Tuesday, March 27

Journey into past anxiety

To me, Journey is not only a poignant representation of the circle of life: it's a beautiful game that evoked some anxiety-laden memories. The more obvious themes of the game inevitably forced me to reflect on those that I love, that I've lost and those that yet I'm yet to meet, but it was the music from the initial stages that brought up some very specific memories.

What's sticking with me after two playthroughs is the memory of the hours before the final exam that I sat for my university study. I arrived on campus a few hours before this final test in order to cram (or in my case, say I was cramming but procrastinate even more). I'd never been so terrified; not only because of the immediate threat of the exam, but because of the great wealth of expectation and possibilities that lay before me. The future, was what was causing me to worry... I couldn't breathe. How many job interviews would it take for me to land a real job? Would I move down to the Gold Coast to be with my girlfriend? Would I finally like who I saw looking back at me in the mirror?

Yeah, there was a lot on my mind; and yeah, that resulted in a truly horrific panic attack.

Normally I'd cope with this affliction by consuming alcohol, but over the course of the year I came to shrug the habit (not completely mind you, but I had managed to tone down my consumption considerably over the course of the year). I wanted to tough this one out. About an hour had passed and I wasn't feeling any better and I was on the verge of tears. Movement was the solution... movement and music.

I listen to a reasonably diverse array of artists from a smaller pool of genres, and Deerhunter technically rests on the shores of said pool. I generally preferred heavier sounds which, for the most part, lacked their subtlety. They can do hard, but it was this song that I had on repeat:

Crank it up. Listen with headphones if you can. The beautiful drone of White Ink was pushing into my sternum as I began to cry on my walk through the Brisbane City Botanical Gardens. The pain and anxiety intensified. It appeared at first that going for a walk wasn't the cure to my unrelenting sense of self-doubt. 

As the song repeated and I journeyed further into the expanse (pardon the hyperbole), the weight lifted, my breathing became more regular... the tears stopped flowing. This was the beginning of my voyage through life, not the end. Realising that a world of possibilities lay ahead of me instead of some make-or-break trial had brought me back from the brink: I was ready for this exam.

The opening of Journey is accompanied by a constant, ominous hum. The playful string arrangement keeps it from plunging into White Ink's chaotic buzz, but I could hear a parallel. I felt that same crushing sense of uncertainty and doubt, but experience told me that feeling could be alleviated by a long stroll. 

So I started walking.

Monday, March 26

Journey Review (PS3): The meaning of life

Despite my best efforts, I've so far been unmoved by thatgamecompany's previous efforts, flOw and Flower. I couldn't adapt to the former's Sixaxis controls, while Flower proved to be a little too abstract for me to want to follow it through to its end. Journey appeared to be in a similar vein: more art than game. I thought this would've been appealing at first, but my need for some indication of success, progress and -- to be entirely honest -- excitement would have me rushing for the nearest shooter or fighting game. Much to my surprise, Journey excites, it teases and tugs at the heart strings, and it had me hooked from beginning to end.

Like every thatgamecompany effort, Journey is visually distinct; to the point where the lack of HUD and most other videogame trappings have you questioning whether this is a game or an installation. Come to think of it, I still haven't resolved whether or not Journey is a game or something else altogether. Beautiful vistas and unforgettable soundtrack aside, there's not a whole lot to the -- for lack of a better word -- action other than pushing the left stick forward and occasionally pressing the X and circle buttons. But the compulsion to carry on persisted despite the lack of explicit challenge and indicators of success or failure.

From all of the pre-release coverage that I'd read and seen, I had genuine concerns about pacing in Journey; besides, walking isn't normally half as fun or fast as some alternative modes of transportation found in other videogames (fighter jets and helicopters in Just Cause 2 for example). Forgetting that my playthrough lasted for two hours (give or take a few minutes), the experience never dragged on at any point. If I had seen enough of a particular area, the path ahead was clear; but there were times when I just wanted to linger, to poke around the ruins and ancient structures.

The desire to wander was at its strongest when I had company in tow, as Journey's multiplayer serves to further blur the line between between game and art. You don't cooperate with anyone that you encounter in the expanse, you simply walk with them. Your ability to progress is not in any way conditional on another player's proximity or ability to survive, they're just there for the ride and vice versa. At first, I questioned its inclusion, but it adds a lot to the experience further down the line. You're on a pilgrimage with these people. You don't know their names and can't even communicate them (unless you count the unintelligible calls of varying intensities that you can make by pressing the circle button). It's oddly affecting and it's functional.

