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7:02 AM on 06.12.2012

E3: Why Animal Crossing should have been the Wii U's online hub

A week has passed since Nintendo failed for the second time at E3 to convince gamers how the Wii U will rectify the mistakes of its predecessor. The problem seems to be that while Nintendo is telling everyone still listening that their console has a clear purpose in improving the gaming experience, they seem unsure of what it is. With the Wii, Wii Sports translated physical motion into in-game action, communicated in absolute terms by asking players to swing the remote as they would a racket in order to play tennis. Nintendoland requires explanation in order to understand the rules of each mini-game, where Wii Sports engendered immediate understanding between player and game, with the controller function bridging the two. The Wii U game may put the gamepad's various uses to action, but unequivocally fails when it comes to communicating any core concept underlying the console, other than it having loads of features, but no defining identity.

The console also marks Nintendo's attempt to build an online social hub akin to Microsoft's XBox Live or Sony's PlayStation Network. The result, the strenuously named Miiverse (how could a corporation as big as Nintendo not feature a single employee to suggest putting a 'U' in front of that name?), appears a similar mishmash, something involving gathering your friend's Miis around pictures of games they are playing, on an otherwise blank screen. It looks both half-hearted and slightly baffling, shoehorning an entire online network into the Mii plaza with none of the warmth or fun Nintendo take such effort to otherwise include in their games. Had they been willing to dedicate a little more time to their online social service, they might have realised the answer had been waiting on their doorstep all along.

Of the many, many games sadly absent from Nintendo's conference, Animal Crossing was the most surprising. It's a title almost everybody seems to love and perfectly suited to where Nintendo initially stated they were aiming the Wii U's library: friendly to core and casual, a familiar licence unlikely to steal gamers away from the big third-party titles, yet notable enough to attract interest. Whilst its friendly visual style may not make the game a natural showcase for the transition to HD, certain areas of the game - water effects, lighting, texturing - would stand out with a makeover from a more powerful console. It's a game Nintendo could almost certainly have turned out quickly and relatively inexpensively for launch.

iIf its omission on that basis alone were surprising enough, even moreso is how, with greater thought, the game would seem an absolutely perfect fit around which to base the console's online social hub, rather than the uninteresting Miiverse. The game's most fundamental conceits are perfectly in-line with the roles an online hub is supposed to fill: it encourages communication, is highly personalised and revolves around the idea of community. In other words, it's what PlayStation Home could have been, only with huge dollops of Nintendo charm and a title as immediately communicable to new gamers as old-school Nintendo players, a perfect incentive for all to check out the console's online functions in a friendly, familiar environment.

In an ideal world, this Animal Crossing hub would not just operate online, but form the framework for players to interact with the Wii U's every function. Nobody was particularly fond of the Wii front page and its bland 'channels', and the Miiverse seems intent on repeating the same mistakes. People like Nintendo because their image is warmer and less corporate than its rivals, yet their recent obsession with a wipe-clean iMac aesthetic is anything but. Instead, let's imagine each of those 'channel' windows as a house. Each house becomes part of a small town for players to wander around, entering a new building to access various functions. (Naturally, a menu alternative would have to be in place for people wanting to get started faster). All games could be accessed from the player's 'home' - where they start upon the console's activation - perhaps by activating a console in front of a television. Digital games, downloadable content and Nintendo points could be bought from Tom Nook's emporium, immediately transferring to the player's console at home upon acquisition. Achievements or trophies could be displayed at a local museum.

Better yet, certain achievements could yield items to personalise your town, while upcoming games could be promoted by limited time festivals or changes to the town's landscape. A crop of Pikmin could appear in a nearby grassy patch, for example, either as pure decoration or with a more practical purpose: players could uproot a pikmin to follow them around town for a while, or play a mini-game to unlock a prize, like a demo or a small number of Nintendo points (which are already given away through the star system). For a game like Mario Galaxy, or perhaps Mario U-niverse, nighttime play - as per Animal Crossing, a day-night cycle linked to the internal clock is a must - could yield a spectacular display of shooting stars and perhaps the plumber himself coming to town for a promotional visit. Or to sort out the plumbing. While a cyber-café could allow players to learn of friends' recent activity or engage in a more immediate chatting service, a train station could allow access to other towns, with gifts in tow. Were certain items specific to each town, players would be incentivised to use the service to its fullest.

Free games like FarmVille show how successful this model can be in attracting new players, while teaching the basic rules of interacting with the controller, such as using the analogue stick to navigate a character around a 3D environment, sometimes stated as an obstacle compared to the less complex control systems of 2D games. (Hence the tutorial DVD which came packaged alongside Super Mario Galaxy 2). The town could also help players get used to the various functions of the touchscreen, by using it to type and receive letters, perform tasks around town - navigating menus at Tom Nook's game emporium, for example - and take photographs with the camera, before transferring them into the game to be manipulated (art studio house?), displayed (at home, or in competitions at a gallery?) and shared (sent via a post office). The pad's NFC capabilities could be used for branded toys to be digitised into the player's home. If Nintendo were looking for a proof-of-concept for their controller, this would seem more elegant than anything shown in Nintendoland.

The restrictions, as far as I can see, would be that Nintendo would need to have a full version of the town available for offline play on the console, taking up a hefty chunk of memory and driving up the price. For the online version, Nintendo would need to employ significant staff to manage, update and police the towns in a manner more akin to an MMO than a more traditional hub. These seem relatively minor obstacles, though, for a service which could perform many of the tasks Nintendo are currently struggling with - conveying a clear vision for their new console, becoming a distinctive and attractive presence in the online console space, and remaining welcoming to new gamers whilst re-engaging long-term players' attention.

Nintendo has a remarkable aptitude for being all things for all people, yet over the course of its two E3 presentations, the Wii U has seemed increasingly uncertain of who it is aimed at and what has to be done to attract them. The abandonment of the Wii remote as primary control scheme, heralded as gaming's next leap forward as recently as Skyward Sword, shows a company desperately trying to change itself and its values in pursuit of an audience, rather than allowing its long-held reputation as a uniquely welcoming purveyor of innovative gaming experiences to do the work for them. The E3 presentations may have been a disaster, but everyone's still talking about Satoru Iwata's ridiculous on-screen antics (and he's their CEO!) with Non-Specific Action Figure, Pikmin, and Reggie's weirdly compelling dual roles as monotone spokesperson and amiable doofus ('I like French food!'). People like Nintendo, and want Nintendo to be Nintendo: the Miiverse is another step in the wrong direction, where the possibility for something more magical existed all along, easily in reach.

Animal Crossing as the Wii U's social hub is just one idea, and perhaps infeasible for reasons I haven't yet realised, but if nothing else represents a direction the company could take, by looking inward to the company's strengths rather than attempting to emulate the competition, a position Nintendo should never be in. The Wii was a wonderful console, let down by poorly-directed cost-cutting and third-party indifference. (All those shoddy ports and they still blame Nintendo for their lousy sales?). Nintendo have made great strides in showing willingness to engage the concerns of third-parties, and players enjoying the extensive services offered by their rivals' online networks. If Nintendo forget who they are in the process, and why they hold a special place in many gamers' hearts, that's when the battle for the next generation becomes a less appealing prospect for all concerned.

NOTE: This post has been published here at roughly the same time as on my blog. If you'd rather I only contribute original stuff on my CBlog, just say so in the comments. Thanks for reading!   read

12:35 AM on 06.08.2012

Pikmin 2 New Play Control review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Format: Wii
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Players: 2

Pikmin 3 was one of the few parts of Nintendo's conference at this year's E3 to be well received, so the long-delayed release of the series' second game on the Wii could prove a canny publicity manoeuvre, perhaps enough to salvage disillusioned fans' enthusiasm for the Wii U while filling a gap in its predecessor's increasingly barren release schedule. Funnily enough, the game proves equally well-timed in terms of storyline, with Olimar returning to the Pikmin planet (never explicitly named as Earth, despite the obvious similarities) with companion captain Louie in order to help save his freight company from going broke due to predatory debtors. Somehow, the game's charm is only enhanced by its vision of a recession able to be reversed by a hunt for fruit and assorted amusingly named tidbits. Between this and last year's Boom Street, Nintendo seem to be on a single-handed mission to make the financial crisis fun. In that context, the coin-oriented gameplay of New Super Mario Bros 2 seems pure wish fulfilment.

Moving on from its amusing timeliness, the game is an excellent fit for the Wii. Little King's Story was an excellent game, but its refusal to use the remote's pointer - dishearteningly abandoned from the Wii U's main controller - looks a strange decision in light of the speed and ease it brings to commanding your army of carrot people around the undergrowth. A little twitchy when responding to a tilted controller, perhaps, but boding well for the Wii U iteration.

Less effective is the removal of the time limit from the Gamecube original, requiring players to reach the end within thirty in-game days. The restriction added the need for the player to take risks in order to achieve their goals within each precious day. While this made the game fairly short by the standards of the time, with the thirty days comprising roughly seven hours of gameplay, the threat of a ticking clock added to the otherwise lukewarm difficulty, forcing players to strategise and adapt to new situations on the spot. Without it, the sequel feels lethargic, lacking an impotus for the player to face new threats and unknown environments without being fully armed with maximum-strength troops and ample reconnaissance beforehand. The original game's weak enemies had greater shock value when the player was often forced to confront them either on the first or second encounter, rather than making repeated journeys to survey the battlefield, assess weak points and return with a full-strength battalion. The addition of powerful purple pikmin and a spray with the ability to multiply attack damage makes these encounters little more than a formality.

The ability to command two captains at once, theoretically doubling up your productivity whilst reducing legwork, is an intuitive addition, one further developed for the Wii U sequel (where four captains will be on hand, and able to assist each other navigate obstacles), but again feels like it would have been better suited to the first game's time restrictions. This is a game which practically demands you waste time, so a mechanic helping players conquer multiple tasks at once is welcome, but hardly required. There's a great deal of treasure to collect, but with no restrictions on how long the player takes to do it, the system's strategic potential is barely touched upon. Each day still lasts roughly fifteen minutes and any pikmin left unherded by sundown will still be devoured by the most adorable predators ever seen, but this is nothing more than a minor inconvenience now there's no reason to leave any pikmin without a protective captain on-hand.

The game's other notable addition is the presence of caves, essentially a succession of obstacle rooms, where the player has no access to new pikmin and no warning of what is to come (other than symbols indicating the types of pikmin required, such as red to defeat fire enemies, yellow for electric, and so forth) once the challenge has been accepted. These underground sections are an uncomfortable fit for a series which counts exploration of lush environments among its key delights: while each cave has a distinct visual style, finding vast subterranean rooms designed like a child's train set, to give one example, shatter the game's conceit of exploring the earth from the point-of-view of a microscopic adventurer. When the game offers a more realistic, no-frills representation of an underground environment, the colourful visuals of the outside world are missed. It's a no-win situation, especially since they are not challenging enough to be worth the sacrifices.

The decision to halt the passage of time when inside the caves proves another poor choice: had the fifteen-minute limit remained, forcing the player to surface in time for sunset or lose their pikmin, the additional challenge could have made these thrilling tests of the player's aptitude for adaptive strategy. What's left is further proof of how removing an unpopular gameplay mechanic does not always lead to a better experience: few claimed to enjoy the original game's time limit (despite it being quite generous), but the formula loses spark without it. Fortunately, the original game got so much right that even the loss of such a subtly crucial ingredient does not prevent the sequel from being consistently entertaining. It's full of those little moments of joy that Nintendo have made such a speciality, such as the transmissions from friends and family back on Hocotate (Olimar's home planet) or the exquisite names for each new 'treasure', giving the same charming spin to everyday objects as the game affords its garden-like world. A slight shame, then, that the environments are so similar to those from the first Pikmin, and actually fewer in number.

