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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Bioshock Infinite ::: Hands On

Bioshock Infinite has consumed the 7outof10 team this week. We’re ignoring sleep, food and girlfriends just so we can spend more time with Elizabeth.

Sim City ::: Hands On

The server problems finally seem to be a thing of the past and so we head online for a proper look at Maxis’ city simulator.

Ever wondered water a lava lamp made of brown would look like? Feast your eyes on that and many other interesting social policies as James and Ali take you round Sheepy Magna, the jewel in the 7outof10 Sim City region.

Tomb Raider ::: Review

The first reveal of the Tomb Raider reboot was a curious one. Gone was the self-assured Lara Croft of old, roaming round long forgotten tombs with dual pistols, and in her place was a young, unprepared woman, screaming and screeching her way through flame-lit caverns. It seems she couldn’t move more than a few feet without falling down a ravine or having men of uncertain principles reach out for her. Either way, she’d shriek.

Though this is a fair reflection of how our time with Lara begins, it soon becomes clear that we’re witnessing the birth of the legend. The period when she learns that it’ll take more than knowing how to excavate pots to survive her own extreme branch of archaeology. It’s been a much touted strand of this release, and with the inclusion of Rhianna Pratchett on the writing staff it’s clear that Crystal Dynamics want to flesh out the character and for her to be taken seriously. Away from the gunplay and puzzles, though a strong personality, she’s rarely been explored to any depth.

And so, after her and her fellow crew are shipwrecked on a remote, mountainous island, what we see is her taking her first fledgling steps as an adventurer. Despite calling on her survival training, initial forays into dank forests and foraging for food by hunting deer are obviously traumatic for the youngster. With the mantra of “I can do this” she scales great heights – metaphorically and literally – and sees off her fears to get her through her first night alone. Though this is nothing to the dangers that present themselves when the stranded crew meet the natives.

Separated from civilisation for what can easily be classed as “too long” the locals are a group of religious zealots intent on including the crew in their bloody rituals. They round up the new arrivals and by the light of a burning village the first big chapter in the Lara tale is told. Panicked, pushed to the edge, and in fear of her life, she kills her aggressor.

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The impact is immediate. Covered in blood and staring at the smoking gun in her hands, her body shakes as she sobs at her actions. Despite the circumstances, knowing it was the only way to save herself, you can see the obvious regret. At this point you really feel for her. As with any film where they’ve drawn you in to the characters and has shown them beginning to grow, there’s empathy.

What this also provides, however, is a disconnect.

This tearful young woman quickly learns to deal with the horrific event and swiftly repeats the action time and time again. Over the course of the next dozen hours, tears may be shed over friends as they come and go, but with barely a second thought she’ll kill hundreds of others with some of the most brutal animations this side of Assassin’s Creed. This once shrinking violet soon can do things with an arrowhead that will make your eyes water and demonstrates another case of cutscenes and their sentiment being completely disingenuous and at odds with the gameplay.

Although disappointing, it doesn’t ruin proceedings. Away from what you make Lara physically do, the story is a confident one and helps motivate you through the strong mix of combat and adventuring that follow.

The former is a definite departure from earlier games in the series. Though still third-person, the auto-lock has gone and controls are much closer to Uncharted, with completely free aim as you wave rifles and pistols about. This allows a lot more freedom than before and offers a fluidity that initially felt quite strange as my reticule danced about the screen. It’s not as easy as just selecting the pouncing wolf that’s going for your jugular and as such Tomb Raider feels far more at home in the modern world.

Of course guns have always played a part in the Tomb Raider series but here new ground is trodden in a number of areas. For one, it’s not just firearms she’s pointing at the resident nutters; she’s a dab hand with a bow and arrow too. This is the first weapon you’ll have access to and it suits the survival nature of the opening act. Silent and deadly, Ms Croft uses it both to take out potential food and protect herself.

