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Monthly Archives: May 2010

Midnight Launch

The announcement of Halo: Reach’s launch date has immediately been felt in my diary. The day is booked off work, any thoughts of a proposed holiday to New York have been pushed back a week, and a trip down to see my brother has already been arranged. If there’s one thing I will move heaven and earth to attend, it’s a Halo midnight launch with my sibling.

Our last one was for ODST’s release, where we merrily trotted into the centre of Cheltenham to join the rest of the “crowd” which we found assembled outside GAME. There were students, hardcore fans, people of a similar ilk and age to us, and an amusing smattering of parents with small children in tow, not only flouting the 18 certificate but apparently under the control of their offspring so much that they were shopping at this ungodly hour. It was a strange experience in itself as everyone was obviously there for the same reason; you felt you could talk to anyone as you were all linked by a common bond. After picking up the coveted discs we skipped home, chugged energy drinks and powered through the campaign in gleeful co-op until the sun rose and reminded us that we probably should get some sleep before doing it all again on Legendary.

In fact, my last one was my only one. Despite all my years of playing video games I have – barring Halo – never felt the urge to put the poor souls who man the shop through the obvious pain of being forced to stop up well past their bed time. With ODST, we may have been in and buying at midnight, but the speed at which the staff rattled us through the tills and the shop was shut up and dark, as if nothing had taken place, by 00:05. I bet they hate big releases.

What did raise my eyebrow in surprise was that their ODST launch must have been such a success that I saw them advertising quite a steady stream of midnight launches from then until Christmas. FIFA, Uncharted, Batman; it seemed that as soon as there was a game worth shouting about plans were being laid for a late-night opening. Impressive, considering a 24 hour ASDA is just round the corner doing the same service for no extra bother.

So what do you think is worth heading into town at midnight to pick up? Is there anything that could pull you away from your bed or are you quite happy to wait for the postman the next morning?

Government Appointments

And so the Election dust has settled. After a week of heavy negotiations and seismic political movements, Labour have become the new opposition and an alliance of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats now run the country.

In the run up to the Election, we attempted to speak to all three parties about their views on the video game industry. Sadly only the Conservatives responded to our request, with their then Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt taking some time out from campaigning to talk to us. With the announcement of the new Cabinet, however, he is now Culture Secretary in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with the video games industry very much falling under his remit.

In our interview he stated that “there’s a strong case for the introduction of tax credit for the video game industry” and that his party will look at doing so. Whether or not now is the time for such measures is up for debate, but with a post-Election Budget already announced for next month we may get an indication of their intentions.

Commitment, though, was a noticeable absentee from their pledges pre-polling day, despite heavy lobbying from industry body ELSPA. Moving forwards, by their own admittance, they have built strong ties with all three of the main political parties and so the Con-Lib coalition shouldn’t prove a stumbling block to their efforts.

What will be is the massive amount of debt that currently shackles the Government. With more than £6bn worth of cuts predicted, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is unlikely to escape lightly.

That aside, good news is evident with the appointment to Ed Vaizey as Culture Minister, concentrating mainly on the arts. Taking his place in Hunt’s department, Vaizey is a noted supporter of the video games industry and has already said that he would “shout about [it] from the rooftops.” Despite their criticism of the Tories’ lack of commitment on tax cuts, ELSPA have been extremely positive about the appointment. In a post on their website they describe him as “one of the few politicians to have shown a comprehensive understanding of the video games industry and the challenges we face.”

TIGA, the trade association which represents the UK games industry, also seem to like Mr Vaizey. “He took a keen interest in the video games industry in opposition. He recognises that the video games industry is precisely the kind of sector that the UK should strive to be predominant in during the 21st Century. He also appreciates that the principal factor holding us back is the uneven international playing field: our key competitors benefit from tax breaks for games production; we do not yet have one.”

He’s not alone in this stance, either. Lib Dem MP Dan Foster has also gone on record in backing video games’ importance in the makeup of Britain’s economy and together they could prove vital assets in shifting the industry forward, keeping this country as an attractive investment opportunity for overseas publishers/developers, and easing us away from becoming the scapegoat of the modern era.

Project $10

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

How much would you pay for a pre-owned game? Would it have to be £5 cheaper than a brand new version? £10? Half the price? How about if you had to pay for more than just the disc itself? Because that’s how the industry is shaping up with EA’s announcement of the EA Sports Online Pass. Those who buy their games still in the cellophane have nothing to concern themselves about, but those picking up the forthcoming Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2011 second-hand will see their wallets $10 lighter for the privilege of playing online.

This week EA boss John Riccitiello unveiled the latest stage in Project Ten Dollar. From now on, all EA Sports games will require an ‘Online Pass’ to play online and access bonus content; something that is included free with each new game thanks to a redeemable code, but those buying second-hand will be charged a $10 fee per-title to play their friends over Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network.