The new competitive multiplayer mode, an elaborate variation on 'capture the flag', show the game at its manic best, forcing players to juggle the need to rapidly build up an army, protect their marble (flag), navigate dangerous surroundings and sabotage the enemy. Despite the temptation to lead your troops into a full-force confrontation with the other player at the first available opportunity, it's usually wiser to do so when faced with a losing position and no choice but to try and slow your competitor down. Leading the charge into a massive pikmin skirmish against a friend is every bit as thrilling as it sounds, but winning the game requires a more restrained, strategic command, especially with AI-controlled monsters waiting to gobble up the remains of your squadron. (There's a sadistic pleasure in intercepting an enemy pikmin carrying a treasure back to base, only to bash its head in and take the bounty for yourself). Though the limited co-operative option is less interesting, cross every finger for Nintendo to retain these modes and take them online in the Wii U sequel. Pikmin 2's single-player may not live up to its flawlessly balanced predecessor, but as a multiplayer game it shows levels of inspiration with the potential to topple Mario Kart as Nintendo's premier competitive experience. [ 7 ]   read

11:11 PM on 05.31.2012

My not-at-all clever or surprising E3 2012 predictions

Hello again, Destructoid! How I've missed you. A few of you have toddled over to Flixist and our own nascent Cblog community, and what a delight it has been to welcome you. Luckily, it's E3, that time of year when gamers are blessed with a fresh catalogue of games to look forward to, but cursed with idiots like me barging in with ridiculous predictions that will inevitably look ridiculous come Tuesday afternoon. I'll try and be slightly helpful though, so for anyone who hasn't got one imprinted on their eyeballs yet, here's a timetable for this year's conferences with both PST and GMT.


- Microsoft 9.30am PST (5.30pm GMT)

- Electronic Arts 1.00pm PST (9.00pm GMT)

- Ubisoft 3.00pm PST (11.00pm GMT)

- Sony 6.00pm PST (June 5th 2.00am GMT)


- Nintendo 9.00am PST (5.00pm GMT)

It's also only fair that I point out that the content below will be republished on my blog in about five hours' time (10am GMT), so as usual, if that's considered to go against the Cblog spirit, let me know and I shall cease and desist faster than a PokéMon fansite. Snarky jokes aside, here come the predictions...


Since Microsoft will once again be the first to hold their conference, I'll start with them. The company has had a rough ride at E3 in recent years thanks to their overwhelming focus on the Kinect, which has brought them impressive sales figures but damaged their reputation as the go-to console for the old-school gamer. Last year's attempt at proving how the device could work with traditional games didn't go well, with its implementation in titles such as Mass Effect 3 looking more like hamfisted additions than vital control evolutions. Nevertheless, I'm expecting Microsoft to push on with their Kinect-centric habit, with most of the new titles announced to be compatible with the device at the very least. While the 360 is coming to the end of its life, the Kinect is likely to stick around, possibly into Microsoft's next console, so it's in their best interest to keep the device well supported with first-party titles, and leaving third-parties (with Black Ops 2 likely to feature on the Microsoft stage again, probably with more timed exclusive DLC) to cover the interests of gamers preferring more old-school controllers.

We haven't seen a new game from Rare in a while, and with them having creating the XBox Live Miis... sorry, avatars... and developed the Kinect Sports games, which have proven among the most popular and well-received Kinect releases. Interestingly, Rare were recently revealed as advertising for staff with experience developing FPS': with the company having not released a traditional, adult-audience game since Perfect Dark Zero, could they have a more hardcore, Kinect-focused game waiting to be unveiled? It's unlikely to be the game they've been recruiting for, but if any team have the credentials to convince traditional gamers of the device's potential, it's probably them. An unofficial Skyrim mod showed the game being controlled with Kinect, and my long shot this year is that Rare might have an ace up their sleeves. If not, it will be up to Halo 4 to provide the 'wow' factor as Microsoft's big reveal. Further details on their 360 subscription buying scheme, and maybe an overall price drop, is also likely, along with more corporate partnerships aimed at furthering the console's transition from dedicated gaming hardware to media hub. Sigh. A mention of their new console isn't out of the question, possibly thrown in as part of an Unreal 4 reveal, but an actual sighting is extremely unlikely.


Where Microsoft will continue to push their motion controller, Sony's Move has for the most part disappeared without trace. I'd certainly be astonished if it was given much attention at this year's conference, although a handful of the presented games are likely to be compatible with it to avoid completely alienating those few who made the investment. With Eurocom's GoldenEye Reloaded having been a relatively high-profile Move title, their next Bond game, 007 Legends, could also be one of those compatible. It's unlikely that any of the major titles will take notice, though, with The Last Of Us, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and God Of War: Ascension (both exclusives likely to get serious time at the presentations) certain to bypass it in favour of the reliable DualShock.

The PS3's time in the spotlight is likely to be tightly controlled, though, in favour of giving the ailing PlayStation Vita a chance to recuperate its dismal start at retail. Expect focus on the ability to share information between the handheld and the console, counteracting the novelty value of Nintendo's Wii U, and a serious glut of games in all the major franchises. With Grand Theft Auto V likely to be presented under Sony's roof, my long shot would be a Vita entry for the franchise with some sort of communication link with the PS3 game. Otherwise, it'll be Vita entries for Killzone and Gran Turismo, with a nod to Sly Raccoon: Thieves In Time for diversity. Sony have already denied the chance of the PS4 making an appearance, and even a mention seems less likely than Microsoft. The PS3 still has some sales momentum, and Sony are likely to wait and see what Nintendo have to offer before showing their hand. As mentioned, the Vita - PS3 cross-play abilities are the company's best chance of casting a shadow over Nintendo's moment in the sun, so there's no need for them to hurry into the next generation just yet.


Ah, Nintendo. Always the gaming industry's beloved but slightly batty aunt, sitting in the corner and telling ridiculously weird stories to anyone who will listen. The Wii U has everything to prove this year, and my honest feeling is that it will make it. Nintendo took a serious slap in the face with having to cut the 3DS' price cut so soon after launch and they've been making sensible decisions ever since. The 3DS is building a nice head of steam now, so expect it to have a decent showing, with New Super Mario Bros 2, Paper Mario, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance (already released in Japan), Luigi's Mansion 2, Ninja Gaiden 3D and Animal Crossing doing most of the heavy lifting. A new handheld Zelda is unlikely, not least as they tend to be revealed at smaller events, but not impossible.

The Wii U will be the centre of attention, though, correcting the issues from last year's conference with an official unveiling of the redesigned controller (with analogue sticks instead of circle pads) and a formidable roster of third-party games including Rayman Legends (to show off the NFC, as per the leaked trailer), Aliens: Colonial Marines (Randy Pitchford may take to the stage, since he's already said the Wii U version will have enhancements), an EA Sports demonstration, announcements for Resident Evil 6 and Call Of Duty: Black Ops 2 ports, plus Killer Freaks From Outer Space and Assassin's Creed 3, the latter another possible demo. Nintendo have three first-party games in development, one of them already announced as a Mario game likely based on New Super Mario Bros Mii (to work alongside NSMB2 on 3DS), and the second almost certainly the long, long awaited Pikmin 3.

The third game is probably a new game from Retro Studios, and while fans are hollering for a new entry in the Metroid Prime saga, I'm not so sure. While the franchise is a good fit for 'hardcore' gameplay and as a graphical showcase, Retro have previously stated being finished with Metroid for the foreseeable future. A Donkey Kong Country Returns sequel is surely off the table to avoid clashing with the NSMB games, so my long shot will be for an original title. Nintendo have said they want to start building up some new IPs, and Retro represent a strong choice of studio to produce one with strong Western appeal. The longest, maddest, but oh-god-I-hope-so shot would be for an Eternal Darkness returns, what with Silicon Knights needing some cash to pay their legal bills. Don't expect specs, as that's not Nintendo's style (although the first party games should be appropriately stunning for a rough evalution of how much more powerful the console is than those already on the market), and price and date have already been denied. My jaw will drop if the original Wii gets so much as a mention, though.

- - -

That's my lot! Remember to bookmark this page so you can come back later for much pointing and laughing. I expect it will take a miracle for 2012 to be anyone other than Nintendo's year, but it should be a terrific show no matter which side of the console divide (rap, yo) you fall on. Will this be the one that finally melts teh internets, or just NeoGAF (again)?

As a final note, remember to give the Flixist Cblogs a go if you're interested in writing about movies for a change. (I know they don't have analogue sticks, but THEY DESERVE YOUR LOVE TOO!) We're trying to build up our community and have a wonderfully eccentric manager in the slinky shape of Liz 'The Yellow Dart II' Rugg. Several of our more regular Cbloggers have already been recruited as front page writers, so it's definitely a 'happening' place to be. See how groovy we are?!   read

1:55 AM on 04.04.2012

Review - Xenoblade Chronicles

Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Format: Wii
Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Nintendo
Players: 1

DISCLAIMER: This article will be posted on my non-Dtoid blog in about four hours.

I intended to write this eight months ago, when the game launched in the UK. I'm not averse to writing a review when still a little way short of completing the game in order to get the article out in a reasonably timely fashion: as long as the bulk of the game has been completed and its important details revealed, there's nothing wrong in my eyes with passing judgment on it, even if an hour or two remain unfinished. It's unlikely the end-game material will impact greatly on the review, not least for fear of spoilers.

In Xenoblade's case, I was about fifteen hours in by the time it was do-or-die for the article. As a JRPG novice, it's fair to say I wasn't quite prepared for the odyssey that had been undertaken and progress had been, let's generously say, leisurely. Lots of questing, exploration, general larking about, not quite so much movement in story terms. Checking a GameFAQs guide to see how near I was to the end revealed there was still, if continued apace, roughly one hundred and twenty hours of play to go.

Turns out Xenoblade Chronicles is all kinds of colossal.

Had the game been reviewed at that point, the first plot twist would have barely elapsed and virtually none of the party with whom the majority of the game would be spent were in my company. The gameplay mechanics were still extensive and baffling, the camera still causing frustration and well over half the game's features remained untouched. My verdict might have been something along the lines of impressive in size, but unwieldy to handle.

That's not far away from how I feel now, but the difference is that where the game was then defined by my annoyance at the many niggles that are part and parcel of the experience, now it is looked back upon as my favourite gaming experience of 2011 and easily one of the best on the Wii, a console I have greatly enjoyed despite its undeservedly negative reputation. Fifteen hours into a game like this, little irritations take on significantly greater importance than they do after fifty, even less after ninety. It's as much that you get used to them as the awe-inspiring scope of the game renders them more forgivable with every passing minute.

The camera, for example, is horribly wonky when left to its own devices and requires constant adjustment to stay in an acceptable position, especially when navigating indoor areas. After thirty hours, though, keeping it under manual control is not only second nature, but preferable to leaving it alone: the gorgeous landscapes demand to be examined from every possible angle and, even if by accident, the game trains you to do exactly that without breaking the flow of play. There's something majestic about swooping the viewpoint around Shulk as he runs through a vast field, overshadowed by hanging cliffs, creatures many times his size, glistening lakes and soaring birds. Had the camera been programmed to function adequately on its own, pulling off that thrilling little flourish would have engendered the same pernickety annoyance as when having to get to grips with it the first time. Instead, it's the most effortless thing in the world.

Other issues, admittedly, do not yield such long-term rewards, but the game's length gives you time to work everything out long before the going gets seriously tough, and there's no question each is a price worth paying for taking part in such a huge adventure. Mechanics like gem crafting, the affinity system and how to use characters such as Melia, a mage, in combat go woefully underexplained, while the volume of moves and counter-moves to remember in combat can be overbearing at first. (Early on, it feels as though something new is added every hour). It's never less than enjoyable, but the lack of adequate explanation for the numerous mechanics can feel as though you're being held back from plunging into the game's tantalising depths. Time and experience tidies these up, but they can make the game alienating in its first twenty hours, when it needs to be easing you in. Paper Mario, this ain't.

