Archive for November, 2013

Giant Enemy Crabs

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My first few years engaging with Sony’s newest black box on the market were much like that of Sylvester Stallone’s early Hollywood career. Rocky. At this point in my life (around about 2006) I had recently purchased an Xbox 360. And I frickin loved it. After getting so excited for the PS3 and then witnessing that infamous E3 reveal I had cast aside any aspirations of ever purchasing one. They looked bulky, the price was straight up dumb, no rumble feedback and the motion control looked abysmal (especially on games such as Lair). No my friends the Xbox was all I needed. With amazing games such as Mass Effect and The Orange box, which actually worked on the 360 compared to its outsourced PS3 counterpart, why would I ever need to even consider Sony’s device?

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My first actual hand on with the PS3 was also a lame experience. I was living in a shared house at the time and my friend Simon (Guitar Hero from part 1) had bought one close to launch and wanted to bring it over to show me. He did. I hated it. The one thing that did impress me from the off was how quite it was compared to the 360. You could barely hear it. But everything else was so weak. After Simon excitedly thrust the controller in my hand I gawped. It was as light as a feather. But not in a ‘isn’t technology great, this thing weighs nothing’ kind of way, more in a ‘holy crap I’m going to break this fragile piece of plastic if I so much as look at it’ kind of way. This coupled with the fact that the L2 and R2 triggers felt flimsy as all hell also didn’t help matters. And then came along Resistance Fall of Man. Impressed I was not. This was next gen?!?! Timesplitters on the last cycle looked better than this muddy grey piece of garbage! I couldn’t actually believe that people were buying this. The Xbox had Halo and Gears of War on it for crying out loud and they looked stunning. I then gave Simon the controller back and vowed to myself to never fall for the allure of a Playstation 3.

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However a year or so down the line after a colleague of mine at Starbucks looked at my payslip and told me I had been on emergency tax for the last year I got a tasty rebate. A tasty rebate in the shape of a thousand pounds!!! So what was the first thing I did? Well the first thing was a trip to Forbidden Planet in London to buy all 26 volumes of the Dragonball and Dragonball Z manga. And then, a few days later, spend the remaining money on a brand new Playstation 3 with some new games. The system had been out for a while now so there were a few games that I had heard were good and what with Metal Gear Solid 4 looking stunning and around the corner I knew that it was an inevitable purchase anyway. So I took my system home, plugged it in and played my two new games. Ratchet and Clank Future and Uncharted Drakes Fortune. And again if I’m honest, I felt a little underwhelmed. Ratchet just felt like an up scaled version of a game that could have easily been done on the PS2 and, apart from the amazing character dialogue, Uncharted didn’t feel like it was doing much the Prince of Persia trilogy hadn’t done before. And so I went back to my 360. The months rolled by and then Metal Gear Solid 4 arrived. I pretty much ran to my local Woolworths to grab a copy and then sprinted back home. So many reviewers had been giving this game ten out of tens! This was it! The justification for spending all that money on this hunk of circuit boards! This was going to be the game of the generation! And was it? No. it was ok. Again not terrible, but a very pale counterpart to previous iterations. And so MGS4 was completed and the console turned off again. This time for about a year.

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Gallia to arms!

That is until a game started getting a lot of hype in the magazines and websites I was reading called Valkyria Chronicles. Coming straight out of Japan this was a stunning and gorgeously cell shaded tactical RPG. And this DID look like the game I was waiting for. And so I waited and waited. I downloaded the demo as soon as it hit the Playstation network and my eyes were blown away. This was on a level with Okami in terms of sheer beauty. This looked like a watercolour painting bought to life! And the gameplay! Oh it was perfect, new and innovative.

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So I patiently awaited release day and when it finally got here I walked to Woolworths only to be told they didn’t have any in stock. I wasn’t too surprised as this was quite a niche game. Anyhoo I rang the nearest Gamestation (I say nearest, it was a whole town away and involved an hour and a half round trip on a bus) and asked if they had any. They had one copy which they agreed to put to one side if I picked it up that day. So on the bus I got, and forty five minutes later I was paying for my copy of the game. I was brimming with excitement and anticipation. Forty five minutes after that I was walking in through the front door of my house, hurriedly trying to get the game out of the damn cellophane. A further five minutes later, after brewing a cup of coffee, I was putting the game into the PS3. Three minutes later and the game was installing its data! I was so hyped! So ready to finally get some use out of this system I had paid so much for, to finally be playing a game that I actually wanted to play! One minute later and my PS3 had broken.

