Wednesday, 30 June 2010

World of Weirdos

There are certain things you can't say in civilized company.

You can't admit that you pick your nose and eat it, for example, or that you find Justin Bieber very sexy. These things make you look like some sort of strange, unsocialised half-breed. Believe me, I have personal experience of both.

When it comes to computer games there is an equivalent. And that is to admit that you play World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft (WoW to its adherents) is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or MMORPG, or Muhmorpuhguh based in the fantasy world of Azeroth. Players choose to become a member of one of two rival factions, the Horde and the Alliance. The Horde are, predictably, not fluffy bunnykins, consisting of your usual Tolkien-esque bad guys, Orcs, Trolls, Undeads and...erm...cow people. On the flip side, the Alliance consist of humans, elves and that sort of shit.

Players pick a class which will follow one of three archetypes, healer, tank or damage-dealer and enter a massive world filled with wonderment and dragons and other types of beasts.

It would be worth mentioning that WoW is the most successful Muhmorpuhguh of all time. It had 11.5 million active subscriptions as of December 2008 which had no doubt dipped now, but will increase upon release of the next expansion.

11.5 MILLION PEOPLE. That's almost twice the population of Ireland and 11, 499, 999 more people than live on the Moon! Elvis, in case you're wondering.

Let's look at this in terms of money.

11.5M people bought the game, paying between £10 and £25 for the privilege. So assuming a median cost of  £17.50, sales of the client alone has generated over £200 million for the developers Blizzard, and their corporate overlords, Activision.

Not only that, but WoW has a subscription payment model, meaning every single player pays, on average, £9 a month to play the game. 

That's £103,500,000 a month. Which is about £40 a second.

To quote Eminem, wowzers, I just made a mess in my trousers.

I started playing WoW not too long after it's release in 2004, after reading a magazine article proclaiming its awesomeness. And awesome it was. I made a Night Elf Hunter called Neowyngor (don't have a fucking clue why) and set about shooting things with my bow, doing quests and chatting idly to my fellow gamers. It was a truly unique gaming experience and, to be honest, I have never experienced anything like it since.

WoW, to me, was like crack that had been dipped in toffee and then rolled into a fat cigarette of addictiveness.

I played it pretty much every hour I could. My girlfriend at the time hated it, but to be honest, I didn't really care. All I wanted was to gain one more level, kill one more mob, complete one more quest. This situation only got worse when I started working at Emectronic Farts and met a bunch of other geeks who played it too. I started an Undead Rogue called Springheel and joined my workmates in their guild. I can't remember the name now, so let's call it Anus of Thunder.

In retrospect, my behaviour was quite destructive. My friendships suffered as I spent more and more time isolated and I increasingly became withdrawn, favouring spending my time alone and inside.

I'm not blaming WoW for all of this as there were other factors in my life that contributed to that behaviour. However, WoW was the perfect crutch, a great form of escapism that I was wholly invested in. It was an odd situation. There I was, paying a monthly subscription for a game that would never end, that I could never win, the paradigm of time-wasting and utterly inconsequential, and yet I was treating it as if it was the sole concern of my existence. You may think I am being overly dramatic. Sadly, I am not.

The break for me came when I moved back home from London, and had no internet connection. No internet, no WoW, and I finally got a handle on real life again.

But my story doesn't end there.

World of Warcraft is kinda like an unattractive ex-girlfriend you keep hooking up with when times are tough. And every time you go back you notice that her ass has gotten kinda fat, or the mole on her neck has started to sprout hair, and after every liaison you sort of feel disgustedwith yourself and vow never again.

But then the time rolls around where you decide to have another go.

I've gone back to playing Warcraft too many times to mention. Normally it coincides with the release of an expansion, but I've also gone back after trying out other Muhmorpuhguhs and need to be reminded of how a well-rounded MMO plays. I've never experienced anything close to the level of addiction that I had previously, and that's because two things have changed.

First off, I have changed. I like to play games for escapism, sure, but not as a second life. I have too much wicked awesome things in my life that rank higher. Sure, I can still geek out and get completely absorbed in games, much to the irritation of my other half, but I thoroughly understand that real life comes before pixels.

Secondly, WoW has changed, and in a big way. When I started playing it, there was a huge gulf between certain types of players. There were those who, through personal circumstance, could devote 8 hours a day to the game. Then there were those who had a job, kids, seventeen cats, whatever and could only manage a couple of hours. I fell into the latter catergory. The former would be the players with the best gear, the most money, the furthest progress. The rest of us would just be running around, trying desperately to get a piece of epic gear.

When Activision, headed by The Devil Bobby Kotick, bought a substantial share of Blizzard, things began to change and WoW started to follow a new design direction.

Retaining subscriptions and generating revenue became a much greater priority, and it was simply bad business to have huge sections of WoW only obtainable to a fraction of the playerbase. So things were made easier, and the gulf that had once existed between the 'casual' and the 'hardcore' players lessened with good gear and end-game progression made available to all. This has been the source of endless debate on the official forums, but when the shareholders are in control, profit becomes the driving force behind design. This is further emphasised by the fact that Blizzard have recently begun selling in-game items for real money, something they said they would never do, a position which changed to 'we won't sell anything that offers an in-game advantage for real money'. With Activision pulling the strings, it's very possible that we will see a reversal of that policy in future.

I'm not complaining about that situation at all. Companies like to make money, and there is no reason on earth why a subscriber who pays the same money as the next guy should be deprived of progress just because he has a job, wife and kids. I much prefer the WoW that is more accessible.

I just don't think it's as fun.