The only issue which lasts from start to finish is the lack of information on NPC locations for the extensive array of sidequests. If a quest isn't completed within a short time of receiving it, it's easy to forget where the person you're supposed to be talking to is and the time at which they'll appear on the map. Rudimentary information is given on the affinity map - where you build relationships between townspeople by helping them, another system rendered more annoying than fun by a dearth of information - but nothing anywhere near sufficient to remember what to do after the console has been turned off for the night. Quests requiring specific items to be collected can also be annoying, since their location is randomised and the trading system is so low-key, many players may not even be aware it exists until long into the game.

If the sidequests often require more detail than the game is able to convey, other areas are expertly streamlined. The usual frustrations of navigating a gameworld of this scale are alleviated by allowing players to warp instantaneously to any of the map's many markers, effectively eliminating backtracking. The combat system loosens up the stiff RPG turn-based structure into something more dynamic, with free movement around the area, context-sensitive hits (one of Shulk's more effective moves requires him to be positioned behind the enemy to deal, yes, massive damage) and a single controllable lead character - who can be swapped when out of battle - assisted by two AI partners adept at unleashing the right move to combine moves in helpful ways. Chain attacks, wherein a more traditional turn-based format is adopted for extra damage, allow you greater control into the minutiae, even if not being able to select the order of the attackers makes it difficult to execute pre-planned tactical sequences.

The storyline, too, moves in all sorts of bonkers directions (for starters, the entire gameworld exists over the bodies of two petrified titans) but almost never feels padded in the way that so blighted Skyward Sword, a game roughly a third as long. Plot twists arrive with mischievous frequency, and while this makes proceedings far too circuitous to properly keep track of by the end, all the pomp (and silly jokes, especially between the party) is infectiously compelling.

There's a constant sense of forward motion, with new locations opened up every few hours - ignoring the side-quests, ill-advised in practice - many of them foreshadowed early on and each with a distinct colour palette and visual identity. While the game is technically a little clunky, with intermittent framerate drops in vast areas and crowded combat, and considerable fade-in, few titles demonstrate and embrace the importance of art direction in such a vibrant, evocative way. The starry night sky above the Bionis leg doesn't tax the hardware much, but by golly is it breathtaking.

That sensation is Xenoblade all over. There are plenty of little problems to pick at and wrinkles in need of ironing out, but in the end, the grandeur and ambition will hold your heart even while your fingers are struggling to keep up. Considering the game's size, Monolith deserve unreserved credit for the absence of any major bugs, putting to shame companies like Obsidian and Bethesda who ship games bursting with problems, content in the knowledge of being able to patch them later (for players with online connections, anyway) and demanding forgiveness because of the scope of their creations.

Xenoblade invalidates that excuse. It is an exquisite achievement in game design, fiercely loyal to RPG tradition whilst refining it in clever, helpful ways. If its ambition sometimes exceeds the execution, you can't help but admire it for getting as much right as it does, a perfect example of an experience all the more engaging for its flaws. The game may have taken its time reaching American shores, and this review delayed by over half a year to accommodate its insane scale, but everyone lucky enough to be preparing for their first steps onto the Bionis are about to have that wait paid back in spades. [ 8 ]

If you enjoyed this, you can subject yourself to more such ramblings on my Facebook and Twitter accounts! Don't forget Flixist either: we have pterodactyls there and were recently taken over by, ahh, Jeff Goldblum. Such shenanigans! Also, these '10 Things About Me' posts are brilliant, I'll try and find time to do one of my own sometime soon.   read

10:32 AM on 03.06.2012

A Call For Games To Take Their Fantasy More Seriously

DISCLAIMER: This review is up on the CBlogs at (roughly) the same time as my blog. As much as I love writing for the Dtoid Community, it's pretty hard to find the time these days to cover all my bases, including Flixist. If you'd rather I no longer posted these reviews/articles, just say so in the comments. Thanks, and enjoy!

Most gamers out there will already be aware of Michael Thomsen's withering assessment of the hundred-hour fantasy game, Dark Souls, wherein he questioned whether a game of such length could ever be a worthwhile endeavour when the time (he surmised) could be spent much more effectively elsewhere. As happens far too often when members of the older generations write about video games, Thomsen quickly descends into judgmentalism, his thesis proving little more sophisticated than a suggestion games are not as worthy of a person's time as other activities or media.

It's tempting to write a full rebuttal, but Edge Magazine's Jason Killingsworth (if ever there were a more appropriate name...) got there first and did a better, more extensive job than I ever could. It's worth a read if you have a considerable amount of time on your hands, which you probably do if you're a Dark Souls fan. I kid, I kid! For all Thomsen's righteous indignation, one criticism he levelled did ring true and is something which has been bothering me for a while: gaming's continuing disregard for building consistent internal logic into its worlds and gameplay systems.

Apologies if that's the most pretentious sentence you've read so far this year. It's a difficult point to phrase more elegantly, though, so I'll use Thomsen's quote to illuminate my point:

"In more than twice the time it would take to read Tolstoy's historical fiction, Dark Souls leaves one's head overflowing with useless junk like the difference in attack stats between a Great Axe with a fire bonus versus a Great Axe with a divine bonus. These bits of occult nonsense don't have an internal logic. In one early section, you'll fight a pair of gargoyles who live perched high up on a bell tower in a castle. These gargoyles, you discover, are especially vulnerable to lightning damage. Why a creature that lives on the medieval equivalent of a lightning rod should be vulnerable to lightning damage is not explained. Every victory in the game is built on a similarly dumbfounding bit of nonlogic."

Disregarding the needless invocation of Tolstoy, Thomsen actually makes a very solid point about how little care many games seem to put into the internal consistencies of a game world and the demands it makes of the player. There's nothing wrong with fantasy, but few games seem to recognise the genre as more than a set of Tolkien-esque aesthetics. Fantasy writers for books, movies and television are notorious for going to ridiculous lengths to define every variable in the worlds they create, from class systems and royal hierarchies to the co-existence of different species and the sometimes anarchic effect magic can have on all those rules. Fantasy works best when the authors fill in every nook and cranny so intricately that the worlds seem as real and lived-in as our own. Only, you know, with dragons and that.

The lack of internal consistency in Dark Souls, as Thomsen describes, is a serious problem throughout gaming. In his rebuttal, Jason Killingsworth suggests this is excusable because it is akin to a game inviting the player to learn a kind of language unique to the experience, aka determining an enemy's weak point and using the appropriate bonus effect against it. This argument falls down on the fact that language relies on internal consistency more than any other human endeavour: if grammar, syntax and conjugation were defined by the illogical rules making up the foundations of many games, composing a single sentence would be an act of brain-destroying difficulty. Sometimes this incoherence can involve an enemy inhabiting a location completely nonsensical relative to their physical weaknesses, as detailed above, or it can be that their weakness simply appears entirely an entirely random choice.

You can see this in many different games, spanning all genres. It isn't just a matter of some games not thinking through their mechanics well enough, either: in everything from gameplay to world design, there's a noticeable lack of coherence in the way many games send messages to the player. I recently reviewed The Last Story on my CBlog, a game which features many of the cited issues in all aspects of its design. One of the most startling is the design of a castle which plays an important part in the game. I'll avoid important spoilers, but at one point the lead character manages to attend a royal event in the castle's ballroom. It's all very lavish and impressive, until you realise that the ballroom doesn't actually have a front entrance.

It's the room in the castle hosting the game's most vital ceremonial event, yet the only entrance is a tiny, narrow staircase behind the royal throne. Not only that, but to reach that point from the entrance, you have to climb a flight of stairs, make your way around the balcony, cross an exterior bridge to the opposite side of the castle, then locate the most innocuous of little staircases, more suited for allowing servants quick access between floors than ferrying dignitaries for a royal reception. Myriad other questions are raised about the design of the castle if you think about its layout for more than a minute. Many would argue that I'm nitpicking, but what does it say about the gaming medium's ability to tell worthwhile stories and build cohesive worlds if the developers are not even willing to consider such a fundamental absence of logic in a game's layout?

That's a problem with game spaces in general, which are designed to be exactly that - locations designed around the needs of a game, rather than worldly logic. The Resident Evil 2 police station is a classic example, yet while that game wears the ridiculousness of its environment on its sleeve - becoming endearingly hokey in the process - many other game environments are no more effectively designed as logical spaces, even if they try to disguise it through less conspicuously bonkers aesthetics. Half-Life 2 gets a great deal of praise for its world, yet still blocks players' paths with ridiculous obstructions and is laid out in a manner antithetic to any kind of convenient existence, with ridiculous 'puzzles' to clear and irritatingly circuitous routes designed to artificially prolong the player's time in a certain environment. All that is gained as a purpose built game space is immediately lost in creative credibility. Who cares about saving a world so obviously built around a single person, the player, rather than a logical outcome of its inhabitants' existence within their environment?

The same problem exists on a micro level too: why, in Xenoblade Chronicles (a game I love, incidentally), do the requests for rebuilding materials for one important side-quest bear no relation to what is being constructed? Okay, so it would be ludicrous to ask the player to ferry about hundreds of bricks and gallons of cement at a time, but if (for example) the project in question was the building of a house, could the architect at least ask for - say - a certain kind of rock and some kind of adhesive substance, rather than six feathers, three blades of grass and the hide of a mountain wolf?

Here's another: how many games highlight important locations with floating arrows, or circles of light, rather than attempting to communicate with the player through less conspicuous, illusion-breaking means? Again, such a criticism might appear pedantic in the extreme, but it's emblematic of the kind of shortcuts taken by game designers spanning the entire medium. David Lean didn't put a glowing arrow over Omar Sharif's head to mark his character's entrance in Lawrence Of Arabia, he subtly constructed the image to draw the viewer's eye to a certain point on the horizon. Assassin's Creed, on the other hand, lays down glowing cones of light to guide/force the player along a certain path, rather than finding a more appropriate method of direction. Considering how few game spaces are designed to be logical in their own right, the deployment of such techniques is nothing short of shambolic, illustrative of a medium lacking the communication language of the illustrious peers with which it so often demands equal billing.

Fiction works when it is based around a set of recognisable, relatable rules in logic and presentation. In taking such shortcuts, gaming is underselling its own capacity for telling stories and building worlds, with the medium being more suited to excelling in the latter category than any other. In gameplay terms, tighter design consistency allows more effortless communication with the player, in turn leading to more satisfactory experiences. If an enemy's weak spot has been arbitrarily decided, the player is merely following an order to quickly overcome an obstacle. The success is not theirs. If the enemy's weak spot is a logic extension of their design - shoot a bird in the wings to ground it, for example - then the player is able to gain greater satisfaction from being able to work out and implement the solution for themselves.

The same is true for all areas of design: an environment created solely for the purpose of hosting developer-set tasks will never be as inviting or fulfilling as one where the player feels part of a fully realised world. One of fiction's many pleasures comes from the redeployment of the familiar in exciting new ways: fantasy with its roots in medieval history, for example. If the seams are so obvious as to appear unreal, be it through illusion-breaking methods of signposting or nonsensical architecture, the user's relationship with that world can only operate on the most superficial of levels, as little more than an external participant in a game, rather than explorer of a new world. This matters less in abstract spaces (hence the mad construction of the Aperture labs being so much easier to accept, for me, in the barebones Portal than its narrative-driven sequel), but even the most far-fetched imaginative space must be defined by a set of rules clear to both designer and player. While Mr. Thomsen's snippiness in his critique of Dark Souls is uncalled for, if games are ever to be taken seriously as a worthwhile cultural endeavour, it is about time they started to take themselves more seriously as well.