Don’t go into the light

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I felt like I had been thumped. How could this have happened?! Xbox’s broke, PS3’s were at least meant to be reliable. I had barely used the thing! I had different lights flashing at me and the heat pouring off the console felt like a Balrog was breathing in my face. I was instantly pouring over websites to try and find out what had happened. Some said that the disc drive was broken, and that seemed possible. It was playing DVD’s but it wouldn’t even register if I put a game in. Other sites claimed that it had probably overheated. I panicked. I put the PS3 straight into the freezer. Anything to try and get this problem rectified. Eventually, after about an hour of trying to fix it like a lunatic, I rung Gamestation. I knew that the manager had a PS3 and he would probably know what I should do. I was on talking terms with Milo, as I did frequent Gamestation quite often, and he used to come into Starbucks on a regular basis. I explained the situation and he asked if I still had the box and receipt for the console. I said that I did and he said that if I bought them back, even though I was well over the return date for faulty items, he would swap them for a new console. What a gent. And so I got the box and packed the PS3 up. Now if only I could find that receipt. Surprise surprise, I couldn’t find the damn thing. I spent an hour tearing my room apart looking for it and of it there was no sign. Great. Yet another obstacle and this time I looked royally screwed. I rung Milo back and explained the situation, fully expecting him to say that there was nothing he could do, but maybe he could help me with trying to fix it. And that is when, in my eyes at least, Milo went Super Saiyan. He told me not to worry about it. Just bring it back in the box and he’ll do the swap anyway. I could have cried. So I rung Simon and explained what had happed and he agreed to drive me to Gamestation to swap it (he was good like that) and not only did Milo swap it over for a new console but the new console had about 60gb more storage on it than the last one, AND it came with one of the new Dualshock controllers that actually vibrated and had a bit of weight to it! I was so chuffed. So eventually I went home set up the new system and played through Valkyria Chronicles with no hiccups. And it was, and still is, one of the best games I’ve played this generation, and it was only on Sony’s platform. Finally my relationship with this machine was starting to look up.

The trouble with Simon

And so my time over the next few years was spread pretty much evenly. I still favoured the Xbox, but the amount of quality titles on Sony’s platform was slowly improving with games like Infamous, Ratchet, God of War and Demon Souls steadily being released, things were looking up. However my personal life was taking a bit of a nosedive. Guitar Hero Simon was meant to move into our shared house with us. But we hadn’t heard from him or hung out with him in months. We were constantly trying to get a hold of him to find out what was going on and as various moving in dates came and went it became clear that the move wasn’t going to happen. Unbeknownst to me Simon was going through his own troubles at home that we didn’t know about. So being the slightly hot headed individual I can be I took this as a personal sleight, and pretty much cut Simon out of my life. Phone number? Deleted. Facebook? Unfriended. Playstation friends list? Blocked. I didn’t take any pleasure in this. Simon was one of my oldest and closest friends. The Yin to my Yang. To make matters worse a few months later the restaurant I worked in burnt down. I was out of a job, as were my other two housemates Chris and Matt who had both worked at Woolworths. After not being able to find work my only option was to move in with my dad. The only trouble with that was my dad lived in Bristol on the other side of the country. It would mean a completely new start. I wouldn’t know the area or know anyone. However with things the way they were at home it felt like it was what I needed. And so I gave myself a few months to tie up loose ends in Kent and hang out and play games with my housemates. At least the games couldn’t piss me off right?

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Wrong. The PS3 was still up to its old tricks. Soon after the release of the incredibly original Little Big Planet I had decided to set up shop in the living room with Mat and spend well over twelve hours of the day creating my own level. And if I say so myself the amount of blood sweat and tears I put into it in that space of time could have filled an Olympic swimming pool. I was just adding the final touches in the evening when Chris (who had procured a job at Waterstones) came through the door. Like an excited puppy greeting his master after being left alone all day I jumped at him wanting him to be the first person to play it in its entirety. As he started playing I watched him avidly to see if he was enjoying it. He was! Shit! Maybe my calling was to become a games designer?

‘Oh’ Chris then said. ‘Is this meant to be happening?’

I quickly looked at the TV. The whole thing had literally fallen apart. The level that I had made with my dreams and soul had broken like a cheap Ikea wardrobe. Then after spending about half an hour frantically trying to fix the level to no avail, I walked over to the PS3 in a dazed state, confused and angry, I hit the off button. This wasn’t just the games fault. As a Sony exclusive this was also, in my tired brains view on things, Sony’s fault and therefore the PS3’s also. I didn’t turn it on until a year or so later when I was living in Bristol and I heard from Simon. And that was when the golden age of Playstation 3 started…

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To be concluded in #PlaystationMemories Part 3

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In The Beginning was The Word. And the word was Playstation.

