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Monthly Archives: July 2013

Pikmin 3 ::: Let’s Play

It’s been a mighty while since the last Pikmin and James has been having to suffice with the offering found in Nintendoland. That only whetted his appetite further and so here he is showing Ali found the newest instalment of Nintendo’s garden-based franchise.

Oculus Rift ::: Hands On

As a proud owner of a Virtual Boy I consider this Oculus Rift a bit of a Johnny-come-lately. Yes, Nintendo’s doomed device may have been as portable as a house brick and incapable of being played without a stand to support it, but it gave your eyes a stereoscopic treat almost two-decades before Carmack began backing the Rift.

In stark black and red there is still to this day a wonderful quality to its vector graphics. Like lasers breaking the void each line sears itself onto your vision, impressing upon you a sense of depth never seen before in the mass market. From the low camera angles of Mario Tennis and Nester’s Funky Bowling, to the curiously top-down Vertical Force, the thin catalogue of games did what they could to sell the dream. Ultimately, however, when combined with a high price, an uncomfortable design, and migraine inducing visuals, the games were fighting an uphill battle.

During the intervening time we’ve seen little of virtual reality. Craig Charles’ Cyber Zone aside, it has troubled us little since the early 90s. Understandable given the quality of the graphics being offered at the time. Low polygon counts and flat textures may have been impressive at the advent of 3D but as the novelty wore off then so too did demand. Strapping yourself in and experiencing a blocky, misshapen world could quite readily happen on your own telly without the need for a helmet.

So much stock had been put into the fact that Virtual Reality was an outdated concept that despite the obvious leaps in technology I for one pooh-poohed the Oculus Rift when it was unveiled. Still imagining oversized and unshapely headwear the initial mutterings of interest from some of the industries most esteemed names did little for me. I struggled to see, in an age where 3D is failing to take off, that it was anything more than a novelty. I imagined the proximity of your face to the screen being off putting, so close to the light source as to be irritating; the fidelity of the screen being too low at such a distance; and the whole experience of controlling your own camera by motion tainted by that of Wii and Kinect.

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And yet when I strapped myself sceptically into Ether One’s tech demo at Rezzed most of these reservations melted away. Coupled with a supremely robust set of headphones I found myself transported from a bustling, noisy show floor and cocooned into a whole new world. The dark arena hall had given way to a verdant cliff top, a town sprawling to my left whilst the sea stretched out in front.

The sensation of being in the world, truly immersed in it, was staggering. It’s the type of thrill you only get once, like finding your first warp pipe in Super Mario Bros. or that moment where you crest the hill to see the vastness of Hyrule Field for the first time in Ocarina of Time. You’ll never get your first time again as your hobby finds a new and exciting way of portraying itself. All my previous concerns were forgotten and I strolled about, head tilting this way and that to drink in this new feeling.

The superlatives may seem laid on a little thick but I found myself taken in by the simplest things, though mainly those that demonstrated the power of 3D handled effectively. Positioning myself so that the light bloomed through the trees as I looked up or viewing a river running underneath a cracked wooden bridge, the view adjusting ever so finely as I moved my head about. Each brought the world into sharper relief than any Hollywood blockbuster that had hurled millions of dollars at the third dimension.

Whilst your head maybe encased and in control of your view, your hands still need a controller or keyboard to allow you to move around. A necessary evil helps ground you back in reality and indeed introduces bad habits. So used am I to controlling cameras with the right analogue stick on a standard joypad that I had to force myself to let it be and allow my head to swing the viewport around instead. Such a simple thing but I had to fight years of muscle memory to make my own head look about instead of my thumb.

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The demo itself was little more than an attractive background to wander through, showing little if anything of the game itself, and as time ticked by I began testing the boundaries of the headset. For one the input latency is negligible. There is no noticeable lag with swinging your head about and the response from the game, though no doubt this is all down to Ether One’s camera system but shows that the refresh rate is high enough to be of no hindrance.

Soon after this I happened to focus on something quite close up and began to notice the resolution. The headset being demoed was a 1280 x 800 development kit rather than the full 1080p consumer version and so you could see the tiny lines separating the pixels. Overall the image quality was absolutely fine but sadly like a dripping tap once you notice it it’s hard to ignore.

