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Some games I played in 2020
Posted at 18:35 on 30th January 2021 - permalink

Time once again for a round up of the notable games I played in the last year. 2020 was a pretty solid year for games (if nothing else), although lacking any decisive raising of the bar in the AAA space (except Half-Life Alyx I suppose, which I don’t have the kit to play yet). Still, there were plenty of top tier indie releases to fill the void.

Horace

HORACE

I’m going to kick things off with Horace because out of everything I played in the last year, this game has been by far the most unfairly overlooked. It’s out on Steam and Nintendo Switch.

Most of the tweets I see mentioning Horace are baffled as to why it hasn’t received more recognition. The sad fact is that by using pixel art and having the words “retro” or “nostalgia” featured anywhere in its marketing, Horace all but guarantees that it will be overlooked by many critics and award programmes (especially in the UK), where games have to be seen to be ceaselessly innovating and threatening the cultural dominance of film and television to be taken seriously. Llamasoft, PuppyGames and HouseMarque can all attest to this. There seems to be a common misconception that anything engaging with the history of the medium must be lightweight and disposable. As such, other than this lovely review by Christian Donlan for Eurogamer, Horace hasn’t made many ripples at all.

Horace is a narrative platformer that tells the life story of Horace, an android designed by a scientist (“The Old Man”) who tries to teach him about the human world by inviting him to live with his family and giving him a more or less normal childhood. The game’s creator (Paul Helman) cites Being There and Jet Set Willy as key influences, and there are also definite shades of John Wyndham (science fiction catastrophes playing out in a mundane English setting), Edward Scissorhands and the more Data-centric episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation thrown into the mix.

The opening chapters serve as a tutorial, confined to the old man’s mansion on an island. We’re introduced to a large cast of central characters including the old man’s wife and their young daughter Heather, their driver, cook, valet and various others whose back stories are revealed over the course of the game.

Horace is introduced to various human pastimes (and likes video games best), starts to win Heather’s trust and understand the other characters’ personalities, and resolves to make it his life’s purpose to pick up one million pieces of junk. (It’s almost like this game has something to say about the life experience of its creator and likely audience? But you don’t climb Existential Crisis Mountain to fight the Depression Monster so perhaps it was being a bit too subtle.)

At a certain point in the story Horace is deactivated and put into storage for several years, during which a calamitous event befalls the world and the characters we meet in the first act are scattered to various locations on the mainland. So Horace sets out into the world to try and piece together what happened. I don’t usually care about spoilers but I’ve tried to keep this all as vague as possible, as a huge part of the appeal of Horace is that you have no idea of the ultimate parameters of the game and the many twists of the story at the outset.

Horace is a genuine fantasia, a flood of ideas woven into a story as expertly as this has every been attempted in a game. It’s in the vein of Wizkid, or Gunstar Heroes or Dynamite Headdy – or rather Dynamite Headdy as it would be if Treasure spent seven years making it, on an exclusive diet of 1970s and 80s British TV. It feels like an improvised series of bedtime stories build with gamestuff.

Horace meets Bertha

All of the (hundreds) of cut-scenes in the game are animated using the game’s sprites and narrated with Horace’s flat text-to-speech voice. This seems to be intended to evoke the atmosphere of children’s TV shows, and Horace’s guileless narration of the other characters’ dialogue is frequently used to comedic effect. (I can see how this stylistic choice would put some players off though.)

My understanding is that development of Horace started out in GameMaker and graduated to Unity as Helman’s ideas became more ambitious. For the most part, Horace is mechanically on the level of a 16-bit era platformer, with smooth animation, responsive (albeit twitchy) controls and rudimentary physics.

Early in the game Horace acquires some gravity boots which allow him to walk on surfaces at any orientation, the camera rotating freely to keep him upright. The boots affect Horace’s local gravity (walk up a wall and ‘jump’ off the end and you’ll ‘fall’ at 90 degrees to the ground) but not that of other objects in the world (unless he’s directly holding them). The surfaces of the world are bristling with flames, spikes, conveyor belts and other hazards, but Horace has infinite lives, resulting in gameplay that fans of VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy will feel at home with.

Horace’s long development unfortunately means that its design recalls the time before ‘masocore’ platform gameplay was largely discarded as a terrible idea. Some sections of the game are hair-tearingly difficult, even with infinite lives. (One vitally important tip would be to buy the ‘binoculars’ powerup as soon as it’s offered, as in some gravity-bending later areas half the puzzle is even working out where you’re supposed to be going.)

This is compounded by the stick controls on the Switch version not being very well tuned and the gravity boot mechanic being a shade too sensitive, requiring deft use of the jump button to avoid inadvertently sticking to low ceilings and outcroppings. And the less said about the swimming controls the better. Horace is the closest I’ve come to throwing my Switch out the window. It’s a testament to the quality of the writing that I managed to persevere through the most unfair bits because I was so invested in the characters.

There are more relaxing interludes breaking up the gauntlet of platforming challenges. Aside from the abundant story scenes, there are various optional sidejobs (including sorting post and drying dishes) to earn extra cash, plus lots of secret rooms and caches of junk squirreled away to help Horace get nearer to completing his primary life goal. The game also has a full into-the-screen sprite scaling driving engine, which powers several of the arcade games scattered around the world (pastiches of After Burner and Out Run and numerous others), a few getaway chases, and Horace’s recurring Raymond Briggsian dream of flying above the clouds.

Aside from the punishing difficulty and retro aesthetic, the other thing that might be putting you off trying Horace is the promise of hundreds of pop culture references. It’s true that the game is full of callbacks to (mostly 1970s and 80s) UK television, movies and games. But it’s a long way from being a tedious Ready Player One / Peter Kaye nostalgia-wallow. Key to this is that it never draws attention to the references or expects you to appreciate or even notice them, they’re just an extra garnish for players of a certain age and background. (The same approach taken in series 1 of Spaced.) I’m sure there are many that completely went over my head, being as I am a young person. (Cough.)

Aside from the spoof Thames TV ident that opens proceedings, for the first few hours Horace is the model of restraint when it comes to reference humour. Once you get into the wider quasi-open world, it starts to sneak more and more nonsense in. Most of the humour comes from just how incongruous most of the references are – you just don’t expect to encounter Pat Butcher, Mrs. Slocombe and Reg Hollis from The Bill in any video game. There’s a definite Viz / B3ta (MAD Magazine / Zucker Abrahams Zucker if you’re American) ‘naughty schoolboy’ streak to the gags, with many references seeming to be included to see what they could get past the publisher both in terms of appropriateness and parody protection in copyright law.

As the game is the largely unfiltered product of one mind, there are a couple of ‘edgy’ jokes here and there which probably should have been left on the cutting room floor on taste grounds (again, think B3ta at its least edifying moments), but they’re mercifully rare. Some of the references are also telling of the game’s long gestation – for instance Helman probably didn’t expect Bill & Ted to re-emerge in the pop culture mainstream when naming and modelling a couple of prominent side characters after them, a la Biggs and Wedge.

(Despite appearances this definitely isn’t a game for young kids, by the way – there’s quite a bit of violence, profanity and soft-ish drug use over the course of the story.)

If you can put up with the brutal difficulty and a few rough edges, I’d recommend Horace as probably the best example of a narrative platformer I’ve seen outside of Another World. It’s also probably the best example of a ‘culturally British’ game I’ve seen, concerned as it is with UK games culture, and without a red bus or phone box in sight. (And if you’re wondering, yes, Horace does go skiing.)

Streets of Rage 4

I’ve always been a bit wary when European indie studios announce that they’re reviving a well-loved old Japanese franchise. It can sometimes feel a bit presumptuous – being a lifelong fan of something doesn’t necessarily give you license to make a continuation of it (even if the actual, legal, ‘getting the license’ part seems to often be achievable these days).

I’d heard that LizardCube had done a faithful job with their previous revival game (Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap). But Streets of Rage is a bigger challenge to take on. Streets of Rage 2 has sat at the pinnacle of it’s genre for a quarter century. During the heyday of the scrolling beat-’em-up, nobody managed to top it, not even in the arcades, or on more powerful console hardware. Even the original developers found they didn’t really have anywhere left to go when they were given a bigger ROM cartridge to make Streets of Rage 3 the following year. What could a new Streets of Rage game hope to be, beyond a nostalgic retread? An announcement trailer that seemed styled after a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon did little to assuage our fears.

And yet, somehow, they managed to pull it off. SOR4 feels as faithful a continuation of the series as can be reasonably expected so far removed in time and influences. Looking at the direction that Capcom and SNK went with their fighting game character designs toward the end of the 1990s, you can just about imagine this is what SOR4 would have looked like if Ancient had managed to get it greenlit during the Dreamcast era (and if contemporary commercial pressures hadn’t demanded most 2D franchises make the leap to 3D).

Playing SOR4 as a life-long SOR2 fan is like the moment when The Wizard of Oz switches from black and white to Technicolor. It’s a perfectly accurate mechanical recreation of the original games (so much so that you can even unlock the SOR1-3 versions of all the main playable characters). The original trio of Adam, Axel and Blaze have been redesigned to look a little older but still play the same way, and many enemies from the original games return. The new enemies and bosses added to the roster fit perfectly with the established style – the new antagonists, the Y Twins, nail the ‘aloof Bond villain’ aesthetic that made Mr X. and Shiva so intimidating.

Once again, we have the combination of lush, atmospheric backdrops, driving music and crunchy, ever-readable animation meshing together to carry the player onward. There’s even a bit of a story told through brief cut-scenes between stages, with the triumphant return of Adam Hunter (who hasn’t been a playable character since the first game in 1991) being a particular highlight. The comic book art style (lots of halftone dots and jazzy ink outlines) isn’t distracting, and lets the artists do a lot with what is by modern standards a relatively sparse number of animation frames per character.

You can’t talk about a Streets of Rage game without mentioning the music, and SOR4 acquits itself well on this front too. There are new tunes (incorporating production techniques from the original games’ soundtracks) from Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima, but main composer Olivier Deriviere’s tracks can’t be overlooked either – the themes for the police station and biker bar levels (the latter sounding like nothing so much as Daft Punk and Wizzard getting into a drunken brawl) standing up to repeat listens. There’s even a track by Scattle in there – a nice nod to Hotline Miami’s SOR influences.

In the standard ‘Story’ mode, the player’s lives are replenished after each round and there are infinite continues, allowing the difficulty to be pitched at a level that will offer a meaningful challenge to new players, and adds just enough jeopardy to get them properly invested in learning the nuances of each character.

There’s also an ‘Arcade’ mode which works in the more traditional manner (see how far you can get with a persistent pool of lives and special attacks) which is a great way to dip into the game again once you’ve beaten it a few times and unlocked everything. Getting the difficulty balance right is the key to the whole enterprise – it makes SOR4 feel as exciting as playing (and honing your skills on) a scrolling beat-’em-up in the arcade, without the reliance on frequent cheap deaths.

I do have a few criticisms, but they’re minor. There are a couple of ‘gimmicky’ sequences that require a specific approach to get through without losing loads of health (e.g., the dojo) which break the flow a bit. Some of the cut-scene artwork is perhaps a little bit too close to rough storyboards. And in terms of backgrounds and set-pieces, everything is a little bit too conservative – there’s no particularly amazing Treasure-esque stuff done with parallax, scaling and rotation that you feel the original developers might have tried given access to essentially unlimited hardware power, although the resulting game hits a solid 60fps on all platforms so perhaps it’s unfair to expect too much. And finally, while all the characters have distinct playing styles, they’ve perhaps resulted in Axel being a bit too slow and rubbish by way of contrast, although I don’t know why you’d want to play Axel anyway once you’ve unlocked Adam, the best character.

Overall, SOR4 is a worthy companion piece to SOR2 and is an essential purchase. Five knife-wielding Galsias out of five.

A Monster’s Expedition (Through Puzzling Exhibitions)

Disclosure: I know some of the people involved in this game and the designer/director (Alan) was nice enough to send me a copy.

You’re a monster (and in the game, etc.). Specifically, you’re one of the monsters from previous Draknek game A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build, on a day out exploring a museum dedicated to humans (who we can infer have gone extinct at some time in the past, for reasons possibly related to why the museum is located on a series of tiny islands where England – or ‘Englandland’ in monster parlance – used to be).

On a superficial level, A Monster’s(…) is a bit like (the equally brilliant) Stephen’s Sausage Roll. They’re both games where you explore a series of islands, solving puzzles by pushing and rolling objects around a Sokoban grid, with infinite levels of undo (which you’re encouraged to use often).

Unlike Stephen’s Sausage Roll, the possibility space for solving any given puzzle here isn’t mind-destroyingly enormous. (No disrespect to SSR – it’s a game I love but one I’m resigned to probably never completing.)

Most of the puzzles in AME(TPE) are designed in a way that lets the player intuit the approach they should be taking to get to the solution, based on the situations they’ve already encountered and new rules that can be discovered through experimentation. Sometimes the first step you make on reaching a new island will accidentally cause a new mechanic to be demonstrated to you. Combined with the laid back presentation, the effect is to make the game feel welcoming. While the difficulty level creeps up as the game progresses, it never spikes suddenly or contrives to make the player feel like they’re trespassing in a space reserved for hardcore puzzle heads.

While the core components of the game don’t really change much throughout (the goal of each island – to get logs to specific places to make bridges and rafts – stays more or less the same), every few islands the main ‘path’ will lead you to a different region (or ‘biome’ as the kids say) of the world map. There are also frequent rest stops, puzzle-less islands containing a museum exhibit (typically a mundane object from the human world with a plaque ‘explaining’ what the monsters speculate it was for – I know this sounds a bit ‘Radio 4’ but they’re really well done), or sometimes just a bench or a kiosk where you can have a cup of tea.

There are loads of other nice little touches, like your monster being able to sit on the shore and dip their feet in the water, the nice solid thud when they try to kick unmovable rocks, and that walking animations can be skipped to zip around solved areas quickly.

Long-time readers of this site may have noticed that I usually focus on two extremes: games that took far too long to make, or games with a strictly enforced narrow scope that have been massively polished within those bounds. AME(TPE) is a great example of the latter, and easy to recommend.

Fall Guys

For a minute, it looked like Fall Guys was going to break through as a cultural phenomenon like Fortnite, but then Among Us (a game which has been quietly ticking along for two years) suddenly blew up, and it was yesterday’s news. I don’t think any analysts could have predicted this sequence of events.

