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Monthly Archives: January 2012

8Realms

To many experienced gamers, “free-to-play” is a bad word. It reeks of Facebook and of repetitive, menial tasks that tempt you to hand over hard currency just to unlock elements that make the ubiquitous grind more bearable. I’ve been to Farmville and I’ve had my fling with Mafia Wars, and both times I came away glad to have broken the spell.

Never, however, let past experiences shut off new avenues for you. For every HTML based grind there are a dozen novel variants out there, realising that they need to stay fresh to attract – and keep – new players. One company that definitely knows that is Jagex, creators of the very well-known free-to-play MMORPG RuneScape. The British developers are dedicated to the art of the online gaming and their latest offering sees nary a sheep or Mafioso in sight.

8Realms is a browser-based, empire building, strategy game. Players start out with a small settlement in the middle of a vast, verdant plain. With barely two sticks to rub together they must lead their tribe through the ages, defending them against invaders and creating a civilisation that will stand the test of time through to the modern day and beyond.

Things don’t start out well, either; upon first arrival to your new settlement, you discover marauders torching it, teaching you right from the off that you will not stand unopposed in this world. Thankfully there’s no lasting damage and you soon begin rebuilding your modest settlement. It consists of a series of squares, each suitable capable of holding one building. Initially both your options and space are limited, although this is not surprising given the current fashion of wearing furs and that the cutting edge of warfare is the pointed stick.

Buildings don’t just spring from thin air, though. Within 8Realms there are several core elements that go together to allow you to build and expand. Forests must be felled for wood, mines and quarries excavated for stone and ore, whilst the pastures are farmed to sustain your workers. As such, the first goal is to setup the mines and farms that are going to provide the settlement with the natural resources it needs to expand. Your lot may be dim but they at least know how to throw together a good pen to keep their prehistoric cows in.

Building is also limited by construction slots. Each city comes initially with only a pair of slots and a single research slot, whereby your finest minds can push the boundaries of science. Early projects take mere minutes to spring up but more advanced techniques in later ages can take many hours, slowing your progress and involvement. More slots can be obtained by use of gems should you need a dozen things done by lunch, though the gem is 8Realms’ in-game currency which feeds through from real-world currency. As always in free-to-play however, this is only a factor if you make it so, and shaping your playing habits around your slots has not been an issue for me so far. Especially as certain achievements grant you generous helpings of free gems that can be used in exactly the same manner.

By the end of first Ancient age you will have become used to the limitations of what you can set in motion in a single sitting, but it is also at the end of the this age that the real strategy of 8Realms begins to tell. Ushering in the Classical age with structures resembling the Roman empire, options begin to open up proving that it’s not just grinding that will see success in this particular corner of the free play universe. Military might becomes available, with armouries, stable and watchtowers enabling your animal skin wearing spearmen to be turned into archers, gladiators and charioteers. No more are the areas around your kingdom off limits as your military muscle is ready to be flexed and see off the skirmishes that can plague your city.

Such power needs a lot of resources though and a single city alone within its limited space could not handle such a task. Striking out, emperors can found new cities, close to precious natural resources and full of precious new land. Here balance is the key as not every city can be autonomous. Trade routes need to be struck out between yours – and other players’ – cities to keep them freshly stocked with resources and enough defenders to allow the citizens to sleep soundly at night.

As in many civilisation games before, many will be content to simply grow and expand their empire, taking over the map, squeezing out the barbarians and other online users that you can see scattered across the world. There are also a constant stream of challenges that encourage the exploration of the sciences and the mobilising of your forces, though always gently leading you down the road of bettering your city. Be it requesting that you investigate irrigation or capturing a local deposit or silver ore, it usually indicates a quick shuffling of resources and altering of building priority to claim the spoils.

Being quite a cynical gamer, given the years under my belt, I was all but prepared to jump online, sign in and go through the motions as I have done with previous dalliances with free-to-play. I am then quite happy to say that my preconceptions have been all but been removed. The experience Jagex possesses from its decade in the online space knows that a hollow and superficial game will hold little water. What is presented is something that is very much the spirit of Age of Empires and Civilisation, but in a pleasing format that won’t envelope your life. And I mean that in a good way.