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Soon pistols, rifles, and then eventually shotguns and grenade launchers, become available, forcing you to fit a surprising amount of ammunition is such tiny shorts. And whilst each makes you a formidable fighter, there’s something about turning Lara into a one-woman army that doesn’t sit well with me. True, it’s effective, but between this and a series of overly dramatic set pieces there are points you feel that the developers are trying to ape Uncharted a little too much. I kept wanting to fall back to just using the bow or at worst the pistol to try and fit with my own portrayal of the character.

Thankfully this is a perfectly viable option if you’ve sure enough aim, but more so the bow is crucial in managing enemies. In each encounter, as long as you can stay hidden away and pick off the outlying soliders, you’ll be able to silently dispatch large numbers without retaliation. A hushed arrow between the eyes will take them out in one shot and prove incredibly satisfying given an ounce of patience and the will to act like a hunter.

However, should you be spotted then all hell breaks loose as all barrels train on you. Even in the pitch dark of a midnight forest, half way up a tree, all enemies will somehow psychically pick you out against the branches from hundreds of yards away. It’s a little jarring going from a cloak of secrecy to running around as though you’ve a glowing target painted on your head, but if you want to put a positive spin on it then at least it encourages a stealth approach.

With combat a mixed bag it’s a relief that the adventuring is wonderfully strong. Large sections of the island are given over solely to your exploration, with cliff faces, ledges and old villages all calling at you to explore. This is where Tomb Raider feels at its strongest, as you face off against the environment and attempt to come out on top. It may have borrowed heavily from Drake in many areas but here it feels assured and safe in itself as traversing long forgotten tombs all hold unique physical puzzles that yield golden treasures. At times it’s the reward for clearing areas of their crazed residents.

For a mostly linear game it has a delightful knack of skirting back round on itself and interweaving its tracks. Very early on you start out on a mountain path, the cliff face stretching high above you and impassable. Yet a few chapters later you’ll return further up the cliff and in possession of a tool that will now link the two. This progression suddenly opens up the island and turns an otherwise corridor adventure into a playground that see trinkets and collectibles hidden liberally about.

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It replaces the traditional Croft Manor, the training ground that provided an athletic diversion from the main campaign. Here these trials are worked into the environment itself and through use of a very liberal fast-travel system provide said diversion without breaking the illusion that you’re trapped miles from home. It’s easy enough to ignore the main plot for a short while and head off into an ancient village to plunder it for all the riches it hides away and yet just be feet away from continuing onwards.

This exploration is highly worthwhile too as hidden caches of salvage can be used to upgrade weapons or provide XP to unlock extra skills. Bows can be made stronger, guns more accurate and Lara more lethal. It’s a simple addition that means your wandering round darkened corners looking for hidden trinkets is rewarded with more than just a completion stat. Come the end you’ll have not only grown a more accomplished treasure hunter but all this foraging will have turned Lara into a seasoned survivalist.

And come the end, if you’re like me, you’ll want to go back and hoover up anything you’ve missed. Not just because of any sense of kleptomania but because it’s a world that you’ll want to experience again. To scale and unlock missing tombs, see the subtle tells placed in Lara’s animations to feedback on her surroundings and feelings, and to prove yourself against the elements once more.

Despite niggles about the lowest-common-denominator combat and the tear-jerking cutscenes giving way to scenes of mass genocide, Tomb Raider is a triumphant return for one of our most well-known faces. There are enough little touches to keep traditional fans of the series happy and yet these are balanced with aspects of levelling, sandbox play, and dramatic Naughty Dog-esque cinematics that bring the franchise screaming – quite literally at times – into the modern era.

Though it may be a world best known for its block puzzles and mythic lore we now have a new facet to place alongside that. She may have once been famed for her dual pistols but silently stalking her prey through the forest, bow in hand and drawn in anticipation, has opened up a whole new exciting side of Lara Croft that should not be ignored.

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Is Always On a Turn Off?

Examine my profile on Origin and it will try and assure you that I’ve played Sim City for a grand total of 11 hours. Bless. It’s being rather optimistic; in reality it’s been nearer 20 minutes.

