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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Fez

It could easily be assumed that Fez has had a free ride. Despite being lost in development for five years, turning up at conference after conference, there was a feeling that everyone wanted it to succeed. With a quirky, small dev team flying the Indie-darling flag on a major console and a retro 8-bit style it was tugging at the romantic side of every gamer. But Fez is more than that. Beyond the takes of extended development lies a platformer that is equally charming and clever.

Yet on the surface sits what is apparently is a basic platform adventure. Though with one quite literal twist.

Our hero Gomez lives in a 2D world; his picturesque villages sitting on a single plane. Made up of traditional blocks, house tiles and vines, he’s nimbly able to traverse and climb its full breadth and height though forever locked in the X and Y. Out of the blue, as if the videogame adaptation of Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland, a shape with a third-dimension arrives and shows unto the village the meaning of depth. It’s a revelation. Suddenly the classrooms are filled with new promise and the townsfolk are excited about what else this arrival could mean.

For Gomez it means a lot. Granted a magical hat – you can probably guess what sort – he has been gifted the power to turn the world on its axis. Though still only able to move in his native two-dimensions, the hat allows the world to shift 90 degrees bringing the depth to be his width. What previously were dead ends can now be turned to reveal further pathways and extra routes.

Initially this seems like a novel way of hiding secrets about a relatively normal platformer; spin the door to reveal a door/chest/cube. Exit the village however and you’ll see it’s more than that as you craft stairways from pillars previously separated by the width of the screen, or uncover a series of vines that thanks to the flattening of perspective join to allow you to climb to new heights. The opening hour is full of a series of eureka moments as the possibilities cement themselves in your mind.

At that point Fez is for exploring. The world map opens up a warren of routes, taking you up, over and round Gomez’s village and taking him far from home. The main reason for this jaunt is that you promised the visiting cube that, in traditional genre fare, you would collect smaller, golden cubes, which in turn open up further areas and further small, golden cubes.

After a while the world-turning becomes second nature. No matter where you find yourself you know a dab on the triggers left or right will bring, spinning into place, your escape route. A certain amount of variety is injected with switches that alter water levels or set in motion a series of time-crucial routes but at this point it becomes about the journey. Not even with their addition is Fez overly tricky, but rather a means to take in and appreciate the 8-bit landscape and the themes Polytron have daubed their world with. Collecting the cubes may have been the initial motivation, but that dwindles for the wanton need to see what is behind every door. Navigating across lighthouses sitting proud on a blue sea or haunted houses lit by angular lighting, you’ll find everything from pixelated bunnies lolloping about through to Tetris-shaped clouds floating by, all the while supported by a stunning chiptune soundtrack completing the experience.

If it were that alone, Fez would still have proven to be an incredibly lovely game. Full of quaint nods to the platformers and styles of yesteryear whilst packing in a novel mechanic it would have received clucks of approval throughout for the warm glow that such nostalgia-with-a-twist brings.

However, as you unearth the second layer, the realisation dawns that the platforming is not even close to being the main reason for Fez’s existence. Underneath is a fiendish puzzler, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of the games it so stylishly tips its Moroccan hat to. The cute graphics, the nifty rotation mechanic and the world as a whole are merely a delivery mechanism to house further homage to a bygone age, and mysteries that are amongst the toughest I’ve ever come across.

Easier challenges involve shifting blocks and replicating patterns; more advanced examples may hinge upon your observation skills; and by the time you have reached the puzzle summit you will have partaken in levels of cryptography that could seal you a place at MI5. At times I sat surrounded by piles of paper, each covered with scribbles and patterns as I tried to make sense of it all, but come the moment of success it felt a mix of blessed relief and delight, especially given what was found behind the previously locked doors.

To reveal any of their substance would be to ruin them for you, but the level of dedication and service put in by the team to pull off not just the individual puzzles but weave them and their rewads into the world at large is testament to their talents. Strange glyphs and tablets will have littered your path on route to the initial conclusion, but only upon a second play-through does it become apparent just how deep Fez goes.