My hat is off to Mediatonic for making such an out-there concept for a game a megahit, and pulling off the coup of getting it distributed as Playstation Plus Game of the Month, guaranteeing the massive player base a battle royale-like game needs out of the gate.

Personally though, I couldn’t get on with Fall Guys and found some of the design decisions inexplicable. The Unity engine gets a lot of uninformed criticism but in the case of Fall Guys it really, really feels like Unreal would have been the more appropriate choice – if you’re building what is essentially a battle royale game, it’s the obvious proven tool for the job.

On PS4, Fall Guys looks weirdly rough, like there’s no anti-aliasing being applied or it’s not working correctly. Long stretches of playing time are taken up staring at loading and matchmaking screens and unskippable stage intros. The argument that the soupy controls and bafflingly constrained camera are intentional choices (it’s supposed to be knockabout Takeshi’s Castle fun where everyone has a chance and skilled players can’t dominate) is a bit fishy when you consider that games like, for instance, Mario Kart manage to achieve this goal while having controls that feel good and reliably convert player intent into action.

But hey, at least it was free. (And for the most part people have stopped calling it’s Twitter account “genius”.)

Doom Eternal

I’ll put my hand up and admit that I made a big mistake and bought Doom Eternal on console, having convinced myself that first person shooters were surely mostly tuned for playing with a joypad these days. Doom Eternal is very much designed around keyboard and mouse. As someone without thousands of hours of Call of Duty muscle memory, I found it manageable for the most part on Normal difficulty, and trivially easy (much like Titanfall 2 on Normal) on Easy. I strongly expect my overall impressions of the game would be more enthusiastic if I’d played on PC.

With that caveat out of the way, is Doom Eternal “not Doom”?

Doom Eternal feels like a 1998 Mega Drive game. (Or, for slightly younger readers: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.) id have been tasked with getting bigger, better, more out of the same hardware resources when their 2016 iteration was already pushing things about as far as they could meaningfully go. (The bizarre decision to again include the Switch as a target platform can’t have helped.)

The result is a game that tries to trim away any fat that it thinks the casual player won’t notice. There are more enemy types (and a neat visible damage system) but all the enemy models are less detailed and less expressively animated. Glory kills are shorter (which is welcome in gameplay terms) but quickly become repetitive. The brief, first-person cut-scenes that so economically established Doomguy’s personality in Doom 2016 and which every video and review gushed over? Supporting characters with names and discernible motivations? Totally excised here.

The elaborate heavy metal album cover vistas from the pre-release trailers are intact, but for the most part they’re static, non-interactive skyboxes with the bulk of the levels made up of small, often reflectively symmetrical, nondescript arenas linked together with unwelcome janky platforming challenges. (“Soaring from one planetoid to another in Super Mario Galaxy is fun, but wouldn’t it be better if you had to learn a series of jump and dash inputs by trial and error and then have the game only randomly let you stick to a target wall?” – nobody at Nintendo)

Somewhere in the development process Martin and Stratton wrote “Things that we can add with minimal RAM / GPU cost” at the top of a whiteboard and you can bet every inch of that board was filled. There are reams of superfluous ‘lore’ text. There’s a skill tree and layer upon layer of weapon upgrades and perks. I lost count of the number of buttons on the controller that are eventually given over to different flavours of ‘a smart bomb that mulligans one or more enemy’. (BFG, chainsaw, unmaker, grenades, blood punch, dash attack… it’s been a while, I’m sure there were even more.)

I know a lot of people welcome Eternal becoming a ‘hybrid character action game’, but I’m not a hardcore fan of that genre so it didn’t do much for me. Sprinting around to try to top up different resource meters isn’t as fun as Doom combat.

But, importantly, the Doom combat is still there, under all this needless embellishment, and it’s substantially tuned and tightened up. New movement options like the directional dash and grappling hook make it hard to go back to Doom 2016.

It’s been clear from the past few ‘id renaissance’ games that they’ve typically focused on specific classic id titles to inform the design of each new one. In Doom Eternal’s case Quake III Arena seems to have been a major influence, with lots of jump pads and verticality to the combat. The influence is even apparent in the game’s art style, with lots of bare metal architecture evoking id Tech 3’s ubiquitous cubemap shaded steel. (Doomguy’s space fortress that you visit between levels would be right at home in Q3A.)

In terms of writing and tone, I think id didn’t learn the right lessons from the surprise mega-success of Doom 2016. There’s the aforementioned airport bookshop carousel’s worth of awful flavour text. It’s also very apparent that the writers were inordinately pleased with two or three (not actually that good) meme-ish jokes from Doom 2016 (“Rip and Tear”, “Mortally Challenged”, “Doot”, etc.) which are run right into the ground here.

Doom 2016 still had a bit of a gritty, grimy edge to it’s gore (an echo of Doom 3), whereas Doom Eternal seems to push for a much lighter, cartoony approach. Case in point, most of the demons’ eyes now have pupils and pull silly faces while being pummelled. You’re no longer fending off creepy, relentless deadites – it’s more like smashing rubbery muppet piñatas.

I don’t really see the logic of this change, unless it was focus-group driven. The game is still full of blood and guts, still carries an 18+ rating, and the enemies being fantasy creatures already gives the artists extra leeway to amp up the carnage, so why water it down? (To it’s credit though, the game now gives you the Berserk power up exceedingly rarely, so that set of hilarious, gloriously over-the-top custom death animations retains it’s power to surprise and delight.)

What else was on that whiteboard? Doomguy speaks! Hell comes to Earth! Doomguy goes to (slightly ambiguous so as to not scare Walmart) Heaven! There’s still a Switch port for some reason! Collect vinyl toys! It’s all a bit ‘Gremlins 2‘, but then I suppose lots of people like Gremlins 2.

I realise the above sounds mostly negative, but there are still plenty of things to like about Doom Eternal – it was starting from a high peak with Doom 2016, and in spite of everything Eternal is still at the higher end of ‘good’, in the top bracket of single player FPS for the generation, if not quite hitting ‘great’.

So it Doom Eternal “not Doom”? Interpreting it as a power fantasy is a fatal misreading of the original Doom. Doomguy was meant to be the player in extremis, no match for the forces of hell but sufficiently well armed to – maybe – hold them at bay for a while. (The whole ‘space marine’ thing was to explain why you were there, and why you could carry and expertly use eight weapons and sprint at 70mph.) You’re not supposed to be Master Chief, you’re not some brooding Warhammer 40K demigod.

Doom’s tagline was “where the sanest place is behind a trigger”; Doom Eternal’s is “the only thing they fear is you”.

I still harbour a vain hope that they’ll park the franchise again for a while now, and in a few years we’ll look back and see this incarnation of Doom as a weird anomaly (kind of like Wolfenstein 2009); an offshoot from the mainline Doom games that stand apart as the ones you couldn’t mod and that were never scary.

No Man’s Sky (again)

I am, of course, still playing No Man’s Sky regularly. There have been scads of new content and features added since last year, including crossplay, instanced dungeons, massively improved base building, gorgeous new bloom lighting and a big injection of new flora, fauna and planet types. For the first time in a while the game is in a state where I can confidently say that there’s lots of phenomena that I’ve not yet encountered. (I’ve only once and fleetingly seen a sandworm, for instance, and I’ve not found any wild robots yet.)

As a console player, I will of course be upgrading to a next-gen machine at some point in the future at which time I’ll take advantage of the most recent round of improvements to scene complexity and loading times. I’m finding that I’m not that enthused by the prospect though. It’s the same game underneath the higher framerate, resolution and draw distance, and even with all the updates it’s starting to show it’s age a bit.

Seeing people’s PS5 screenshots feels a bit like when you got a whizzy new GPU back the day and ran Quake II with everything maxed out, you know? I’m more interested in what Hello Games do with their tech in future projects now that the next gen consoles’ super-fast storage (presumably) opens up much greater possibilities for more detailed (and more persistent) world simulation.

Noita (again)

Noita finally came out of early access in October. Everything I said about the game last year still holds true, except now there’s vastly more new spells, monsters, biomes and secrets to explore. I’ve now completed the game a few times and am happy with my approach to playing it which has fallen into a pattern (much as it did with Spelunky), mostly involving spending a lot of time crafting wands in the early areas and getting killed through misadventure.

I know there are players who have taken a much more serious approach to the game, curating saves and good random generation seeds to master it’s various mysteries and achievements, but I’m still happy to play it like an arcade game (because it is one), accepting the outcome of risks and randomness. (Oh and I wrote a song about it.)

Cyberpunk 2077

I started playing Cyberpunk 2077 at launch last month, and I’ve just finished my first (fairly exhaustive, 100 hour plus) playthrough. It’s pretty obvious now that people have had a few weeks to acclimatize that 2077 is an important game, setting a new benchmark for open world RPGs in terms of world design and story presentation.

The badly fumbled launch and the misguided attempts by the gutter end of the specialist press to frame the game as some kind of lurid exploitation piece before they’d even played it (why would a major AAA studio, with a coveted cult classic IP, need to court a fringe audience of edgelords?) will mostly be forgotten by Summer. Nobody cares these days how poorly GTA V ran on seventh generation consoles, or the narrowness of No Man’s Sky version 1.0’s feature set. A few people may eventually look back and cringe at how they carried on online in their student days but that will be about it.

I’m playing on PS4 Pro. It’s… tolerable. It still sometimes crashes (though dramatically less often with each patch up to 1.11) and the UI is ‘cantankerous’ if you try to do something unreasonable like open a menu or switch cameras in a car. I’m profoundly aware that I’m not experiencing the game as intended (and in due time will seek to rectify this), but the quality of the craftsmanship is such that the game rarely becomes a struggle to control or looks objectionably ugly.

At 1080p the character models are more than detailed enough for the performance capture scenes to reel you in (the occasional glitching cigarette aside), and the dynamic lighting and level of detail system keep the outside world moving at a decent clip (at least when on foot), and from time to time offer up a genuinely beautiful composition. Shadow of the Colossus on the PS2 would be a good point of comparison. It’s not liquid smooth, and it’s running the PS4 as ragged as the Bluesmobile, but it’s managing to conjure an affect that shouldn’t even be possible on such modest hardware.

(Oh no, cars and NPCs sometimes disappear when I turn around, to absolutely zero gameplay effect, in this game that is being required to support a hardware baseline with less computing power than a modern phone. If you think this is evidence of poor design decisions, follow better YouTube channels.)

As nothing can be discussed on social media without it being categorised as perfect or a catastrophe, Cyberpunk’s problems on the base consoles have been blown up into absurd claims about the underlying game being “fundamentally broken”.

Yes, there are some rough edges, but it’s not a comparable situation to a typical Bethesda open world game, where you’re practically required to use third party mods to finish work on the UI before you can play. It’s not like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, my lasting memory of which was having to use a FAQ to know which of game’s prompts had to be ignored to prevent the game falling into an unwinnable state. We’ve grown accustomed to open world games running flawlessly by Ubisoft cranking out another shiny but mediocre one every year. Cyberpunk 2077 is an open world RPG, though, and it’s reaching a little higher.

The trade-off for putting up with being intermittently needled with jank is an astoundingly immersive game world. Given the choice between a game like this and another slick but hollow action/adventure game like God of War or Spider-Man and I’ll pick flawed but ambitious every time.

In terms of gameplay Cyberpunk 2077 is an XXL Just Eat takeaway pizza. It’s unashamedly trashy, 8/10 comfort food in the same way the bulk of Batman Arkham Knight or Breath of the Wild were, except with higher production values (and far less copy-pasted filler content). The core of the game is dealing with discrete missions by applying a loose mix of stealth, hacking, shooting, melee combat and (much more rarely) negotiation, like a two-fisted blend of Deus Ex HR/MD and the Mafia trilogy, with the odd bit of driving, adventuring or private detective work thrown in.

Many of the game’s systems are streamlined to minimise time spent failing missions for pedantic reasons (and to an extent discourage save scumming). Hacked security cameras stay hacked, and you have a couple of seconds to react if one spots you before the alarm is raised. There’s a global switch that stops you being able to outright kill anyone with your attacks (although explosions and other world hazards can still be deadly) if a mission calls for it, so you’re never boxed in to using stealth takedowns if you don’t feel like it.

Unlike Deus Ex, gunplay actually feels good here, pistols and revolvers particularly striking a good balance between being crazily overpowered hand cannons and requiring just enough skill to make dealing with groups of enemies at close quarters a bit hairy. The minigun you can sometimes obtain mid-mission (but can’t keep all the time, sadly) makes you feel like you’re fucking ED-209. The sniper rifles are just ludicrous. It’s definitely the case that you can become too overpowered in combat and/or hacking fairly early in the game taking away most of the challenge, but you can always turn up the difficulty level or set your own limits on your playing style (or use mods) I suppose. Outside of some stealth-heavy or booby trap laden areas, it’s never a particularly stressful experience.

The ‘main quest’ story missions are tense and exciting without ever doing anything mindblowing. (The in-engine montage cut-scene at the end of the prologue with a flurry of jump cuts is pretty cool though.) The scope is genuinely impressive, with different storylines taking the player to wildly contrasting parts of the game world and presenting them with characters and situations that let the player express more facets of their character and learn more about how Night City’s society fits together. The movers and shakers in NC variously see the player character (V) as an uncultured outsider, a useful asset, a potential threat, or an easily manipulated mark.

While there are obviously ‘tiers’ of quests ranging from expensive-feeling cinematic adventures to more mundane mercenary gigs (you can usually grade these by ‘amount of Keanu Reeves involvement’), a surprising amount of the game’s content falls into the former category. Some of the side stories (as well as the main story in Act I) change tack as deftly as a golden age Simpsons episode. Anything from taking on a gun for hire contract to ordering a coffee to wandering around a market can lead to an unexpected side story kicking off.

The main story (your character, a small-time mercenary, or ‘punk’ you could say!!, gets involved in a heist gone wrong that results in their mind being merged with a neural construct of a long-dead anarchist rock star, and has to find a cure before their personality is overwritten entirely) is impressively executed. The combination of lighting, character models (with fancy dynamic lip syncing tech), voice and performance capture often leads to strikingly naturalistic scenes. (Compare the first encounter with ripperdoc Viktor Vektor with the equivalent scene in Deus Ex Mankind Divided to see how far we’ve come.)

There’s been so much focus on glitches in the traffic and crowd systems that a lot of people seem to have overlooked all the hard technical problems Cyberpunk does quietly solve. There are (for instance) several sequences where multiple characters will get into a car and carry out a fully animated conversation while driving around the city, without the game ever breaking out of the first person view. The extended scene with Jackie and V going to do a deal with the Maelstrom gang from the ‘fake’ E3 demo is incredibly closely reproduced.