This may be best left for another post, but I felt the overwhelming need to play this with my wife. I don't know whether it's because she just left on school camp or that I think she'll enjoy this, but wandering is kind of our thing. That, and it feels odd to cry in the company of strangers. Not that my companions would have known that I was sobbing in the final stages, but I really wanted to share this with her. The hardships, the beauty, and the unknowns encountered on this sojourn shouldn't be experienced alone, and I think it would've been all the more powerful with a loved one by your side. Don't get me wrong, the integration of multiplayer works just fine in its current state, but I think there was the potential for even more impact.

What struck me more than the shimmering sand dunes, underwater labyrinths and peerless aural component was the profound impact that Journey's themes of life, death, tradition and companionship imparted upon me. It's entirely possible that you won't see what I saw, or feel what I felt on my playthrough; but I think you should investigate regardless. Whether it's a game or a piece of interactive art, I don't think there's any arguing that it's beautiful and needs to be seen, if not experienced.

Thursday, March 22

Motorstorm RC Review (PSV): Escape to a simpler time

The Racing genre didn't really exist for me until the release of the original Micro Machines on the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis). Cars didn't really do much for me: I was more interested in Superheroes than I was in Hot Wheels, cared more for Shinobi than Outrun. The three Micro Machines (not counting Micro Machines Military) games captured my imagination thanks to their whimsical premise: racing scale miniatures in seemingly innocuous, everyday environments. Whether it be thrashing a sports car across a series of school desks, racing buggies around buckets and spades littered across a non-descript beach, or circling bathtubs in speedboats, the drivers of these tiny vehicles experienced frustration and excitement in levels far greater than each banal setting should have allowed. The Motorstorm series is also big on excitement (and frustration), but its art direction and mechanics are somewhat more severe in tone. The announcement of Motorstorm RC took me by surprise and based on what I saw, I wasn't confident that an isometric perspective or the smaller scale would be a good fit for the series. I'm glad to advise that I was mistaken. 

As per the series tradition, the bulk of Motorstorm RC's content is played and unlocked via the Festival mode. The festival's sixteen tracks are separated into four brackets which represent each of the series' four instalments: Monument Valley (the original Motorstorm), Pacific Rift, Artic Edge and Apocalypse. The tracks are tight and terse, with laps of most lasting between fifteen and thirty seconds. The brevity of the events -- which come in four varieties -- are perfectly suited to gaming on the go, or for punctuating more fleshed-out experiences (I've alternated between this, Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus regularly since launch). 

Batteries not included

There's eight vehicle classes and multiple models, liveries and colours to unlock. Unfortunately, unlike the majority of events in preceding instalments, you're unable to select what class of vehicle you can use for each event. This makes sense for drifting events -- where you're restricted to using the muscle car, the only drift-capable vehicle -- but I'd have appreciated the option to avoid using the buggy class altogether on account of its over-sensitive steering. The majority of classes are fun to use, and there were very few events that I didn't care to retry ad infinitum. Motorstorm RC is the embodiment of fun and whimsy with beautiful, uncomplicated visuals, inoffensive music and tight, responsive controls.

Motorstorm RC's high level of replayability is thanks in no small part to its asynchronous multiplayer component, which is amongst the best I've ever encountered. Upon start-up, you'll find yourself in the the Playground -- a sandbox with half-pipes, a football field and other distractions -- where you'll be taunted by messages regarding the desecration of your times across any events that you've completed. At any time you can hold the circle button to retake your throne from PlayStation Network friends and randoms. The spirit of competition doesn't stop at the Playground. When you play any event, you'll often notice the driving paths of friends, high-ranking randoms, and even yourself pacing through each track. Seeing what the community is capable of encourages you to become a better racer. On one occasion, a good friend had registered a time far greater than my own and I resolved to beat it. After being walloped repeatedly by his (and others') beautiful lines, I raced around repeatedly until I registered a time far better than I thought I was capable of. While it's unfortunate that there's no means to directly compete with your friends, I found this approach to be more than sufficient.

Wreckreation allows you to race around any track in a vehicle of your choosing, but I'm still captivated by the Festival proper. The constant lure of your friends' short-lived supremacy of the leaderboards should have you addicted to this near-perfect pocket racer. More dangerous still, a steady stream of appropriately-priced DLC that introduces new cars and tracks to the mix is slowly draining the balance of my PlayStation Network wallet. Right out of the gate, the PlayStation Vita has its killer app. I just wish there were more of my friends playing so I can get sucked in even deeper.  

Tuesday, March 20

Mass Effect 3 Review (PS3): Farewell Tour

For more times than I can remember, my heart was again pounding and my hands shaking. Would the people standing next to me survive this mission? Who would be next to make a sacrifice for the good of the galaxy? At times, the tension was too much to bear.

