aspects of the game things become much more painful.

To be continued (Part 2) - As for Desmond's saga, the end of Brotherhood is so painfully clumsy from a gameplay and storytelling perspective. The final, timed platforming sequence while visually stunning, is almost completely bereft of fun; and the final moments should have been accompanied by a flashing warning "FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN ASSASSIN'S CREED III."  Is it too much to ask for a self-contained plot? I yearn for a videogame narrative that offers a clear resolution, in stead of a carrot for the next, inevitable instalment.

The Ugly
Hello? Is anyone there? - Any attempts I've made to play online have been met with abject failure. In some cases, I couldn't even find a single player to join the lobbies I had created. I've read many positive musings about Brotherhood's competitive multiplayer component, but I can't really impart any meaningful impressions, as the only experience I've had is with the PS3 beta. The beta gave access to one map, and I only played the standard free-for-all match type which tasks each player to take out another specific player. You have a radar which guides you to your target, and in the trial (at least) it was a little too helpful. While I understand, you're supposed to take it slow, blend in, and approach with care; most just bolt for you, and I found myself doing the same after a few frustrating encounters.

After him! -  I would wager over one third of the missions in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood involve tailing a target or informant. These missions are usually punctuated by three fights or cut-scenes (sometimes even a combination of the two), and are indicative of my experience with Brotherhood as a whole. Beautiful, repetitive and frustrating.

Castles on sand - The most frustrating sequence in Assassin's Creed II involved infiltrating the Vatican on approach to the final boss battle. While the stealth mechanics worked well enough in the public arena, where there were people en masse to blend with; the Vatican presented Ezio with some priests with whom you could not blend and a lot of guards. After several repeated attempts to move through this sequence, finally everything fell into place, and I could proceed. The developers took this broken segment, and then decided to build an entire game around it. There are several missions that involve or revolve around stealth. There have been no abilities added, like crawling, or being able to attach to walls (like in Metal Gear Solid) to accommodate this change in focus. Now you would think that perhaps the level designers could consult their Ubisoft colleagues who were involved with the Splinter Cell series, or even Kojima Productions (there is an unlockable Raiden skin) for help with developing solid stealth gameplay. Unfortunately, this is not the case as players can either blend, hide in haystacks or drop from sight; nothing more. The placement of haystacks in some missions is ridiculous, particularly in a mission staged during a wild party. I know everytime that I plan a gathering I go over my checklist: Beer? Check. Food? Check. The Ladies (pronounced leh-days)? Check. Enough hay to feed the equine population of Italy? Checkmate.    

That was not a request - There are several missions that require players to do things in a certain way or sequence, but the mission design fails to clue you into how events should transpire. In one particularly frustrating mission, players are tasked with assassinating a target who is mingling at a party (undetected no less). I found various ways to approach the target without being seen, however I could not lock-on to them and make the kill. After several frustrating attempts that ended in failure, I learned that I could only assassinate my victim once a cut-scene had been triggered. That's thirty minutes I'm never getting back because the game would only allow me to kill the target when and how it wanted me to.

7.5/10 - Make no mistake, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is not an expansion pack. There is easily fifteen hours worth of gameplay available in the single player campaign, and the vast majority of it is thoroughly enjoyable. There are various new additions, some of which I hope make it into the next instalment; others that need to be either refined somewhat, or dropped entirely. Initially, the game felt overly familiar, yet it presented enough new elements mixed with the action I have come to love from the series to warrant further play. The final few sequences presented little enjoyment, but were impressive in terms of scale and ambition. For me, Brotherhood was unrefined ambition from the team at Ubisoft Montreal: almost every idea and mechanic was thrown into the game, with little regard for the core, swashbuckling action typical of the series (that I hold in such high regard). When it works, it's every bit as good as its predecessor. When it falters, it feels as coarse as the first instalment.

Friday, January 14

People’s Choice: Suspiciously Special Spider Monkeys

This week I thought I’d do something different and involve you, the readers. Through Facebook, I asked my list of friends what you wanted to read about. While I was hoping for a gaming related topic, I was actually given... Retarded Spider Monkeys. Seriously, ask Dutch. He’ll tell you.

My first thoughts went to the obvious being monkeys in games – Monkey Island, Donkey Kong, Ape Escape but these are all games I’ve covered in previous posts (except for Ape Escape because I’m not five years old). Plus if I mention Donkey Kong once more I’m going to feel like I’m putting it on a pedestal. I’ll be writing more on DK soon, but not today.

