Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Edition

I don’t want to go into the same amount of detail with this one as I usually do, seeing as it’s not particularly new or old enough to be considered a classic. I’m just a little late to the PS3 party. Nonetheless I’ll share a few quick opinions, seeing as this is a play ‘diary’ after all. Rather than doing the usual staggered posts as I progress, I decided to just finish the game and do an overall conclusion of the entire experience.

I enjoyed the game on the whole, mostly down to its lush tropical visuals and generally sturdy gameplay. It had some memorable moments, particularly scaling a giant concrete wall hundreds of feat above the ocean and some fun vehicle levels. But what stops it from being special is just how generic everything is. Its puzzles and environments are fine, but lack the beauty and attention to detail found in Ico. Its gunplay and hand to hand combat is in working order, but without the satisfaction and intensity of Gears of War. That doesn’t make it a bad or boring game, but I certainly didn’t feel like I got anything out of it by the end.

I think it needed a better art direction to set it apart. Looking at the early concept art found in the ‘Bonus’ section of the game, early character models of Nathan Drake and his enemies are cartoony, with exaggerated features more in kin with Naughty Dog’s previous outings in the Jak and Daxter series. I think this visual approach would have given it some much needed character, rather than the bland ‘uncanny valley’ it sits in now, though I guess Sony was in need of a showcase for their console’s graphical potential. I also would have liked more emphasis on exploration rather than combat, and perhaps some more creative uses of the environment other than simply climbing, leaping and swinging. Maybe some water rapids and even bungee jumping and hang gliding sections to add variety.

A solid game and a great introduction to the PlayStation 3’s capabilities, but an essentially familiar and forgettable experience in the long term. This is Naughty Dog’s franchise for this console generation, the same as Jak and Crash were to previous generations of the PlayStation, and they’re no strangers to change. Just look at the difference between Jak and Daxter and Jak II: Revenge. This gives me hope that they’ll achieve something new in the sequel. They’re certainly a very talented and creative team of people, so I have every confidence they won’t disappoint.

Expect a few more of last years PS3 titles to get a brief word in the coming weeks.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Learning to See through GDC

This years Games Developers Conference has brought up a number of points and announcements that have grabbed people’s attention, but what makes it different from previous shows is that most came from the independent scene rather than the big hitters. This year’s IGF was a showcase for one of the best year’s indie gaming has had, and it seems like many people came away a little shocked by how much it engrossed them. It’s also given birth to a war between indies and triple-A developers and publishers, with many big titles seeing criticism for a lack of innovation and imagination. Jeff Green summed up what many people thought when he stated on the 1upShow, “I was thinking about [indie games like AudioSurf] and comparing it to Epic’s fucking cube of meat, you know, that’s what’s important to them.” It’s a great point that I agree with fully, and in many ways makes the likes of Epic Games look a bit ridiculous. I guess when you think about it, why on earth should anybody get excited over a shiny cube of flesh and some updated water effects when the likes of Fez and World of Goo were on display? It makes me grow sceptical over whether triple-A teams really know what they’re doing and what people want to see. After going through a lot of videos and articles written from the conference, I personally came away thinking Cliffy B is a bit of a clown. He takes to the stage wielding a chainsaw and announces he’s going to make more of the same as last time, expecting me to feel excited about that. Instead it reinforced how titles like Gears of War are the game world’s equivalent of McDonalds. It’s just not the right approach, and that becomes blatantly apparent when a side by side comparison is made between the two opposites of game development.

“I think the big boys should be ashamed right now”, claimed Phil Fish, creator of Fez. He explains how a team of dozens are recruited in the making of a big budget DS game, but the finished product is rarely anywhere near as good as indie games made by one person with no money at all. The traditional system of development just doesn’t seem to be working. One reason may be the dilution of enthusiasm as a team grows in size. A team of fifty working on a title that a publisher has recruited them to work on aren’t going to feel the same passion as an individual programmer building his own personal idea in his free time, and the difference shows in quality. During the ‘Developer’s Rant’ section of the conference, Clint Hocking, Creative Director of Far Cry 2, spoke out about the lack of new ideas in mainstream game development. He used popular independent titles as examples of how emotions can be achieved through game design, “Here’s a game that made me cry [showing Passage]. Here’s a game that means something [showing The Marriage].” He summed up his frustrations by claiming, “Dude, it’s code. We can do anything.”