While I've never been the greatest advocate for the Mass Effect series, some of the characters who I've encountered, fought with and romanced over the last five years have come to mean something to me. So much so that I was nearly brought to tears during this, the last of instalments. In fact, if not for my newly-acquired puppy, Loki's conveniently-timed release of waste products, I'd have been reduced to a blubbering mess on roughly three occasions. Depending on your choices across up to three games, Mass Effect 3 is a moving reunion with old friends and a farewell tour without equal.

The story is about the only reason that anyone would need to play this game. All things considered, its value is questionable to anyone who hasn't played the second instalment at the very least. The high stakes tale is in no way self-contained, and while not overly complicated, would have little to no impact on a newcomer. The writing is sharp and the sense of camaraderie between Shepard and the crew of the Normandy -- both new and old -- is abundantly clear. The implications of choices made at all stages of the greater Mass Effect tale reverberate through a great many of the game's missions and downtime; meaning that the third instalment is nothing short of a fully-realised triumph for series veterans and what I imagine to be a bloated, incomprehensible bore for anyone yet to finish the first two games.

That being said, combat is another reason why Mass Effect 3 could be a hard sale to newbies and any vets without a Mass Effect 2 save. Troubles with importing your customized face aside; by importing a save from the last game, you'll have made quite a bit of progress towards a powerful character without encountering a single husk. I found that my BroShep was at level 28 upon commencing the game, and that in turn meant that he and his companions had access to some powerful tech and biotic powers from the get go. This is just as well, because combat gets hectic pretty quickly. Being able to call upon fully-developed versions of powers like Singularity and Concussion Shot in the early stages allowed for me to not tire of the fidgety cover shooting until much later than I otherwise would have.

Unless you build up a surplus of credits, the combat in Mass Effect 3 becomes painful, repetitive, and fails to compare to competitors like the Gears of War and Uncharted games. Even the biotic, tech and weapon powers get old after you've seen enemies get airborne for the fiftieth time. None of the standard issue weaponry really packs a punch, so you'll need to invest in the Spectre exclusive weaponry to feel anything akin to enjoyment while you're gunning down the indoctrinated masses. Heavy weapons have been removed from your inventory and are only now available in specific missions, meaning the best aspect of Mass Effect 2's combat only comes out on a handful of occasions to save players from bullet-riddled boredom. By the last boss-heavy firefight, I can understand why BioWare afforded players a "Story" mode that ditches combat in favour of a focus on the dialogue and choices that have the potential to haunt you for days.

There are also some unrelated (and somewhat minor) technical hitches that hold Mass Effect 3 back from greatness. The visuals may be grand in scale and wonderful to behold when the PlayStation 3 can handle it, but more often than not, the frame rate drops into slide show territory. The game also freezes frequently to load content (this issue is particularly apparent while traversing the Citadel). In terms of mission design, it's frustrating that the game has you heading back to the Citadel after just about every mission. Not only does this counter the apparent urgency of the galactic invasion, but each level of the station takes an eternity to load. Also, planet scanning is back and it's as monotonous as ever. These issues didn't impact too significantly on my experience, but they are noticeable in this release.

Mass Effect 3's multiplayer is a poor man's Horde from Gears of War 2 (it's nowhere near deep enough to get a mention against that featured in Gears of War 3). Wave-based survival is becoming increasingly popular, and the inclusion of the odd King of the Hill objective fails to differentiate BioWare's effort from the... well, erm, hordes of competitors. It is unbelievably popular: I haven't had any trouble finding a match and lag is limited only to a hiccup between waves. The different classes and races aren't being properly utilized though, so be prepared to see Concussive Shots ad nausea as most opt for the Human Soldier class. It's not unplayable, but it's nowhere near as enjoyable or fleshed-out as anything similar that's currently on offer.

 Such diversity is rare in practice

Forgettable endings, combat and multiplayer aside: Mass Effect 3 is the final chapter of an enjoyable and at times bloated story of unity, sacrifice and perseverance against odds of galactic proportions. It's a treat for returning players, and BioWare have shown a real ability to pull at the heartstrings when the grim nature of the three game saga is revealed. Not one character emerges from this tale unscathed, and it proves to be an essential experience for anyone who's invested a great amount of time on the Normandy. My only regret is that my first Xbox 360 (and therefore, my save from the first game) didn't survive the journey, so my PS3-branded Mass Effect 2 save complete with the comic recap of the first game is the best way that I could have hoped to experience the end. Avoid like the plague if you've never played a Mass Effect game before, and bring a box of tissues if you've been there since Eden Prime.

