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Style before gameplay? (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

This past week I’ve been playing two fairly different games that share something in common. They’re both shooters of a sort, but that’s not what I’m referring to, the thing they share is the fact they have a distinct style that is often more interesting than the actual game.

The games in question are Comic Jumper and Kane & Lynch 2. In the case of Comic Jumper, it has a variety of art styles throughout the game and a very self referencial and oftentimes bizarre sense of humour. With Kane & Lynch 2 the entire game has a very unique visual style which makes the game look like it has been recorded through a cheap video camera and uploaded to the internet.

Kane & Lynch 2 and Comic Jumper

Comic Jumper is for the most part a sidescrolling twin stick shooter, you use one analog stick to move and the other to aim while pressing the right trigger or X button to fire. The gameplay could best be described as average, it’s challenging and occasionally frustrating but the mechanics at its core are solid. My problem with the game is that if you strip away the bizarre meta humour and heaps of pop culture references then you are left with a mediorcre experience at best.

The same can be said for Kane & Lynch 2, the mechanics are solid, it works like a third person shooter should, but if you take away the shaky camera and video filters it does nothing to make it stand out from the crowd.

Playing these games so close to each other gave me pause for thought, this problem of style over substance could very well become an issue with many games going forward. Innovation has been lacking somewhat of late. Alot of developers seem content to stick with tried and true game mechanics while putting more of their efforts on things such as art style, story and other ancillary aspects of the game.

I’m all for making a game stand out, a recent successful example would be Borderlands. The game shifted art styles before release, taking it from a generic sci-fi look to a more unique cel-shaded design. This took it from something that could easily have been overlooked to a game that was almost instantly recognisable. Of course this would all have been for naught if the game itself wasn’t a fun and unique experience, which it most certainly was.

Borderlands is actually a perfect example of the type of thing I would’ve loved to have seen Kane & Lynch or Comic Jumper do. It took a unique art style and a novel mix of gameplay types and systems to make a very interesting and compelling game world to play in.

I hope more developers go the way of Borderlands and manage to create a fun game alongside an equally entertaining and unique style. It’s sad to see games like Kane & Lynch 2 and Comic Jumper fall short when clearly alot of effort has been made to make them stand out.

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How Broken Sword showed me games can tell a story (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Paris in the fall, the last months of the year, at the end of the millennium. The city holds many memories for me, of music, of cafes, of love, and of death.

This opening quote should be instantly recognizable to anyone who played the original Broken Sword: Shadow of The Templars (called Circle of Blood for it’s initial US release). This adventure game made a fairly significant first impression on me.

I first discovered Broken Sword when I saw the trailer above on the “Demo One” disk that came with my original PlayStation. I was immensely fascinated by the video and I  watched it countless times over the following months. It wasn’t the slightly cheesy, yet effective voiceover or the rather cool music playing throughout that made me become obsessed with the trailer. It was the fact I had never seen anything quite like it at the time on any of the previous consoles that I owned.

Even though I was now able to play games like Tekken and Ridge Racer, they didn’t grab me like this trailer had. The cartoon visuals were wonderful, vibrant, and colourful but still retained a sense of realism. They led you to believe that the story was intricate and epic — a far cry from saving a princess from an evil dinosaur. I knew I had to play this game.

Broken Sword opening

I was always on the look-out for this game. I hoped I could convince my parents to buy it for me, but it was nowhere to be seen. Life teased me once again when a friend got hold of a demo disk that had a playable demo of the first half hour of the game. We played through it together, worked out the puzzles, and chuckled away at the dialogue as we progressed.

Broken Sword was just as I’d hoped: a game which engaged the brain in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I was now reassured that the game lived up to the promise of the trailer and then some. The dialogue was witty, the characters were interesting, and the mystery hooked me.

I finally discovered a copy on a random wander around various games shops. It was still quite expensive, but after some persuasion it was mine. Without a guide or the Internet to help me, it took a long time to finally complete the game — well over a year of playing it on and off.

Despite this, Broken Sword instantly became one of my favorite games. I adored the main characters, George Stobbart and Nico Collard, and I was enthralled by the story of conspiracies based on actual historic events.

Tourists

Up until this point I had never realized my favorite hobby could tell a story that rivaled a movie or television show. As I unravelled this story, I was spellbound. This game holds a special place for me because it showed me what the medium was truly capable of. Games don’t have to be about walking from left to right and killing anything in your way. They can be about telling a story which the player has to help move forward.