Finally, and most disconcertingly, I insisted on jumping down flights of stairs. I had heard people had become motion sick during their time on the demo but hadn’t yet felt anything nearing that and so tried to do the most nauseous inducing thing I could find to do. Whilst relatively untroubled the brain does protest slightly at being told by most senses you’re throwing yourself off a great height but then having the body stay perfectly still. I found it a curious sensation but nothing too unpleasant, though a good friend thought otherwise when they tried later on.

During the space of five minutes I went from a sceptic to a supporter. A large amount of preconceptions were built on a combination of outdated thoughts on virtual reality and my dislike for the use of 3D in modern cinema, but the Oculus Rift dispelled those worries. The all-encompassing feeling that I was in the world was incredible and offered me very little reason to draw me out of it. There were no borders on the edge of my vision, no tearing in the render, no flaky refresh rate; it does what it need to and that is to be invisible to the user.

As always with these things, concept is one thing and execution is another – just look at the Wii U. There is an ever growing list of parties supporting it from individual studios to engine manufacturers but each game will be its own challenge. Every dev will have to ensure that it’s balanced just right and that the vision swings just so with your head’s movements but for me that’s of little concern. There is a lot of momentum behind the Rift and as soon as the consumer sets go on pre-order then there’s a pretty fine chance I’ll be throwing some money at them.

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The Last Door ::: Let’s Play

It’s not just platformers that can go pixelated for a more nostalgic vibe. The Last Door takes both the horror and point and click genre back in time and celebrates all things blocky. Join Ali and James as they take on The Games Kitchen’s online release.

 

Animal Crossing ::: Pixel Perfect

While some are most content stood on the beach, fishing rod in hand, willing the illusive sharks to take a nibble of their bait, I’ve been very happy honing my skills in Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s image editor. Though only a tiny grid of pixels it allows villagers to craft a whole host of custom accessories. From tiles to dot around town to designer wallpapers for your home, a one off haute couture to silly scribbles for your standee, your pixel art talents can be shown off to all who visit.

New Leaf may be chock full of a host of customisation options already but most operate within a set collection. Within the hundreds of furniture options there will no doubt be something that suits a player’s style but with a little work it can feel far more personal. For me it was a chance to place a handful of my favourite things into the town. Starting with unearthing the secrets lying under Buneaton.

From a young age I’ve loved dinosaurs and so need little excuse to shoe horn them into any of my projects. Of course Blathers and his ever expanding palaeontology exhibit help satiate this but I decided to blow his tiny owl mind with a slightly larger excavation. Taking up six tiles and inspired by the opening scenes of Jurassic Park we find a Deinonychus (the pedant in me won’t allow it to be mislabelled as the tinier Velociraptor) ready to be transported to the museum.

Elsewhere, in the clothes shops on Main Street, we find more contemporary items. Inspired by Marvel’s Avengers the Able Sisters stock a line for you and your friends to dress up as your favourite superhero. The Pro Designs, which allow you design front, back and the sleeves independently, are a great addition to Animal Crossing and offer far more creativity than seen before.

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There’s a relaxing joy I gain from spending time poking pixels. Taking the real world concepts and turning them into a tiny stylised version can lead me to lose hours as I play dress up with my tiny virtual dolls.

If you like what you see, use the QR code reader found in Mable and Sable’s and fill your village with fossils and superheroes. And, of course, we’d love to see what you’ve made.

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Ethan Meteor Hunter ::: Let’s Play

Fresh from Rezzed, Seaven Studios have sent us a build of Ethan Meteor Hunter with the express instruction that I shouldn’t suck quite so much. So join Ali and myself as we take a look at the platformer featuring a rat with the power of telekinesis.

Animal Crossing ::: Review

During the three weeks since its release, I’ve thought of little else. In body I may be at work yet my mind continually drifts back to Buneaton; to its colourful residents, its sandy beaches, and to the community that I’m building there. I think of the circle of trees I’m nurturing around the standing stone we recently unearthed, the letters I need to write to thank my kind neighbours, and the projects I should execute as Mayor to move the town forward. It is all consuming.

All consuming, and yet unassuming. When it welcomes you in with its bright colours and big heads it’s easy for the uninitiated to wonder where the draw could possibly be. How could a game that looks like it could be a candidate for a CBBC show see grown men and women setup whole Facebook groups dedicated to what fruit each other are growing in their back garden?

Well, it begins with a train journey to a far off town.

