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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Jane’s Advanced Strike Fighters

Seeing the “Jane’s” moniker attached to a game has always put me in mind of hardcore simulations, or highly intricate cockpits with more knobs and whistles than the common man knew what to do with. It was a brand that stood it apart from the Ace Combats and Top Guns, but it would appear that in the ten years since last it graced the front of a box this is no longer the case.

Jane’s returns with Advanced Strike Fighters and has thrown away its focus on simulation and has opted for a far more stripped down, arcade style of flying. There’s no trim to adjust or landing gear to raise, here flying is as simple as keeping your bird pointing away from the ground. With very little practise you’ll see yourself ably embodying the ace American pilot “Razor” – sadly you have no choice in this tag – soaring high in the sky, pulling off zero-g turns, before dropping low to the earth and skimming over the hills and plains of war torn Azbaristan.

Quite why a US pilot is in such a position is explained through a token initial news report and mediocre banter between you and the tower. The result, however, is that you’re caught up in the middle of a civil war between the North and South and are flying sorties with the pro-West South. Not wanting to let Uncle Sam down you strap on your helmet, fire up the afterburner and head up into the blue.

One of the issues I’ve always found with combat flying games has been the very limited group of missions that can be pulled from, usually ultimately involving a dog fight somewhere along the way. JASF’s strongest suit is that it manages to continually mix objectives up to prevent such feelings creeping back. From the initial covert starts of having to fly low and take out radar dishes to then ending a mission having to pelt it back to friendly airspace with engines screaming and weapons denied, Evolved Games keep things varied.

Even throughout a single flight you’ll find yourself initially flying low to avoid detection, before having to do fly-bys to collect data on enemy targets, topped off with then having to track and bring down a scout plane that happened upon you. With an enemy army packed full of aircraft carriers, warships, drones, bombers, tanks and supply convoys, throughout the 15-20 mins of each mission goals are happily diverse.

It is then a disappointment that this solid foundation is not built upon. Combat is predictable and perfunctory, if somewhat hampered by a poor and confusing heads-up-display. It’s the usual situation of attempting to wheel trying to get a lock on before launching a spree of missiles to blow your rival out of the sky. Whilst this is of course part and parcel of air combat games, JASF’s experience fluctuates between being overly easy to nigh on impossible.

Given the drop, enemy pilots seem incapable of dodging your ordinance. Their sense of self preservation all but absent, and generally the only way they’ll avoid a fiery death is if you’ve pulled the trigger at an inopportune moment. Conversely, your own evasive action, be it launching counter measures to distract missiles or showing off with some nifty flying, has similar negligible affect. Throughout the multiple hours of the campaign, not at any point did I feel I could competently avoid fire. Warning signs would flash indicating I should deploy counter measures, but despite experimenting at different distances from impact and a variety of suicidal, high-speed turns, I felt it best to put my fate in The Lady rather than my own piloting skills. At least the checkpoints are well placed.

During combat, the screen is scattered with a myriad of indicators pointing to potential targets, friendlies and incoming missiles. Though all is relevant the nature of presentation is poor. A good proportion of your time sees a host of overlaid and mostly unintelligible colour in the centre of your view, whilst at the same time your periphery is dotted with pointers to airborne threats which are rendered too small and too far out to be considered easy to digest. It is such an innocuous aspect but one that has a great impact as you attempt to keep an eye on the fighters behind you at the same moment you line up a strike on a cluster of targets. It’s a symptom that continues throughout, with the plane select screens, camera controls and bombing runs being equally functional but no more.

With Azbaristan liberated and Razor’s spell in this fictional country complete, I walked away feeling very little towards Advanced Strike Fighters. It had provided a cluster of compelling missions that had piqued my interest, but equally it had offered very little in the way of memorable moments when supposedly fighting for my life a mile above terra firma. It felt very much as though I were going through the motions.

Quite how Jane’s became attached to this competent but inspiring project I am not privy to. If it were to try and break out of their more natural sim dominant world, they may wish have stripped it back a little too far.

Journey

It’s not very often I’m moved by a game, but then Journey isn’t like other games. It’s a small but perfectly formed package that during its mere two hours in length takes you through high tension, despair and exhilaration. It runs a gambit of emotions, all from a rather humble beginning.

Crouched on the ground, wrapped in an earthy coloured cape, you sit in quiet contemplation. Stretching out before you is a desert, the sun low in the sky emphasising the dune about you. Not far in front is a rise with a pair of standing stones. A length of fabric attached to them flutters in the breeze. It’s a strong image.

You stand and make your way towards them. As you move the sand shifts beneath your feet and grains flick out behind you. The trudge over the sand is emphasised further as you reach the incline; hunched in the effort of walking up a shifting surface your pace slows. The subtleties are a lovely small touch in a very big visual experience, but they are nothing compared to what waits you as you crest the hill.