And that's why, when I periodically return to WoW, I don't stay. It doesn't have the same pulling power it once did. Its expanded playerbase has meant that an awful lot of Call Of Duty kiddies have begun playing it and you can only be told 'HAHAHA UR A FUKIN NOOB, U NED TO FCKIN LERN 2 PLAY, I FUKED UR MOTHR!' so many times before you tire of it completely.

This all isn't to say I think WoW sucks or I hate it or that. In my most recent venture into Azeroth to check out the latest expansion, I joined a guild which reinforced one of my favourites aspects of the Muhmorpuhguh genre. Our guild leader was a woman who lived in London, our main tank was a British guy living in Dubai and one of our most vocal members was a bloke in his late 50s who needed constant reassurance in everything he did. And this is aside from the drunk Scandinavians and nose-biting Toons I encountered. I've always enjoyed the variety of people you encounter and with WoWs playerbase, variety is guaranteed.

Still, for those in the know, admitting you play World of Warcraft in public is tantamount to admitting you've soiled yourself. Other gamers immediately imagine you to be the sort of person who dresses up as a Night Elf and reads Warcraft fan fiction. For people who don't play it, it's unfathomable. And God help you if you try to explain it. It's name doesn't even make sense.

Warcraft. War-craft. It is about the crafting of war? Papier-mache tanks? A sundial made out of shell casings? Why is there a world of it? It's just one of those things that you say and it sounds bad. Like ghonorrea.

Just tell people that WoW is an online game where you kill Nazis. It's the sort of answer that makes everyone happy, because everyone likes to kill Nazis.

Anyhow, I hope you've enjoyed this little rant.

All I know is that the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion will be released fairly soon, and Azeroth will be redesigned and unreconizable. Players will be encouraged to create a new character and level-up all over again, visiting the same zones they have been to dozens of times before, wasting more time and money in the pursuit of the intangible.

I'll be buying it on launch day.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Short Blog Because I Hurt My Arm and Cried Like a Bitch

Yeah, so I was supposed to cover the Sony and Nintendo offerings from E3 last weekend and that, but I didn't.

Why? Because I fell while mountain boarding and fucked up my shoulder, leaving me unable to update my blog for a while, and during that time, the new news from E3 became old news, but what are you gonna do?

Either way, it proves the saying 'Never put a six-foot tall geek on a board with wheels and let him roll down a hill', no?

So yeah, Sony Playstation Move. Similar deal to the Wii, only the controller has a ball at the end that glows like a pixies testicle. I'm really quite unconvinced by it. It doesn't have the hands-free innovation of Kinect, and at this point, seems pretty much like a Wii knock-off. I suppose we'll have to let the software do the talking though.

Nintendo, on the other hand, pulled off another coup. While the other big names were busy playing catch-up in relation to motion sensing controllers, Nintendo moved the goal posts once again with the first concrete details of the 3DS.

The 3DS is the new handheld offering from Nintendo. I'd post a picture of it, but there is little point. It looks quite similar to a DS.

Aside from a huge boost to processing power, a hint at the main feature of the 3DS is in its name. That's right, it displays games in 3D.

Because of its unique display system, photos and videos can't show the 3D effect which is a pity because it basically leaves me saying that industry journalists think it's awesome. But they really do think it's awesome.

I just love it. Nintendo, purveyor of casual games featuring poorly rendered cutesy animals is running rings around the competition, always one step ahead of them. It would be fairly easy at this stage to predict that the 3DS will massively outsell the control systems announced my Microsoft and Sony, although a direct comparison in terms of future numbers sold may not strictly be fair.

All I know is out of all the hardware announcements made at E3, I would be most likely to purchase the 3DS.

I just hope that E3 2012 isn't dominated by the PSP3D and the Xbox 3D60 etc etc.

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Tester: Series 2

I'm wondering if anyone watched the Playstation Network TV exclusive called The Tester. I didn't. Instead I watched a recap of the series while priming this blog post. And even that was too much.

                   (L-R) Nathan Drake, Sisqo, Smellen, Wallflower, Lunchbox, Mohammed Jihad, Out Of Place,
                     Middle Class Boy who likes Yanni, Amateur Magician, The 'Brainy' One, Maths Homework

The show was basically as bastardized version of Big Brother, only with a gamer focus. Each contestant had to perform weekly tasks where a panel of celebrity guest judges would decide who had performed best and send one contestant home, whittling them away until only 1 remained. I should point out that 'celebrity guest judges' should be taken in it's loosest possible sense seeing as one week the celebrity judge was the Director of Product Development for Sony Europe... I love games and all, I truly do, but if you told me I was going to meet a celebrity and then rolled out an Assistant Art Director, I'd punch your fucking face in while crying in disappointment.

Of course, this contest attracted the usual mix of attention-seeking desperates and inexplicably self-assured asshats.  

And what was the star prize for the winner of this epic competition? A JOB AT SONY BEING A GAMES TESTER! Woooooooooooo! Yaaaa....wait....what?

A fucking job as a QA tester? That's a minimum wage job in the UK. Why not have a show called 'I'm a McDonalds Employee, Get Me Out Of Here'?

And Sony took the opportunity to announce a second series at E3. Great news, I'm sure, for the dozens of fans of the first series.

Now you might ask yourself why I'm reacting like this, and you can bet your ass I'm going to tell you.

See folks, I was a QA tester for about 6 months back in 2004.

It was for a major games studio but I did sign a contract saying I wouldn't discuss my time there and I don't want to get sued so let's just call this company Emectronic Farts.

