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Excuse me, I think I’ve got something in my eye…

Warning: spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Red Dead Redemption and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

We all know that video games can be emotional experiences. The exhilaration of taking down a boss by the skin of your teeth, the excitement and wonderment of a new adventure begun and the sheer pride in a perfectly executed headshot that wins the game for your team. But one emotion that video games aren’t very good at producing is sadness. To be fair, most games aren’t even aiming to give a kick to our oxytocin levels and ratchet up our empathy but I wonder why this is. Are video games not expected to be a suitable medium for this kind of emotion in the way that films or novels are? There aren’t many games that have moved me to tears but the ones that did have stuck in my mind as they provided an experience that was somewhat unique within the medium.

Here are a few games that have brought a lump to my throat:

Dragon Age: Origins – asking Alistair to cheat on you

Ah, Alistair, my favourite fictional boyfriend. I originally started to “romance” him on my first play through of Dragon Age because I wanted to be Queen of Ferelden but his superb characterisation won me over. He was funny, honorable and rather charming. Once we had the “lamp post” conversation there was no turning back, I was determined to make sure Alistair and my character got the happiest possible ending. This turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. Near the end of the game, you discover that either you or Alistair must die in order to slay the Archdemon. There is one way out – Alistair can perform a ritual with the character Morrigan (whom he dislikes greatly) in order for you both to live. Unfortunately, this ritual involves him impregnating Morrigan. I have never felt more guilty playing a video game than when I asked Alistair to sleep with Morrigan. After everything we’d been through and all the conversations we’d had it felt genuinely painful to ask him to something I knew he’d hate. At this point in the game it wasn’t an easy decision to make but this is exactly why it has remained such a powerful moment in my mind.


Red Dead Redemption – there are no happy endings

John Marston is a former outlaw that has been recruited by federal agents to round up his old gang members under threat that his family will be hurt if he does not. You spend the whole game playing through various missions to this end but the game never lets you forget that Marston is doing so under duress. After Marston finally catches up with the gang leader Dutch and kills him in a climatic moment, he is finally allowed to return home. At this point the game gives you missions that revolve around every day activities – herding cattle, hunting with your son and generally allowing Marston to settle into family life. The game gives you the opportunity to see Marston happy and to get to know his family. And sure, Marston could be pretty unlikeable some of the time but it’s hard not to get at least a little attached to a character you’re playing so it’s almost heartening to see him finally free. It also helps set the scene for what comes next and give it pathos. The serenity does not last. US soldiers and federal agents surround the farm and Marston sends his son Jack and wife Abigail to safety whilst he prepares for one last shoot out. After all, Marston IS the last member of the gang and must meet the same fate according to the law. At this point the player realises that Marston never stood a chance. He was simply a pawn to be used. There is no happy ending to be found here. Marston cannot escape from his past. The only redemption he can achieve is to save his wife and son by sacrificing himself.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – the horror of war

The CoD games aren’t exactly known for their deep plots or well-rounded characters. This isn’t a criticism because CoD is very, very good at what it does. However, there was one moment in the first Modern Warfare game that gave me pause to feel something amongst all the bullets and explosions. In the first act of the game during a search and rescue mission there is a lot of foreshadowing that the major terrorist threat has a nuclear bomb. Well, so what, that’s just about the type of thing I expect out of terrorists in these games and I am fully looking forward to kicking their asses before said bomb goes off. Just need to save a few more and then hop back onto the chopper and speed away. Except, instead of escaping, you are suddenly faced with a massive detonation, a mushroom cloud in the air and as the blast catches up with your helicopter you know there is no way anyone is surviving this. I wasn’t expecting it. The game hands control back to you once the chopper has crashed and you make your character crawl his way out. The entire scene is red and the mushroom cloud looms large. Your character can barely move and his breathing is becoming more and more laboured. Everything is silent. It’s horrific. It’s a moment in the game when it’s not simply about killing AI characters or enjoying raining down merry hell on pixels below – it’s a moment about death as it often is in war; frightening, painful and horribly pointless. I’ve forgotten many of the moments in CoD games but not this one. It stuck with me.


What games, if any, have made your bottom lip wobble?



A Heavenly Feast for the Eyes

With all the AAA games being released at this time of year it can be easy to miss the smaller titles. It’s a shame because it can mean that more inventive or eclectic titles don’t get the attention they deserve. I think this is probably going to be the fate of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron so I’m glad I got the chance to play it before I become distracted by Batman: Arkham City and Battlefield 3.

El Shaddai is inspired by the apocryphal Book of Enoch. Enoch is the great-grandfather of Noah and the book describes the story of the Watchers. The Watchers are fallen angels who created children with mortals; the Nephilim. The plot of the game is very simple. Enoch must defeat seven fallen angels and the Nephilim in the Tower of Babel in order to prevent God from issuing a great flood to destroy mankind. The Nephilim are odd yet cute looking creatures who have the unfortunate habit of eating one another until they become flaming giants. It’s difficult to follow what is happening at times. It doesn’t matter very much though. The truly stand out feature of this game is how it looks.

You can’t talk about El Shaddai without talking about the visuals. The environments of each level are astoundingly diverse. Each level in the Tower of Babel looks like it was pulled from a different game and all of them are beautiful. You will find yourself in realms that look like they were made from fireworks, levels that bleed cutting-edge future tech, places that feel like you’ve been transported into a candy-striped Super Mario World and worlds that are ethereally breathtaking. Seriously. Take a look.