Another important announcement at the conference was that from Microsoft, who will soon be allowing user created games from XNA available to normal Xbox Live account holders to purchase. Nintendo’s WiiWare service is aimed at a similar user base of individual game designers looking for a place to gain attention. Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network have brought huge amounts of attention to independent designers already, most noticeably Jonathan Mak (Everyday Shooter) and Jonathan Blow (for the upcoming Braid). With the changes to XNA and the dawn of WiiWare, that attention will only grow. It also appears to be an attractive alternative for previous big-budget developers. God of War creator David Jaffe took some time out to release Calling All Cars! on PSN last year, and GDC revealed Frontier Development's founder David Braben to be making LostWinds for WiiWare alongside his big-budget release of The Outsider. This brings forth the possibility of a shift in priorities for game development, with small scale releases not only being cost effective and quick to build, but also a more attractive proposition for the creatively minded to try out new ideas. Whether independent games become the new focus or not, you can count that it won’t just be the triple-A releases dominating the headlines this year. Now could be seen as the birth of a ‘golden era’ for indie game development, and it would be foolish not to get in on the action.

For all the latest news on the world of independent games, be sure to add TIGSource and the IndieGames Weblog to your favourites, and why not check out the winners and runner ups of this years IGF. Some titles are available now and free to download.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Refinement is Futile

With the recent release of No More Heroes, a reoccurring thought entered my mind yet again. In general, the game faired well critically, if not so well financially, but there are still a number of journalists and gamers who found too much fault with the game to properly appreciate and enjoy it. The same can be said of the reception of Killer7. As stylistically powerful as the games was, it suffered somewhat when it came to the gameplay which put a lot of people off. It got me thinking, when a developer makes something new and unique, creating gameplay mechanics that are dissimilar to anything released before it, does it really stand a chance of holding up quality wise to games that follow in the tradition of the well trodden path?

Take the first-person shooter genre for example. It’s gone through minimal design changes in over fifteen years, yet is perhaps the most popular genre of videogame today, and has provided us with some of last years greatest games, including Halo 3, BioShock, The Orange Box and Call of Duty 4. It’s down to refinement. There may not be too much structural difference between Doom and Half-Life 2, but to gamers they’re opposite ends of the spectrum. If Doom was the blueprint, then HL2 is the finished construction. Fifteen years of tweaking and small scale innovation to get to what most people cite as some of the best games on the market.

So how is a No More Heroes, a Psychonauts, an Indigo Prophesy or a Shadow of the Colossus meant to compete in terms of quality? The focus of those games is unique and fresh from the developer’s mind, but they’re essentially just laying the foundations for others to take the idea and refine it over years and years of development, game after game. But the initial idea never sells, and the foundations are abandoned due to the lack of an audience. How will anything new truly take off if it’s never built upon from the original blueprint?

One recent success story would be that of the music rhythm genre, more precisely the success of Harmonix. Since their debut in 2001 with the well received FreQuency, Harmonix had repeatedly tackled the music rhythm genre to no avail, from titles such as Amplitude in 2003 through to Karaoke Revolution Party in 2005. Yet eventually they hit upon the idea of Guitar Hero, and have since gone on to become one of the most popular studios around as can be seen in the continuous success of the Guitar Hero franchise and the more recent Rock Band. It took four years worth of development time to finally get to something high in quality, and it was rewarded substantially in sales.

Rez arguably provides a good exception to this argument. Mizuguchi hadn’t really tackled anything along the lines of Rez before in his career, yet finished up with a product that cannot be faulted in its design, despite the poor sales it received, though these ‘nailed it first time’ instances are rare. Killer7 was met with control issues, Shadow of the Colossus with camera problems, Indigo Prophesy with a story that trailed off into confusion at the end, Psychonauts with erratic changes in difficulty. All had a great idea as its central vision, but all left much room for improvement, room that publishers now see as too risky to fill.