The writing on the other hand is probably not going to win many awards. There are memorable lines and side characters, but the main cast (Jackie, Rogue, Johnny, etc.) are sketched a bit thinly. Keanu Reeves does his best with the material but as voice artists go he’s no Mark Hamill. Silverhand’s cynical ‘fuck the man’ commentary peppered throughout the game is often closer to Rik from the Young Ones than Neo or John Wick. Still, it is refreshing to have a mainstream game based around a different dynamic for the two main characters than Sad Gruff Dad and Escort Mission Child.

But even if there was only a tiny fraction of the big budget ‘cinematic’ content that there is in the game, Night City would still be captivating to explore all by itself. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s the next leap in creating a convincing sense of place in a game, up there with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Half-Life 2. It’s still nowhere close to the scale of a real world major city, of course, but it’s unbelievably, overwhelmingly dense within its few cubic kilometres. It’s like Bloodborne dropped into a petri dish the size of San Francisco.

There are walkways over rooftops over elevated streets over streets at the bottom of Kowloon-esque urban canyons where the sky is barely visible, with separate ‘bottle’ maps (reached by loading pause elevators) perched high in the towers and arcologies above all that. And that’s just the inner city. There are miles of desert wasteland, sprawling solar and hydroponic farms, brownstones, motels, slums, suburbs, abandoned malls, forested hills and man-made mountains of trash.

There are buildings and neighbourhoods used for perhaps one throwaway gang skirmish that are bigger than Deus Ex’s version of Prague, and they nearly always have a few unique touches. A lot of locations are built from snapped together components but the sheer amount of assets hides this well most of the time. (There are dozens of bathrooms in Night City, and no two of them look even slightly the same. This dedication to presenting endless diversity to avoid breaking immersion extends to food and drink, weapons, clothes, crafting items and even vending machines and laptops.)

The first few hours of the game are total information overload with hardly a moment to catch your breath. Even once you’ve spent many hours in the game, gained some street smarts and have mopped up most of the available side gigs, you can still spend hours just wandering around the city and finding entirely new (often huge and meticulously detailed) areas, some of which seem to exist for no other reason that game tourism. It feels like CDPR’s level designers have hit some critical mass of having a huge library of assets and a workflow that allows spaces to be built and decorated rapidly.

We’ve all seen Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Robocop, Demolition Man, Akira, The Matrix and Back to the Future II, so by now the visual language of cyberpunk is extremely familiar. But by showing a whole world operating under those rules (including – especially – the mundane day to day stuff) 2077 still sometimes has the ability to surprise.

A street gang who fetishise extreme, dehumanising cybernetic implants is a cool concept as a few pages of an RPG rulebook, but having them get up in your grill in a tense arms deal or going to one of their parties is something entirely other. We’ve seen lots of games with decaying, abandoned urban environments since Half-Life 2, but seeing a bustling city choked with garbage and squalor drives home the desperate state of the situation. Outside of the pristine Corpo Plaza, the spoiled parks and leisure areas of Night City are really viscerally unpleasant!

The game may not be a sophisticated commentary on inequality and corporate power, but it is an unambiguous one. It’s fair to say that the game doesn’t delve too deeply into the more weighty implications of its themes, but it does sometimes dabble in real-world parallels (AI, healthcare, ecology, private policing, human trafficking, cryptocurrency, access to justice, etc.) – it’s mostly concerned with the world at street level, outside of one thread of the main story.

This is a very late-1980s vision of the future, as the source material dictates, although CDPR have wisely omitted or rethought some of the more dated aspects. It’s hard to fully gloss over the streak of anti-Japanese sentiment that is present in most 1980s cyberpunk media, but 2077 is at least self-aware enough to not revel in it. (It has to be said that some of the Asian characters in the game are still a bit stereotypical though.)

I know that games have gone from being a techy niche to a mainstream entertainment medium in the past twenty years, but it’s still been jarring to me to discover that there are so many people out there who seem to not see the prospect of an open world cyberpunk game as implicitly compelling. And by ‘implicitly compelling’ I mean the Holy Grail the medium has been building toward for the past few decades. (And is still building towards, as let’s be clear, Cyberpunk 2077 is far from perfect.)

The dream of CRPGs in the 1970s was to simulate Dungeons & Dragons, the dream from at least the late 1980s has been to let you live and make choices in the world of Blade Runner and Neuromancer. This is most clearly illustrated when we look at the choice of subject matter that so many high profile designers gravitated towards as soon as they had a few hits under their belt and were given a blank slate: Syndicate, Deus Ex, Blade Runner (of course), Beneath a Steel Sky, Snatcher, Interphase, the cancelled Trinity and Cyberspace, even Final Fantasy VII after a fashion were all attempts to realise this dream with the technology then available.

Maybe it’s an age thing? It’s hard to imagine someone who played Sim City 2000, Syndicate and Doom for the first time within a few months of each other as an impressionable teenager in 1993, with a cultural diet of MTV, anime on VHS, 2000AD and Games Workshop could imagine that games were ultimately building toward anything else. Every big technical advance was being measured in relation to reaching that end point. At some point we must have stopped explicitly voicing this desire, and people who have come into games later have simply not picked up on it, which is why the feverish level of hype must have seemed strange.

At certain points when just drinking in the atmosphere of Night City for hours at a time, it has occured to me that this must be what being pandered to feels like. As AAA game budgets have gotten bigger and their subject matter has had to become more broadly appealing, I’d pretty much given up on seeing a game of this scale have a setting and subject matter I really cared about. I can see why, say, The Last of Us or Red Dead Redemption 2 or Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty have fan followings, but I’d long been resigned to the fact that (with a few exceptions like the modern Deus Ex games) game settings were something to be more or less put up with while focusing on any mechanical interest that they allow.

(Star Wars fares a little better, but you’re always conscious of the fact that you’re playing a piece of merchandise. The characters are too ubiquitous to let you have any feeling of personal ownership over them.)

Cyberpunk by comparison lets the player spend most of their time doing things they care about and that are narratively and/or aesthetically rewarding. You can specialise your character to a much greater degree than in Deus Ex (e.g., going so far as removing the ability to quickhack entirely if you favour close quarters combat), and spend hours picking their outfits and tinkering with the specs of their weapons and cyberware. Every car and building looks like something out of the wildest Syd Mead concept art, with the satisfying material solidity of the coolest Matchbox car or science fiction vehicle playset you had as a kid.

Aside from most of the generic ‘fixers’ who dish out low stakes missions in each district of the city, most of the major characters are either cool badasses who you’ll want to help and impress, or awful dickheads who you won’t feel bad about crossing swords with or just flat out walking away from (very few quests in the game are mandatory and there’s so much content that you won’t feel shortchanged if you choose to skip some of it). (This goes for the game’s factions too – depending on your route through the game you’ll likely end up sympathising with some and having abiding grudges against others.) There are loads of secrets and subtle bits of worldbuilding, and endless diversions included for their own sake (adopt a cat, ride a rollercoaster, befriend various abberant AIs) that make the world feel more human.

Both the game engine and the world they’ve built on it feel like they have a lot of untapped potential. I really hope that along with the slated DLC we will at some point see more stories told with these resources (something farmed out to another studio in the manner of Fallout New Vegas perhaps).

A final thought on the messy launch: if we’re to expect ‘mid-generation’ console hardware refreshes again in future, I really hope that the manufacturers make a more decisive commitment to establishing them as the baseline well before the end of the generation. Nintendo figured this out with their pre-Switch handhelds (e.g., the New 3DS), offering substantially upgraded hardware every few years that didn’t strictly enforce backward compatibility for new games.

Sony seemed terrified of the thought of splitting the PS4 platform, even as later games started to run progressively worse on the base system, and disc sales became less important. There should have been PS4Pro exclusive games on day one, really. Microsoft just made the Xbox One X too expensive to be the logical upgrade route for most players, even though it was five times more powerful. (Plus they’ve shifted focus to Game Pass.)

The model of requiring all developers to support 7+ year old hardware, at considerable cost (Microsoft essentially burnt a couple of years of John Carmack computing time requiring RAGE to run from the DVD on Xbox 360 – a requirement they dropped anyway not long after!) is clearly not sustainable. I wouldn’t be surprised if CDPR had been lobbying behind the scenes to have the rules changed for years.

We can moan about this but at the end of the day publishers have to play the ball as it lies. A blockbuster multiplatform release at that moment in time had to support those machines, and the announcement and release of the next gen consoles started the clock on how long a game built around last-gen expectations could launch as a competitive product. Delaying into 2021 was never on the table. CDPR are part of the way out of the woods, but it was their management decisions that got them into this mess. They still have to convincingly deliver on their roadmap, and they’ll rightly face renewed scrutiny over their policies regarding crunch from now on.

Right now I’m happy that I’ve had my money’s worth out of the game, and I’m looking forward to: playing through again on better hardware (and making different choices), the arrival of the DLC promised for this year, and Tim Rogers’ definitive Action Button Review of the game (even if he hates it I expect to learn something interesting – I highly recommend the ones he’s filmed to date).


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“Monster”
Posted at 21:12 on 4th November 2020 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Maraoke video game karaoke songlist – first performed virtually by Ste Curran* and myself on 30/10/2020 at Maraoke Lockdown! #11 (Halloween Special). This song has been on Maraoke ‘wanted’ list for a long time, but the final release of Noita version 1.0 was what spurred me to finish it. (*Thanks to Ste for some flow-improving edits.)

“NOITA”
– after “Monster” by Kanye West

I shoot the lights out
Ride to the mines now
Whoa, just another ro-oh-guelite
Are you willing to sacrifice your time?

WAAAAH!

Witch? I’m a Noita no good spelunker
Zap goblin suckers and crush them in rubble
As I roam through the dungeon, looting is my function
Potions I’ll sample, each run is a gamble

Magic magic
Wizard I cast it
Everybody know I’m a mana-sapping Noita
Imma see another random wand then I grab it
Imma see another random wand then I grab it

Logic logic, physics built on it
Everybody know I’m a rubble-crushing Noita
Every pixel be like falling sand when I drop it
Every pixel be like falling sand, uh

The best wizard in these lands now huh?
Makes goblins dead, gold grabbed huh?
And their eyes glow red where a Hurtta is
And I’ve got a magic spell I’m gonna hurt ’em with
Mana flowing to my tip, nobody withholding this
Disarm traps, gimme that, triple double scatter shit
Imma hocus pocus this, taking an ambrosia sip
Angering the elder gods, practicing that occult shit

I learned my boots could slay rats and even snap chains
Bought a stave that always casts me blood rain
Freezing all these dummies with canisters of propane
Gold digger ’cause there’s dwarves making that claim
Turned invisible I spilt something from a blue vial
If you want to make a longer run you’ll need a clue now
Lit the fuse on Holy Bomb and hurling it at you now
God damn wizzy, how he hit ’em with a new style?
Reached that Holy Mountain, well what you gon’ do now?
Whatever I tunnel through, rock is hewn now
Not running through toxic goo now
Think you necromancers really really need to cool out

Cause you will never meet a hotter witch
So monsters, best advice is just give up and run from this
Have you ever cast hex in mid air tho?
Ahhh, I put the Hiisi in a necropolis

Noita making other games look monotonous
Game of the year and you should just acknowledge it
I’m tripping off the fungus now I’m grazing on the grass
I’m passing some unpleasant toxic gas

Scoff it, scoff it
Wizards just vomit
Everybody know I’m a puddle-supping Noita
Imma need to fill another flask with this tonic
Imma need to fill another flask with this tonic

Logic logic, physics built on it
Everybody know I’m a rubble-crushing Noita
Every pixel be like falling sand when I drop it
Every pixel be like falling sand

Spider, Shapechanger, Ice Skull, Wasp Nest
Goblin, Ghoul, a Mimic in a locked chest
Question: What do these things all have in common?
They’re all getting hosed by this magic-blasting Noita

Craft a, wand to, carve through every substance
Substance, none of you wizards have ever won this
None of you wizards have been the places that I’ve been
I’ve fought eldritch beings on my streams
Lava lava in twisted catacombs, I
get loot dropped by murdering hapless goons, I
Know why they call it the Falling Everything engine
Everybody wanna know what the best way to heal is

Blood! I can’t get enough of it
Always perk to a vampiric blood sucker
All I see is these wizards whining it’s unfair
Sneaking about, stealing from creatures in their lairs
All I see is these goblins with no shame
Trying to snipe me in the ice cold wastes
(*Sniff*) I hatched a massive worm
Seems to be the only way to make you bastards learn

Magic magic
Wizard I cast it
Everybody know I’m a mana-sapping Noita
Imma see another random wand then I grab it
Imma see another random wand then I grab it

Logic logic, physics built on it
Everybody know I’m a rubble-crushing Noita
Every pixel be like falling sand when I drop it
Every pixel be like falling sand

Roll up like a Noita
Monsters feel my anger
With a bad witch who’ll zap you like Blanka
Yes I dropped that anchor, melee weapon I’ll shank ya
You the Mountain King? Well I’m the queen, plonker

Okay first things first I’ll spark some flames
Then Imma toss some barrels of toxic waste
Cause that’s what a trouble-causing Noita do
Ten-tacles from my wand, that’s what Noita spew
Flask of Berserkium, that’s the Noita brew
Each run is a disaster you’re a Noita noob
And I’ll blow up blow up blow up all the tanks in your Hiisi Base
I kick a crate, then explode it now nobody’s safe

So let me get this straight wait I’m the newbie?
But I reached the lab’ratory ten times today?
Getting paid, early work, no final out?
Yeah my tower so tall Bennett Foddy couldn’t climb it
Got me in a Miyazaki mind state
Clever Finnish nerds that designed it
Gimme that alchemy when I find ittttt
All these wizards want Draught of Midaaaas

You really really wanna play N-O-I-T-A
Forget Sp’lunky, those physics be half baked
Don’t want to die but now somebody’s casting earthquake
And that way’s quite unlucky to die, eh?
Just killed by something offscreen, need to replay
This wand, hey, fires in a wide spray
And shoots down any bats that get in my way

Pink slime, thick as, you can’t sprint fast
I drink this red flask bigger crit chance
And look I got a chainsaw, digging to the next floor
Aaaaah, I’m a motherfucking Noita!!!