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Where to begin? My dad bought our first Playstation from our cousins circa 1998. We were a little late to the party and our system came with such classics as Tomb Raider and Gran Turismo. As our first 3d console these were very exciting times for me and my younger brother. And although Tomb Raider was impressive and fun we felt like we were missing a little something after sampling the delights of Mario 64 and Goldeneye on our friends consoles. However, for myself anyway, I would never look with green eyes at another system after I bought a second hand copy of Final Fantasy VII from our local Electronics Boutique.

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This was where gaming became a legitimate obsession for me. As we were both at school my brother Dom and I were only ever allowed an hour or so play on the PS1 in the evening after all homework was done. For anyone who has ever played a JRPG will know that this is nowhere near enough time to properly sink your teeth into some of these massive games. And so started a tradition that would literally last years. For pretty much the entirety of my life at secondary school, every evening I would go to bed at about 10pm and set my alarm (which I had hidden down the side of my bed along with all my adult VHS tapes and a burst Stretch Armtrong) for 1am in the morning. I would then quietly wake up and get dressed. Sneak along the landing and down the stairs. Still to this day I remember the floorboards to avoid as the creaking would risk waking the parents up. Quietly unlock the door leading to my dad’s study. Again being careful not to let the keys rattle. Open the top drawer of his filing cabinet which was where the PS1 was kept under lock and key. Then as quiet as a mouse I would set it up in the living room and game until about 5am, put everything away, sneak back upstairs, sleep for an hour then get up and go to school. Like I said I kept this up for years and many times my brother, Dom, would join me as he just loved to watch the stories unfold. We saw many great epics through together, Final Fantasies VII through IX, Alundra, Grandia and many others. And this is probably the series of memories I hold closest to my heart whenever I think about Playstation.

Playstation 2. The not so difficult second album.

Playstation

Years later I scrimped and saved and finally managed to get enough dollar together to buy a Playstation 2. And this time it was personal. This would be the first console that I had bought off my own back. A very ceremonial occasion in any young person’s life. I remember that it must have been around about the time of my fifteenth birthday my dad was taking me and my friend Ben up to London for the day and I had all the intention in the world of bringing back a PS2. After going from shop to shop and checking out bundles we finally came across one in a Virgin Megastore which was perfect. A brand spanking new PS2 with a copy of Zone of the Enders. Now not only did ZOE look amazing in all the trailers I’d seen but it also came with something I was even more excited about than the game itself. A goddamn playable demo of Metal Gear Solid 2!!!! And not only did I get this but my friend Ben, for my birthday, had bought me a copy of Final Fantasy VI which came with a goddamn playable demo of Final Fantasy X!!! needless to say I was in nerd heaven. And then later that night Ben and I stayed up till the very early hours of the morning, pilfering his parents alcohol as we often did, playing those demos again and again and again.

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Now the Playstation 2 era was very important to me for another reason. This was around about the time that I started to get interested in the industry. I started to buy magazines to read up on news, previews and reviews. I was interested about who these people were that made these games I loved so much. One of the magazines which I read cover to cover again and again religiously was British based magazine PSM2. It was these guys that made me want to write about games. And not only was this a fantastic mag with reviews that I more often than not agreed with (I could have killed someone however after they only gave Grandia 2 something retarded like 18%!!!) but this magazine came with a dvd jam packed full of trailers and video reviews. Now if you’re a younger reader you’re probably thinking ‘big deal, so what’ but you’ve got to remember this is before smart phones and before broadband and all this wireless malarkey. We had dial up and if you wanted to watch a trailer for the new Ratchet and Clank game you’d have to settle in for a couple of hours with a warm cup of coco as the son of a bitch buffered! And so I would watch and re watch the trailers and reviews on these dvd’s constantly every morning as I ate my cereal and waited for the school bus. And some of these trailers just used to blow my mind! The stand out ones for me came with my very first issue which were the absolutely ground breaking and cinematic epic Metal Gear Solid 2 trailer from TGS  2001, and the effortlessly cool trailer for SSX Tricky set to Run DMC’s signature tune.