Monday, March 19

Hello Xbox, it's me, Tim

Before I rant it should be noted today marks the second birthday of Unbearable Dutch! Thanks for reading! Don't forget if there's something you want us to cover just hit us up on the Facebook page. And now, here's something we hope you'll really like...

I had two fevers last weekend; the first kept me from writing and the other was all about UFC. Not only am I back into kick boxing on a regular basis, the new season of The Ultimate Fighter started and the UFC Undisputed 3 demo finally made it onto my console.

It's been a while since I've used the Xbox for its intended purpose and this demo was a great way to jump back into gaming.

From the opening video there are many changes from UFC 2010 including takedown and grappling options, control techniques and, of course, expected cosmetic changes. You can even play in the lax rule set that is Pride.

As usual the demo only shows a minor fraction of what to expect. The only fighters available for a UFC bout are current Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones and UFC legend and Middle Weight Champion Anderson Silva who also feature on the cover.

Visually the game is not bad and is very much like watching a live fight. From the Zuffa intro to the way fighters walk out to the octagon; even announcer Bruce Buffer's movements and gestures are very familiar.

As for gameplay, the controls are as I remember them, with the biggest improvement being the submission attempt indicator.

A new addition to the game, it allows players to see how to win or evade a submission. Essentially you direct a blue or read bar around an octagon icon on screen. You need to cover your opponents bar to submit or evade to escape the attempt. It's a bit of an eyesore and a setback for an audience but very useful for players.

You can move your fighter more too, with feints improving combos and swaying preventing your face from blocking punches when on the ground underneath your opponent.

I managed to finish fights with both fighters via TKO, submission and decision with noticeable differences in stamina, speed and power. At times the fighters felt very similar with spinning punches seemingly all the rage (I thought it was Jon Jones' special move and expected something different from Silva).

I miss the stamina bar from the first UFC game as it made it so much easier to manage my fighter. UFC games aren't button mashers like most fight titles. Without that bar I feel like I can mash, so I do (furiously) only to end up with a weak, slow and fatigued character...despite rocking the poop outta Jones after a whirlwind flurry of punches and kicks.

In Pride you can play as Rampage Jackson or Wanderlei Silva. In typical Japanese style it's over the top, insane action with the setting and music giving a very 'arcade' vibe.

Offering a taste of a middleweight fight, the game felt different. The fighting wasn't familiar like the UFC bout. Additionally, no matter what I did I always managed to eat a meaty punch, get my head stomped, recover then get dropped.

I quite enjoyed this demo and am keen to pick up the full version and explore the raft of extras, fighters, locations training and challenges. UFC Undisputed 3 will hopefully be the game fans wanted and were expecting 18 months ago...here's hoping.

Thursday, March 15

The Mass Effect 3 ending is terrible, but BioWare shouldn't change it (SPOILERS ABOUND)

Even if you have no interest in the Mass Effect series or have so far opted not to engage with the third instalment, you should have heard rumblings about the final chapter's ending. Some like it, some don't and have chosen to defend BioWare's artistic integrity anyway. There's also some that hate it so much that they've actively petitioned for the conclusion to be changed.

Don't get me wrong, I was powerfully underwhelmed by the final minutes of Mass Effect 3, but the final sequence should not be changed. It's not because anyone has made a compelling argument in its or BioWare's defence, mind you. Contrary to what the Penny Arcade team have argued, the entirety of Mass Effect 3 is not the ending. Ask someone how the original Star Wars trilogy ends and they will not say that Return of the Jedi is the conclusion. It is the final chapter, yes, but it is characterised by some fairly definitive events that occur in the final act of the film:
  • The Rebel Alliance destroys the Death Star
  • Luke Skywalker defeats Darth Vader and the Emperor
  • The Rebel Alliance defeats the Galactic Empire
 Star Wars: The true ending

If someone asked you how did the trilogy end, you wouldn't say "Boba Fett gets eaten by the Sarlacc." You'd more than likely refer to one of the outcomes above to characterise the conclusion to the original series of films. Not that Boba Fett's demise isn't memorable, but it in no way represents the end. To even further discredit this argument, the scale of Mass Effect 3 is far greater than that of the original Star Wars trilogy or any film saga, for that matter. There are equal amounts of momentous and innocuous events that comprise the third instalment, however, you're only going to refer to the following events when discussing the game's ending(s):