Though possibly too deep. Many of the puzzles are utterly unsolvable until you complete your first pass. Whereas Metroid has its weapon-coded doors, Fez has its cyphers. They’ll sit there and taunt you and occasionally pull you in, forcing you to try and crack it believing you hold enough facts when truth be told what you have is nothing. Though it pays respect to the single-screen platformers of the Spectrum, not everything on its bite-sized levels must be completed on the first visit and a good adventurer needs to know when to avoid frustration and come back later.

That in itself is an art, and has sadly been the cause of a large amount of grief on my behalf, made worse by the cross-world navigation. Scattered throughout the land are hints to secrets and puzzles on the other side of the world, and yet getting from A to B is painful. The map itself has to be seen to be believed; a vast spider’s web of doors and warps that ties together the dozens and dozens of rooms Gomez explores. From the confusion of orientating yourself against it to small, arbitrary black holes that open up on your return to certain rooms, retracing your steps is not half as gleeful as your initial forays. It’s a shame to say this back-tracking is necessary and at the detriment to the game as a whole.

Fez is a game of two parts, the first being a bright, joyful skip down memory lane that will attempt to please as many of your senses as possible. It is there to serve you with whimsy by the screenful and does everything it can to please you, from offering small, manageable levels for those with little time to punishing a missed jump by doing no more than resetting you to where you launched from. Almost cruelly you find yourself brought into the second half where what you were doing previously is a by-product. Here the grey cells get tested and tested hard, but the more you put in the more you will definitely get out.

Though whilst some may accept the unabashed difficulty as a challenge, I found the unguarded nature by which it interfered with my time spent in the first half distracting. With little gating, frustration is easy to come by. That, in of itself, is not the disappointment; that it may cause players to walk away before they have seen all the wonders that Fez offers, is.

The Other Game Shop

Reading Joseph’s comment on the GAME group’s chance of surviving last week got me thinking. There is a similar “niche” hobby that he and I share more than a passing interest in that has a high street presence spanning the length and breadth of the country. It too appeals to mostly men, but unlike videogames it is unlikely that Tesco and ASDA are likely to start stocking large quantities of it on their shelves any time soon. I speak of Games Workshop.

Whatever you may think of it as a pastime, the Nottingham based company has managed to survive for many years selling a product that is only going to appeal to a small fraction of the population. Throughout that period it has seen its presence on the High Street grow, slowly edging from town to town until it is more curious for a town not to have a GW shop than to have one.

The same could have been said about the GAME group up until recent events, but the differences in the pair’s fortune is both obvious and subtle.

The first is that GAME expanded far too quickly and aggressively. Taking over Gamestation may have seemed a shrewd move, taking on an edgier bedfellow and instantly gaining itself more highstreet footfall, but it did not consolidate its advances. With a Gamestation and a GAME existing side by side cannibalising each other’s sales whilst offering very little in difference yet twice the rent, the foolishness was clear to all but the business’ hierarchy.

By comparison Games Workshop have rolled out stores slowly but steadily, cherry picking areas most suitable and filling in the void store by store. In comparison to GAME’s 610 stores at its peak, the modellers have less than a quarter of that and yet still seem to supply their hobbyists adequately.

Secondly, location. In the centre of Birmingham there sat Gamestation’s flagship store, a mecca to the realms of digital gaming and proof of the bullish insistence that gaming warranted such a lavish and large footprint on one of the country’s busiest shopping centres. The fact it was too large again seemed evident to all but those at the top. Sparse shelves filled out with large cardboard boxes advertising future wares and second-hand consoles attempted to make up for quality stock and GAME’s insistence of bulking out stores with pre-owned games.

Even a swift glance at the shop stocking Space Marines will tell you of a completely different attitude. Usually capable of operating with just one or two employees on a typical day, they’re small, heavily stocked and crucially not on the main thoroughfare. The advantages here at that they know their target audience will come to them so as long as they keep well supplied then they will save on rent by being on the fringes of main shopping districts. The savings made by moving a couple of streets away can be astronomic, and with enough brand loyalty the extra wear on boot leather is negligible to your customers.

