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Monthly Archives: November 2009

Lego Rock Band – Review

A few years ago, of all the licenses that could have been signed by a music game, a child’s set of building blocks must have been quite near the bottom of a rather lengthy list. We’ve seen Metallica, The Beatles and even Van Halen all attach their names to the current craze of plastic instruments and yet here we are with the oddity of Lego Rock Band. Cue gags about Bloc Party, Another Brick in the Wall and Block Rockin’ Beats.

A few years ago, however, we didn’t have Lego Star Wars, Batman or Indiana Jones. Each of which has slowly built the Lego brand into more than a Danish ambassador. The Lego world has developed a character all of its own with an unerring knack in distilling film plots into amusing cutscenes. It has taken three franchises and made them into family friendly experiences where prior knowledge is in no way a prerequisite. And it is this identity that EA have coveted in order to take Rock Band to a broader audience.

Traveller’s Tales have done a superb job in taking the traditional Rock Band experience and encasing it in a Lego bricks. Everything from the opening car chase cinematic to the menu’s background has been tweaked to incorporate blocks whilst still keeping the original’s essence. The biggest change, for it is still Rock Band 2 under this veneer, is in the story mode and its outlandish venues. Rather than clubs and stadiums it starts you off busking at the railway station and moves on to zoos, prehistoric caves, pirate ships, haunted mansions and palaces.

The Lego theme isn’t just limited to scenery however, and as you rise to stardom special gigs will become available. Some offer the opportunity to embody the likes of Blur, Queen and Bowie, all perfectly recreated in minifig form. Others will get your band to turn their hand to some rather specialist tasks. Were you aware that the power of rock can be used to banish ghosts, bring down buildings and even defrost explorers who became lost in the Arctic? No?

Although silly, the accompanying videos are packed with all the charm that you expect from the Lego series; the only negative being that you have to watch your stream of notes and not the unfolding shenanigans. Everyone in your band and management team can be seen capering about the stage with each and every one of them customisable. Currently my band has a peg-legged pirate on vocals, a ticket conductor on bass whilst a deep sea diver plays lead guitar on a par with Hendrix himself. As for me, the least said about my giant vegetable drum kit the better.

This is Blur. The one on the right is Coxen but I think he has just a touch of Harry Potter about him.

Despite all that, disappointment creeps in as Lego Rock Band is a twelve-month old product hiding behind a new wardrobe and it shows little sign of progression. Although tuned for accessibility – you can’t fail a song, there’s a super easy move, and drummers can ignore the foot pedal entirely – it still lacks basic features. There’s no option to jump in mid-song, or even mid-tour, and the Thomas brothers will once again have to fight over the drum sticks as the opportunity for two people to play the same instrument remains absent. These omissions are made worse by rival Guitar Hero having addressed them both.

Whether Lego Rock Band is for you will be down to an individual’s position. Those previously put off by the brand’s rocker image should put worries aside and start clearing space for your plastic band now. For Rock Band veterans, it’s a harder sell. Treating it as a bonus song pack will be dictated by personal taste but the clincher should be whether the enticement of having a band made completely out of minifigs can be resisted. Either way, what it does well is add a much needed sense of humour to what is becoming a formulaic experience.

Now do excuse me, I need to go and chase away an octopus from my lead singer’s ship.

8/10

Machinarium – Review

The point-and-click genre is one that I have to limit my exposure to; an overdose can see my mind a little unhinged. It causes me to stare at every day objects wondering how I could combine a roll of sticky tape with my lunchbox and just what the hell I would then use it for.

My last experience was with the Sam & Max and Monkey Island episodes and whilst the humour was as good as it ever has been, I missed the dynamics that came animated sprites in a 2D world. The character that can be encapsulated in a simple animation is far and above that which can be squeezed from Maya. Compare a classic like Discworld to its modern day counterparts and the same level of expression cannot be found – and anyone wishing to differ should try to recreate that dunny scene before disagreeing.

This is one of the many reasons that Machinarium has become an instant favourite. From the very first moment you can see the love that is poured into every inch of its stylised world; against the backdrop of a craterous landscape, tiny robots buzz about whilst in the distance a city looms. The hand-drawn backgrounds that you greet you in each new scene are all exceptional and are packed with subtleties that would no doubt have been lost if a third dimension were added.

