Friday, 25 April 2008

Bioshock is the most important game of this generation



Let me explain why.

For many years, video games have been seen as a childish pursuit, something the the “mainstream” looks down on as being immature and unworthy. It all feeds into the debate about whether a video game can be judged as an art form.

This point of view upsets me and degrades our hobby. We are constantly tarnished with accusations that all games involve killing and violence. Alright, so does Bioshock, but it is balanced with emotion and alternative play mechanics.

We all know this perception that we are all immature and blood thirsty morons is wrong. I’m pleased, in some small way, that consoles like the Wii & DS are starting to dispel this myth.

Back to Bioshock.... Every few years a game comes along that revolutionises the game design: Mario Brothers established platform gaming rules, Tomb Raider did the same for adventure gaming; Mario 64 shocked the gaming world with a virtual three dimensional world; Metal Gear Solid 2 pioneered cinematic story telling; and Grand Theft Auto III released the shackles of linear game design, creating a new sense of “exploration and fun”.

To this epic list, you should now add Bioshock.

When people look back in a few years time, it will be Bioshock that defines the key landmark in the current generation of video games. Not because of its gameplay, or how fun it is, but because it is the first game to establish video games as the fourth storytelling art form, after books, comics and film. The first video game that can be considered art. I shall try to explain why....

Until now, video games have used cinematic techniques to tell stories: through cut scenes, dialog, or flash backs. Metal Gear Solid 2 was the first game to establish many of the techniques we see used today in hit games like Uncharted, COD4, Halo 3 etc. All of these techniques, while original for video games, are borrowed from the cinema. The trend has been to make games more like movies, in order to tell a dramatic story.

Bioshock completely re-writes the rule book; rather than follow the established convention it has actually defined a new form of “interactive story telling” which no movie, game, book or comic has previously achieved. Bioshock has a genuine claim to present video games as a new art form.

Let me give you a definition of art: “Generally art is a (product of) human activity, made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind; by transmitting emotions and/or ideas.”

If you have played through this game, you would be hard pressed to say that it did not stir an emotional reaction when you decided the fate of a little sister, or when you discover the reasons for you linear actions.

At no time during the game are you spoon fed what to think (other than the “motivation” to move forward). In fact, the games power is in turning an established norm in video game design into a key part of the plot and narrative.

The story itself is not “watched” like a movie, or “read” like comic but interactively discovered and revealed through interaction and exploration. The audio diaries are cleverly distributed so that they reveal character stories and plot in reverse, or out of sync, so that you constantly question the motivations and wrestle with your own ideas. Anyone who has seen the film Memento will know what a powerful and unsettling experience that can be.

Finally, the subject matter itself: Ryan’s objectivist-dystopian city of Rapture; is an ingenious comment on the conventions established in modern video games. Once again, you are left to decide for yourself: Is Rapture was a flawed and evil concept? Or the unlucky result of a failed genius’ big idea. The developers leave hints to their opinions through the audio diaries, but ultimately the player makes up their own mind.

I’ve being reading and listening to the various “games of the year” awards that the internet is saturated with at this time of year. I’ve becoming increasingly cranky about the short-sighted views of some of the mass media, and one or two sites in particular (not this one I hasten to add). They all moan and complain about the reputation that video games has, and how it is not taken seriously. Now, when presented with the clearest evidence yet that we have reach a new high, they fail to see the significance and resort back to handing out awards to the best looking games, or the most recent, or (worse) the most hyped.

I felt I had to make this point because I probably won’t get a chance in the Cranky Gamer’s Xmas Podcast...plus I would probably go on, and on, like an intellectual idiot anyway.

I would be interested to know what other people think?

I am not talking about how “fun” Bioshock was (although it was a lot of fun), but how significant and important you think it will be in years to come?

[Orginally posted on www.crankygamersuk.com]

First Impressions: Wii Fit


The first thing you notice is the weight. The board is heavy, solid and large. The build quality is excellent and the plastics are tough. 4AA batteries sit in the base, as does the WiFi sync button to hook it up to the Wii.