[BREAK]

I got revived
Now I’m transmogrified
Died in a trash biome
So I’m not getting home

I got revived
Now I’m transmogrified
Died in a trash biome
So I’m not getting home

I got revived
Now I’m transmogrified
Died in a trash biome
So I’m not getting home…

More Maraoke songs


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No Man’s Sky: Exo Mech
Posted at 18:16 on 27th April 2020 - permalink

In the wake of the massive ‘Beyond’ and ‘Synthesis’ updates last year, Hello Games have continued to regularly update No Man’s Sky with smaller, weirder new features. So far we’ve been surprised with the ByteBeat music generation system, as well as new class of bizarre biomechanical starships, and most recently, the Minotaur Exo Mech.

The Minotaur is a big stompy bipedal exoskeleton that can be summoned to a planet’s surface (Titanfall-style) and which offers enhanced environmental protection and (once upgraded) better maneuverability than the plain old Exosuit.

My experiences with the Exo Mech serve as a good snapshot of the current state of NMS, and why I’m regularly coming back to it after four years. The game that was criticised at launch for offering the player too little to do now boasts a plethora of complex subsystems and diversions to cater for all manner of playing styles. Not all of them work perfectly, and as the game has grown, the amount of quirks and jank bubbling just below the surface has increased commensurately. There’s usually nothing serious enough to break the game, but it often asks a lot of the player’s patience and willingness to play around the gaps.

Even after hundreds of hours exploring, I’m still not always entirely sure whether some of the things that befall my Traveller are intentional design decisions, the result of particularly unlucky procedural dice rolls, or actual honest bugs. Usually what emerges from this chaos is familiar (if not mundane) or sometimes just irritatingly broken, but there are now enough moving parts that there is potential, just sometimes, for the game to synthesise an engaging self-contained adventure.

I logged in on the evening the Exo Mech patch dropped and set to work on acquiring my shiny new robot. My first port of call would be the Space Anomaly (the game’s interdimensional multiplayer lobby), where a new branch of technology blueprints was available to unlock.

In past years this may have involved a few days of scouring resources from planet surfaces (in this case, digging up buried tech modules to trade with the Anomaly’s merchants). But now NMS has pervasive multiplayer and a (mostly) non-toxic community, I had the good fortune to find a well-to-do Traveller on the Anomaly’s promenade who was handing out care packages of modules, allowing me to bag the whole set of new blueprints straight away. Minutes later I was planetside and fitting out the accessories and paint job of my new mechanical pal.

I had a little stomp around. I noted with approval that the Exo Mech could walk on the seabed unimpeded, and that its scanner was much more versatile than the multitool equivalent (and that stomping around left pleasingly chunky footprints in the snow, mud or moon dust). But as technically impressive as the Minotaur was, I couldn’t quite see the point of it. Guiding the lumbering mech around seemed a little cumbersome compared to just punching your spacesuit’s jetpack thrusters, and it’s environmental shielding was largely a moot point for someone who had long ago reached the endgame of NMS’s survival mechanics. I took a few photos and mentally filed it away as another nice novelty, like the cooking system, or underwater bases, or being able to build race tracks.


When I picked up the game again a few days later, I noticed that I was getting quite close to the centre of the galaxy I’d been trucking through for the last few months.

(No Man’s Sky is divided up into 256 galaxies in the manner of the original Elite’s eight. One of the main goals in the game – initially the only one, other than completing a perfunctory quest line – is to reach the centre of the galaxy and be teleported to the outer edge of the next one. Before the advent of portal travel, this was a major undertaking, requiring hundreds of warp hops between star systems and exploiting black holes, which would zap you vast distances along the spiral groove of each galaxy. Each galaxy has a slightly different ‘recipe’ dictating the average planetary conditions the player will encounter in each system. The first galaxy – Euclid – is fairly unremarkable. The third – the cursed Calypso that I’d been slogging through – has a higher chance for hostile conditions, resulting in most planets being wracked by constant blinding storms, caustic atmospheres, aggressive sentinels, Traveller-eating lizards or some combination of these. The tenth galaxy is meant to be particularly lovely, but for now I would settle for the respite of the relatively average fourth galaxy – Hesperius.)

It took maybe an hour or so to arrive at the last tiny wisp of stars, the galaxy’s run-off groove, the bottom tip of the funnel that all Travellers who had ventured this far (on Playstation) pass through. As with the previous galaxies I’d traversed, these last few star systems had been signed by their discoverers. I found a non-descript unclaimed planet to tag (“Milliways”, unoriginally) then set my ship’s controls for the singularity at the centre.

I had a rough idea of what would happen next. Galaxy hopping functions like a ‘new game plus’. You wake up shipwrecked on the shores of the new galaxy in a repeat of the game’s opening sequence, except you still have all your gear and cash. The cost of being reincorporated by the Atlas over an impossible distance is that your starship is wrecked, along with all the equipment in your suit’s inventory, and your multitool. That means all your protective (and offensive) capabilities are for the moment unavailable, and if the randomly chosen planet you’ve made landfall on is hostile to organic life (and in this case it was), you’re going to have to quickly hunker down in your wrecked ship’s cockpit and figure out how to get up and running again.

Except this time, my ship isn’t there.

My suit’s hazard protection is ticking down, and I can’t bore out a rough shelter in the nearest hillside as my multitool is currently a retrofuturistic paperweight. I duck into a shallow natural cave and wait for my innermost layer of shielding to recharge. Thankfully some of my suit tech is working (secondary inventories aren’t damaged by intergalactic travel, an actual bug that would have been more useful if I’d remembered it earlier).

But I still can’t summon my ship, wherever it is, as its launch thrusters and pulse engine are offline. I look up to the roiling sky of the soon-to-be-christened Planet Bum. (I usually name planets more imaginatively than this, honestly.) I can at least summon my capital ship into planetary orbit (again, pure luck that I’ve started in a star system of a type my freighter’s hyperdrive can lock on to), but with no way of leaving the atmosphere it remains tantalisingly out of reach.

However, as of the last update, my capital ship can construct and dispatch exocraft to me. Now we’re getting somewhere. I summon the Exo Mech, which hurtles dramatically into the mud at the mouth of the cave, and clamber aboard. It’s powered up and functional, and more to the point, I can use its scanner to detect nearby ship’s distress beacons. I get a ping – an hour away on foot, but with the Exo Mech’s hop thusters I can cover it in five, ten minutes tops. If it’s my ship I can get off this rock. If it’s abandoned I can at least hotwire it and get to my freighter, ditching it in the hangar to be traded in as scrap at the next space station.

It’s a bumpy, laborious journey (Planet Bum is crinkled with jagged outcroppings and deep gorges, and if the Exo Mech lands roughly from a hop it has to be painstakingly steered back onto the right heading before leaping again), but in a short while I reach the crash site.

Unfortunately, it’s not my ship, but nor is it abandoned. There is now a third eventuality for distress beacon callouts – the ship’s pilot is waiting for assistance, and the player is the AA.

There’s no option to just kill the pilot and steal his ship. (At least I don’t think there is – come to think of it I’ve not tried it since this scenario was added. Maybe a less scrupulous player could have gone that route.) I complete a simple task for the pilot to allow them to take off.

(In this case, it’s a Korvax who is having a crisis because they don’t know how to care for the organic pet they’ve brought along. Siphoning some oxygen to the creature’s tank saves the day and allows the grateful pilot to resume their journey. There seem to be loads of these scripted encounters, with some being much more elaborate. I’ve run across a fair few while scouting for crashed freighters and don’t think I’ve had one repeat yet.)

Having cleared this distress beacon from the Exo Mech’s scanner, I fire it up a second time. A new ping lights up – another hour’s trip. I worry that this will take me back to where I started, and that my absent ship is an unsalvageable bug, stranding me here forever. But mercifully it’s a different beacon, and better still, this time it’s my missing primary ship, a blue and gold S-Class exotic (‘The Needlemouse’). And as luck would have it, there are several dozen Wiring Looms stashed in the cargo hold – almost enough to fix most of my suit, multitool and ship’s tech with the exception of most of the weapon systems.

As my ship’s freshly repaired launch thrusters kick away from the surface of the inhospitable Planet Bum for the first and last time, I twist around in the cockpit and spy the abandoned Minotaur Exo Mech, crouched in wait for a pilot, as it shrinks away to a dot below the clouds. My travails on this inhospitable planet have brought it up in my estimation considerably, and although the game will fabricate a new one for me at the touch of a button, I feel a slight pang of guilt to be abandoning this one here to rust for eternity. (Well, technically it will get garbage collected from memory the next time I hop to a new system but that’s not very poetic is it?) I would certainly have had a much more unpleasant time if I’d attempted the crossing before the Exo Mech update.

I reorient my ship towards the welcoming landing lights of my freighter’s docking bay. Time to see what this new galaxy has in store for me next.


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“Sledgehammer”
Posted at 22:42 on 15th February 2020 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Maraoke video game karaoke songlist – first performed 14/02/2020.

“Netrunner”
– after “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel

Hey hey you
Let me just log you in

You could have a clean brain
If you just paid down your tags
You could have an Astrolabe trying
To complete your Brute-Force-Hack
All you do is draw me
I’ll breach anything you need

You could have an Icebreaker
Slow their servers down, confound defence
You could have a Datasucker, sucking
This intrusion never ends

I wanna be a Netrunner
Bought every card in the game
(Ha!)
Oh Let me be your Netrunner
Will you build the deck to pwn me?

Yeah!
(Yeah!)

Show me round your Crash Space
On our Executive Retreat
Open up your Brain Cage
With your suit that’s a shield of plascrete

I wanna be a Netrunner
It was a Living Card Game
(Ha!)
Now there’ll be no more Netrunner
Maybe for the best
No longer be a Netrunner
Wizards taking back their IP
(Ha!)
Bye then, Netrunner
They can’t sell the game without it

Net
Net!
Netrunner!

[BREAK]

My deck is tight!
I hacked the planet
(Hacked the planet, hacked the planet)
Jacked right in
(Jacked right in)
Just like a Newtype
(Like a Newtype)
I’m enhanced again
(We’re enhanced again)
Got Bioroids for me
(‘Roids for me)
AI clones of you
(Clones of you) (Me!)
Clones of me
(Clones of me)
Oh, AI clones of you
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I do mean you
(Clones of me)
Only you
You’ve been coming through
(Clones of you)
Up that beanstalk tower
Build build up that tower, ow!
Come on come on hack me do
I’ve been hacking the Gibson
I’ve been hacking the Gibson…

More Maraoke songs


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Some games I played in 2019
Posted at 18:30 on 5th January 2020 - permalink

Here are some of the standout games I played in 2019. It wasn’t a particularly notable year for new releases, in part because the current console generation is winding down.

I ended up playing a mixture of small scale indie games (mostly on Switch) and revisiting games I’d missed from the last few years – but there were still a couple of new releases into which I unexpectedly ended up sinking lots of time.

No Man’s Sky

NMS’s on-going schedule of major free updates gives me the excuse to include it in my round-up again this year.

Beyond brought in ‘proper’ (vaguely Phantasy Star Online-like) multiplayer, a new (massively more performant) renderer, power and industry components for bases, creature riding (which will never stop being hilarious), and full VR support.

While VR was the big event that a lot of players were waiting for, I found that I couldn’t get on with it. A major part of NMS’s appeal for me is the scale and beauty of planetary landscapes, and (on PSVR at least) the visual fidelity is dialled down so drastically that most of this is lost. (I’m told the settings have been tweaked in subsequent updates so maybe I’ll give it another shot.)

Furthermore the new renderer, while a net improvement, introduces a fair bit of jank for all players due to trade-offs made to support the low-end platforms (Xbox One S, Intel graphics, PSVR on base PS4). Digging out footage of NMS 1.0 reveals that the modern game is spectacularly smoother and prettier, but conversely it’s currently a game where (for example) exocraft are pretty much unusable as they constantly fall through the ground.


The later, less-hyped Synthesis update was where the real improvements were for long time players. Hello Games reached out to the community to suggest quality of life improvements, resulting in lots of subtle changes that seem obvious in hindsight but massively improve the minute to minute experience of playing the game.

The transformative effect is similar to the evolution of Quake II deathmatch into Quake III Arena, a grand sweeping away of legacy clunkiness. Base building improvements (triangular pieces, easy terrain flattening, etc.) offer a massively increased scope for creative expression. Travelling between planets in the same system is much faster now also.

Now if they can just squash the annoying bugs introduced in Beyond (buildings taking ages to load in during in-atmosphere flight being the main bugbear) we might have the ‘perfect’ version of the NMS experience – at least until it absorbs the gameplay of another half dozen random subgenres in next year’s big update.

Tangle Tower

Tangle Tower is a sequel to Detective Grimoire, a point and click adventure game by SFB Games (best known these days for SnipperClips). Grimoire and his assistant Sally have been called to a crumbling stately home to investigate the murder of Freya Fellow, daughter of one of the two families that inhabit two separate towers.

The game proceeds in classic whodunnit fashion, as the player explores each room of the mansion, solves small logic puzzles to access pertinent clue objects, and interviews each of the characters to piece together what happened on the night of the murder.

Tangle Tower tells a well thought-out and self-contained story through which the player progresses at a steady pace. New theories to investigate or areas to explore are gradually revealed leaving few opportunies to get truly stuck. (The game has a gentle hint system which suggests what to do next – sometimes a bit too readily.)

The production values are stellar – music, voice acting, character design and location backgrounds are all top notch, and reminiscent of LucasArts at their height. The core cast are well-written and likeable enough that I think there’s scope to tell more Grimoire stories, perhaps in other media. If you’re looking for a compact, family-friendly adventure game you could do a lot worse.

Apex Legends

Apex is the first online shooter I’ve gotten into for a few years. (Other than a brief dabble with Quake Champions, I’ve been away from the genre since Star Wars Battlefront circa 2015.) I played a few hundred hours of it in a few months at the start of the year and then just… stopped. I have mixed feelings about it.

First the positives. It’s an amazingly designed game, and one that feels like it is taking the battle royale genre forward. I never got into PUBG or Fortnite so can’t really directly compare it, but the way that it encourages teamwork and communication makes it incredibly satisfying to play well with a good squad. The ping system is really efficient and unambiguous compared to voice and menu-based chat systems.

Direct combat is tough, but the game is as much about awareness of your surroundings and making good decisions as being a crack shot so even if you’re fairly hopeless at it (like me) you spend most of your time having fun rather than being repeatedly slaughtered. Some of the character abilities (such as Pathfinder’s ziplines or Bloodhound’s tracking ability) are genuinely innovative.

