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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Tearaway: Review

There’s a moment at the start of Tearaway that will cause even the most cynical player to smile. A scene where the sheer charm of the world will win over even the blackest of hearts. Well, there are many, but the first is so simple that its effect is surprising.

High above the papery world, gazing down from its heavenly orbit, is the sun; and in the sun sits your face. It’s wonderfully subtle, a snapshot of your world reflected in theirs. This isn’t the garish grab of a camera feed, reinforcing that you’re holding a device overflowing with ways to interact, but a sneaky nod that you are not only playing the game but part of it.

And you smile. What else can you do?

To some that may sound like a cheap trick to win you over, but within the story Media Molecule tells, it feels completely natural. The “You”, as your presence in the world is described, is part of the very fabric of reality. A being with almost godlike powers aiding those below you, including a young, green Messenger tasked with delivering to you a tale. The pair of you are inextricably linked and so it’s only right that you should gaze down from on high and take in their adventures as he battles his way to you.

Though You may be present in the sky, you – lower case – are handed direct control of Iota (or Atoi, should you prefer a more feminine touch). Initially he lacks the ability to do little else other than wander around and distract the locals with idle chitchat, and it’s only through your own intervention that he become more. Patches decked out in patterns similar to that on the Vita’s rear touchpad appear all over the world. Tap them when Iota’s close and you’ll either send him flying into the sky or see your finger rip through the back of the Vita and appear in the world. The latter’s an extremely silly moment the first time it crops up as a giant rendered finger emerges from nowhere to stand tall in this paper land.

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At its simplest it functions as his jump button; with the right placement of pads and a good sense of timing you’ll send the Messenger merrily bounding up cliffs to the accompanying sound of bongos. It’s a lovely tactile experience, reinforcing that you are a giant interacting with these tiny origami beings and that a mere tap of your mighty hand can send them flying. Similarly your powers can manipulate the world itself as platforms and mechanisms can be pushed and prodded into position with your immense digit. None are too mind-bending but the challenge comes from controlling both Iota with an analogue stick and directing objects on the rear touchscreen at the same time. Operating on both sides of the Vita can at times be a little tricky – the videogame equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy – but equally so, as you manage to coordinate your hands it all becomes rather satisfying.

With such wonderful foundations it’s then quite disappointing that rather than focus on a world full of paper puzzles the Designers felt the need to introduce bad guys. The scraps, as they are known, are adorable enough in their mumblings and with their single giant eye, but combat with them is routine. Dodge out the way until the scraps stun themselves, then leap in, grab them, cast them against a wall and you’re done. It’s harmless enough but the arena-nature puts too much emphasis on Tearaway’s weakest feature.

Where its strength can be found is in every aspect of the world you walk through. Media Molecule have bought into the papercraft concept completely with every single tree, creature, and building created as though it were folded out of real paper. No exceptions. Each new area is treated with awe as you gaze about taking in the sights, and be it a giant elk or a rapidly flowing waterfall the effect is completed by them all moving as if captured in stop-frame animation. It’s such a delicate touch but gives the further impression that everything is crafted by hand.

Within each elaborate level, whether a coastal town or forest glade, a handful of mask-wearing locals can be found. Speaking like 80s Plasticine hero Morph, they’ll welcome you and most likely ask you for help to retrieve their football from a bunch of hooligan squirrels or maybe to run off and find them a pet rock. They’re simple enough tasks and a great excuse to immerse yourself further and explore the area, but occasionally they’ll ask more of you.
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The best publicised one is an early run-in with the King of Squirrels, or at least that’s what the squat, orange chap claims to be as he’s no crown to prove his title. To help him the Vita swishes away to a cutting mat surrounded by brightly coloured craft paper. By marking outlines with your fingers you can cut out shapes and through pulling together your imagination and the colours on offer, a glorious crown can be made. It’s a very simple and rough tool but the effects can be amazing if you give it a chance. And those that do will be rewarded with the sight of the squirrel proudly wearing your creation throughout the rest of the game.

Tearaway is littered with instances like this where you can affect the world. There are snowflakes to make and moustaches to draw, and even if you aren’t overly confident in your Blue Peter skills there are a host of predefined shapes waiting for you. What matters is that you are shaping the story about You to your liking, embellishing the crafting that’s already obviously taken place, and it only serves to make you more and more attached to this delightful place.