It’s an issue that will rarely be resolved. When a team makes something new, they have no previous examples to build off from, unlike the FPS world where innovative features (such as Halo’s recharging health system) can be widely adopted as the new standard, meaning improvements in all future similar titles. Goichi Suda didn’t have that comfort when writing up Killer7, and nor did Shinji Mikami when building P.N.03, or Fumito Ueda when conceptualizing Ico. Some designers get lucky enough to repeatedly tackle their vision – I’m sure Suda 51 will one day get his gameplay mechanics to the same level as his visual execution, but until then, he and everybody similar will just have to hope that publishers keep their faith, and give them the opportunity to evolve their vision into something that stands up to the same high standards found elsewhere in accomplished ground.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Joining the Dark Side

Today marks a significant day in my gamer diary. Along with my birthday comes a PlayStation 3, a console I mocked just a year ago, before it turned into the most desirable piece of kit on the market. Uncharted and Warhawk came with the console, and I’ve got Ratchet, MotorStorm and Resistance on unlimited rental. Uncharted unsurprisingly makes for the highest priority on the list, as does downloading Everyday Shooter from PSN once I’ve got it hooked up online. It’s everything I expected it to be. It’s sleek, it’s silent, it’s got ‘the future’ written all over it, its hideously ugly and indescribably beautiful at the same time…it’s Sony’s old black box of love and hate.

It only occurred to me just the other night what I’ve now got to look forwards too, essentially all the games I previously gazed at enviously while feeling I was in some way handicapped due to not being able to play, but how things have changed. The collective hype of MGS4, GT5, LittleBigPlanet and ‘The Next Project from Team Ico’ has hit me all on the same day and swept me off my feet. I am a happier man because of it. Here’s to consumerism!

Monday, 18 February 2008

Digital Auteurs - Goichi Suda

“It’s always important to remember the truth that games are not always about technology.”

Goichi Suda is currently enjoying one of the high points of his career, having just released No More Heroes for the Wii to critical acclaim from fans and newcomers alike. Suda 51, as he likes to be called, has always stood out as a developer with a difference, a man who approaches game design more in the vain of a film director than a programmer. As such his company, Grasshopper Manufacture (GHM), is home to a collection of titles that, although ranging in quality, are consistent in their visual design and experimental gameplay features.

First starting work on the Super Fire Pro Wrestling series during the SNES era, he first got to show his writing talent in the Twilight Syndrome series on PSOne, before founding GHM and releasing their debut title in 1999, The Silver Case. This game marked the birth of the cel-shaded style that’s still used today by the studio. The semi-sequel, Flower, Sun and Rain, delved into one of Suda’s favored theme of insanity as its lead character finds himself trapped in a ‘Groundhog Day’ style time loop. Suda’s big break arguably came with the later release of Killer7 on the GameCube and PlayStation 2 in 2005. Overseen by the acclaimed Shinji Mikami, Goichi created a visually striking tale of death and DID which marked the Western world’s introduction to GHM, becoming an underground hit.

Grasshopper has always had a tendency to work on outsourced material. “In order to create original titles, we must first earn enough money by creating titles for other companies”, explains Suda, and even so those games rarely get away without being touched by the Grasshopper ideology, as can be seen in games such as Samurai Champloo and BLOOD+: One Night Kiss. Perhaps the leading factor as to why GHM so often needs to work on other licenses is down to its poor track record of sales. Often ignored in Japan, Suda has found a small cult following in the West which he hopes to capitalize on by focusing on hardcore games for the wide Xbox 360 audience, though without loosing his trademark style, “Grasshopper is indeed about a very special visual touch. This originality will always remain, but I also want us to challenge ourselves by working at making realistic visuals as well.”

The future looks busy for Goichi and his 50 strong “band” of developers. Next on the horizon is the fourth title in the Fatal Frame (aka Project Zero) series, with a Kafka inspired PS3 game and two collaborations with both Hideo Kojima and Shinji Mikami rumored to be active in the coming years. He’s also re-releasing several of his early works on the Nintendo DS for new fans to experience. It’s likely we’ll be seeing a No More Heroes sequel too, though not necessarily on the Wii, a target Suda has often been unable to achieve, “I’m always thinking about making sequels actually, but that’s always been difficult in the past because I keep killing off the lead.”