Finally, GAME has moved away from being a niche. Its group’s stores used to offer something relatively unique but the move into stocking only the latest games and dedicating the majority of their store to second-hand sales caused them to lose their edge. No longer offering anything unique, the supermarkets were equally able to stock new releases but what about the harder to find releases of even just six months ago?

GW know they’re niche and play to it. There’s never ever a thought to expand out to stock other minatures, creep into other board games or even adding videogames to their shelves. They have carved out their place in the world and are content at doing that to the best of their ability. It still may be down to profit at the end of the day, but those black-red-and-yellow stores are dedicated to providing for the needs of their customers. That’s why they have freely available gameboards in them; a slight difference to the locked down pods of Skylanders in GAME.

In hindsight some of the mistakes are all too clear, but caught up in the boom that this generation of consoles initially brought the money men were too busy dreaming of swimming in bank notes. Games Workshop may not necessarily be the most financially successful company in the hobby space but as a flagship British store its seems the tortoise has outdone the hare.

Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings

If you go down to the woods today you’ll be sure of a big surprise. Creep amongst the undergrowth or peek between the bracken and you may just glimpse someone picking daisies who you wouldn’t automatically pin as your traditional botanist. A huge mountain of a man, he fills his pockets with petals of this and cuttings of that.

A rustle in the bushes causes him to turn and pause. Out from the leaves steps a vast, purple monster, rearing up to hint that this might be his turf that the flower collector has wandered into.

He is no David Bellamy, however. This is Geralt of Rivia, Witcher. Calmly he unsheathes his silver sword and proceeds to go to work. Sorry, monsters.

Gathering supplies for potions and gadgets can be risky business in the lands of the Pontar valley. Such drinks and tools can save your life, but in a world populated with monstrosities, guerrilla elves, and an abundance of irked undead then it could also cost you.

Already it may appear to have all you need for a traditional fantasty RPG, but the world of our Witcher is atypical. Dwarves, trolls and elves all exist here, with the shorter ones working in mines, those with pointed ears living in trees and the others under bridges, but there’s more than a hint of political rumblings behind the scenes to add spice to the mix. The non-humans are oppressed, living in ghettos about the men who now control the lands. They live as servants and smiths, looked down upon and abused by the ruling humans.

This discontent has lead a band of Elves to become alleged terrorists, living out of the woods and attacking towns and villages in the name of freedom. As a result of their actions Geralt has been framed for a crime he did not commit, and so our tale begins with our Witcher in irons and on a course that will see him try to clear his name.

Throughout, CD Projekt paint a wonderful picture of the land as a whole. Though only broadly hinted at above, they flesh out the kingdoms, history and people that turn the towns upon the way into more than simple quest hubs. It’s there if you wish to explore it, through extra dialogue options, conversations in the street and books from vendors. Though almost expected nowadays in large scale RPGs, Witcher’s world is fleshed out to the point where it feels solid and not like an exhaustive attempt to out-lore its rivals.

Where this comes together nicely is through the questing, which brings the lore and the towns together. Apart from the main story quests, other trials and tasks can be picked up throughout your journey, and each will weave in and about one another. Bit part characters in one thread could become major players in another, and all feed together to provide rewards for others. With a passing resemblance to the original Deus Ex, in that you could achieve the same result multiple ways, the same is true here; although here it is the more questing you do, then the more trinkets you will be given to complete others. It may be all well and good to buy a certain ritual ingredient or beat the face of a dozen elves to possess a mystical spearhead, but chances are that picking up the right quest line will lead you to a more rewarding conclusion.

Even your conversational choices can influence them, too. There are no arbitrary cutscene thrown in with optional dialogue to make you feel involved. Large portions of adventure can open or close to you, affecting how other quests resolve also, as you smooth talk, intimidate or appease those you meet along the way. They range from the trivial, such as fighting a commander one-on-one or having his whole squad join in, to the more dramatic where a tortured soul is murdered and a quest line abruptly terminated should you insinuate falsehoods about him to others.