Up until this point, many developers have inserted “free” items into titles to reward the original purchasers. Extra quest lines in Dragon Age, suits of armour in Too Human, or additional maps in Gears of War; each has been harvested via a one-time-use-only code that isn’t available to those wanting a second-hand bargain. Without the need to announce their specific intention of these “free” items, it is all too clear that publishers are attempting to persuade players to fork out that little extra and give money to them rather than solely to the second-hand seller.

All of these extras, however, aren’t considered to be anything that could lock the user out of any single game feature; the sheer size of Dragon Age should be enough for anyone, there are countless loot drops in Too Human to make up for a handful of missing garments, and the support shown for Gear elsewhere means that no one should be lacking for multiplayer maps. Without an EA Sports Online Pass, though, you will not be able to play online. Full stop.

No matter how much Riccitiello tries to spin it with mentions of it being a “positive consumer experience”, or the classic “development teams can afford to stick around and work on IP for longer”, this is the first open shot across the second-hand retailers’ bow. And more power to EA for doing so.

I stopped trading in my games at roughly the same time GAME created an almost High Street monopoly with their take-over of Gamestation. After that I didn’t think it was worth my time or effort to trade-in my games for a pittance and, on the flip-side, purchase second-hand games when a still-sealed version was only a few pounds more. Gestures aside, I would much prefer to pay a fiver more and know that the developer/publisher will see a cut of it rather than get a small percentage off for a dog-eared instruction manual.

Given that last year GameStop (the US equivalent of GAME) made nearly $2 billion from the sales of used video games, with the creators, publishers and distributors of said games seeing not a fraction of that, I think it’s high time that some one with the clout of EA sought to redress the balance. I’m all for a free market economy and understand the argument that says trade-ins allow gamers to buy yet more games, but this move by one of the world’s largest publishers will have everyone eager to see the results.

The most intriguing prospect is just how GAME, GameStop and alike will price such products. Waves are already being felt as there is already one law suit under way in the States from a punter unhappy that he was not made aware about the inability to access the advertised free DLC from his used copy of Dragon Age. We’ll no doubt see more when Tiger tees off.

Zeno Clash – Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

When the word “fantasy” is uttered, it is hard not to conjure up images of beautiful wood elves living at peace with nature, ever-aggressive orcs seeking the chaos of battle, or the almost medieval-guise that man so often adopts in those worlds. In short, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a byword for fantasy; Warhammer, World of Warcraft and Everquest all undoubtedly take his works as inspiration. But it is always so very clean. When you get down to it, a dwarf is just a dwarf no matter which battle axe might be propelling towards your neck. Where are the black sheep of the family? Where’s crazy uncle Bloodaxe who quaffed one too many ales when he was young? It seems that anyone not fitting the racial archetype was left on Peter Jackson’s casting couch.

Zeno Clash has its own slant on what fantasy worlds should be. Set in the land of Zenozoik, it follows the tale of Ghat and his companion Deadra as they attempt to escape the city and run from Ghat’s brothers and sisters. They believe Ghat to have killed their Father-Mother, a seemingly hermaphroditic being that has raised an extensive family, and will chase him to the end of the world to seek their retribution. From the off, the twisted nature of the world becomes evident with Father-Mother’s children arriving in varying shapes and sizes. From men well versed in martial arts to rooster- and pig-humanoids, many of them border on either the grotesque or the mutated. Even Father-Mother avoids normal conventions, appearing to be a cross between a beast, a man and a 15ft peacock.

The bulk of the experience is first-person melee combat. As Ghat tells his tale, players will turn pugilist as they are forced to fight their way through the generally linear lands to seek the truth behind Father-Mother. Attacks will be thrown readily by those standing in your way, and can be avoided as you block, duck and weave with all the agility of a professional boxer. Combat tactics primarily involve either turning your foe’s blows against them with a well time block or evading and swiftly catching them with a surprise counterpunch.

This concept may seem stock fare, and not too different from EA’s Fight Night, but the introduction of multiple assailants and a stamina bar pushes Zeno Clash into street brawler territory rather than that of the squared circle. Space is vital, as it is crucial never to get surrounded as blocking will only succeed in the direction in which you face. If things are going badly, turn tail and run to create a gap between you and your opponents; regroup, refocus, and, if all else fails, charge back in with a raised elbow to send one of their number sprawling.

Combat is much the same from beginning to end, with only hints on advanced dodging given out past your introductory lessons should you not uncover them yourself. The variety comes from the foes you face, the situations they arise in and your ability to learn and advance your own proficiency in combat. There are a handful of projectile weapons that can prove useful, but fitting with the brawling tone their use needs to be measured before your targets close you down and the gun is no more use than a stick.