It’s a shame that this experience is dragged down by outdated technology. ApeLegs runs on a heavily modified version of the original Source engine, an platform that was already showing its age around the time of Portal 2 nearly a decade ago. My PC is pretty old, toward the lower end of the recommended specs for the game, but I’ve played plenty of FPS games on it that look and run far better than this. The maps are full of giant cliffs to keep the draw distance manageable and there’s still loads of popup. Audio is buggy. Objects glitch around comically on moving platforms (like the supply ships) like something out of Quake II. I’ve heard the console versions are still dogged with constant crashes and disconnects as well.

I don’t want to speculate about the corporate machinations that led to Respawn making a BR game, but certain elements do give the impression that they’re out of their comfort zone (although as the game has evolved this has been assuaged to some degree). The character designs are best described as ‘pedestrian’. I think they’ve consciously chosen to make the characters older and more drabbly painted than, for example, Overwatch or Fortnite to help pitch the game to older players but it makes them hard to get invested in.

The roadmap for the game so far feels a bit directionless. Monetisation experiments using rare cosmetic items were poorly received, Respawn moved much too slowly to address cheating and griefing players, and variant game modes introduced for timed events haven’t played to the game’s core strengths. But it remains a work in progress, and at least they’re not crunching as hard as the Fortnite team.

I expect I’ll still dip in to Apex every now and again to see what’s new, but I do suspect that they’d be better off starting with a blank slate on a modern engine, perhaps once the next console generation is properly underway.

Astro Bot: Rescue Mission

2019 was the year I finally got a VR headset. I haven’t played an exhaustive amount of VR content yet (I’ve not even gone back to all the PS4 games I already owned that have VR support… and yes, I do intend to get around to playing Beat Saber) but from what I have played Astro Bot is clearly the game that could credibly be described as the killer app for PSVR.

By keeping the game environment simple, linear and physically proximate to the player, Astro Bot does an outstanding job of making the player feel present in the game world. The materials and lighting are absolutely gorgeous as well. Astro Bot and the other robots in the world, as well as the ever-present virtual dual shock controller feel like completely convincing physical objects. I’d go as far as to say that the game gave me the biggest pure experiential ‘wow’ factor since the heyday of the sit-down arcade cabinets. It may not be quite up to the standard of Super Mario Odyssey (under the gloss it’s a much, much simpler game) but it’s more impactful.

The crazy thing is that I still haven’t completed it. I find the PSVR kit a bit uncomfortable to use for extended periods and have been rationing the game out about one world at a time for months now. I’ll probably have finished it by the time Sony announce a new VR headset for the Playstation 5.

Batman: Arkham Knight

I loved Batman: Arkham Asylum but let the sequels pass me by – Arkham City seemed like more of the same, and Arkham Knight had an offputtingly bumpy launch where the PC version was even withdrawn from sale for a while. For Batman’s 80th birthday, the Warner Bros came down from their water tower to make the Arkham trilogy free to download on the Epic Store on PC, and the third game free for PlayStation 4 Plus subscribers – so it would’ve been rude not to give them a go.

Now that I’ve played Arkham Knight, I really hope that Rocksteady are working on a mechanically similar game for the next generation of consoles. Arkham Knight is not perfect (it tries to corral too many playing styles with varying levels of success) but it’s still comfortably one of the best action/adventure games of the generation.

It’s a real shame that circumstances conspired to prevent Arkham Knight ever being patched to properly take advantage of the PS4 Pro. While it runs smoothly and has beautiful art direction and FX (the raindrop and water surface shaders are superb), it suffers from jaggy visuals compared to the the pin-sharp presentation of later big action adventure games on the platform (e.g. Marvel’s Spider-Man).

The game presents a peculiar version of Gotham City (evacuated of civilians for plot reasons and overrun with goons), traversed by swinging and gliding from rooftops or in the Batmobile, that feels about the size of GTA3’s Liberty City and looks like the Burton films crossed with Bioshock.

The whole game world is packed to the gills with secrets and Easter Eggs calling back to the comics and previous games. For most of the game Batman is under the lingering influence of Scarecrow’s fear toxin and Rocksteady’s artists have done a fantastic job of scattering ‘ambient’ hallucinations throughout the world which ramp up as the story progresses.

Mark Hamill returns with another great Joker voice performance, but as the character is now (mostly) relegated to commenting on the action from the sidelines it’s not as meaty a role as his GladOS-like integral presence in the first game. (Be sure to visit Simon Stagg in the GCPD lockup for one of the best Joker bits in the series.)

This cosy and quite visually homogenous playground is stuffed to the gills with an impressive variety of side quests, typically grouped together and themed on a specific playing style and villain from the Rogue’s Gallery. Foiling Two-Face’s bank heists fits most closely with the stealthy playing style of the first game. Firefly (or is it Firebug?) missions make the best use of the Batmobile with frantic chases across the entire map.

100%-ing the game and getting the ‘true’ ending involves completing a ridiculous number of Riddler challenges – finding trophies scattered around the game world, or completing minigames which are often as clumsily implemented and joyless as the dumbest side missions in the PS2-era GTAs. I completed everything else in the game and was happy to push my plate away with the bulk of the Riddler stuff untouched.

Rocksteady: I will preorder your next Batman game immediately if the trailer unambiguously shows The Riddler’s funeral happening before the timeline of the main game.

Virtua Racing

I’ve been waiting for years for an arcade-perfect port of Virtua Racing and M2’s enhanced version for the Switch is a dream come true.

I remember the coin-op making a big impression on me back in 1992. This was Sega at the height of their engineering confidence. With multiple huge screens, booming sound and a liquid-smooth framerate, the V.R. cabinet seemed impossibly far ahead of home video game technology at the time. I even got a Sega 32X to play the best available home port a couple of years later (which still holds up surprisingly well).

And now I can play the real thing, in HD, basically anywhere, for about seven quid. A game that cost amusement establishments something like ten grand back in the day. Ridiculous. There’s not a lot more to say about it – it’s a perfectly faithful port with lots of options. It’s a slight shame that the extra two tracks and cars from Virtua Racing Deluxe couldn’t be practically included but it’s a decent package regardless.

I hope M2 have definitive versions of Sega Rally and Daytona USA in the pipeline.

Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove!

The crowdfunded Toejam & Earl sequel/reboot has been a background part of my life for so long that I almost forgot that it actually came out this year. As someone who counts the original as my favourite game of all time and who contributed to the Kickstarter, I’m obviously going to be a bit biased, but I think that Greg Johnson and team succeeded in what they set out to do. TJE4 is the first Toejam & Earl sequel to faithfully recreate the gameplay style of the first game.

Most of the new features are improvements. The game now supports up to four players with a choice of nine playable characters with different perks. Nearly all of the Earthlings from the first two games return, along with an assortment of stylistically congruent new ones. There are loads of new presents to discover as well (it was surprisingly affecting to find things I hadn’t seen before in Toejam & Earl a quarter of a century after playing the original to death). There are even ‘power hats’ to unlock through repeated playthroughs plus new ‘hard’ and ‘endless’ playing modes.

I know a lot of people aren’t keen on the new visual style or the rather stiff Spine-based animation. But if we’re being honest the in-game graphics in the original game were pretty basic at the time. It’s a shame they didn’t make the jump to full 3D or try to more closely recreate the cel art style of the second game, but as this is a game with a very large cast of characters and a modest budget I appreciate that some trade-offs had to be made. Some of the character designs and new visual gags are genuinely funny – Santa, King Tut, the earthling disguises and the helpful dolphin being faves of mine.

While they’ve made a noble effort to maintain parity between all the different platform versions, the Switch version (capped at 30fps with some long loading pauses) doesn’t run quite as well as one might hope. Once you get engrossed in the game none of these issues are as distracting as you might expect.

Later levels can become much more crowded with objects and Earthlings than the original game could support which leads to more exciting mayhem but also more jarring difficulty spikes – there are lots more enemy types that can wipe you out with a single hit than in the original.

The game also suffers a little bit from trying to cram in absolutely everything from the earlier games – the hyperfunk zone, parking meters and beat matching minigames from Game Two could probably have been left out. (The rather clunky bonus screens after finding a ship piece or earning a promotion are also a needless interruption.)

All in all I’m happy with how it turned out and expect it will stay in rotation on my Switch for long journeys pretty much indefinitely.

Titanfall 2

This was another game where I was late to the party, and eventually caught it as a rerun on Playstation Plus (which just about paid for itself this year). I passed on it originally because I’m a bit wary of first person games with very overloaded movement systems, and a game that hinted at the need to use wall-running, leaping between time periods and shooting all at the same time sounded like a bit of a drag. So I was relieved (albeit slightly disappointed) to discover that the single player campaign barely uses its traversal gimmicks at all, typically only using brief, signposted platform sections to link together combat arenas.

At normal difficulty on console, Titanfall 2 feels like it’s playing itself a lot of the time. Enemy attacks are weedy and they have little in the way of AI, which combined with abundant weapons and ammo and ridiculous aim snapping makes combat a minor nuisance outside of a couple of boss battles.

Titan (mecha) combat has a distinct feel, more like a tank or sea battle rather than a gunfight. Juggling dodging boss attacks, dealing with their henchmen and judging the right moment to use your special attacks is satisfying. The fact that you can instantly swap your Titan’s loadout for any one you’ve collected (while it does encourage the player to vary their strategy for each battle) takes away some of the tension.

The game is substantially prettier than Apex Legends (with which it shares an in-game universe, studio and engine) and while performance is rock solid, there are some limitations that smoke and mirrors can’t disguise. It’s strange to play a game with quite small maps and actual loading screens between levels in this day and age.

A lot of the small tricks the environment artists have used to optimise the game aren’t noticable unless you go looking for them, but on a couple of occasions I found myself laughing out loud when presented with a vista that was very obviously a slightly out of focus forced-perspective matte painting – which is probably not the reaction they were going for.

If we accept that the developers were aiming to make an accessible all-guns-blazing theme park ride in the Call of Duty vein, Titanfall 2 succeeds. You’re constantly moved forward through the world and the story and presented with new mechanical twists. It’s all very exuberant. The story is very simple and the characters and world history are never fleshed out in much depth. Of the few single player FPS campaigns of note in recent years, it slots in as a respectable third after MachineGames’ new Wolfenstein saga (which has much better writing and characters one can actually care about) and Doom 2016 (which has faster, deeper combat and takes itself even less seriously).

Untitled Goose Game

⚞ HONK ⚟

Game of the Year: Noita

Noita is a platform shooter action roguelike with a per-pixel physics (and chemistry) simulation. Very loosely, it could be described as a mash-up of Spelunky and The Sandbox (with shades of Breath of the Wild’s simulation in there too).

I was sceptical about Noita when I first heard about it. Most of the videos of it I’d seen showed a cacophony of earthquakes, floods and explosions, that would surely be frustratingly chaotic once the initial novelty had worn off. Once I’d gotten my hands on the game my perception changed completely.

While all hell can (and does) occasionally break loose, most of the time the game world and simulation are so expertly designed and tuned that the player can easily read dangers and formulate plans to try and defeat enemies and traverse the world with the resources at hand. It may not always be scrupulously fair, but it’s respectful of your time.

In Noita, you control a small witch/warlock (noita in Finnish) who is dropped into a procedurally generated 2D world (think Terraria) at the mouth of a cave. The implied goal is to delve as deeply as possible into the dungeons below the mountain, but the player is free to set off in any direction. Even in its current early access state, there are lots of different biomes squirreled away to find with unique environmental hazards, treasures and monsters.

Your noita can carry up to four magic wands (each of which can typically be equipped with multiple spells), four flasks which can contain different substances (such as water, oil, acid, blood, or magic elixirs like damage-increasing Berserkium or monster-pacifying Pheromone) which can be either thrown or judiciously sprayed at the desired target using the right mouse button, and an unlimited number of Perks (permanent ability modifiers typically awarded by reaching a Holy Mountain checkpoint area between biomes). They start out with a weak bolt-firing wand, three bombs, a flask of water and the ability to levitate for short periods.

The wand system in Noita is like the combining weapon system from Gunstar Heroes expanded massively along multiple axes. Each wand has some fixed core stats (how much mana it stores, its maximum firing rate and recharge rate, how many spells it fires per cast, whether it fires spells in sequential or random order, whether it always fires a certain ‘preloaded’ spell in addition to its loadout, etc.) and storage space for multiple spells.

There are dozens of spells to find – projectiles with different aerodynamic and damage characteristics (from magic bolts, fireworks and shotgun pellets to straight up nuclear warheads), modifiers that change the movement pattern of projectiles or buff them with different characteristics, local bubbles of magic (such as a healing field, a rain of lava or a transmogriphying field that turns any projectile that enters it into a live duck) and loads more.

You can build fancy magic guns, but you can also combine spells together to build specialised tools. Want to build a flamethrower? A chainsaw? A jackhammer? A freeze ray? An energy shield? An actual lightsaber? There’s a spell for that.


The true genius of Noita is that it takes all these spells and reactive substances and explores the implications of various magic powers from fantasy fiction and folklore (and Wile E. Coyote cartoons) would play out in a physically consistent world.

Yeah, you could hold a lightsaber up to a wall, turn it on for a second and poke a hole through the skull of a baddie on the other side. Yeah, monsters with (litres of) acid for blood are going to make quite a mess when they die. Yeah, having the Midas touch would make it easy to burrow through the world assuming you instantly collect gold. Yeah, flooding a cave with whiskey will leave its denizens both highly flammable and unable to shoot straight. Yeah, leaving a booby trapped wand on the ground near some humanoid enemies that can pick up wands will have the desired result. Yeah, being blessed with the overly vague genie wish of “immunity to explosions” would mean you can survive nukes. Yeah, being able to summon earthquakes while deep underneath a mountain is probably going to kill you.

The feel of the controls and the constant organic feedback from the world give Noita access to the brain’s dopamine taps. I loved Spelunky, but for all the hours I spent doing the daily challenges I could never shake the feeling that the game’s finicky controls (that assume a lifetime of Super Mario World muscle memory) and overloaded buttons put up a needless artificial barrier. Noita replaces jumping with jetpack flight, and replaces clumsy throwing and melee attacks with a plethora of spells that afford precise action to be carried out at a distance. Digging, melting, burning or exploding parts of the physical environment (not to mention beating tricksy enemies) always provides satisfying feedback.

