Sunday, October 30

Another Hairy Predicament

Dear Readers,

Tuesday marks my second poke at Movember. Funds raised throughout this campaign will help make a tangible difference to the lives of others. Through the Movember Foundation and its men’s health partners, the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia and beyondblue – the national depression initiative, they are funding world class research, educational and support programs which would otherwise not be possible. Help me ensure that the lives of nerds the world over are just that little bit better.

Last year I raised just shy of three hundred dollars for the cause. It's not much, but it's something I guess.

This year, I'll be rocking the Selleck. That's right, Magnum P.I's tea strainer of choice will adorn my lips in all of its glory. You can't buy a moustache that awesome, but you can sponsor it. If you're in a position to support my Movember efforts, please visit the following link:

You maginficent bastard (care of Magnificent Bastard)

To further implore you to support my efforts, please observe the following picture of Mike Haggar performing a piledriver on a shark:

Mike Haggar showing aquatic lifeforms how it's done (care of Nerdhammer)

In all seriousness, I'd very much appreciate your support once again. Here's hoping that we can exceed last year's effort.

To a long, healthy Movember.


Thursday, October 27

Editorial: Review scores don't add up

It's been an interesting week for game reviews. I'm not referring to my Rage review - which is pretty great - rather, the shenanigans some game journalists have gotten away with this week. Firstly, there were some perfect review scores for Battlefield 3, an eloquent - though misguided - look at Uncharted 3 that was torn apart by trolls, and IGN once again set the standard for journalistic integrity (or its opposite, as it were).

I'm more concerned with the whole perfect score issue. Not that a game should never attain one: if a game has no discernable flaws at the time of release, and sets new standards in presentation and design, it should get as many points, stars or thumbs-up available. Battlefield 3, however, is not one of those perfect games; the reviewers even say so themselves.

It all started with an innocent tweet from GameSpy editor, Bennett Ring. I read the review as instructed, but had some questions once I'd read it all, and saw those five (out of five) stars. As above, a perfect score when justified is fine, but when I read "campaign is good rather than brilliant," "much of what's new is familiar," "BF3 is a flawed game," I thought that some questions were in order. To his credit, Bennett answered the first one, but understandably - the response was pretty defensive, and didn't really address the issue. That is, the writer's challenging the definition of what perfect is.

Then, peripheral to this, I thought I heard a dissenting voice. That of veteran Australian game journalist, David Wildgoose, proclaiming that he had always expected the following concensus between reviewers: "Great MP, Crap SP." I joined in, questioning how the game could still enjoy perfect scores despite part of the package being flawed. His response floored me: "No drama with the scores. It's a great multiplayer FPS. The campaign shouldn't detract from that."

What the hell? You can include a derivative single player campaign and have it written off as a value-added bonus? It got more interesting.

So, as quoted in the picture, Wildgoose went on to say that even if Battlefield 3's campaign was an unplayable mess, he would still be comfortable awarding it a perfect/ near-perfect score. Ars Technica writer, Ben Kuchera mirrored those comments as well, equating his experience to Battlefield 3's multiplayer suite being a great steak, with the campaign compared to a "bad beer."

Let's consider that then: let's compare gaming to a meal. We'll just tweak the analogy so that it suits my thesis. Imagine you order a steak (tofu for you vegetarians out there) with all of your favourite sides: potato bake, fries, gravy, the whole spread. The steak is amazing, cooked just how you like. The fries, however, are cold. The potato isn't cooked properly, and and the gravy is a watery mess. Did you have the perfect meal? No! Did you have a great steak? You bet. How did the meaning of perfect get lost?

Why are we also then, so hard on single player-focused games that either feature no multiplayer component, or one of questionable quality? Why is a stellar single player campaign not exempt in the same way Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are, when they feature a "tacked-on" multiplayer suite?

Bulletstorm isn't the best example, as it has a fairly solid metarating; but it did cop stick for its laggy multiplayer mode. To be fair, plenty still sung its praises, but some did point it out as a "failing." Sure it "shines as a single-player shooter," but obviously not enough to account for the lack of depth in regards to multiplayer.

As for Eurogamer's oft-discussed Uncharted 3 review, it seemed as though Simon Parkin was expecting something other than a heavily-scripted third-person cover shooter / platformer. The whole franchise has been defined by the action movie set pieces and meticulous pacing. I can't think of a single game in the genre that has succeeded when it allowed players to meander around, looking for the next objective. If you subtract the shooting from the equation, the 2008 reimagining of Prince of Persia failed - in my opinion at least - because there was a little bit too much freedom and a lack of direction. It was beautiful, but if I left the game alone for a sustained period, I forgot what I was doing. In the end, I never finished it. I can almost guarantee that the same won't happen with Drake's Deception. I should clarify that I don't believe Uncharted 3 is entitled to a perfect review - nor do I think that I'll give it one - I just think you could maybe pick on the arbitrary nature of the platforming sequences and the ambiguous damage model (going from my experience with its predecessor).