Within the reach of such games I turn obsessive compulsive, spending days constantly tweaking resource flows and lines of defence in a bid to make the perfect village. 8Realms is a distilled version of this, still allowing you to forge large empires from humble beginnings but in small, controlled doses that will sure to keep the wife happy.

With BIGsheepinople and BIGsheepingham just in their infancy there is a long way left to go en route to the future and world domination. The former is the capital, founding city and home of the imperial forces, currently striking out to take a silver mine to the South West. The latter is the trade hub, providing the military with their resources to expand and in current negotiations with the neighbouring empire of ShadowFax about possible relations.

The council of elders are already in discussion of founding BIGsheepton to the North, but for the time being I’m going to have to wait. I’ve a few timers to watch tick over until that particular city can sink its foundations.

Skylanders

Many years ago, back when I worked for a certain giraffe-fronted toy shop, I could name you all 151 Pokemon. On a good day, in order. That was at the height of Pikachu’s success as every aisle seemed to contain bikes, cards, balls and plushies dedicated to the tubby, electric rat. There was so much tat that I once said in jest “the only thing they’re missing is being able to drop your actual toys into the game.”

Fast forward to the modern day and I like to think that somehow Activision were listening. That butterfly of a comment has flapped it wings across time and space and created Skylanders. Though probably not the “storm” that Edward Lorenz had envisioned, Nintendo must surely be looking at the concept and be kicking themselves.

No matter the platform, each version of the game comes with a portal: a glowing pedestal of plastic that hooks up to your console. Place a plastic Spyro on this dais and it will smoulder purple, throbbing as the elemental forces run through it, before ultimately summoning the well known dragon into your game, ableto run free and spit fireballs. Fancy a change? Maybe a water Skylander? Then simply depose Spyro from his lofty position and pop your Gil Grunt figurine there instead. Lo and behold there he appears on your telly, harpoon and all.

There may not be anything magical about the ability to scan the chip hidden within each character’s base and nothing that an old fashion menu couldn’t replicate, but the tactile nature of the experience is strangely compelling. Sat playing, with your portal lit up by your side and flanked by a team of Skylanders, there’s more than a touch of sport to it. It is as though you are the manager of a fantastical mixed martial arts group, throwing one after another into the ring when conditions dictate. It’s a scene to which punching the pause button and scrolling reams of text to substitute in a more suitable combatant compares poorly.

Technology aside, the game itself is surprisingly a dungeon crawler. Spyro’s home has been devastated by an evil Portal Master known as Kaos. The only means of stopping him is by travelling the floating isles that make up Skyland and bringing together the mystical components that form the legendary Core of Light and turning it on Kaos.

Each part of the Core lies at the end of a fair sized level that’s filled with Kaos’ minions and traps, forcing your merry band of toys to fight and claw their way through to their treasure. Given Spyro’s platforming roots it is a little surprising that his new adventures have moved in the direction of an isometric adventure – that could in a certain light be mistaken for a children’s version of Torchlight – but his transition is nothing if not solid with an ample helping of combat, XP and loot.

Each Skylander starts out with two basic attacks, typically one short- and one long-range. As enemy imps, warlocks and monsters are defeated, these can be upgraded and improved by a mix of levelling up and purchasing extra talents. Water-based Gil Grunt may start with a small harpoon and a water pistol, but by the time he has reached level 10 his pistol is now a high pressured, limitless fire hose that sprays exploding star fish, whereas his harpoon is now the size of an ocean liner’s anchor.

Bonuses are awarded for using specific types of Skylanders in certain regions, handing them combat boosts. Through these shifts the game persuades you to continually rotate the character in play and at the same time see just how varied each of the thirty-plus Skylanders are. There are rock elementals that place down prisms before firing lasers through them; undead mages calling down magical air strikes; and stealthy elves which turn invisible before revealing themselves for a fatal stab with their blades. The nature and variety on offer is sure to tend players to use some Skylanders over others, and also brings to life a personality in combat that the comparatively static likes of Pokemon has been lacking for some time.

Disappointingly most of the dungeon’s inhabitants possess very little to bother a capable or even moderately levelled hero. Though this could be explained away by the game’s focus on younger players, there are few adversaries that can’t be defeated by sheer brute force. Even when the odd exception to this rule does crop up, attrition is still likely to win out eventually.