From this vantage point the desert seems even larger, with further stones littering the landscape, but in front a small outcrop draws your attention. There are no objective markers or large neon arrows within Journey, curiosity is its primary tool in drawing you forward and at this outcrop one of the your few abilities is revealed. Surrounded by small scraps of cloth flocking like birds, a glowing trinket allows you to jump and soar as though a bird yourself. It’s about the only way you can interact with the world, but it will see you whirl and swirl to new heights.

That talent comes in handy as proceeding onwards you find Journey is made almost exclusively of arenas which stretch off in each dimension and cause you to be no more than a tiny speck. The sense of scale always reminding you that your character is not a hero rampaging through a world but more a pilgrim on a quest. Indeed, the very temple like structures and your crossing of the desert gives proceedings almost religious significance.

Your other ability is that of chirping. Throughout the world lie dormant variants of the cloth birds you found initially. Standing over them, let out a chirp and you’ll reanimate them, sending them fluttering about once more. What this does for you can be anything. Stand close by long enough and all will most likely recharge your limited jump power, some may even rush around you and pull you into the air, and others will trigger large cloth bridges to help you on your way. It’s your way or bringing life back to the world.

For the most part this is the main “game”, assessing how to reach from point A to point B over this vast and beautiful landscape and then setting off to do so. Consideration only needs to be made for making sure you have enough jump when necessary, there’s no time limit or for the most part no threat so to speak of to hurry you on your way. It’s a broad and lush canvas that you’re being asked to traverse.

That in itself is enough of a reason to experience ThatGameCompany’s latest but where the experience takes you is somewhere quite unique. Many, many releases have introduced a buddy or a partner that you’re supposed to care about. Be it the lovelies that Nathan Drake keeps happening upon in deepest, darkest Peru or the voice insider Master Chief’s head, all are there to introduce a dynamic and work as a emotional tool to grant the writers the opportunity to pull you along. Though what if they were real?

Early on, when I was pottering around in the desert, a shape resolved in the distance. I had thought it another small flock of cloth but as it came closer it was another journeyman. The online co-op is seamless and wherever possible the game will gently feed you a companion to share the trip with. Being honest, I waved the first one through; I was too busy poking around the desert to want to continue right then, but at one point I became stuck.

A large wall stood in front of me and I had no idea how to scale it. After a few minutes of puzzlement a chirping came from behind. A new journeyman had happened upon me. Through a series of chirps and tweets he somehow pointed out where I was going wrong, and leapt to the top of the wall. And waited, chirping encouragement. Up I went and upon reaching him, a further chirp. There’s no other way to communicate, you don’t even know the gamertag of your compatriot, yet somehow a chirp is enough to attract the attention or holler out in distress.

And so we continued, surfing down the other side of the huge dune, chirruping back and forth. Our adventure took us over further sand fields, deep underground through lost temples, and up large towers filled with a magical menagerie of cloth creatures. By now we could both soar quite some way and the act of flying or dune surfing in tandem was extremely liberating. Doing so alone is fun, but seeing the other interject the odd jump or twirl, maybe try and slalom in and out of the stone pillars, adds a certain joy that could never be replaced by an AI. You know their actions are spontaneous and knowing that they are probably getting the same kick out of the interaction makes it even better. It’s a simple pleasure but one that truly works, even more so due to the limited means of chat as no abusive teenager is going to break the spell.

Towards the end the tone takes a darker twist, reinforcing the pilgrimage ideal that our journeymen are testing themselves, and it was here that Journey truly touched me. Making our way up a hillside during a heavy storm we crossed from cover to cover in a bid to be shielded both from the winds and a large predator that circled above us. Against the noise of the breaking storm we chirped our moments and then sprinted from stone to stone. But then my friend seemed to panic. He jumped up, chirped and ran into the open far too soon. I let out a long hoot, trying to call him back, but it was too late; the flying beast descended and in a flash of light he was gone.

I stood there, honestly stunned. This man who had helped me so early on, who I had shared most of the journey with was gone. I stood and called out for a while, my character turning blue with the chill. I felt a little lost, alone on the hillside. I sat there hoping he would return but when a shape did emerge from the slopes below I could tell it was not him; his scarf was a different length.

That single incident there was something incredible. An emotional response had come from not the clever scripting of level design or pen of a script write but from the simple connection I had felt with my fellow traveller. There is a tale that runs behind Journey, but that is the facilitator rather than the reason. A focus for the pair of you that sets the scene and indicates the mood.

To now return to talking about things like mechanics and replayability verges on seeming crude, but necessary. Played alone the experience will be one of wonder, but in a similar way to those embracing Child of Eden for the first time. The scenery and fauna will delight, whilst the puzzles that block your way are solved easy enough as long as you let your curiosity take over. But you will be missing a large proportion of the experience.

Open up to online and you’ll find yourself in a completely different world. One where whole conversations take place as though bird calls, and one where you will have someone to share the good times and the bad times of your passage. It is an emotive and beautiful experience.

For me, Journey is the pinnacle of the art of videogames.

Backwards Compatibility

The release on Friday of the iPad 3 (or “the new” iPad, if Apple’s new aversion to numbering is to take hold) has once again taken our geek world by storm. Twitter feeds were chocked full of tech lovers gleefully telling the world about their shiny new toy, shops had epic queues forming outside of them from the wee small hours, and, cackling, Apple’s shareholders went swimming Scrooge McDuck-style in the takings.