Each setting feels like a large scale dramatic cast production, like a fantasy East Enders. The whole town exists, lives and breathes, with acquaintances and rivalries coming out as Geralt ingratiates himself with the locals. Snippets of what could be throwaway dialogue hints at a life unseen by your eyes, but could easily name drop a character you met but a minute ago. A great deal of work has gone into making each location bustle and feel lived in.

Still, it’s not all socialising, and out in the world our Witcher earns his crust with his talents as a monster hunter. Local contracts to remove verminous Nekkers, slaying cathedral-sized reptiles or banishing a battlefield full of spectres, all keep our man supplied with a fine range of gardening gloves.

As with the nature of his work, the combat system is not for the feint hearted. Never before have I died so much in a game and yet never felt cheated. The mechanics superbly capture the essence of Gerlat’s task at hand; each monster must be treated with respect, for rushing in flailing a blade – no matter how silver – will get yourself killed. Patience is the key as groups must be managed and windows of opportunities looked for, striking in for a counter attack wherever possible. It’s very cat and mouse, and at times it’s hard to say which role you embody most.

Flexibility comes with addition of spells and gadgets. Blessed with magical talents, shield charms and fireballs can be conjured from this air. Similarly, his hunting talents bestow traps and explosives that can turn the tide, or even just buy time to regroup.

Flash yourself with a protective bubble before wading into a mass of the undead. One touches your shield, causing a shock wave to blast them back. With the extra space you wield your sword, downing two in the confusion before throwing an incendiary at a third, leaving it burning where it stands. Gadgets spent, you roll under the incoming attack of another, placing a magical trap as you move. It holds the final wraith in place allowing some good old cathartic wailing as you take it to task with your silver blade. It could easily go horribly wrong, but when it comes off you know you’ve done well.

Thankfully a freshly built interface allows such hot-swapping. Porting from PC and being full of options, it was always going to be a concern just how well one of Poland’s finest exports was to arrive on the home consoles, but it behaves admirably. Time slows when you pull up the radial menu mid-battle, your enemies moving as though in treacle behind it. A quick flick and you’ve retooled.

Though not quite on the same scale as a Skyrim, this sequel offers an inordinate amount of quality content. Each of the main areas that our merry band visit on their way to seek the truth can easily see you spend hours and hours taking contracts, fighting in tournaments and generally bringing the place to order. In a fashion it’s far more manageable than Bethesda’s epic, and benefits because of it. Connections can be made and communities invested in, both causing an investment beyond trying to level up just to upgrade your pyromancy.

Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings arrives as yet another entry in an impressive procession of console RPGs, each offering their subtle twists on a classic genre. Skyrim wowed us with its size and scope, with Amalur recently taking that and pulling back to a more combat driven experience. Witcher, taking its lead from neither, sits astride the pair. With a wonderful series of questlines, a world full of life and history, and a combat system that could have merrily survived as part of a separate action game, we may have saved the best to last.

Silent Hill: Downpour

Downpour and I didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. When the first thing a new game asks you to do is brutally murder a stranger in a prison shower with no attempt to offer rhyme nor reason as to why, I must question what it is I have gotten myself in to. In one swift stroke, a misjudged attempt at a tutorial left me despising the character I was then left to play for the remainder of my adventure in Silent Hill. Not a great start.

There was no salvation found in the opening couple of hours, either. Reluctantly taking control of the convict Murphy, you have to guide him from the scene of a coach crash through the outlying countryside and canyons surrounding the town of Silent Hill. Though a nice use of fog mixed with spookily placed light sources were the basis for setting the right atmosphere, everything seemed quite brown and textures flat. Given that this my first experience with this particular survival horror series, the highly linear experience that met me was disappointing. Though the woods about me were vast and dense, a channel was predetermined, ushering you through.