The fallen angels that inhabit the Tower can create any worlds they want and each level is a reflection of them. Imagination runs rife through this game and the visuals are important. You won’t find a Heads-Up Display on your screen to tell you how much energy you have left or how close you are to gaining an Overboost attack – these things are also represented visually by how much armour you have on or how…on fire you seem to be. Every so often you’ll run into Lucifel (basically Satan before he stopped being on speaking terms with God) who is chatting away about how you are doing on his mobile phone to God. He acts as your save point and narrator. At one point he even cheekily tells you how long it’s going to take you to complete the game…if you’re good enough, that is!

The gameplay is split into two parts. You have your platforming segments and your combat segments. The platforming is a lot of fun. It feels like a throwback to games of 15 years ago and is varied and tricky enough to be enjoyable. Sometimes, however, the heady visuals of the game can impair how well you judge distances and you will find yourself leaping into thin air when you were sure you were going to land on solid ground. This can be annoying but most of the platforming sequences are well designed.

The combat is based on a rock, paper, scissors mechanic. You have three weapons – the arch (offensive melee), the gale (distance projectiles) and the veil (defensive shield) and will need to switch between them in order to defeat the enemies who will be weak to a specific weapon. However, you can only carry one weapon at a time. To switch you must steal your opponents’ weapons! You also need to keep an eye on your weapon’s “purity” because if the weapon becomes corrupted the damage of your attacks will drop to nothing. Despite Enoch’s attacks being basically mapped to only one button do not think that you can get through the combat simply by bashing. You will need to learn to delay, to combo, to counterattack and defend in order to exploit your enemies tactics. I hard won battle can feel extremely satisfying.

Unfortunately there is not much change in the enemies. You will meet the same ones through-out the game – in later levels there is normally just more of them. The boss battles are mainly a matter of observing the pattern and figuring out when to hit them and with what. The battles aren’t easy but it feels like there is a lack of imagination in the combat. This is a shame since it feels like the rest of the game is over-abundant in it. It doesn’t stop them from being fun but it does make the game feel somewhat lacking.

I would still highly recommend renting or picking up this game if you have the time (it’s only £17.95 at Zavvi right now). It’s a bit of an odd and disjointed experience (there is one particular boss battle I will never get out of my head!) but it will be an experience unlike anything else you’ve played this year. It’s not perfect but it is unique. And that’s worth a lot.


Solving puzzles from a new dimension

Remember when games made the shift from 2D visuals to 3D? Your entire childhood had a birds eye view of all the action surrounding Link but in the next console generation you were thrust into the midst of the action yourself. Of course, some games still benefit from 2D gameplay, such as Street Fighter or certain platformers, but overall it was a big change. Marc ten Bosch is taking things one step further though. Gaming in the fourth dimension.

Miegakure is a platform game where you explore the fourth dimension to solve puzzles. The concept was inspired by Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott. A 3D being would be able to perform acts that seemed like miracles in a 2 dimensional space. Similarly, a being that could access 4 dimensions would be able to do many impossible things in a 3 dimensional space.

The puzzles in Miegakure will require you to think and move in this higher dimension. Using the fourth dimension will mean that the player can see inside closed objects, walk through walls, inter-link objects without breaking them and much more. Limitless clever puzzles can be created from such a set-up and should create some pleasing “eureka” moments for the player.

Miegakure is currently still in development but worth keeping an eye on. It looks like it promises to be an intriguing game and unlike any puzzler you’ve played before.


FFXIII-2 at E3

Final Fantasy continues it’s assault on the world “final” with more information emerging about FFXIII-2. E3 has given us an extra taste of the new game.

The story is going to be following a new character known as Noel (who looks very similar to FFXIII’s Fang – coincidence?). He’s dressed quite unpractically so should fit in well with the FF oeuvre. Noel and Serah (who spent most of the previous game as a crystal) are tasked with taking down a colossal titan called Atlas. The story seems the typical mixture of earnestness and fighting large monsters. I admit that it’s the fighting part that I’m most interested in!

I’m happy to see the paradigm shift combat system is still in place. It was one of the best new features of FFXIII; a battle system based on roles rather than actions that allowed a surprising amount of strategy formation. Now we have the addition of Cinematic Actions. This basically seems like the “press X now!” instructions seen in games like Kingdom Hearts 2. I hope the game will make you work in order to activate this mechanic rather than just gifting it to you after a certain amount of damage or time.

In addition to Cinematic Actions there is another new mechanic called Feral Link. When you beat monsters they may sometimes drop all crystal which will allow you to add that monster to your party. Which monster fights with you depends on which paradigm you shift into during fights. This should create tons of new strategy options during battle and I can’t think of another Final Fantasy game that allowed you to fight alongside monsters. It seems like a really fun addition.

In other good news, it appears that the game will not be as linear in nature as it’s predecessor. I don’t expect it to be fully removed from FFXIII’s horrible corridor system but it will be nice to have more than once choice on which corridor to take!

All in all, FFXIII-2 seems to be offering tons of monsters, lots of grinding and battles with enemies larger than air ships. If this is your sort of thing or you enjoyed the previous game then FFXIII-2 is shaping up to provide a first class gaming experience. I just wouldn’t expect anything ground breaking to be found here.


Fez – more than just a fancy hat

Xbox Live Arcade often has some fantastic indie games published on it, some of them showing more imagination and innovative gameplay than you can find in mainstream releases. Whilst that isn’t always the case, it’s good to keep an eye on Arcade to see what gaming gems may appear. As it turns out, it looks like we might get one later this year.

If you haven’t already, meet Fez:

Pretty to look at, no? And also pretty clever. 2D platform gaming taking place in a 3D world. By shifting the perspective you can rearrange the world, putting new platforms within reach and opening new paths. An idea that is so simple you wonder why no-one ever thought of it before and will probably put indie platform developer Polyton on the map as the M.C.Escher of video game design.

Fez has been in development for nearly 4 years now but it looks like all the hard work has created something sublime. I can’t wait to play!