Upon arrival you’re welcomed by the townsfolk, an enthusiastic collection of colourful creatures, they crowd around you excited to greet their new mayor. There’s been a case of mistaken identity but they won’t hear your protests, such is their eagerness to make you feel at home. But before you can take it all in, your new mayoral assistant Isabelle has whisked you away to Town Hall for a meeting with property mogul Tom Nook to break ground on your official residence.

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A whirlwind introduction to the town sees you scurry back and forth between your home, the shops, and your office, catching fleeting glimpses of meandering rivers and groves of fruit trees as you rush by. They at least hint at the sense for the idyllic country life you’d originally signed up for. Thankfully the last piece of paperwork is soon signed and you’re left on your own. From the solitude of your tent it feels a lot like being on holiday; despite an exhausting journey there’s a sense that you should be out doing something but you’re not sure what.

A quick stroll, maybe, round down to the beach, possibly with a touch of shell collecting. Turn those in at the local shop for some bells – the local currency – and you get a fishing rod, leading to a trip to the riverbank. There you may pick some fruit so plant a few trees, discovering a world of insects in the process. But what’s that, a fossil? Scamper off to the museum to get it checked out. And now the curator suggests you donate one of everything you find to him, better get fishing again… it’s a series of constant distractions.

Such is the aimlessness of it all some could wander around and lose interest, but equally the discovery can easily draw you in. A few inquisitive paces in one direction or another could be all it takes as you start to unearth your village’s treasures. Shaking a tree here or talking to a fellow resident there, this is where Animal Crossing starts to bite. I envy those discovering strange marks in the earth or floating presents for the first time as there’s a wealth – quite literally in some cases – of distractions that can pull you this way and that. It may not be the fully realised world of a Fallout or Oblivion but there are just as many treats that will cause you to forget where you were running to and pull out a fishing rod.

Those who do wish for a more directed sense of progression can look towards their Mayoral duties. Up until this point in the series Nintendo has let you simply live in the world, enjoying all it offers but with minimal ability to guide it. In New Leaf you can now direct how the village grows. This may be as minor as installing a park bench, as useful as building a new bridge to cross the river, or as fulfilling as constructing a new wing to the town’s museum, and with each opportunity it feels a far more personable experience. Many of the stalwarts of the series are hidden behind this urban renewal too, causing you to squeal with glee as names from the past are hinted at by Isabelle as she hands you the proposed list of projects. This already has caused Animal Crossing to have a far longer tail than before. The need to work for old friends – or even discover new ones – is a huge draw, and keeps you playing the turnip market in the hope of a huge profit and the ability to pay for the coffee shop that you know will herald your favourite pigeon’s return.

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Be it a beverage serving bird or the red tree frog who lives next door, the characters you meet play their part in keeping you hooked. They may be dim enough to continuously try and walk through trees but the personality their little AI possesses causes you to remember them, to seek them out for conversation or even to wish they’d leave you in peace. It’s like true village life as you hope for gossip and exchange pleasantries, even if the undercurrent of all your interactions is secretly hoping your “friends” will hand over presents if you’re nice enough.

Large portions of Animal Crossing are wrapped up in the ideal of community and conversation. Even basic operations such as character creation and heading online are disguised as normal chats, the latter hidden behind a train journey metaphor. At times this wordy approach can be draining as you just want to get things done speedily, but to reduce it down to a simple menu wouldn’t be half as charming. It’s part of the Nintendo ideal and here the clunky nature pays dividends.

What is also surprising is how fluidly the online integration works as four villagers can meet together for fun and frolics. An area set aside from the main town is dedicated to simple mini-games based around day to day activities, and if that’s too much you can all just potter round one another’s houses, critiquing the décor, and hitting each other with spades. It’s the epitomy of New Leaf as you’re as much the creators of the entertainment as Nintendo.

In a world of Dark Souls and The Last of Us, this is the ultimate retreat. A casual affair that allows you to dip in and spend some time cleansing your mind of demons and the collapse of mankind as you stand on the beach fishing as the sun sets behind you. Cynics may look too deep, past its charm and relaxing nature and question it, but not everything has to be a mentally taxing or rewarding feat.

As ever, it’s easy to dip in short stints during the train ride to work, but it also rewards those that want to put the time in and invest in their town. The rewards may not always be immediate but they’re subtle and plenty. New Leaf will coax you in and encourages you to stay.

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