I’m yet to jump on the iPad bandwagon, mainly as I’m quite happy with what limited extras my smart phone offers me, namely Internet and Twitter. At times though I feel I should, primarily because of the number of amazing games that keep being recommended to me but only exist on the i platform. With such a massive install base, it’s a no-brainer for new developers to target a device that has so many multiples of millions downloading and trying apps each day. Why would you look to XBLA or PSN?

Whilst this in itself may have repercussions onto the traditional giants of gaming, the home consoles, the mere infrastructure that has been key to Apple’s dominance in the “smart glass” market could see ramifications in the war of the next console generation.
It’s so subtle that you may not have noticed it. So inbuilt into the fabric of their clean, white devices that many don’t see the wood for the trees. I speak of backwards compatibility.

The size of the App Store is now so vast and so popular that to change the spec of a new piece of hardware such as to invalidate the many hundreds of thousands of Apps that are out there would be suicide. Those Apps are as much a part of the i devices success as anything Apple themselves have done. With each fanfare of a new iPad or iPhone, you can guarantee that as much emphasis is placed on tooting the horn of innovation, behind the scenes equally as much effort is kept in keeping things the same.

Now think back to the start of this generation, a time pre-iPad when Microsoft and Sony were fighting with handbags at dawn as to how they were going to cope with backwards compatibility. Due to a massive architecture change the Xbox was going to handle this in software whereas the PlayStation was just going to ship with a tiny PS2 on board. Back and forth the spat went about whose was going to be better, but take a gander and you’ll see that’s all but disappeared. Sony pulled the feature and Microsoft, no longer at loggerheads, retired any further support. It was a fight for headlines during the transition of generations and now it’s probably fair to say that no-one gives a fig.

But how will it pan out in the switch to Xbox Next and PlayStation 4? Since last time we’ve seen the rise of XBLA and PSN and the concept of our console games living digitally on a cloud. If the rumours about PlayStation dropping the much vaunted Cell chip are to be true, it’s highly unlikely that such a shift architecture would make it easy to just download Journey or Flower to your newer, more powerful PS4.

In an age when so many people, from App Store users to the slow creep of the Nintendo handhelds, expect what they have bought to work ubiquitously on all upgraded devices, what position does this leave Microsoft and Sony? Will it be headlines at dawn again, before slowly fading into the background to be all but forgotten? Or an omission that could alienate a lot of core users?

For my tuppence, I’ve never thrown away or sold a console in my life. My backwards compatibility is formed by a series of boxes in the loft, but I doubt it’s the same for everyone.

Awesomenauts

For everyone who remembers the likes of Bucky o’Hare and Bravestar fondly, then the opening sequence to Awesomenauts is for you. In suitable stadium rock fashion, the synth power chords are set free and a wailing gent – quite possibly replete with blonde mullet, though reports are unconfirmed – pronounces how these noble mercenaries will save the universe from its ills. Chocked full with shots panning round explosions, intergalactic war, and the obligatory running-towards-the-camera view, it channels everything that made 80s cartoons awesome.

Even the tutorial is introduced in a similar vein. Contacting you aboard your ship, an intergalactic general hires your services in an effort to sabotage the mining efforts of his sworn enemy, the Blues. So, donning your Red cap and making sure there’s enough coinage it in it for you, you don’t see any reason why not.

All the build up leaves you in no doubt that the character of Awesomenauts is as important as any of the gameplay. Known for their bright and bold presentation, it’s no surprise that each of Ronimo’s six main characters is larger than life and full of colourful tricks to turn the tide of war in their favour.

The war itself takes place in a battle arena where six players split into teams and duke it out. Most notably, this occurs in just two dimensions. Levels are setup symmetrically and each team’s base is blocked by two or three turrets that the opposition must destroy and break through before attempting to destroy the drill at the centre of you base in order to claim victory. With only three of you that sounds like a relatively simple prospect; just stand in the way and gun… but with usually two routes to your drill and the prospect of attacking as well as defending, this Defence of the Ancients slash platformer soon turns madcap as you try and handle everything at once.

Part of the madness comes from the characters. Each is equipped with their own unique weaponry, with a further host of upgrades upon that. I started with Froggy G, a nippy lad from the ghetto planet of Ribit IV who comes armed with a fish-come- gun. Though armed with a gun, what made him stand out was his dash which could stun enemies, and his whirlwind ‘talent’ that battered those who came near made him. Running up to an enemy before dashing through them to knock them off guard, you could then turn round and blast at them with your fishy friend.

Next up was Leon Chameleon, a close combat specialist who looks the part with his ability to stealth, a sticky tongue that can lash foes in close, and a razor sharp slash to cut them down to size. The stealth ability alone brought a whole new set of tactics to Leon over Froggy. There’s no Active Camo shimmer ala Halo, he simply blinks out of existence on the opposite team’s screens and only reappears when he’s ready to stab them in the back.