Being brutal for a moment and brushing aside the gorgeous aesthetics, the raw mechanics don’t necessarily hold up their side of proceedings. Any platforming or questing is fairly rudimental and even at its most taxing late on it hesitates from presenting any really challenge. Thankfully the controls are far tighter than the irritatingly floaty Little Big Planet, but if you’re looking for a more expansive adventure in the same vein then you will be disappointed.

Those, however, who accept Tearaway for what it is will not care as the beauty is in the experience, in taking in the unique surroundings. The puzzles you discover along the way are a good as a showcase for the Vita’s abilities as there is, and contorting your fingers as you slide, poke, and cut your way through the papery land is just joyful. Come the end you’ll look back at the photos Iota’s taken through his camera and think on them as fondly as though they were your own holiday snaps. Your adventure may have started with a grin as you stared down from the sky but come the end that expression won’t be because of a single scene, it will be at the thought of every character you’ve met and every elaborate hat you’ve made.

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Memories of Crunch: Musical Accompaniment

It’s not uncommon in our office to look around and see a sea of heads topped with headphones, each one gently bobbing independently to a variety of unheard songs. There’s our resident DJ who nods with a firm assertion of the beat, a tinny tone escaping from his cans. Down the row we have our office whistler, offering us a fleeting chance at guessing his melodic choice of the moment by inadvertently letting slip a few bars. And then there’s me, the mime artist. Play a song that I enjoy and chances are I’ll be belting it out at the top of my silent lungs. It’s a little embarrassing when someone comes to talk to you mid-chorus but sometimes you just need a power ballad to make it through the day.

I usually listen to podcasts when working. Ever since starting learning the drums I find myself too wrapped in listening to the rhythm of a song and my task at hand goes wanting. It’s not an intentional dereliction of duty but my mind goes searching for where in the pattern the bass drum falls and it’s hard to pull it back.

Quite strangely I have no problem working with talk radio or podcasts. I can float in and out of them depending just where on the build cycle I am, rewinding if I feel I’ve missed something meaty. It’s hard to do that and keep the flow when listening to music but more oft than not, as the crunch evenings draw on, I find myself needing the energy boost that a silent karaoke session brings.

With long hours comes tiredness and saving a good album back for just such a shot in the arm I find invaluable. I’ve extremely fond memories of some very late nights at work where I am the only one left in the office and all I have to amuse myself as I track down a particularly nasty bug is my music. When the last person leaves the headphones come off and the speakers go on.

With each game I’ve worked on the soundtrack has changed. Most vary with the time but all of them live firmly in my mind as being attached to a certain project. As is usually the way, I remember my first batch most fondly.

Back in 2003, as a young and eager engineer, not yet wise enough to be wary of the word “crunch”, we were finishing Grabbed by the Ghoulies. At the time I don’t think many of our PCs had CD drives, the thought being that we could just install the required applications from the network drive. With that I took in the tiny stereo system that had served me so well through university. The brand of which eludes me but I remember it taking pride of place on my shelf just waiting for 5pm to come (we weren’t allowed to listen to music during the day back then) so I could get a kick-start for the evening ahead.

The three albums that I believe on constant rotation back then were Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ By the Way, Idlewild’s The Remote Part, and Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. I should probably add that back then I was still trying to be a skater boi.

To this day whenever By the Way or American English crops up, be it on the radio or halfway round ASDA, my thoughts immediately dart back to then. To fine tuning the Grim Reaper’s AI as he bustles round a haunted house and trying to ensure that the font had the right amount of ghostly float to it.

Ghoulies is not alone in holding this connection for me but it is by far and away the strongest. Crunch was still a novelty for me back then: a challenge, a rights of passage. Now there’s a sage head on these shoulders that knows that it’s a grim inevitability but as long as there’s enough up-tempo rock nestling in my iTunes then I know I’ll get through.

How to make bread

Over Christmas our lovely friend Amy from She Cooks, She Eats came up from London to visit. She runs a lovely food blog and very kindly ask me to make some bread.

If I’m being honest, it wasn’t the finest loaf I’ve produced. It was a little wet after the initial mixing and although it came out ok in the end it was a little touch and go at one point.

I’ll put it down to filming nerves.

Peggle 2: Let’s Play

Bjorn’s back, and he’s brought some friends. We take some time to look around EA’s Xbox One timed exclusive and contemplate the best way to utilise a gnome trapped inside a robotic dwarf’s body.