What ho, Dtoiders! If you're so inclined to read more of my strange ramblings, you can follow me on Twitter (I'll follow you back, just mention in the comments if you go tweet under a different username), get updates from my blog on Facebook and, of course, be sure to pay a visit to Flixist as soon and often as possible! Thanks for reading!   read

5:51 AM on 02.28.2012

Review - The Last Story

Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Format: Wii
Developer: Mistwalker
Publisher: Nintendo
Players: 1, plus online multiplayer

DISCLAIMER: This review is up on the CBlogs at (roughly) the same time as my blog. As much as I love writing for the Dtoid Community, it's pretty hard to find the time these days to cover all my bases, including Flixist. If you'd rather I no longer posted these reviews/articles, just say so in the comments. Thanks, and enjoy!

If ever there were proof that Nintendo no longer has any idea what to do with the Wii in its final year, it is that virtually all its important 2012 titles are JRPGs. The publisher has a less than stellar record when it comes to promoting the genre outside its Japanese shores and took some convincing before allowing Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story to head States-ward. The Last Story was released in Europe last Friday, with Xenoblade having already been warmly received in September 2011.

While my Xenoblade review will be arriving in time for the game's US release, I'm confident enough in saying that it raises one hell of a standard for The Last Story to meet. Fortunately, on hand is Hinorobu Sakaguchi, creator of the original Final Fantasy and a man in search of a new hit for some time. In title, The Last Story makes a none-too-subtle nod to its creator's most successful creation. In execution, it has to prove the ailing genre still has the capacity to adapt for a modern generation of gamers seemingly where Western studios and design aesthetics dominate the cultural landscape.

Cards on the table, my knowledge of JRPGs is extremely limited. So limited, in fact, that unless the Mario RPG / Paper Mario series somehow counts, Xenoblade Chronicles represented my first proper foray into the genre. Even with my limited familiarity, Last Story's experimental streak is clear from the beginning. There is certainly no shortage of the familiar elements most commonly associated, by vets and noobs alike, with the genre: for one thing, the plot involves a floppy-haired boy, innocent to the ways of the world, discovering his hidden power, falling in love with an ethereal princess and heading out to save the world. So far, so many boxes ticked.

It's in the gameplay, though, where the game starts to take liberties with the established formula. As usual, the protagonist is part of a team which gathers experience points in combat, although where this would typically involve fighting as many enemies as possible in a relatively non-linear environment, Last Story takes a more Western approach to proceedings. The path through the game is tightly controlled, with only the city hub of Lazulis Island offering much in the way of freedom to explore. Whilst there are plenty of enemies to dispatch in each environment, harvesting extra experience has to be performed at certain pre-set points on the map (represented by a red symbol on the ground), where enemies can be summoned as many times as the player desires in order to ascend through the levels.

It's a streamlined approach, removing the annoyance of having to continuously traverse a wide environment to find enemies worth fighting, but its convenience comes at the cost of satisfaction. The traditional method of JRPG grinding may be in need of some work, but the labours required make its rewards all the sweeter when each new landmark is hit. Heading out into a new world to practice your skills is an important part of players immersing themselves in a world where their skills grow in tandem with those of the character they are controlling. It's a chore, but brings with it the pleasure of achieving an aim through hard work. Abandoning the need to hunt for prey does not make the fighting any less of a graft - it merely removes the legwork - but makes the game's world feel smaller, too centred around the needs of the player to fully immerse in the fantasy. It's a hollow convenience, tidying up one of the genre's minor annoyances but accidentally taking down a key pleasure with it.

Fortunately, changes to the traditional combat system are more successful, albeit implemented somewhat clumsily. Fighting takes on a form more similar to a third-person fighting game à la Prince Of Persia, with moves enabled through context rather than menu selection. Attack from cover to activate a more powerful strike, with a further damage increase if the enemy is confused as to the player's location. If near a wall, it's possible to activate a jumping stab. The concession to the genre's menu-based roots comes through Zael's ability to command his teammates (otherwise controlled by the AI) once his skill bar is full, selecting a sequence of moves to gain a tactical advantage. It's a slick system, undermined by how rarely it is needed: only later boss fights pose any serious challenge to all but the most haphazard players, who, with five lives at their disposal, can quite easily survive the game using only the most basic commands.

The crossbow is another neat tactical device - albeit disgracefully forcing Wii remote users to use analogue aiming rather than the infinitely superior pointer - allowing players to take out mages from afar and identify vulnerable spots in the environment to be destroyed, increasing the chances of a successful fight. A brief overview of the battlefield is offered beforehand, allowing players to form a rudimentary strategy and sometimes spot hidden pathways to gain a positional advantage.

It's an idea never used to its fullest, partly since the environment rarely makes a difference to how a battle plays out, but also because team-mates shout out the solution almost every time it does. Its main purpose ends up being to identify the different enemy types and select which to attack first (healers and mages, basically), reducing a potentially vital addition to a merely handy one. The online modes, based around players fighting each other or bosses from the single player, demonstrate the system's versatility, even though the multiplayer modes themselves soon lose any tactical edge to the human tendency to run around aimlessly and hope for the best.

Party members are chosen automatically ahead of each new scenario, in theory a good idea to force players to adapt to different styles of play, but in practice involves a rotation of characters with essentially the same skills. This approach also has the side-effect of unbalancing the team in the first half of the game, with some team members achieving levels way above the others, unless taken to the Lazulis Island combat arena to bolster their stats: Syrenne, the game's most charming character (armed with a filthy sense of humour and mildly arousing Lancastrian accent) is barely used at all until halfway through the story.

The game's frustrating inability to spot the potential in its own mechanics is further established by its habit of increasing difficulty - in all but the boss fights - merely by increasing the size of enemy hordes, or gradually strengthening foes without requiring any new strategies to overcome them. Large groups of enemies become doubly frustrating due to the game's technical shortcomings: the framerate slows to a chug whenever the action grows to anything involving more than a handful of characters at once, while the use of the analogue stick to control both movement and aim automatic attacks (this can be resolved by switching to manual) makes it quite possible to become unable to move when surrounded. The camera requires manual control at all times and is prone to jerking into inconvenient positions when left to function independently.

Framerate problems might have been slightly more forgivable were the game to give off the impression of taxing the console to any degree, but while sometimes graced by agreeable images (Zael and Lisa watching a display of shooting stars on a purple night sky), environments are small and texturing on enemies and scenery frequently blurry. Brown and grey colour schemes dominate, combining with the low-quality character models to make Lazulis Island a particularly dreary hub to navigate (the lack of signposting and worthwhile reward for sidequests, meanwhile, only encourages them to be ignored).

A further quirk is how, despite the game's muddy visual quality, it seems to have been designed for large televisions: on smaller screens, the icons indicating which character is equipped with what weapon or armour is almost indistinguishable, with no text offered for assistance. Certain bosses, meanwhile, require players to note small details, such as glowing red eyes, as a guide to success. The shambolic graphics make this a task requiring superhuman observational skills, leaving the player relying on pot luck or the purchase of a larger television to progress. Even for the Wii, that's an expensive peripheral too far.

The game steadily improves as the player adapts to its issues: battles become a tad more challenging and require greater tactical consideration, while the twenty hour length keeps the storytelling focused and accessible for those not able or willing to commit to a Xenoblade-esque eighty hour extravaganza. The lead characters are an engaging bunch, with their regional British accents an easy fit for the rural trappings of the fantasy genre (not a trace of sci-fi on show here) and the excellent localisation never shy of deploying an amusing colloquialism or two. Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu's score only produces a handful of memorable tracks, but is of consistently solid quality. A pity the same cannot be said for the game as a whole, its most exciting ideas let down by uneven execution. The Last Story is far from a write-off, offering enough potential to hope for an improved and title-defying second instalment, but as a first chapter it is a bit of a bungle. [ 5 ]   read

9:39 PM on 11.30.2011

Review - The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Format: Wii
Developer/Publisher: Nintendo
Players: 1

Skyward Sword is a game obsessed with motion. That's true of the controls, which utilises the gyroscopic sensitivity of the Wii Motion Plus to manage everything from basic attacks to swimming and various forms of flight, but even moreso of the core of its design. It is a game driven by keeping the player moving forward at all times, towards a new checkpoint or location.

The dowsing mechanic exemplifies this: courtesy of new fairy companion, Fi, your sword is now able to track people, locations and objects of importance, compelling you towards them with an excitable bleep. The game doesn't like the idea if it going unused, either: leave the C button alone for too long and the bleeping will start regardless, shrilling at you to get moving towards your next destination. No time to lose - there's a thing and it's all the way over there! What are you standing around for?

Goal-oriented progression is hardly new for either the series or videogames in general, but previous Zelda games have applied it fairly casually. You COULD head for your next dungeon in the desert, but there's also a lake waiting to be explored, plus all those opportunities passed a while back to use an item recently picked up. Skyward Sword includes side-quests and secrets, but does not exactly seem enthralled by the idea of players taking the time to indulge them (or, heaven forfend, go for a wander) when there's a story waiting to be told.

The game is significantly more linear than any previous entries, with environments designed more like obstacle courses than expansive worlds. Once you have made your inaugural pass through an area, a number of shortcuts are put in place to facilitate later navigation, allowing a touch more freedom but mostly in the aim of allowing quick access to a new path later on.

While a little dismaying for those of us who enjoyed taking Zelda games at our own pace, Nintendo have to be complimented on their outstanding use of space: from the surface lands to the dungeons, Skyward Sword is a masterclass is level design ergonomics, with nary a square inch wasted. Dungeons, in particular, are smaller in size than those from previous games, but navigating each feels like a puzzle in its own right - literally, for one example very late in the game - making for some of the series' finest efforts to date. The game may be a stricter taskmaster than veterans will be used to - as far as could be from the freeform NES original - but its efficiency is undeniable.

While the exploration may be missed, Skyward Sword is at its best when doing its own thing. The game's linearity allows the designers to throw new tests at the player with startling rapidity. One moment you will be duelling with a Bokoblin on a tightrope, the next guiding a minecart around a track at high-speed, or ascending a set of steep buttes to collect a map from the inconveniently located house of a robot pirate. The high volume of fetch quests (and one boss battle repeated three times and no less boring on each recurrence) can be frustrating and needlessly pads the game's length - a less forgiveable error in light of Xenoblade Chronicles staying consistently fresh despite being at least four times as long - but the game manages to be just surprising and wonderful enough that persevering through the annoyances feels worthwhile.

The motion controls play a big part in this. The sword fighting is the first and most obvious implementation, but each item in Link's arsenal is refreshed by the added physical twist. Bombs can be rolled along the floor or tossed through the air with the relevant gesture; levers manipulated with a crack of a whip and the wrist; a mechanical beetle flown through the air to scout ahead and find hidden switches: it is just a shame that the upgrade system is so negligible, neither in-depth or impactful enough to satisfy veterans, nor sufficiently simply for newcomers to easily to get to grips with.

Enemies, too, are vast in number and each requiring a different strategy to defeat, be it lacerating gooey blobs, dissecting Deku Babas, or slicing laser-firing totems along their illuminated body markings. Crowd control can be problematic when Link is surrounded, as wide attacks aimed at one enemy tend to get deflected by others at your sides (which can lead to damage being taken when the enemy in question is designed to punish misplaces swipes with electric swords and the like), but the physical nature of combat makes each encounter a thrill, especially the boss fights revolving around one-on-one duels, making an engaging step-up from what was offered in Ubisoft's excellent Red Steel 2 last year.

It isn't all perfect: the sword swiping may be vastly improved over Twilight Princess, but the decision to forego the sensor bar altogether for aiming, relying solely on the gyroscope, is a frustrating mess. With the remote's sensitivity set so low (and unalterable), the on-screen cursor often lags behind the player's movement rather than relaying it directly, meaning recalibration is required almost every time it is used. Trying to take aim in the midst of combat and finding Link pointing somewhere entirely different to the direction of your Wii remote is unacceptable. The skyward charge is also somewhat unreliable for the same reason, often taking several attempts to initiate and adding a unnatural layer of difficulty to the two boss battles in which it plays an integral part.