Duke Nukem Forever – exchanging flags for “babes”

Duke Nukem Forever has been in development since 1997. There are a lot of people who a pretty excited about it’s upcoming release. I admit I’m not one of them (I always preferred Doom) but have been interested to see how Gearbox have updated the franchise. It seems they’re going for a hefty dose of controversy (or stupidity?).

Check out the “Capture the Babe” multiplayer mode:

Duke Nukem Forever’s “Capture the Babe” CTF variant requires you to abduct a woman to score. The mode is revealed in the latest issue of Official Xbox Magazine US where they explain that Gearbox will give the option to give her a “slap” if she “freaks out” as you drag her across the map.

I…see. Excuse me for saying so, but doesn’t that sound a bit…sexist? Women becoming literal objects to be won and who just need a reassuring slap as their womanly hormones make them hysterical when captured? Oh I know, I know, it’s meant to be ironic and Duke Nukem is a satire of the whole guns, women and glory genre. But I don’t get the joke. Usually a satire makes a comment or pokes fun at the original. This is just straight up sexism – or a really lousy joke.

But perhaps it makes sense in context of the game?

Speaking to the magazine, Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford said: “Our goal isn’t to shock people, but I think there’s some stuff that’s a bit uncomfortable. I mean, the alien’s plan is to capture our women and impregnate them to breed an alien army, so you can imagine some horrible shit happens.”

“Our women?” Hmmm.

Just for the record, if alien’s invade Earth with plans to capture, rape and impregnate women I won’t be standing around, swooning hysterically, waiting to be saved. I’ll be armed to the teeth!

It’s not like I’m particularly offended by this game mode. More disappointed. It feels like the chance for actual irony or parody has been missed and the game has become exactly what it set out to mock. Like Kurt Vonnegut said “Be careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you are what you pretend to be.”


How Phoenix Wright Stole My Heart

I have to admit, I never thought that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney would be my sort of game. I spend a lot of my gaming time on FPS’s and RPG’s and I haven’t played a point and click adventure in a long while. Also, it’s about lawyers…which didn’t seem like the most exciting premise. However, Capcom were offering the first Phoenix Wright game on the iPhone for 59p so I thought I would give it a go. I now find myself having completed the game, it’s sequel and am now well into the 3rd game in the series.

I have been completely won over by Ace Attorney.

The game is divided into 2 sections; Investigations, where you explore crime scenes and question witnesses and Trials, where you cross-examine and navigate through conversations in order to find contradictions. Once you’ve found a contradiction you can present evidence by yelling “Objection!” None of this remotely resembles a sane legal system. But the game does demand you to think critically from time to time about how the case fits together and is pretty engaging.

But, it wasn’t just the gameplay that endeared me to this game, although the twists and turnabouts and ridiculously dramatic moments as witnesses unravel on the stand are a joy to behold. Mainly, I fell in love with the writing. It can be pretty cheesy at times but each character is a very original creation written with depth and humour. Some you may only meet the once and others recur in the sequels but it’s quite hard to forget any of them. The originality of the characters also holds true for their appearance and animations. Each character has only a few expressions but I can’t help but be impressed with how much personality and emotion was infused into these few sprites.

This game made me laugh out loud more times than any other game I can remember playing since Secret of Monkey Island. It made me wonder why I spend so much time playing as silent, grim heroes. Phoenix Wright’s colourful world of flashy blackmailers, Steel Samurais, haughty prosecutors with tragic pasts, spirit channeling teenagers and old ladies who will just not stop yelling at you was like a breath of fresh air.

I should take this as a lesson and expand my gaming horizons more often. I’ve been guilty of sticking to my preferred genres too long and I wonder what other gaming delights I might have let slip me by.


Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Late October and early November has seen the release of far too many games I want to play. Alas, with only so much money to spend and time to play I had to be selective. So Fable III and Vanquish will have to wait while I play through Fallout New Vegas and Enslaved.

I finished playing Enslaved last week. It was pretty short. Took me about 6-8 hours to complete. The gameplay was fairly standard and didn’t include any mechanics I haven’t seen before. But still, it enchanted me and I would recommend picking it up.

I’m not someone who is usually captured by graphics – a nice looking game is appreciated but if the gameplay isn’t there then does it matter? But Enslaved’s vivid and verdant post-apocalyptic environment really is beautiful. It also made a welcome change to the grays of Fallout’s wasteland! The world of Enslaved is one that has become over-grown with plant life in the decades following a war with robots. Humans are sparse but these robots are plentiful. And homicidal. You play as Monkey, a gruff and athletic protaganist who is “enslaved” by a woman called Trip. She wants you to help her get home and the story unfolds from there. And the story is where this game really shines!

The story is very loosely based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West and was co-written by Alex Garland. Gameplay is a mix of platforming, combat and a little bit of puzzle-solving – certainly fun but not revolutionary and not the games main selling point. It’s the games atmosphere, environment and slowly developing story that draws you in. The characters are well written and animated. It is difficult to not to start feeling empathy for them. Some scenes are genuinely touching. Soon you find yourself actually looking forward to the next cut scene! Many things are left unsaid by the end of the game which leaves you with a sense of wanting more. It also leaves the player with the ability to draw their own ideas and conclusions about Enslaved’s world instead of being spoon-fed every bit f information possible from an over-zealous writer.

I would welcome a sequel to this game. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been selling very well. Some people have complained that it is too short or too easy. Well, not every gamer has time to sit down for 50-70 hours to complete a game but they still want an experience bit deeper than jumping on Call of Duty on Xbox Live. I think Enslaved could provide that. Perhaps the marketing effort spent too much time focusing on hardcore gamers who had their eye on titles like Fallout and Fable. Maybe with a lower price or digital distribution it could have done better. It’s a shame because I really do think this game can fill a niche and I think people are missing out on one of the best stories in video games this year if they dismiss it out of hand.