Whenever I saw the job listing, I thought to myself 'Wow, a job where you get to play computer games all day aaaaaand you get paid for it! Fuck me, I was born to do this.'

I was wrong.

I should have known it was going to suck from the day of the 'interview'. There were about 30 of us in total who came along to the EF headquarters, which aren't in Chertsey, Surrey. An amazing, open plan, glass building, with it's own artificial lake, replete with fish and ducks plus a video games library/shop for employees. It also possessed it's own canteen with highly trained chefs cooking fresh food everyday for exceptionally reasonable prices. Needless to say, I was in love.

Anyways, the 30 of us who were there for the interview were herded into a conference room and told we would have to undergo an aptitude test to ensure we were suitable for the job. Righto, on with the test, a fairly basic assessment on numeracy and attention to detail, completed in about 15 minutes. The answer papers were taken away by the HR lady, Emma (more on her later) to be marked, and all 30 of us were treated to an introductory video showing how awesome it was to work for and all the perks we could expect. Afterwards, I think we were all blown away and really psyched for our new jobs. That's when Emma came back into the room and called out 18 names (mine not among them) and asked them to follow her. We watched as she led them back down the stairs to the front doors and waved good bye to them.

They had failed the test.

That should have set off alarm bells immediately. If EF were prepared to treat job applicants, people whose experience would forever colour their opinion of the company, with such disdain, how would they treat us, their new employees? At the time, I remained oblivious. Emma came back and told us to come back on Monday morning for our first shift.

So, I showed up first thing on Monday morning, clean-shaven, with deoderant on. I wondered what the soup of the day in the restaurant was. I never found out.

You see, the headquarters is where all the design, development and marketing took place. The QA took place in a small, cramped, red brick building about half a mile away. It was there that Emma led us. Needless to say there was some disappointment, but hey, we got to play games for money!

Hmmm, not so much.

The fault for this misapprehension falls entirely at my own feet. I was a much younger man and didn't truly realise the number of possible faults an average game could have, or the detail that had to be explored to get it ready for public release.

Before I move on, I just want to mention Emma, the HR lady, one more time. I remember telling her that I had changed my address, something they needed to have on record so I could get paid. She asked me to jot the new address down on a Post-It note and give it to her next time she was in the office and she would file it away, which I dutifully did. When she came into the office for my details, I realised she had a truly unique filing system. Her handbag was filled with literally hundreds of crumpled-up Post It notes, plus one lighter and twenty Marlboro Menthol. Still, I got paid two weeks later, so it must have worked.

The first game I tested was a PSP racing game, Burnout Legends. The system was that at the start of each day you would surrender your  mobile phone and take a numbered build that was registered against your name and after two hours you would sign that same build back in, and have a 15 minute break, 30 minutes halfway through. The reason you would have to sign out a build was to ensure that no employee stole a test copy of the game and leaked it. That was fair enough. The ban on mobile phones was a bit harder to explain. Were they worried people would take a photo and release unofficial screenshots? Record the soundtrack on their phone? Fuck, I don't know but that shit was strict!

It was drilled into us early on that we were not playing games, we were testing them. And test I did. For Burnout Legends, here's a few things I can clearly remember doing, often mandated by the developers:

Driving the wrong way around the track.
Reversing the wrong way around the track.
Reversing the right way around the track.
Colliding with as many other cars as I could on purpose.
Avoiding all cars and objects as much as I could.
Sitting on the start line after the race began and doing nothing.
Repeatedly pausing and unpausing the game for five minutes until the AI won the race.
Grinding along the track barriers the whole way around the course to make sure you couldn't fall through.
Turning the soundtrack up, driving for a second, turning it down, driving for a second, turning it up etc. etc.

I did this for eight hours a day. For two months. So yeah, definitely not playing games. Strangely though, I enjoyed it. It was a geeky job and it attracted geeky types, and there was great banter. Our boss Ian was a South African guy with a very dry sense of humour. He told us that he had shot a man in the leg with a rifle because the man was being 'a dick'. He also had a wide selection of T-shirts, some of which were awesome pictures of like panthers or tigers or something, others were gleefully nerdy, saying things like 'Now we're out of alpha, things can only get beta.'

Sadly, this trend didn't continue for my next QA assignment. It was the one no-one wanted to work on but most people were assigned to because it was going to sell shit loads. It was the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire movie tie-in game.

I played that buggy motherfucker for eight hours a day for FOUR MONTHS. IT ONLY HAD 11 LEVELS! The early stages were mind numbingly frustrating because the AI hadn't been implemented, which was a problem because you needed Ron and Hermione to help you lift big old fucking rocks that were blocking your path. I remember early builds where you would partially levitate a boulder and that ginger bastard Ron would run underneath it and then the rock would promptly plummet back down to earth and crush him. Then Hermione would berate YOU for not concentrating hard enough. Yeah? Fuck you Hermione.

So yeah I did that shit for four fucking months. It also made me realise the fruitlessness of making games and why I think the younger generation is ultimately doomed.

Because the game was a movie tie-in, it came with certain stipulations, one of which being that it couldn't feature any on-screen death. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire feature someone dying? Is this death not integral to the future plot? No, no mustn't scare the kiddies, so Cedric Diggory getting an Avada Kedavra right up his hole happened off screen.

Not only that, but what would happen to the players character if they got hurt? Beans would come out of them. Bertie Botts Beans.

Now I don't know what is going to be more harmful to a child's development. Having their character die and letting them start again, or suggesting that if you drop a rock on a person, or burn them with fire, or hit them with a sharp object or kill them, beans will come out?