As the 25th anniversary game, there are a number of echoes to previous entries in the longstanding series, few of which are a comfortable fit: the sky echoes Wind Waker's vast ocean, but with fewer areas of interest and requiring too much physical activity - controlling the flight of Link's bird, the loftwing, is done with the Motion Plus gyroscope - to achieve the Zen-like relaxation which made traversing those expanses bearable.

A musical instrument and time travelling mechanic are carried over from Ocarina, although the former is strictly controlled in terms of when and how it can be used, and the latter is restricted to two areas, both identical in past and present barring a slight darkening in colour palettes. Twilight Princess' teardrop-collecting trials are imported wholesale and only slightly less irritating. Majora gets a small nod prior to the climactic battle, but otherwise continues to be treated like the black sheep of the Zelda family.

In lieu of a vast Hyrule field, the game's central hub is Skyloft, Link's floating island home from which he can access three areas of the land below (divided between forest, desert, volcano). Though its soft colours are easy on the eye, it is by far the blandest of the Zelda overworlds to date: apart from the chests secreted away in various nooks and crannies, accessible only after being 'activated' by cubes on the surface, there is precious little waiting to be uncovered. The flying mechanic, meanwhile, remains unchanged from beginning to end, with the sole attempt to use it in a combat situation being mundanely simplistic and barely lasting more than a few minutes. Those hoping for aerial (bird)fights will have to think again - it exists solely as a means of navigation and is consequently one of the game's most blaring missed opportunities. Fortunately, diving from the sky's highest point to its lowest island never gets old.

The town's populace is imminently forgettable, mostly defined by appearance rather than personality, making the tasks they set feel just that little bit more laborious than usual. Although there's one moment which is genuinely hilarious (a rare treat in gaming, but one which Skyward Sword pulls off unexpectedly frequently), involving a dilemma as to what to do with a poorly-worded love letter, nothing ever comes close to matching the joy, tragedy and grace that made each of Majora's Mask side-quests so rewarding. As befitting a game so determined to keep its players on the straight and narrow, most can be done and dusted with a minimum of time and effort.

One improvement on previous entries is the relationship between Link and Zelda, which finally manages to flesh out both characters beyond the usual hollow archetypes of hero and damsel in distress. Stripping Zelda of her royal status (although she is still the daughter of the prestigious Knight Academy's headmaster), she instead becomes Link's dearest childhood friend and unspoken crush, the one who wakes him up when he sleeps in - leading to the game's most heartbreaking line - and shouts down the gang of jealous bullies who confront him. If the other characters are mostly reduced to space-fillers (exceptions being Groose's excellent comedy stylings and Lord Ghirahim's gleefully sadistic androgyny), putting Link and Zelda as the game's emotional core works to moving effect.

The central love story - because that's what it is, even if Zelda is quite the tease - is enhanced no end by Koji Kondo's versatile and playful score. While only the end credits track reaches the heights of his greatest works, notably on Ocarina and Mario Galaxy, the orchestration is an enormous step up from the MIDI-produced soundtracks from previous Zelda titles and hits all the right emotional cues - sad, funny, stirring, sedate - at all the right moments. The way the music for the Skyloft Bazaar alters slightly to suit each vendor is a particularly endearing touch.

So too does Skyward Sword change character, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. The painterly visuals are a perfect fit for the series' unique blend of epic scope and intimate charm, but the feeling pervades that they are unlikely to survive the leap to the next generation of consoles. The streamlined design leads to some of the series' most engaging dungeons, but also makes this the first 3D Zelda to have no time for a sunset. The story of Zelda and Link finally finds a heart to match its legendary scale, but reduces the supporting cast to non-entities. For every fresh innovation to drive the series forward, there seems to be a frustration or a loss to match. Nods to the past feel perfunctory and half-hearted. A relief, then, that the moments when it all comes together are so much greater in power than those when it stumbles: Skyward Sword's greatest achievement is in getting a twenty-five year old series moving again. [ 7 ]

This review will also be published on my blog at 12pm GMT tomorrow.   read

6:12 PM on 10.31.2011

Halloween Retrospective: Eternal Darkness (GameCube, 2002)

Hey, Cbloggers. Long time no see. Reading what the Dtoid staff consider their most terrifying gaming moments, and seeing them somehow miss the most nerve-wrecking one of all, inspired me to write about a game I consider one of the scariest ever made. (There's a link at the bottom of the article to the precise moment I'm talking about). For the record, this article will be put up on my blog shortly after I publish it here. I know you guys aren't keen on having cblogs also being online elsewhere at the same time - quite rightly - but it's Halloween and there's a time limit on this sort of stuff. It'll probably go up on the blog at midnight, UK time, which gives Dtoid a nice hour of TOTAL EXCLUSIVITY. w00t.

Back on topic: Eternal Darkness begins with a monologue about how little we are aware of the consequences of our decisions. The narrator, Edward Roivas (recently deceased), might as well be passing a more specific judgment on game design rather than humanity in general. Games rarely force players to deal with consequences in any meaningful way, no matter how elaborate the action. In fairness, it should be pointed out that no narrative medium explores consequences in any great depth – action heroes don't have to do gaol sentences for all the death and destruction they were responsible for – unless it can be tied into the central plotline somehow. But because gaming stories are by necessity padded out more than those of books and film, where the users' experience of time is controlled by the author rather than themselves, they are prone to including a greater number of throwaway events - boss battles, isolated action sequences - that are forgotten the instant they're over.

Originating on the N64, the game is unique in many ways, but arguably none moreso than the importance it places on making players feel the consequences of their actions. This is a factor of the game that goes largely overlooked, even by those lauding its many qualities.

The sanity effects are brought up most often, referring to instances when the player's character has tussled with too many monsters without respite and apparently starts to lose their mind, resulting in such meta-horror as the player being shown a message on-screen that their controller has been unplugged, or their save file is being deleted when it's supposed to be saving. Yet these broad strokes are more amusing than terrifying, even irritating after recurring once too often. They're inventive for sure, but rely too much on players being scared as players outside the game than as the character in the midst of the narrative. There are a handful which work well – the hammering on doors as you approach never fails to be a little unnerving – but the likely truth is that they're remembered more as being one of the game's most distinctive features, even if its more subtle tricks are far more effective.

Having put some playtime into the game in anticipation of this article, the emphasis on making players live out the consequences of their actions seems to me the real reason behind its success as a horror game. It's easy to roll your eyes at statements that building strong characters is key to drawing the most powerful emotional reactions out of players or viewers, but finding that discernable streak of individuality in the person through whom you'll be experiencing the story does make you feel like you know them and have a stake in their future. No-one has ever been scared in a Legend of Zelda game because Link is designed to be anonymous. This approach has its benefits in blurring the line between the gamer and their avatar's actions on-screen, but makes it far more difficult for the developer to draw tension or fear without that empathetic connection.

Eternal Darkness has a (relatively) large list of playable characters occurring throughout various points in history. The slightly hokey framing for this is that Alex Roivas, the game's official protagonist, discovers a secret office in her murdered grandfather's mansion where he was studying the Tome of Eternal Darkness, a collection of knowledge accumulated by damned individuals throughout human history. As Alex reads their stories, we flashback with her.

In visual design alone, these characters are so far removed from the traditional gaming heroes - a Roman centurion, an 18th century nobleman, a monk - that they immediately feel more real by differentiation from what we're used to. Developers Silicon Knights don't make these differences purely aesthetic: each character has a health and sanity bar unique to them (among other invisible attributes, like running speed and posture), which reflects the physical strength of their appearance and the mental strength of someone in their situation. The centurion and the fireman, for example, are more resilient to losing sanity than a monk or Cambodian dancer. Despite the clunky animation no doubt leftover from the game's early days on the N64, even the characters' finishing moves seem strangely appropriate to each of them. Even though we interact with them no differently than we do any number of identikit game protagonists elsewhere, it's in these fine details that the player is first drawn into a world rich enough for the fantasy, no matter how outlandish, to attain that all important grip of credibility on our minds.

With distinctive characters anchoring the drama and its world, Silicon Knights proceed to relentlessly punish players for their sympathies. After giving you people to care about, the game starts destroying them in front of your eyes, all while you're in control of them and still powerless to change their fate no matter how many spells you cast or monsters you defeat. Since we believe in these characters and want to see them survive, this gives the world a real sense of danger and foreboding. In almost any other game, forcing the player into these cycles of predestined defeat would be blasphemous to the accepted rules of design – players get their kicks from feeling like champions, after all.

Yet by spanning the narrative across history, Silicon Knights makes every small victory along the path feel that much more important and rewarding. Discovering a new spell adds it to the Tome, which may not be enough to save the character presently in your control, but will make the journey easier for whomever is next in line to pick it up. Among a cast of vulnerable, human individuals facing a supernatural threat of divine magnitude, these tiny successes escalate until, when the time comes for Alex Roivas to make her stand, she's empowered enough to do so.

It's this sense of collaborative effort, enduring terrible suffering so that humanity will one day be able to stand its ground when the threat rises to the surface, that gives the game its emotional weight. Finding the corpse of a character who had been at your control in a past period in history becomes an unsettling reminder both of your previous failure as a player but also the reasons you choose to persist in the long struggle. This is a game with a real sense of passing time, where the consequences of tiny struggles can be felt echoing thousands of years into future where, as Alex continues to turn the pages of the Tome in her dead grandfather's office, the monsters beneath the surface are closing in on the present day.

This is a story where the efforts of the weakest person can have an impact felt far deeper and longer than any number of heavily-armed space marines. When the game talks about destiny, it's not just empty self-aggrandising. Edward Roivas is damning of humanity for choosing to remain ignorant of the consequences of its decisions. Enlightening us might well be Eternal Darkness' most terrifying trick.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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PS: First off, apologies for not posting here so often these days. Believe me, I miss my dear old cblog, but between writing for my blog and Flixist, time can be tight and I don't want to disrespect this awesome community by just copy and pasting everything. I still do pop in every now and again, though, and love how you guys still do some of the most interesting and original games writing on the 'net.

PPS: Speaking of my blog, I'm currently serialising an action thriller, DEAD DROP, and it would be very cool to get some feedback from you guys. Also, I'm now on Twitter and have a Facebook page. I mostly use them for promotion, but will follow anyone who follows me and do my best to reply to any tweets, comments, or whatnot.   read

7:08 PM on 04.24.2011

Aaamaazing: Grabbed by the Spetsnaz

James Bond sat alone in the small St Petersburg bar and downed a third whiskey and soda to soften the screams of dead men for another hour. Under the red light, he checked his watch, a 1953 Rolex submariner which told a different time to the clock above the back bar.
"Another," he told the bartender. "Is your clock correct?"
"Russian clocks are always correct," the bartender replied as he poured the drink.
Bond disapproved of the American whiskey, but said nothing and again drained the glass in a single gulp. Having forgotten to do so upon his arrival at Pulkovo Airport three hours earlier, he changed his watch to St Petersburg time. He looked up and an ageing man with grey hair stared back at him from the bar mirror.
A man in an army raincoat entered the bar, accompanied by a blast of frosty air. He kicked the door closed with the back of his heel, then withdrew the hood from over his head to reveal a mohawk haircut and stern looking face.
Bond assessed the man in his peripheral vision. Even beneath the loose coat, the broad shoulders gave away his muscular build. He was over six feet tall and like Bond, instinctively checked for alternate exits. His eyes were those of a killer.