Thankfully there are areas tucked away that prove a worthy test. With every Skylander comes a challenge level, there to unlock bonus skills and provide a sneaky way to grind XP. From timed dungeon runs through to taking on vast numbers of foes, it all feels as though Activision knew what they were doing and hid this grownup, testing treat away to one side. Like the After Eight mints your mother bought but hid on that shelf just out of reach. Even the faux Mortal Kombat voiceover speaks that it was surely targeted as an arcade addition to an otherwise lengthy yet straightforward campaign.

Multiplayer options extend play a little further, too. Co-op is available throughout whilst a few throwaway battle arenas hide in the opening menu, including a very novel take on American Football that could never be accused of taking itself seriously. Spike pits and bounce pads turn it into a frenetic few minutes as players chase the ball, each other and, at times, shadows, in a bid to score more touchdowns than their rival.

Whether you dig deep enough to find and dabble with many of these extras however will come down to whether or not you have bought into the concept of Skylanders. On one level it’s a competent if not exceptional dungeon crawler for kids that sees much of its content locked out unless you purchase physical DLC (i.e. extra Skylanders). The lands are well realised, combat fun and the characters interesting but at times it all feels fairly generic.

Conversely, the very physical nature of the roster of heroes you take with you on a journey can be a strangely powerful draw. Personalise your Skylanders with their own unique name and a natty hat and all of sudden that is your own exclusive and exceptional elf or dragon. Capable of being transferred across platforms, from 3DS to Xbox and back again, you raise them to be a force to be reckoned with.

It tugs at the completionist within you, offering you a feast of challenges, collectible figures and hidden treasures that the nagging voice inside your head won’t let you ignore. The only way to appease it is to catch ‘em all.

2011 – Something a Little Different

The last year has seen some truly fantastic experiences. Pressed onto shiny discs and thrust into our mitts, they probably caused more marital strife than gaming has ever caused before. “Not now dear, I’m slaying a dragon/shooting Russians/taking down a plane with a rocket launcher whilst I’m free falling out of another plane/Batman.”

Whilst not all releases caused such ructions, many tried to stand out from the crowd. They offered something a little different and whilst “different” may not always be enough, here we doth our caps to those who went against the grain in 2011.

7. Activision’s toys

Though the production line of plastic guitars and Fisher Price drum kits may have been halted by Activision with the suspension of the Guitar Hero series, they weren’t quite through with toy-like accessories to their games just yet.

Skylanders is an audacious attempt to merge the children’s toy market with the DLC. Whereas in most games players simply toggle a button to swap between characters, in Spyro’s latest reboot toys are physically placed on a sensor and then sucked into the virtual world. Want a new character? Grab a new toy and just swap them out.

Skylanders walks a fine line between being an interesting innovation and a potential cash black hole for parents with persistently nagging children, but I find it a fascinating concept. There’s a connection to your character, you can pick up physical DLC from high street shops, and the toys themselves allow profiles to be traded between 3DS, Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360. For that last reason alone people should take note.

6. Narrators

Our experience with The War of the Worlds may have been a torturous one, but its attempt to drive the narrative through well scripted lines and exceptional voice acting was one of its few redemptive features. The coup of bringing Patrick Stewart aboard added a gravitas that showed up many studios who thought voice work could be done on the cheap.

Similarly, the use of a narrator in Bastion brought about a feeling that this story was not one you were merely playing but actually driving. Be it falling of a cliff or bringing down a huge foe, the disembodied voice would pipe up and recount your tale as though a gravely bard of old.

5. A traditional sandbox

Modern sandboxes seem to be full of guns, cars and cities. Now whilst I may have left a few Matchbox racing cars rusting in my sandbox as a child, I can’t quite recall my mother allowing me firearms or large scale housing developments to take place in that green wooden box in the back garden.

From Dust gave every grownup the ability to play with sand and water in a way that we’ve always wanted. From created rivulets through a barren desert or frantically creating an adhoc walkway so your villagers may escape an impending forest fire, it was about playing and shifting and heaping and getting your virtual hands dirty.

4. Stunning visuals

Battlefield 3 may be able to push a bazillion polygons and render uberbit textures until the F14s come home to roost, but realism is not necessarily pretty. El Shaddai knew that. A wonderful and mind bending trip through landscapes and themes that experimented and toyed with styles. It wasn’t a traditional platformer trip through the clichéd list of elemental levels, but a journey that took in saturated heavens, high contrast oceans and scenes overlain with brushstrokes.