Shepard successfully connects the Crucible to the Catalyst and kills the Illusive Man. He then ascends to the peak of the Citadel (Catalyst) and speaks to the Reapers (which present themselves as the child that has dogged his nightmares intermittently throughout the game) and...
  • The Reapers are destroyed along with the Mass Relays and the crew of the Normandy somehow end up escaping to a tropical planet
  • The Reapers withdraw from Earth, the Mass Relays are destroyed and the crew of the Normandy somehow end up escaping to a tropical planet
  • Synthetic and organic lifeforms achieve synthesis, the Reapers withdraw from Earth, the Mass Relays are destroyed and the genetically-altered crew of the Normandy somehow end up escaping to a tropical planet
  • Everything gets fucking toasted and the Normandy somehow ends up on a tropical planet
You wouldn't say Mass Effect 3 or the trilogy at large ended with Mordin's death. You wouldn't say it ends with player customised Shepard making love to their chosen mate. That is of course unless you stopped at one of these points. You could, I concede, argue that Mass Effect 3 ends however and whenever you choose; but that is an argument for another time.

 So we escaped the attack on Earth. Should we leave it here?

People haven't raised over thirty-three thousand dollars and trolled hundreds of editorials and forum posts because they put down the controller a third of the way through. No, they're angry because their choices throughout up to three separate instalments has little to no impact on the ending of Mass Effect 3. To counter Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report, your choices throughout the series -- and even in the third instalment specifically -- characterise your experience but they mean nothing in terms of the ending. Whether you survived the suicide mission with a skeleton crew or every available member in Mass Effect 2 has no bearing on the ending of Mass Effect 3. Completing every single quest in the final instalment with a full Paragon bar has the potential to present an ending that is only slightly different and equally as vague as the one where a player hasn't been half as merciful or invested the extra effort required to be as ready for the final conflict as quantifiably possible.

When I review Mass Effect 3 in the coming days, I'll share my story, where my choices made for many heartfelt moments with characters that I've come to love over the course of five years. It's a great game, with a story that is well worth experiencing if you've had any time with the series. Its ending, however, is terrible and there's no escaping it.

My main problem with it is that it is not consistent with the concept of choice in the Mass Effect series to date. Your decisions -- whether made in solitude or with crew in tow -- have obvious implications with little room for ambiguity. For example: you can choose to cure the Krogan Genophage and see a dying race reinvigorated. The outcomes of this merciful action are clear: the Krogans and Turians will assist you while the Salarians refuse to render assistance in your war against the Reapers. Alternatively, you can deceive the Krogan and enlist the help of all three races; but not without the guilt that comes with relegating friends and a species to eventual extinction. It is made clear to the player what these choices will mean for your quest. There's no grey area there, no hope that the aggressive, though loyal Krogans will survive without Shepard's and Mordin's sacrifice.

Even those interactions where the result isn't immediately obvious, have noticeable impact further down the line. Take sleeping with Jack in the earlier stages of Mass Effect 2 and the weight this choice had on Patrick Klepek's (of Giant Bomb) experience as an example. The player made a choice, and they eventually and very obviously paid for it.

The choice to control, destroy or synthesize has no obvious implications other than the fate of the Reapers. Even the worst possible ending cuts away from the Normandy's airlock before the player can determine whether the crew was DOA. In terms of BioWare's construction of choice in Mass Effect 3 and in the Mass Effect series at large, the conclusion of the final instalment is a failure.

The most articulate argument for the preservation of Mass Effect 3's current ending comes from Gamespot AU's Laura Parker, but I only agree with it in principle. In reality, I don't want to play through the game again so soon, not even the final missions. I want to believe that my conclusion, while vague and underwhelming, is definitive and can't be undone by the central character regaining consciousness thanks to the moaning of a million trolls.

Mass Effect 3's ending is terrible, but no one -- not disenchanted fans, nor BioWare -- has the right to change it. It's out in the wild and should be left to roam, confuse and annoy.

Monday, March 12

Commander Shepard graduates from the Zapp Brannigan School of Romance

I haven't got much to report tonight for three reasons:
  • My fear of spoiling Mass Effect 3 for anyone (FYI - Minor spoilers below)
  • My peripheral addiction to Motorstorm RC
  • The sheer litany of different mechanics in Street Figther X Tekken
One thing I will say about Commander Shepard's final adventure, however, is that I'm finding it very hard to say no to the female crew members. This lack of restraint is causing great distress to the point where I was relieved that one female character is pursuing another member of the Normandy's crew. That's one lady to remove from my black book. All of this outward sexual tension kind of has me feeling like Shepard's been replaced by the infinitely more awkward, but just as confident space-faring captain and ladies' man, Zapp Brannigan of Futurama fame.