I didn't like it how the bad guys shot at me. 

I'll mention Daemon Hatfield's gaffe in passing, because what did you expect? It's IGN! I'm not saying you can't get a feel for a game playing on Easy, but when a substantial portion of content is locked to a higher difficulty - like Jamestown, for example - you may just have to man-up and put it on Normal. Better yet, if the developer calls you on it, don't hack a part out of your review and try to cover it up. Transparency is a bitch sometimes, I know. I should also clarify that I haven't yet played Pixeljunk Sidescroller, but the situation doesn't look good for the site or the developer.  

We need to change the way we review games. I'm not saying that you need to get rid of scores - it might help - but there are other ways. How about issuing different scores for both the single and mutliplayer components? How about letting your words do the talking?

How do you think game reviews should be handled? Is the status quo acceptable?

Wednesday, October 26

Rage Review (X360): A wasteland in more ways than one

There's no denying that id Software popularised the First Person Shooter. The genre existed before the likes of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, but none proved to be as compelling, enduring or as fluid as Carmack and Romero's masterpieces. After seven years in development, Rage marks id's return to the market. A vastly different monster to when the developer reigned supreme, with consoles having more clout than their native platform. Does the leap in technology and multi-platform commitment allow for another classic from the fathers of frag?

The Good
Ride of the Valkyries - Apart from tedious voicework, the sound design in Rage is exemplary. When opting for the stealthy approach, ominous strings have tension lurking behind every corner. Upon discovery, a score of rousing themes captures the frantic energy of your fight against every mutant and bandit that occupies the wasteland. The sound effects are also reason to turn up the volume, with guns - like the Authority MG - that create a cacophony of intimidating noise. You can almost hear the armour being ripped off of your enemies by each item in your thunderous arsenal.   
This gun gets louder than Jennifer Lopez.

Corridor dancing - While the character interaction, inventory management and car combat don't smack of the polish you'd expect from an id shooter, you'd best believe that the developers got the FPS fundamentals right in Rage. Enemies of melee and ranged persuasions suffocate you in the game's various arrangements of corridors and open areas. You'll be more than able to defend yourself, however, with a range of guns and offensive items that put the fun in circle-strafun'.

Animated - They may not have much of value to say, but the characters in Rage are all rendered and animated with a level of detail not seen in your average console shooter. Enemies also move in a fashion that is either believable when referring to bandits and the Authority, or just plain frightening when the various mutants come to mind.

Wingstick, don't fail me now!

The Bad 
Hardly worth the drive - For an open world game, Rage takes place in a relatively-small space. A fast travel system similar to that in Fallout 3 or Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion would have been far more effective than the painfully-short car rides to each mission. Worse still, there's five leagues worth of frustrating races and car combat to work through as well. I'd have preferred to have spent more time throwing Wingsticks at mutants than driving some ugly cars through the innocuous wasteland.

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this - With regenerating health, consumable healing items, and a defibrillator that allows for multiple resurrections, the single player campaign offers no sense of challenge on Normal difficulty. Even when faced with hulking foes or overwhelming numbers, players are afforded too many effective tools to have any trouble with safely traversing the wasteland. 

Cultural melting pot - Each of the bandit factions has a distinct look, with members that speak in their own accent or language; but the reasons for this aren't apparent. Why do the Gearheads speak in Russian? Why do the Wasted speak with pommy accents and have a predilection for the Union Jack? None of this is immediately obvious, and it's not explored in any level of detail. Not only is this disappointing, but it gives the impression that your enemies look different just for the sake of it: they all come in the ranged and melee flavours, and attack in a similar way.  

The Ugly
Kleenex - After completing the single player campaign, I felt as though I'd been used. I hadn't developed a meaningful rapport with any of the mission-givers that I'd come across in my fifteen hours of play. When I left for the final mission, I had no connection to the places or people that I'd saved. Rage's empty story, tired dialogue and forgettable characters left me with nothing to fight for.

So, what's with the moustache? 
Stay with me? - The multiplayer suite in Rage is nothing short of laughable, with competitive car combat that suffers from the worst connection issues I've seen in this generation of hardware. Even when I'd figured out the objective of each match type, enemy vehicles were skipping across each track and bringing me a great many deaths. The Wasteland Legends co-op mode is a promising concept that is undone by the inability to continue play if a partner drops out. This problem is further exacerbated by the fickle player community, which runs at the first sign of failure. For 360 players, the third disc is a throw-away.

The Verdict
Rage may look fantastic, and feature id's signature brand of hectic gunplay, but its got no soul. A near non-existent story, poorly-developed characters, and more hours than I would care to spend in a car, make for a disappointing adventure with little replay value. The woeful competitive multiplayer and restrictive co-op mode don't help things either. If you actually find yourself enjoying the vehicular portions of the game, you become quite fond of this inconsistent beauty. If not, it's a long, unrewarding journey that I was happy to see the back of.