The game is made by a little supergroup of indie technical and game design wizards, and their deep appreciation of PC games shines through. Noita feels ancient. Its aesthetic and the lore of its world (with elder gods and a creation myth pitting nature, technology and magic against each other) feel like a natural progression from Quake, Diablo and Nethack. Playing it as intended (rolling a random seed and treating death as final) feels like a ritual – I can’t imagine wanting to save scum it to crudely dissect its mysteries.

Noita is the best PC game of 2019 and it’s not even finished yet. It will of course get overlooked by the PC games press because it’s unapologetically an arcade game, and the current fashion dictates that PC games that are trying to tell pulpy ‘genre’ stories are inherently more ‘worthy’ than mechanically deep games. But it will get its due in time.


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“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
Posted at 18:33 on 17th November 2019 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Maraoke (formerly known as Marioke) video game karaoke songlist – first performed 15/11/2019.

“The Pathfinder Loots Tonite”
– after “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” by R.E.M.

(Heal me, heal me)
(Heal me, heal me)

This here is the place where we will be landing
I’ll be your jumpmaster
We can find a safe zone
Stay in the ring a long, long, long, long time
I’ll try to pick up your banner, fall back, spawn you in once more
Oh oh oh oh oh
If I don’t pick up, pick up
The Pathfinder needs, needs, needs a respawn

Call it when you find a hop-up
Call it when you find a Kraber
Call it when you find a hop-up
Call it when you find a Kraber
Call it when you find a hop-up
Call it when you find a Kraber
Oh

There’s scrubs landing around the SkullTown
And the Market baby, trying to rank up
But this machine is not a target dummy
You can’t win a match without shooting ziplines
Or popping smoke or using your lifelines
Teamwork
When you disconnect, you ass,
and laugh when we were on the verge of winning
That way to play is
Really really really really mean (mean)

Pwning when you find a hop up
Pwning when you find a Kraber
Pwning when you find a hop up
Pwning when you find a Kraber
Pwning when you find a hop up
Pwning when you find a Kraber
Oh

Babe this Mozambique doesn’t really grab me
Today I need a gun with more stop-stopping potential
A cannon or an Flatline please, or – oh yes – R-99
A Peacekeeper, a gold L-STAR, with no heater I’m not much use

Call it when you find a hop-up
Call it when you find a Kraber
Call it when you find a hop-up
Call it when you find a Kraber
Call it when you find a hop-up
Call it when you find a Kraber

The chap with the grap came back,
knocked ’em with a Havoc on the way
Always had a smile and a finisher to end
As he gunned a crap squad down
With little need to wait for his team
The Pathfinder leads the attack

Call it when you find a hop-up
(Call it when you find a Kraber)
Call it when you find a hop-up
Call it when you find a Kraber
I can always use a standard stock
(Or an Alternator) oh

Call it when you find a hop-up
(Call it when you find a Kraber)
Call it when you find a hop-up
(Call it when you find a Kraber)
I can always use a standard stock
(Or a frag grenade, uh) oh

Call it when you find a hop-up
(Call it when you find a Kraber)
I can always use a standard stock
(Call it when you find a Kraber)
I can always use a standard stock
(Call it when you find a Kraber)

We’ve got a newbie, newbie, noob on this squad

More Maraoke songs


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Fixing digital distribution
Posted at 21:56 on 1st May 2019 - permalink

Digital distribution of games (particularly on PC) is a mess. We currently have a situation where buying a PC game from a specific store often ties you into accessing that game through that store’s weird mini-platform, most of which were designed to pretend to be the ubiquitous standard (and stuffed with proprietary junk). To make things worse, ownership rights aren’t handled in the same way by different stores and can be withdrawn without warning. This landscape presents challenges for preservation efforts, and has significant (mostly terrible) implications for discoverability for new games as well.

For the end user this is suboptimal in the same way having the market split between a dozen different instant messaging protocols or sound card specifications was, and as with those situations it does not seem like something that is beyond human ingenuity to solve.

I think the best route out of this quagmire would be to create an open standard for digital game distribution.

For the market to adopt such a standard it would need to deal with all the existing stores’ bad design decisions behind the scenes, so the user simply sees one unified game library, friends list, etc. to manage.

This standard would be defined by a consortium (think CD and DVD) and anyone would be able to apply to use it. As far as developers and consumers are concerned, all stores would behave in the same way. Just as how barcodes and (for the most part) credit cards work seamlessly across all vendors.

The user would download a single client program that has close to zero local configurability or UI (it’s basically a driver – eventually shipping with the operating system like an API or a video codec). All account management and storefront functionality would be handled via the web. (There could be reference version of the account management website but stores and third parties could implement better, more fully-featured alternatives.) The client program would have a plugin architecture to emulate the legacy proprietary features of the different stores (where desirable), as well as offering open alternatives that can be run in parallel (which games would be encouraged to use going forward).

It would still be necessary (at least at first / depending on a given game’s revenue model) for billing transactions to be carried out by the source stores, but account creation could be streamlined.

As with CD/DVD, a suite of technologies need to be developed and brought together for the system to work, including:

1. A standardised production registry

Every unique piece of game software would be given a unique identifier, administered by a body independent from any store. Workable systems like this already exist: e.g., ISBN, Linux packaging schemes, and iOS and Android app standards. This identifier could be unambiguously linked to a specific rights holder.

The metadata would contain no information about the end-user license or revenue model used by the game: this can change over time for a specific game being offered through a specific channel, plus new models may be invented in future. Entries could be created by vendors and nested to allow them to offer bundles of multiple games and/or support materials (bonus materials, DLC, mods, manuals, etc.).

There is no reason that we should assume that an item in this database is a Windows (/Mac/Linux) executable, or even a computer program at all. Any game that can be packaged up as binary file(s) can be administered in this system. For instance, individual ROM images for old console, handheld or arcade games could be sold with the manifest describing the target platform, leaving it up to the store or customer to provide a way of running it (be that emulation, streaming, or the original or recreated hardware). (GOG.com are ahead of the curve here, having sold MS-DOS games bundled with DOSBox for years.) In this way we could finally get away from the holdover from physical retail of ‘retro’ games being sold in bundle packages.

If the system was immediately and obviously successful, there’s no reason that it would be limited to personal computers either – mobile and console platforms could also be supported. I suspect most of the big players are too paranoid about maintaining their walled gardens to fully embrace such a system but stranger things have happened.

If there was no cross-industry effort to develop such a system, I would hope that one company would develop it and (as with the IBM PC, Sound Blaster, the WWW, DirectX – kind of – and various Tesla inventions) open it up to encourage ubiquitous adoption. There is a danger that having one central authority as the de facto standard for recognising authorship could put too much power into one company’s hands. I’m not sure what the best solution would be to this problem – perhaps having several signing authorities that continuously monitor each others’ trust standing.

2. A transaction ledger

Everything I hear about blockchain technology is equally split between assurances that it will solve all human ills, and dire warnings that it’s all a huge con trick.

I don’t know enough about The Blockchain to know whether book-keeping across a diverse ecosystem of vendors would be a suitable (or wise, or practical) application of the technology. Having a fraud-proof way to look up whether a vendor is currently granting a license to a user seems like the sort of thing it’s made for though.

If blockchain tech actually is all an unworkable scam, assume that this will be implemented in an as-yet-uninvented technology, and transactions still live on the individual stores’ systems for now.

3. A brokerage (or several) between creators and stores

During the Macromedia Flash gaming boom (~2005-2012), there was a fantastic website called FlashGameLicense (there is still a site at that domain but it’s owned by an unrelated company now) which made it practically possible for Flash game developers to find commercial sponsors for their work.

It basically worked like an auction site. Sponsors (Flash game portal sites, which at the time attracted vast ad revenue-driving audiences) could bid on games and developers could negotiate deals with one or more of them. It was still of course possible for parties to make deals through private channels, but for the thousands of Flash game developers starting out who didn’t have the knowledge or resources to undertake B2B marketing, it was a godsend.

If all the major stores are compliant to a basic version of an open standard, it becomes much easier for developers to negotiate distribution deals. A developer could negotiate terms (exclusive content? exclusivity? better revenue share? bundling?) with each of the major stores that serve their particular audience, and perhaps set up a standard secondary contract for the hundreds (thousands) of smaller stores targeting specific audiences and territories.

I am sure there are already lots of people at PC publishers, online stores and university start-up incubators toying with these ideas, but even if it really is the best way forward it’s not inevitable that it will just happen. Like Microsoft’s huge effort to align developers and GPU manufacturers behind DirectX, or Apple’s work to get all the major music publishers to get on board with iTunes, it may need a significant amount of focused willpower and resources to get such an initiative to critical mass.


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“Miracles”
Posted at 21:55 on - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke songlist – first performed 18/01/2019.

This has now been performed twice (to my knowledge) and both times introduced as “the worst song on the system” – what can I say, we aim to please. I wrote this because the ridiculous backing track to the Pharaoh’s Code level of Tetris Effect reminded me of the original. If you do pick it, please note that “tetrominos” is assumed to rhyme with “dominoes” with the stress on the first “o”. Good luck.

“Tetrominos”
– after “Miracles” by Insane Clown Posse

We got a theory
Marioke, we got a theory
About stacking … Tetrominos
That’s right, that’s right

If Pajitnov‘s game was never known
Then would any of this have even caught on?
Now I see puzzle gaming every day
But there’s one puzzle game we all play
Pieces landing down from a height

Disappearing in lines if you shuffle ’em right
You don’t get to re-try if you stack ’em too high
And hope long tetrominos soon arrive
Look at the Esses, Zees, Ells Jays and Tees
The little square ones and the long thin ones, please!
Sometimes are … shaped … like gems … or cogs
Don’t need cutscenes or no dialogue
And I’ve played all of one thousand sequels
Including some that weren’t technically legal
Playing Tetris, since we were just kids
Played that shit till I got arthritis

The bus trip to school, or in your cars
We even play at fuckin’ Loading Bars
In your home
Or on your phone
On a Game Boy screen in monochrome
Those other games are derivative
Never won all the gongs Tetris did
Eurogamer, gave it best game
It was kind of a slow year but all the same

Licensed Tetris to a businessman from EA
To make it for a cell phone
That went away
Cuz Tetris is magic, pure and clean
You’ll still see it and hear it but without the screen

(Do you like rotating Tetrominos?)
Tetris is all magic, you can’t even pause it
(Are you placing and dropping Tetrominos?)
It’s just there in the air
(Do you like rotating Tetrominos?)
Pure motherfuckin’ magic
Right?
(Are you placing and dropping Tetrominos?)
This shit’ll blow your motherfuckin’ mind

Tetris that’s a bit like Rez, that’s more appealing
Blocks can fill the room from the floor to the ceiling
Find tetrominos all around me
Put on my VR hat, it’s all astounding

Oughta … try ‘n … be an expert
Fucking T-spins, how to they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a journalist
Y’all rolling eyes and sighing, when playing Tetris

Background effects, and changing weather
Stacking those Tetraminos together
Thank you Enhance, for bringing us this
Colliding planets, and moments of panic
Deep in the ocean or up on a mountainside
Out in space on a satellite
Tetsuya Mizuguchi made Sega Rally
For games we enjoy, he’s still the daddy
Music synchronised with each block you put
And firework displays if you take a look
See eagles soar, the ocean floor

Forests and windmills and several more
The Tetris Company is the corporation
Defend the brand with their litigation
So you can play Alexey’s creation
Sticking to their guidelines without deviation
Zone Mode
Your score is toast
Up on the leaderboard
I don’t mean to a boast
It’s Tetris Effect and there ain’t no way
To ignore synesthesia when you play
In Unreal

(Do you like rotating Tetrominos?)
Graphics everywhere in this bitch
(Are you placing and dropping Tetrominos?)
It’s all around you, you don’t even know it
(Do you like rotating Tetrominos?)
Shit’s crazy
(Are you placing and dropping Tetrominos?)
(All the tetrominos, stack ’em like dominoes)

(Do you like rotating Tetrominos?)
(Do you make lines from Tetrominos?)
(Are you placing and dropping Tetrominos?)
(All the tetrominos, they taste like Domino’s…)

More Marioke songs


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Some games I played in 2018
Posted at 01:12 on 11th January 2019 - permalink

I didn’t play a very wide variety of games last year: it was a pretty moribund year for big releases; most of my gaming time was dominated by three of the games listed below; and I don’t play a lot of new games per year in any case, not being a journalist, IGF judge, student with endless free time or whatever. But here’s a look back at ten memorable ones.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Nintendo Switch’s killer app is the only Zelda game that I’ve completed. It’s not perfect by any means (it’s padded out with too many copy-pasted battles on the overworld and ‘filler’ shrines, some puzzles are absurdly cryptic, there’s little depth in NPC’s stories and quests, and the difficulty scaling is as broken as Oblivion’s), but it shows up every other open world game for not advancing simulation-based gameplay.

Being able to solve problems by exploiting the physical and material properties of the world hasn’t felt so satisfying since the original Deus Ex. The shrines feel in places like the third Portal game we never saw. I assume we’ll be getting another Zelda before the end of the current hardware generation, which will hopefully address the weaknesses.

Fun fact: my run through the game was drawn out by at least a dozen hours by my not finding how to switch the radar back to detecting shrines. I also never used the lock-on and dodge combat moves.

No Man’s Sky Next

I’ve played No Man’s Sky pretty much continuously since launch, and am in the camp that believes that it was a good game even early on. (It’s very obvious looking back that some key features got delayed thanks to external pressure to crowbar in the original ‘Atlas’ quest line to give the game some semblence of a traditional structure.)

For the first month of NMS Next, I got to relive the aggravating “Playstation for Christmas but no memory card” experience, as I waited patiently for Hello Games to fix a bug which was preventing my ancient and bloated save file from loading. But eventually I was up and running again, and able to deep dive into building giant bases, visiting other players’ games and generally living the Gek life.

It feels like there have been some fairly big changes under the hood in Next, heavily optimising world rendering (at the expense of making it feel a little bit flimsier and glitchier) and making the game more modular so subsystems like base building, space stations, NPC structures, exotic worlds and underwater exploration can be fleshed out with loads of new components and creatures.

For a game that was initially criticised for not offering enough to do, it’s been turned around massively. Even now I more often than not encounter something new every session. (For example I recently discovered that crashed freighter missions have been reworked again, and there are loads and loads of exotic planet types now.)

One legacy feature that seems a bit odd now is that there’s such a clear delineation between player bases and NPC structures. I would hazard a guess that a future update will introduce lots more procedural buildings built with the base building kit.

