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8:02 PM on 02.10.2011

A Nintendo 3DS Preview Event

23:14 February 5th – Facebook

James Pickard: ‘’Oops, I just pre-ordered one.’’

4 Hours earlier...

Tucked away down a side-street in Brick Lane; a small group gathered. We were waiting outside a graffiti-riddled warehouse on a dark and windy night, a projection of the 3DS logo slowly rotated on the facade. I’ll admit, I was sceptical about the 3DS’s capabilities; the 3D effect appeared to be no more than a gimmick and the £200 price-tag seemed incredibly steep. Nevertheless, I was prepared for my opinion to be changed with the chance to spend some time trying out Nintendo’s latest handheld.

Eventually we were called inside and led into bright, white room – an improvement from the bleak street outside – with the history of Nintendo handhelds on display. As I perused over them, I realised how long it had been since I actually owned a handheld and how many great games I had played across each iteration of the Game Boy. Pokémon, Zelda, Golden Sun and Tetris to name a few. I was snapped out of my nostalgic memories by the call of a woman behind me. We would all get the chance to play the 3DS soon, but first, she had a few new features she would like to tell us about.

Firstly, we were shown the StreetPass pad, which represented how the StreetPass feature would work in the 3DS. As we stood on the pad lines erupted from our feet, showing how our 3DSs would be connected to each other from simply passing by on the street. Even in stand-by mode, the 3DS could swap our Miis (which she insisted on pronouncing as My-s), transfer additional game content and even engage in battles on Street Fighter IV without either party being aware of it. It’s a cool idea, turning on your 3DS to discover a new dungeon in Dragon Quest or to find that you destroyed someone in Street Fighter. However, I find it hard to believe that such incidents will occur frequently, especially in the UK, where I can’t see many people wandering the streets with their DSs.

Moving on, we found ourselves in front of a recreation of a backdrop from Street Fighter IV with Ryu sat cross-legged on the ground. Suddenly, Ken appeared from the rear and both fighters took their positions as they would do in the game. The announcer’s voiced roared out of the ether: ‘What will happen now? FIGHT!’ The two rivals went at each other in a well choreographed fight scene, which faithfully recreated a number of moves and combos from the game. There was a somewhat lack of conviction in Ken’s shoryuken, but the fight was still entertaining and just as both character’s were preparing to unleash their hadoukens the announcer called time up. What a tease!

Next, we walked into a small, blue-tinted room to be greeted by Claire and Chris Redfield! Nintendo were really pulling out the big guns in these live action segments. Apparently, there was a zombie infestation ahead and we were going to be escorted through by the Redfields. Awesome. This has got to be my biggest claim to fame. We slowly progressed across the room and everything was going smoothly until a zombie burst out of a conveniently placed shed. Claire bolted to the door and slammed it on the zombie’s arm, ‘Come on Chris, get these guys through here!’ We edged forward and as Chris swung his shotgun/flashlight combo across the room, the ominous sight of a chainsaw sprung out from behind the shed. Balls...we were so close to seeing the 3DS, and now we are going to die at the hands of a chainsaw wielding Majini. In hindsight, I should have placed more faith in Chris and his ridiculous physique as he nonchalantly parried the incoming chainsaw blow and shoved the Majini to the floor. We had made it through; the 3DS was in our grasp.

Surprise Attack!

Jonathan Ross appeared and he is talking to us on a huge TV screen. He’s telling us how amazing the 3DS is. Thanks but we just want to play it now – I almost died for this!

‘Are you ready?’ The PR woman shouts.

‘Yeah!’ We reply.

‘Are you excited?’


‘Then what are you waiting for?’

She pulls back the curtain to the next room like a ringmaster introducing a circus of wonders. Thumping techno music erupts from the darkened room; the only light emanating from the many 3DS pods adoring the walls. I make my way to a free pod and find myself staring in amazement at a 3D image of the Resident Evil Mercenaries logo. My actually works.