The problem stems from always trying to be the good guy, the Paragon. My moral compass is almost exclusively pointed to the North-East, and that just happens to be where most of the flirty or downright commitment-oriented conversation responses are found. Does effectively killing off a romance option make me a Renegade? I wouldn't have thought so, but that "It's not you, it's me" button is always at the bottom of the wheel. Good guys try not to break hearts, but they sure as shit shouldn't play with them.

 BroShep be thinkin' bout bitches

It's hard too, because I liked both of my chosen mates from the previous instalments. Liara: not only because she was gentle and accepting, she also represented all of those exciting frontiers that have historically been associated with space travel.
We have failed to uphold Brannigan's Law, however, I did make it with a hot alien babe. And in the end, is that not what man has dreamt of since first he looked up at the stars?
Captain Zapp Brannigan
Miranda: not only for her admirable dedication to her sister, but also for her... erm, well... how should I put this, her perfectly-rendered posterior (the Australian accent probably helped too). I know that may sound shallow, but love in Mass Effect isn't really that complicated. Shower your desired partner in compliments, complete the odd task for them and then, when the time calls for it, your characters' models slam together with the grace of a couple of rusty trash cans. You don't consider bigger picture items like children, house, career and car becuase there's no guarantee that you'll live to make/buy them together once the mission is completed.
Perhaps, before we head into battle you'd like to make love to me, in case one of us doesn't come back.
Captain Zapp Brannigan
Now I find Shepard falling for another, returning cast member because she has quite literally let her hair down (and she doesn't seem so outwardly xenophobic this time around). For those counting, that's three love interests now, and the crew isn't even fully assembled.
We need rest. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is spongy and bruised. 
Captain Zapp Brannigan
Even with the galaxy balanced on a knife's edge, Shepard seems to be able to find the time for ladies AND lasers. Even a hardcore monogamist like myself has to admire his ability to prioritise and service all corners of the galaxy. I just wish it was a little more difficult to be a pig. Enough about me though, let's raise our glass to the latest graduate of the Zapp Brannigan School of Romance: Commander Shepard.

Sweet candy... bam.

Friday, March 9

EBGames and the two that got away

When I'm anxious about something, I buy videogames. When I'm feeling blue, I buy videogames. When everything's going my way and I couldn't be happier, I buy clothes, music and videogames.

For almost an entire year, pretty much any videogame that I purchased was from an offshore vendor; and if it wasn't from overseas, then it was almost always online. I did some trade-in deals here and there, but rarely did money ever end up with an Australian bricks-and-mortar retail store. The last time I remember actually buying a game at retail was in April 2011. Just weeks after release, Motorstorm: Apocalypse and WWE All-Stars were slashed to half price at an EBGames sale. It was the first time since discovering ozgameshop that new release games were cheaper in store, how could I resist?


March 8, 2012 was the day where my will would break. I wanted Street Fighter X Tekken on day one (and Mass Effect 3, if you really must know). I couldn't handle the seven to (what was usually) fourteen day wait for a highly-anticipated new release to arrive in my mailbox. We are talking about the return of Rolento and the meeting of peanut butter dreams and chocolate reality. My favourite World Warriors against participants from the King of Iron Fist Tournament: this really is the stuff of fantasy for me. There's no chance that I was going to wait.

So I prepared for this retail encounter the way I always would: I kept a keen eye on my mailbox for catalogues from my local retailers, and then sifted through pages of ads for low-quality clothes and cut-price DVDs until I found the gaming sections in each publication. K-Mart and JB Hi-Fi were in a dead heat, offering both games for seventy-eight dollars each. Not a bargain, but nor was it that much more expensive than the more sluggish alternative. Because of their advertised ability to match competitors' prices and a seven day return policy (that I used to abuse fairly regularly), I decided to mark my return to the retail sphere by shopping at EBGames.

The transaction started off well enough, both games were in stock on both home console platforms; there were even Collector's Editions available if I was so inclined (I wasn't in the mood to pay an extra fifty dollars for each title in case you were curious). There was a young man dressed in Ryu's likeness and another in corporate colours screaming "Street Fighter X Tekken.... yeah!" The latter staff member apologised for his enthusiasm and then proceeded to serve me. I asked for both games and handed over the K-Mart catalogue which had the lower price advertised. I was informed that the K-Mart in the Australia Fair Shopping Centre had run out of stock of Mass Effect 3, and that he could not match the price. The best offer he could make was the lower price plus ten dollars.