Where Zeno Clash is strongest is when it uses its fantasy setting in conjuncture with a themed boss fight. At one point you find yourself walking through the desolate wastelands only to round a corner and find a herd of huge brachiosaur-like creatures drinking from a waterhole. Pushing the scene further, it turns out there’s a hunter riding one of these mammoth beasts and has heard of the price on your head and so battle ensues. Later on you’ll be forced to fight in the dark of an ancient temple, struggling to light torches whilst beings that thrive in the shadows hamper your efforts.

The wanderings of the pair will see them travel the length of Zenozoik and back, taking in deserts, forests and dark, dark lands. Each setting is made wondrous by the creatures found within, especially The Corwid of the Free. This band of ne’er-do-wells have chosen insanity as the ultimate form of freedom and are found wandering the land doing as they please. Be it cannibalism, inciting others through music or simply walking in a straight line, each has an unhinged and absurd quirk that goes to create some truly original characters. None may be suitable to invite round to meet your own Father-Mother but they lift the game as a whole to a more interesting plane.

Those not taken in by such original and outlandish visual treats, or those who care little for Ghat’s quest, might find the game a little tiresome as a string of arena battles. Whilst boss battles and set pieces do offer momentary cessation, this is a title based wholly around fisticuffs.

Key to Zeno Clash’s success is the art and the creative minds behind the world of Zenozoik. The supporting script and voice acting is hit and miss, but in much the same way I rushed through Machanarium, sought out as many original Pokemon as I could, and came away smiling from Plants v Zombies, I just wanted to keep on seeing more of the creatures that inhabit the world.

8 /10

Halo: Reach – Impressions

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Few can dispute the overwhelming success of Halo’s multiplayer. Ever since the LAN based escapades round the original Blood Gulch and Hang ‘em High, the boys at Bungie have refined the experience time and time again to take advantage of, and even push the boundaries of, Xbox Live – and create an online game that only Call of Duty has ever come close to toppling.

But if the steps leading us to Halo 3 were mere refinements, what Reach gives us is an evolution. The jump from Halo 2 to Halo 3 was mostly graphical with the broad doctrine of online play untouched (bar the inclusion of the create-a-level Forge); game types, weapons and play style mostly remained familiar, but what this beta test shows us is that, for its Halo swansong, Bungie are giving everything they have.

Loadouts

The biggest impact is the inclusion of Loadouts, significant enough to warrant capitalising. Gone are the deployable power-ups found in Halo 3 and in their place are abilities built into the very fabric of your Mjolnir armour: Sprint, allowing the Spartan a burst of extra speed; Armour Lock, the replacement for the bubble shield granting the user invulnerability; Active Camo, turns the wearer into nothing more than a heat haze to the casual onlooker; and Jet Pack, which does what it says on the tin. There is also Evade for Convenant soldiers which allows a quick tuck and roll to avoid incoming danger.

Whilst some may already sound overpowered and game breaking, each is controlled by an energy meter that, when drained, takes time to recharge. This not only means that players cannot constantly spam their Loadouts to the frustration of others but the wise amongst them will hold back until the optimal moment to deploy them. Each also has their own weakness, from the way the radar bugs out when Active Camo is triggered to the Armour Lock’s side effect of forcing the player to stand immobile when in use.

It seems there is a Loadout for each occasion. I favour Armour Lock and Sprint when attempting to defend objective, hoping to stave off or doge the grenade spamming that will surely come, and Active Camo and Sprint when on the offensive as I look to grab the element of surprise. Players will no doubt find them tailored to different weapons too as Active Camo is a given for snipers, whilst those wielding Gravity Hammers and shotguns should opt for the same – watch them jump out of their skin – or Sprint as you bid to catch up with your prey.

Prior to playing Reach, my biggest concern was with the jetpacks. Aside from the fact they seemed horribly at odds with Halo’s lore, in principle their inclusion seemed to break what made Halo Halo. All those times on Ascension (Halo 2) when my team held the tower so competently; would that then be dismissed as a folly as the opposing team suddenly strapped on rocket packs and wreaked death from above? Thankfully the Jet Pack Loadout is not as jarring. Firstly, there is fall damage in Reach, so if you do fly too close to the sun, expect a rude awakening when you reacquaint yourself with the ground. Secondly, the level design and limited fuel prevent the tool from becoming too dominant. Only the most skilled of snipers will be able to take the skies and dispatch their target before they either run out of fuel or become an easy target for opposing team member. After all, nothing says “shoot me!” more than a floating red Spartan.