Sunday, October 23

The Demo Downlow: Sonic Generations (again!), Forza Motorsport 4 and NFS: The Run

Welcome to the second instalment of The Demo Downlow. In a bout of deja vu, I'll be reporting on another demo for Sonic Generations, as well as trials for Frostbite 2-powered racer Need for Speed: The Run, and Microsoft's automotive heavyweight, Forza Motorsport 4. All demos were played on the Xbox 360, this time around.

Sonic Generations
The latest demo for the Blue Blur's retro-themed platformer features a cleaner version of the Green Hill, Zone 1 shown in the first demo that surfaced in June. The camera keeps up with the action this time around, and the whole experience felt a little smoother; to the point where I'm actually looking forward to its release. Also present was a reinterpretation of this zone which featured the behind-the-back perspective that's featured in Sonic's recent adventures. To my surprise, it wasn't horrible. Don't get me wrong: enemy placement and the rigid camera led to inescapable contact with enemies, but it was still possible to regain momentum. When it was actually possible to evade enemies, the action was easy to follow when compared to the disastrous Sonic Unleashed, or even the slightly less horrible Sonic the Hedgehog (2007).  

The Verdict
Sonic Generations will be an interesting package to say the least. The levels designed with the old school in mind may actually be enjoyable, and - shock horror - the modern levels may actually be playable!

Forza Motorsport 4
I'm not a huge fan of racing sims: unless it's got karts or power-ups (Blur, anyone?), I usually find it hard to sustain interest in driving on the track. So with that in mind, Forza 4 shouldn't have stood a chance; but gorgeous visuals and a bevvy of difficulty options ensured that the demo was well worth the bandwidth. One track and three cars are available in the trial, and I was blown away by the cockpit views and lighting effects. Each vehicle handled differently - for those who know me, it's not fair for me to judge realism in the realm of driving - and I'm left wanting more. 

The scenic route

The Verdict
The indelible impression left by my three rides in Switzerland may have been enough to justify a purchase, a motion seconded by my wife after only one play through. This is racing at its most beautiful, and flexible.   

Need For Speed: The Run
Two tracks and two cars - one with the caveat of dragging your friends along for the ride - await those with the requisite time and hard drive space available. It's clear that the developers, Black Box are trying to create a cinematic feel with this latest instalment of the storied racing franchise; particularly in terms of the camera moves during the race. Initially, it was off-putting; particularly after the supposed realism of Forza 4. A few minutes and replays later, and I felt as though I was getting the hang of things. It looks and plays similarly to last year's effort, Hot Pursuit; however, without the fun found in takedowns and weapons. Things got a little muddy in the second track. Multiple avalanches without any great impact on the frame rate aside, the action looked unacceptably blurry. It's also worth noting that as per the intro, the action is powered by the Frostbite 2 engine that will be under the hood of the inevitable blockbuster, Battlefield 3. If this game is anything to go by, Battlefield 3 may not look so good on the 360 (or PS3).

Walk - don't run - for the latest Need for Speed game

The Verdict
Need for Speed: The Run felt a little too Hollywood for me. A lot of style with familiar substance.

What demos have you played recently? Anything to recommend?

Saturday, October 22

The Pain of Child Birth

For those of you not lucky enough to have kids, you have not fully experienced the pain child birth.

Sure you've heard of the contractions and the ripping or the unbearable nausea and cramps during pregnancy, but that's nothing compared to the true pain...

I'm too tired to play games.

Gears of War 3 is almost done but I'll be damned if I know what's going on. Something about a Lambent and little exploding things and a chainsaw. The action is thick and fast but it's all a blur.

Batman Arkham City is singing its siren song but it looks like the Dark Knight is on his own while I catch up on my sleep.

Between midnight feeds and taking my two year old back to bed, the only action the old 360 is getting is playing Dora DVDs to entertain my eldest.

Even the Xbox is feeling the pain of children - the disc drawer opens when it feels like it thanks to the eager hands of my two year old.

Funnily enough I wouldn't have it any other way. I'll wake up soon and have two co-op battlers by my side. The future is looking up and I can't wait to press start.

Note: I do not in any way, shape or form think that I've been put more pain, torture or nausea than my wife. She did a great job during the pregnancy and an even better job now looking after our two beautiful kids. I'm very proud of her.

Tuesday, October 18

Warhammer 40K: Space Marine Review (PC): Brawling with my brainless battle brothers

I'll be honest with you: I've never been one for Warhammer 40K's lore, lofty dialogue or miniature figurines. Not that I have any objections to tabletop gaming, role-playing or dudes in bulky armour; I just have too much on my nerdy plate as it is. I did enjoy my brief love affair with Dawn of War II. Once again, not because of the source material; rather, it was a great strategy game in its own right. Now enter Space Marine. Same brand of brawny, quasi-religious tomfoolery, but from a different perspective. Instead of issuing directives from above, players get to step into the ridiculously-large boots of an Ultramarine. Will the close-up make these mammoths of men any more relatable?