Suda 51 is a rare breed of designer. He may receive criticism on the final quality of his games playability, but that’s not in the least surprising when you consider how differentially his games play to those around him. It’s always refreshing to have a man working in the industry that understands game culture and takes advantage of the history and humour that’s found in its history. Modern trends and console battles are invisible to him. The only thing that matters is whether the game is actually fun to play.

“What's most important is after you finish playing the game, you walk away feeling lucky to have played it.”

Saturday, 16 February 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Silent Hill 2 Edition

I’ve always tried to make room for old releases in my tight gaming schedule, a rule I often ignore. I’ve never known why it always was the way that the new always seemed far more worth my time than the old, and why it only seemed to apply to videogames. The thing is, when I sit down to play a game, I want it to be a good game that provides me with a memorable and satisfying experience, so why is it that I struggle so hard to shun ‘latest generic space-marine FPS ‘ to the side and pick up a classic that I missed first time round? Well, I want that to change, and Silent Hill 2 has always been a game I’ve read enough about to write a book on it, but never actually experienced it first hand. I picked up the limited edition (unfortunately not the ‘director’s cut’) for peanuts last weekend in the second hand section of the local game store, so now it’s time to start a trend of catching up with what I’ve missed. It’s also worth saying that this is my first Silent Hill, and one of my first survival horror experiences outside of Condemned and various demos.

Currently I’m only about two hours in, having just left the apartment block to enter…an apartment block. What’s grabbed me so far? The sound, both diegetic and non, is fantastic. BioShock may have somewhat surpassed it, but it’s still the main source of scaring me so far. That may be saying more if the enemies I’ve encountered as of present weren’t so…lazy. The mannequins are disturbing when they turn up through the darkness at the end of a corridor, but they hardly pose a threat. As for the gargling corpses that stagger towards you so hopelessly before diving to the floor and crawling away, well I just kinda feel sorry for them. But don’t get me wrong, I’m expecting this game to terrify the crap out of me before its closure, and whole point of these ‘diaries’ is to document by feelings at different stages of completion to see how my views evolve throughout the hours of play.

Other noticeable things include my first encounter with Pyramid Head. From what I understand, he’s apparently a very interesting character, and judging by how many party costumes I’ve seen based on him I can only assume I won’t forget him in a hurry. I’ve also grown fond of the strange static effect that is forever smothering the screen. It makes things just that little bit creepier, and also somewhat covers up the fact that it’s an old PS2 game and hence isn’t much of a looker compared to what I’m used to. Nonetheless I’m on the verge of becoming hooked. I’ve also grown fond of the idea of playing through a stack of classic horror games and comparing the lot for chills, but it’s a busy year already so I’ll have to see. More impressions in the coming days.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Gates of Lucidium

One thing that videogames will always be able to do better than any other medium is exploration, giving the player full control in a world built for their interactivity. It’s one of the things I enjoy most in games, the feeling of walking into the unknown, anticipating what’s waiting for you around the next corner. However I think it’s a rare occurrence, and I often get the impression that designers don’t think the act of exploration in itself is enough to base a game around. Hence it becomes a single, smaller element to a game, with the likes of combat and puzzle solving interrupting to mix things up and give the player some more purpose. I often believe the game could be improved if it did away with these extra elements. Take Ico for example. Exploring and guiding Yorda through the game’s beautiful castle is considered one of the mediums most memorable and touching experiences. However I felt a growing annoyance every time the shadow monsters emerged from the ground to take Yorda away from me, not least because it occasionally became frustratingly hard to fend the shadows off, but for me it ruined the peaceful and isolated atmosphere of the castle and led to repetition. I think the castle itself would have provided enough on its own to make the game great. Take away the comfort of combat and designers will have to carve a more compelling game world to keep the player engrossed. I struggle to find examples of games that have taken this approach, but I really want there to be one.