It’s Your Funeral

It’s been a few months since the last DLC was released for Left 4 Dead but last week Valve gave us a new and kinda maudlin campaign; The Sacrifice.

You can download the expansion for either Left 4 Dead or Left 4 Dead 2. The Sacrifice covers the events of the last DLC The Passing but from the point of the original 4 survivors from the first game. Along-side this mini-campaign the DLC also adds the No Mercy campaign to Left 4 Dead 2. For this reason, The Sacrifice is obviously a better deal for owners of the sequel rather than the original game unless you’re playing on Steam in which case the DLC is free anyway (you lucky buggers!).

The Sacrifice campaign adds some nice new maps that provide multiple paths and some great crescendo moments. The one that really stood out was the point where you have to release a Tank that has been trapped in a train car in order to reach your destination. There is no running away from this one. It will certainly shake up versus mode and expert setting as it will test how well a team cooperates. One wrong move and one or all of you could be dead. There is also the interesting addition of exploding barrels that can be helpful at choke points. But The Sacrifice is really all about the moment right at the end where a member of your team has to die in order for the rest to escape. This is the moment that Valve has been building up to since the release of The Passing and even promoted with a comic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to expectations. The moment of sacrifice is under-whelming. It does not ask much of the player and is devoid of emotion. It’s a shame since you leave the game feeling not exhilarated but cheated. In online versus play I have seen teams vote to return to the lobby rather than play the sacrificial map.

The No Mercy campaign, despite already being familiar to most players of Left 4 Dead 2, is a very welcome addition. The new special infected and the addition of melee weapons really shake up the versus gameplay. The point where you have to wait for a lift whilst been attacked by hordes of zombies becomes much more difficult than in the first game as special infected like the Spitter or Jockey can force the survivors to move out from safe spaces. This change in the dynamic of a familiar map makes a nice change of pace.

If you’re a Steam player then it’s a no-brainer; you should download these new maps. If you’re playing on Xbox, well, it depends on if you’re playing Left 4 Dead 1 or 2. Unless you’re playing the sequel I’d keep hold of your cash and put it towards to buying yourself a copy of 2.

Final Fantasy XIII

So, I finally got around to playing Final Fantasy XIII. When it came out I was distracted by other games and the generally negative reviews dampened my interest; but it’s Final Fantasy so clearly I was going to play eventually. Yes, I love Final Fantasy games. I love the cheesy dialogue with the tacked-on saccharine philosophy. I love the completely impractical clothing choices and the gravity-defying hair. I love the fantasy landscapes and the sheer variety of creatures. But mostly, I love the fighting.

The fighting is the real reason I play FF games. The rest is just icing. For me, the strategy is what keeps me coming back for more. I have never really understood why FF games are labeled as RPGs. They share more in common with the Total War series than they do with Fallout or Mass Effect. You are only “role-playing” in so far that you are in control of a number of characters but you don’t get to decide how they should react to the plot. The only control you have is over upgrading their weapons and their skill-sets. These are two things that I love doing but would you really call it role-playing when you have no access to their emotional reactions? But as a strategy game I have often found FF to be a complex and in-depth affair that has often given me the chance to seek out some of the hardest gaming battles around. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I find it pretty satisfying. I imagine that this is what attracts a lot of other people to the franchise. This is also why I find some of the game design in FFXIII to be very odd indeed.

FFXIII is very insistent about holding your hand every step of the way. For the first 2/3’s of the game you will be restricted to moving along one path. There is no open world and no choice about where to go. You just keep ploughing ahead down corridors that don’t give you any opportunity to divert from the path. You can’t choose your own battle team (often the characters are in completely different areas of the world to one another and the narrative keeps switching back and forth between them). You are limited to upgrading your characters in only the areas the game has chosen for you. In battle, you can only control the actions of your main character and are limited to assigning roles to the rest of the party. You don’t have access to upgrading your weapons. The game does eventually make all these things possible and if you put the time in you will end up in an open world, free to do what you want. But it takes at least 15 hours to reach this point. 20 if you’re like me and stop to fight everything. Most players of FF games will already be familiar with most of FFXIII’s mechanics. 20 hours is an awful long time to wait for the game to take the training wheels off. Perhaps they implemented this narrow, restrictive gameplay in order to encourage new players? If so, I wonder what new gamers would put up with 20 hours of being pushed down corridor after corridor.

Upgrading weapons is another area which makes little sense. Battles, treasure chests and shops (all shops are accessed through save points – you don’t get to talk to NPC’s!) all yield a massive array of items. There must be hundreds of different items you can pick up, all which can be used to upgrade your weapons and accessories. The items are all named, categorised and have different experience point values BUT they essentially boil down to 2 things. Organic and inorganic. Organic materials have low exp but add multiplier points to your weapons for all items added after. Inorganic materials have high exp but no multiplier points. Therefore your strategy for upgrading is simple – add organic until you get max multiplier, then start adding inorganic. What was the point in naming and explaining hundreds of items when they no effect on your upgrades beyond these 2 categories? It’s almost like they had plans to do something more interesting and then decided against it. There is no strategy to upgrading your weapons or accessories and therefore it becomes a chore and not part of an essential game mechanic.