For those unaware, Mercenaries is basically a survival mode that dumps you in a zombie infested arena and asks you to kill as many as you can before you die or run out of time. It’s an enjoyable game mode, with a multitude of arenas to choose from and a selection of Resident Evil’s famous faces to play as; each with unique weapon sets. The game feels well-suited to the pick-up-and-play nature of handhelds and I found myself falling back into old techniques from playing the console version. Disappointingly, the 3D effects were mostly restricted to the HUD elements, although a number of times, enemies attacking from behind my character popped out of the screen. In addition, entering aim mode created an excellent sense of depth with the gun positioned at the forefront and the laser sight trailing into the distance. A solid start for the 3DS and I went in search of another game.

I was pointed in the direction of Street Fighter IV 3D Edition; a game I had serious uncertainty about on a handheld. The controls were quite awkward due to the small size of the d-pad and buttons, which lead to me almost having my ass handed to me in the first round. After a while I was back to my mediocre Street Fighter form and pulling off hadoukens with ease. An interesting addition is the hotkeys on the bottom touch screen that allow you to pull of the game’s more complicated inputs with a tap of the button. Slightly diametric to the purpose of loading a game with complex combo inputs but a sensible choice nonetheless. A further addition comes in the form of a new over-the-shoulder camera angle that really shows off the 3D effects in the game, although the purist will unlikely use it permanently. Sans 3D, it is still an excellent portable version of Street Fighter IV with a full roster of fighters and online competitive modes.

Oh boy! A lovely PR person has just pointed out that Ocarina of Time is free and I rush over like I’m meeting a friend I haven’t seen in a long time. Everyone is aware of how brilliant Ocarina of Time is so I’ll skip the formalities and explain what makes the 3DS version so worthwhile. Plant enemies explode into a pile of leaves that fly towards the screen as you run through them. It’s the way Navi hovers in the foreground; her glistening trail flowing towards you and her ability to now literally nag you right in your face. A new ‘look’ mode allows you to scan the environment in first-person and fire slight shot pellets by moving the 3DS around. Same incredible game; subtle 3D touches and improvements – sold.

My time was up in the 3DS discotheque and we were directed to a final, blindingly white room with more 3DSs and some other games to try. I made my way to a small podium with a small rectangular card placed upon it. I picked up a nearby 3DS and pointed the front camera at the card. Moments later a number of archery targets popped up from the podium, which I swiftly dispatched by aiming the crosshair on the 3DS’s top screen at said targets and pulling the right shoulder button. Simple enough. Suddenly, more targets arose and the top of the podium began to rise and fall in a convex and concave manner making the targets harder to shoot. Momentarily confused, I instinctively looked over the top of the 3DS I was holding and saw nothing but the small Card stare back at me, smugly stationary. I returned to the screen and with every rise and fall off the podium I readjusted my position to get a clear shot on the targets. A hole appeared in the table and I peered over to see the final target. Nice try AR Card; it’s over now. Without warning a huge dragon’s head burst from the hole and came right at me. I dodged his incoming attacks and deftly flanked the beast, landing a few hits on its weak-points to bring it down. The game was over: I had won. I was amazed at how much enjoyment could come from such an innocent card and thought of the many exciting gameplay possibilities to be extracted from them.

I stepped back and took a seat to watch the others play around me. Some were on Face Raiders, an arcade shooter made up from targets of the faces of those you photographed using the inbuilt 3D camera. Enemies could exist off-screen and required the player to swing the 3DS around to find them and destroy incoming missile attacks. Others were frolicking with pets on Nintendogs or watching placeholder footage for upcoming releases such as Mario Kart 3DS and Kid Icarus: Uprising.

