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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Xbox One

The last 48 hours have seen a series of ups and downs regarding my views on Xbox One. As the Ghosts demo faded to black and the countdown to E3 shone in vivid green across the screen I was relatively upbeat. We’d seen some new hardware, been given a taste of what new functionality it would bring to the living room, and were but a few short weeks from another data dump in LA. A quick trawl through my Twitter feed however and it would appear not everyone was thinking the same. A silly name, an ugly box and a dearth of games lead to one scathing comment after another. My mood deflated.

Now, with the naysayers decrying Microsoft with full gusto, I still stick to one thought: that presentation was not for us. Not for those who have built up five-digit Gamerscores, the dedicated midnight-launch enthusiasts willing to pay the high price of early adoption, or the lovers of Fez. This was a show for the broader market. Just take a step back and just look at the items that were the focus of the presentation.

Before the first mention of Xbox One had faded from the auto-cue there was talk not of games but mainstream media. Of television, of Skype, of surfing the net whilst watching films, this was a play for the living room that many had predicted.

When games did appear it was the classic trinity of guns, sports and cars. Each can be appreciated by the connoisseur and casual player alike but as franchises they represent what gaming is to the general population. FIFA and Call of Duty alone representation annual releases that Joe Public will come back year after year to play, proving crucial to the success of any platform.

Taking up the bulk of the hour, these two key aspects should have told us everything we need to know. This was a bid to be a wider news story than simply being splashed over Eurogamer and IGN, this was a play to crack larger markets. The executives had grander visions, especially as they were broadcasting live on TV in the States. Quite how that panned out it’s hard to tell in our hobby’s very opinionated and heated bubble, but it’s fair to say that we were not its primary audience.

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That said I was fairly philosophical about what was shown. The initial media demonstration was pleasing without blowing me away. Most of what we saw appeared built into the operating system, responding quickly as Don and his friends flicked between Star Trek and Skype. As someone who uses their consoles – of all persuasions – as media centres these new traits intrigued me, especially the opportunity to “snap” multiple items together onscreen. I can imagine already imaging watching a film whilst playing a snapped version of next-gen Hexic or, visa versa, playing through an RPG with iPlayer in a sidebar keeping me entertained as I grind.

If it’s as simple as Kinect makes it seem too then so much the better. The inclusion of the camera as standard with the console I think is a good decision. I believe that half the problem with any peripheral is the install base; even prolific successes, such as the harddrive with 360, can never be taken for granted as there are always some who are without. Only when everyone has it can it truly flourish as developers will consider it more worthy of attention. Personally I’m hoping for more joint control schemes whereby players use both controller and pad to interact with their games. Throw in smartglass and you’ve an interesting set of inputs, but like so many of the more interesting points this was brushed over. There were scant examples of how any of this higher fidelity tech could be worked into your Xbox experience other than the rather lacklustre one of browsing the Internet.

Whether this avoidance of drilling deep into too many pieces of tech was again so as not to put off the more casual viewer is arguable. What it meant was that the new machine’s specifications were quickly trotted out (though confirmed in more detail in a technical panel after the main show) and tantalising words like cloud computing, personal DVR, and being always on were dropped in casually. What half of them do is still a mystery, we just know they’re in, almost mentioned in passing so as to appear nonchalant about their appearance.

The biggest news was of course Stephen Spielberg’s involvement with a live action Halo TV series. Not quite the Halo 5 reveal that we’d hope but as both a Spielberg and Halo fanboy I almost fell off my chair with glee. Between that and Remedy’s involvement with game-come-TV-show Quantum Break and the rumours that Microsoft are bringing back Heroes as an Xbox exclusive, the Redmond company look to be branching out their media production. Could this be where our Xbox Live Gold subscription money goes? Are they turning themselves into a cable channel?

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This of course is but one of many questions left unanswered. The lack of specific detail on so many topics, from Gold to second hand sales, from how the TV software sits in Europe to the unknown 15 first party games in the first year, is odd. In the past these conferences were designed to fill you in on every aspect of a console’s launch and leave you in no doubt that the next morning you’d skip down to GAME and hand over your preorder slip.

This felt different. It was an error on Microsoft’s behalf that so many dedicated gamers were expecting the traditional unveiling and no mitigation was put in place to either lower that expectation or fill in the blanks afterwards. This can be seen in the handful of interviews I’ve read with games journalists doing their best to extract nuggets from Phil Harrison and alike in a bid to make up for the deficiencies on stage.

How I feel, however, is that this was an hour long teaser. That probably wasn’t the intended result but I’ve had a taste and I want to see more. There was enough promise in the hour to pique my interest and seeing the same Final Fantasy trailer for a third time wasn’t going to enhance that any further. Yes, it was disappointing not to see games, more disappointing that we didn’t see traditional games using Kinect and smartglass in interesting ways, but that’s what E3 is for.

To have two hardcore conferences in the space of three weeks was never going to happen. The space in between was never enough time for developers to spit out two unique demos of the same game and so the only logical conclusion was what we got. What we saw there was the hour of filler that companies often get lambasted for at E3, it’s the reveal of a YouTube app, the vitality sensor, that sales figures. With that out the way then hopefully in LA we can concentrate on the meat: the games.

The shape of the box never mattered, it’s just going to hide under my telly; the name of the box never mattered, I bought a “Wii” after all; the amount of power never really mattered, as long as it was comparable to PS4 then it’s all going to be ok. What matters is what the box can do. I saw a snippet on Tuesday and I can’t wait until E3 to see more.

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Ribbit King ::: Retro Hands On

If you’ve never witnessed Frolf before then this will be an experience.