One other final little thing. EF liked to think of the QA environment as being a fun one, as opposed to the minimum wage tech sweatshop it actually was. To this end, they encouraged people to bring relevant artifacts to work to decorate the office with. For example, if you were testing a shooting game, you could bring in some action figures and decorate the workstations with them.

You could even dress up in the theme of your test game.

There was a guy I worked with, and I can't remember his name now, let's called him Stuart, and Stuart was one straight-up weird mofo.

The guy was 42 then, I think, and he lived with his parents. He was one of those people who you knew could understand the advanced maths behind the Laws of Thermal Dynamics, but probably also had a collection of reptiles and was obsessed with inventing a revolutionary new toaster. If I recall correctly he had developed some piece of software in the early 90s which had sold for big money and did the testing gig really just for something to do. Still, I wouldn't have trusted him to wire a plug.

When testing on Harry Potter began, I noticed a couple of guys wearing wizard hats while they worked, but these were cool wee emo kids and the wizard hat wearing was done in a very ironic kinda way.

Poor Stuart missed out on the 'ironic' part though.

One Thursday he came into work in a full fucking wizards outfit. A fucking blue velvet robe, with big old sleeves. A rope belt, a staff, a wand, a fucking fake beard, and a massive conical wizards hat. The motherfucker drove into work dressed as a wizard, and walked round the office like it weren't no thing. I saw him working controller in hand, dressed up as Gandalf, no sweat. Having a coffee and a smoke on his break, hanging out like Dumbledore, no big deal. English people are too polite, so no-one said a peep to him. I saw him at lunch time and asked him what the fuck he was doing. He didn't know what I was talking about. I pointed out the costume and he kinda said:

'This old thing? I just had it lying around.'
'What, you just had a plush velvet Gandalf suit with staff, wand and beard hanging up in your house and thought you'd give it a bash?'
'Yeah, why not?'

That's about the smartest answer I've ever been given to any question I've asked.

Anyway, I stopped working there towards the end of the Harry Potter project. I can't recall the circumstances of my departure, I just think I didn't go in one day.

But, if you watch the video below, skip to about 2:36 and under QA Testers, you'll see the mark I made on the world.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

E3: Microsoft

I'm gonna have a look at each of the big manufacturers in turn, starting with Microsoft and their hardware announcements.

With 70 million units sold worldwide, the Nintendo Wii has regularly trounced its competitors in terms of consoles shipped since it's launch in 2006. The console tapped into a market that hadn't been given serious attention up until then, namely the casual gamer. It seems that Microsoft and Sony have decided to wade into this territory and take the biggest bite they can out of the Wii's target market.

At E3, Microsoft took the opportunity to officially announce their motion controller project, hitherto known as Project Natal, officially called Kinect (see, its a play on the word Kinetic and Connect, because it has motion and social interaction capabilities. Clever marketers.)

It seems that Microsoft looked at the Wii and wondered how they could come up with something even more innovative than the Japanese motion controller. And innovate they did.

Kinect is a "controller-free gaming and entertainment experience" according to Microsoft, the important words there being 'controller-free'. That's right, Kinect will read your entire body motions and allow you to interact with games without the need for any wand, nunchuck, or funny remote control-type thing with a bubble on the end of it.

Using motion sensors, camera and a microphone, as well as a powered 'motorized tilt mechanism', Kinect allows users to interact with games using gestures, spoken commands and software-specific objects. Incidentally, if you purchase the new model XBox 360 (see below), you won't need an independent power source as Kinect will use the new, dedicated USB port.

The potential for this tech is astounding. So far the number of features it offers is quite staggering, and would seriously tempt me into purchasing both an Xbox 360 and Kinect.

For example, the built in microphone allows you to turn on your Xbox using your voice. It also functions as a voice activated remote control for the XBox DVD functionality, allowing you to stop, pause, rewind etc. Imagine the potential for annoyance if your family is watching High School fucking Musical 3 on a Kinect-enabled Xbox 360...

One thing Kinect can't do very well apparently is detect sitting down gamers, which doesn't surprise me, seeing as it uses digital skeleton mapping to work. The flip side, and a really nifty ass feature, is that the Kinect can look at the bone structure of a player and ascertain whether or not they are a child and adjust the difficulty of a game on the fly. Kneeling down won't work, because the system will be able to notice you're missing a leg joint. As I type this I can hear DUH-DUN DUN DUN, DUH-DUN DUN DUN playing and I imagine this was how SkyNet began...

There's very little decent video of the system at work on the interwebs, but I'm sure this will change as the November 4 release date approaches.

Yes, you too can be a jumping woman with the power of Kinect

There will be 15 games available at launch:

Kinect Adventures -
A game about adventures, like kayaking, mountain biking, and Nazi war crime re-enactments
Kinectimals -
Kind of like Nintendogs, except with bigger animals, and much more fulfilling, intimate relationships
Kinect Joy Ride -
Steal a car! Drive it around! Now burn it out! Predicted to be very popular in West Belfast
Kinect Sports -
Wii Sports
Dance Central -
A dancing game, very different to the Wii's Let's Dance
Your Shape: Fitness Evolved -
A game about personalised geometry. An alternative version for Creationists will be released called Your Shape: Fitness the way God made it
EA Sports Active 2 -
An imaginitively titled sequel to the first game, Sports Active
Deca Sports Freedom -
Allows you to simulate hurdles with your bollocks hanging out like a baboon
Dance Masters -
Very different to Dance Central
Adrenalin Misfits -
I honestly don't have a fucking clue
Sonic Free Riders -
Hedgehog-based orgy game
Zumba Fitness -
Apparently Zumba is a dance program designed to make exercise fun. To me, Zumba sounds like some sort of OAP sex aid
The Biggest Loser: Ultimate Workout -
For those who like to pump 'ron and share showers with members of the same sex
Motion Sports -
Another fucking sports game
Game Party: In Motion -
Dunno about this one, but its title makes it sound awesome. 'Game' and 'Party'? I love to do both those things. What's that? AND it's In Motion? £40? Shit, I should be paying you for this.