On starting the game you are asked to select a Mii, perform a balance test (something to do with posture) and then enter your age and height. Wii Fit then weighs you and gives you a BMI rating. Just to rub salt into the wound, your Mii then morphs comically according to your BMI. In my case this resulted in a humiliating and depressing expansion.

You are then asked to set your fitness goal -lowering the BMI in my case- and how long you want to set the goal for. The game then suggests the type of games to play and gives you a Wii Fit age; again, depressingly I was 20% over. At this point I was starting to see how Wii Fit works, it humiliates you into loosing weight…it certainly put me off my tea.

The two most interesting games I tried were Skiing (a balance game) and Jogging (aerobic). The Skiing was a lot of fun, whilst the Jogging worked a lot better than I thought. The Jogging doesn’t use the board. Instead you put the Wiimote in your back pocket and jog on the spot. On screen, your jogging Mii follows the trainer around a park filled with all your other Mii characters. Not only was it a good work-out (I did get out of breath), there was enough on screen to make it interesting too. Your fellow Mii’s wave and cheer you on, which improves ones mood a little after the depressing weigh-in.

Overall, I have actually been impressed with Wii Fit. My Wife has been looking forward to getting the game and gizmo for some time. Time will tell if it actually works or just becomes another peripheral collecting dust.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix


HP OotP has all the right elements to be a great game but is let down
by a lack of imagination.

Pros: Hogwarts is fantastic; licenced music; voiced by some of the cast; cool analog stick spell casting

Cons: Dull quests; excessive treking; limited shortcuts; weak story integration

The opening 10 minutes of HP OotP contains all the good and bad things in the game. Your introduction to Hogwarts is breathtaking and the analog stick spell casting makes immediate sense. However, unless you've seen the film or read the book, the cut scenes do not tell the
story successfully. Worse, the tasks and quests have little to do with the novel's plot.

The game design is clearly inspired by Bully, but toned down in scope and difficulty. Exploring Hogwarts is initially enjoyable, and finding all its secrets proves to be fun. However, many tasks resort to you treking from one side of the school to the other for nothing more than greeting a new character. Shortcuts are provided but they are of limited use and never really reduce the time taken to traipse across Hogwarts for the 100th time.

The game clearly has great potential and the core elements are there. If EA can integrate the story into the game and reduce the pointless school treking, the next installment could be a real winner. 

3/5

Friday, 18 April 2008

Review: Bladestorm


Bladestorm successfully blends Japanese hack and slash with real time strategy.

Pros: Plenty of strategic options; unit variety; a great sense of scale;

Cons: Lack of variety; repetitive mission structure; some AI path finding issues; more historical inaccuracies than Braveheart.

Set against the Hundred Years War between England and France, Bladestorm is a curious game that defies categorising. Visually it is a marriage between Japanese style and western theme. The character models are pure Japanese fantasy, whilst the environments and settings recreate the castles and fortified towns of northern France. It is a curious blend but one that does work.

The simplistic story is revealed by completing various mercenary missions for either the French or English forces. Essentially, you use your mercenary avatar to control entire battlefield units and capture control points. You are able to issue command instructions and special attacks to your unit by holding down controller face buttons. Missions can be completed with the provided units, or you can hire and summon your own. There is not a great deal of variety and it soon becomes a little repetitive.

Occasionally you are required to follow key NPC characters to capture mission objectives or locations. The AI is often not quite up to the job of finding the path for the units to get to the destination. This can lead to some comedy moments when the NPC characters get stuck on walls or in bushes.

Bladestorm offers a unique game experience on the Xbox 360 and should appeal to fans of real time strategy and action role-play games. The blend of European setting and Japanese character design may put some people off, but they would be missing an enjoyable game.

3/5

Review: Singstar


Singstar makes its way to the PS3 and introduces some revolutionary community features.