On Friday I veritably skipped home from work. The optimistic thought in my head being that all the server issues were on the other side of the pond and that I’d be able to spend that evening constructing my metropolis. Cue many hours of me staring at a screen assuring me that I was in a queue but my call was important and that they’d be ever so grateful if I held. The server burden eased for just long enough for me to play through the tutorial but not long after I was kicked off and I’ve been staring at retry timers ever since.

I’m not angry. Channelling parents everywhere, I’m just disappointed.

Sadly it’s not a unique occurrence. It’s the second time in recent times that an “always online” game launch has caused such an outcry in twelve months. Last June Diablo III released with similar issues as the initial servers failed to cope with the demand and caused eager players to join digital queues. Legal cases in Germany and France were brought over the farce and whilst Blizzard responded quickly the damage to their reputation was notable.

Ubisoft may have taken note, for a few months later in September it withdrew its “always online” policy for its PC games. Until that point, even its single player experiences required a constant connection to the internet. Although it may seem like a sensible piracy protection measure, the fact most pirates could get around such restrictions meant that for the most part only honest customers were inconvenienced. The French publisher even went on the record saying that the company’s products had over a 90% piracy rate. In its place came a “one time online activation.”

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So if three huge companies can’t get it right, where does it leave this method of DRM? A question that’s worthy of note given the continual rumours surrounding the next generation of consoles. Many news stories have spoken of their drive to control not only piracy but the second-hand game market and online registration and unique always-on connections are continually touted. But how would that work?

Diablo III sold nearly 4 million copies in its opening few days and, although impressive, this is dwarfed by the number of concurrent users that could be possible on console platforms. Sony and Microsoft both command roughly 75 million users each, and if even a small portion of those decide to jump online at a single point in time they have the potential to provide the ultimate network stress test.

Now imagine that outcry should the strain not hold the weekend Call of Duty came out. You can possibly write off a mass movement of PC players as only occasional, citing only huge releases, but in the run up to Christmas you’re regularly likely to have multiple 5 million plus sellers that are going to touch the common man and not the hardcore. How will you get across to Joe Bloggs that he can’t play the latest Modern Warfare because the expensive box he’s bought is somehow reliant on another expensive box somewhere half way across the continent and that box isn’t working? Though the industry might be rightfully trying to protect itself from the nefarious, such strong arm tactics only serve to alienate.

Further to that, however, whilst my internet connection is extremely fast and reliable it does occasionally drop out for small periods of time. Not a big problem usually but the risk of being booted from my single player experience seems grossly disproportionate. In an environment where I am interacting with no-one but myself then does it seem just to tether me in such a manner? I’d argue no, which is probably why Sim City’s problems are more disappointing than Diablo’s.

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At least with Diablo I could (kind of) understand the want to keep the auction house secure. No one offline would be running mods and then signing on and flooding the market with cheap knock-off Yves Saint Lauren assassin blades. With Sim City the longer the troubles continue, the more I wish for a simple offline mode. Sim City is generally a very solo affair, and whilst I look forward to what Maxis have put in place with resource sharing and joint goals, the simple addition of an offline mode for people who don’t give a monkeys what the rest of the community is doing would have be invaluable. Currently my mostly finished tutorial sits on a server somewhere awaiting completion. Quite why this is taking up space on EA’s disks is anyone’s guess, unless the devs want to laugh at how I positioned my sewage plant.

What is the answer? If always on not only doesn’t work as intended in regards to stopping pirates and it pisses off a whole group of dedicated fans, where to go? Well if the system must be changed then I look to Steam. There’s no hoo-hah from anyone about the licensing and restriction available there as it strikes a happy medium. A managed marketplace that controls the licenses for its wares, yet also allows the freedom to play games offline. It may require some forethought in order to do so but it allows for that relatively easily. Is this the middle ground that IP owners, platform holders and the purchasing public all be happy with?