Slightly easier to comprehend was Rayman, who seemed to be channelling the hand drawn talents of Disney of old. So smooth and bright, his adventures through a world teeming with screen filling monstrosities and equally beautiful landscapes were as charming as a Saturday morning kids TV classic.

3. Core motion controls

Child of Eden may well have already been mentioned above, but for many its Kinect release was a watershed moment. Not because it was the first new title for the sensor for some months, but because it was the first core game released for it. A spiritual successor to Rez, your motions felt at one with the game, enhancing rather than hindering the enjoyment of the bizarre visuals. Others followed, Rise of Nightmares for one, but while there is still “killer app” outside of dance games and party pieces there are at least markers in the sand for those demanding “traditional” games.

2. Mo-cap

Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword and Enslaved may have set precedence, however it was Team Bondi’s LA Noire that took motion capture technology to new heights. Barely a soul could have witnessed the open minutes of this crime thriller without having their breath taken away by the sheer quality of the facial animation on display. Featuring many well known faces from the casts of Heroes and Mad Men, the ability to immediately recognise every emotion that played across them set a new – but ultimately costly – bar in virtual acting.

1. Twisting genres

Existing on the list for one reason and one reason only. Rock of Ages: the world’s first tower offence game.

Mario Kart 7

In an age of cloud saves, drop-in-drop-out co-op, Xbox Live and Steam, to be amazed that a game simply handles online match-ups competently is definitely an oddity. Ever since I first hit Quick Match eight years ago on Moto GP II on the original Xbox I have been used to an online experience that doesn’t require me to juggle IP addresses to get online. In this always-on era, a button is the only thing separating you from a world of opponents.

Usually, anyway. Nintendo have always been the exception with a mixture of per-game friend codes and DS dongles that has painted a picture of a company that refused to move with the times. Every step in the right direction feels more a begrudging need to tick a box than give their patient customers what they’ve been waiting for.

The less-than-catchy Mario Kart 7, however, could be the turning point. Sign in to the Nintendo Network and a literal world of challenge and competition await you in a way I previously thought could never exist on a Nintendo platform. There’s support for friends and recently met players, options to create your own clans, and even hoppers catering for some much specialised race parameters.

All are laid out simply and pretend to be yet another game mode, breaking down any preconceptions or barriers that could linger about facing others online. Get through to your preferred race option and there you sit on a starting grid with a septet of racers from around the globe. As a further pleasing touch, should you join mid-race there’s no static menu screen waiting for the current race to run its course; you’re provided with a track side seat to watch the current race and see just who you’re up against.

And it is as such a spectator that I pinned down just why I felt so strongly for this multiplayer update: these are real people you’re racing against. You’ve no predetermined rival selected at random by the AI, each racer has their talents and foibles that will make each outing unique and usually lead to a far harder fought contest. Each cc level has its place, but taking on a series of programming routines is no replacement for taking down your fellow man.

Underpinning the experience is still the classic Mario Kart styling that has prevailed ever since the SNES. Eight racers boost and slide their way round a variety of Mario-inspired race courses, firing off power-ups at each other with gay abandon. The traditional roster of projectile shells, boosting mushrooms and invisibility-granting stars have been topped up with a trio of new additions: the Tanooki suit, Fire Flower and the mysterious Lucky Seven.

As with the recent Super Mario 3D Land, the Tanooki suit pops a racoon tail onto your racer. Sadly, unlike the plumber’s platforming outing, no flight powers are granted here; rather the tail whips around the kart deflecting incoming items and upturning other racers. The Fire Flower is more straightforward, allowing a stream of flaming balls to be hurled, whereas Lucky Seven simply hands you a bag of seven power-ups. Needless to say, the latter is usually only seen when lurking around the back of the grid given the armoury it suddenly deposits. The three fit well into the existing collection of power-ups, adding some extra restrained variety whilst not feeling overpowered.