Story has become one of the main reasons I will play a game these days. Games like Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption will pull me in more than any other. This is also why I own more than a handful of video game novels. I like to feel as involved in the fiction and world as possible.

So, I thank Broken Sword for opening my eyes to a whole new world of video games.


When did you first realize games could tell a great story? Was it a specific game or moment, or do you think we’re still not even there yet?

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‘Tis the season (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Last Halloween Double Fine released Costume Quest, the game of course had a theme to fit the holiday period it was released in and it added alot to the already charming little RPG. They followed that up with some DLC a couple of months later and although it wasn’t strictly Christmas themed it did have a Wintery tinge to it.

Costume Quest

While thinking over Costume Quest the question was raised in my mind; why don’t we see more holiday themed games?

The simple answer is that a game themed around one day or short period of time isn’t likely to have very long legs. Video games being a business means that many publishers wouldn’t be willing to put their money behind a game with a pretty limited shelf life. Of course what they won’t admit is gamings dirty little secret: the industry and gamers themselves are fickle.

Now you may argue with me on this point but I’ll try to back up this claim a bit to see if I can’t convince you. I’ll go back to Costume Quest first, itself a 4 or 5 hour game which I and many other players managed to beat in one sitting. Not only that but it’s very hard not to get all the achievements/trophies in your first playthrough. So it’s a fairly short game that has very little replay value, will anyone really go back to it once they’ve completed it? Probably not till next Halloween I’d wager. This is true of many games, even ones far longer and harder to finish than Costume Quest. Short of a select few favourites or multiplayer games there is often very little reason for someone to replay a game, especially with so many new ones coming out that also have to be played.

The current console generation is nearing what would normally be it’s end, as a result there are some who want to know what’s next. Despite the slew of top tier games still being released for current systems they want something new. As things stand right now there is no great need for a new set of consoles but the Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 have been out for a few years now so we crave something fresh.

So again I’m left with the question, in an industry that is so inherently fickle why is a type of game that itself has a time limited appeal not more common? What could be done to illeviate some of the “danger” in releasing a game with such limited appeal? Again I return to Costume Quest for guidance, it was released on Xbox Live Arcade and PSN. Downloadable platforms.

XBLA PSN Logos

While their production values are growing it is still significantly cheaper and easier to produce a downloadable title for XBLA, PSN or PC than it is to release a boxed retail game. With the games themselves being smaller and the weekly release schedules of XBLA, WiiWare and PSN there’s usually an even shorter lifespan than most for downloadable games. Sounds like the perfect place to release a holiday themed game wouldn’t you say? Clearly Double Fine thought so and they met with great success.

I think the market is secretly yearning for holiday themed games, who would say no to a well made platformer in which you play as one of Santa’s Elf and attempt to save Christmas? Or a puzzle game where you must help the Easter Bunny collect lots of lovely eggs? A new years game where you attempt to get as drunk as possible without dieing and still retaining some dignity? Ok, perhaps a bit too far with that one but it just goes to show how much potential there is for creative developers to try and make something great.

With this year just getting started we have plenty of holidays ahead of us, so get to it developers! Santa Claus’s drunken new years minigame collection isn’t going to make itself.

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For the love of… Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (Article)

December 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Broken SwordBroken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, on the surface it’s a fairly standard point and click adventure game, like your Monkey Islands or Day of the Tentacles. You collect various objects, which you’ll use to solve puzzles, ask people questions or just keep in your pocket for posterity. That said, since I first played it almost 15 years ago it has remained one of my favourite games. A wonderful tale of intrigue, conspiracy and adventure told via a beautiful cartoon style, Shadow of the Templars is a true classic in my mind.

For those unfamiliar with the game, Broken Sword tells the story of George Stobbart, an American tourist traveling across Europe. When we join him he is relaxing outside a quaint little cafe in Paris. Things quickly start to go wrong as a creepy clown playing some suitably menacing accordion music shows up. Swiping a fellow cafe patron’s briefcase and leaving his suspiciously beeping accordion in its place, as he quickly flees down an alley. Before anyone can react, a thunderous explosion erupts from the cafe. Thankfully, George survives with barely a scratch and quickly sets about investigating just why a clown would want to bomb a Parisian cafe.