My third game found my favourite Awesomenaut however. Going by the name Sheriff Lonestar, his talents suited my more defensively-minded play to a tee. Being able to toss handfuls of dynamite at the feet of the onrushing enemy is one thing, but being able to summon a holo-bull that will charge and push back anything in its path is quite another. I’m sure I heard more than the odd rude word muttered as for the umpteenth time I sat beside my turret, sending out bull after bull to fend off the ne’er-do-wells before laying the floor with explosives for their return.

With six of these space mercenaries all fighting in the same arena at the same time, there’s a back and forth as the power sways from one side to the other depending on who well one side function as a team or just whether a particular group have very complementary powers. Large robots forms shields whilst more prone but powerful Awesomenauts float behind providing support, and just as in any class game finding these subtle pairings are key to crushing the opposition.

Of course most of the time it’s also just as much fun experimenting with the upgrades that collecting the loot from your victims and tokens scattered about the arena provide. From more powerful attacks to regenerating health, every character has a dozen slots to spend credits on creating an even further diverse battlefield.

After just a couple of games it put me in mind of a couple of other multiplayer games. It captures the frenetic nature of Super Smash Bros crossed with the two-dimensions and madness found in Worms. With the right crowd this has the potential to be a great game for three friends on the same sofa, jumping online and taking on the world.

However, the impressive part comes from all the subtleties that Ronimo have added to take a fun experience and layer it with strategy whilst also fending off possible frustrations. Those close to death can teleport back to base for a recharge, meaning there’s never a reason to think all is lost; environmental grav chutes help thrust you straight back into the battle, no matter how far away you spawn; and a constant stream of droids march from your base to theirs, providing ample decoy, support or shielding depending on how you’re feeling.

Quite how the market will react to such a unique multiplayer experience will be intriguing. With the promise of DLC the developers are thinking long term, hoping to sit alongside the likes of Call of Duty and Halo as an alternate rather than a replacement. Whatever the outcome, those who end up being killed by a charging holo-bull, baby yetis or through use of the deadly spitfish, they’re unlikely ever to see those kill messages popping up anywhere else.

Now pass me my soviet monkey with a jetpack, it’s time to go to war!

Awesomenauts

With the success of 2009′s Swords & Soldiers, Dutch developer Ronimo are back again for another slice of brightly coloured 2D action. We grab them for a quick word on Awesomenauts, a 2D, side scrolling, DotA MOBA. Don’t worry, it’s not as confusing as it sounds, read on…

7outof10: For those out there who may not have heard about Awesomenauts, can you in your own words give them a little taster of what to expect?

Ronimo: It’s a team based competitive platforming shooter, in which two teams of 3 people try to destroy each others’ base. But it’s not that simple, each base is defended by huge Gatling turrets, automated droids and other players of course. As a player you control a platforming character that can shoot and use two special abilities unique to their class. These shots and abilities can be upgraded and modified with currency earned by destroying enemies. So play well, get upgraded and you’ll be destroying their base in no time. Right now the game is in certification for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.

How did the decision to make a 2D version of DotA come about?

Well we had already decided to try and make an online multiplayer game, even before we started considering Awesomenauts. Back then we loved DotA and wanted to take that gameplay to console, nowadays it’s LoL and DotA 2. And of course we wanted to do it Ronimo style, with lush 2D graphics.

And those graphics of course bear you hallmark, but what have you done to stamp your mark on DotA? What would you say makes Awesomenauts standout?

Lots of things actually. On the surface the style difference is very obvious. The switch to 2D also means that simply moving around and using skills plays very differently. And the move to console and smaller team size allows us to provide splitscreen multiplayer, you can battle online with up to 3 people from a single console.

Digging deeper, we’ve streamlined the buyable items and character leveling into a single system, while adding depth at the same time. Players can not only improve stats or unlock skills through one system, but also modify their functionality. This gives characters a lot more flexibility.

Finally, we have full drop-in drop-out support. So even when you’re already in a match, you can invite a friend and he can jump right in with you. And thanks to our single currency system new players can get up to speed quickly, because we give them the average amount of what current players have. At the same time leaving players get instantly replaced by a bot, so leavers won’t break a game that is in progress.

All in all we’ve kept the stuff that makes DotA so addictive, while at the same time making the experience a lot smoother and action packed.

Some of the complexities of the DotA template seem to have been sacrificed in the switch to two-dimensions, are you hoping that this will encourage new players into the fold with a little more ease?

Yes, very much so. It was a very conscious decision to try and streamline some of the elements. Getting into the original DotA is pretty hard. You’re basically required to have an experienced DotA player on hand to help you get started. And seeing how most players won’t have access to expert Awesomenauts players, we wanted the game to be a bit more self-explanatory.

At the same time a lot of the complexity of DotA adds very little to the gameplay. Why can you browse 100+ items while only 20+ items are relevant for your character? Our unified upgrade system allows us to offer players upgrades that have wildly different effects on their characters’ skills. This allows for a lot more different tactics and viable builds per character.

Are you worried that console players might not “get” the concept of a MOBA-style game, given we’ve never really seen one on those platforms previously?