Now I'm a fairly lazy young man, but when the K-Mart store in question is not even one hundred metres away, you'd best believe I'll check.... and check I did. Sure enough, both games were in stock. So rather than wander back and give EBGames my money in spite of their attempted deception, I bought the games at K-Mart. It's not like I'll be unhappy with either of these high profile releases anyway.

 Is there any chance that THIS will leave me unsatisfied!?!

I did confront the staff at EBGames, however, and they were unrepentant. No apology and no willingness to pass on the details of their manager. Still, I got their store number and hit up the retail chain's Twitter account with the details. I have not yet received a response.

So what have I learned? Firstly, if I want a game badly enough to be happy to pay the extra money at retail, odds are I won't be taking it back; so next time, I'll just buy it at the retailer that sells it for the least amount of money. Secondly, there's a reason that I've been (for the most part) happy to buy games online: the service is better, the range is superior, and the prices will be lower roughly ninety-five percent of the time.

How do you buy your games? Have you had any bad experiences at retail? Have you had any bad experiences with grey importing?

Wednesday, March 7

Ambition is the enemy of success

I recently had an interview for a job that would bring a world of change to my life. The work would be more challenging, more engaging and I'd be earning more money.

Sounds like a huge win right?

It would be, at least in terms of my career as an administrator. I'd have access to staff in executive positions, I'd be shaping the direction of the organisation that I work for; planning for the challenges and changes impacting on the industry. But I don't think I can take this position if my application ends up being successful.

There's a few reasons as to why. The primary issue (and I can't add enough emphasis to this) being that the extra time spent commuting to this new job would mean that I would have less time to spend with my wife. Three to four hours that I would usually spend talking with my wife, walking on the beach, sipping coffee (and other delicious beverages) would instead be wasted in buses and trains with people of all shapes and sizes for which I share no comparable level of affection. Secondly, I'd miss out on time with my canine chums. I want to be able to walk them in the afternoons and have the energy to play with these adorable bastards at night. Finally, there's my home consoles; I can't part with them, especially not with Street Fighter X Tekken and Mass Effect 3 dropping this week.

What would you choose? Love or money?

Monday, March 5

Uncharted: Golden Abyss Review (PSV): The eventual return of Dread Pirate Drake!

With every instalment on the PlayStation 3, the Uncharted series has gradually become a more focussed experience. Players are led through a series of platforming sections and corridors with almost no ability to deviate from the game's meticulous sense of direction. Where with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune it felt as though I had an adventure game burdened with brutally-difficult gunplay, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception  had become so concerned with shooting that the adventure elements came across as somewhat superfluous. Uncharted: Golden Abyss sits just above Drake's Fortune in terms of the Adventure-to-Action ratio, and I found myself enjoying it more than the third instalment as a result.

The date that started well
This portable Uncharted iteration feels a lot more casual than its console brethren. By that I mean the tone is more relaxed, as it always feels as though there is less at stake. Only one recurring character makes an appearance and this really adds to the sensation that Golden Abyss is supposed to be taken as a stand-alone narrative. Much like the Indianna Jones and James Bond films, there's very little continuity to worry about and for a character like Nathan Drake -- who I would argue shares a lot of qualities with the afformentioned film heroes -- this approach to the story works reasonably well. The developer has commented that this instalment isn't necessarily a prequel, and you really could slot this tale into any part of Drake's saga prior to Drake's Deception (not that this couldn't have happened afterward mind you, it's just that I envisage most would like to have seen a "Happily Ever After" following the events of the third game).

The supporting cast is relatively small and is a mix of the charming and forgettable. The chemistry between Drake and love interest, Marisa Chase is thoroughly endearing, and she can confidently stand with Chloe and Elena as another strong, female protagonist. The villains in this instalment aren't particularly memorable, but they get the job done. I would have liked a more detailed insight into the history shared by Dante, Drake and Sully, but the theives' apprenticeships are, for now, a missed opportunity. General Guerro is a ruthless and somewhat cliched South American dictatorial figure that's a combination of Hugo Chavez, Castro and your typical 80s action villain rolled into one portly package.

Drake himself is made more likeable thanks to the noticeable shift in pace for the first half of the adventure. You'll still kill your fair share of mercenaries, but as per my last post, there's much more exploration and adventuring to be found in this instalment. Dusting off artefacts and re-assembling destroyed documents create a welcome change of tone that casts Drake as a history enthusiast moreso than a treasure-hungry murderer. He comes off as somewhat more believeable too, trying to discourage his companions from wandering into deeper trouble. For the first part of the game, Nathan Drake transforms from gun nut to history buff and amateur archaeologist, making for a character and experience that differs sufficiently from the series' home console brethren.