Perhaps one solid reason why designers don’t seem to think this approach would be a good idea is down to how unoriginal game worlds are these days. Imagination always seems to be constrained, and in the end every game environment tends to be not too dissimilar from the real world. This just isn’t making the most of videogames potential and its freedom of design. Take some of the most loved environments in recent years, Half-Life 2’s City 17, BioShock’s Rapture, Ico’s castle, and notice how all of them choose to follow similar rules that apply to reality. I’ve never understood why designers can’t break away and do something truly unique. Take a look at Stage 5 in Rez. It’s a visually stunning experience, with gameplay incomparable with anything else, and almost nothing in its world sharing any resemberlance to our own. There’s no gravity, environments shift from one opposite to the next, pulsing around you before morphing and collapsing in on themselves, enemies who are incomparable to any of Earth’s creatures, and a continually shifting pace. Designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi put no limits on his imagination, and came up with something that nobody else would have thought of before. In contrast, there’s almost nothing in The Elder Scrolls IV that I couldn’t have predicted from the box art.

A source of inspiration I’ve always thought overlooked is that of lucid dreams. For those who don’t know, I suggest you take a quick peak at the wiki page, which proberbly explains it a lot better than I could, but essentially they’re dreams where you’re aware of them being so, and have total control over what happens within them. It’s virtually impossible to build a game that gives the player total control over what the game is about, but I think the kind of individual environments and unique situations found in dreams provides great source material for building an original world intended to be explored. Psychonauts was marginally inspired by this concept, and it shows in how each level shared no environmental similarities to the previous and adopted a completely different set of gameplay rules each time. If this unpredictability can be expanded and shaped into a large, possibly open world game, things can start to get interesting. The unreleased indie MMO Lila Dreams is set inside the head of an eleven year old girl. From that one fact I’m already ten times interested in its world than I would be in the locations of a World of Warcraft sequel. It’s new, it’s completely unpredictable as to what it might contain, and it makes for a damn intriguing setting that I’m already dying to explore.

Of course it isn’t necessary that every game be conceived in a world unlike anything we’ve dreamed of before, as exciting as that would be. Sometimes a world just needs a little twist to make it worthy of a player’s time. I recently commented on the world of Paradise City in the latest Burnout game, concluding that the setting just doesn’t make for an interesting automotive playground because it’s too hooked on realism. The Burnout ideology is anything but realistic, and it would have helped if the world had been inspired by this attitude, of which I provided some ideas at the end of the original comment. But instead of making something unique and outrageous, the designers played it safe and built a lifeless clone of a typical American city. I cannot understand why they’d choose this when it’s such a juxtaposition to everything their franchise stands for. In the end, this is a post asking for a little more imagination. Unlike building a film set, a game set has virtually no limits in what shape it can take, so why settle for something so standard and familiar when near infinite possibilities and ideas remain virtually untapped inside our own minds.

Friday, 8 February 2008

The Art of Downsizing

‘Bigger is better’ could be an unwritten law of videogame design. When a sequel is announced it’s expected to improve on its predecessor, and along with gameplay refinements and a higher texture count, a larger world is always expected. Modern videogames are set in substantially bigger worlds than they ever used to be, at least in terms of the three dimensional era. An open-world game will often brag on the back of the box of how many square-kilometres it gives you. The term ‘open-world game’ has almost become a genre in its own right. The possibilities the player can have inside these sprawling cities or kingdoms is often daunting, promising to provide the illusion of a living world, enabling the player to interact as freely as they want. But I often get the feeling that the greater the game space is in scale, the more at risk it is of being diluted of entertainment.

I like the appeal of a small game. I think they can lead to a greater sense of involvement, and require more innovative gameplay design from the developers to keep them interesting. One of the best examples of what I’m hinting at is LucasArt’s ‘The Day of the Tentacle’, released in 1993 from the untamed minds of Tim Schafer and David Grossman. For those unfamiliar, the game is a classic point-and-click adventure title set in a single hotel-mansion, albeit a mansion crossing three different time periods you flick back and forth from at will. Still, the game space was small, but the possibilities were huge. I spent countless hours wondering through and around the building, and it remains amongst my favourite ‘game places’ to this day. What made it work? The characters within it were exceptional, from George Washington to Green the talking teenage tentacle. It’s collection of freaks, manic-depressants, slackers and inventors made the place completely believable.