Take your frogs to the tee and send them on their way with a tap from your mallet. Watch them bounce off trees, spin on lily pads, frighten elephants, be consumed by snakes and offer us more thrills and spills than an entire PGA tournament. It’s time for Ribbit King!

Thomas Was Alone ::: Hands On

A stripped down and refined platformer, Thomas Was Alone somehow managed to inject personality into a series of four-sided shapes. It’s a feat, so join Ali, James, Claire, Thomas, Steve (or Chris) and Laura as we run from the evil pixel cloud.

Guacamelee ::: Review

You, Juan, stand in the middle of a village staring at the brickwork in front. The walls of the houses are covered in posters showing off Mexico’s favourite wrestlers, whilst the billboards above you announce their upcoming bouts. Yet, despite being completely fictitious, they all have a familiar ring to them. El Destructo vs La Bomba? Something about a business cat? El Casa Crashers?

To flesh out their imaginary corner of Mexico, developer Drink Box have turned to the web for inspiration. You’ll spend time peering at each image wondering if you get the reference they were intending, or possibly reading far more meaning into the stone statues than was intended. It’s a delightful aesthetic and one that comes across a humorous without being overwhelming. These aren’t the grating tooltips of Blood Dragon that push the knowing nod and a wink references too far, here they are woven into the background without disturbing the core of the game.

And Guacamelee is more than a collection of memes; there’s a village to save from the skeletal lord of the Land of the Dead and only a noble luchador like yourself can handle such a task. Behind the bright posters paying homage to all the Internet has to offer is an accomplished platformer-come-brawler. Bouncing your masked wrestler around in the opening act may seem no more testing than a simple walk to the ring. He jumps, he punches, and occasionally he jumps and punches for good measure, laying into the reanimated skeletons blocking his path. It’s easy fare that will barely trouble the even novice players, but soon the complexity grows.

Along the way you meet up with a goat. Bear with me as this is no ordinary farmyard animal; he’s a warrior trainer who just happens to be able to transform himself into a bleating beast. Though the whole game could be considered absurd, this portion of proceedings is particularly loopy as he only appears when you smash any of his Predator-looking statues. At which point he’ll amble out, complain, probably hit on your mum, and then reward you with a new move. Ranging from the battle-ready suplex to thunderous uppercuts, they turn your encounters with the undead from a street fight into a brawl worthy of the main event.

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A combination of devastating uppercuts, powerful charges, and impressive frog splashes will send most foes reeling as their potency scythes through their ranks. They are by far and away your most effective weapon, balanced by a stamina metre that drains with each special move executed. As you wait for your gauge to recharge it’s back to the fists but by now a few of your opponents may be left dazed and open. Get close and Juan can pull them into a grapple before dispatching them with a quick hip-toss or a very satisfying suplex.

This is no WWE licensed game with wrestlers queuing up to take their turn at laying down some smack and tucking you into the perfect finisher animation. Here there may be a screen full of chaos as multiple attackers try to bring you down at once. With the large radius of effect on most attacks button mashing will get you out of a few scrapes but there’s a very satisfying feeling when you learn to control the battle, chaining special attacks together before relying on grappling to slow things down and allowing your stamina to refill.

Such control is definitely required later on, as more and more modifiers are placed on a fight. Opponents will exist in either the land of the living or the land of the dead, appearing as silhouettes against the background. Mid-fight you’ll have to toggle between the two worlds in an effort to avoid the invulnerable ghosts from the alternate realm whilst defeating those in the one in which you’re present. It’s initially confusing, but layer on shields that require specific moves to crack and by the end the gentle brawler you thought you were playing seems a world away.

In line with combat, the platforming also causes the veins on your forehead to throb with stress. The more special moves you learn from the goatman the more they are incorporated in traversing the increasingly difficult levels. With the Rooster Uppercut doubling as an extra jump and the Dashing Derpderp a warp forward, they grant access to higher and further ledges. By the time you reach the final temple it won’t be uncommon to be asked to string together multiple of these along with double jumps and wall jumps just to cross a single gap. On paper it may sounds contrived but in practice the ease of execution and the well-weighted controls cause it to be a challenge rather than a frustration. The level design is such that there tends to be a reasonable margin of error and the very generous restart system – popping you right back on the last piece of solid ground you were touching – means a failed jump is not the end of the world.

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There is the odd exception however and a handful of areas lack any clear signposting as to just what set of moves you’re supposed to do to overcome them. Time and time you’ll try and, though eased by the efficient restart, it’ll feel like you’re headbutting a brick wall.

Your special moves also have a third use as they’re equally adept at opening doors as they are skulls. Each is tied to a different coloured stone that litter Mexico’s pathways and it is these which gate your movement. Very much in a Metroid-vania style, Guacamelee presents you with an open world – albeit limited in where you can actually access. It’s an incentive to return to find every last scrap of treasure and powerup, usually hidden along with a tricky platforming section that put me in mind of the tombs in Assassin’s Creed II that rewarded your skill in navigating their testing environments. Conveniently, each stone is marked boldly on your map and so with each additional power you’ll already have an idea of just where you can explore further.

It’s a tried and tested formula and one that works very well in this setting. If the adventure took place solely in scrolling levels, much of the joy that comes from returning to marvel at the village or wandering back to look at the ruined presidential palace would have been lost. There is a world worth exploring to unpick all of the pop-culture references and to eke out all the secrets from the villagers.

Drink Box have produced yet another visually stunning title, one that somehow manages to meld together worlds as diverse as Central American wrestling and the tangled web that is Internet humour. In many games this branding would have been its crux, the sales feature, but here that is only one facet. Alongside that stands a skilful platformer tied in with an extremely engaging brawler that will test many. In the full spirit of Lucha Libre, this is high flying style.

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