Gratuitous title shot

The Good
Brutal Ballet - The combat system in Space Marine skillfully fuses third person melee and shooting into a violent dance that is satisfying to perform. The risk-versus-reward execution system makes some of the more crowded battles all the more exciting, with those last minute Fury activations being the difference between life and death. The weapon selection, while modest, offers additional ways to control the crowd and thus the carnage on screen. Do you snipe your enemies with ranged weapons and clean-up the rest? Or, do you run in with Bolter, grenades and Chainsword at the ready? All important decisions, and most yield favourable outcomes.

 All of the lights

That must've hurt - Execution moves look suitably brutal, and act as another reward for engaging in melee combat. The animations are - for the most part - fluid, and produce a satisfying amount of blood and gore. There are several different animations for each melee weapon, and they each serve to paint the Ultramarines (specifically, Captain Titus) as a force to be reckoned with.

The Bad
You look familiar - There isn't much variety in enemy models and voicework throughout the campaign.  You'll hear "It's the Space Marine!" in a terrible Ork-Australian accent so many times before the closing of the first few chapters that you'll be tempted to mute the game for the remainder. Not that I did, but my word was that idea tempting! It's also not long into the game when you first start yearning for some diversity in terms of look, sound and feel; and no, the jump pack segments do not count.

Walk in the park - Space Marine is fairly uneventful in terms of both narrative and difficulty level. With regards to the story: it's painfully predictable, and doesn't really tread into apocalypse territory until the final few chapters. Even then, Captain Titus always seems somewhat laissez-faire about the orc and Chaos Marine threats. The unlikable, poorly-developed support cast also meant that I felt as though I had nothing to lose, even when the situation managed to look bleak. Now about difficulty: on the default Normal setting, I very rarely felt troubled. I don't think I fell during any of the boss fights, and only really had myself to blame when I succumbed to the swarming orcish hordes. Careless spamming of stun and execution moves often led to my own demise; if only those moves didn't look so cool.

I can see right through you! - Clipping errors are rampant throughout the single player adventure. If you're backed into a corner and use an execution move, you'll likely find that your opponent has disappeared into a nearby wall as you continue your choreographed moves. If you commence one of these brutal animations near a ledge, you might even see the miracle of levitation! The visuals also stuttered frequently in the final few chapters; it wasn't so much a reduction in the frame rate as much as it was multiple, short (as in fractions of a second) instances of freezing.

You may not be able to see it, but I'm floating on air!

The Ugly
You're breaking up! - I couldn't connect to a single multiplayer match that was of a playable standard. Deaths came quickly, and often from an enemy that copped about two clips worth of my worthless ammunition. My connection speed was slower than an Ultramarine attempting to run through a vacuum!

Top heavy - Space Marine's multiplayer suite suffers from severe balance issues, with higher level opponents afforded equipment that has them raining death on newcomers. The ability to copy your assailant's loadout after death doesn't help things either, as there's a learning curve for each piece of equipment. As a result, I often found myself dying before I could comprehend the power of the weapons I'd just acquired, and the vicious cycle was reset.

The Verdict
Warhammer 40K: Space Marine is a solid game that is undermined by some poor writing, repetitive visuals and obnoxious sound design. The brutal, satisfying blend of ranged and melee combat never turns stale, but the same can't be said for the identical enemies and shallow support characters. The multiplayer aspect of the package also suffers from balance, depth and connectivity issues that led to me losing interest fairly quickly. If you're a fan of the source material, I'm sure that you'll get a lot out of the campaign. It's just hard to recommend this game given the release window, where better games are either already on the market or likely to come very soon.

Monday, October 17

Gears of War 3 Review (X360): Mad World Reimagined

The Gears of War games haven't previously been known to showcase strong storytelling. Don't get me wrong: I loved both instalments (in terms of both campaign and multiplayer), but a lot of the biggest twists in the tale of Delta Squad lacked impact. Thankfully, Epic Games contracted Karen Traviss - who has written three books based on the series - to write the script for the third game. With Gears' only weakness shielded by some powerful narrative armour, have the developers been able to fortify some of the strongest gunplay I've had the pleasure of indulging in and deliver the perfect game?

The Good
Bullet ride - Gears 3 moves at breakneck pace and features everything I love about its predecessors: big guns, big (read: HUGE) monsters and big (read: impossibly-muscly) heroes. The size and scale of some locust and lambent opponents is truly impressive - in terms of artistic direction and from a technical perspective - and make for some thrilling boss fights. Everything from Brumaks to Leviathans are represented over the course of the six hour plus campaign, and the addition of an Arcade Mode smacks of replay value. Better yet, the series' staple third-person cover shooting is as tight and enjoyable as ever. This is one for the ages!