Ok, so those titles do sound a little bit Wii, no? I was hoping for something a bit more original. But I suppose they shot all their innovation spunk with the controller and only had a dribble left for the games. Ah well, hopefully Child of Eden will be special. Oh, and I don't think there is enough sports games in that list, make another dozen will ya?

Whilst I will be interested to see what happens with this thing, Steve Ballmer
has already referred to it as the 'next Xbox'. Hey Microsoft, don't get so caught up with this motion-controlled casual malarkey that you forget the gamers that made the Xbox a success. We like to play games sitting on our asses.

The Kinect will launch in the US on November 4, with a somewhat ludicrous price tag of $149.

The other big announcement for Microsoft was the launch of a new, slimmer XBox 360.

Normally, dolled up re-releases of existing tech piss my tits right off, but I'll forgive Microsoft because they don't rip the piss out of it like Nintendo and Sony do, likely because they don't cater as heavily toward the Japanese market.

But maybe Sony and Nintendo should pay a bit of attention to their Yank counterparts, because this version has some nice little upgrades.

First off, it comes with a 250 Gb hard drive. Now that isn't anything completely fucking out of this world, but it is a fairly decent size. Also, the hard drive is a lot smaller and sleeker but still a proprietary add-on, so if you want to upgrade in the future expect to pay through the nose for it. Also, with the new model, support for proprietary memory cards has been removed.

More importantly, the new model will feature built in Wi-Fi, something Xbox owners have been banging on about for ages. The existing Wi-Fi adapter, like all Microsoft accessories, is extremely expensive.

To boot, it will also feature a HDMI output(but no fucking HDMI cable will be supplied. Again.), be much quieter and will also have a powered USB slot, designed exclusively for use with Kinect, removing the need for an independent power supply for that semi-sentient device.

The new model is due to launch immediately, priced around the $300 mark, with $50 being taken off the old style model.

On a final note, every person who attended the Microsoft E3 press conference received a new style Xbox 360.

For free.

Motherfucking free-loading, schmoozing games journalists.

How I wish I could be one.

Next blog post will be on Sony's E3 offerings. Bet you can't wait.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

E3 Trailers - A Round Up

You may be aware that the Electronic Entertainment Expo (better known as E3) is taking place in Los Angeles right now. It's that magical time of year when professional geeks of all shades meet up and give the attendant journalists and industry movershakers the equivalent of an Amsterdam Red Light district window display. They hope to whip the onlookers into an orgasmic frenzy of pixels and bits, subsequently ensuring plenty of people shoot their big loads of cash all over the industry's coffers.

The focus this year is definitely on hardware, and I intend to cover the big announcements in the coming days.

For now I want to look at the trailers, those shiny, pretty things that inevitably make games look a lot better than they actually end up being. This years E3 has not disappointed and you'll find a big 'ol list of them below.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

I don't play Ubisoft games. The studio has made some poor choices when it comes to DRM and they are also a bit too French. As well, I played Assassin's Creed before I had principles and found it to be the gaming equivalent of Lindsay Lohan: pretty enough on the outside, but a bit of a meandering mess underneath the surface. However, I won't let that stand in the way of a fine bit of CGI. The trailer features Ezio, the hero from Assassin's Creed 2, possibly attempting to assassinate the Pope, something I'm sure many in Northern Ireland can aspire to. Standing in his way is a company of soldiers and the Sheriff of Nottingham from
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And it seems Ezio has brought friends, with equally questionable dress sense.


I dunno if you played the original X-Com game. It was an isometric strategy game set slightly in the future where you had to defend the Earth from invasion by hostile alien forces, a highly original concept. The original game had an intoxicating blend of micromanagement and action sections, and was the sort of thing you would inadvertantly end up playing for 14 hours resulting in erectile dysfunction. So you can imagine my fucking RAGE when I learned that the newest XCOM game would be a first person shooter. I like the 1950s style, but what's with all the fucking black goo? That isn't scary, that's ink.

Killzone 3

I enjoyed Killzone 2. It wasn't perfect but when it was good, it was awesome. Killzone 3 looks like it will build on the strong foundations of it's predecessor. And add some jetpacks too. The trailer contains plenty of gameplay footage, and aside from the jetpacks, it appears that there will be a greater focus on melee attacks. Which is fine by me, I like to use my hands. Also, if anyone is interested in buying a jet pack, let me know, I have one for sale. I bought it off Michael Jackson at the end of the Dangerous world tour. All he wanted for it was three wheels of Dairylea and a photo of my cousin.

Fallout: New Vegas

Did anyone else think that blowing up Megaton in Fallout 3 was the most satisfying moment of gameplay you'd ever experienced? I know I did. I don't care if it made me mega-evil, it got me all the bitches. I even killed Free Dog. Video didn't kill the radio star, I did. See what I did there? Sigh. Anyways, New Vegas looks like it will be more of the same gameplay-wise, and that is certainly no bad thing.

