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Monthly Archives: May 2008

365 Word Review: Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode 1

There are few things finer in this world than the wordsmithery of Tycho and the art of Gabe in Penny Arcade’s thrice weekly update. They combine to pull the bizarre occurrences from within the video game industry into sharp, witty focus.

Now here we have the gaming commentators making a game themselves; how utterly delicious.

As well as eating into my word count, Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode 1: On The Rain Soaked Precipice of Darkness is a RPG set in the 1920s. A series of strange events involving fruit obsessed robots and your squashed home lead you to team up with the Startling Developments Detective Agency – namely Gabe and Tycho – and head off on an adventure of episodic proportions.

To fight your way through the metallic horde you employ a turn-based-ish approach to combat; you roll for the initiative and select attacks from an accessible interface that allows easy control of all party members. Attack availability is based on cool-downs and timers, with some lavish special attacks open to those with patience.

Keeping one party member out of the fray for long enough gives them time to power up their own super attack. Its effectiveness is decided through a quick mini-game based on button hammering and reactions. Get multiple characters powered up simultaneously and they’ll combine to even greater effect and squishier sound effects.

Battles are swift and engaging, although they can be described as a little easy given the amount of items at your disposal and a generous, although nicely handled, blocking system.

Yes, that clown is flicking you the bird. Better hit him with your rake.

The adventuring portions are disappointingly mundane. There is never truly any puzzle solving, just beating up a certain amount of locals before one finally hands over a key object. That said, it’s all really just a thin pretense to stick together an interesting combat mechanic and storyline that reminds me of the old Discworld games.

Everything within OTRSPOD comes from Penny Arcade’s own fair hand; from the look to the utterly bizarre storyline, it has their mark all over it. Without them this is a simple, speedy, action RPG. With them, it’s an unhinged Lovecraftian tale, laced with profanities. Whether that’s a good thing or not is down to you.

7/10

Grand Theft Auto IV

Considering the critical response given so far to Grand Theft Auto IV, it seems best that a retrospective review should start out considering that it is a ten out of ten as opposed to the more traditional five. I like to think that all games start out as decidedly average and then work their way up (or down) from there, but with the universal praise it seems better to work backwards in this case.

Let us assume that everything about the game is as good as it is currently going to get. The shooting is phenomenal; the driving is a joy to behold; and the missions dished out to you have been conceived by the finest minds in Scotland.

Can anyone who has played GTA for any length of time really say that this is the case?

As ever, Rockstar’s monolithic franchise tries to do everything under the sun and to a competent standard but rarely succeeds in doing any one thing to a high level; a jack of all trades master or none. This has always been the case and although all aspects have been improved since the last generation, all still grate in so many ways that I can’t ignore them given their importance in the game.

Gunfight at the OK coral

Gunplay has always been questionable and although we now get the bonus of free-aim and a cover system within the revamped Liberty City, it still falls far short of reliable. With an auto-aim system that has a tendency to select corpses as a threat and a reticule that likes to unexpectedly shifts position when you fire out from cover, it’s almost as if getting the bullets to hit your target is part of the built in difficulty level.

When your guns are however behaving themselves, everyone bar the highest level of police seems very easy to drop, with the positioning of your soon-to-be-victims being the bulk of the challenge. They’ll intelligently employ the cover system against you, but everything is just a waiting game before they pop out or run hopelessly towards you.

As the game progresses you’ll find yourself in a rhythm when it comes to shoot out. Being in the open is a recipe for death so grab yourself some cover and wait; “stop and pop,” as someone once said. You will never be flanked or even in danger of being surrounded so it’s more about patience and making sure you have a large supply of ammo rather than free-form combat.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it…

For the first couple of hours I wondered what I had signed up to; Roman’s Taxi company seemed to have spread out and enveloped a large portion of the game and I should have heeded it as a warning for what was to come.

A lot of the imagination and variety of the missions seen in GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas seems to have deserted IV. There are a couple of interesting escapades involving a bank heist, I’ll give it that, but on the majority of runs I was sent from point A to point B to either protect C, kill D or to drop E off. By the end, I didn’t given an F about any of it.