Fun fact: I take lots of NMS screenshots but people were particularly taken with this one for some reason:


Tetris Effect

Eurogamer’s game of the year and quite right too. I can’t believe that people are grumbling about this game having a £34.99 SRP. You wouldn’t complain about a Napoleonic era chess set being “just chess”. The audiovisual experience wouldn’t work nearly as well built around a game that didn’t require full concentration in the way Tetris does. The ‘rap’ on the soundtrack is still completely ridiculous though.

Fun fact: Tetsuya Mizuguchi once blew up BAFTA’s PA system demoing Child of Eden.

Six Match

Aaron Steed has now made two of my favourite indie games: Red Rogue and this, which I dimly recall having seen (then called ‘Mandy Crush’) in the pub a few years back. It’s one of the most elegant puzzle game designs ever and it baffles me that it seems to have been overlooked while some other (pretty but quite pedestrian) mobile puzzlers have enjoyed flavour of the month status.

Six Match is a match-3 game (or ‘swapper’ as games publisher lingo now has it) where you control a character (not unlike Rogue’s @) who moves around the board by swapping with neighbouring pieces. Aside from coloured gems (well, tablets) there are a selection of other special pieces such as skulls, blocks, diamonds, bubbles, wild cards/pineapple rings and two types of bombs, each with their own rules.

The name refers to the fact that the player has exactly six turns (swaps) to make a new line (at which point the counter is reset) or it’s game over. The game’s genius is that it runs through every one of the 4,096 possible moves each turn and then indicates to the player whether they can successfully make a line. In practice, this means that a game that starts out as a fairly casual test of your attention eventually mutates into a fraught inch-by-inch advance through a string of almost Stephen’s Sausage Roll-difficulty puzzles.

There are three small things wrong with it: there’s a very rare bug where it doesn’t always resolve all the lines you’ve made in one pass; the animation of blocks falling eases in and out which isn’t how gravity works; and it’s life-ruiningly addictive. If you have a smartphone, it’s indispensible.

Fun fact: I am currently ranked #2 in the world on Game Center.

The Return of the Obra Dinn

I played through this in a couple of evenings with my flatmate. It works really well as a co-op game as it lets different people focus on different aspects of the mystery: physically investigating the scenes, unraveling character relationships, keeping tabs on the chronological thread of events, etc.

The 1-bit art is amazing, managing to make even complex scenes with many characters, explosions, rain and boiling seas readable, and never allowing the heavy stylisation to become a hindrance. It feels like a true successor to the Infocom games and early turn-based graphic adventures and treats the player like an adult. I’m not sure if I’d personally call it my game of the year but it’s a worthy choice many have made.

Fun fact: Lucas Pope also made the early-ish iOS game Helsing’s Fire. And something called Papers, Please, dunno about that one.

Basingstoke

I was a massive fan of PuppyGames’s Droid Assault way back in 2008, and quite liked Revenge of the Titans. Then they seemed to go quiet for a long time, and it seemed for a while that Basingstoke, their first 3D game, would be trapped in development hell forever. It finally came out last year to resounding indifference from the games media. Which is frustrating, as it’s pretty great.

Basingstoke is a twin stick shooter / adventure / survival roguelike in their signature chunky cartoony style, set in the titular English town after an extra-terrestrial zombie outbreak. With a tip of the hat to Shaun of the Dead it mixes horror with kitchen sink mundanity – as you make your way across town from safehouse to safehouse you’ll scavenge household items and realistic amounts of pocket change, and use an extensive crafting system to make a variety of makeshift weapons like dartguns and flamethrowers.

You can throw sausage rolls as distractions, and even spike them with poison to make zombies vomit. Use fire extinguishers to blind zombies and force them back. You have to constantly worry about being seen and heard, and even the tiddliest enemies can easily swarm and eat you if you let your guard down at the wrong moment.

It’s one of the most stressful games I’ve played for many years – it’s almost too relentless once you’re a few levels in. But if you have decent reflexes and like a challenge it’s worth a punt.

Puyo Puyo Tetris

This game is a few years old but only got a Western release on the Switch relatively recently. For some inexplicable reason the entire story mode is voiced (with the English language actors putting in much more effort than they needed to, really) although annoyingly there’s no Japanese option.

It’s a solid implementation of both Puyo Puyo and Tetris (the latter having rather more responsive controls than Tetris Effect, in fact) but the highlight of the package is the Fusion mode which involves both kinds of playing pieces sharing the same well. This mode is tucked away near the end of the story mode and forces you to throw away your tried and tested strategies.

I have a sinking feeling that it’ll disappear from digital stores once Ubisoft’s distribution rights expire.

Artifact

I have never played any MOBA, or Hearthstone, or Magic The Gathering, so I don’t really have any frame of reference for whether Artifact is a good version of this kind of thing or not, but I’ve enjoyed the few hours I have spent with it. I’m not sure that I have any compulsion to take it up as a hobby as its designers intend. It’s quick to learn and the production values are impressive.

I expect it’s going to go free-to-play soon and many long thinkpieces will be written about how this is a sign that it’s failing to find an audience, as opposed to being a completely routine and intentional stage in the product lifecycle of every online PC game released this decade.

Black Bird

In 2017 I spent most of the Christmas holidays engrossed in Super Mario Odyssey; this year it was Onion Games’s Black Bird. Black Bird is a wrap-around shooter (think Defender or Fantasy Zone) with a Victorian setting (sepia-toned graphics slathered in Irem-esque grit and grime) in which enemy waves spawn in time to the backing music, which is utterly preposterous and incredibly catchy opera with nonsense lyrics.

As the titular Black Bird, hatched from an egg formed from the body of a dead street urchin and sworn to hawk up firey doom on mankind, the player must lay waste to four distinct stages (a village/castle, a forest, a city and a futuristic factory) and fight four multistage bosses.

Completing the game unlocks ‘True Mode’, a harder remix with more enemies and bonuses and weirdness, where you can supposedly unlock lots of different story cutscenes and endings although I’ve not worked out how this system works yet and GameFAQs is disappointingly short of answers as of this writing.

Black Bird is a perfect example of a game that defines a limited scope and then massively over-delivers in polish, room for experimentation and sheer density of ideas within those constraints. It’s the best game opera since Oikospiel.

Fun fact: look out for a quite interesting old interview with the game’s director in the forthcoming Japansoft book from Bitmap Books.

Gris

Right at the end of the year I played Gris (“Greez”), an arty platformer from Spanish microstudio Nomada. Gris has no enemies and a very lightly branching/looping layout. It’s gently interactive, requiring a little bit of platforming competence and rewarding observation. It’s perfectly paced (“huge expanses of just dull running” – John Walker, wrong) and looks and sounds incredible. It reminded me a bit of Gorogoa in its exacting draughtsmanship, and a bit of slightly tacky 1970s European comics in its preoccupation with classical architecture and female statues.

It’s weakness is that it doesn’t have a lot to say or a character to care about, it’s ultimately decorative rather than a fully-rounded experience. It’s still worth playing just to see something so skillfully crafted – in terms of effortless style and cohesiveness it leaves ustwo, Playdead and even the mighty Amanita in the dust. (8/10)


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“Merry Xmas Everybody”
Posted at 20:49 on 23rd December 2018 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke songlist – first performed 14/12/2018.

This is actually the second version of this song on the database. There’s nothing (as far as I know) wrong with the previous version, I just forgot that it had been done before. Both versions can be requested during Marioke Christmas events. (The Christmas songs on the system are not available to request during the rest of the year.)

I’d never really paid attention to the original lyrics before – they’re actually kind of clever, what with the hidden title mention in the chorus and the triple pun in the last verse. Or perhaps listening to it over and over in the process of writing this has done something to my brain. Merry Xmas!

“Merry X͠m̵a̴s Ev̩̯̳̖er̭̝̰̘̮̭ͅỵ̙̼͖̻́b̻̻͇̺͓͜o͖̻͠ḓ̺̙͖ͅy̫̙̞̠”
– after “Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade

Has your character got stuck inside a wall?
Do your goalie’s hands just pass right through the ball?
Do you find you’ve not the same gear
That you had when you last saved?
Do the NPCs keep standing in your way?

Our README lists many glitches
Of which those are only some
Patch them in future, now
It’s only version one

Your companion’s just a floating pair of eyes
You fell through the world and now you’re trapped outside
Did you find the key this lock fits?
Did you lock it in this chest?
Did you shoot the man who sent you on this quest?

We released with many glitches
Of which those are only some
Patch them in future, now
It’s only version one

What are you gonna do? You just keep on buying these buggy Elder Scrolls
A – A – A

Are you firing your shotgun through the wall?
Are you using a cheat code to catch ’em all?
Are you filling your invent’ry
With the duplicates you’ve made
Do you wonder how this made it through QA?

Our README lists many glitches
Of which those are only some
Patch them in future, now
It’s only version one

So here we’ll list many glitches
Of which those are only some
Patch them in future, now
It’s only version one

This game consists of mainly glitches
Shipped out long ‘fore it was done
Who thought releasing now
Was a good decision?

Here’s who it is: Randy Pitchford
And the game is Aliens:
(IT’S PITCHFORD)
Co-lo-ni-al Marines
It isn’t any fun

More Marioke songs


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“Live And Let Die”
Posted at 19:30 on 23rd September 2018 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke songlist – first performed 21/09/2018.

The joke here relies on the knowledge that Capcom originally released Final Fight for the SNES with only two of the three playable characters from the coin-op.

“Eliminate Guy”
– after “Live And Let Die” by Wings

When you’re Capcom, and SNES carts
Sold for 80 bucks
You’d port your games to 16-bit
(You know you did)
(You know you did)
(You know you did)
But when there’s only so much ROM
For them to fit in
They’d still give it a try

Eliminate Guy
(Eliminate Guy)
Eliminate Guy
(Eliminate Guy)

[INSTRUMENTAL]

“Cody and Haggar’ll do, yeah?”
When you hit that launch window, you know it’s gonna sell
They couldn’t fit the other guy as well

[INSTRUMENTAL]

You used to play on 16-bit
(You know you did)
(You know you did)
(You know you did)
But till you sold it us again
With Cody missing
Named it Final Fight Guy

Eliminate Guy
(Eliminate Guy)
Eliminate Guy
(Eliminate Guy)

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Metroid Prime 4: Fantasy Pitch
Posted at 23:14 on 20th August 2018 - permalink

We now know that Metroid Prime 4 is coming at some point in the lifetime of the Nintendo Switch. The as-yet-unannounced developers have big shoes to fill: the interval between Metroid Prime 3 and 4 will be longer even than the one between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime.

While the Switch is a substantially more powerful platform than the Gamecube or Wii, it’s hard to imagine the new game having the same epoch-shattering impact Metroid Prime did in 2002. Now players are spoiled for choice for sprawling, rich fantasy worlds to explore, what can still be done to surprise them?

Even before the announcement, I’d thought a lot over the years about how the Prime series could be revisited in the light of subsequent developments in technology and design trends. While I wait for the call from Shigeru Miyamoto, I’ve jotted some ideas down here.

What works

First off, I don’t think the Prime series needs to dramatically pivot in the way games like Breath of the Wild or Resident Evil 4 called a reset on their respective franchises. The view should still be first person, the world should still be relatively small and dense, and the player character should still be Samus Aran, alone in a remote alien environment with the minimum of friendly NPC encounters.

There are some established expectations of what a Metroid game should be, both thematically and mechanically. Quite a lot of the appeal of the series is that it’s such an out-of-character thing for Nintendo to make. The series’s aesthetic takes cues from Alien as well as pulpy horror comics, and it was successfully marketed to seem timeless and exotic.

From my first glancing encounter with the series (when a school friend bought Super Metroid), I got the impression of being privy to something momentous – the oversized box, and the ponderous (subtitled!) intro sequence, and the promise of a sprawling world all diverging from the console game norms we’d understood up to that point.

When Metroid Prime came along it used the change in viewpoint to really thoroughly explore the feeling of being a foreign entity intruding into a lethally hostile ecosystem with only a thin shell of metal and glass protecting you. (This theme is referenced right away in the electron microscope images on the title screen, and Retro only get more confident from there.)

It went to great pains to not break immersion (only leaving the first person view for brief establishing cutscenes) and constantly used small animations and effects to remind the player that Samus is physically present in the world (from reflections and condensation on the visor, to displaced leaves and pollen, to idle animations such as Samus holding out her palm to feel raindrops).

But we can’t just remake Metroid Prime (although if Nintendo did, I’d definitely buy it). If we’re keeping what works, we need to give Samus a new interesting challenge to face, and new themes to explore.

Themes

Retro Studios already covered a lot of the stock adventure game clichés in their trilogy – ice and lava worlds, light and dark worlds, giving the hero an evil twin and a life-sapping (but ability-granting) curse. But we don’t have to resort to Nintendo’s favoured tactic of coming up with hyper-specific themes (e.g. coffee, emotions, wool, hats) for late entries in a series just yet.

There was a minor enemy in Metroid Prime 2 (the rezbit – used perhaps only once or twice in the whole game) that could attack Samus by crashing her cybernetic suit’s computer, requiring the player to ‘reboot’ it to be able to see again.

A cute throwaway Robocop-esque gimmick, but it made me think that this could be the key to doing something new with Metroid Prime’s situation: have Samus face off against an alien species that can ‘ghost hack’ her suit’s systems. Samus’s suit has always been a dependable constant in the series – having to be wary of it being breached (perhaps having to actively maintain its integrity?) would add a new level of tension.

The player could then use the tools at their disposal (visors, beams and environment traversal) to reveal misleading sensory data, both to find secrets and to advance the game. As the game progresses there would be an escalating arms race in Samus’s puzzle solving ability and the level of cunning used by the enemy to cover their tracks. (This would also provide an excuse if needed to take the adventure to more abstract locations, if the enemy eventually resorts to creating wholly illusory environments – plundering Samus’s memories perhaps?)

It would require some care to stop the unreliable inputs from being frustrating and confusing for the player – perhaps these sequences would be used sparingly and signposted for players paying attention. When designing the puzzles it should also be kept in mind that this isn’t intended to be a ‘sanity’ mechanic as seen in some survival horror games.

(Another somewhat meta idea – which I don’t think Nintendo would allow, sadly – would be for the game to detect when the player is taking screenshots of puzzle solutions etc. and doctoring the screenshot output.)