If this had lead me through a series of scares – I’d have settled for merely unnerving – then I may have forgiven it. Instead a procession of laborious encounters with wailing women was all it offered. Should you wish to engage, combat is mainly melee focused, with the street and rooms of this corner of America veritably littered with iron bars, bricks and axes that can be picked up and lobbed or slashed at the supernatural. Combat, however, is also highly repetitive, being simply a case of holding Y to block and then tapping X to counter attack when your opponent falls back into their rest animation. There are none of the subtleties or flared offered by an Assassin’s Creed or Batman, and after a while I could see why the loading screens tips suggested that running away was an equally valid course of action.

Had this course continued for the duration, then I may have been reaching around for some of the lower number available to me. Yet, whilst the combat never improved beyond the perfunctory, having navigated his way into town Murphy is met with an open world that he can explore and try and piece together the mysteries that appear to be keeping him there.

It’s a complete change. Suddenly the monsters are no longer something you must endure, but another factor in the city that’s out to get you. Dark, haunted police cars patrol the streets and even the weather is against you as regular downpours limit your already fogged vision and bring further freaks onto the streets. All the time you’re scouring the properties looking for a clue as to what to do next.

Most can’t be entered, although those that can provide not just shelter from the elements but side quests and further mysteries away from the threat of being attacked. Cinemas hide secrets in their films; apartment blocks full of unrest need appeasing; and shops scattered throughout contains health aid packs and firearms for you to plunder.

Certain buildings are key to your progression and hopefully your eventual escape. Enter these and you’ll enter a place that tries to test your mind and your resolve, as they mix puzzles and scares. They are sprawling structures, usually over a number of floors each with containing many rooms, and all putting the opening levels to shame. In each your feel as though you’re exploring a haunted house, the run down rooms and the eerily pitched audio causing you to peer nervously into each new room.

Indeed, Silent Hill’s strengths are borne out each and every time it puts on a true horror set piece. A fantastic combination of sound, lighting and camera work all come together to at times leaving me wishing that I wasn’t sat up near midnight playing the game alone. Walls can melt away transporting you to a nasty, alternate dimension full of blood-spitting corpses and cages full of monsters. The environment artists go to town here and provide the highlight of the adventure as you peer into the realisation of what is quite a dark corner of their warped minds.

With the gauntlet run in the alternate reality, you come back down to earth with a mental bump as the puzzles that block Murphy’s route are at times unashamedly hard. There’s very little in the way of rummaging through desks for the all-important keycard; Silent Hill prefers to paint numbers on walls and hope you notice them, hide glyphs in books, and at times be as obtuse as possible.

You may carry a journal about with you that has notes scrawled in it regarding objectives and the odd press clipping, but the developers were resolute it seems that only the nosiest and eagle eyed adventures would be able to unlock all the town’s secrets. While it may be quite refreshing that there is next to no hand holding and rewarding when you do crack the code it has been delicately hinting at, it can border on frustration given the amount of back tracking that is involved. This carries over into simple things like the map and again the journal as important points and key places are never marked and there is no way of even setting a personal waypoint to act as a reminder. It is as if Konami had slipped back into the design philosophy of the 90s.

Ultimately, Silent Hill: Downpour proves to be a game of extremes. To the left we have an appalling opening, miserable combat and an old school design mentality; on the right there sits a series of wonderfully explorable haunted houses, fantastic audio and a series of puzzles that Layton himself would be proud of. The marriage of them all is at times messy and jarring leading it to become disjointed.

With Alan Wake the new pretender on the block, some had hoped that Silent Hill would step up and prove why it has garnered its reputation. Inclusion of an open world packed with mysteries and potential could have seen it topple Microsoft’s survival horror exclusive, but too much of Downpour is stuck in the past.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

The Vita is not short of ways to interact with a game. Microphone, rear camera, front camera, front multi-touch screen, rear multi-touch screen, tilt sensor, accelerometer, twin analogue sticks, Bluetooth, and lest we forget the good old fashion button. You could be forgiven for thinking that hardware designers had decided they were not going to compromise on anything, they wanted it all.

