Sunday, November 23

Escape clause

History repeats 
Change of scenery 
The outcome doesn't change

Roll again
I'll leave the room
I know where my pieces lie

Stern words
Offer assistance
Talk is always cheap

Heavy and distant
Thought I knew despair
The definition evolves with time

It floats
Weightless and silent
It stalks, it pounces, it steals oxygen

Sunday, November 9

Shovel Knight Review (3DS): Love and wealth in the Time of Shovelry

Disclosure: a downloadable copy of the game was supplied by Yacht Club Games for the purpose of this review.

Shovel Knight. Let's talk about Shovel Knight. 

I was aware that its development was funded through Kickstarter and that Yacht Club Games had run into trouble with our baffling classification system, but there were plenty of other games for me to worry about. Games that were getting released; on current gen systems no less, with all the bells, whistles and million dollar budgets that such platforms demand. I didn't think that yet another retro-themed 2D platformer was anything to get excited about. 

Now I know what Australians were missing out on. Now I know I should've been outraged that bureaucracy slowed the release of legitimate classic.

Shovel Knight's inspirations are many, but are not confined to hardware of decades past. The magic system is reminiscent of the Castlevania games.  The themed levels, boss knights and colour palettes are reminiscent of older Mega Man titles. Death is handled in a way that is arguably similar to, though far less frustratingly than the (Demon, Dark) Souls series. The overworld map and encounters are strikingly similar to Super Mario Bros 3. 

That's how I see it at least. The developers may have been hoping for comparisons to Ghouls 'n Ghosts, or some other hallowed eight to sixteen bit franchise? Either way, this is one of those rare games that manages to hang with the legends it seeks to emulate.

The first level provides subtle hints that there's more to Shovel Knight than straight platforming and enemy smashing. Before long, jumping puzzles requiring near perfect execution become standard. It won't take long to discern exactly what's required to get to your destination, but identifying the solution is, sometimes, not even half the battle. Relics can help you avoid or mitigate some hazards, but there's no surviving lava or bottomless pits. 

Thankfully, checkpoints are mercifully well placed in all but some of the later levels. Dying at the hands of flying foes and mistimed jumps is usually only cause for minor frustration. 

Boss fights are varied and death never comes cheaply. Purchasing upgrades to health and magic make these battles more manageable, but that's not to say that they become walk-overs either.  You're also able to challenge wanderers and bandits that roam throughout the overworld map. One of the more difficult encounters doesn't even need to be attempted for you to complete the main story, but I strongly recommend that you wander off the beaten path.

Fiends and friends are all beautifully-rendered and whimsically written. There's one character in the first village that I always stopped to impress every time I came for supplies. Even though his response to my action was almost completely identical each time, I chuckled at this townsperson's genuine awe at my shovelling abilities. Everyone from the most evil of nights, to the most obsessive of hat salesmen has a killer line that had me laughing out loud, or smiling at the very least. 

The in-game economy is fascinating, if slightly forgiving, and provides ample reason to go searching for hidden treasure. Throughout most levels you can find travelling salesman offering powerful relics for a modest price. The villages offer various opportunities for commerce, allowing players to purchase new armour, attacks and other upgrades. There's even games of skill hidden throughout the more friendly areas of the map. I bought all that I needed to to survive, but Indare say I'll need to save up for some better armour for that New Game Plus run. 

Looking over the list of feats (achievement, trophies, what have you), it became apparent to me that I hadn't even scratched the surface. There were relics that I hadn't used at all, or whose proper application I was yet to discover. That may be an indication that certain items are overpowered or overly useful, or that I clung to the familiar. 

I only have a few complaints, and my are they minor ones. The StreetPass Arena is the definition of 'unnecessary': you record three, five second ghosts that collect treasure and race against any rivals you happen to pass. My first and only race ended in farce (it's never explained that you can attack in your recording), and as a result, I'll soon be deactivating this function. Next on the list is the kitchen sink design to one of the final fights which washes as supremely lazy and potentially frustrating (I was lucky enough to make it through in one piece). Given the steep upswing in the difficulty curve of the final stages, I can see that this battle could be cause for some to throw in the towel and miss out on some subsequent, better designed set pieces. 