The same can be said for the robotic stars themselves. Controlling a small, nameless robot, you send him tottering around in search of his lost robot girlfriend. This story is not conveyed through traditional means, though, rather through thought bubbles playing short cartoon snippets. Considering dialogue is a foundation of similar games, it’s a bold choice but one that fits within the robot world; these metal beings have transcended the need to vocalise thoughts.

However, style alone does not make a game and at its core Machinarium is very traditional where collected items are used and combined to complete puzzles. The path towards your love is continually blocked by locked doors, nefarious characters and the occasional 8ft policeman demanding batteries for their cuddly toy, all of which you have the power to solve given the right mental approach.

At times it looks like a robot version of 24.

The quality bar for these posers is high throughout and most will get your grey matter churning, although none are as obscure as to cause migraines. Cracking one that has been staring you in the face for a period of time is still supremely satisfying but every solution makes sense – you just need to be attentive and thinking in the right plane. Pages are also taken from Professor Layton’s book with a smattering of straight-up logic puzzles offering a break from thinking too abstractly.

Superbly attentive design also keeps frustration to a minimum. This is not to say that brainteasers they set are easy – many will have you scratching your metal head until inspiration dawns – but whether it be limited screen clutter, keeping many puzzles on a single screen or allowing you to stand only in predefined spots, they reduce red herrings to the smallest amount possible. All of which in turn keeps your brain clear to concentrate on the puzzles in hand.

For those who do come a cropper there is always help at hand. Clicking the light bulb permanently ensconced at the top of your screen will, through use of more robot thought bubbles, show you your objective in that particular area. Although not a huge give away it can get you back on track and even prove an utter life saver when staring blankly at a dog trapped on the other side of a canal. A further step-by-step guide is also offered by completing a small Gradius-esque mini-game but both should be used sparingly to gain the most from your adventure.

The trouble with a game like Machinarium is that all of the high points are wrapped up so tightly in brainteasers that if revealed they would ruin it for everyone else. Safe to say, those willing will be met with some of the most cunning and rewarding puzzles to grace the PC in recent times. Much like Portal, it may also not be longest of adventures but any game which leaves you feeling sad when the credits roll is a game worth paying attention to. Pitched just right, it doesn’t pad out the experience for the sake of it and Machinarium leaves you wanting more.

9/10

Resource Allocation

Originally published on www.7outof10.co.uk

Games, if I may take a moment of your time to state the obvious, are complex items. Most modern titles are the result of many multiple of years’, if not decades’, worth of man-hours. Bioshock didn’t happen overnight; Ocarina of Time wasn’t dropped into Miyamoto’s arms by a passing stork; and the original Metal Gear Solid was definitely no happy accident. Each were carefully and lovingly assembled by a dedicated team who in the hope that they all might sit side by side in harmony and produce something magical as a result.

From inception to release the entire process is about resource management. Early on a small team, maybe skeletal in numbers, will work on a concept aiming to produce a prototype that not only gets across their core concepts but also acts as a showcase that can also be used to pitch their vision to a publisher. This could be the ubiquitous “vertical slice” or a more focused experience targeting just a solitary aspect. Either way, the choices of where their effort should be focused can be crucial. Many games never make it beyond this point, and not just because they are poor ideas; the design may be fixated on one aspect that the publishers simply don’t want or staff are spread so thinly across multiple areas that the overall quality suffers.

Should the concept be “green lit”, then the same issue arises again but on a far broader scale. With the team moving into full production the purse strings are loosened and extra staff are brought on board, either from other internal teams that may have recently shipped or with new hires. From having to initially impress the publishers, the target is to now impress the public and it is imperative that the increase in headcount is used effectively.

However, no matter how many producers and schedulers are involved there will be hiccups along the way. Requirements will change with internal/external influences, technical difficulties will crop up at inopportune moments, and the design has a tendency to evolve over time. One way to continue to meet milestones and stay on target is to cut whole sections of a project. If it’s not utterly integral then right up until the gold discs are pressed then features can hit the cutting room floor to save time in both development and testing. Something I can attest to first-hand.

An experienced team will know exactly what to remove. Having lived with the game since its birth then they will have a pretty good idea as to its strength and which areas need to be addressed. It is at this point that they don’t need a remit handed down from on high stating that no matter what feature X must stay. Or worse still, be added.

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Speaking to Giant Bomb a couple of weeks ago, Ex-Midway producer John Vignocchi spoke of being forced to add multiplayer elements into Stranglehold, the 2007 game from John Woo. Claiming it was the “worst part of the game” he admitted that “no one wanted it” and in doing so he struck a chord with a great many people, both developers and gamers. There are countless games that have had multiplayer forced upon them simply because designers or, even worse, management feel that they need to include it. What then usually follows is a mediocre death match rehash that steals resources from the main game and yet adds nothing of value to the package as a whole.