This opening is all presented in a colourful but simple animated sequence, which remains one of my favourite game intros. Accompanied by the elegant orchestral score of Barrington Pheloung [who wrote the cracking Inspector Morse theme too – Ed], the scene sets up the tone of the game perfectly. We quickly go from a gorgeous sweeping vista of Paris to a playful moment in front of a cafe, only for things to take a nasty turn as the explosion rips through the scene. Broken Sword keeps this feel throughout the game, a fun, joke-filled adventure that at the same time can be dark and mature.

The writing is exceptionally witty, George has a brilliantly sarcastic and dry sense of humour and his narration of events is filled with hilarious one liners. Characters outside of George and Nico (the other main character) are painted with broad strokes, all simple archetypes; the dopey policeman, misogynistic workman. This might sound like a bad thing but it works surprisingly well here, thanks again to the fantastic script. Broken Sword is a rare game in which a large bulk of it’s cast of side characters are eternally memorable. Emboldened by some pretty good, if occasionally hammy, voice acting.

Then there’s the overall plot, which sees George follow the mystery of the Knights Templar all over Europe. Don’t worry if you don’t know much about the (very real) Knights Templar, the game isn’t afraid to give you a history lesson or two. An excellent mix of real historical events and a gripping modern conspiracy, there are plenty of twists, turns and revelations to enjoy throughout. This isn’t a short game either, it’ll take around ten hours to finish, more if you are someone who likes to click on every single interactive object. A perfectly acceptable thing to do just to hear what George has to say.

While some of it’s visual aspects may not have aged all that well, Broken Sword is still a delight to look to at. Every scene has a marvelous hand-painted background which have all held onto their charm, even if they have lost a bit of fidelity over the years. The character art was never especially detailed but they remain exceptionally well animated and affable, if a bit blurry in their old age. You can still appreciate the craft and ambition that went into making the game look like an animated film.

In my personal gaming history, Broken Sword is the game which showed me games are not only a viable avenue for storytelling but can be bloody good at it too. Having played mostly 2D platforming and action games on my Super Nintendo and Mega Drive, it was quite a revelation. Before I played The Shadow of the Templars I didn’t think game stories got much more complex than King Koopa kidnapping that poor Princess again. Some might argue that there are better ways to tell stories in games. I’d be inclined to agree, but that doesn’t stop me getting engrossed in Broken Sword every time I play it.

A director’s cut of Broken Sword has been released on various platforms in the last couple of years, sadly it made some changes to the game that make one wonder if George Lucas was involved. So if you are interested in trying the game out, I’d recommend grabbing it on Good Old Games, as those lovely chaps have included the original version for free with the less than great director’s cut.

Originally published on Square-Go.com

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More games need to make choices matter (Article)

May 16, 2012 2 comments

Heavy Rain

Why do so few games allow players to influence the story? At its core, the medium entails interactive storytelling; it may not have started out that way, but that’s what it’s become. Creating branching paths is a lot of work…it takes a lot of resources to create so many outcomes to your decisions. But Heavy Rain followed that template and met with (mostly) great success. The foreknowledge that every action I took would have consequences was more than compelling enough to get me engrossed in the game.

I recently completed episode one of The Walking Dead, Telltale Games’ adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse epic. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Heavy Rain and, to a certain extent, games like Mass Effect. The bulk of the gameplay in The Walking Dead is choosing dialogue options and making decisions. Everything else is either a quick-time event-esque action sequence or a puzzle which barely earns the moniker.

While a portion of Heavy Rain involved using QTEs to engage players in the actions they were undertaking, be they mundane or life-threatening, a big part of the game was choice. Through dialogue and decisions, you molded a story; it became your tale, and if you screwed up, characters died. But that didn’t mean game over…that particular character stayed dead, he/see was no longer a part of your story, and the tale kept going.

The crux of this type of game is that decisions have to be final. When I first played through the original Mass Effect (spoiler incoming), Wrex was killed by Ashley; I hadn’t put points into the right attributes, so I couldn’t stop it happening. So what did I do? I reloaded a save from about 40 minutes earlier and put those points in the right place, saved Wrex, and left Ashley to burn. If you give gamers the option to go back and rectify their mistake, then oftentimes (though not always) they will use that to get the outcome they want.

With Heavy Rain and Walking Dead you don’t have that option. If you aren’t happy with a decision, then you have to restart and play from the beginning. As such, every time you have to make a decision, it means something; you can’t take it back, and it could have unforeseen consequences. Walking Dead doesn’t go quite as far as Heavy Rain; in the former, you only have one main character, and he along with his companion can’t die or it’s game over.