On part of the game I will defend is the battle system. I have seen many complaints regarding the fact that there is an “auto-battle” system. Yes, there is, but if you expect the characters to win a battle without your input then you won’t make it very far in this game at all. In FFXIII the fighting is less about specific commands and more about what roles you assign to your characters. There are 6 different roles (although you characters will start out with access to only 2 or 3 of them) and you will have to carefully select which ones you want your character to take in battle. You can change these roles in battle using a system called “paradigm shift”. If you want to make it through a boss battle then you better pick these roles carefully and keep a close on eye on what’s going on in order to “shift” effectively! It’s hard to explain unless you’re playing it but the system really does allow a depth of strategy, especially when it comes to working out how best to take on a particular enemy or in deciding how to level your party effectively. Despite this, I do understand the complaints. It is somewhat simpler than previous FF games…yet it is still very complicated for the uninitiated player. I once again wonder who the target audience for FFXIII is!

Ultimately, if you like FF games and you are willing to push for 20 hours in order to reach the open world of hunting massive fantasy creatures then FFXIII can become quite a rewarding game. I can tell that I am going to be sinking in quite a lot more hours and enjoying myself immensely. However, this amount of time is not a reasonable expectation of most players. Games should draw you in straight off the bat or at least within the first hour. In comparison to other games, FFXIII seems reluctant to let you just play.

Limbo – an evil little world

This week Microsoft kicked off its Summer of Arcade promotion with the release of of Limbo, a game created by indie developer Playdead. It’s been getting a lot of attention due its art style and focus on puzzle solving.

You start the game as a boy and wake up in a grey, shadowy world. The game gives you no clue as to what the controls are or what you are supposed to do. Like the young boy on screen you are left on your own to figure out what to do in a particularly hostile and foreboding environment. Moving about and interacting with objects is easy figure out. It’s the puzzles and the hidden dangers that get you.

When playing this game be prepared to die a lot. Sometimes dying is completely unavoidable and gives you clues on how to avoid it next time. It doesn’t stop it being any less nasty though. Whether you are being chased by monsterous spiders, trying to avoid bear traps or running from silent children who really seem to want you dead the game keeps you on edge and uses its nasty atmosphere to give you a little push to solve the puzzle faster. There is an achievement for completing the game with less than 5 deaths – I imagine that only the most dedicated gamers will manage it!

The game is fair and autosaves often so you never lose too much progress but some of the puzzles can be very tricky to figure out. Solving them can rely on many different factors; speed, interaction of objects, your own momentum, lateral thinking…and you won’t run across the same puzzle twice. The game constantly throws new and ever-more-challening puzzles in your path. Eventually the puzzles start becoming much more complex and difficult. Despite the difficulty they are also well-designed and once you understand the solution you’ll wonder why you didn’t see it in the first place. It also feels quite rewarding when you figure out something that has had you stumped for a few minutes.

Along with the gloomy, eerie visuals is a quiet and creepy soundtrack. The music in Limbo is very limited. Mostly you can hear the breeze and far off noises but when danger approaches the soundtrack gets more aggressive along with it. It’s enough to make you jump at times. Especially when it comes along with the visuals of a gigantic spider creeping it’s way towards you.

Limbo is full of character, atmosphere and provides an intense gameplay experience. I can’t think of any other game to compare it too.

Limbo costs 1200 Microsoft Points.

Sleep Is Death gives us a new way to play

I don’t play many games that aren’t on a console but every so often my attention is peaked by something. In this case it’s a game called Sleep Is Death by indie creator Jason Rohrer (the dude who made The Passage).

There is quite a bit of hype surrounding this game and you’ve probably heard words like “innovative” and “limitless possibilities” thrown around about games before. The interesting thing is that in this case, it’s true. Sleep Is Death is for 2 players, one playing the “controller” of the game world and the other being the player exploring the world. The player has a 30 second timer in which to move, pick something up, speak to someone or say something. The game, in turn, reacts to whatever it is you do. But it’s not the game itself reacting it is the “controller” – the other player. This means that you literally can do nearly anything and get a response from the game. Think about it. In how many other games can you say what you want or smash what you want or kill what you want and actually have the game react specifically to what you did? The entire problem of intelligent design in games is wiped away by simply putting another human in control of the environment.

The controller interface is pretty easy to understand – it’s mainly drag and drop. The simple sprite based art means that new characters, objects and environments can be created with astonishing speed. The pared-down art style also means that players remain focused on the story without getting distracted by how “good” things look. This is important when you have only 30 seconds in which to create the environment or consequences for the player. There are also prepackaged assets that come with the game (and more available to download) so you don’t have to do all the work yourself if you don’t want to. If you are going to be the controller then you can also create scenes and characters that you can store in the game’s library for future use. The player interface is even simpler; point and click.

There is one very obvious downfall to this game. It depends on the creativity of the controller and the responses of the player. Even so, you can pretty much guarantee that you won’t know what is going to happen until you sit down to play. Even the controller has to react to the player! How many games can you say that about? If you’re not playing with a friend you can find people to play with at Sidtube where people also upload screenshots of their games and you can find new resources.

You can download Sleep Is Death here – payment is donation based so give what you can afford and support our indie developers!

Let’s talk about Red Dead Redemption

I’ve been sinking quite a few of my gaming hours into Red Dead Redemption on the 360 the past few weeks. On the whole I have been enjoying myself immensely whether it be shooting bandits, hunting rattlesnakes or breaking horses. I even began to enjoy the gambling once I figured out that the AI had a “tell” in Liar’s Dice that allows me to win 99% of the time. In fact, if you asked me if you should buy the game I would say yes because it is damn good fun if you enjoy open-world, sandbox type games. However, this review isn’t gonna be about how great the game is. You can read one of those reviews quite easily. They’re everywhere. This review is about the things that are bad about RDR because very few people are talking about them.