So I Googled monkeys in games and came up with a number of mini games, mainly involving throwing bananas, stacking monkeys or flinging poo. How classy. Oh and then I found the ever so cleverly titled Spank the Monkey. Moving on.

With hope still fresh in my mind that work won’t check the Internet history this week, next came a thought of famous monkeys in movies with a possible cross promotion appearance in some sort of game. Planet of the Apes and King Kong spring to mind but a favourite is definitely the winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

I’ve always like these monkey’s but I’m not sure why. Maybe it was Mr Burn’s failed experiment that elevated their cult status or maybe it’s just because they’re MONKEY’S WITH WINGS. If you mix this concept with the cover art of Green Day’s legendary album Dookie, you’ve got yourself a scary yet entertaining Sunday afternoon.

Then Google picked up the Monkey Magic game. Although not directly related to the 1970’s cult classic, Monkey Magic (on PSX) is a side scrolling platform game based on the late 90’s anime series. Nothing groundbreaking, basically Monkey must learn spells, fight enemies etc and make the world right again.

While blissfully distracted by Green Day’s dulcet tones and the memory of trying to summon a cloud with my finger, I realised that no movie or TV show can be turned into a decent game and this idea was flawed.

Thinking outside the box, what if being a retarded spider monkey was an insult? While I don’t suggest searching the term in Urban Dictionary, it does seem like something I would yell at the TV, especially since my 19 month old daughter is copying many of the words I say now and I’m trying to hold off uttering big boy words. Last week she said ‘tits’ and although I laughed hysterically, I thanked my lucky stars she didn’t say other single syllable words from that conversation...

In fact now that I think about it, I can recall eight different situations in the past week where I’ve called something or someone a combination of the word ‘monkey’ and some profanity.

I can definitely see myself calling one of those useless drone soldiers from COD a retarded spider monkey. You know the one’s I’m talking about. Picture this scenario – you’ve just been ambushed and your team is running around like crazy. You try to settle the situation with your AK-47, taking out the enemy left, right and centre. Then, just towards the end of the scrimmage with a handful of foes remaining, some idiot soldier walks in front of you (or pops up from cover), taking the full brunt of your magazine. Next thing you know I’m screaming at the TV while reading a message about how friendly fire isn’t tolerated.

You know what COD? Friendly fire isn’t tolerated, but if you’re going to stand up in front of me while I’m shooting at the enemy (who knows what your little drone soldier was doing in the bushes ahead of me - he wasn’t helping that’s for sure) then they deserve to take it.

If looks could kill, some games would be finished so quickly.

What are your major gaming frustrations? Do you have a favourite creative insult that doesn’t contain profanity?

Wednesday, January 12

The Destroyer

It's difficult to ignore the chaos occurring about an hour up the road. Some people have lost everything (or just about everything) to a vicious torrent of water. A force which does not yield to reason. Games have served as a distraction to the media frenzy and panicked Facebook posts; but the likes of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Monday Night Combat have failed to effectively wrest my attention from the destruction seen in Brisbane and further north; and nor should it.

Bottom line is: I'm exceptionally lucky as the floods haven't reached the Gold Coast, and my thoughts go out to all those affected by the disaster transpiring as I write. Not that my thoughts will mean much to you if your car has been washed away or you've lost a loved one.

Why all the self indulgence? Just feeling a little guilty that my shit has remained untouched (thankful, mind you), while others have endured so much loss. Rather than ramble on; for those whose consoles remain dry and functional, let's talk Monday Night Combat.

First things first: MNC is no Team Fortress 2. Sure it features class-based combat across some interesting locales. The game also has a sense of humor that can incite the odd laugh (it has nothing on TF2, but still the visuals have some personality). What it's missing however is balance. With a solid connection, the melee-centric antics of the Assassin class can be frustrating. Throw some lag into the mix, and they become damn near unstoppable. Skipping across the map (often cloaked), these one-hit-killers are almost game breakers. The Gunner class also seems a little too effective for my liking. The Assault is your vanilla flavour, with a rifle and grenade launcher. For the moment it is my class of choice, even if it lacks real stopping power. The creatively named, Support class can fix turrets and heal players; and there are no points for guessing the function and loadout of the Sniper class. I'm yet to use the Tank, and am inclined to question their inclusion when you already have a heavy weapons guy in the Gunner. Regardless of your choice of class; if there is any lag, prepare to be dominated.