The 16 brand new tracks also feel right at home, too. Some riff off of known environments, such as Bowser’s castle, Mario Circuit and DK’s jungle, but all are well put together with sweeping curves that will endear themselves to long-standing karters. The more surprising inclusion is that of Wuhu Island, the location for both Wii Sports Resort and the 3DS’ Pilot Wings. Almost becoming a Nintendo icon in its own right, the island foregoes laps and instead hands two very compelling point-to-point races that takes you up, round and through its heartlands.

The original tracks are all very strong and 7’s repertoire is reinforced by a further 16 classic tracks pulled from all six previous releases. From Mario Circuit 2 on the SNES through to the more recent Koopa Cape on the Wii, all of Mario’s racing history is on show here. There are very few duds on the roster; still, your feelings for each will no doubt be as based on nostalgia as much as anything else. I’ve been a stickler for the SNES and handheld Mario Karts, considering recent console releases to not reach the high standards previously set, and so always frown when a GameCube course appears.

These are no straight imports, either. Each has track has been given a large amount of spit and polish and brought up to modern standards. For the early SNES levels this includes real jumps, proper 3D and, in the case of Rainbow Road, shock waves from the impacting Thwomps. All updates successfully keep their nostalgic value intact, whilst also feeling part of the modern whole. So much so that even the new glider and submariner features of your kart fit seamlessly.

Rather than plonk into the sea when taking too wide a line on Koopa Beach, underwater you’ll go, a propeller emerging from the back of your ride as forcing you on through the water. Similarly take a jump that throws you high into the sky and a glider or parachute will pop out from the chassis and allow you control over your decent. Especially with the glider, the extra dimension that this can hand to racing is splendid. Launch yourself into the blue and its all about how skilfully you can control your flight, whether you should for go a long, steady glide to cut a series of s-bends or plant yourself quickly back on terra firma and pocket the speed boost that your rapid descent will bring. Even more remarkable however is that it seamlessly fits into the racing experience, at once becoming a part of the Mario Kart framework. Seeing a host of racers take to the skies and start bustling for position or launching shell mid-air is a lovely sight, and the verticality granted to the new tracks is a great addition.

At the end of it all, however, I return online. I plundered the single-player experience to unlock as many tracks and drivers as I could but now, should time allow, I leave the CPU controlled automatons to one side and head to where I know everyone who beats me is a real person and not a preset rubber-banding drone. Even online you can still collect coins to unlock further vehicle upgrades so you’re still progressing personally, my only wish is that you could have done the same with the tracks too.

With communities set up for friends with specific race conditions, or the prospect of a crazy bomb-only race with randoms, Nintendo has finally relented and allowed players the freedom and ease to experience one of the finest racing games online. Some may say that it’s about time, although I would hasten to add that some things are worth waiting for.

Batman: Arkham City

I find it very rare that a game immediately grabs you. Quite often there will be a meandering introduction or a series of subtle tutorials that slowly ushers in the main event, allowing you time to find your feet as the excitement builds. Arkham City doesn’t fit this mould. Not wasting any time, it throws you – as Bruce Wayne – into a street fight and barely pauses for breath before letting you loose in the sprawling streets on the bleaker side of Gotham.

Having not previously dabbled with Batman: Arkham Asylum, quite why Mr Wayne (not Batman) was being dragged into a walled off portion of the city reserved for the criminal classes escaped me. It mattered little though as when the fists started flying I began to see why Rocksteady had made a stir and had brought the best out of the Dark Knight.

A goal of many developers has been to produce flowing and involving combat without requiring the user to have the dexterity of a contortionist octopus about the joypad. Fable and Bayonetta in some respect have managed this, reducing fighting down to a small number of buttons and their timing, but the fluidity and sheer elegance involved in Batman’s brawling puts all others to shame.

At the core there are but two buttons, attack and counter, and they can be used to devastating effect. Wait for a goon to swing at you, easily spotted by the warning icon, and a well timed counter will see him not only miss but find himself on the wrong end of one of your own attacks. With the momentum behind him, Batman can then wheel off a string of well timed kicks, strikes and elbows that sees a dozen-strong mob reduced to unconsciousness; it verges on rhythm-action, such is the timing.