My only other complaint is that the game does very little to explain itself to the uninitiated. There's very little in the way of instruction for players who haven't cut their teeth on console classics, so a lot of younger and/or inexperienced people may miss out on a truly great experience. 

You might baulk at the near twenty dollar price tag, but this is some of the best five hours of play I've had all year. Shovel Knight demands concentration, keen reflexes and your immediate attention. Yacht Club Games did right by Australian 3DS owners in getting their game here eventually, the least any platforming enthusiast can do is give it a go. 

Tuesday, November 4

The laziest review of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (PS4)

I like Call of Duty games.
To me, they're like the first game of the football season.
I walk into a games store at launch, or Day Zero. 
Okay, so the season kicked off a day earlier this year.
Sort of, but not really.

I always start playing with people online.
It is important to know one's place,
And mine is at the bottom of the food chain.
I pretty much stick to the Ground War playlist.
Good mix, more players, more points up for grabs.

Advanced Warfare is fun with strangers.
Possibly with friends too, but few are nearby.
Fewer still like video games. 
That and 4 player split screen appears dead.
Valè, my tiny space on the television.

There's new weapons and abilities.
The pace has increased considerably.
Did I mention you have jumpjet packs?
They're pretty great.
Basically Titanfall without the Titans.

Maps are tighter.
You're always shooting.
Always dying.
Always earning.
Unless you're good, I guess.

The campaign is the best I've played in years.
Probably as good as Modern Warfare.
Easily better than its sequels.
It leads you a little too well.
No room for error, or to explore.

Just as well the story clicks.
Spacey acts well, but is written as Vaudevillian.
What could have been subversive,
Ends in farce, dropping hints of subtlety.
Geopolitics are pretty black and white here.

Still, it looks great and feels fluid.
You get to drive cars and jets and mechs.
Again, it's directed a little too well.
More a narrative experience than a game.
Lots of sizzle, but the steak is well done.

Haven't tried co-op.
Probably won't bother.
I'll probably jump online for a few more hours.
Witness my kill to death ratio fall,
Through my beautiful polished floor.

Sunday, October 26

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS Review (3DS): Let's have a blue in haiku form

Let's fight: you and me
I've had enough of your shit
You've got it coming

Oh you brought friends huh?
They're stuttering from the lag
I'll just play alone

There's plenty to do
Not all of it is worthwhile
It's OK, I guess

Many characters
Don't think I'll learn them all now
Who has that much time?

Controls feel awkward
Please let me use my d-pad
Let's pray for our nubs

Portable Smash Bros.
The promise has been fulfilled
With some rough edges

Tuesday, September 30


One was the hardest 
I was not a great person
I did not deserve you

Two was the longest 
You knew where you were going
I sat still, playing Fire Emblem on your toilet 

Three had me threatened   
Thought I'd lose you to the Glitter Strip
You told me to get over it and get on the train 

Four was when I knew for sure 
Fridays meant everything
Reunited and it felt so good

Five and we were under the same roof 
We recruited Big Boss
I put a ring on it [cue Beyoncé bass hook]

Six had me preparing for seven 
I scrimped and saved
We had beautiful hair

Seven was the sweetest
I kissed you on the golf course
Nothing existed but us
Eight and you gave me courage
You gave me belief
You gave me mischief and its God

Nine was when we worked our fingers to the bone 
We saw less of each other
Realised money can't buy happiness

Ten saw our dreams come true
While my foundations crumbled
You gave me strength

Sunday, September 28

Spider-Man Unlimited Review (iOS/Android): Infinite Loop

The days of Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run hogging the top spots of the App Store's charts have passed, but Endless Runners are still being churned out in no small number. To stand out amongst them would take more than a few positive reviews on some no-name blogs. You'd need a prominent character, something at the forefront of the pop culture zeitgeist. You'd need a hero. You'd need Spider-Man or Batman, or some other popular dude in latex.

So Gameloft went and made Spider-Man Unlimited, the most shameless Subway Surfers clone mine eyes have ever seen. Coins are replaced by vials ('cause Peter Parker's a scientist I guess), and you run, jump and slide in three lanes. There's also enough colour to keep everyone from kids to the most cynical comic book lover engaged in its infinite loop of non-rewards for hours.