You have to then feel sorry for the first party developers. Those poor souls who, to show off all the various platform’s bells and whistles, are told they have to incorporate all of those particular input methods into a single game. The look on their faces when that particular email surfaced must have been one to behold.

With so many bases to cover, this shoehorning could have become the death knell for any semblance of consistency or flow for Uncharted. Skipping back and forward from touch screen to sticks may well have seemed contrived, but for the vast majority of their inclusions they complement or even enhance the experience.

Despite being shrunk down, the Uncharted formula remains unchanged as Drake continues to roam through Incan jungles and statue-lined caverns, hoping that he’ll strike it rich. As always though he’s also managed to team up with a less than salubrious partner and, to complete the picture, he’s joined by a quick witted female co-star. The setup may be a well worn prospect but it is one that sets up the Saturday afternoon matinee approach that the treasure hunting adventures take and that gives them so much appeal.

Much of the gameplay comes ported as-is from the home console too, with next to nothing left out due to the Vita’s parity with the six-axis. For the first time ever I felt as though I was playing a full action game rather than a stripped down port full of concessions for the portable platform. Our hero can run and gun, jump, swing from ledges and pan the camera as well as if you were sitting on your sofa at home directing him.

In fact, the climbing is probably distinctly improved on the Vita. Operated by analogue stick and buttons it still handles as expected, but I’ve never found the act of climbing in games such as these challenging. Having removed the frustration of pixel perfect jumping a generation ago, adventures now-a-days are more about picking routes and with Golden Abyss you can paint said route on the screen with your finger, Drake following along the path you trace. I found this far more satisfying as his motions were far smoother as he picked his way around the rock face, obeying your commands, whilst you effectively scouted ahead. With extra little details of allowing him to lean with a tilt of the machine, leap to a higher handhold with a flick up, or drop down with the opposite motion made me think that maybe the whole game could be controlled in such a manner.

Boots back on the ground though and it’s a fair bet that this generally means you’re not too far away from being shot at. Sadly, gunplay is once again a disappointment. The feel and flow of a fire fight has never been something that Naughty Dog had managed to nail down and here it again feels floaty and unreliable as the cross hairs meander across the screen. The enemy AI makes the best of the situation though, sticking to cover, poking up in an unpredictable fashion, attempting to make more of the shoot-out, but it is by no means Golden’s Abyss’ strongest suit. The further the adventure progresses the more emphasis is placed on your ability with a gun, which was disappointing. It may help to ratchet up the tension and the settings for some of the situations maybe spectacular but a proportion just felt like padding.

Though most of your time is spent climbing and shooting, the touch controls do offer a host of distractions that act as a series of nice little intervals to the main proceedings. Rubbings must be taken off rocks, vines chopped down to access secret areas, and photographs snapped to chart the journey. In isolation none are anything special, but each add a drop of exploration and discovery to Drake’s trip. Be it uncovering an important symbol from a grave stone or rearranging fragments of paper to create a map, every tiny extra goes to build a more cohesive experience. They allow us to fill in the blanks where previously a cutscene may have been presented.

There are a couple of turkeys in there though, including the traditional balance scenario when edging over gaps on logs, but these for the most part are outweighed by clever uses, such as dragging grenades about to show their arc and using the rear touchpad to zoom snipers and cameras.

A lot of this could be completely ignored by those happy with a stick under one thumb and buttons under the other. It feels and looks as any of the previous Uncharteds have done and so shows off the power of the Vita probably better than any other of the launch line up. Treasure hunting lends itself to stunning vistas and locations and they’re brought out in stunning colour and clarity right in the palm of your hands.

It’s a surprisingly lengthy and faithful addition to the series that continues to see some great performance capture continue to make Nathan Drake into the Indiana Jones of this generation. From navigating cliff faces to unearthing secrets in darkened tombs he leads on an impressive journey. The gunplay may still bring down the overall package, but you ask GTA if that’s ever harmed its success.