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Talking about the Metal Gear franchise, another standout moment for me during that generation’s cycle was waiting for the Metal Gear Solid 3 demo. That’s right. The demo. Not the game. That was still months and months away. I remember that it was meant to come on the demo disc with the Official Playstation Magazine. I think that two months in a row I pretty much ran to our nearest newsagents to find it, and both those times it turned out that the demo had been delayed. I was devastated. That is until when the third month rolled around I popped into the shop and low and behold there it was! The MGS3 demo bundled with a copy of the mag! I snatched a copy straight away and paid for it there and then. There was however one small problem. I was on my way to work. I couldn’t possibly be at work at Starbucks AND play the MGS3 demo could I? Of course not. So I came up with a cunning plan. I walked to work, bear in mind the weather was terrible, snow and ice everywhere, and then just as I approached the coffee shop door put on an incredibly convincing limp.

‘Oh my god what’s happened?’ my manager cried as I stumbled through the door.

‘I slipped and fell down the steps at the train station’ I replied. ‘Can I sit down? Everything hurts. Can I see how I feel in half an hour and if I’m still in pain can I go home?’

‘Of course you can’ my manager dotingly said ‘just have some water and take it easy’.

And so half an hour slowly ticked by. Eventually I got to go home and by the end of the day I could do the entirety of the MGS3 demo blindfolded on European Extreme difficulty.

And this wouldn’t be the last time I pulled a sickie for a game that generation. I vividly remember feigning a migraine at work at Pizza Express so I could go home and play Jak X Combat Racer. I think that was possibly the last time that I actually took time off to play a game. Do I regret any of it? Hell no! Would I do it again? Well I guess if naughty Dog ever pulls their finger out to make a Jak & Daxter 4 who knows?

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So suffice to say the PS2 had me hook line and sinker. There are just so many emotions and memories tied to this console that I could probably go on to write an essay. And you can hardly blame me. This console still has one of the strongest line ups of software to this day. There are too many games to list. Standout ones would of course be Grand Theft Auto, Grandia 2, Final Fantasy X, The Ratchet and Clank Series, Ico and Shadows of the Colossus, Okami, Timesplitters, Kingdom Hearts, Devil may Cry, Rouge Galaxy, Dark Cloud/Chronicle, Dragon Quest VIII. The list just goes on and on and on. As I mentioned Jak X Combat Racer before you’ve probably guessed that I’m a huge fan of the series. You would be correct. And it was searching for online reviews of Jak 3 shortly after it came out that led me to the website IGN. Little did I know at the time how important, not only in my hobby but in my personal life, this website would become to me. (But more about that in part 2)

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One last memory, which is fittingly probably my last that the PS2 had, is Guitar Hero. Now I know that this game wasn’t exclusive to the system but I owned it on the PS2. I still remember like it was yesterday picking up Guitar Hero 2 and going home and getting one of my oldest friends Simon over to play. We both have very similar tastes in music Simon and I. We always said we were born in the wrong decade as the eighties would have suited us down to the ground. Guns’n’Roses, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Skid Row. That was our jam! And so it became an almost weekly tradition that we would stock up on Marlborough Reds, Jack Daniels and get pissed and rock until the sun came up. The standout memory from this music and booze induced haze was the high score chasing that occurred on Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark at the Moon. Often when I was at work I would get a text from Simon saying he’d beaten my high score. Which would mean I would then have to go home after a 13 hour shift to try and get back on top again. I still remember trying to go to sleep those nights and just seeing the different colour buttons running down my closed eyelids. Good times.

It’s like Playstation but on the go!

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Ah the Playstation Portable. Now I don’t have a lot to say about this little beast. It’s not that I didn’t like it. Quite the opposite. I loved this machine. It did however pale in comparison, in my opinion, to the Nintendo DS. That being said there were some absolutely phenomenal games on this system that could have only been done on this handheld. Graphical powerhouses like Final Fantasy Crisis Core and Grand Theft Auto Liberty City and Vice City Stories were milestones in handheld gaming. No to mention other fantastic early hits like Daxter and Ratchet and Clank Size Matters. However the truly great games were very few and very far between. Which was a shame as I think if it had had more support and a more consistent stream of quality titles the PSP would have easily given Nintendo a run for its money. I only really have three stand out memories of the PSP and they’re all a little drab. One is playing Breath of Fire on my sofa whilst in a pretty rough relationship. Another is playing GTA Liberty City Stories at work at Pizza Express and marvelling at the similarities between the mafia’s pizzeria in the game and the one I was currently sitting in. and the last is getting chocked up at the end of Crisis Core when you realise the inevitable fate of Zack.

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So there you have it. These are my Playstation Memories for the early days of Sony’s foraging into the home console and handheld markets. It feels like it ended on a little bit of a muted thunderclap at the end there, and I apologise for that, but little did I know about the storm that was approaching that would rock my world and change my life forever…..