Mad World indeed - Throughout the campaign, players will traverse across a genuinely-surprising range of locales, each rendered with a high level of detail. Epic have squeezed all they can out of the Unreal 3 engine, and series-long flaws such as instances of textures disappearing have been minimized noticeably. What makes these locations all the more impressive is the sheer carnage that can be set against them (particularly in Horde Mode). The action never slows down, even with scores of Beserkers, Drones and Brumaks unleashing hell on humanity's final few.

Waking nightmare - Traviss' aforementioned script gives far greater insight into the struggle of returning characters than that of any previous Gears instalment. Cole is no longer just a muscle-bound, catch-phrase machine. There are points where he actually appears weary, almost unable to "Whooo!" Baird's sharp tongue hints at troubles that are more than skin deep, Marcus is made to be more than a pair of hulking arms with a foul mouth, and Dom's grief even appears genuine. The characters in Gears have finally emerged from their bulky shells.... and they're ready to share.

Clean break - In what is becoming a rarity these days, Gears 3 has an ending. A clean, somewhat-satisfying, cliffhanger-free ending. There may be some questions unresolved and raised over the course of this final instalment, but none that would require another sequel (although more Gears games will undoubtedly appear somewhere down the line). Best of all, the game shines light on characters hinted at in previous games and in Traviss' novels. That being said, Bernie looks nowhere near as rough as I thought she would.

What do you want? A medal? - There are several viable ways to invest time in Gears 3; all of which yield tangible rewards. Most of the achievements are tied to the campaign, but if you want to unlock all of the medals and ribbons on offer, you'll need to engage with the Horde, Versus (with six different match types) and Beast modes. Horde Mode returns with the ability to buy weapons and fortifications, making those later waves all the more desperate. Versus mode includes several match types from previous games, and the much more n00b-friendly Team Deathmatch option which allows for respawns without the "distraction" of objectives. The new Beast mode is fast and furious fun that allows you to assume the role of some of the more formidable locust creatures as well as some unsung anti-heroes, like the Ticker.

Lambentzerker = Pain for up to 5 players
Fan service - As a Gears stalwart I've been gifted with weapon skins, an achievement (granted, it is worth 0G) and a medal: not much, but the rewards are appreciated all the same. More franchises need to reward the faithful like Epic has with this game.

The Bad
What's the score? - I'm not a huge fan of Gears 3's soundtrack. The voicework is of a solid standard, but the God of War-esque chorus and horns don't inspire much heroics.

Not exactly h4rdc0r3z - My first playthrough of the campaign was on Hardcore difficulty (the highest setting initially available), and I ran into few troubles throughout the adventure. Your AI-controlled companions may be inept with a gun, but they have few troubles healing you; meaning you'll very rarely have to make your way back to a checkpoint. I didn't even die once during the final boss fight: this isn't the usual brand of Gears difficulty.

Four on one hardly seems fair 
The Ugly
That old dance - Competitive multiplayer matches are still often decided by the shotgun dance; except this time, the sawed-off shotgun adds more frustration to the brutal ballet. This whinge may be attributed to my less-than-stellar kill/death ratio, but my God is that weapon powerful! It doesn't derail the action entirely, but there have almost been a few rage quits thanks to this ridiculously-powerful sidearm.

The Verdict
If there's one thing that'll threaten my time in the videogame blogosphere, it's Gears of War 3. The gory, thrilling gun battles and epic boss fights can be enjoyed alone and with/against company for hours on end. Additional modes, weapons and a new progression system act as further carrots to keep players engaged. Best of all, the bulky, foul-mouthed Gears have finally been given the articulate voice that they needed. The voice that we all deserved, having hung around these colossal Neanderthals for almost five years.

Thursday, October 13

Meet the Mob: Tristan Damen (Part 2 – Hardware)

So, where was I? Right, current generation hardware. Beautiful stuff, isn’t it? 
I picked up an Xbox 360 just as I was heading into my last year of university studies. Being loyal to the PlayStation brand, this was not an easy decision; but the ridiculous price set for Sony's latest machine (just under a thousand bucks in Australia) and inevitable delays forced my hand. All things considered, I’m glad I ventured into brand neutrality: for the 360 was and is a fantastic console. From the Xbox Live Marketplace to exclusive software, Microsoft’s second foray into the market has provided heartbreak and fun in equal measure. 
“Heartbreak,” I hear you say. “How so?” Between my brother and I, we’ve seen four 360s fall at the hands of the Red Ring of Death (RRoD). For a family who’d never had a console fail, these deaths rocked us to our very core. Still, the best gaming experiences of this generation can arguably be found on this platform; build quality be damned. 
Dead Rising was the first game to demonstrate the power and necessity of this new breed of machines. Hundreds of zombies on screen, all sporting a level of detail that was simply not achievable on your PlayStation 2s, Xboxes and Gamecubes. This “arrival” so to speak, was further highlighted by BioShock, which would have to be my favourite single player experience without question. Rapture, Ryan and the moral quandaries that they presented continue to be the point from which all other videogame narratives should be judged. 

