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Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Unfinished Swan

Welcome to the dawn of a new age. Buoyed by our technological success at GamesCom – yes, I’m still talking about the Game Boy Camera – we’ve decided to move to the next level and try our hand at video.

Now, admittedly, the audio is the same as our written review we published last week but hopefully you’ll enjoy the content and help us warmly usher in a new visual age for the site.

Enjoy.

As always, please do leave comments. This is our first tentative step into a brave new world and can only adapt to your tastes if we know what they are.

The Unfinished Swan

The PlayStation Store continues to deliver. Offering exclusive downloadable titles that appear to fly in the face of mass appeal, opting instead for a more art-house approach, it is possibly my favourite aspect of the entirety of Sony’s platform. From the early days of PSN and fl0w right up to the recent Journey, at first glance style lauds it over substance. Take a step into each however and you’ll find that’s nowhere near the case, as each one hides a very different but equally compelling offering going beyond mere visuals.

Latest in this unique series is Unfinished Swan, a collaboration between Giant Sparrow and Sony’s prominent Santa Monica studio. And what is most telling about Unfinished Swan is the option on its title screen marked “Toys”. It sums up a lot about this quirky, first-person adventure.

A lot of the early coverage on this very striking game has focused on the initial steps of your journey. You take the role of Monroe, a young boy who has grown up in an Orphanage. The only reminder of his parents is his mother’s silver paintbrush and a solitary, incomplete painting of a swan. One night he wakes up to find not only that the swan has gone but a mysterious door has appeared in his room. Not one for letting avian abductions go uninvestigated, he picks up his brush and heads through the door.

On the other side, it’s white. Not the white of a bright day or of a polar bear convention, but the kind of white where there are no shadow or edges. He is as lost as if he were blind. Or at least he would be if it weren’t for his brush. A flick of its bristles and you throw a black ball of paint that splatters on the background, breaking the sterility of the environment. A few more flicks and you find that you’re not on an endlessly blank plane but there are walls about you. Following the now evident corridor you discover bannisters, carts and trees. There is a whole world to explore and the only way you will do so is through you paintbrush.

It’s an amazing sense of exploration, one I’ve not encountered in any other game. You don’t as much roam about, seeking the next door, but probe gently and tentatively. Features burst out of thin air as the contents of the world make themselves known to you, and even objects that would be almost inconsequential in more traditionally visual games become somehow wonderful. Stairwells with gaps between the railings, crates with slightly raised planking, and other simple objects take on great depth when splattered from the right angle.

Amusingly enough it’s worth considering where you throw you paint. It’s funny that, unaware that you’ve been walking into a white wall for several seconds, you lob a paintball only for it to explode at point blank range and turn your whole vision black. It’s made me jump a few times, too.

The Unfinished Swan is a modern maze game; but before it gets too settled things begin to be shaken up. The story unfolds a little and shadows appear in the world. By contrast the world it still very minimal but their entry has a large impact on proceedings. For one there’s less need to liberally lob paint around as you can see corners, but for another there’s a sense of loss. Now the world and its edges can be discerned, what are you pressing on for? Where has the neat little mechanic that wowed me at Gamescom gone?

It seems the monochromatic world is merely the first of several that you and Monroe make your way through. In each the paint brush takes on different qualities, every one enabling you to tackle that particular passage’s troubles. Sadly, however, none prove as edifying as its first.

I’ll refrain from spoiling just what is in store for this modern day Penny Crayon, but it’s fair to say that you should never become attached to any single theme. None are left to sit for so long that they become stale; instead the designers prefer to whip them away just as you warm to them. Though this may keep proceedings moving, again there are times when you are left feeling a little empty, knowing that you could have quite happily played with that previous concept for a good few minutes longer. Some fill gaps, but others seem to have the potential to be the focus of full games themselves.

The tale that strings each chapter together is equally erratic, failing to add any meaningful coherency to proceedings. That said, the tale of Monroe is a light-hearted and sentimental one that is hard to scorn. The characters it introduces could all find a home in a modern day fairy tale and help set the playful tone and aesthetic to the world.

Despite my misgivings over how the gameplay evolves, the game as a whole can be described as nothing but delightful. Three hours with Unfinished Swan will not be regretted, as throughout it offers a mix of visual styles and concepts to keep you entertained. The structure is, in some respects, almost comparable to Portal, where different chambers (or in this case, chapters) allow you to explore each toy before moving onto the next.

Unlike Portal, however, you feel that much of what is on offer is only partially explored. It’s not about budgets or production values, what you’re asked to do is novel, engaging and at times unique, but also it has the sense that it’s never pushed beyond the obvious.

Long into the game, I was still entertained with all the toys but I always yearned for was more time in that white room.

FIFA 13

We may not be the most active of blogs but the last couple of weeks have seen a drop in productivity that is poor even by our standards. Apathy, illness, or the loss of use of our fingers is not to blame. Instead you can point the finger squarely at Electronic Arts; FIFA 13 had taken over all our lives.