Where were the adventures where you took control of helicopter gunship’s cannon whilst your partner in crime flew through downtown for you, or how about when you were on a bike being chased by a truck down a series of drainage ditches? This new realistic Liberty City and straighter main character seems to have taken the inventive edge off of the possibilities.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Part of the reason I was really looking forward to GTA was Bully. There the story writing seemed to try and focus on characters and not just the “little guy pushing for top spot” that is a given.

To begin with in GTA, Nikko appeared to be a fully fleshed out man with a dark, war torn past and an unshakable loyalty towards friends and family. One early cutscenes shows him talking to a gangsters wife about the evils of his past and I really felt that they had nailed a believable and deep character.

Roll the game forward a couple of acts and despite his love of loyalty still being high on his agenda, it seems his main motivation is money and he will kill anyone for it. True, he keeps mentioning he wants to “find somebody” but this is played out and if there’s a pay cheque there for him too he’s not going to argue.

When this realisation hit, I didn’t care for Nikko any more. The odd mission where he showed his human side drew me back in a little but it is very hard to empathise with such a man, something that I believe is important if a game truly strives to be a masterpiece and recognised beyond the realm of gamers.

I know a shortcut

Driving is the standout aspect of the game and so I shall be positive, at least here. The actual mechanics are far heavier and more realistic than we’ve seen before in open world games and so take quite a while to get used to. To begin with you’ll find your car lurching through the city, its weight shifting unnervingly causing you to spin out on most corners you’ll take above 40 mph, but as time went by you should find yourself embracing this focus.

Car chases become an exciting prospect knowing that you have to consider your route and each bend found on it. Driving like a maniac will be of no assistance to anyone as telegraph poles and trees are permanently on standby to cut short your escape. There is a true art form in maneuvering your ride through the city and its backstreets to safety that is as about as cinematic and as satisfying as you can get.

The way the police operate plays well into this, too, with the aim to lose them and then escape their cordon undetected. There is the thrill of the chase and the satisfying smirk of knowing that you’ve out witted Liberty City’s finest, if done correctly. Highlight of which is when I lost my pursuers, swapped cars and then sat in my new ride as they drove inches past my bumper without realising it was me. I then drove at the speed limit out of their search area and was away.

The bigger picture

This was never meant as a boot into the game, more of a quick slap across the face to see if I’m the only one thinking like this.

Grand Theft Auto is obviously more than the sum of its parts. Combining all these elements together with Rockstar’s spark for satire and the knowledge of what gamers want produces an amazing game and there’s no denying that. Despite all my frustration at the camera, the shooting and the in-game socialising, I sunk almost forty hours into this and do not regret it.

It’s an amazing feat they have pulled off creating such a deep and varied world, but I don’t think that world should be confused with the game itself.

8/10

England rules Europe

Congratulations to Manchester United. They dominated the first half, survived the second and held their nerve in the shoot out.

I may be a loyal Spurs fan but in Europe I do admit to cheering the other English teams along too. After all, I don’t think Tottenham are going to be making in roads into last night’s competition any time soon.

Shiny.

Prior to kick-off I was edging towards preferring a Red’s win, but by half-time I was resolutely supporting them. Seeing the way that Chelsea again show nothing but contempt to the officials and sportsmanship I think that justice was done on the night. Manchester are of course not exactly whiter than white when it comes to that but Chelsea sink it to a whole new depth and I think they’re a disgrace to the sport.

Thanks for losing last night, boys, you made Spurs the most successful club in London; the most trophies of any team in the capital.

M.I.A.

I thought it was only fair I say good bye… for now.

Thanks to the events of last week, namely the announcement of the project I am currently working on and its imminent release date, crunch has now officially hit and it’s no use hiding any more. For the next couple of months I’m not going to have as much time on my hands to update this blog, I’m going to be bashing big bugs and putting polish on pinatas.

Hopefully I’ll still be popping up every now and again when I’ve got some thing to say but it’s likely to be infrequent at best. Which is a shame, to be honest, I really wanted to write a long article why GTA is definitely not a 10, more an 8.

And on that bombshell…

Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise

It’s been a crazy day. In the end I think there were so many leaks that it was hard to tell when the final embargo was lifted as there was very little to choose between what wasn’t public knowledge before 5pm and what was after.

Either way I’m very happy to be able to actually say what I’m working on, especially to those who think I’m joking when I say I can’t tell them. It’s more papery critters with a followup to VP in the shape of Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise. You can tell it’s a sequel by the colon.