The spectacle comes from not simply downing these hoodlums, but from the supreme smoothness in which the fight unfolds. Every attack, be it Batman’s or the crowd he takes on, blends seamlessly from one to the next. From a devastating uppercut in front, Batman will then lash out behind sending a pipe-wielding thug reeling, before countering two more, clothes-lining the pair before ramming their heads forcibly into the pavement. There are no animation glitches or pops as the players in our theatre of pain take their places, it is a veritable adaptive ballet of violence.

As our hero progresses through Arkham, the fights become harder as more nefarious opponents are found. Guns, riot shields and electric prods are all introduced to prevent brawls from becoming a simple exercise in button mashing. With Batman still only a mortal man underneath his suit, gunmen need to be sought out and taken down immediately, whereas those with shields and prods require attacking from their weaker rear. Mix in knife wielders and informants that need to be left unharmed and each melee proves to be as much about tactical smarts as it does brawn. It’s a clever technique, adapting difficulty by tweaking ingredients here and there.

Though street brawls do play their part in Arkham City, they are but one segment of the whole. The City itself provides a large playground for our hero to roam, full of collectibles, side missions and hidden extras for all good detectives to seek out. Grapple up to rooftops and that is where you’ll find most freedom, leaping off a parapet before spreading your cloak allows you to glide across large expanses before either grappling up mid-flight or descending on the unlucky scum below.

It’s a different degree of freedom than that found in Crackdown or Assassin’s Creed. Batman lacks the athleticism for parkour, but what he lacks in nimbleness he more than makes up for in gadgetry. Grapples, capes, line launchers, smoke pellets and more mean that he can as easily make a swift getaway over the roof as he can spy on a situation from a tightrope strung between two water towers.

Most of these gadgets are straight from Batman’s prior experience in the Asylum and are available from the off – another reason why the game starts with such momentum. Others are unlocked as the story progresses, opening up further options to the caped crusader, such as new ways to reach previously unreachable nooks or ever more elaborate ways to crush the wrong doers. Ice grenades seal up path-blocking steam pipes or freeze enemies to the spot, whilst an electric pulse weapon is handy to operate large electromagnets to clear objects out the way or attract irritating guns away from their owner’s grip. Very rarely are you forced to use a specific weapon on a specific target and so the offensive repertoire that soon builds up only ever adds to your options.

Given the open nature of the world, there are times when this gadget progression is irritating however. A trophy or similar bauble sits tantalisingly out of reach and yet you do not know whether it is because you have not found the right approach or simply do not have access to the correct tools. I found myself putting off full exploration until later on when my inventory was full, though that didn’t stop the odd deviation from the main story to save innocent “political prisoners”, take phone calls from the deranged inmates, or solve one of Riddler’s many puzzles. Though many are an excuse for a brief rooftop race or another round of fisticuffs, each sits well with Batman’s world and further flesh out the hive of villainy that is Arkham City.

The main tale takes in a solid story arc, but on occasion proves incredibly lacklustre in terms of execution, preferring instead to be an excuse to include as many of Batman’s nemeses as possible. Two-face, Penguin, Riddler, Joker, Mr Freeze… the list goes on to the point where it’s best to ignore the wafer thin reasoning to your movements and just enjoy the ride from lair to lair. Many conclude with satisfying boss battles as one-by-one the larger (quite literally) names in DC’s universe are dealt your own brand of justice, but of particular note the almost Splinter Cell-esque rooms that lead to each finale.

With no roof tops to flee to and certain death waiting should you drop down into a room full of armed men, your environment and wits are to be used well if Batman is to triumph in these arenas. Letting off a fire extinguisher here or using the sonic batarang there will distract guards enough to allow one or two to be picked off before disappearing into the rafters, but with the others spooked it’s all about patience and positioning. Grates can be hidden in, walls burst through and gargoyles descended from as you beat them down physically and psychologically.

The contrast in pace is what really distinguishes Rocksteady’s talents here, being able – with the same character – to produce rooms full of slow building tension and seconds later a street teeming with a gang getting their backsides handed to them by Gotham’s protector.

Batman: Arkham City maybe more than just a violent action game, with notable portions of exploration and detective work, but the rush I felt from beginning to end being smack bang in the middle of a group of masked thugs is what I will remember most. Whether it was stringing one up by their ankles to a gargoyle or pulling off a double-reversal when escaping a blow looked near impossible, I felt as though I was given the best chance I’m ever going to get to feel like a superhero.

Like Batman.

I’m Batman.