To be continued in part 2   

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Telltale are back baby!

For anyone who played the absolutely phenomenal episodic series of the Walking Dead last year the above statement should already have goose bumps of excitement racing over you. For anyone that didn’t let me fill you in very quickly on why Telltale have become such a big deal.

When the Walking Dead game was revealed a couple of years ago it was greeted with a rather muted response. This wasn’t the game we were looking for. Not only was the game brightly cell shaded and very cartoony looking. But also it was a point and click adventure game. How was a game based on a TV series based on a comic book known for its incredibly tense situations and sometimes harrowing sequences ever going to translate to a point and click? Well how incredibly wrong we were. Not feeling completely unlike like Heavy Rain, the Walking Dead proved to be one of the most emotionally driven, incredibly acted and gripping games of the generation. And it looks like Telltale are back with another belter.

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Based on the Fable series by Bill Willingham, The Wolf Among Us is once more a cell shaded episodic adventure series. However after raising the bar so high themselves last time can Telltale push it even higher when the only competition is really themselves?

The short answer is ‘yes’. Wolf Among Us is, so far, an incredible experience. I say ‘so far’ as only episode 1 is available at the moment. The subsequent 4 episodes will be getting released on a monthly basis. Anyone who has played the aforementioned Walking Dead or Heavy Rain will instantly feel at home. The main protagonist is guided through the story with the right analogue stick whilst the left is used as a curser for highlighting objects and characters in the environment. All interaction is done with the buttons on the right of the controller. Unfortunately having interaction mapped to the directional buttons seems to have been left out this time around which is a little bit of a shame as I felt that that was a more natural way to play the game.

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And what a game it is. As I said before Telltale are masters of characters and setting and The Wolf Among us is no exception. The basis is that years and years ago all the characters we know and love from all our favourite fairy tales and Disney movies all got exiled to an area of New York called Fabletown. You play as Sheriff Bigby Wolf (big bad wolf) whose job it is to protect the Fables from one and other. The attention to detail in the environment is absolutely incredible and is something that a lot of bigger developers could definitely take note of. For example one of the characters you interact with early on in the story is Toad (from Wind in the Willows) Toad lives in the slums of Fabletown with his family, and has an equally dirty mouth. Calling your character a ‘furry pricked gob shite’ behind his back. However it’s not until later in the game when you’re in his apartment you really getting a feel for the character. Anyone familiar with the Wind in the Willows will know that Toad is an avid motorist. And it’s when you see the display of hubcaps from his different cars that he owned in another life that you really get a pang of sympathy for him and a real feel for who Toad is.

Other little touches are the brand of cigarette that Bigby smokes. Huff and Puff. And the fact that his apartment keeps getting gate-crashed by one of the three little pigs. An alcoholic smoker by the name of Colin. Who believes that Bigby owes him after blowing his house down hundreds of years ago. It’s touches like this that make the game truly special.

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I wont go that deeply into the story as I don’t want to spoil anything but if you’re a fan of Film Noir there is a lot to eat up here. It’s quite conventional as noir goes to start with. A dame, a fight and a death. However as expected the extraordinary setting turns the conventions up to 11 and leaves the game on quite a startling cliff hanger. As in The Walking Dead your choices matter and will affect to some degree how the story plays out and presumably will eventually resolve. As you interact with characters you are constantly reminded that your responses will be remembered by them. The big choices in the game are a bit more obvious than The Walking Dead. Twice the game actually grinded to a halt in order to give me time to choose between two pivotal options. But rather than feel intrusive it is nice to take the time to weigh out the bigger choices you have to make. I will say that as you are playing as the law there are quite fitting elements of LA Noire thrown into the mix, except they don’t feel quite as dull and muddled as their counterpart.

The music also deserves a very special mention. You’ve seen Drive right? Well that’s kind of the score you’ve got here. And it fits like a glove. The low dull hum of techno electronic beats compliments the gritty neon slashed streets of downtown New York perfectly. Always unsettling and always waiting for you in the shadows.

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Like I said this is only episode one of a 5 episode series so there is still room for things to improve. Not everything is perfect. Frame rate still chugs in-between loading different scenes and as a result the game crashed twice on my second play through. This is a problem that was evident in Monkey Island, Sam and Max and The Walking Dead, and it’s becoming less forgivable as each new game comes out.

However tiny little gripes aside I can’t do anything but wholeheartedly recommend The Wolf Among Us. It’s a mature, graphic and unique game that pushes all the right boundaries whilst retaining an identity that is entirely its own. A superb game with depth that demands multiple playthroughs for you to see all it’s hiding.