The man sat down at the bar.
"Vodka," he said.
A fellow Scot, Bond thought approvingly. He also ordered another and the two men drank at the same time. A knife on a chopping board next to the beer tap caught Bond's eye. He turned the dial to prepare his watch magnet, just in case.
"Can I trouble you for a cigarette?" the man said.
"What do you smoke?" Bond asked.
"Dunhill, with a lighter."
"Morlands, with a match," Bond said, removing a crumpled packet from his breast pocket. The man accepted the cigarette and lit it himself with a gunmetal lighter.
"Better still," the man said.
"Until they go wrong."
The bartender observed them, but had little evident understanding of what was being said.
"Sounds like we're from the same stock," Bond said, "My name's Bond."
"MacTavish," the man replied through a breath of smoke. "How long have we got?"
"One minute," Bond said.
"Longer than usual," MacTavish said, "You're older than I'd guessed. From all the stories we get told about you, it makes a kind of sense. What do you carry, Mr. Bond?"
Bond checked that the bartender was occupied, then opened his jacket to reveal a holstered PP7.
"Chicken feed," MacTavish sneered, "Mine's a USP .45. You sure you're still up to this? Hate to say this, Bond, but you might have looked good back in your day, but these are different times."
"You chaps still have plenty to learn," Bond said, "I was running a tank through these streets before you were even born."
The door swung open again and five men came in from the cold. Four of them wore identical black Spetsnaz trenchcoats. The other carried a case and wore the uniform of a Russian general. The general sat down and barked an order at the bartender, who set about finding an unopened bottle of vodka and five shot glasses. His bodyguards glared at MacTavish and Bond.
"More than I was expecting," MacTavish whispered. "My primary's only a Skorpion."
Bond chuckled. "If all you've got is a Klobb, maybe you should sit this one out. The nearest guard is at least five yards away, you might not be able to hit him."

"So what have you got that's so damn good?" MacTavish asked.
"Apart from my PP7?" Bond said, "A DD44 Dostovei, a KF7 Soviet, an Automatic Shotgun, twin RCP-90s, three grenades and a proximity mine."
MacTavish's eyes widened as he stared at Bond's fitted suit jacket.
"In there?" he said.
"A trick from the old days," Bond replied.
One of the bodyguards approached and clamped a hand on MacTavish's shoulder. He said something in angry Russian.
"He's telling us to leave," MacTavish said.
Each of the other bodyguards reached inside their coats and revealed hidden assault rifles.
"This could get messy," MacTavish said.
"Yes," Bond said, "Unfortunately for them."
The guard nearest to them pulled a pistol from his pocket. As MacTavish unsheathed his knife, Bond had already spun on his barstool and knocked the man out with a backwards karate chop to the neck.
The other bodyguards spread out and the general upturned a table for cover. As gunfire shredded the bar counter, MacTavish drew his Skorpion and fired wildly from the hip as he dived for cover. A splash of blood erupted from his shoulder before he reached safety.
"I'm hit!" he shouted, "Give me a minute!"
The noise from the other side of the bar was deafening, but once MacTavish's vision had returned to normal, he leant over the top and aimed down his sights. All he saw was four dead bodies and Bond blowing smoke from the barrels of his two P90s (both customised in a bright orange skin).
"How the hell did you do that?" MacTavish exclaimed.
"Automatic aim," Bond said, "Didn't need to aim down sights in my day. Just point and click, then let instinct do the rest."
"Didn't you take any hits?"
"One or two," Bond said, "But I picked up Body Armour on the way in. I can take at least four more before I'm in any trouble."
Before MacTavish could respond, the barrel of a submachine gun rose up from behind the upturned table and began firing blind towards the bar. Bond vaulted the counter in a hail of fluorescent bullet trails.

"Shit!" MacTavish exclaimed, "I left Deep Impact in my other loadout!"
"No problem," Bond said. He pointed his RCP-90 at the back of the counter and fired a single shot. There was a scream on the other side.
"Lucky you brought it with you," MacTavish smiled.
"No need," Bond said. "In my day, you just picked the right gun."
"Does seem a bit overpowered," MacTavish remarked.
"That's what makes it more fun," Bond replied, "It's not in the Power Weapons set for nothing, you know."
The two men climbed back over the wrecked counter. Bond picked up the general's suitcase from amidst the debris on the ground.
"Objective A completed," he said.
"Objective what?" MacTavish said, looking increasingly bewildered, "How many do you have?"
"On this mission, four," Bond said, "Although I've only two left to complete, since I snuck around the back and disabled the security for Objective B before coming in here."
"Man," MacTavish said, "I just made a straight line for the entrance. No idea it was possible to deviate."
"Like I said," Bond said, "You have plenty to learn."
The bartender, who had taken refuge in one of the cupboards, darted towards the door at the back. MacTavish pulled the pistol from his coat, but Bond pushed his arm away before he could fire.
"Objective C," Bond said, "Avoid civilian casualties."
"But he's gonna give us away!" MacTavish protested.
An explosion detonated from the room behind the bar and the bartender was sent flying back through the door as flames penetrated the walls.
"Luckily for us, I can kill two more before failing the objective," Bond said, "So a little fun with proximity mines never goes amiss. I should tell you about this poor fellow called Dr. Doak I met a while back."
"But you said you had two objectives left," MacTavish said, "What about the other one?"
Bond drew his PP7 and fired a shot at the shelf in front of the mirror, shattering a bottle of whiskey.
"That one was for me," he said, "I can't stand American whiskey."
MacTavish shook his head and wrapped himself back in his raincoat.
"Bond," he said, "I think I owe you an apology. You may not look so good these days, but damn, those are some rare skills you've got."
"That's okay, MacTavish," Bond said. He checked his watch again. "I'm glad I set this to the right time. We finished this mission in under two minutes and fifteen seconds. I'm invincible now."
MacTavish looked at him dumbfounded.
"Don't worry," Bond said with a grin as they left the bar, "You just wait until I tell you about DK Mode."


Flixist Film School: How To Write An Ending   read

3:14 PM on 03.13.2011

Technical Difficulties: The Masochist Gamer

I wanted to write a Monthly Musing last month but couldn't find the time, so was a tad despondent when this month's topic turned out to be something I'd already written a full blog post on a while back, which you can read here. Fortunately, since my Wii was totalled by Black Ops last week, I started playing a few of the games on my Steam account I hadn't used for a while, one of which was Ice-Pick Lodge's magnificent The Void.

Now when I say magnificent, I'm talking about the overall experience, judged retroactively after the game has been turned off rather than during play. There are some games that are immediately enjoyable, where every second spent in that world is a new joy: The Void is not one of those games. The closest analogy I can draw is that Ice-Pick Lodge's games are like reading a difficult but brilliant novel. Each page is a struggle and often makes you question whether the effort will be worth the end result, yet you keep on trucking because every time you put the book down, there is a sense of pride as much at decyphering the author's complex creation as at your own sheer perseverance. When reading James Joyce's Ulysses, supposedly the most 'difficult' book ever written, I barely understood a word of what was going on, yet there was something intoxicating about participating in this new kind of reading and a delight every time I did pick up some scrap of coherence or obscure reference and was able to cast just a tiny bit more light on the meaning of the baffling text. I even ended up going to re-read chapters in case there was something I missed (which usually turned out to be everything), an odd path to choose in order to reach the end of a 1,000 page book whose final chapter comprises a 30-page long sentence.

The point I'm circuitously arriving at is that reading Ulysses was an enriching experience, despite proving in equal terms frustrating and infuriating over the weeks it took me to reach the end. Sometimes I feel like doing it all over again, before realising that an unread, several-inches-thick edition of The Divine Comedy is still staring at me from my bookshelf. (And despite what EA would have me believe, I'm told it involves little to no epic scale slaughter of the damned.) Ice-Pick Lodge are the only developer I've found to have tapped into the power of the difficult read for gaming: The Void makes you work and work and work, often into dead-ends where you have to start all over again, yet making progress, even if it is measured in inches over days, feels more rewarding than any other game I've played. The original Dead Rising was much more user-friendly, yet flirted with this nuance with its single save file, strict three-day time limit and high entry level difficulty. Many people complained, yet when concessions were made for the sequel, something was lost in the satisfaction of pulling off a well-executed plan within the space of a single day. Both are very enjoyable games - I wrote a review DR2 a while back, awarding a respectable 7/10, but it was lost in the limbo of Destructoid's short-lived flirtation with Mammoth - but as unfriendly as the original game could be, it was to me a more rewarding and engrossing experience for the suffering it sometimes put me through.

The average gamer, it must be said, is not really accustomed to having to fight for their rewards. There are of course the über-hardcore who spend days in front of a flashing screen to gain three extra points on the latest bullet-hell shooter, but the vast majority of players are pandered to by developers worried that the last third of their multi-million dollar extravaganza will go unseen unless every puzzle can be solved in under a minute and no enemy able to cause more than a scratch on the protagonist's armour (with myriad checkpoints in place just in case, Miyamoto forbid, something should go wrong). The million-selling success of games like Demon's Souls and Monster Hunter Tri prove that there is an audience out there who don't want to be held by the hand through a game and don't need to be constantly rewarded to keep playing, yet there seems as little enthusiasm on the part of even indie developers to explore the power of the negative experience in their games as there is in gamers ready to reflect on how sometimes the 'bad' parts of a game actually make the good parts better and improve the overall experience. I talk about No More Heroes a lot so will be brief here, but I remain absolutely convinced that the reason the sequel was in some circles felt less engaging as the original was because it was made more user-friendly. The much criticised side-jobs (lawnmowing, etc) might have been boring for the three minutes they took to complete, but not only made the game's action sequences more exciting by contrast but also added a layer of thematic depth to the story. I wrote at length about NMH in one of my very early Cblog posts, so go here if you're interested in a more extensive analysis of the game.

There is a difference between a difficult game, which can be a challenging version of a familiar and accessible scenario, and one which is brave enough to manipulate its players' negative emotions. Sadness, anger, powerlessness and boredom are a part of everyday life and while many would argue that games should be an escape from those things, they are also emotions which can enhance the positives and elevate an experience, be it a book or a film or a game, to a level where you feel better for having gone through it and maybe even teaches you something about yourself. I'm not going to pretend that gaming is the only medium where those kinds of experiences are kept outside the mainstream, but it is a medium that more than most seems fixated on the short-term reward, constantly throwing treats to its players to entice them a little further towards the end. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does result in a lot of games feeling emotionally flat and forgettable. In games like Call of Duty, that's fine: who wants to feel something when there's shooting to be done and kill/death ratios to increase? It would be interesting though to play a war game that challenged gamers to take in the boredom, or the more mundane difficulties, of being a soldier, rather than a constant flood of viscera and explosions. If combat only broke out once or twice in a game where the vast majority of time was spent performing menial tasks, those moments would be absolutely heart-pounding, especially if combined with the permadeath which AwesomeExMachina so eloquently advocated in his Monthly Musings post.

I don't know or much care whether games can be considered art, but I do know that when I look at many great works of art, they inspire a mix of positive and negative emotions and challenge the way I would normally look at life. When I play games, the emphasis almost always seems on positive things, be it offering regular doses of success or looking visually attractive, for example. (Ice-Pick Lodge's Pathologic is one of the few games I've played with the courage to be genuinely - and deliberately - unpleasant to look at, yet is stronger for it.) Games might not need to be art, but it wouldn't hurt to step back and take some inspiration from it. Van Gogh's depression caused some of the most stunning paintings ever put to canvas. James Joyce's Ulysses expanded my views on what could be achieved and conveyed through literature. Ice-Pick Lodge's The Void inspired me to come up with a topic for this Monthly Musing. Sometimes a little suffering can go a long way.


Flixist: The Cult Club - Django (1966)

Hit-Reset: Is it time to send the Wii into retirement?