Since five o’clock I’ve been running around the net trying to scoop up as many early impressions and hands-on as possible. A lot of site are naturally concentrating on Banjo – go have a look, I think you’ll like it – but we are slipping in just behind it to some nice press, including from my chums at 1UP and IGN.

Call the plumber

It appears we have a leak. And it’s not just us.

P-p-p-pick up a penguin. Or two.

What is most disappointing about this, for me and my friends on both VP and Banjo, is the fact our thunder has been stolen. Whilst this asset leak may provide coverage, it isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as the fanfared unveiling that was planned.

Furthermore, a lot of images can be taken out of context or just blatantly misinterpretted, as alluded to by George earlier on today, which is frustrating when you’re sitting on this side of the fence unable to do anything other than grit your teeth.

In an odd twist, this may actually get more column inches because of its subversive nature, but I can’t help feel slightly deflated by it all. The thing to take from it, however, is that most of the comments relating to Viva Pinata’s reappearance are actually really positive, which is reassuring.

BIGsheep will vouch for YOU!

It’s been a lousy week for updates here at BIGsheep.net, which I apologise for. I’ve been overly tired for most of the last seven days due to a mixture of work and GTA, something that hasn’t exactly gone down well with Ali, either.

What has cheered me up immensely, though, is the arrival of a shirt I’ve ordered from America. It was designed by my friend and owner of PinataIsland.info, Jimmcq, and incorporates our favourite saying on the forums.

If you’ve a dispute that needs settling; if there is a contract that needs witnessing; if your honour is called into question… BIGsheep will vouch for YOU!

The monolith of temptation

The thought of expanding my console collection and adding a PS3 to the fold has been lurking in the back of mind recently, not least because of the 360 v PS3 for GTA IV debate. It wouldn’t be so much for the exclusive full-price titles but more for the PlayStation Network and the likes of Echochrome and Little Big Planet; those that could be considered truly unique to Sony’s brand

As it stands, the two key blockers are the price and my work load. Hopefully, though, by the time my current project is over Sony will have happily slashed their prices just a little more. Two birds and all that

The MGS4 bundle is looking like the most tempting bet at the moment, especially given that I am still a Solid Snake virgin and would love to actually get to grips with one of Kojima’s games, but are there any other full-price releases that anyone would recommend that could tempt me yet further? Any gems hidden in the bargain bins?

Online annoyance

Over the last few days, a reasonable chunk of my spare time has been spent tearing around Liberty City generally causing what’s known as a disturbance. Things are going well, I’m still enjoying the experience, but one thing has started to grate and that’s the online mode.

Put simply, where is the private match option? There is no way, so it seems, that you can create a closed party where just you and your friends can chill and try out the game modes on your own.

Prime example of this was where we decided to enter free-play mode and were causing an impressive amount of havoc, when a stranger popped into our game, walked up to us, blew us all up and then left, undoing all our efforts of the previous half-hour.

It’s a minor annoyance, I know, but when the game is so good you’d expect all the simple bases to be covered; I don’t want randoms I don’t know ruining our six star spree.

That aside the online modes seem really good, with the free roaming city a great achievement. Highlight of this mode was where four of us all stole attack helicopters and roamed the skies above Liberty City… until it ended in a bloody fireball as three of us met in a midair collision.

Very Proud

I know Viva Pinata has brought me a lot of heart warming moments over the years, both on a personal and gaming level, but last night Ali gave me another. She made me a very proud man as she managed to fully complete the game, earning every single award and finishing all possible challenges.

For those in the know, she’s joined the Level 108 club.

Have a Chippo in a pirate hat to celebrate.

This is something that transcends Achievements as only the most dedicated gardeners have managed to obtain this level, and literally only a handful have done so since release. Ali has maxed out her level, attracted every single pinata of every single colour, shape or style, and has sunk nearly 80 hours into this garden sim.

It’s not been a swift process and she’s only played it in stints, with large holidays in between to save her from beating a Roario to death with a shovel beacause he refused to become resident, but she’s been armed with the guide, ticking everything off as she went along. Last to be done were the variant Horstachios and Reddhots.

To add some drama to proceedings, we almost didn’t make it. Twice, when she was on the cusp, the game froze trying to load her profile, but a quick clean of the disk and we were away again.

Anyway, I just wanted to boast about her achievement. I’m so very proud of her green fingers.