It was also in the details. For a world to feel ‘living’ it needs to feel ‘lived in’, and posters on walls, pancakes stuck on ceilings, quarters left in broken telephone boxes and stains left on carpets accomplish this far more than a legion of nameless NPC’s walking around aimlessly ever will. The more packed with smaller details an environment is, the greater we should be able to identify with it, and the more satisfaction we’ll proberbly receive from exploring it. There is more back-story in the things scattered around my computer desk than there is to be found in the entirety of ‘Saint’s Row’s’ city of Stilwater. Another name given to these games is ‘sandbox’, a term made to describe a game where the player has access to a number of ‘toys’ in a confined space, but actually these game worlds could often be better compared to playing paintball in a desert.

Another good example would be ‘The Sims’. The hours upon hours I would spend tending to a single sim living in a tiny three-room bungalow is testament to what a real ‘sandbox’ game should be. Why was ‘The Sims’ so captivating and addictive to so many? Maybe it was down to the fact that everything in the environment was built, bought, chosen and placed there by you. Objects had a history, like the big TV you bought when Dave finally got that promotion bonus, that cheap cooker in the corner of the kitchen that set fire and burnt to death the woman you had him commit to marrying for so long, or the gravestone amongst the trees outside where her body now lay. Will Wright proved to designers that size really doesn’t matter when creating a world of depth and belonging.

So I ask for a change of environmental approach. ‘The Elder Scrolls IV’ was a brilliant game, but I found ‘Psychonaut’s’ Psychic Summer Camp far more memorable than Cyrodiil, a trashy house in ‘The Sims’ far more captivating than the triple cities within ‘Assassin’s Creed’, as beautiful as they were. Technology is always advancing, making possible the likes of ‘Mass Effect’ and ‘Crackdown’, but why jump to the large when there’s so much left to explore in the small?

The Pixel Diaries - Devil May Cry 4 Edition

The Devil May Cry series is generally alien to me. I picked up the first game for a fiver second hand a couple of years ago, and had proceeded no more than around two hours into it before I hit a brick wall and had to bail out. I just don’t do hard games, and Capcom make a lot of them (I never finished Dead Rising or Lost Planet either – guess why?) But for some strange reason I bought a copy of this, partly because I heard they brought down the difficulty for newcomers like myself, and partly because I always felt like I was missing out on something really great.

I’ve only played for around an hour or two, with three missions under my belt. So far it’s been very straight forwards and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen. I’m waiting for the time when I can really start upgrading my abilities and weapons, the key that unlocks the fighting system that really makes the series what it is. The visuals have so far been very stunning. I’ve always appreciated its gothic art style, and it looks better here than ever before. The music isn’t all that bad either, with some thoughtfully placed and quite beautiful classical vocal pieces creating a nice juxtaposition against the action.

The only bad things so far are the occasionally flawed camera placements and those damn cutscenes. There’s an awful lot of them, and don’t get me wrong, they’re amongst the most ‘film-like’ cutscenes I’ve ever seen, but I often feel that they’re playing out sections which could (and should) be under player control. Watching Nero throw around scarecrows a dozen a time is quite a thrill to watch, but I’m often left thinking if the game will save some for me.

Nonetheless, this is the best I’ve felt playing a Devil May Cry before, and I’m actually quite interested in where the story will go (though I heard the final hours are a let down). I’ll come back to this when around half way through the game, or when I get dead stuck, to post some more detailed impressions on the deepening combat system. I’m getting a clear feeling that this is sure to be the game of the month already. Oh and one final thing, whether the game proves to be great or not, one thing for sure is that the limited edition version wins the award for best box art and packaging. It deserves to be framed.

Update, 14th February 2008

I've been chipping away at this quite slowly over the last few days, to the disappointment of a gamer friend who is nearing his third play through, but it's not to do with me disliking the game, or even the game being much of a challenge (on Human difficulty at least). I just tend to fill satisfied after completing a single level, which tends to take half an hour, and following it up with another level just seems exhausting. Nonetheless I'm on the final stretch, playing as Dante, around level thirteen of twenty.