This pandemic has existed for a long time, occasionally spilling over into a delusion that the multiplayer component is so strong that it can stand on its own (see Turok: Rage Wars). It has, however, been exacerbated by the introduction and standardisation of online platforms such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. The comparative ease at which an online mode can be created means that developers feel compelled to do so. The likes of Prey, The Darkness, Haze, Stranglehold and Condemned 2 have all sullied the bandwidth of ISPs everywhere (although probably only briefly) and whilst none of their single-player components could be described as dreadful I doubt that the amount of man-hours invested in what – in most cases – felt like a tacked on multiplayer could not have been better spent elsewhere.

To put this into context, imagine if a good proportion of the Fallout 3 development staff had been taken off the main game to create a competitive shooter. Whilst this may make some salivate, think about which portion of the game’s polish you would sacrifice to obtain that. Would it still have received such glowing reviews across the board if it were compromised in such a way?

A growing trend is that whole separate studios are drafted in to develop a game’s multiplayer, which then could be argued that they are no longer dividing a team’s focus. Ultimately, though, there is still a cheque being written for the that work somewhere in the world.

But it is not just a division of resources. Part of what made Bioshock so incredibly special was the complete and immersive nature of Rapture. You were alone in a world of unhinged maniacs with nothing but the trickle of water and series of dubious syringes for company. Had the team not had the strength to resist the urge to put in an online component then I doubt it would have the same rush when I think back to my time spent under the waves. The sense of solitude would be dashed if, in the very same environment you had just lumbered as a Big Daddy, a pop-up exclaimed that you had just unlocked that map in Team Splicematch. The next time through I would not be able to shake the thought of other players having fought each other where I stood, most probably turning the air blue at the same time.

resourceallocation1

Of course, all single-player repercussions aside, when multiplayer works as well as it does in Halo or Call of Duty then many things can be forgiven. Those two brands alone have captured what fans what from an online shooter and over several iterations have managed to improve and refine the experience. Every ounce of effort poured in has paid off and they have made a daunting benchmark for any studio wishing to steal bragging rights from Bungie and Infinity Ward. So it begs the question, why would they try?

Returning to the list above, did Prey honestly believe itself better than Halo? Were those at Free Radical really thinking that Haze would actually dethrone Call of Duty? Deep down developers know where their game stands long before Metacritic begins its aggregation and I’m sure if they were being honest they would say “no”. Just because a game features guns it does not mean that is also has to feature multiplayer and it’s a shame that more developers aren’t brave enough to admit this.

The most interesting online modes that have emerged in recent times are those that try a different tact or where serious thought has been put into the strengths of a game: the one-up-manship in Red Faction’s destruction frenzies; the MMO stylings of Borderlands; and the care and attention lavished on Uncharted 2. There are enough shooters in the world that a mediocre and unloved multiplayer bolt-on should no longer be tolerated; and if we never see a co-op as lacklustre as Fable II’s again, we’ll be making progress.

Balanced Debate

Given the amount of controversy surrounding that scene in Modern Warfare 2 it is unsurprising that the mainstream media have been debating its merits. On radio, television, and print, even touching the establishment that is Parliament, the suitability of the medium handling topics such as terrorism was discussed. Unsurprisingly the topic of children playing violent games also came to the fore but in all cases I was remarkable pleased with just how these debates were handled.

On previous occasions, with the furore over GTA, Manhunt and associated “games linked with violence”, Ali has had to turn off the radio/TV because of just how wound up I got with the seemingly one-sided barrage the industry received. This time, however, The Byron Report on the digital world seems to have made a real difference and ministers came out defending videogames’ right to express and show adult and possibly controversial issues.

When questioned by the infamous Keith Vaz in Parliament, Tom Watson (former defence minister) stated “I’ve seen the content in this videogame, it is unpleasant, though no worse than in many films and books, it is an 18-plus game and carries the BBFC 18-plus rating as well.” Furthermore, and even more pleasingly, speaking on 5 live Breakfast he went on to say that whilst he did not like or agree with what MW2 depicted he defended it and the industry’s right to release it.

Whilst it may take the controversial events for gaming and its boundaries to be debated in a wider forum I feel that the corner has now been turned. With high profile support from with Westminster there is a legitimacy that I felt was lacking in yesteryear.