Spider-Man has a few tricks to differentiate his plight from that of the humble Subway Surfer: he can swing his way through the city, crawl up walls, and smack down robots and members of the Sinister Six. Each of these tasks is achieved by swiping, tapping, or through the use of gyroscope controls, and it was alarming just how quickly I became hooked on the Wall Crawler's version of the Bridge to Bay Fun Run.

It works because it looks somewhat organic. Spider-Man doesn't have a jet or a plane or a boat, he gets around on his own two feet and by shooting webs. You read through panels and pages of Spidey running and swinging his way through New York City, so this format makes sense. The only thing that looks ridiculous are the boss fights, which require you to punch and kick floating S.H.I.E.L.D insignias at prominent baddies.

There are currently four story chapters and I have no intention of playing through them. Mainly because the story is threadbare at best and provides some enticement for laying down dosh to fuel the most addictive aspect of Unlimited's free-to-play revenue model: unlocking Spider-Men via portals. Certain missions are locked unless you have specific Spidey costumes, or have reached a certain level, which is barred for common costumes.

The progression model is super stingy. Costume rarity is classified as follows: common, uncommon, rare and epic. Some costumes appear in multiple classifications, for example: you can get a common, uncommon and rare Classic Spider-Man. You can rank up costumes by absorbing doubles or spending Iso-8, with one Scrooge-like caveat: the double must be of the same rarity level as that of the costume you're trying to upgrade. You can't use an uncommon Web Armor Spider-Man to rank up a rare Web Armor Spider-Man and vice versa. This means that you're going to have be awfully patient or spend a fair wad of cash to unlock extra team slots and rare portals.

Iso-8, the mysterious isotope that appears in various other Marvel mobile titles, is the second in-game currency that can be collected by completing story missions or spending real money. You don't earn much from story missions, and the substance is prohibitively expensive otherwise (to both procure and spend), so I've found myself investing hours in the Events which refresh every 1 to 3 days and each have their own particular theme, which in turn offers score multipliers for using specific costumes. Ranking on the leaderboards usually nets you fuck all in the way of Iso-8, but it's a good way to unlock thousands of vials and standard portals: the most cost-effective means for unlocking costumes.

This method doesn't have to cost a thing in terms of dollars, but my word does it take a lot of time. It's also extremely frustrating when you find your team stacked with various versions of the same fucking costume. There are quite a few costumes to be unlocked, so it hurts when you finally earn enough Iso-8 to snag a rare portal only to be saddled with another Spider-Clone that you can't level up (rare and epic varieties in this instance).

Also annoying is the scoring model which affords bonuses to using rarer costumes by default, and Event bonuses can throw that off exponentially. When you've got the right suits on hand, you'll find your score multiplied by factors of 20 or more. When you don't have the required costume for a given event, there's almost no point in participating because you'd need to survive umpteen times longer than the dude who spent $50 levelling up an epic Spider-Man.

I know I'm coming across as negative on the whole Spider-Man Unlimited experience, but that's only because I see a great game crushed under a business model. On the Samsung Galaxy SIII, the game is fluid and beautiful. There's the odd hitch in frame rate, but it's never enough to throw you off your game. The same can't be said while playing on a standard iPad Mini. During the hectic later stages I found that the game chugged to the point where my inputs weren't being recognised. Across both versions I noticed delays in receiving Event rewards, but I got what was coming to me in the end.

Spider-Man Unlimited doesn't do much to reward loyal players, but it's easy enough to enjoy spending very little (and presumably even no) money, as swinging, punching and running don't cost a thing. If you enjoyed Subway Surfers or any other Endless Runner, give this a chance. It may end up wresting your interest from AAA fare in the hope of unlocking yet another Bulletproof Spider-Man.

Sunday, August 24

Rose Coloured Glasses: Max Payne 3

Note: This post contains major spoilers for Max Payne 3.