There are few differences between RDR and GTA – the mission structures, character types and game mechanics are extremely similar. It doesn’t introduce anything new or original to video games and sometimes heavily relies on stereotypes and predictable plot to drive the narrative forward. The environment is the major distinction. To be fair, the praise heaped upon Rockstar for the landscape is well deserved. It is diverse, packed with wildlife and has some extremely beautiful moments around sunrise and sunset. It is not a chore to ride your horse through it on the way to missions but actually rather pleasant. The music also resonates beautifully with the landscape creating an emotional resonance. Unfortunately, RDR fails to create the same level of emotional resonance in any of it’s characters.

The main character, John Marston, is presented to the player as a gruff and tough man who is attempting to leave his former life as a criminal behind him and be a good father and husband. He is surly, quick to anger and has little qualm in gunning down those who stand in his way. He is also presented as a stand-up, honest sort of guy who won’t cheat on his wife or kill without reason. Regardless, the game will let you gun down whomever you please for whatever reason. You will inevitably end up with a bounty on your head and NPC’s will stay clear of you but it doesn’t change John Marston’s plot. In the cut scenes he still talks like an honorable sort of dude. This can be quite jarring if you’ve just robbed a bank and shot a man off a horse just because you could.

Another problem with John’s character is the fact it grates against a lot of the missions. Most of the core game missions are started by talking to particular NPC’s. Some of these characters are largely comic relief stereotypes which are fun and show off Rockstar’s sharp wit but absolutely clash with Marston. They are constantly making life difficult for Marston and sending him off on wild goose chases whilst promising to help. And Marston just takes it. He may threaten them and do a lot of talking about how annoyed he is but he never actually follows through with any intimidation and he always, always does what they say even if they have betrayed him previously. Of course, Marston HAS to do these things because this is how the plot and the game advances but it doesn’t make any sense in context of his character. Personally, I feel this is a large oversight by Rockstar. I don’t mind not having choice about taking on a mission or not because Marston is not my avatar like in a game such as Fallout 3 – he is a well-rounded character with a specific story that is meant to unfold as I play the game. Fair enough. But the fact is that the story does not always gel with Marston’s character. This inconsistency can throw you out of the story and doesn’t help you to form an emotional attachment with Marston. He’s a character that is always ready to help the law take out some bandits but the next minute will take on a mission to burn down a village or two. He acts like he has no time for drunks or swindlers but will pretty much do anything they ask. If Marston himself doesn’t seem to know what he cares about, why should I care about him?

I know this all sounds like a lot of complaining. Despite the fact that RDR has little in the way of originality and a flawed story it really is fantastically atmospheric and plays very, very well. I cannot say that I am not having fun. Also, bear in mind that I have not finished the game yet so do not know where the story will end up. However, the narrative is flawed in many ways and claims that this will be the game that will change popular opinion of games as an art form are definitely hyperbole. But that’s okay. After all, it’s still entertaining pretending to be a cowboy.

Looking Forward

This weekend I am planning on picking up Red Dead Redemption. Although I have never been the biggest fan of the GTA series, Rockstar have intrigued me with it’s wild west free-roaming offering. The last time I played a western game it was Neversoft’s Gun, a game that was fun and had a lot of potential but was marred by an irritating control system and a plot that was extremely short. The reviews for Red Dead Redemption have been generally positive (and sometimes a little over-flowing with praise!) so I’m willing to lay out some cash for it despite the video evidence of 101 glitches on YouTube. I think I’m gonna have a grand time in the old west.

This got me thinking about some other games that I am looking forward to playing. We’ve got some pretty excellent games on the horizon! These are the 4 I’m anticipating the most.

Mafia II – August 2010

Y’know, I never played Mafia. Crime games in general don’t tend to grab my interest. It’s not like I have anything against them it’s a just a personal thing. I tend to prefer stuff with a sci-fi or fantasy theme. Despite this I really, really want to play Mafia II. The gameplay trailers look like it will be immense fun (more Gears of War shoot and cover than GTA) and the work that has gone into constructing the 10 square miles of Empire Bay means it will likely be a joy to wander around. I’ve also been impressed with voice-acting I’ve heard on the trailers. I don’t expect this game to be particularly innovative in the sandbox genre but I love the idea of the playing a stylistic gangster game with great music, authentic environments and a good story. From what I’ve seen so far, Mafia II seems to be promising these things.

Dead Rising 2 – August 2010

Dead Rising was a good game that just didn’t quite work. The controls were iffy, the save system frustrating and the tiny text a massive pain for anyone without a HD tv. Here’s hoping that the sequel will eliminate all these issues! Because really, the opportunity to slaughter a screen absolutely packed with Romero-esque shambling zombies with weapons ranging from your fists to your own custom-built weapons makes my gaming thumbs twitch. Capcom say that the number of zombies which can be onscreen at any one time is roughly 6,000! There will also be cooperative and mutliplayer modes alongside the main plot. I just hope that it lives up to the hype that I have now created inside my head.

I Am Alive – 2011

Ubisoft first announced this title back in 2008. It was meant to be released this year but was pushed back after they pulled the development from Darkworks to in-house. I do hope it makes it to shelves because it just looks so interesting – like playing a part in a 70’s disaster movie. I like the idea that staying alive is part of the games mechanics and not something you only have to think about when being shot at. In fact, using tactics to trick or avoid your enemies is the main focus of play. Hopefully we will all hear more about it later in the year.

Fallout: New Vegas – Autumn/Winter 2010

If you’ve played Fallout 3 then you know why this game is heavily anticipated. If you haven’t played Fallout 3 then what are you still doing reading this blog post? Get out and buy yourself a second-hand copy! You won’t regret it!

So, what games are you looking forward to playing?

Super Street Fighter IV Review: Let me see those combo’s!