Rocket Rumble

Originally published on www.7outof10.co.uk

If ever an annual festivity was ripe for conversion into a game surely it would be Guy Fawkes night. One based around subterfuge and sneaking large amounts of explosives into an underground lair with a view to blowing up a national government, ultimately ending up in some men with funny beards being brought to justice; it could be straight out of a Tom Clancy novel if it were not set 400 years ago.

Sadly, it seems, the finale of burning Catholics doesn’t poll very well with many demographics.

Instead we focus on the more colourful aspect of the festival: fireworks. Any self-respecting engine can push out a mass of particle effects to create the illusion of a fireworks display but only a handful of games have embraced them as the heart of their experience. Most recently there has been Boom Boom Rocket, a rhythm action game from Bizarre Creations, and, from the launch of the PS2, Fantavision, a puzzle game where flares from fireworks must be captured to gain points. My favourite, however, is a mini-game tucked away within the EyeToy.

Not known by many, it goes by the name of Rocket Rumble; and it places you in charge of a fireworks display. Rockets are launched from all across the foot of the screen and, using the PS2′s camera to read your movements, you must touch each to activate them before slamming a hand down on a plunger to detonate them in a burst of colour. Traditional puzzle elements are added to this concept, encouraging you to string together similarly coloured blasts and activate larger and larger quantities of rockets before triggering the explosion, each allowing your score tick up with gay abandon.

Aside from the high-scores and pleasing sound effects, Rocket Rumble’s hook is the subtle way in which it used the Eye Toy as an input device. Most games using Sony’s camera saw you flailing madly in front of your television, whether it be to wash windows or see off mini-ninjas. Here, however, you required accuracy and patience. Reaching you arm into a cluster of rockets to select each blue one individually and then slapping the detonator before they came back to earth was a delicate task at times. Admittedly you could still swing your arms wildly in a bid to select every rocket on screen but those who did didn’t grasp just what the game was trying to achieve.

So many motion controllers come and go with vast mounds of forgettable mini-games, usually only brought out when there are others around to share in the humiliation. These collections come and go relatively swiftly but the one that kept Eye Toy: Play active in my front room long after the party had ended was Rocket Rumble. Possibly my favourite puzzle game that no one has heard of.

Movember

Hello,

Some of you may have heard of Movember, some of you may not have: it is a charity set up with the aim of raising awareness men’s health issues, especially prostate cancer. The way they do this is by encouraging men to grow facial hair throughout the month of November. Starting clean shaven on the first of the month they then cultivate some fine facial fuzz for the following 30 days.

I’ve never tried to grow facial hair before. This is mainly because I think my brother has stolen all the hairy genes in our family and so not only is this my effort to raise some money for charity this year but also to prove to him that given enough time I too can grow a tea strainer.

Obviously this isn’t climbing a mountain or running a marathon – I just sit in a chair and concentrate hard on my upper lip – but if you can spare even just a pound then I’d be grateful.

Please click through here to donate, or even just to see my progress.

Many thanks, and I’ll endeavour to push some pictures up as time goes on.

James

Postal Strikes

Most savvy shoppers realise that online is the place to head for lower prices. The overheads of rent, heating and staff mean that high streets chains will always be more expensive on average as they have to recoup that money to survive. Compare this to an Amazon or a Play that can effectively function out of a warehouse in the middle of nowhere and you can see where the margins work in their favour.

Over the last few weeks, my usual online shopping habits have changed. With the postal strikes now regularly headlining the evening news I have been far more canny about where I purchase from. Online outlets that I have shopped with for years have been put to one side because they did not make it clear whether they were still shipping with Royal Mail or not. If there was even the merest hint that my purchase might be lost in a sorting bag for weeks on end whilst the backlog is cleared then I have taken my custom elsewhere.

It appears as though I am not alone; some of these sites must have begun to lose trade and so have taken up alternate delivery arrangements mid-strike in an attempt to claw back custom. Large front page splashes declaring “Free Delivery” or “Delivery Unaffected” have suddenly met me in an attempt at reassurance.

Quite what the postal strike is doing to the British economy I cannot not be sure but the amount of disruption is surely wide ranging. Whether it be from minor actions such as a change in shopping habits to the actual cost to those businesses that I am trading off against each, it all has an effect. The question is, if this continues, will the postmen will have a business to return to if all the online retailers switch away from Royal Mail?