The central concept is strong enough to make me want to forgive the afformentioned faults: an inspired combination of third person shooter and tower defence, Monday Night Combat has the potential to eat up hours of my time. Players are tasked with guiding their team's bots to the opposition's Moneyball. If enough of your bots attack the Moneyball, its shield will drop and become vulnerable to attack (obviously, you then try to destroy it for the win). Player and bot kills earn you money which can be spent on a variety of abilities and support options. You can defend your own Moneyball by building and upgrading turrets, or by destroying enemy bot and players. If you're feeling selfish, you can choose to upgrade your own abilities instead of setting up a defensive perimeter. All the money in the world however, won't save you from the effects of lag. Even with a few upgraded towers, a player with a strong connection has (in my limited experience) almost always turned the tide.

I wish I went with the PC version, which sees release on January 24th; as I believe the odds of finding matches with playable connections would be slightly more favourable. Still, Monday Night Combat is well worth a trial. I doubt that I will play it for anywhere near as long as I have Team Fortress 2, but if you're looking for a solid team shooter, jump in!

Monday, January 10

Stealth and its Opposite

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, you have a few recycled assets, and some familiar gameplay elements. Sure the combat has been tweaked, and some truly brutal animations have been added; but on the whole, there is a lot here that anyone who has played Assassin's Creed II (or even its less polished predecessor) will have experienced previously. There are some new additions to the formula, but they either serve to make the game less difficult or are ill-conceived and cause quite a bit of frustration. Counter to that of course, you have a new (albeit, poorly paced) chapter in a truly compelling saga, with some arresting developments. I'm not going to discuss the multiplayer offering, as I have been unable to find a match. Apparently it's great, but I can't say for sure.

To give you an idea of one of the more flippantly-developed, new gameplay mechanics, there have been at least three occasions where stealth is either an option or a requirement. When it's an option, you can run with it and hope for the best. Apart from blending (which didn't help in the mission staged in a Borgia stonghold), and hanging from ledges (once again, not helpful in an interior environment), there aren't many other ways I'm aware of to remain concealed. In the one mission I played where being discovered results in mission failure; guards were patrolling in great numbers, and killing one of them would mean that the enemy would be alerted to my presence (at least theoretically) and I would be unable to achieve the secondary objective. I tried to sneak around, but there were no groups of civilians to hide amongst, and no cluttered mass of structures to move amongst. After failing the mission several times I turned to murder. Killing a guard did not incite the expected response: a few gathered around the body, talking excitedly as though they had discovered a bag of gifts. One crossbow bolt after another, my enemies seemed unperturbed by their impending demise. Rather than be detected and fail the mission (again and again), I resorted to killing every guard that littered the map.

For those of you that have not yet played Brotherhood, allow me explain why this homicidal rampage was frustration with a chaser of disappointment. For each mission in the most recent iteration of the series, players can complete secondary objectives in order to achieve "Full Synchronisation." Initially, I was excited at the prospect of completing these peripheral challenges, which often test speed and combat skill. The whole concept turned unattractive once stealth and the utilization of some of the more half-baked gameplay mechanics became the requisite for success. It has come to the point where I don't even look at the optional goals anymore.

I'm still enjoying Ezio's new adventure (Desmond, take him or leave him), and now it's finally starting to get interesting. Flawed new mechanics aside, this is still the same succesful formula with the same religious conspiracy which I find fascinating (almost essential).

What did you guys play this weekend? Anybody else started playing through Brotherhood? Does anyone care to?

Dutch note: To add insult to injury, please see below for a flawless playthrough off the section I just bitched about. Be warned, contains spoilers.

Friday, January 7

Level up – Platform Gaming

This week marked the return to work for many, including myself, and boy was I easily distracted. Unmotivated first-day-backers with nothing to do but delete emails were all over me, sharing details of our brief time off and discussing the finer points of the Family Guy Star Wars trilogy.

Soon the conversation turned towards gaming and the games of yesteryear that we played.

I mostly spoke of side scrolling platformers such as Commander Keen and the Apogee classics like Halloween Harry and Monster Bash; games that were essentially the same but with different characters.

By this I mean there was the protagonist (sometimes an established hero, other times unwillingly thrust into the position) who had to fight monsters/aliens/vegetables and save the planet. All this was done with what seemed like the simple combination of walk-walk-walk-jump-shoot-repeat.

Along the way, the hero had to collect something to help their journey and get home. In most cases it was hostages taken by the enemy, other times it was a name/word, jewels or other items of value.