Beams

It would also be nice to see the game take a more simulation-based approach in the light of Breath of the Wild’s success at giving the player multiple routes to beat many of its puzzles and battles by exploiting the physical properties of objects in the world. A voxel- and material-based environment would open up a huge possibility space for new puzzles and situations. (And because individual rooms tend to be relatively small, a manageable CPU – and QA testing – overhead.)

Using the Switch’s gyro aiming we could finally deliver on the promise of motion controls (which seemed to start to be going somewhere with Half Life 2’s Gravity Gun, and then various Wii and Playstation Move experiments, but of late seems to be confined to VR games like Media Molecule’s Dreams).

The first person view would give us more fine-grained control than the rather clumsy end effectors of the Slate powers in BOTW. Prime 3’s motion control implementation never really got the attention it deserved at the time – early on in the game it tended to be gimmicky but later it allowed for some brilliantly immersive sequences, and would be a good foundation to build upon.

The beams collected over the course of the adventure could open up new systemic ways to manipulate the world, rather than being a red key for red doors.

We could for example have a filament beam that cuts through soft materials but wraps around dense materials, which could be used to build temporary ‘spiderweb’ walkways and barriers, or charge up mechanisms like a whip and top. Coupled with Samus’s locking on and strafing around enemies this could lead to lots of variations on ‘snow speeder vs. AT-AT’ tactics.

Or perhaps a microwave beam that passes through certain materials but heats up or excites (or disintegrates) others? Or a concrete extrusion beam that lets the player fill negative space with expanding foam (a bit like the terrain manipulator in No Man’s Sky), allowing the construction of dams, bridges, keys, traps or other oversized tools by using parts of the environment as moulds. You could even use the other beams to carve up the sculpting material.

The only limitation Metroid Prime’s conventions place on these ideas is that each beam needs to be effective as a weapon as well as a special purpose tool, but this is hardly an insurmountable problem.

Dreams

It would also be important (particularly after such a long hiatus) for the opening stretch of the game to be memorable. Like, Naughty Dog, ‘throwing bushels of money at the screen’ memorable.

Retro Studios stunned naysayers with the extended prologue sequence in Prime 1, and I hardly need to explain the impact of the Super Metroid’s opening, echoed consciously or not in the intros of dozens of indie passion projects two decades later.

It’s probably wildly overindulgent, but the opening I’d pitch for the new game would be to drop straight (cold open) into a hyper-bombastic, over the top ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ action sequence, with a Smash Bros. styled Samus (over the course of a few minutes) crash landing on a weird jungle planet, fighting through a Space Pirate facility/ancient temple, stealing a ludicrously overpowered MacGuffin and escaping as everything collapses and explodes.

Then just as we’ve seemingly confirmed that Nintendo don’t know what to do with Metroid and are making it into a sugary Uncharted-esque action game, we pull back and reveal that everything up to this point has been kid Samus playing at being a bounty hunter.

(I’ve thought of an elegant way to frame this reveal, that would melt a hundred Twitch streamers’ faces off, but this post is getting long enough already.)

In this way the player would be wrong-footed and introduced to the overarching theme of whether they can trust their perceptions. Such a ‘twist’ would of course be spoiled all over the internet within minutes, but collective efforts not to spoil films until they’ve been out for a while, plus the fact that the massive divergence of the modern games audience means even ‘tentpole’ Nintendo releases don’t dominate the conversation for weeks in the way e.g. Halo, Half Life and Quake did, give me some hope that at least some players would want to try to go into the game blind.

The second half of the prologue could then show (through time shifted jump cuts, still under the player’s control) Samus’s origin story more or less as told in the official manga – Space Pirates (led by Ridley) destroy the mining colony where Samus grew up, and she alone is saved by the Chozo and trained and augmented to be a bounty hunter. This could be told with minimal dialogue, and emphasis on the young Samus’s lack of agency being the motivation for hunting the Space Pirates in adulthood. (Yeah, Samus is basically Space Batman.)

The above is perhaps a lot to wade through before we get to the story (and actual peril) ‘proper’, but seeing as the Metroid Prime games have gotten away with the motivation of ‘respond to this distress call’ or similar it could perhaps work. The prologue would be a success if players play through it again after knowing the ‘twist’ to spot details they missed the first time.

The main game world would presumably once again take the ‘Crystal Maze’ approach of a handful of discrete themed zones (with lots of backtracking), and the bump in technology gives us endless possibilities of new things to try here:

1. A zero-G orbital space station that can be reconfigured (perhaps by making improvised hacks using the beam tools) – with lots of morph ball/spider ball exploration.

2. A boss that you have to capture alive, setting up traps and constructions in the surrounding area to lead it to a containment pit.

3. More and richer organic environments in general. Even with the rudimentary technology of the time these were by far the most visually interesting parts of the original trilogy. Let’s see jungles, coral reefs and cave networks.

So that would be my approach, or at least the equipment I’d pack and the bearings I’d set off to follow: a more simulation-based (and probably less relentlessly combat focused – easing off on the Chozo ghosts and boss bottlenecks at least), reality-bending 2019 retooling of the Prime trilogy.

It would also be vitally important (and here I hope the real Metroid Prime 4 devs agree) to have distinctive art direction, from someone of the calibre of Andrew Jones or Kenneth Scott. The Switch hardware may preclude the game from being as technically mindblowing as the likes of Horizon Zero Dawn, but the art style should at least be immediately recognisable even from screenshots.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, I hope we’re not going to be seeing a return of the voiced NPCs / cowering scientists / comic relief rival bounty hunters from Prime 3. I skimmed some Let’s Plays to refresh my memory when writing this and I’d forgotten just how horrendously they shatter the mysterious tone of the series up to that point.


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“Kiss From A Rose”
Posted at 17:14 on 12th August 2018 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke songlist – first performed by Beck Michalak on 10/08/2018.

The version live on the system has a couple of line edits to better fit the tricky timing of the verses. Altered Beast is a bad game.

“Altered Beast”
– after “Kiss From A Rose” by Seal

They may have said in Sega Power it’s not very deep
You’d complain, but why when you got it for free
Ugly game, we’d shrug but they’re buying it still
And yeah we know, uh that it blows
Those sprites were so large of a size that we had rarely seen

Sega! You transformed me to a beast when I rose from the grave
Ooh, the more I play of you the stranger it feels, yeah
Now that you rose from your tomb
“Welcome to your doom” I will say

There are so many things you can turn into, the longer you play
You became a tiger, a dragon, a bear
Hades has cursed me with a strange affliction so I’ll never die
Won’t you drop a glowing health for me?
With one of those, yeah then I’ll grow
My thighs become large and I’ll piledrive you right off the screen

Sega! You transformed me to a beast when I rose from the grave
Ooh, the more I play of you the stranger it feels, yeah (yeah)
Now that you rose from your tomb
“Welcome to your doom” I will say

[BREAK]

Altered Beast when you rose from your grave
Altered Beast when you rose from your grave
And if I should fall please insert coin to play
Altered Beast when you rose from your grave

The Mega Drive should be remembered for much better games
You can play my Harrier, my Hedgehog, my Rage
To me the sequel to Shinobi, even, was a better buy
At least then you can be stealthy baby
But to dethrone Mario
This guy’s their best chance until Sonic arrives on the scene

Sega! You transformed me to a beast when I rose from the grave
Ooh, the more I play of you the stranger it feels, yeah
Now that you rose from your tomb
“Welcome to your doom” I will say

Sega! You transformed me to a beast when I rose from the grave
Ooh, the more I play of you the stranger it feels, yeah
Now that you rose from your tomb
“Welcome to your doom” I will say

Now that you rose from your tomb
“Welcome to your doom” I will say

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“If I Could Turn Back Time”
Posted at 18:06 on 14th July 2018 - permalink

My latest contribution to the Marioke video game karaoke songlist – first performed by Viv Schwarz on 13/07/2018.

“If I Could Turn Back Time”
– after “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Diane Warren) as recorded by Cher

If I could turn back time
If I could climb that way
Then your platforming nerves would desert you
And you’d play

I don’t know where they’ve got the princess hid
I don’t know why the Vizier wants me dead
I’ve got this knife that can make time rewind
Guards have got weapons, they wound sometimes

I just pressed X instead of circle
Rewind and have another go
I know with one more try, oh baby

If I could turn back time
If I could climb that way
Then your platforming nerves would desert you
And you’d play

If I could swing from bars
Ledge grab and wall jump too
Then you’d load me, load me, on your PS2
(If I could turn back time)

My bones were shattered I was torn apart
But I’ve a magic knife and now I’m
Back at the start
Ubi made three more, got bored and then didn’t care
Now they just put Assassin’s Creed everywhere

Nobody else used this mechanic
At least until Braid came along
Reboot me one more time, and darling

If I could turn back time
If I could climb that way
Then your platforming nerves would desert you
And you’d play

My movie needs a star
Jake Gyllenhall will do
Earned back money, money, don’t read the reviews

If I could turn back time (If I could turn back time)
If I could turn back time (If I could turn back time)
IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME! OH! BABY!

We know that you made Karateka
The Last Express was good, I know
We want the Persian guy (but oh)

If I could turn back time
If I could climb that way
Then your platforming nerves would desert you

If I could reach those bars
And not fall to my doom
Then you’d love me, love me, like on Apple ][

If I could turn back time (turn back time)
If I could climb that way (climb that way)
Then maybe maybe maybe you’d play

More Marioke songs


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Are Valve the baddies?
Posted at 23:27 on 9th June 2018 - permalink

Valve have made an announcement about their review policy for the Steam store.

This has resulted in several extremely angry editorials from the games press, who have (perhaps reasonably) interpreted this to mean that Valve intend to take an almost completely hands-off approach to moderating their platform, in the style of leading internet hellholes Reddit or YouTube.

Some developers have tabled the contrasting view that censorship inherently chills creative expression – it shouldn’t have ever been Walmart’s job to be the morality police when it comes to stocking games and the same principle applies here. (For the benefit of the terrifying number of journos who’ve seemingly never questioned this: The present situation where a narrow band of subject matter is seen as safe for mainstream titles isn’t simply down to developers being unimaginative, or the whims of the free market, so much as to the 1990s US industry collectively deciding to shut any remotely challenging ‘adult’ content out of retail stores to avoid statutory regulation. The Comics Code, basically.)

This is a complicated topic. I think that Steam should exist as a pipeline – a thin layer of technology facilitating billing and distribution that can be freely used by anyone within the bounds of the law and societal norms. I don’t think the Steam store (versus local library management tools etc.) should exist in a weird proprietary client, and the front page of the store should be massively deprioritised as an entry point / bottleneck into their catalogue. As such, removing any part of the system that’s geared towards Steam acting as a gatekeeper or destination in its own right is a positive step.

On the other hand, we have to weigh up the reality that Steam is a monopoly, and as such shoulders a social responsibility beyond that which might apply for a smaller service provider in a truly competitive market. Its every action (or inaction) can have unforeseen and serious repercussions. Shrugging and pointing out that technically they’re not to blame when kids are exposed to bigotry through their store is a weak excuse. (YouTube could do well to learn this lesson also.)

The maddeningly ill-defined rejection criteria of anything “illegal or straight up trolling” should cover a lot of the indefensible stuff that certain journalists have assumed Valve must now endorse (and early indications are positive).

Valve’s best course of action would be to acknowledge the negative reaction to their announcement and publish a revised and clearer policy. I don’t think (mostly) recusing themselves from the content review process is going to cause their store to descend into chaos overnight, and changes to how content is organised and filtered should be in place well before that. It would be foolish to believe a company automatically endorses the message of every product they sell in their store.

Bonus miscellaneous observations:

Valve are really bad at communicating.

It would be hard to imagine Microsoft, Google, Apple or any other billion dollar tech company making such an important announcement in such vague, informal language.

Making an equivalence between the harm caused by hate speech being targeted at a vulnerable group and the ‘harm’ (mild petulant annoyance) experienced by a bored kid on seeing “shovelware” sullying the shelves of ‘their’ store is astoundingly tone deaf. The latter concern doesn’t warrant serious attention and should have been left out of this blog post.

Valve as an organisation seem to have never developed the skills at dealing with the disparate needs of their player community. They will always advocate an engineering solution first (here hinting at a keyword tagging system to automate content filtering) rather than taking the scarier, messier approach of reaching out to their users and trying to intelligently determine what would make the most positive difference. Harm being caused in society at large by hateful material being normalised won’t show up on a sales chart.

Some people have a really weird idea of what getting a game onto Steam should mean.

Steam has been around a long time, but Valve ran it as a distribution platform – to put this, uh, diplomatically – very very very suboptimally for most of its life to date, leading to the widespread misconception that having a game grace their store shelves should be some kind of exceptional value judgement, rather than something that happened infrequently because their process was terrible.

Steam is a shop, like Amazon. It has unlimited shelf space. A creator having their work accepted onto it should be the norm, not the exception. The situation where any game that was added to its catalogue was given a period of exposure (free marketing) by dint of how slowly new content was ingested by Valve was a temporary quirk, not a right every game released was entitled to forevermore.

As with the iOS App Store (or Amazon, or the PC ecosystem in general), a rising tide of low quality / uninteresting content will never overwhelm the attention available for good quality content. Distrust anyone who tries to make you angry about this imaginary boogeyman. Making and selling games is being democratised and not everything has to appeal to every player or gauge its success by the same criteria any more.

Valve’s monopoly is the problem, not how they choose to govern it.

The games press and community have a feudal mindset, quickly and eagerly pledging fealty to any corporate overlord who offers them even a scrap of comfort and convenience. Many gamers still view Nintendo’s grossly anticompetitive 1980s business practices as a noble effort to fend off the spectre of a Second Video Game Crash. Xbox Live is regarded as a bold innovation, rather than as a vendor lock in strategy that has resulted in console online services still not interoperating nearly two decades later. So of course because Steam is convenient and ubiquitous, it must be benevolent and there’s no reason to question its market dominance.

We should be asking why one company is getting to decide what gets to be commercially viable on the PC rather than petitioning them to build taller walls around their garden. Applying the ultra-strict App Store / Google Play / XBL / PSN etc. review policies to the PC would be unworkable in any case – the PC is a much too broad and adaptable a platform for a one-size-fits-all policy.

While Steam has no serious competition, Valve will be slow to fix the (many) things wrong with it. I don’t think anything is going to directly usurp Steam any time soon, but it would be nice to see other stores become established with a more narrow focus, much as Netflix, BBC, HBO etc. offer different kinds of experiences. Buy more games on itch.io, Kartridge, etc. and politely ask your favourite PC developers that only sell through Steam to offer their games elsewhere too.


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