Not really, it still plays like a side scrolling shooter. So it’s very easy to get into. Apart from that it’s all about staying aware of your health and retreating in a timely matter. Once you’ve mastered those two elements you’ll be a decent Awesomenauts player. From there you can start experimenting with different characters, builds and upgrades.

I also think console games don’t necessarily have to be dumbed down compared to PC games, they just need to be more clear. When I’m playing on console you can’t hit me in the face with repeated walls of text and expect me to read all that, when all I want is to chill out and play a game. But I can handle the same amount of complexity as on PC, just make sure everything is to the point and clear. That’s what we’ve done with Awesomenauts.

Finally, I think there’s plenty of overlap between console gamers and PC gamers. I know people who play COD as well as LoL or DotA. They are going to love Awesomenauts.

As with COD, Awesomenauts is of course primarily focused on multiplayer, but what single-player experience can we find hidden within? And does any progression there tie back into multiplayer?

The only form of single player is practice mode, which is just playing offline against bots. It’s the same experience as playing online, right down to the ability to play in split screen. However, the amount of points resulting from practice matches are half that of online matches. So theoretically you could completely level up your account using just practice mode, it would just take twice as long.

How are you dealing with unlockable characters and upgrades?

After finishing a match players are awarded points based on their performance. Bonuses are awarded for playing a random character, playing splitscreen and of course, winning. These points will then level up your account and at each level you will get a new item or character. There are 45 levels in total.

That sounds like there’s a lot of content there already for players to work through. Though looking to the future will we be seeing any new characters or items as DLC?

Yes, definitely. We have two characters ready that just need some balancing, but we have lots more in production.

Moving back to Ronimo’s trademark style, both Awesomenauts and Swords and Soldiers before that are very bright, bold, colourful games. With Awesomenauts, what do you feel this style brings that maybe a more gritty feel may not?

First of all, clarity. We’ve experimented with gritty styles as well, but it was just a bit harder to see what was going on. You want everything to be as clear as possible during the hectic gameplay.

At the same time the graphics bring a splash of optimism and humor that we miss from the 16-bit era. Bring back the blue skies!

Quite, there’s no Unreal browns here. Similarly they’re both genres – RTS and DotA – that you don’t traditionally associate with just two dimensions. Have you any plans for what you would like to try next in a similar style?

Yep! Can’t talk about that yet, though. Also, they’re just plans. Right now we’re focused on supporting Awesomenauts with fresh content for the forseeable future.

With a host of upgrades include “Hammer Pants”, “Baby Yeti” and “Techno Viking Helmet” there are obviously some crazy possibilities for players but where their any items that didn’t make the grade because they were too weird? What’s the one that you wish had made it into the final game?

Actually, we have removed a skill because it wasn’t crazy enough. In earlier versions, Sheriff Lonestar was able to throw Bolas that would ensnare enemies. Unfortunately this skill was fairly boring and hard to balance somewhere between way overpowered and useless. The first alternative we came up with was a deployable cactus that would block and damage enemies. But this skill was too static and had little to no synergy with his other skill, throwing dynamite. In the final game he has a Bull that shoves away enemies. It’s ideal, because it fits the Cowboy theme, it’s a very useful skill and it works well together with the Dynamite.

Finally, in one interview I saw you say that Awesomenauts is “Mulitplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game inspired by your favourite ’80s animated series.” My favourite 80s animated series was Thundercats, what was yours?

Back then I’d probably have favored great stuff like Starcom and Gundam. Since it was not only great, but also rare on Dutch television. But honestly I think Transformers is my favorite, also because of the brilliant toys. I hated the death and subsequent weird return of Optimus, though. And I loved Thundercats too, of course. I vividly remember being pumped with awesomeness and just wanting to punch stuff and going on adventure after seeing that show. Also, that Cheetah lady made me feel funny.

I don’t think you were alone with those feelings.

Thank you very much to Jasper Koning for arranging the interview and the Ronimo team for taking time out of their busy schedule to talk to us. Awesomenauts is coming out in May for PSN and XBLA.

How I Came To Own A Vita

Sitting before me now is a Vita. It is very shiny. Two weeks ago I didn’t know I even wanted one, but then the GAME Group’s little financial problem happened.

You see over the course of the last two years I’ve been saving up in preparation for the next generation of consoles, whenever they may be. This saving hasn’t taken the form of a mattress stuffed with used notes however, mine has been in the form of a Gamestation trade-in card. Every time I was done with a game, I’d trot down to the store, trade it in for whatever I could get for it, and keep it stashed away on their loyalty card hoping that when the Xbox Next and PlayStation 4 arrived I’d have enough for one or the other.

As of Saturday morning, I had £250 sitting on that Gamestation card. Not an inconsiderable amount. And not a stable one, if you heed talk of the Administrators being called in as appeared on MCV’s website late on Friday afternoon.

At this point they became my Northern Rock: I needed to get my cash out whilst I could.