Flixist: Review - The Adjustment Bureau

Hit-Reset: 25 Years of Zelda - The Legend of Zelda (NES) retrospective   read

2:27 PM on 02.06.2011

My Perspective: 3DS hands-on preview [UPDATED with Steel Diver]

UPDATE: Just realised after reading sheppy's latest blog entry that I'd completely forgotten to write anything about Steel Diver, which I also played for a short amount of time. I've put a paragraph about it in-between Pro Evo and Ridge Racer and added a screenshot so it can be found easily by anyone paying a return visit.

I attended one of Nintendo's 3DS events in London on Saturday evening and had the chance to spend just over an hour playing through several of the handheld's most anticipated games. Unfortunately Zelda and Pilotwings didn't seem to be among them as there were no signs indicating which games were playing on each system, so it was a case of having to check each available screen before starting, but I did get time with Resident Evil: The Mercenaries, Street Fighter, Pro Evolution Soccer, Kid Icarus, Steel Diver, AR Games, Ridge Racer and others, including 3D-ified trailers for Metal Gear Solid, Animal Crossing and Mario Kart.

The evening began with a tour guide, one of the many identikit blondes Nintendo seem to like having as staff for these things, escorting my small group into a room where two 'actors' posed as Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter in front of some makeshift props.

"You can take pictures!" The guide enthusiastically assured us, before beckoning us onto the next room but failing to take into account how worryingly keen several people would be to take her up on her words. It took her a good few minutes to part these amateur photographers from their beloved Ken and Ryu, who at that point seemed to have run out of Street Fighter-related karate poses and were just flexing their muscles for their disconcertingly-adoring public. Evidently Nintendo had overestimated the appeal of their new 3D handheld in the face of two slightly porn-y looking beefcakes. And for the record, all the photographers in question were boys.

Once everyone had finally assembled in the next room, we were greeted by two more actors dressed in military garb who announced themselves, in truly godawful ersatz-American accents, as Claire and Chris Redfield. We were led in a conga-line by 'Chris' through a near-pitch black room, with the torch attached to his shotgun leading the way and highlighting various 'zombies' for us to gawk at. One was a fellow leaning out of a shed and having a good old groan. I'm not even sure he was part of the show, given his lack of makeup, maybe just some drunk who'd got a bit sozzled and got himself stuck inside. I've certainly seen worse on a night out in Shoreditch. 'Chris' was then attacked by the chainsaw dude from Resi 5 and we were told by Claire to make a run for it, so peacefully ambled along to the next room. As we stood waiting for the rest of the group, poor Chris was presumably getting his face chainsawed off as there seemed to be all sorts of strange noises coming from the zombie room and he never appeared again.

Next we had to watch a video of Jonathan Ross waxing lyrical about how the 3DS was going to be the greatest achievement in human history and we should be bowing at Nintendo's altar as some of the 'first in the world' (hmmm) to get a chance to play on it. He said that Zelda was looking 'awesome' and Pro Evo gets a thumbs up, quite an accolade from someone who stated several times on his old chat show that he had no interest in football. Eventually, an overexcited woman emerged from behind the curtain to the next room and asked everyone to scream their excitement. Now, the Brits don't share the Americans' enthusiasm for this sort of thing. Our culture is becoming Americanised in all sorts of ways, but one thing we've never been any good at is being told to loudly express excitement on command. A murmur of embarrassed 'yeahs' went up, drawing that most unwelcome of responses from the woman blocking our path to gaming goodness: "I can't hear you..." A chorus of marginally louder, more irate 'yes'es filled the room and realising that she wasn't going to get anywhere, let us through into a dark room filled with unmarked 3DS cubicles, where we spent about forty minutes before being led to the next room so the group behind us could have a go. Given how there were more consoles than people in each group, it would have been preferable to have groups twice as large spending twice as long in each room, but I digress.

Holding the 3DS feels effectively identical to holding a DS Lite, sturdy and a nice weight with the buttons and new analogue nub naturally finding their way under your thumbs. The nub itself is a superb addition, feeling slightly more springy and resistant than a console's analogue stick but just right for its more compact nature. The start and select buttons, located beneath the bottom screen, were less convenient to get to (the Home button is also there, but had been disabled) although these are hardly the most vital. The upper screen is now widescreen, but the touchscreen is the same ratio as the original DS'. It's a nicely designed piece of kit, instantly familiar to everyone who owns a DS but with improvements in key areas, of which the new analogue nub is the biggest and best step. Don't be surprised if a 3DS XL turns up by Christmas though.

The first game I played was Resident Evil: The Mercenaries. I'd heard a lot about the 'wow' moment that accompanies seeing glasses-free 3D for the first time and I have to say, my reaction was... "Oh right, is that it?"

If you've seen 3D in the cinema, you'll know what to expect here. Having always found 3D an unnecessary and somewhat vulgar addition to films, I can't say my first impression was any different here. It was slightly more artificial-looking than cinematic 3D, although it should be pointed out that games set for release at launch were better in this regard, but again felt like a visual complication where none was needed. It might not have been the best game to start with though - had I found Pilotwings I would have gone for that, and it's a game I still would like the chance to try out in 3D - as third-person shooters don't need any greater depth than is possible to simulate on 2D screens. As a game, it was fun and worked well. It's exactly like Mercenaries mode from RE4 (and presumably RE5), with a set of five selectable characters (each with their individual weapon load-outs) and two maps based on locations from Resis 4 & 5. You have to kill as many enemies as possible, chaining together combos while smashing translucent totem pole-thingies in order to add time onto the clock. The excellent analogue nub made aiming quick and easy - as in the best Resi tradition, you have to stop moving to shoot - and the graphics look fine, slightly sub-GameCube standard but on a smaller screen that increases the resolution. The screen blur when moving the 3DS away from the 'sweet spot', where your eyes see the clearest 3D image, was not as severe as I expected it to be. I tried the game for a minute or two in 2D mode and I can't say it made the game any worse. If anything, without the distracting 'depth' effects and movement blur, it actually looked better.

Next was Pro Evolution Soccer. Of all the games' 3D effects, this one had the most startling initial impact: it looked terrific and the players really stood out on the field, making for a more immersive experience. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I was blown away by it, but it was the first time in any medium that the effect seemed to have any noticeable benefit. Unfortunately, while the 3D in the sweet spot was marvellous, the movement blur was horrific. The slightest nudge in the wrong direction splintered the image to an almost unplayable degree, a problem severe enough that I can see becoming a major issue if not sorted out in time for launch. The game itself played fine, although the camera was set to an annoying low-angle (in order to emphasize the 3D, but I'd imagine this will be changeable) that swept all over the field as it followed the ball and made it difficult to work out the positions of your defenders. It was much better when attacking, as the camera was always focused on your player, but the high-angle camera these games usually adopt is preferable, even if it would lose much of what made the 3D so initially remarkable.

I also had a go on Steel Diver, although the fact that I entirely forgot to write about it until now should tell you that it wasn't the most memorable game on show. Actually, that's not entirely fair: I only played the training level and while there was nothing wrong with it per se, it just wasn't my sort of thing. You control your submarine (from a choice of three, each with their own attributes and an Advance Wars-esque captain) entirely with the touch screen, adjusting height, orientation, speed and a few other tricks by tuning gauges and pressing buttons with your stylus. I can see it being the kind of game that, with plenty of time and practice, becomes second nature and rewarding through the mastery of its intricacies. But in only five minutes of play, it felt like too much of a battle to perform even fairly basic navigation with any degree of precision. I crashed into just about everything. For the right person, someone who loves spending time getting to grips with detailed systems and manipulating them to increased levels of exactitude, I can see this becoming a real cult favourite - it's just that I'm not that person. I can see how it all works, but my preference is for games that challenge through scenarios rather than systems: spending hours perfecting the traversal of a fairly wide tunnel with just the right trajectory isn't the stuff my gaming dreams are made of. The touchscreen seemed a bit inconsistent, but that might have been because I was flicking it in haste to correct my clumsy movements rather than applying each measure with appropriate care. As a game operating on a two-dimensional plane (I can't really say a 2D game anymore, can I?), the 3D effects mostly just deepened some of the background imagery. Nintendo have previously mentioned the game as an example to show their 3D off though, so perhaps later levels are more elaborate (I'm thinking perhaps objects coming from the background to foreground in Donkey Kong Country Returns style). The fairest conclusion I can draw is that Steel Diver was a well-made game that will almost certainly develop a cult following, but needed more playing time to reveal itself fully and a different player to appreciate what it was trying to do.

I also didn't spend long with Ridge Racer, but this time because it was frankly dreadful by anyone's standards. The 3D was chunky and distracting - bits of dust and grit occasionally got kicked up into the 'front' layer of the screen, an effect that I found visually irritating and others may find uncomfortable if rumours of headaches are to be believed - and the movement blur was at least as bad as Pro Evo. Even with the 3D turned off, the visuals are very basic (think early PS2) and the cars steer like concrete blocks. I'm no racing game pro by any stretch of the imagination and even if I may not have had time to overcome a learning curve, there was enough wrong with almost every other aspect of the game that I suspect fans of the genre will greet it with no greater goodwill.

Kid Icarus was also disappointing, though mainly because the controls were so bad. It might have been that I missed something because there were no sheets explaining how to play the game, meaning I had to go in blind, but in the flying section I played, you had to move Pit with the analogue nub, fire with the buttons and aim your cursor with the stylus, making it near-impossible to perform all three vital functions at the same time. I'm willing to accept that there might have been some control tricks I missed, but these should have become apparent in five minutes of play. The game itself seemed more of a tech-demo for 3D than anything else, with enemies flying in and out of the screen and Pit shooting them down before a giant witch popped up for a climactic battle. It was adequate to play, without too much movement blur, but exactly what you'd expect from watching the trailers and nothing more. I heard from other players at the event that a second ground-based level controlled even worse. Considering the demo started with Pit shouting "Sorry to keep you waiting!", I can't say his long-awaited appearance delivered much more than bog-standard gameplay with functional 3D and sub-par controls. All it really got me thinking was how Nintendo should have saved Sin & Punishment 2 for the 3DS instead of this.

In the next room, I got my hands on Street Fighter. I should point out that I have never played the series in any form before - sacrilege, I know - so was completely unaware of any combos or moves that might have improved my plodding fighting style. (Again, it would have been helpful to have sheets detailing the basic controls). Fortunately the difficulty seemed to be set on 'ridiculously easy' so I won both fights and had a good time doing it. The 3D is agreeably unintrusive, with the new over-shoulder camera working well enough to show the distance between the two fighters, but shifting to 2D didn't feel like it made much difference. For one thing, judging the distance between fighters is easier still when viewed from a traditional side-on camera angle, so technically the combination of the new camera perspective and 3D just added an unneeded gimmick. But the game was enjoyable, responsive and while I'm definitely not the person to be making judgments on this particular genre, the idea of having Street Fighter in your pocket in any form will likely be enough to get many gamers frothing in anticipation and there was nothing I saw that would give me reason to suggest otherwise.

Ironically, the most ambitious use of 3D came from the games that will be loaded onto the system at launch, the so-called AR (Augmented Reality) Games. These use the 3D camera to project graphics onto a real-time image of whatever the handheld is looking at, creating a little game out of it. One of these was Face Raiders, where you were asked to take a photograph of yourself or a friend (or the back of a blonde's head, as was the case due to my impatience) and then have the photo painted over flying enemies as you try and shoot them down. The twist is that you move the 3DS to aim, taking advantage of the camera and gyroscope, so you actively have to turn to find off-screen enemies. It's fun and easy to get the hang of, but there's barely anything to it. This being a Nintendo game, you throw balls at the enemies rather than shoot them (as Rare discovered when trying to integrate the Game Boy Camera into the N64's Perfect Dark, Nintendo aren't keen on letting people shoot their friends) and it's all very straightforward and accessible. Levels are completed quickly and there aren't many of them, although since this is technically a pack-in game, I suppose there's more on offer than you might expect.