As a newcomer, I've gradually pieced each element of the fighting system together bit by bit, taking time out in a quiet and spacious corner of a forest to run through the combos till I'm comfortable with pulling each one of with ease. I'm not raking in any spectacular combos, typically finishing each level with a B-grade, but I've only died once, and that was during a secret mission. Progress has been swift and I've really caught onto the gameplay a lot more than I ever thought I would have. For every new upgrade or ability learnt, combat just gets a little bit more exciting, until eventually you're longing for the bigger enemies just to let the sparks and bullets fly.

The forest sections are spectacularly beautiful, and the interiors rival Gears of War for gothic detail. Oh, and I no longer have complaints about the cutscenes. I now look forwards to seeing them because they're so well put together, and the voice acting (particularly with Nero) is really as good as it comes. Nero's screams and whimpers for his beloved Kyrie remind me of DiCaprio's performance in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (speaking of which, doesn't Kyrie look just like Claire Danes? Sorry.)

Most importantly I'm getting a feeling. A feeling I don't often get in videogames, and one I often ignore when it does come about. I'm forever getting an urge to really master this game, to replay it and replay it till I'm the best a player can ever be, till I can take it on the hardest setting and slash through it with a triple-S ranking at the end, and do so with ease. I just feel like I'm not getting the full experience playing it at a low setting, as essential as it is to get me comfortable with the game. I don't know, maybe I'll finish it and move on to whatever's next, but I must admit a part of me really does want to become a pro with this game, just so I can prove to myself I can be if I put the hours in. We'll see.

I'll try to post my final impressions after I've finished my first play through within the next few days. But I'll say it now, whether you've enjoyed DMC in the past or just found it too damn inaccessible like myself, this is really worth looking at. It's forgiving on lower settings, and has some real memorable moments and superb performances that all game fans should witness. Buy it, rent it, borrow it, just make sure you play it in some way or another.

Final Update, 15th February 2008

Phew, I went from a level a day to charging through the second half of the game in about three sessions. Well, that concludes my first play through, and I’m left feeling very satisfied by its conclusion. It’s nice when some effort is put into the final moments, not just in terms of gameplay but also in the cutscenes and humour. I’m left wanting to do nothing more than restart on the next difficulty setting and go through it all over again, which I guess is the major point to these games.

Another thing that stood out was the relationship between Nero and Kyrie. I’ve already mentioned the Romeo and Juliet similarities, but seriously, it’s often quite touching, and you can really feel Nero’s desperation and determination to keep her safe. Something I never expected from a game that features a woman who refuses to wear underwear and better breast physics than Dead or Alive Xtreme. Jesus… But really, I’ve grown attached to Kyrie almost as much as I grew attached to The Boss in MGS3, and that’s saying something. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, whatever your history with the series is, give this one a play. If it can hook me it can hook anyone. It’s a remarkably solid, beautiful game, and shouldn’t just be experienced by series veterans.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

The Pixel Diaries - Rez HD Edition

When this game was originally released on Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, to be honest I proberbly never gave it a second look. My taste in videogames was just too traditionally mainstream to see the appeal of it. In recent years it’s become almost a holy grail, fetching inflated prices on ebay and never turning up in the used section of game stores. Its rebirth on Live Arcade is one of the greatest things I could have asked for, a second chance for gamers to get hold of it, and a second chance for the developers (see Digital Auteurs below) to build it how it was always intended to be. High definition, 5.1 surround sound and online scoreboards.

I finished the game yesterday, or at least stages 1-5, and it left me pretty speechless. When you complete a first-person shooter you have similar games to compare your experience to, so it’s easy to recognise when something is special. But with Rez there are practically no comparisons to make. You know it was fantastic, but you’ve no idea what it was that made it so fantastic. It’s just an enthralling and beautifully made visual and audio experience. It’s short, it’s simple, and it’s generally very easy to complete, but while those would seem to be complaints when dealing with other games, here that’s just missing the point. Rez HD constantly shifts you from the deepest and most relaxed depths of your seat, to the very frantic edge in a shift of environment and rhythm.