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

I don't know if it's even worth getting excited over. I want so much to enjoy each new Zelda game, but deep down I know nothing will compare to the Ocarina of Time, a game which made both ocarinas and time travel fashionable again. This one has a slightly different style of art, somewhere between Twilight Princess and The Wind Waker. It's on the Wii which means that playing it will no doubt involve multiple masturbatorial gestures, something I should excel in. And my other half loves the Zelda games, so I'll doubtless check it out at some point.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

This is the second trailer from Biowares Muhmorpuhguh, which is due to be released in Spring 2011. The first trailer was AWESOME. Coming in at just under 6 minutes long, this trailer is like a mini movie. I'm the sort of person who gets excited at Star Wars and MMORPGs. So this game has got me harder than Gandalf's staff. And with Bioware at the helm, I can only hope it lives up to my expectations in the same way The Phantom Menace didn't. I'm totally making lightsaber noises in my head right now. If you watch this trailer and don't find yourself doing the same thing, I won't be your friend anymore.

Child Of Eden

Coming from the same people who made the unforgettable Rez, Child of Eden is one tricky motherfucker to describe. It's creator,
Tetsuya Mizuguchi, likes to base his games on the concept of synaesthesia, a neurological condition where a sufferers senses become crosswired, and they can taste sound or hear colours. Yeah, I totally just googled that. Anyway, this game is sort of a musical/visual shooter and will use some of the new hardware announced by Sony and Microsoft. It looks damnedly intriguing, and if the hardware lives up to expectations, definitely worth developing epilepsy for.

Portal 2

If you didn't play the first Portal game, shame on you! Valve's first-person puzzle/platformer was a sleeper hit, taking the company by surprise. It is definitely one of the most eagerly anticipated games at E3 2010, and the trailer above sent little shivers up and down my spine. The sequel promises to be bigger and better, and if it is injected with the same black humour as it's predecessor, this could be one great game.

Finally, I said I was going to cover the hardware announcements in later posts, and I will. I have deliberately avoided Kinect or PSMove software for this reason. However, have a look at this footage of a Star Wars game designed for the Kinect system.

What the fuck is that? Why are there stormtroopers AND spider droids AND tanks? That's completely incongruous! Why the hell do the stormtroopers just fall backwards like a sack of potatoes when they die? Darth Vader? What the fuck are you doing here? Why are you so skinny?

I sincerely hope that is something of a technical demo and not reflective of the final product. I'm pretty sure that if LucasArts has okayed this, George Lucas is going to hell.

A Personal History of Consoles and Machines

Fuck my pants. I've just realised I've been playing computer games for 22 years. For clarification, not continuously. I also spent a lot of time drawing pictures of lightsabers.
My first gaming system was the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This bad boy featured a breathtaking 16KB of RAM, which allowed for blistering processing of characters AND numerals. I'm not sure if I can really call it a gaming system, as I don't really remember playing any games with it, but I did program it to draw a circle and a clock. Fuck your Kinect, geometry and chronometrics is how we rolled in the old days. An interesting side note is that the ZX Spectrum was the first computer to be endorsed by the Lesbian and Gay Alliance, as it featured both male-to-male and female-to-female ports, earning it it's distinctive rainbow decal.

Now, I never really owned a Gameboy. It belonged to a kid in my class, Mark. Remember the fire in Leisureworld? They had an awesome fire sale afterwards and Mark picked up a Gameboy for £6. It had a crack in the screen and smelt of burnt Monster In My Pocket, but what are you gonna do? Mark kissed my girl on the P7 trip to Millisle, so he let me play with his Gameboy a bunch out of guilt. Coming in a snazzy grey and red colour combo, this beast featured a dazzling black and off-green display. It also introduced the world to Russian mind-control program Tetris. Everytime I hear that distinctive theme tune, I feel the strangest urge to kill Nelson Mandela, comrades. Interestingly enough, in Japan, the console was called Fanjitsan-su, which literally translates into RentBoy. This was changed for the Western market. I still haven't forgiven you, Mark.

I'm going to jump on a bit, simply because I never really played the Atari 2600 or it's ilk, so that brings us to the Amiga 500.

I have the fondest memories of this computer. Where to even begin? The pale gray colour, sat like a slab of sexy marble on my desk, aesthetically pleasing yet masculine. This bad boy rocked a 7.2 Mhz processor, with a massive 512Kb of RAM. It also featured a games catalogue that made most other manufacturers crap their pants in despair. Many hazy summer nights I would sit up for hours, playing Cannon Fodder or Sensible Soccer, or trying to draw boobies on Deluxe Paint. The Amiga 500 also used an external graphics adapter that plugged into the back of the machine to allow display on a TV. I was warned that if that the adapter was ever unplugged while the machine was on, the consequences would be as dire as crossing the streams of a proton pack. Sadly, I never got the chance to find out, as said adapter eventually exploded for some reason. My Dad said it was my fault. I think the blame should be placed at the feet of the Coke I spilt on it.

After the Amiga was buried (quite literally, in a shallow grave on Downhill Beach, which I visit once a year), I managed to get my hands on a Sega Megadrive. I had many happy times with the Megadrive. I became adept at the art of blowing a cartridge and tapping up, down, left, right, a+start before the theme tune ended. Aside from entering Sonic into the Gamers Hall of Fame, the Megadrive also gave me my first experience of 4-way gaming, through it's multitap. Nowadays, that sort of thing is irrelevant due to the expansion of online gaming, but back then having a four player game of Mega Bomberman on Christmas morning before vomiting chocolate reindeer on your cousin was a breathtaking experience. Here's a fact for you: In the US, the Megadrive was called a Genesis. The name was changed for the UK market as the band Genesis lodged a legal complaint. Apparently they were concerned that their fans might not be able to tell the difference between a cold, soulless machine and a games console.