Six Weeks In

Six weeks ago I was as excited as a child on Christmas Day. A planetary alignment meant that not one but two new consoles were launching in successive weeks causing me to become – as I’m assured by my wife – almost unbearable. My eagerness grew as the triumphant time approached and come the week of Friday 22 November I was barely able to do any work; I watched the clock tick sluggishly down to the time I would get my hands on the next generation. I literally skipped off having picked up my Xbox One whilst a week later was willing to drive through four counties to source a PlayStation 4.

On both occasions I found a great joy in clearing out a space in my entertainment unit to slot them in. A satisfaction in wiring them up and watching the day one update screens as though they were a New Year’s countdown. There are many jaded in my industry but I still think that the birth of a new generation is something truly special.

There’s an allure about new hardware, a buzz that I get from being part of the zeitgeist. It’s not due to them being the must-have item or because advertising agencies assure me I need it to be complete – I’d have succumbed to iOS device by now if that were the case – but because I have an urge to form my own opinion on how each system shakes down. Like Sam Beckett, I want to find out how far we’ve leapt. Though without myriad judgements from either side of the “console war” tainting what are at the end of the day both superb bits of kit.

Each has had their moment in the spotlight with me as I pored over every corner of their systems. Admittedly they are both some way short of the finished, even promised, articles, but for every non-story about Sony not supporting MP3s at launch or Microsoft’s apparent new found love for micro-transactions, I have had many hours’ worth of enjoyment from each system respectively.

On the Xbox One the wonderful use of rumble feedback through the triggers in Forza V has finally begun teaching me the proper way to approach corners; Ryse shows offs of on a range of graphical levels meaning I regularly call Ali in from the other room just to appreciate the cutscenes; and Dead Rising 3 gives me what I want from the leap in machines. For me the improvements should not just be resolutions and polygons but content and the huge number of zombies on display offers an example of how I want the new power to be used.

A week later I’m holding a DualShock controller and for the first time in 20 years I’m not feeling the urge to saw my own arms off in disgust. The DualShock 4 with its lengthened prongs and wider face is a joy to hold, and Resogun, with an evil glint in its eye, shows what happens when you take a simple arcade concept from the 70s and hurl everything you can at it. The PlayStation appears to be the early choice as our multiplayer machine too as FIFA’s online clubs have already taken off whilst in Battlefield 4 we team up and together fly helicopters straight into buildings. The former is lovely as EA have thrown numerous extra animations and subtleties into the beautiful game where as Battlefield 4 goes for pure looks. On certain levels with the wind whipping the trees and the dark clouds drawing in overhead it is a true sight to be seen.

And just like a game of Battlefield, just when you think things are ticking along nicely, all the initial momentum is lost as both machines come to a crashing halt.

Or at least that is the perceived opinion with no more major launches until March, but I do think that is a horribly negative point of view. The two machines have put out the largest number of launch titles ever assembled and whilst there may not be vast strength in depth what does exist can surely sustain. With many multiplayer titles that will no doubt last the length of the whole year and smaller releases such as Sam: Curse of the Brotherhood and Don’t Starve appearing digitally I look at it purely as a chance to catch up. After buying nearly ten games in the space of as many days over the launch window I need some space and time to get my money’s worth from them.

So, to the naysayers out there, those decrying the need for new machines and those who are criticising the lack of content I’m very content to say that for one I am pleased. It may not be perfect and there are a host of things that I can’t wait to be updated, especially regarding the online parties on both platforms, but I’m looking at this glass and I call it half full. Probably with some rather fancy lighting and reflections, too.

Happy New Year

Happy 2014!

Through a mix of pressures from work and home I’ve taken a short sabbatical from the site but with the New Year comes renewed enthusiasm.

Part of the joy of the site for me is now that it is far more casual than it was a handful of years back. Back then there was a push to see if we could make it and crack into the industry good and proper but over time we found that that simply wasn’t going to be obtainable with the amount of time we could dedicate to producing reasonable content.

As it stands now it’s a plaything, a place where a handful of friends can talk about games they like and experiment with writing and other media. And I’m more than happy with that. The day this gets too serious is the day I’ll probably consider packing it in again as I have enough serious in my day job.

So, as we usher the New Year in, thank you to those who continue to stop by in the hope that one day we may put a new article up. Your presence is much appreciated and I can only hope we serve you better in the coming 12 months.