I’m not the kind of man who can have a pile of games sitting there waiting to be played – I just don’t have the time – so getting half-a-dozen or more new releases wasn’t a financially sound way to go. I have all the home consoles, it didn’t look like they were going to stock the iPad 3 any time soon and so only one viable avenue was left open to me.

Around the office I have actively pooh-poohed the Vita in recent weeks, ridiculing Sony’s latest over-priced memory cards, the kitchen sink approach to input devices and the lack of eye catching software. And yet there I was in the middle of Birmingham trying to figure out how to get the best for my cash.

After a large amount of (hasty) research and digesting all the permutations of offers Gamestation had up, I not only ended up walking out of the store with a Vita (complete with FIFA and Uncharted) but with a surprising sense of glee. Whether or not this is my subconscious trying to reassure me that what I was doing was right, I feel I had actually been sold on what I was getting. This was no longer a desperate purchase to get something for those dozens of trade ins over the last couple of years, but a device I was actually looking forward to embracing.

It’s been in my possession less than a day and, to reiterate my opening line, it’s very shiny. And I mean that in a Firefly sort of way. The graphics are stunning, the input responsive and it just feels so nice; and best of all they’ve gotten rid of that ridiculous cross-media bar that leads me to hate my PS3 so.

Of course it comes down to the games and merely peaking at what is on the PlayStation Network Store has me hopeful; Sony’s online marketplace has to me always provided greater variety and quality than Microsoft’s solid but generally uninspiring offerings. If the likes of Escape Plan and Super Stardust Delta can be backed up by output from studios in the vein of Pixel Junk and ThatGameCompany then I’m going to be a very happy panic purchaser.

I Am Alive

The city is covered is a thick, low cloud of dust. Stumbling through the streets you used to live in, you can barely make out the landmarks that were once so familiar as they loom out of the haze. Broken cars and dilapidated buildings line the roads but a year on from the Event such sights are common and their blurred form numbs what in earlier times would have proved shocking.

A fractured overhead railway sparks memories of a route you took with your daughter in better days and you turn towards it, hoping that sentiment as much as survival instinct will draw the pair of you together again.

Shapes resolve in the gloom and three men walk confidently towards you, appearing as though ghosts. They mean business. The lead man approaches you brandishing a gun; his friends cockily stand back, toying with machetes. He mutters something as he shoves you. The words wash over you as self preservation takes over and you whip out your own blade, downing your agitator before bringing your own firearm out to ward off the other pair. It’s empty, but they don’t know that.

One surrenders almost instantly, throwing his machete to the ground. The other’s still mouthing off but too afraid to try anything. Then he calls your bluff; you’ve brandished it for too long, he knows you’re empty. He charges…

Such is the life in Haventon after the Event. A worldwide apocalyptic occurrence has brought civilisation to its knees and whilst some men choose to try and seek out what they’ve lost, some have turned feral. You play a determined, unnamed soul. Having been out of town when the disaster struck, it’s taken him a year to walk home, hoping that he’ll find his wife and daughter when he finally returns.

Upon reaching his ruined apartment he knows they’ve gone, probably to one of the many survivor camps nearby. What he does stumble across however is some of the town’s nicer denizens, and so he begins to comb the city in a bid to help his new friends and to search for his family.

To do so, Ubisoft have imbued the lead character with the same wall climbing and edge grabbing talents seen in Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia. The city is a wreck and the only guaranteed way to negotiate its debris strewed highways is to go up and over. Using exposed girders, drain pipes and window ledges, new passage ways and areas unseen from ground level reveal themselves.

Yet our man is not like Ezio or the Prince. Being comparatively normal, he only has a certain amount of stamina before the strength in his arms is exhausted and he falls. This introduces an interesting element of strategy when scaling large distances which highlights the fact that you are only human and that you can’t simply take on the city without consequences. Routes must be planned, taking advantage of any tiny ledges en-route that allow you to rest up for the next leg of the climb.

Although should you misjudge and exhaust your stamina, it’s not all over. You’ll be able to dig deep and give a final push by hammering on the right-trigger in an effort to see you the last couple of metres to safety. The screen focuses in and your heart beat will fill the speakers, emphasising the need to get there now otherwise it’s all over. Whilst this provides a get out clause, it does have a long term negative effect as every time you’re forced into that panic your overall stamina capacity is reduced, emphasising the physically draining escapade you just put yourself through. In turn that reduces the distance you’ll be able to climb again and so increases the chance you’ll have to dig deep once more. It’s a nasty cycle but one that can be best avoided by a quick scan of your climb before you being vaulting up the wall and planning.

Any lost capacity can be regained by some of the many foodstuffs that you’ll find round the broken buildings. Soda cans, rat meat and pain killers all to varying degrees patch you up, even if they may taste a little funky. Keeping topped up is highly advisable as both climbs and fights can be devastating to your overall condition. The latter aren’t very common but when they do occur the machete’s cut deep and a single gunshot wound is liable to have you close to death, the screen glaring red at your situation.