Battle lines had been drawn in the previous console generation between Sega and Nintendo. You were one or the other, never both. If you like fruity looking controllers and games about rescuing unicorns from castles made of love and hearts (I made that up), you chose Nintendo. If you liked manly, dangerous consoles with games featuring men on motor bikes hitting each other with cattle prods (I didn't make that up), then you chose Sega.

Sega kinda lost their way a bit with the Dreamcast and the Saturn. Admittedly, there were some excellent games on the Dreamcast (Soul Calibur etc.) but the public didn't buy enough of them and Sega became developers rather than manufacturers.
Gamers now had a choice between Sony and Nintendo, with their Playstation and N64 systems. I chose the N64, and to this day I still think I chose wrong. There was just so much more going on with the Playstation than the N64. Disc-media driven, better processing power, more variety, and it had Final Fantasy 7 on it, possibly the best game ever made? The only thing that the N64 had which trumped the Playstation was Goldeneye and it's spiritual successor, Perfect Dark. Goldeneye and Perfect Dark introduced some of the staples of FPS gaming we know today. Sniper rifles, manual aiming, secondary functions on weapons, maiming innocents for fun whilst keeping within mission objectives. Fantastic. Also, Joanna Dark was the first videogame character I ever had a crush on. Man, I woulda dragged myself naked through broken glass just to hear her fart through a walkie talkie. Actually, you know what? Fuck you Playstation! N64 Thugz for life!

Well, that brings me to the end of this little trip down memory lane, and it's been pleasant. I've overlooked some things that I'm ashamed of (Sega CD32X), and some things that are too traumatic to write about (Sega Game Gear with a TV Tuner).

I hope you've enjoyed it.

Now I'm off to print out a picture of Joanna Dark and enjoy myself some more.

Monday, 14 June 2010

On being a gamer...

If you play computer games with any level of passion, the following should be familiar to you upon meeting a new person.

Person: So, what do you do in your free time?
You: Oh you know, the usual sort of stuff. I play computer games quite a bit.

Right there. That's when you know the entire conversation is going downhill from here. Even saying the words 'computer games' to someone I assume to be a non-gamer makes me gag a bit. It just doesn't sound good. I can't help it though, that's what they're called. You could go for the more American 'video games' but then you come off even worse I think.

Likely there will be a bit of a pause. Not long enough to be uncomfortable, but long enough for you both to register it. The person is likely now desperately trying to find something to say, and this furious neural activity will probably manifest with a slightly constipated look on their face. The conversation can go one of two ways now. The conversation can end abruptly with the individual walking away making a mental note not to bother you again, or it can continue, along the lines of:

Person: Oh really? What sort of games do you play?

This question can either be asked with a genuine innocence (which is ok) or a smirking, condescending sneer that makes you want to hit yourself in the face for getting into this conversation (which most psychologists would say is not ok).

The problem with that question is it's like asking a ballet enthusiast what their favourite type of ballet is. Chances are they prefer the ballets that feature ballet dancing. I have a friend who only plays Pro Evolution Soccer. It's the only *hurp* computer game he plays and it's times like this I wish I was him.

So instead you're forced to give the stock answer.

You: Oh, you know, I like all different types.

Which isn't a very good response. Why? Because it begs additional questions, the answers to which will dig you deeper into your hole. Observe:

Person: What game are you playing right now then?

Don't say World of Warcraft. Even if you do play WoW, pretend you don't. I'll explain why some other time.

You: Oh, I'm playing Bioshock.
Person: Bioshock? What's that?

Now, you could go off into a diatribe on Bioshock's artwork and style, its discourse on Randian philosophy and its examination of the nature of men, but you won't. Because you know the other person probably just won't get it.

You: It's a shooting game. It's sort of underwater.
Person: Oh, ok, sounds fun. I'll see you later.
You: See ya.

So now you've done it. You are now a gamer, and the individual you have just spoken to believes that the second you get home, you'll strip down to a wifebeater and boxers, open a two litre bottle of Coke, game for seven hours straight and then cry yourself to sleep.

Which might be true, but I'm not here to judge.

One problem is the games themselves, another aspect are the gamers who play them.

Let's face it, even in these days of Animal Crossing, and the Wii and Nintendogs and all that crap, games are generally quite a boyish experience, with explosions and fast cars and wicked awesome guns.

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with this, but there is no denying that this is probably the only lasting impression a non-gamer is going to have after a brief exposure to the medium. And it's likely that this impression will stop a non-gamer from sitting down for couple of hours and actually trying a game out, which is a pity.

Maybe it's an issue inherent in the medium. A book, a movie, a TV show, they require only passive participation on the part of the spectator. A game, on the other hand, requires commitment from its player. It is a wholly active pastime, and the player needs to invest time and energy to ensure an emotional connection with the characters and thus a satisfactory experience.

Personally, I feel that dismissing computer games *boke* on the basis of observation of gameplay is akin to dismissing a film after watching the opening credits. Sure, you've had a look at the constituent components, but the sum is always greater than the parts.

But a change in this arrangement will only come with time, and one can't deny that advances in technology will help speed this process. An Xbox or a PS3 controller, to me, feels natural, it's operation buried deep down on some subconscious level. For a non-gamer, a controller is just a lump of plastic with WAY too many buttons on it. For that individual, the controller requires constant awareness and this fact stops them from fully engaging with the game. I hope that control systems like Kinect and the Sony motion controller can help allow non-gamers to see beyond the technical limitations of input devices and really enjoy games at the same level they would enjoy a good book etc. but only time will tell.