Congratulations Nintendo; now I see the true purpose behind this event. First, you make me feel privileged to have a chance to play the 3DS before many others. I relished the opportunity to be able to report back and say, ‘It’s all a gimmick, don’t bother.’ However, spending even that short hour with the device you’ve got me. The games are fantastic, with solid launch titles and strong, upcoming releases. There is a huge dollop of potential in those AR cards and some interesting ideas in how we share and acquire content. The whole event was beautifully rounded off with the live-action asides to create a memorable experience and not just a stale play test. I certainly believe my eyes.   read

4:00 PM on 09.12.2010

Along for the Ride - Playing a Role in RPGs

Note: This article contains spoilers for Final Fantasy XIII and Dragon Age: Origins

‘You can put a 'J' in front of it, but it's not an RPG. You don't make any choices, you don't create a character, you don't live your character... I don't know what those are - adventure games maybe? But they're not RPG's.’ - Daniel Erickson, Writing Director (Bioware). Quote Link

The RPG is a strange beast, constantly evolving and changing in the current video game climate. Right now, you would be hard pressed to find a game that does not include some form of RPG elements. However, that is a different subject entirely. What Erickson is referring to here is the JRPG genre in general and questioning the validity of calling these games, specifically Final Fantasy XIII, RPGs. In broader terms we could ask essentially; what is an RPG? A far greater question than could be answered here. If I had the time and resources I could trace the history of the role-playing game from its roots in Dungeons and Dragons style RP games, through its developments across console generations and the current elements associated with an RPG game to try and form a solid definition. Instead, I would like to scale the process down a few degrees and take an analytical approach towards Erickson’s statement to see if I can develop his thoughts any further.

In the broadest terms possible, it can be argued that all games are role-playing games. There is no denying at a basic level this seems inherently true. In the majority of video game experiences we are placed in control of a specific character. We take part in their story and see it to its conclusion. Does that necessarily mean that we are playing their role though? I would be inclined to disagree.

First, let’s consider what the term ‘role-playing’ actually suggests from a etymological perspective. I’m not searching for a definition but isolating some key associations. It assumes taking on another persona, one that is often completely different from your own. You assume full control of that created character guiding them through a situation, making choices and responding to others based on your created character’s mental processes. In some cases it may be that you decide to incorporate elements of your own psyche into your character but in those cases you are still playing a role, transferring elements of yourself into a new character in a fantastical situation.

With this is mind it seems that certainly a game such as Final Fantasy XIII, recognised as part of the biggest RPG franchises of all time, is actually contradicting the experience of role-playing. For example, the game offers the player control over six different characters. Only three can be used in battle at once but the story revolves around all six and their struggle to understand and complete their Focus. Yet, our ability to control and role-play these characters is severely limited. Consider Hope, a character that for the majority of the game’s introduction holds a strong grudge against Snow; blaming him for the death of his mother named Nora (this also conveniently turns out to be the acronym used for Snow’s rebel team! Coincidence? I think not. Daft writing? Most definitely). So, for a select few hours of the game whilst Hope is paired with Lightning we are told and told again and told again that Hope seeks to avenge his mother's death and at the next opportunity will unleash the fury he has built up inside and quite possibly kill Snow. Of course, that is not the case. We must suffer by watching more cut scenes and listening to more dialogue with Hope consistently losing confidence at the final hurdle. Until at last, he plucks up the courage to say something and attempts to kill Snow.

Now, whilst I am not here to discuss the tedium of that character development I must ask; what was my role in those events? I certainly was not playing the role of Hope; I moved his avatar through each subsequent level; he was there in my party; I selected actions for him to use in battle; I chose which abilities he would learn on the Crystarium and I upgraded his weapon a number of times. However, none of these actions relate to myself, playing the role of the character. They function on another level, separate from the narrative or hidden away in menus which in turn make them very impersonal aspects of character development. At no point could I select Hope, walk up to Snow and decide at that moment I would attempt murder. At no point could I select Lightning and get her to abandon Hope in the forest because he was infuriating.