When I first played through Max Payne 3's brutal single player campaign, the shocking depictions of violence are what stuck with me in the aftermath. Sometimes I'd be playing some relatively light-hearted fare like Rayman Origins, only to think back to Marcelo's immolation at the hands of the Cracha Preto, or the holes I'd pushed through some poor schmuck's face with my automatic pistol.

It was powerful. It was shocking. It hung around like trauma.

I loved the game because, and in spite of, these displays of gratuity. I can remember looking away from the TV when I thought someone's death was imminent, even Max's. Sure this meant I failed the odd quick time event, but it also meant I could sleep at night. It meant that I could stomach the tension of shootouts and close encounters with militiamen. It meant eventually seeing the impossible tidiness of Max's redemption.

Recently I've felt the urge to return to glitzy (and grimy) Sao Paolo, but that was effectively tempered by my unwillingness to pull the Xbox 360 out of storage and hook it up to an entertainment system which is at capacity (in terms of HDMI ports and shelf space). Thankfully, Steam came to the rescue with an unbelievable bargain: the game plus all downloadable content for a measly 8 US dollars.

It may have taken 3 days to download, but it was well worth the wait.

Despite my laptop struggling with the neon noir presentation (especially scene transitions) and the pin stripe of Max's suit, it's been a relatively smooth ride. Shootdodging against hordes of gang bangers occurred at a reasonable clip (just shy of what I assume to be 30 frames per second), my "rig" just can't handle the raw emotional power of Rockstar's scripted sequences. Voicework usually played out of sync with the rendered actors and my hardware approached alarming temperatures, but we got through in the end.

What was most surprising was just how well the action held up. I can remember complaining that I found the damage model (read: how you accrue damage) to be inconsistent, but this time around it felt just fine. I mean, you should go from dandy to deathbed after being hit with a sniper rifle or up close with a shotgun, shouldn't you. Also, since when have video games been known for realistic portrayals of pain thresholds in the human body? With a bit of patience, any combat situation is easily cleared - the only exceptions being 2 not-quite-boss fights in the penultimate chapter. If you take the time to search your surrounds and find a few bottles of painkillers, it's even more likely that you'll live to shoot your way through another day.

Back to the action, leaping through a dangerous battlefield in slow motion and peppering anything in your sight with precisely placed projectiles is still super cool. Pulling away from cover could be less awkward, but I'd be unreasonable for labelling that as anything other than a slight annoyance. It is bloody and gross fun perforating heads and body parts with a wide arsenal that covers everything from several variations of the modest pistol to the rocket launcher.

What really sets this slightly aged masterpiece apart from 2 years’ worth of blockbusters is Health's original soundtrack that even makes a title screen sad enough to force your head between hands. The stirring string arrangements that punctuate the bullets and blood (and usually accompany the titular character drinking and drugging himself into a stupor) are, with hindsight, more haunting than any instance of gun violence. It lingers, playing through my head whenever anything fails to go to plan. The grimy, foreboding tracks that are played throughout the bullet ballet are just as -- for lack of a better word -- catchy, and I've had the album on regular rotation since I started downloading the game last week.

One interesting observation, particularly after having just started playing the Tomb Raider reboot, is that the game tends to fetishise death. I was almost glad to see the camera focus on Max's death mask and various angles of blood spatter after having been subjected to arguably erotic angles on Lara Croft's multiple and gruesome demises. Granted, Tomb Raider seems that little bit more uncomfortably preoccupied with the protagonist's agony in the throes of death, but at least now I can find an example of this treatment on a man.

While we're on the topic of problematic treatment of women in games, they exist only to be saved in Max Payne 3. I realise this ties in heavily with both the noir theme and the premise of the original, but even the strongest (and, if memory serves, only surviving) woman character is shown to have some serious flaws and has to be saved by the lead male. It could also be argued that Giovanna is the only woman to survive because she exhibits some positive behaviours and is thus worthy of saving.

So, two years on, Max Payne 3 is still very much worthy of your time. If 10 hours of bloody, bullet-riddled mayhem didn’t sound appealing upon its release, it’s not going to be any more attractive to you now. That being said, I again found myself falling for and with Max from failure to stomach-turningly grisly failure. If you’re looking for a third person shooter with a compelling story and solid, cover-based shooting action, I can recommend this (again) without hesitation.