As I said earlier another problem is gamers themselves. We don't do ourselves any favours.

Person: What are you playing?
You: Grand Theft Auto 4. It's basically a crime game, but that isn't really doing it justice. It's set in Liberty City, basically a living, breathing digitised version of New York. I can sit here in my car and watch cops chasing down thieves, see car accidents happening around me, listen to the radio, or I can drive to another part of town and walk along the beach. It has this epic story centering around a refugee trying to leave his past behind and lead a good life, but finding out that it isn't easy to do, and that his past is reaching out to drag him under.
Person: Wow, so what are you doing now?
You: Erm...I'm repeatedly driving over a hooker.

Read Dead Reduction


Motherfucking cougars.

Apparently in the Old West, a cougar could not only kill a stallion with a single glancing bite, it could also fling a man into the air and off a cliff with ease. I can only assume that these animals were ruthlessly hunted down into extinction as part of Manifest Destiny or they would likely be the dominant species in the modern-day US.

For the uninitiated, I'm playing Red Dead Redemption, the latest videographic (it's a word) opus from Rockstar Games, developers of the Grand Theft Auto series. Taking place during the swan song of the Old West, it weaves the themes of revenge, loyalty, tyranny and...what's that other one? Oh yes, redemption.

You play the role of John Marston, very bad man turned rancher, forced out of very bad man retirement by government agents who intend for you to hunt down and eliminate the members of your former gang.

Thus the scene is set.

In some ways Red Dead Redemption is a shining example of how when a studio gets it right, they get it so right.

But I'm not terribly interested in what they've done right from a technical point of view. Yes, Rockstar have created one of the most detailed game worlds that my face has ever seen. Yes, the combat is much improved over the likes of GTA IV and the Dead Eye system is great fun (I like to slow down time and shoot my own horse in the bum). Yes, the lasso is up there with the Gravity Gun and the Fat Man in terms of fun equipment options.

But RedDedRed has other things going for it, aside from the gameplay and graphics aspect. And sound. Very good soundtrack that I will pay no attention to here.

I'm gonna digress here for a second to go back to the lasso. If any developer ever reads this blog (which is pretty fucking unlikely at this point, but whatevs) and you're making a game, heed this advice: PUT A LASSO IN IT. Do it. I can't think of a single game that wouldn't benefit from some added lasso action.

Call of Duty: Modern Lasso. "Ramirez, defend Burger Town. With your lasso!"
World of Lasso. "You are not prepared! For my lasso!"
Super Mario Lasso. "Your princess is in another castle! Likely doing something with a lasso!"

Just do it. Except on the Wii. I want to be able to lasso things, I don't want to look like a retard in my own living room while I'm doing it.

Anyway, back on topic.

Yeah, so as I was saying, forget about all the standard things that make RedDedRed excellent. I'm going to focus on the things you won't have read about in reviews.

The horses are as integral to this game as the guns are. I loved the fact you could go out onto the plains, catch your own horse (WITH THE LASSO) and then break it in (dirty). I loved the fact you could then whistle for your horse and it would come to you. Eventually. And when I say come to you, I actually mean sprint to a point about 10 feet away from where you are standing.
I also liked how you developed a bond with your horse over time, increasing it's stamina. And then how you could mercilessly shoot your horse in frustration because you failed to stop a roadside robbery and then skin it. And then dance around with it's blood smeared all over your body. Ok, so I added that last bit, but being able to skin animals and sell the hides is a nice touch.

On that note, wouldn't it be great if we lived in a simpler time where we could skin animals that we find lying around and sell them to Sainsburys? No? Ok then.

There's a whole shitload of minigames too. You can play Blackjack, Texas Hold 'Em, Liar's Dice, arm wrestling, and Five Finger Fillet. I've probably overlooked something, so let's call it...erm...Miners Strike?

Anyway, Five Finger Fillet is that game you might have seen in Aliens. You know where Bishop puts his hand over Bill Paxtons and then gets a knife and only cuts himself a little tiny bit? You know the scene, and then Ripley flips out because she finds out Bishop is a 'synthetic' and she doesn't want the cornbread? Anyways, you can play that game in RedDedRed. It's like a rhythm game and I'm fucking shit at it, but you might enjoy it. Horse Shoes! That's what I overlooked!

The game has a more serious tone than GTA IV. I'm grateful for that, because the humour in GTA IV wasn't particularly funny. The number of times I wanted to put a bullet in that fat fuck Roman. As my Dad says 'Nobody likes a clown. Or a ginger.' If you fancy a laugh in RedDeadRed, I suggest lassoing some innocent bystander and dropping them on the railroad tracks. Another fun thing to do is when you see someone getting kidnapped, shoot the victim. The kidnapper keeps carrying them. I had a good chortle imagining the kidnapper returning to his base only to find his victim all dead. C'mon, if that happened to you, you would feel like SUCH A DICK.

The cutscenes aren't great, I tell thee. Rockstar can't seem to articulate joints terribly well, so like GTA IV, the cutscenes appear to be populated by grizzled Thunderbirds. I wish they'd work on that.

Before I finish I would like to address the fact that there are a myriad of outfit options in RedDedRed. Apart from some reservations about effectively playing Old West Barbie on my PS3, I might have liked a pretty dress as an option. Just saying, being able to put on a pretty dress and go and shoot mutants in Fallout 3 was one of my favourite aspects of the game, and I think that's true of a lot of players.

Maybe something for the sequel, eh? And there will be a sequel, because in the end it turns out the entire game was a dream. A unicorns lovely lovely dream.