Almost ironically in this discussion, we mustn’t forget however Steam too was a joke at its inception. Poor initial experiences with the now go-to name in PC gaming dogged its early days and it takes a long memory to brush past the good feeling that now surrounds the Value flagship. Everything takes time to develop and mature. Some may grow quickly, others painfully, but the important thing is now that companies must start learning from others mistakes.

Whilst from my professional capacity as a developer I have the utmost sympathy for Maxis – how you can test multiple millions of users logging on and truly stressing your system is no easy feat – public sympathy will only last so long. We’ve now two huge launches hampered by the same issue. How many more before players turn their back completely on this model?

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Sim City ::: First Few (Real) Mins

Finally getting on the servers, we wander through the tutorial that introduces the City of Sim.

Sim City ::: First Few Mins

What’s Sim City like straight out the box… let’s take a look.

BAFTA 2013

So the industry’s great and good – and Boris Becker – gathered last night to celebrate the best games of 2013. Or, to be more exact, Journey.

Journey stole the show winning five awards. Trophies for Audio Achievement and Original Score were well deserved, Artistic Achievement a fine choice, but the most pleasing for me was their Best Online Multiplayer achievement. In a category that featured more than enough gunplay to satisfy any clichéd teenager, it was refreshing that a special blend of coop, sentiment and adventuring saw them all off.

I can get tea-bagged quite readily in pretty much every other online game and yet That Game Company made me want to go and play with strangers. It was a feature that defined and Journey. Seamlessly dropping others into your sandy world and communicating only through hooting and scarf twizzling, without it there would not have been the emotional bond that brought together sound and vision.

Its PlayStation stablemate Unfinished Swan deservedly walked off with Debut Game and, slightly more surprisingly, Game Innovation. Though I enjoyed it thoroughly, and very much appreciated the visual style, this category was the most contentious of the night as it saw off the likes of Sesame Street TV, Book of Spells and Fez. “Contentious” maybe cruel as this was possibly the most tightly fought category and I might be stuck far too much on the technical wonder of some of the other nominees.

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The Walking Dead justifiably took Best Story (seeing as it had no mention of Prometheans), Lego Batman won the Family category and iPad games The Room and New Star Soccer went on stage to collect Mobile & Handheld and Sports respectively.

Elsewhere the big guns that were FIFA 13, Mass Effect 3, Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed 3 were heavily nominated, but failed to make an impact. Only Dishonoured, taking Best Game, and XCOM, Best Strategy, flew the flag for triple-A gaming.

Although there was much to be celebrated, the disappointing aspect for me of the evening was when it came to those announcing the nominees and the winners. Whilst Dara O’Briain does a sterling job, brimming with enthusiasm, and can’t be faulted when presenting the show, the cavalcade of minor celebrities was a little disheartening. There were a handful of well-known game playing personalities, but for everyone one of those there was another stumbling their way along the auto-cue.

Those who I wanted to see up there were the figureheads for our industry, and whilst Randy Pitchford and David Braben were amongst them, they were the minority by quite some distance. Was this on telly somewhere? I was watching through BAFTA’s site, but were the celebrities bussed in for ratings? It’s hard to say, yet for my tuppence I think receiving such a hallowed object such as a BAFTA award would mean far more coming from your peers than a bird from Hollyoaks.

No matter who you were rooting for, however, what the show once again proved was the diversity and quality on offer in our hobby. Mainstream press may often paint a picture of our world being solely inhabited by gun-toting maniacs polluting the minds of our youth, but we saw the educational Sesame Street, the wondrous Journey, and the adorable Little Big Planet, to name but a few. And for us who know more than to rise to the bait of the Daily Mail, Dear Esther, Fez and Thomas Was Alone speak highly for the creativity around today.

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Ni No Kuni ::: Hands On

I set sail on the seven seas, off to seek treasure, adventure, and to rid the world of evil magic. For the time being.

Ni No Kuni’s been wearing me down but before I moves on to Tomb Raider and Sim City this week join me for a brief gander round Level 5 and Studio Ghibli’s latest JRPG.