This is because in Final Fantasy XIII we have no direct control over the story and characters as they are already set in stone by the developers. No matter what minimal actions we are allowed to take, the end result will always be the same because from a narrative perspective those actions have no consequences. If we die we return to the last checkpoint; if we upgrade a character’s statistics or weapon they only become stronger in battles; if we decide to never use a character in battle they will never abandon us or if we rely on the same party combination throughout the whole game we cannot encourage them to develop stronger relationships. Therefore, I would argue that we do not play the role of the characters. We are relatively subservient guardians over their destinies; guiding them towards it without directly influencing the outcome.

As Erickson’s struggles to define Final Fantasy XIII, so do I. A ‘role-experiencing’ game? Indeed, it does not roll so well off the tongue and is so broad it probably defines every form of character driven fiction but it applies more to the game than ‘role-playing’. Let’s now briefly look to the other side and those games that seem to offer the full role playing experience. A whole host of fantastic games instantly spring to mind such as: Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Fable. These games offer that full experience because they place so much emphasis on the player’s control over their character. I’ll narrow things down by taking one game as an example and of course, I am going to use Dragon Age: Origins.

Through the game's foundation in choice and our own imagination we can play the role of our character; choosing how we would act in a specific situation or formulating an in depth personality for our character and choosing how they would react. We can choose which other characters we want our character to develop strong relationships with and in turn, they will receive statistical boosts in battle. Character development, gameplay and narrative are meaningfully tied together instead of awkwardly separated.

In my first play through as Rebecca, a female human noble warrior, I took the second route and forged a completely unique character. She began as a religious sceptic who was kind and compassionate to others but transfixed on avenging the death of her parents. Of course this incorporated some elements of my own personality but when considering dialogue options and some of the game’s significant choices I always considered my character’s mentality first. In addition, I made a number of choices throughout the game for the sole purpose of character development. For example, I decided that the discovery of Andraste's Ashes converted her to a believer in the Maker and her aspiration to see Alistair as king (whom she had formed a close bond with) led to her sacrifice in the defeat of the Archdemon.

In these situations we are offered a true, role-playing experience where we can craft our own original characters; shape the events of the story and become fully immersed within a different world. We are not limited, as in Final Fantasy XIII, to the enclosed path of the story and severely pre arranged stages of character development. In the majority of RPGs and games from other genres we lack a degree of control over the characters. We play their roles no more than when we watch Tony Stark, Frodo Baggins or Michael Corleone. We are given the illusion of role-playing but we are simply there; along for the ride.   read

8:15 PM on 02.24.2010

Once Upon a Time... (Storytelling in Video Games)

A travel agent at the Department of Death arranges packages for his deceased customers to reach their final resting place in the Ninth Underworld. When one of these customers fails to qualify for the premium package, a ticket on the Number Nine, he is drawn into a film noir world of corruption, betrayal and love in the Land of the Dead.

Sound interesting? Unfortunately, it did not to the majority of video game players. A critical success, yet a commercial failure. Why was Grim Fandango so ignored by the majority of the gaming community? One that pioneered something often ignored in the development of a video game. A great story.

Storytelling was an area I was interested in since about the age of nine when I wanted to be an author but has only just recently resurfaced after taking a film scriptwriting module as part of my degree. Nothing else on the course seemed to engage me more than developing interesting characters and scenarios for them to be involved in. Yet when I'm playing a video game, the majority of the time the characters seem shallow and the plot is completely illogical or irrelevant. It becomes an afterthought; a thin, unimportant incentive to get the player to the next battle, firefight or race. Personally, I would love to see video games further develop an intelligent implementation of story especially when the medium seems perfect to tell one.

I've currently been playing Borderlands and whilst it is a fun and enjoyable game with solid gameplay it lacks any narrative depth. I am finding it hard to engage with the game for a variety of reasons all related to narrative construction.

The first is simply the premise, or the motivation for my actions. I am told a legend by a man named Marcus about a secret vault on the planet Pandora that is rumored to be full of alien technology, money etc. Adventurers and treasure hunters all flock to Pandora in an attempt to find it and claim the rewards inside. So the reason I am playing this game is pure greed? To uncover crazy alien technology from a vault that may or may not exist? Sounds like a wild goose chase from the start.