From the opening scene, Uncharted: Golden Abyss will blow you away with its scale and beauty. It may not be on par with Naughty Dog's technical prowess, but the game doesn't fail to impress. There's no portable game I can think of that compares in terms of visuals, and the soundtrack is up to the series' high standard. Perhaps the only blight in terms of presentation is the lacklustre fire effects. Traversing structures set ablaze with blocky red textures is perhaps the only wart on this visual and aural powerhouse.

Like a breath of fresh air
I've complained before that the platforming in the Uncharted series has become more and more unnecessary as the series has aged. The touch controls for platforming seem to alleviate this concern, as you can power through these segments faster than ever before. Having to swipe up to regather your grip after false handholds predictably give way also served to reignite my interest in this aspect of the game.

Touch controls have also been integrated into melee fighting as well as being used instead of button presses for quick-time events. It's in these particular instances that the additional control methods form a bit of a Frankenstein's monster. Having to switch beween buttons and swipes in the heat of battle rarely works in the player's favour. There's also a few of the adventuring segments which aren't particular practical when gaming on the go (for examples, please check my previous post). The implementation of a litany of control methods was at times ill-considered to say the least.   

I must have said something
At just about the halfway point, Golden Abyss shrugs off this mostly-peaceful premise and becomes a full-blown shooter like its predecessors. Increasingly frustrating firefights are punctuated by rote platforming sections which I've seen and played to death. The arsenal is sufficiently varied, but proves to be just as tired as the combat scenarios that define the second half of the game.

The shooting controls are responsive, but the mechanics of combat can be wacky depending on the situation. For example: there are quite a few times you'll be tasked with shooting small groups of enemies while hanging from a rope. If you happen to run out of bullets for your sidearms during these situations, an extra clip will find its way into your gun. The damage model is also a little inconsistent. I could often survive a direct hit from a rocket, but one shot from a sniper rifle meant certain death. Even the touch controls respond reasonably well when weapons are drawn, it's just unfortunate that the physics governing combat don't deliver logical outcomes.

The swipe heavy quick-time events -- that simulate actions like boosting and cutting, as well as pugilistic boss fights towards the end -- are repeated ad nauseam in the final chapters. Bend Studio will have you swiping up to break walls even at the sake of momentum and most certainly at the expense of fun. The touch screen is for the most part responsive, but failure in  some of these sections towards the end of the game often resulted in me having to replay lengthy segments of gameplay. What could have been a fun diversion often led to frustration.

Maybe we should try this again?
While the final chapters feel tired and the progress in terms of characterisation ends up lost in a sea of blood, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is well worth your time. It's a strong showcase of the Vita's potential, and the first half of the game is just as, if not more enjoyable than its home console counterparts. For all of the issues with control and mechanics that I encountered towards the end of the game, I feel like Golden Abyss has the potential to take the series in a promising new direction that focusses more on adventure than cold-blooded killing.

Friday, March 2

Mile High Gamer

This week, work took me to Sydney for a day and I don't know how any of you fare on aircraft but I get bored and fidgety really quickly.

The flight there was ok because I was wrecked from a gig I went to the night before. Until my ridiculously sized energy drink kicked in, my only brain function was to concentrate hard enough so that I didn't drool in my state of semi-conciousness.

The way home was a different matter. Bored after six minutes of sitting quietly and not touching anything, I turned to the inflight mag. I'm not sure if I found a spelling mistake or a really shit ad (I'm still not sure but I'm still irritated by it) but it made me realise how much I dislike reading. The only real option (other than inflate my life vest and blow the whistle) was to turn to technology.

I have never been more stoked to have an iPhone with games because the list available on Virgin flights is far from inspiring. Rally Challenge? Sudoku? Sign me up...

The first thing I did was finish Batman Arkham City: Lockdown. The final battle has just been sitting there taunting me for weeks. So anyway, I play it, win it and what happens? The same thing that happens all the way through - villain goes to jail. But wait! That's not all; you also get to play it again.

It seems Arkham City is great at delivering shit endings. At least the developers are consistent over all games.

Next I finished Super Street Fighter IV. It was the first time I really played it as I only dabbled in it previously. It was all over in just under eight minutes thanks to a bevy of Tiger uppercuts, Tiger knees and no continues.

Best of all I did this without swearing like a sailor, as I would at home. It's not that I care about what strangers think of me or that I'd offend someone (like the old lady beside me) but my boss and General Manager were within three seats of me and something tells me that calling The Joker a dirty little motherfucker is not a career enhancing move.

Have you ever played the inflight games or do you stick to what you know?