It’s first 4 stages essentially act as a fast moving tutorial, or perhaps a taster, easing you into its unique design philosophies. Achieve 100% analyzation on each of these levels (generally achievable first time without problems) and you’ll unlock stage 5, by far the main event, and the thing fans come back to every time to re-experience. Suddenly the black and neon lined tunnels and valleys disappear and give way to an expansive digital vector-world of trees, landscapes and mountains. The pace is slower, yet the action is far more erratic. The multiple levels per stage concept vanishes and is replaced instead with a sequence of short narrative bursts, describing the birth, evolution and death of new life, and the future of our existence. The half hour level lays a knockout blow to any ‘games as art’ debate, and provides the audience with a window looking into what our medium could really provide if we weren’t so often bogged down with sticking to proven genres and play styles, constantly thieving techniques from films that barely hold together when put under the strain of interactivity.

I’m not finished with the game yet. I’ve got ‘lost’ levels and other various unlockables to play through, and the second half of the achievement points to work for, both of which I’m looking forwards to. To be honest I never thought I’d like this game. Appreciate its originality, yes, and its visual design, of course, but I never gave much hope to becoming a true believer, grasping Mizuguchi’s intentions and hailing Rez as a landmark achievement. But Rez HD has shattered by expectations. When the credits began to roll, the only memory of having a similar feeling within me was when finishing Portal, that knowing of having played something truly new and unexpected. It took Rez seven years to find its way to me, but it was worth the wait. I beg you to try it if you haven’t already, and not give up with it until you’ve experienced its final stage. If it’s not your thing, fair enough, I proberbly would have felt the same several years ago, but when priced at only 800 points it’s worth that risk. This has provided me with the first great gaming moment of 2008. Please don’t let this pass you by again.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Digital Auteurs - Tetsuya Mizuguchi

In the first of yet another feature series, I'll be choosing from the best personalities in the videogame world. It's a great shame that people remember the names of authors and directors, but rarely know the leading figures behind their favorite games. These people are our equivalents, from the Spielberg's (Miyamoto), to the Tarantino's (Goichi Suda), and the Romero's (Shinji Mikami), it's only fair that we learn and appreciate the people who drive our industry forwards. For the first edition, Tetsuya Mizuguchi.

“I’m more concerned about people feeling emotions thanks to my creations, about what message I can include and how it can be welcomed.”

Tetsuya Mizuguchi has always demonstrated true originality and innovation throughout his videogame career over the last 15 years. He has carved himself up a very distinct and high quality videogame style through his output, and possesses a clear design philosophy that has forever remained consistently visible and stood out as vastly different from mainstream titles, summarized when he stated how “We don’t care about genres.”

He first made his entrance into game development through Sega, where he made his name being the lead designer behind the classic and still widely played Sega Rally Championship in 1995. Once being tagged onto Sega’s United Game Artists Division, he produced both Space Channel 5 for the Dreamcast in 1999, and perhaps his most celebrated work Rez in 2001.

After an internal restructuring within Sega, Mizuguchi left after becoming dissatisfied with the company’s new corporate thinking and formed the still thriving Q Entertainment. Most recently bringing us PSP hits Lumines and Every Extend Extra, as well as Meteos on the Nintendo DS. The former of these games have since been released on Xbox’s Live Arcade, which Rez has also joined in an updated and improved package in the form of the critically acclaimed Rez HD.

It’s always uncertain where Mizuguchi will head in the future. He may continue in the same vain as previous years, further pushing the boundaries and artistic quality of the music and puzzle game genres he’s done so much to popularize. He’s expressed much interest in digital distribution services such as Live Arcade, and has even mentioned a desire to work on a full sequel to his beloved Rez. Whatever comes of Q Entertainment in the future, you can count that it’ll be met with similar adoration and respect from both the mainstream and indie game circuits, a rare and very difficult achievement which Tetsuya seems to hold the key to.

“We don't care whether it's hardcore or casual. We just want to make something new, using new technology and new people and talent.”

Rez HD has recently been released on Xbox Live Arcade to critical acclaim, and can be purchased for 800 Microsoft points. If you haven't checked out Rez before, this is an essential opportunity to experience it in its greatest form.