There is much fun to be had with the new Loadouts, especially the death-mocking Armour Lock. Once, when tagged by the new heat seeking plasma missiles, I simply engaged the armour lock and watch the projectiles explode harmlessly off my crackling armour. When 30 seconds later a plasma grenade was stuck to my shoulder blade I again disappeared once more into my cocoon, laughing manically – only to emerge and pummel the foolish lobber of said grenade. There is no doubt that this, along with the new assassination melee move, will fill many players’ highlight reels.

Maps

Used subtly, the Jet Pack can be used as a super-jump, getting you to ledges that would otherwise have required either crouch-jumps or a series of leaps to reach. With your finger clamped down on the ability button and you can soar to unlikely heights, and to take advantage of this new verticality there has been a change in design ethos. Maps such as the previously mentioned Ascension would no longer play as intended but Reach’s Sword Base embraces this extra dimension with ledges and shortcuts for those wishing to take to the skies.

Almost reminiscent of Halo 1’s Boarding Action, Sword Base is set in two narrow buildings, separated by a large hall, criss-crossed with walkways. For those on foot, the walkways are your only way to navigate from ground to top floor, although there is a large gravity lift in the centre of the hall to give you a boost.

Sadly I found Sword Base a little uninspiring and a tad confusing sans-Jet Pack. Its bland setting doesn’t inject it with the distinct personality found in other levels from the series. Thankfully the other currently available map, Powerhouse, more than makes up for this deficiency. Set around a human hydroelectric plant and set in a dusty hillside, it bears similarities with High Ground from Halo 3.

Powerhouse uses its verticality in a far more subtle way than Sword Base. The giant circular structure at the centre of the map can either be accessed by a series of stairwells or by a quick boost from the Jet Pack. With the action taking place around this centre piece, huts, rocky outcrops and a main control room all offer places of temporary sanctuary or ambush depending on your goal. Its more open nature lends itself very well to the numerous rifles scattered across the map.

Game modes

SWAT, CTF, Slayer, Oddball, King of the Hill and alike all return and are joined by a few new variations.

Stockpile is CTF for kleptomaniacs. Rather than retrieve just one flag, there are roughly half-a-dozen scattered across the landscape and your team must grab as many as they can, scoring for each flag that is in your target zone at minute intervals. All well and good until you consider that not only is the opposing team is doing likewise, but they’ll more than likely try and pluck your flags from the scoring zone seconds before the timer elapses, robbing you of the points in the process. There’s a healthy balance to be struck between collection and disruption, as a well timed Active Camo insurgent or grenade spam can play merry hell with your opponent’s plans.

Headhunter is the only other new mode currently accessible and see players trying to collect and deposit skulls into, once more, scoring zones. Unlike Stockpile, there is no time limit that impedes you from banking your skulls, but the only way to earn skulls is by killing another player. They in turn will drop a skull, plus any others they happened to be carrying at the time.

The two headline modes are yet to be activated but come in the form of an online league and a multi-objective game. The former, known as Arena, will rank players over the course of several days before allocating them into a division. There they will fight similarly skilled players over the course of a season to determine just where you sit in the Halo hierarchy. Promotion and relegation and no doubt involved but parachute payments when leaving the top flight are yet to be confirmed.

The latter, Invasion, attempts to combine Team Slayer and objective based team work as you gun your way towards victory. Your kills column is the vital stat here but securing objectives within the map will also lead to supply drops in the form of Warthogs, Ghosts and tanks. An alternate Invasion mode also sees eight Elites taking on the same number of Spartans in a bid to initially disable a batch of generators before making off with an UNSC data core.

As with Stockpile and Headhunter, none of the new modes are revolutionary but all see enough tweaks and variations on existing formulae to create new and exciting game modes in their own right. The very themed scenario surrounding Invasion should be a draw to hardcore Halo fans, whilst the competitive nature of the league structure found within Arena will no doubt prove to have long term attraction.

Conclusion

Overall, those who are well versed and indoctrinated into the ways of Halo 3 will undoubtedly have their complaints. They’ll find it too slow, write-off the “super powers”, churlishly mock the new game types, bemoan the removal of such generous auto-aim, and generally wonder what the fuss is about. There’s the change in weaponry balance to get used to, the shift in power towards rifles, and all those subtleties that were once brand new in Halo 3, too.

Each small change has combined to make one large movement that has shifted the series forward. It would have been all too easy to push out another slight tweak on the Halo 3 template, and seeing the wealth of possibilities presented to a player at the beginning of a level, you should type out a fresh email and thank Bungie that they didn’t. You may still be just another Mjolnir helmet in the crowd, but now you can specialise in more than just weapons. The Loadouts and more brutal weighting to certain weapons definitely give Reach a completely new feel. And more than that, they have wetted my appetite for the single player campaign with the various new ways to take on the Halo sandbox. Consider my pre-order cocked, locked and ready to rock.