Thankfully they are relatively considered affairs, being much more about strategy and a cool head than quick reactions. With only a limited number of bullets ever available – I never had more than four and never knew if or when that would be topped up – you have to prioritise. Take out the others with guns first, and then threaten the blade wielding nutters, hopefully backing them up next to fires and ledges which you can then some what conveniently kick them obligingly into.

It’s all an interesting concept, and a far better idea than mass gun fights in a world where resources are scarce, but at times it does feel a little contrived. From the ability to quickly kill at a button press those who saunter up to you, or the willingness of those you wave empty guns at to back themselves against a gaping hole in the ground, it breaks the illusion of surviving in a desolate future and instead reminds you that it’s a game with hard and fast rules.

Away from the skirmishes, I Am Alive manages to capture a wonderful atmosphere. At street level the world is cloaked in thick fog, producing a necessity for navigation by map but also a wonderful sense of exploration as you pick through the ruins hoping for either hidden survivor hidey holes or some water you can stash for later. Climb up through the fog onto a roof top and you’re presented with a very different scene; the sun shines down on a crisp, grey landscape and as you gaze around you bear witness to toppled skyscrapers, ruined train lines and camps dotting the rooftops. Producing two seemingly separate worlds just feet away from each other is impressive.

Even more impressive when you find yourself scaling the outside of an office block, or working your way through a residential block that’s fallen over where the walls have now become its fall. Your journey through the six hour campaign takes you through much of the city’s undergrounds and sights. Indeed it was this exploration that warmed me to I Am Alive most. Though nowhere near the scope of Fallout 3, Haventon provided enough secrets and side quests to make you want to explore the side alleys and lend others a hand just to hear more of what happened to your home town.

Though it may have changed hands and tact during its development, what emerged, blinking into the daylight is an atmospheric piece that tries to immerse the player in a bleak world but one where there is still hope. Large periods can be spent alone, wandering through the dust clouds or clambering through structures, to the point that when you do meet someone it’s almost a treat. As long as they’re not brandishing arms, they’ll give you a snippet of their story and you move on, putting me very much in mind of The Walking Dead.

In atmosphere it may prove itself but in story and gameplay it proves a little clunky and by-the-numbers. The inability to swap weapons or even leap gaps without fighting the controls hampered my enjoyment and with each you could possibly point the finger back to its troubled development. As such, I Am Alive is full of potential and ambition, not all of which is fully realised.

Raspberry Pi

This week saw the commercial release of a device that has the potential to see the biggest change in the way our schools teach Computing and use technology in education in some 30 years.

I can remember being in my very first year at primary school and there in the corner sat a very angular BBC Micro. It didn’t do much but I can definitely recall some kind of heavily pixelated tomato-man carrying out our bidding. Type in “jump”, he would jump; “wave”, and his red arm would swing back and forth; that to me as a 3- or 4-year-old was incredible. But in at the same time, it was the norm, as that was the technology that was coming into play. It then was no different to my friend’s similarly aged child deftly handling his iPad today. The graphics have just gotten a little slicker in the intervening period but youth’s ability to adapt and embrace what is placed in front of them remains.

Back in the days of the Micros, Spectrums and Amigas that acceptance meant children getting their hands dirty, pulling up a console and seeing just how their shiny new toy can worked. It saw the birth of a generation of bedroom coders and an avenue to a set of skills that is sadly diminishing today. Though it’s easy enough to begin experimenting with programming on a PC, the majority of industry is now comprised of gated portable iOS devices, locked down home consoles, and pirate-wary multinationals meaning children’s digital entertainment is no longer quite so open or inviting to such homebrew. The leap between what is quickly achievable and what they are seeing on screen is a world apart.

The Raspberry Pi aims to change that. In development for nearly six-years it is target at being an extremely cheap and robust portable computer that will once again tempt pupils into the joys of syntax errors, semi colons and compilers. It wants to reinvigorate and reverse the decline in the nation’s computing skills.

With twice as much power as the latest iPhone, Blu-Ray quality playback and still being only the size of a credit card, it’s hardly trading size for power. But this isn’t about specs, it’s at the heart of trying to reinvigorate education, enabling pupils to take and explore ICT rather than be force fed lesson plans set down by an education system that is still principally based in an ethos that began before computers were a reality. Unsurprising if teachers fear little Johnny writing off an expensive PC due to a misplaced call to the kernel.

It’s going to take more than a cheap PC for the Raspberry Pi Foundation to transform their vision into a reality but with the Government already having announced a shake-up to the way the nation’s children are taught ICT – and Michael Gove already having suggesting devices such as the Raspberry Pi could play an important role – we may find ourselves living in quite revolutionary times.

Already French, music and physics are taught as standard in schools. With a slice of Pi, might we see C++ join those ranks?

 

 

Catherine

Never has my wife watched the television with such a fixed look of concentration. There am I, Vincent, sitting in a confessional booth with nothing but a pair of ram’s horns, a white pillow and my boxers to cover my modesty, and in front of me floats a question. She’s awaiting my response.

“Does life begin or end at marriage?”