 The Big Daddy of all powerful first-person narratives.
The Xbox 360 is also home to my favourite competitive multiplayer experience as well: Gears of War. I wasn’t well liked in most matches that I joined: I stole kills, I relied heavily on the chainsaw bayonet, I was Achievement-focussed (so I hogged weapon pick-ups) and I freaked out – as in rolling around, desperately avoiding an enemy that probably couldn’t see me anyway - whenever the opposing side acquired the Longshot. So to summarize, I was not a team player and my actions were never backed up by anything reminiscent of skill. Still, it’s by far the most fun I’ve ever had playing with or against others, and I would also argue that I invested more time in playing Gears online than any other game released before or after the fact. 

 This is what I was trying so desperately to avoid!
Right after my first 360 suffered from the dreaded RRoD, I switched to the PlayStation 3. Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto IV were my first memorable experiences with Sony’s current generation hardware, with each proving to be the best instalments of their respective franchises. I’ve heard plenty of arguments for Niko being a flawed character, but that’s exactly the point. Listen to his chat with Illyena Faustin: the man has seen the worst humanity has to offer, and after travelling to America to live a life of supposed luxury with his cousin, he finds himself in just as much trouble as he had back home...all within a matter of days. He didn’t want to slay that SWAT team with Johnny Klebitz, but to avoid time in the slammer, he did it anyway. When people are backed into a corner, they do desperate, regrettable shit. End of story. Besides, Niko be damned: Liberty City is the real star of the show!
Only recently have I tried to start gaming on the PC. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always had one in the house, but rarely with enough power to play new releases. Sometimes I’m blown away by how smooth the experience is when compared to consoles: both Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Warhammer 40K: Space Marine held up remarkably well on my new laptop. My new "rig," however, fails to run others - like Witcher 2 and, more recently Driver: San Francisco – to a satisfactory standard.
Still, as someone prone to wax nostalgic, I’m happy to admit that the standard of gaming experiences on current platforms is better than those found on previous hardware iterations. Even if you disagree, you could likely download your favourite “classics” to your platform of choice or find them included in a compilation disc.
I could go on about my favourite games from the last few years, but I need to address something that finds itself into many of my posts: the Australian effect. Things are different on this side of the pond, and whether it be price, censorship or the release schedule, it’ll often be cause for me to pause for thought, scream or put rant to paper (or blog as it were). 
Australians are often subject to ridiculous price points at bricks-and-mortar retail stores. The retail price of videogames is set at $99.95 for most PC releases and as much as $119.95 for console games. That’s standard editions too, folks. If you want to talk Collector’s Editions we can tread into some ridiculous territory; upwards of $200. Grey importation is the order of the day for a lot of Australians, with Australia Post reporting that a whopping 70% of packages processed were from online retailers (via Kotaku AU). Downloadable games and content is, however, still subject to some pretty bogus pricing arrangements. To buy Modern Warfare 3 from Steam in Australia will set you back $99.95, and the prices seen on the Playstation Network and XBLM’s Games on Demand service are at times reason for me to vomit in horror. So THQ, you want me to pay $99 for a digital copy of Space Marine via the PSN for which the publisher didn’t have to foot any logistical costs (such as packaging, freight etc)? No thanks, and up yours for asking!
The Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) and the Australian games classification system is also cause for much agony and eye-rolling. Despite what you may have read, we don’t actually have an R18+ rating for games yet. It was agreed to in principle by the Standing Committee of Attorneys General, but the new rating is yet to be implemented (once again, via Kotaku AU). For more on the OFLC’s gaffes and inconsistent decision-making, check out these posts:
 No, you're right: this looks like a hug compared to Left 4 Dead 2

Apart from grand larceny and a nonsensical ratings system, Australia’s actually a pretty great place to live and game. It is pretty hot here though - particularly on the Gold Coast – so Swamp Ass is a real danger, especially in summer. 
Are there any other Australian Bitmobbers out there? I know there are some Kiwis amongst us, which is good to see. 
Dutch Note: There will be a third part to this series, however, you may have already seen it; so I won't publish it here again. It's an edited version of Sounds Like a Memory.

Wednesday, October 12

Meet the Mob: Tristan Damen (Part 1 – Ancient History)

Dutch Note: I'm writing a two-part biography piece for my Bitmob portfolio and I thought I may as well share it with y'all as well. Some of this information I've shared previously; as in when I first started the blog. Hope you like it!