Not only was the story simple to grasp, so were the controls. You could only move left or right with two additional buttons, generally jump and shoot. Quite basic in comparison to today’s games, which are often complete, free roaming 3D environments with multiple action buttons.

Take for example Crash Bandicoot. This 90’s classic was developed in a time when side scrolling platform games were evolving from 2D to 3D environments. I remember playing this with my wife. While she thoroughly enjoyed it, she became frustrated at the view and multiple buttons - a frustration which, at times, we all share. In contrast, when I gave her the controls to Sonic the Hedgehog, she left me for dead.

Even Disney/DreamWorks releases have changed significantly over the years. One of the more enjoyable movie adaptations was Disney’s Aladdin on the Sega Mega Drive; a far cry from the high res 3D worlds of Toy Story 3 and Kung Fu Panda.

Now, major release 2D side scrolling platformers i.e. sold in a box in a shop are pretty much limited to the Wii console and PC. While Xbox Live (and presumably PlayStation Network?) offers arcade games and demos, these titles are hardly major releases.

Despite continuing the side scrolling platform games with titles such as Donkey Kong Country Returns and New Super Mario Bros., I think what I find most impressive about the Wii is DLC from the Virtual Console which includes hundreds of vintage games from the Nintendo/Sega back catalogue.

Earthworm Jim, Boogerman, Super Mario Bros., Alex Kidd and so many more are just sitting there, ripe for reminiscing and reliving the virtual adventures of your childhood.

I noticed on Steam recently (I’m new to Steam and this will be evident in about two seconds) that you can pick up original Sega games like Altered Beast and Alex Kidd, and even more modern platformers like Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey.

As you can probably tell, I think this is a great concept, which ensures original arcade platform games are available for a new generation of gamers and are cheap enough (less than US$5) for account holders not to be too bothered.

While I’m not going to trade the 360 for a SNES any time soon, the 2D side scrolling genre of yesteryear seem to have a refreshing simplicity that I just don’t see anymore.

Have you played anything recently so old that is now feels new again? Have you discovered a 2D platform game worth the effort of downloading via the Virtual Console/buying?

Wednesday, January 5

In case you haven't played it: Windows Phone 7 Games Review Round-up - Volume 1 (WP7)

Despite my mixed feelings about my device of choice, there is already an impressive array of Xbox Live-supported Windows 7 games available for purchase. While most of them are currently available on the iPhone in some form, the lure of achievement points and some genuinely interesting, exclusive titles can allow for the WP7 to develop into a legitimate alternative to Apple's conqueror of worlds.

The Harvest - $9
Think of The Harvest as Diablo Future with touch controls. As one of three different character classes with differing durability, strength and range; players can plough through the four available levels in just under four hours with plenty of enjoyable Action-RPG grinding on offer. There is not sufficient depth to the action to warrant multiple playthroughs; but the strength in presentation alone will ensure that most would at least complete the game with the Scarab class (which is by far the most accessible). The boss fights are fairly entertaining, and often task players with using each of their special abilities to conquer pattern-based battles. The controls are responsive, and any errors would rarely result in death (or any great amount of damage for that matter), or any great amount of frustration. The Harvest doesn't provide much challenge, especially once you have kitted out your mech. Save for the first level, which is uncharacteristically difficult when compared to the rest of the experience; you should find yourself breezing through the game. Shallow, but flashy and involved fun (7/10).

Star Wars: Cantina - $4 (Available for $1.19 on iPhone)
Star Wars: Cantina is easily the least effective use of the Star Wars license in gaming history. In order to help your old friend, Robb: Nia Adea serves drinks at his cantina to pay back a sizeable debt. You will serve patrons of differing species and/or occupations, and depending on your speed you earn larger tips to attain daily earnings targets. If you don't serve customers fast enough, they may just decide to kill your other guests or alternatively die of thirst. While I did fail to attain objectives initially, once I got the hang of it, the game offers little-to-no challenge. After finishing the Career Mode, I played through multiple times to earn the 200 available Gamerscore points and never lost a customer or failed a subsequent playthrough. The game looks pretty enough, but the touch controls often fail to respond as required, leading to much frustration. You can upgrade the facilities to cater to specific customers, or increase the speed at which drinks are prepared; but ultimately Star Wars: Cantina is a shallow experience that will leave you looking for reasons to leave Tatooine (4/10).