When Street Fighter IV was released last year it brought a breath of fresh air to the Beat ‘Em Up genre. Suddenly, more people around me seemed to be playing Street Fighter than any other game! I admit that I had not touched the franchise since around 1993 when I was playing Street Fighter II with my brothers but I had a lot of very fond memories. The great thing about SFIV was that it didn’t tarnish any of those memories but built upon them. SFIV was nostalgic yet modern and most of all it was a hell of a lot of fun. So, it came as a bit of a surprise when Capcom announced a sequel within less than a year of it being released. There has been some not entirely unjustified moaning and complaining about the short shelf-life of SFIV but the majority of us have gone out and bought SSFIV anyway. So, is it worth it’s £30 ($40) price tag?

Everyone knows that the bonus stages are back and you can now smash barrels and cars to your hearts content. But the first thing that makes SSFIV worth buying is evidently the 10 new characters. Best of all there is no waiting to play them. Unlocking characters has always been a tedious task that any player is likely to do by setting the game on “easiest” and button-mashing your way through. I am thankful that Capcom have seen sense and done away with this. And the new characters are excellent. If you prefer playing quarter-circle characters to charge characters you will be spoiled for choice here! Juri, Ibuki and Guy were particularly easy characters to get to grips with for me. However, I felt it was Hakan that really stole the show. The oily grabber is a little bit like Zangief doing the most damage when he is close up but he also has some ranged attacks that can be timed to perfection. All the characters have been give a new ultra move so you now have 2 to chose from before you go into battle. This really mixes up the game providing new opportunities and strategies of play. Of course all characters have been balanced a little bit. Sagat isn’t quite as ferocious as he was previously and the timing on some of Honda’s moves is a little bit easier to grasp. A lot of this won’t be noticeable to the more casual player but I am sure the more deadly serious players will be either arguing about or praising the changes.

The second thing that makes SSFIV worth buying is the new online modes. There are still the Ranked matches in which you gain points and compete directly with just about everyone else who owns the game but a more relaxed time can be had in the new Team Battles. The team battles can have between 4 to 8 players split into 2 groups. The fights result in direct elimination with the winner going on to the next round until one team has been defeated. The best thing about this is that you can watch the matches even when you are not playing yourself! You can also talk with the rest of your team whilst you watch the matches. It is literally the closest thing you will have to playing in an arcade. It also means that you can get all your friends together online and play if you can’t gather in person. This social aspect to fighting games has often been neglected on consoles and Capcom deserves a pat on the back for implementing a system that manages to somewhat replicate it. It will never take over the actual excitement and fun of playing with people in the same room as you but it comes pretty close. As long as the dreaded lag doesn’t get you.

SSFIV feels a bit like the game SFIV was meant to be. It is a shame that we couldn’t have had this the first time around but perhaps Capcom needed the fan feedback in order to create a better game. Also, there are so many new aspects to SSFIV it certainly couldn’t have been released as DLC. SSFIV is a game that evidently has a long shelf life and I hope Capcom will be supporting it for a few years to come.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Honda and I will be taking sumo on a world wide tour and you’ve got front row seats!

Left 4 Dead 2 – The Passing Review

The first DLC for Valve’s Left 4 Dead 2 was released last week. Being a big fan of the game I downloaded it on the day. So what do you get for 560 microsoft points? As it turns out, quite a lot! The Passing includes a brand new three-level campaign, a new melee weapon and gun, a new enemy and a new multiplayer mode. Not bad! But the best thing is that these new additions are all hella good.

The Passing campaign brings the original 4 survivors from Left 4 Dead into contact with the Left 4 Dead 2 survivors. One of the original survivors kicks the bucket at some point. It is unclear how this occurs but it is my guess that Valve is being deliberately opaque on this plot point due to the upcoming release of new DLC for Left 4 Dead. The level design is pretty good. It borrows from some of the other campaigns (thunderstorms from Hard Rain, collecting gas cans at the finale from Dead Centre) but also has some nice original moments like making your way through dark sewers and coming across a wedding. It also introduces crates which can contain a multitude of pills or handguns and a new enemy called The Fallen Survivor who can drop first aid packs, molotovs and pipe bombs when killed! My favourite new addition though had to be the M60. It might not have much ammo but it really packs a punch and makes taking down those zombie hoards feel all the more satisfying! Expect to fight with other players for this weapon when playing online.

Alongside the new campaign is the new multiplayer mode called Mutations. Mutations gives different gameplay modes on a weekly basis; the first being “Realism Versus” – this new mode gives a massive advantage to the zombie team and a tense, difficult fight for the survivor team! The zombies can see the survivors but the survivors are in “realism” mode which means no player or pick-up highlights and you have to be much more accurate to do damage to the zombies. I’ve played quite a few games of Realism Versus now and I die an awful lot. But that’s okay because so does everyone else! This might not be fun for everyone but I think for players who enjoy a challenge the extra tension and risk when playing the survivors is very entertaining. Same goes for when playing the zombies – it’s kinda satisfying to take down a survivor and watch the others run around desperately trying to locate their teammate in the darkness!

Realism Versus is not the only gameplay mode that Mutations will offer. It will change on a weekly basis! Valve have already released the names of some of the other Mutations modes: Chainsaws, Four Swords Men, M60s, Ultra Realism and more. I think that this alone makes it worth downloading The Passing – a new way to play every week. Some for fun and some for extra difficulty. Personally, I can’t wait to be running around with all 4 of us chainsawing zombies. I’m also looking forward to seeing what Ultra Realism is all about.

The Passing is very reasonably priced for all that it contains. It also sets the stage quite nicely for the Left 4 Dead DLC that should be coming in the next few months. If you’re a fan of this game I think you would be missing out not to download it.