I’m not an annual subscriber to the FIFA franchise, having a tendency to dip in every three-years or so, and as a result the wealth of updates and features that are on offer when compared to my last foray has astounded me. More so than that though, the gameplay itself feels as good a simulation of the sport as you’re going to get from a joypad. It captures so many of the subtleties, from the mis-controlling your first touch to shooting when off-balance, the tangle and clatter of accidental clashes or the nasty slice of a hurried clearance. By comparison it’s easy to get the beautiful parts of the beautiful game right, but to capture the “off” moments so naturally is a talent.

That may sound a strange but it’s the incidents where you’ve given possession away or swung a peg at completely the wrong moment that help you learn. It’s a very visual and gratifying feedback that helps describe just what you were doing wrong, be it being plain too ambitious or snatching at a chance that wasn’t really there. This definitely isn’t the type of game where a single man can dribble past the entire field and score as so many elements come into play from the defensive jockeying of the opposition, your first touch, the lightness of your touch and so on.

On a basic level you can point the stick in a direction and run but without the awareness of the number of elements likely to do you over, chances are you’ll quickly have handed possession away. Yet knowing this means that when you do carve through the opposition with a through-ball, sprint past the right back, before cutting it back to arriving midfielder who then buries it in the back of the net, is a deeply satisfying experience. Having said that, with my prowess in front of goal I’m happy if it spins in off my shin with a miskick.

Over the years the gauge has always swung back and forth between favouring defence or attack, and I think this year the balance is with the former. As such, unless you’ve Messi at your control, chances are FIFA 13 will be a game of through-balls down the line and patient passing. For one I really enjoy this balance of power. I’m the fool who optionally chooses to be the defensive midfielder, sweeping up in front of the back four, and there are a pleasing number of tools on offer to help me relish this roll. Jockeying and shadowing offer far more to those who prefer to defend the onion bag and round out the team nicely.

However, it’s not just the feel of the game that has drawn me in so. The number of ways available to play that game is quite overwhelming. Not necessarily in terms crazy new ways to play football, the sanctity of which remains reverently intact, but in respect to that almost every “what if” my brother and I could have thought of playing ISS ’98 on the N64 over a decade ago has come true.

The most compelling one for me has to be the online club, where you and your friends team up under one banner and take on the world. Taking the lead from the Pro mode, each of you takes a position and then holds that role for the full 90 minutes. At first this may sound like an exercise in futility as everyone flocks, playground-like, too the ball, but given a modicum of common sense and discipline it produces very rewarding results. On the base level there’s the knowledge that you’ve bested another team of humans (always a better feeling than doing the same to AI; you know someone somewhere is ruing your very existence). On another, it’s the moves, the coordination and the runs that could never be accomplished with non-sentient team mates. It can take you back to that time when your work’s 5-a-side team for five-minutes one night played like Brazil. Nothing was planned, no one said anything, but every pass, every flick, every back heel came off. Except digitally and with less chance of opposition getting shirty and hacking down Dave with the dodgy ankles.

Ultimate Team is also an intriguing prospect. In there you collect footballers as though they were Panini stickers to form a team. Starting out with an unnatural number of Australian and Paraguayan second division players, the greater your team does the more opportunity you have of collecting or buying better players until you’re mixing with the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo.

Rather than just relying on the skill of your players however, chemistry also plays a part. Players from similar clubs, countries or leagues are more likely to gel, making the team more than the sum of its parts. It’s a devilishly addictive mechanic that has you gambling on lesser talented players to boost your overall level, sending you down avenues such as scouting for a Hungarian leftback with a tendency for the 5-4-1 formation.

Combine this with online auction houses for players, contracts, healing cards and a whole extra layer of depth, Ultimate Team could have effectively been a complete standalone game. For something that on the face of it could have been nothing but a cash cow for EA, there’s an awful lot to lose yourself in.

With further lovely tie ins such as league tables as to how well your real-life team’s supporters are playing (currently Rotherham sit top of the Premiership thanks to their fans’ gameplay talents), the chance to download current form for teams, weekly challenges, skill games that cleverly coax you through tutorials and many other nuggets tucked away, I will barely want for interesting ways to underperform with Tottenham ever again.

Some stalwarts of the series may be reading this surprised at how enthusiastically I’ve greeted features that have possibly been in place for the last few FIFAs. I know the club has been around before, and the Pro mode, but to me all this is new. Having only dabbled with the decidedly average Vita versions with any real conviction over the last couple of years, the wealth of ways to play and the quality of the gameplay should not be forgotten and taken for granted.

The levels of polish and ease of accessibility to bring in new or returning players and then keep them hooked is a level beyond anything I’ve seen before. There are multiple avenues to get sucked down, about the only question is which one will you succumb to.