The second is characters. It is impossible to identify with any of them. I am introduced to the characters through their five second intro...things that tell you their names. The choice really boils down to my preferred style of gameplay. Do I want to: shoot things; shoot things from long range; shoot things from up close and punch them or sneak around and shoot things? So I chose to sneak around and shoot things because the phasewalk ability sounded fun. Now tell me some more about my character. No. 'Get off my bus,' is what I'm told.

Wouldn't it be more interesting if the game introduced us to the character's back story or a reason for wanting to find the vault? Granted, one character could want the loot for pure greed. Fantastic! Make him an anti-hero, the badass guy that we love to hate. Give one character a desire for fame, to be the first person to discover the vault. Suggest a past where they were always ignored and now they are out to prove they can achieve something. Suggest another character's parent/s went missing whilst searching for the vault themselves and the player is out to uncover the truth of their disappearance. These are three crude and quite simple suggestions that I have come up with on the fly but would at least be stepping stones for character development and provide a variety of different players scenarios they could identify with. Unfortunately I had to visit the Wikipedia entry to find out some information on the characters, which was still immensely lacking. I see no evidence of it in the game unless it is revealed later but what would be the point finding it out later? Character motivation should be apparent from the early stages if not the start.

The third is the characters you interact with and the world of Pandora itself. The majority of this vast planet appears completely dead. The starting town of Fyrestone has one person in it and an assortment of empty huts. Where is everyone!? I find it hard to believe that this is a realistic setting. Where are all the other vault hunters? Why do there seem to be ten times as many bandits as friendly NPCs? I could discuss many other incredibly illogical choices on the world design but that would risk boring you.

So far I have met five characters: A robot that provides the tutorial and comic relief (he is quite funny); Dr. Zed, a questgiver, whose tasks I complete because there is nothing else to do; T.K Baha, a farmer who plays the same role as the doctor; Marcus who tells me some exposition and sells me things through his store and finally, the Guardian Angel.

Mentioned in passing by Marcus she is meant to guide people to the vault. She appears after I choose my character and asks me to do everything she says (even though I've just met her!) because she will help me find the vault. Brilliant! The legend is coming true, now let's go and find the vault. Sadly this is not the case. For the four hours I have been playing all I seem to be doing is killing bandits and killing skags. How is this getting me nearer to finding the vault at all? According to the Guardian Angel I am building a reputation with the locals. Yet my 'conversations' with them are completely impersonal and simply involve choosing a quest and then handing it in. Why should I be getting Baha's wooden leg off of a giant skag? I'm only doing these menial tasks for the unsubstantiated promise from the guardian angel that she will lead me to the vault. (She even says, 'Would you kindly...' at one stage which has already set alarm bells ringing!) I can understand slowly introducing the player like this from a gameplay perspective but from a narrative perspective it is laborious. Yet, I am forced to trudge along killing skags and bandits and ooh a purple...nice. Sorry where was I?

It is a shame that these flaws are alienating me from the game because the rest is quite enjoyable. I understand that the developers are utilising the MMORPG style quest format and character progression which makes the game incredibly addictive and is keeping me playing. I am not saying that Borderlands is a bad game, in fact, it is just like the majority of games that lack a well constructed story with interesting and engaging characters. Currently, a number of developers are trying to push boundaries with storytelling in video games. For example, the likes of Bioware and Tim Shafer at Double Fine to name a couple. The amount of thought and care that goes into creating the worlds, characters and dialogue in games such as Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Brutal Legend and the aforementioned Grim Fandango shows promise for the future.

However, as this post is now reaching an incredible length I think I will leave it here for now. Narrative is a topic I am likely to return to again and again on this blog as it is an area that interests me the most. For now, I need to get back to eradicating the bandits of Pandora and finding more purples!   read

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