The second game involved focusing the camera on a card with an old-school Mario question block on it, from which targets and enemies burst forth. It's impressively done - considering the potential for horrible motion blur in these games, it really wasn't too bad - but unlikely to be played more than once. Having to physically move the 3DS to target, let alone having to find a flat surface to place the card on - the game pauses if the camera loses track of the card - and then move around it, also defies the very nature of a portable gaming experience. It's clearly designed to be done at home. Since the second game made use of the fact that its card was placed on a plinth by putting targets on the side that you had to duck down and walk around to reach, it raises questions of how this will work when most people will be putting their cards on much wider surfaces? In any case, since these games require actual movement in a 3D space, they're the only ones that really based their gameplay around the effect (and featured a nifty dragon) and it showed off the tech better than any other game at the event. That said, they were both pretty insubstantial and only highlighted how little 3D had added to the more conventional gaming experiences elsewhere.

Other games I played included Ubisoft's Rabbids old-school platformer, which just about reaches the bottom-of-the-barrel standards of any Ubisoft launch game. The 3D effect gave the backgrounds a bit of pop, but had not one iota of effect on the laughably generic gameplay that conveyed approximately nothing of the anarchic spirit that has made the Rabbids series a tempered success. Nintendogs and Ninten-cats (I don't know how you're expect to spell that) had reasonably good graphics but was ridiculously limited in function - you could call either pet over and then give it a rub, made slightly uncomfortable by the fact that most of the styluses (styli?) had been nicked earlier in the day, then move onto the next one. 3D was functional but continued the running theme of adding nothing to the gameplay. The trailers for Animal Crossing and Mario Kart were okay but looked exactly as you'd expect those two games to look. The 3D for Animal Crossing was barely noticeable, while on Mario Kart it made the scenery and track obstacles more dynamic but didn't bring much new to the ever-familiar series. The Metal Gear trailer was not encouraging, with jagged visuals and 3D that seemed to get the depth of several objects and characters slightly off. There was also a trailer for 3D television and movies but given the small size of the screen and propensity for blurring, other than allowing another selling point on the back of the box, signs were equally unencouraging.

For all the hype the 3DS has been getting, the reality was that system did little for me other than to offer a more powerful DS with an excellent analogue stick. The 3D was not so loathsome as I had found it playing Killzone 3 at last year's Eurogamer Expo, but mostly on par with my experiences in the cinema: an unwanted distraction. Your reaction to 3D films will most likely define your reaction to the 3DS. The upside of not having to deal with glasses is negated by the sometimes horrible distortion created by moving the system away from its visual sweet spot, although since up-and-down movement isn't as bad as side-to-side, this probably won't be as bad on transport, where handhelds are likely to get the most use, as initially feared.

But for £230/$250? No dice, Chicago. I didn't get much playtime from my DS because many of the games I played on it didn't seem designed to be played on the move (Spirit Tracks and its bloody microphone pan-pipes reacting to external noise being the worst offender) and the 3DS looks likely to compound that irritation. Handhelds increasingly seem to be trying to replicate console gaming - see Sony's NGP for further evidence - sacrificing the attributes that make portable gaming worthwhile. The 3D wasn't the worst I've experienced, but was superfluous enough to most games that its issues tended to detract from the experience rather than add to them. So if shelling out a few hundred notes for a more powerful DS and an analogue stick sounds good to you, there's no reason not to take the plunge. You can turn the 3D off, after all. But as for revolutionising the gaming experience, the 3DS adds a dimension but is distinctly lacking in depth.

The Mouse Trap: How Disney got all Tangled up   read

8:42 PM on 01.02.2011

Ten reasons to look forward to 2011 (includes videos, Alison Brie and a puppy)

Nearly all my December Cblog entries have been lists, so before I go away for a few months to lay the foundations for what will hopefully be a most spectacular year, I thought I'd leave you with one more. A big one, filled with music and trailers and a picture of a puppy looking adorable Personally, 2011 feels like one of those times when everything has lined up and offering the kind of big opportunity to grasp with both hands now or risk losing forever. I joined the Destructoid community in early February of 2010 and it has been an enormously enjoyable and educational eleven months, getting to know all the different people, personalities and peculiarities of this most intelligent and welcoming corners of the internet. So before signing off until the Spring, here are my ten reasons to be optimistic for the new year.

Bond gets the X-factor: Bond fans have every reason to be delighted with the news that MGM's financial peril is finally stabilising and the 007 series is back on track to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2012 with its 23rd film. Fortunately, there'll be a chance to get your Bond fix before then in the shape of Jeffrey Deaver's continuation novel, currently under the working title of 'Project X'. While Sebastian Faulks comprehensively dropped the ball with Devil May Care in 2008, Deaver is a self-confessed lifelong Fleming devotee (Faulks often gave the impression that he felt writing a Bond novel was beneath him) and is an enormously experienced and respected thriller writer. No story details have been revealed yet, but Deaver will be making an appearance at a literary festival in Dubai where he will be giving a talk on his love of all things Bond. For updates, check the website here.

Deux Ex returns to our machines: Okay, so Invisible War was a misjudged crock for the most part, but developers Eidos Montreal have been making the right noises about atoning for that game's myriad failings. While there hasn't been a great deal in the way of actual gameplay shown in the trailers thus far, all the press previews to emerge so far have been encouraging. Even with only one great game under its mantle, albeit one that nabbed the second place in my Games of the Decade, the Deus Ex name is one of gaming's most revered and Eidos seem to be putting all the right ingredients in place (prequel storyline showing the root's of the original game's major conspiracies, themes questioning what makes us human, elaborate cybernetic augmentations, non-linear mission progression...) to do it justice.


More Doctor Who: "I'm going to need a SWAT team ready to mobilise, street-level maps covering all of Florida, a pot of coffee, twelve jammy dodgers and a fez." If you don't get excited watching Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith reeling off that line at gunpoint in the Oval Office, your squee gland must be on the fritz. Steven Moffatt's first season in charge of the good Doctor yielded slightly uneven but often magnificent returns and his delightfully bonkers recent Christmas special (which included Michael Gambon, a flying shark and an opera singer awoken from cryogenic sleep to sing storm clouds into opening a path to save a crashing spaceship) was light years ahead of anything previous showrunner Russell T. Davies ever came up with. The attached preview was arguably better still, hinting at finally resolving the ongoing River Song storyline and taking in a visit to Monument Valley along the way. With the best Doctor since the series' 2005 return in place, what could possibly go wrong? Also, he wears a stetson now. And stetsons are cool.


Hanna: How do you follow an overindulgent WWII drama? Director Joe Wright looks to have made the right move by going for huge quantities of violence-based fun with Hanna, a film that takes the character concept of Kick-Ass' excellent Hit-Girl (although Chloe Grace Moretz is swapped out in favour of the always superb Saoirse Ronan) and gives it a full movie. The plot is paper-thin, with a fourteen-year old girl trained over her lifetime to be the ultimate assassin by her father (Eric Bana!) in the Finnish woods before being unleashed on Europe to track down a target, but pretty unbeatable for high-concept schlock. 2011 is looking pretty sparse as far as engaging cinematic entertainment goes, with Hollywood's slate once again bogged down with formulaic comic-book adaptations, sequels and rom-coms, marking out Hanna as one to keep an eye on when it releases in April. It won't win many awards – look to the Gary Oldman-starring Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as an early contender for that – but should prove a more-than-good-enough reason to wolf down unhealthy quantities of popcorn all the same.


Mondo Amore: A friend once summed up my musical taste as 'brunettes with guitars', which is entirely unfair as Sara Bareilles plays a piano. Mostly. Anyway, 2010 was a pretty terrific year for me on that front, with new albums from Scottish sirens Amy Macdonald, KT Tunstall and the aforementioned Bareilles, plus a terrific debut from Marina and the Diamonds. The long-delayed arrival of Mondo Amore, the follow-up to Nicole Atkins' phenomenal first album Neptune City in 2007, could easily blow all of them out of the water if it lives up to even a fraction of its predecessor's greatness. Combining inspiration from the spectral soulfulness of Angelo Badalamenti's compositions for David Lynch's TV landmark Twin Peaks with vocals that sizzle like they could fry an egg, any music fans not already intimately familiar with Atkins owe it to themselves to amend that oversight in 2011. Check out the video for Mondo Amore's first single Vultures below:


Harry Potter comes to an end: This goes both ways – fans of the series will finally get to see the spectacular climax to the eight-film series, while detractors can take comfort in the knowledge that Deathly Hallows Part Two will be the last piece of Potter they have to endure for at least a few years, if not forever depending on J.K. Rowling's desire to return to her golden goose in the future. The film series has been rather hit-and-miss and Part One had the same pacing problems as its counterpart book, but the final showdown at Hogwarts should be worth the admission price alone and with an entire film to wrap everything up, Alan Rickman's Snape should finally get the screen-time he's been waiting for.

Nintendo get their hardcore on: The Wii had a fantastic 2010 and while the early months of the new year are likely to be dedicated to Nintendo pushing their new 3DS handheld and its formidable launch line-up, it's looking likely that the company are preparing to cash in on that goodwill by announcing – if not launching – a new home console in 2011 as well. Even if that prediction doesn't come to pass, the 3DS' staggeringly strong line-up of games, which includes new entries in the Paper Mario, Mario Kart and Kid Icarus series, two dedicated Resident Evil games, a new Kingdom Hearts, Street Fighter and remakes of N64 classics Ocarina of Time and Lylat Wars, is more than enough to make a mockery of anyone who still believes the Japanese gaming behemoth has lost interest in its long-time gamer fanbase.

Alison Brie: There's not much to say here that can't be expressed photographically, but not only will the fetching Miss Brie be returning in new seasons of both the best television comedy (Community) and drama (Mad Men) of recent years, but also appear as one of an eye-bogglingly gorgeous cast for Scream 4 when it opens on April 15th. Whatever else may happen, 2011 will be absolutely Brie-licious. Complaints for that pun to the usual address.


Flixist: Okay, it's a shameless plug. But after a slightly bumpy start courtesy of some server trouble, Destructoid's cine-oriented sister site Flixist will very quickly be going from strength to strength in the new year. For one thing, we've been building up our library of reviews and will be using them in a thoroughly scientific manner* to reach our indisputable conclusions in assessing the best that cinema in 2010 had to offer. (Incidentally, make a point of going to see The Illusionist as soon as possible if you're in the right city). In addition, we've got plans to bring in literally billions** of new features, to further grow our all-important blogging community (that's you, folks!) and keep adding ever groovier stuff to the front page. But to do all that and more we're going to need your support, so add us to your bookmarks and visit often, with friends! It's pretty much a given that your every Flix-perience will be at least as good as sex, except that that I'll be involved in some capacity. (Sorry for that mental image).

*Methods may contain nuts and not be very scientific at all.
**'Literally' here used in the most non-literal sense of the word

The Future? I may be taking a hiatus from Destructoid for a while but as mentioned in my introduction, 2011 may potentially turn out to be an enormously important year for me. There's Flixist of course (did I mention that you should visit us yet?), but last month my book was finally officially accepted by the US Copyright Office and after one more rewrite, it will be sent out to agents and publishers everwhere. A website of some sort may finally materialise too, with artwork and extracts and synopses and everything to get fans of Bond-esque spy fiction foaming at the mouth. I'm also looking for my first post-university home and a paying job until the literary career starts bringing in the billions. Once I get the appropriate visa, a trip to the States to see some old friends, neglected for far too long, will also be on the cards. So what are your resolutions and plans for the new year? Resolutions may be a bit of a joke, but there are few better times to think about the future you want to build for yourself and all the ambitions you want to make come true. Confucius probably said something about that, or Plato probably came up with a vaguely appropriate analogy that was a blatant excuse for more shadow-puppetry. But whatever your hopes and dreams, have a fantastic 2011 and by this point next year, may they all have come true. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: "Be excellent to each other... and party on, dudes!"   read

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