Achievements & Trophies

I’ve been playing Fallout 3 recently. I got the Game of the Year edition which came with all the DLC packages. I’ve been exploring the extra content and was completing a mission called The Pitt on Sunday. Part of the mission is finding ten “steel ingots” in a place called the Steelyard. You are stripped of all your weapons and armour for this and the Steelyard is full of quick moving enemies. You have to make-do with what weapons you can find. As you can imagine it is therefore something you want to complete quite quickly. But there is an achievement (or trophy if you’re playing on a PS3) is you go above and beyond the ten ingots requirement and find all one hundred of them. Now, I have a terrible problem with leaving any stone unturned when playing RPG’s – if you can collect it or complete it or kill it then I feel strongly compelled to do so. But as I was running around picking up bars of steel for 20 gamer points I couldn’t help starting to feel a little bit stupid. What was the fun in this? Why was I really doing it? Are 20 gamer points and a special armour reward worth me playing out such a repetitive task?

Sony and Microsoft demand that every game released on their consoles contain external achievements/trophies. We’ve become pretty used to them. We likely all know people who will plow through mediocre games simply in order to get them rather than for any enjoyment of the game itself. I do wonder if they dull the impact of gaming. Are we playing because we really want to complete that side-quest or are we doing it because we want the extrinsic rewards? I remember playing Final Fantasy XII and finally, after a 7 hour battle, taking down the superboss Yiazmat who had 50million HP. I didn’t do it for a trophy (there was none) or a reward (there was one but I didn’t care for it) but because I really, really wanted to take that bastard down. If FFXII had come out on the PS3, would more people have been prepared to slog through this long and tough battle if they had a trophy to show off?

I also wondered if achievements and trophies effect multiplayer games. Take Left 4 Dead for example. There are a number of achievements that involve doing things such as collecting a gnome and carrying it through to the end of the game or only using pistols. Now, these type of achievement can be great fun – I’ve got both those achievements myself and had a blast doing so – but they can really effect playing online. You can end up with someone on your team that is more interested in obtaining a particular achievement than in helping your team stay alive. The game itself doesn’t encourage anyone to carry a gnome rather than rescue an incapacitated survivor but the external motivator of the achievement does! It can ruin the game for other players when you are left to die by someone chasing 10 gamer points. Perhaps these sort of achievements should only be available for offline play?

Basically, I am wondering if these external and relatively pointless rewards erode what makes playing video games gratifying. Also, do they encourage developers to include repetitive or annoying tasks in their games?

Arkham Asylum gets Game of the Year edition

As a massive DC Comics fan with a couple of longboxes dedicated to Batman comics I was a target audience that this game didn’t even have to advertise to. But I was dubious. Very dubious. If you haven’t played Batman: AA then you would probably be hard pressed to name a good Batman video game – I admit that I didn’t expect Batman: AA to be anything other than awful. I was wrong. This game is a blindingly good time. Do not expect any emotional depth, any surprises or any gameplay mechanics you haven’t used 100x before. But you don’t need any of these things because this game makes you feel like you actually are the goddamed Batman. Oh yes. But does it really need 3D glasses in the Game of the Year edition?

It feels like a bit of a gimmick. It probably is a gimmick. To be honest, the Batman GotY edition doesn’t have that much in the way of extra content. It will come with the extra challenge maps that are already available as downloadable content but there aren’t any extra levels or side-plots or expansions to the main game. So what can be done to make sure that people part with their hard-earned cash? Make a 3D version is apparently the answer.

So, I’m back to being dubious once again. I’ll admit straight up that I’m not really a fan of 3D anything. Not even in the IMAX (a screen that size makes me feel queasy). Sure, 3D glasses can be a bit of fun here and there; maybe in a comic book or a film made with 3D in mind. But the idea of spending 5-6 hours of gameplay staring through cardboard glasses at my TV is not appealing. Oh yeah, did I not mention that the 3D is based on the old red and green 3D technology of yesteryear? No fancy Avatar-esq graphics to be seen here.

Of course, I haven’t actually played the GotY edition so for all I know it could be a marvellous success. Batman: AA has proven me wrong once before so I would be more than happy for it to do so again. However, with Sony developing advanced 3D gaming for the PS3, and Microsoft surely to follow, it still feels as if red/green 3D for Batman: AA is a bit redundant. I can’t help but think that this is more a cheap marketing ploy to spin more money out of the game since it won Best Game at the BAFTA’s.  Am I being too cynical?

Another intro post? To skip, press up up down down left right left right b a select start

Yes, it’s yet another introduction post! Aren’t you excited? I’m Jennifer, I’m 27 year old from Manchester, UK and I’m an alcoholic…er, I mean gamer! I’m a gamer.

I’ve been playing video games pretty much my whole life. It started with the BBC Micron and Acorn Archimedes back in the day when games came on cassette tape and floppy disc. However, it wasn’t until one Christmas in 1992 when my brothers and I received a SNES that I really began to love gaming. Street Fighter II and Zelda: Link to the Past will do that to you. I haven’t put down the control pad since and I probably play more games for entertainment than I watch tv. I’ve owned many different consoles over the years but my current platform of choice is an Xbox360.

I mainly enjoy playing RPG’s and FPS’s. Currently I’m enjoying Fallout 3 and I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Bioware’s Dragon Age. I can often be found online fighting my way through the zombie hoards on Left 4 Dead 2 or taking sumo on a world wide tour on Street Fighter IV. I’m also quite partial to time attack games like Zoo Keeper on the DS or Geometry Wars on XboxLive Arcade. It makes me so happy to get a new high score!

I work close to the games industry. I’m a graphic designer at an agency which creates advertising, branding and packaging for video game developers and publishers. This means that we have a lot of new video games around the office which I am lucky enough to get to play on. I’m also a big fan of comic books (DC > Marvel), science fiction novels and cats.

I’m looking forward to being part of Femme Gamer and I hope I can provide some interesting posts and reviews. I certainly look forward to reading everyone else’s!