Nerdiness runs in my blood: my father was a gamer before me. Famously, he had bested a friend’s long-standing high score in Frogger one night on his Atari 2600, only for my older brother – then an infant – to crawl past and unwittingly turn the console off. Heartbroken and exhausted, my father did what anyone would do after losing sight of an all-important goal: sit outside and polish off a case of beer (or your beverage of choice; in Dad’s case it was beer). My dad eschewed his gamer ways in order to provide food, clothes and video-games to a growing family: something for which I’m eternally grateful.
Enough about my dad though; this post is supposed to be about me!

My brothers and I were happy enough with the Atari until our mother brought home a Sega Mega Drive (Genesis), two controllers, an arcade stick and six games which she had borrowed from a friend. The next six weeks were indulgent beyond belief, and six-year-old me knew to do only two things when it came time to return this wunder-console to its owner:
1.    Cry like a baby
2.    Beg for a Mega Drive of our own
We would one day receive that Mega Drive we so dearly desired, but not before we had experience with some of Sega’s other machines; specifically, the Master System and Game Gear. My brothers and I were most definitely Sega fanboys throughout our childhood. We were at times distracted by PC offerings such as Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure, Crusader: No Remorse, Fallout and many a Wing Commander game; but we much preferred a controller to a keyboard and mouse.
 Best Action RPG ever.....EVER!

In my teens I found myself with a PlayStation and a somewhat more powerful PC. On the Sony console, I sunk any free time and money into RPGs, fighting and wrestling games; Street Fighter Alpha 3, the original WWF Smackdown and Vagrant Story being my favourites if I had to choose. On the PC I invested years into creating mods and skin packs for Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (JK). 

While I was a massive Star Wars fan, I also had a deep love for a great many other pop culture icons; so being able to create and modify skins for use in JK’s multiplayer suite allowed me to express my love of all things nerdy. In LAN matches at the Damen house you could expect to see Hollywood Hulk Hogan using Force Destruction on Wolverine, who was in turn activating Force Healing (or was he using his Healing Factor?). There were some great user-created maps available for Jedi Knight. The best was definitely the Sarlaac Pit complete with skiffs and Jabba’s Palace in the distance.  Combine that with the Mandolorian Wars mode, which included grappling hooks, and you could keep me entertained for – what turned out to be – years.
 It's like I'm watching Empire!

After finishing high school, my brothers and I progressed to the PlayStation 2. I spent a lot of time playing various instalments of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, usually with System of a Down’s self-titled album as a soundtrack. When with friends, I would get involved in heated matches of Capcom Vs SNK 2: Mark of the Millennium. A friend’s mastery of Blanka had me stumped for months until I discovered that Terry Bogard’s “Crack Shot” had priority over most of the green man’s deviously-fast rolls. For those interested, my team usually comprised of Ryu (Ratio 2), Rugal (Ratio 1) and Terry Bogard (Ratio 1). I also owned a Gamecube, which had Super Monkey Ball or its disappointing sequel loaded in the disc tray for the majority of the time. Save for some Mario-themed sports games, Resident Evil 4 and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, pretty much all of the time spent with my favourite Nintendo console revolved around monkeys and the spherical prisons to which they were confined. 

 A tip of the cap and it's problem solved!

I’ve also invested a lot of money in portable gaming, with the aforementioned Game Gear, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation Portable, DS, and – more recently - the 3DS allowing me to game when I’m supposed to be engaged in social activities, studying or working. The Game Boy Advance SP easily ranks as my favourite, with a library of games punctuated with 1632-Bit classics. Fire Emblem, Pokemon Sapphire and Metroid Fusion each kept me from attaining those grades I was probably capable of at university.

Tune in for the next instalment of my Bitmography where I’ll discuss my experience with current generation hardware as well as the pitfalls of gaming in Australia.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 11

Return on Investment: Time and Loss in Dark Souls

Dark Souls is my first encounter with From Software's masochistic brand of Action RPG gameplay. I can see the elements that have made it a critical success, but I don't think it's for me; at least not based on the first few hours worth of frustration.

Why? Time is a finite resource, that's why. I can't get back the two hours and two thousand souls that I just lost to a dragon after finally besting the Taurus Demon. If I invest four hours in a game, I expect to have made four hours worth of progress: not a solid two hours of progress and then an hour and a half trying to consolidate the following thirty minutes' worth of work. Worse yet, what if you fail like I did? At least I made it to Lordran.

Three letter word: begins with R, ends with UN

I may have felt differently if the game held my hand just a little bit. In the opening zone, you are told the basics of combat through a series of text messages, but any abilities outside of attacking and blocking are left for later. The parry system: fair enough, not essential at start-up. Magic and miracles: maybe hit us with that knowledge sooner rather than later (read: I still don't know how to use either).