The Walking Dead

Walking Dead and Heavy Rain have proven that a game can successfully ditch the majority of gameplay traditions and just focus on creating a rich, dynamic story. By pairing down action sequences to QTEs, the need for a crazy combat system with combos or robust shooting mechanics is negated. The game can be about weaving an intriguing and engrossing plot with characters and situations you care about. This gives decisions a permanence and urgency and it makes every action you take feel important. Couple that with well-written and interesting characters, and you have a recipe that should get players incredibly invested in your game.

Originally published on BitMob.com

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Mass Effect 3 is about more than the last 20 minutes (Article)

March 23, 2012 Leave a comment

This article might contain spoilers for the Mass Effect franchise.


Most of what’s been written about Mass Effect 3 over the past few weeks has been about the title’s ending. For those of us who experienced the ending sequence(s), there’s no denying the lack of satisfaction. The last 20 minutes are confusing and lack any real closure. Far too much is left to the imagination. When you’re three games deep, in a series that has been built on seeing meaningful repercussions to your actions, having the story end in such a baffling way is extremely disappointing.

That being said, as much as those last few minutes left me feeling cold, I still think Mass Effect 3 was a fantastic end to the series. It did lack finality and left me wondering about the fate of the galaxy and those in it, but therein lies the reason I was satisfied with the game as a whole. If we jump a half hour back from that ending sequence, then we have a rather different sequence of events — one which has some of the most emotional moments I’ve experienced playing games.

Before you head out to what could very well be your final battle, you are given the opportunity to talk to your crew — not just those who will be standing by your side during the last fight but almost all your other living comrades, past and present. You can talk to Jack and hear how she’s grown since the first time you met when she was a crass, angry, and somewhat naïve girl. Now you talk to her knowing that she has become a great teacher and leader who is passing on what she learned from you to her students.

That’s the stuff that is important to me in Mass Effect, seeing the characters and universe change through my actions. Seeing Urdnot Wrex go from some random bounty hunter you met on the Citadel to the leader of the Krogans is truly meaningful, and with the genophage now cured, he is set to lead his people in rebuilding their empire. Wrex in particular is unique because he can so easily perish in the first game, completely altering the events in the sequels. The story beats might not change dramatically, but the inclusion of a character you have spent so much time with increases your investment and gives those moments a lot more meaning.

Listening to Wrex give a rousing speech to his men before the final battle, knowing he’s standing there thanks to your actions, adds a lot to the experience. I could go on and on about those conversations. I got choked up talking to Garrus after having bonded with him for three games. His speech about meeting in heaven pushed me over the emotional edge. Tali asked me if I was OK seeing Earth in ruins, and she made my heart swell by saying she was proud to have served with me.

These moments aren’t just restricted to that segment either. They are scattered throughout Mass Effect 3. Sure, it can sometimes feel a bit odd that so many characters return during pivotal missions, but it’s hard to get upset when you’re just so damned happy to see them. Time spent with party members is so heartbreakingly fleeting that you end up cherishing it even more. This being the final game in Commander Shepard’s story, you know any moment with someone could be the last, and it makes that time feel all the more special.

So while those final 20 minutes might have lacked the closure I and so many others wanted, the hours that preceded them had all the emotional impact they should have had. As such, I will always look on my journey through Mass Effect fondly.

Originally published on BitMob.com

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I have some issues with Uncharted (Article)

January 3, 2012 2 comments

Before I had a Playstation 3 the Uncharted series was high on my list of PS3 exclusives I needed to play. In addition to the mountains of praise it received everything I’d seen of the games looked great. A modern tale of adventure with a wise cracking protagonist and one of the prettiest game engines around, sounds good to me!

Then I played Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and my expectations were tempered slightly. I completed the game in a weekend while staying at a friends. So I told myself my issues were probably due to trying to rush to the end. The entire time I was just trying to push through the gameplay to get to the next cutscene and advance the story. I wanted to hear more quips from Nathan Drake and see more beautiful locales. However to do that I needed to trudge through a not great shooter with fairly simple Tomb Raider-esque platforming and the occasional puzzle. I did it though and while I became very frustrated toward the end of the game I still enjoyed the experience, Naughty Dog tell a good tale. Read more…

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