Flowerz - Free
Flowerz is yet another Match Three game, that tasks you to match three to five flowers of the same colour in order to work through a quota of, well, flowers. There are some interesting mechanics at play, such as the shovel which allows you to move flowers to a more convenient space, and later on, certain flowers when cleared, will leave different coloured buds (depending on the coloured centre of the plant cleared) which adds another layer of strategy. From a presentation perspective, Flowerz is the quintessential free game; with modest looks and sound. The game often failed to precisely register my touch, which at times resulted in the loss of game-saving shovels and butterflies.While it definitely provides an experience worthy of its price tag, Flowerz is nothing new, and nothing memorable (4/10).

Bejeweled LIVE - $6.50 (Bejeweled 2 & Blitz available on the iPhone for $1.19)
Another Match Three game, but with a level of polish and depth that something of the likes of Flowerz fails to emulate; Bejeweled LIVE is beautiful and fiendishly addictive. Classic, Action and Endless modes each offer sufficiently different experience to warrant hours of sustained play. Be warned though, this game drained the battery of my phone like none other; with two hours of play eating over half of the battery power. The game features fantastic Leaderboard support, which has resulted in even more hours spent staring at my phone. While Bejeweled LIVE doesn't offer anything substantially different from its predecessors, it is easily one of the more refined WP7 games available at launch, and worth the investment (8/10).

Flight Control - $4 (Available on the iPhone for $1.19)
Fun, almost addictive puzzle game that almost anyone with an iPhone would have (and probably should have) played. Players are tasked with tracing landing paths for varying types of aircrafts, over several different airports (each with their own arrangement of landing strips) which are each subject to varying weather conditions and obstacles. Despite my best efforts, I have failed to develop the skill level required to post any exorbitant scores; but I have had fun nonetheless. I should note that I have not had any luck viewing Leaderboards populated with any scores other than my own, which is slightly disappointing. The game controls extremely well on my handest, with few errors in touch recognition. With simple graphics, compelling gameplay and inoffensive sound; Flight Control is a worthy addition to anyone's WP7 game library (7/10).

It is probably worth noting that I am bit of a snob when it comes to phone gaming. Apart from Bejeweled LIVE, none of the games I have played on my WP7 handset (or an iPhone for that matter) have provided an experience comparable to that offered on dedicated portable consoles (specifically the DS and PSP). That being said however, it's come to the point where I can't really afford to continue investing in said machines as the games are considerably more expensive. Maybe publishers can price content for consoles more competitively, so the PSP and DS can get a look in again (I stress that this is for me, I am under no illusion that these platforms can't survive without my patronage)? Then again, maybe pigs will fly?

Has anyone else picked a WP7 handset? What games have you been playing? Has everyone else got an iPhone?

Monday, January 3

The Dutch Knight Returns (The Hangover)

Sorry, I've been reading a lot of Batman comics over the last few weeks.

If we're to ignore the fact that I've recently married, and I haven't written a thing because of the long (and much enjoyed) honeymoon, I'll cut straight to the chase: I'm not ready for 2011. There are still plenty of games from the years previous with which I am yet to properly engage. A gaming hangover as it were.

My plans for the next few weeks involve finishing Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. From there, my priorities are unclear. Do I finally finish Mass Effect 2? Do I delve into the thirty-something games I purchased during the Steam Holiday Sale? The point of this musing for you all, is that I probably won't be touching any games released this year until March, with the release of Marvel Vs Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds.

Speaking of the Steam Holiday Sale, it's still going until approximately 4am Tuesday (AEST), so get on there and grab a bargain (you will have missed some of the more unbelievable daily specials, but there are still plenty of games going for little more than a song). Some of my picks included Dragon Age: Origins - Ultimate Edition, Command & Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight, Left 4 Dead 2, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Tropico 3, Machinarium, Hitman: Blood Money, Crysis and Crysis: Warhead. All up I spent just over two hundred dollars, and have (arguably) enough games to last me up until the next end of year sale.

I hope that you'll stay with me until I'm ready for the new year. I've spent just over a month with a Windows 7 phone, and have some impressions to impart. I've also played through quite a few games for the WP7 OS; the problem of course, is that almost all of the games I've played have been released on the iPhone, but still cost more (in the case of Bejewled LIVE, the difference is over 5 dollars! I'm not going to argue semantics either. I know that Bejeweled 2 is available for IOS, and Bejeweled Live is on WP7: but they are the same freaking game).

What did you guys play over the holiday break? Did you miss me? Happy New Year!