On the bright side, the punishing combat system is easy to pick up and - as you may have read from others - you only have yourself to blame for your mistakes. A few agonising input errors aside and slaying the undead hordes makes for some addicitive, though painstakingly-paced fun. I say that because if you rush in, you'll be dispatched faster than it will take to utter a four letter word. You have to bait your foes - one-by-one if possible if you want to survive. Your enemies will take every chance to ambush you and this is at times countered by cryptic messages left by other players. Some of the messages I've seen are plain nonsensical; sure, you only have preset phrases and text to choose from, but what does "Praise the sun" have to do with a fort filled to the brim with murderous skeleton warriors? Stuffed if I know, but when you read "Behind," you'll know your time is at an end.

It may be due to the lack of narrative pretense or perhaps the lack of gore, but I've felt nothing akin to dread in Dark Souls. I've felt acceptance and - at times - agony, but I know what my enemies are here to do. There's no conspiracy running parallel to my character's quest through Lordran, there's no grey area here: survival is the only objective.

Really? You have no interest in killing me? That's refreshing!

It works, but I don't have the time lose the amount of progress I've lost so far again... and again and again. Perhaps in contradiction to my previous statement, I'm opting to start again. I want that Master Key - I hate being taunted by locked doors - and I want a little bit more agility. If the new class and equipment strategy works out for me, maybe I will find the time.

Is anyone else toughing it out with Dark Souls? Any hints?

Sunday, October 9

The Price of Gas

Sorry that things have been a little quiet recently over here on Unbearable Dutch. Both Dawson and I took a break so that I could recharge (and dedicate the appropriate amount of time to Gears of War 3) while my counterpart tends to his growing flock.
For our respective hordes!

Before I got to spend untold hours closing out one of my favourite franchises, I spent a week in Thailand; and my oh my was it an eye-opener. Whether it was the close proximity of excess and poverty, the scenery, the traffic, the food, the people or the bargains: Thailand - Bangkok specifically - had me on my toes.

When I say bargains, I'm not talking about pirated games either: I'm talking about legitimate retail releases. Don't get me wrong, if you find the IT mall, there are enough shops and stalls selling bootlegged copies of the latest releases on PC for less than 200 Thai Baht (about 6 Australian dollars); but when you see how much it costs to buy the genuine article, you may not think it's worth compromising your Steam account for cut-price games. The average cost of an authentic PC game is about 800 Baht (roughly $24). Some cost a lot more - it turns out that Call of Duty: Black Ops is expensive, regardless of region - but most are offered for about seventy percent less than they are in Australia. Console games are also cheaper in Thailand, but not by as much. Price, however, is not the sole contributor of the shopping experience.

That being said, PlayStation 3 games (I didn't pick up any Xbox 360 games in case they were region-locked) were on sale for roughly half the Australian recommended retail price. I bought several new releases (FIFA 12, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, God of War: Origins Collection and The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection) and one relatively-recent release (Alice: Madness Returns) for just under 6000 Baht (about $200 AUD). Even by ozgameshop standards, that haul is pretty respectable. What made the above even better though, was the standard of service and the atmosphere found in some of these gaming retailers. Thai game retailers have comparatively smaller  shop spaces to work with, but they know their products, and they're not afraid for you to try them. I walked into one store where the proprietor booted up Dark Souls for a customer. The young man proceeded to play while I asked about the cost and the release date for the English Language version. I also enquired about several other titles and was told that "That has English voice-overs but the menus are in Japanese," and "Catherine's pretty popular here, we'll have some stock in soon." When money and product was exchanged, I was told "Thanks for your business. You can trade these in towards your next purchase if you'd like. See you soon." It was all so seamless.

I didn't hear lines like "Trade and save at Nadz," or "We buy your old games," as I made my through various games shops in the Digital Gateway mall. Customers could trial whatever games they wanted in some stores, and they knew the people behind the counter. I felt a sense of warmth in some of those shops that wasn't only due to my being in Bangkok (where it's really freaking hot.... everyday!). I should also clarify that Nadz was the name of one of the stores; I'm not taking the piss.


Funny thing is, I haven't played a single game that I bought over there with the exception of a few heated exhibition matches in FIFA 12. I am engrossed in Gears 3, that's for sure.

I'd wager that Australian specialist games retailers could learn a lot from their Thai counterparts. More realistic prices would be great, but how about improving the quality of the shopping experience on the whole? Instead of the three-year old Guitar Hero setup in JB Hi-Fi, how about an open station where consumers can play whatever they're interested in? Instead of the push-inclined geekery from staff in Gametraders, how about some warmth, sincerity and some leave-me-the-fuck-alone? Instead of the apathetic, ignorant slogan slamming you get at EBGames, how about some product knowledge and some attention?

What have you been playing while I've been buying games in another country? Did you miss me?

Important, potentially heart-warming Dutch note: It is with great pleasure that I announce the arrival of my niece, Arabelle Johanna. Congratulations to Reuben and Danielle on a beautiful, healthy baby girl. Best wishes for the future, and you'd best believe I'll be the nerdy uncle that showers that kid in videogames and assorted geekery when she gets older. For now, she'll have to subsist on cuddles.