The answer is never in doubt, but the attention that is being paid to me – silent, unobtrusive, and yet with a force comparable only with that of a Tyrannosaur’s bite – you can’t but help feel judged. Internally the game is making a note, nodding its head in appreciation of your response but giving you no indication as to whether you gave the “right” answer. My wife knows what the correct answer is and is pleased I have chosen it; Catherine, however… well… Catherine’s different.

Catherine touches upon issues usually only reserved for more established forms of media. Whereas most Western Top 10 releases explore love and relationships with no more subtlety than a cheeky a fumble to a slap bass soundtrack or the promise of a plumber receiving some cake, Atlus’s Persona Team have turned their attention away from teen-angst and RPGs and produced an experience composed of very disparate parts that marry together as an exploration into a young man’s mind. It is quite frankly unique.

Our tale begins with Vincent, said man and in his early 30s. He lives alone and is involved in a long term relationship with the lovely Katherine. With a K. Between the responsibilities of his new job and hints of marriage, he’s under pressure. With no wild ambitions in either professional or personal life, it’s getting in the way of his drinking time with his buddies and the only way he knows how to solve it is to ignore it and carry on doing what he does.

On our first night with Vincent he drinks a little too much and ends up in bed with an attractive young lady name Catherine. With a C. He can’t believe it, horrified at what he’s done and unsure how it came about. From that moment we witness the daily panic of him trying to straighten things out between him and Katherine, and guide him through his guilt-induced nightmares.

These nightmares present themselves as block puzzles and form the main bulk of the action. Each sees Vincent start at the bottom of a vast column of movable cubes which he must scale and reach the peak of if he wishes to wake up again. As long as he has enough space to manoeuvre, blocks can be pulled and pushed about freely allowing him to form a variety of staircases and platforms for him to exploit. With certain rules, such as the limitation of only being able to scale a single block at a time or his talent of hanging from edges as though a semi-naked Ezio, the levels can at first seem daunting though early nightmares are as much about learning the ropes as setting the scene.

Still, as the subconscious feels more addled by guilt, difficulty increases. Standing before a sheer rock face can lead to you feeling that you’ve struck upon a devilishly difficult puzzler. Yet with a little guidance, developing a few “techniques” that can produce stairways from nothing; during the night, between stages, you’ll run into other men ready to offer advice on how to become a better climber. Though they resemble farm animals, their tips are sound and should be heeded if you are ever to see daylight again. Impenetrable walls suddenly become a climbing frame that can be deciphered by instinct alone and veritably scamper up.

With such torturous dreams Vincent returns night after night to the bar, conveniently named The Stray Sheep, to seek solace in beer. A home from home it offers a fine opportunity for you to mix and chat with your friends and the other regulars, some of whom even share a passing resemble to the sheep you meet each night. Away from the rigours of climbing blocks, this is where Vincent can try and make sense of what is going on.

Your time spent there is more than just a respite from the brain teasers however. Talking to those about you begins to reveal possible clues as to why too they are troubled by the dreams and after a while you start to feel attached to those sharing your fate. It’s a welcome sight to see a fellow climber and pulling up a seat next to them at the bar – though they may not recognise you from the dreams in return – allows you to find out more about them and offer a chance to reassure them for the night ahead.

Both Katerine and Catherine know you hang out there however, and so expect the odd visit or phone call to see how you are. The pair combined don’t make life easy and how you handle the situation, reassuring one whilst pushing the other away, will be judged. Each message sent has connotations; every white lie is noted, sending something resembling a karma-meter swinging back and forth with your responses.

All this feeds into the final aspect of Catherine. Everything is brought together wonderfully by a series of professionally produced manga shorts and slick in-engine cutscenes telling the tale. Close shaves as the two love rivals almost meet, awkward morning conversations, and even simple reflective walks in the rain all flesh out the story to be so much more than a compelling puzzle game wrapped in a thin veneer. The story is everything. It even delicately changes depending on your choices, painting Vincent in the light you have subliminally selected.

Soon you realise that the nightly torment that Vincent suffers under, scaling the blocks, is more than it seems. It’s a metaphor for his struggle, whilst his attitude in tackling it doubles as how hard he fights to save his relationship with Katherine. How subtle you find that is subjective but as one part of a greater whole it’s clever.

As the nightmares continue so does the fiendish nature of the puzzles. Blocks made of ice, packed with explosives and those that crumble under foot are all introduced to at layers of complexity that at times created pad-throwing frustration. Yet all the time a series of simple rules reduce the trickiest layout into a level that is easily conquered by those with a cool head and ability to focus on the task in hand. However, the incentive to continue the tale is reason alone to refuse to quit.

The word “mature” may be thrown about to describe many a grisly or bloody 18-rated game, but so rarely does such a game deserve it. Catherine is a rare treat, showing that there are more to videogames than space marines and fast cars. Through an interesting premise and a balance use of humour, it explores themes of infidelity, a young man’s concern of losing the supposed freedom of youth, and facing the responsibilities of being in a serious relationship. Some of the trapping by which it does so may seem strange but even ignoring all of that there is a very fine puzzler tucked away within.

You might destroy the odd pad on the way up, but it’s worth it.