Pros: fun; excellent integrated community features; great online store; large selection of music DLC

Cons: limited initial play list; weaker rap mode; no online modes

Singstar has a long pedigree on the Playstation 2.  The PS3 version expands the features to include both iTunes and YouTube like functionality. Singstar is one of the first PS3 games to make full use of both the Playstation Store and Playstation Eye. You can capture movie, audio and photo snapshots of your performances, and then upload them to share with friends and other players.

The core game remains unchanged from the previous generation. You might feel silly the first time you play Singstar's virtual karaoke but with a partner or friends it can be a whole lot of fun.

Singstar's excellent community features and integrated store really do showcase the potential of the Playstation 3. The game should be a welcome addition to any party.

5/5

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Review: Burnout Paradise


Burnout Paradise is the best game in the series, and possibly the best arcade driving experience on any console. 

Pros: Fantastic city environment; seamless online; online co-op challenges; well balanced cars 

Cons: Some bad EA Trax; EA servers; online racing is dull; single player can become repetitive; Sat Nav and map are hard to read.

No other game this year that has had me grinning from ear to ear so much. What Burnout Paradise's clever online experience exploits is the sheer fun to be found in completing silly challenges with a group of friends. Criterion have also managed to create the first seamless online system that allows players to drop in and out of a session without any disruption. 

Paradise's brilliantly designed open city allows the player to explore, play and race at their leisure. The driving mechanics are classic Burnout: fast, frantic and with lots of power sliding. The framerate never falls and the sense of speed is without equal. Only minor niggles over the map and sound-track tarnish an otherwise perfect game.

There is something for everyone in Burnout Paradise. Petrol heads will love the seat of the pants racing, whilst puzzle solvers will enjoy the stunt and online co-op challenges. 

5/5

 PS3 and X360 versions played.

Review: Blue Dragon


Blue Dragon is a quality role-play game that any fan of the genre will enjoy. 

Pros: Simple mechanics; no random battles; great music; 

Cons: Obsessive item hunting; difficulty spikes; tough bosses; unbalanced achievements; occasional framerate issues. 

Along with Mistwalker's other Xbox 360 game -Lost Odyssey-, Blue Dragon gives the role-play game fan another interesting and fun adventure to experience. Filled with the usual assortment of dysfunctional teenagers, Blue Dragon looks like a clich├ęd title. However, there are enough
innovations to make it accessible to everyone. 

One of Blue Dragon's best features is the inclusion of field enemies rather than random encounters. As your characters gain skills, you can actually avoid endless battles with weak enemies by beating them on touch - at the expense of some experience and energy. This saves a lot of time and tedious level grinding later in the game.

The presentation is consistently attractive with some sophisticated graphical effects and wonderful music. The colourful palette and cartoon characters help to make the game enjoyable for a western gamer. The robots enemies, in particular, are well designed and somewhat reminiscent of characters from Ratchet and Clank.

Blue Dragon is recommended for any role-play game fans. Gamers more orientated toward action games, may enjoy Blue Dragon because of the lack of random encounters too.

4/5 

Review: Lost Odyssey


Lost Odyssey is an exceptional title. It mixes a compelling story with a perfectly presented and balanced game.

Pros: Fantastic music and visuals; well defined characters; evenly paced; balanced battle system; novel ring system; level grinding is not necessary

Cons: Item hunting in scenery gets tiresome; one over dramatic scene; occasional long load times

I've never been a great fan of Japanese role-play games. However, Lost Odyssey hit every one of my gaming buttons. It features an engrossing story in an imaginative game world. The presentation is exceptional with a unique "Future-Medieval" art style and some wonderful music by Uemastu.

The usual JRPG teenage angst is replaced with more adult themes of death, love and loss. The characters are all interesting and appealing. And with the exception of one scene, the game deftly blends drama, tragedy and comedy. The writing is universally good and never descends into Eastenders like character changes.

If you have never played or enjoyed a JRPG in the past, then Lost Odyssey could be the gateway game for you. If you are a fan, then this is an essential purchase.

5/5

Friday, 11 April 2008