Hunters, Spies, Wolves, Keyblades, And The Future...

It's been a little while, hasn't it?

I haven't had much of a presence on Giant Bomb over the last couple of months. I've been incredibly busy with real-life stuff, most of it work-related. Those of you who've been following me for a while will be aware that I work at a doctors' practice, dispensing prescription drugs to patients, and to that end I've been devoting a significant proportion of my free time since December studying a course specific to the field. I finally reached the end of that course over the Easter weekend, meaning that assuming I've managed to pass all the assignments, I'm about to become a fully-qualified dispenser. It also means that a whole ton of free time has opened back up to me, freeing me up to return to the Giant Bomb blogosphere on what will hopefully be a more frequent basis.

I'm pretty intimately acquainted with the Yian Kut Ku. I killed enough of these to forge a pretty useful armour set that kept me going through most of my time with the game

That's not to say I haven't been playing video games in the down-time. I've just had to adjust my usual gaming habits somewhat to fit it in around all the reading and assignments I've had to do these past five months or so. My go-to game for breaking up my pretty intense study sessions through the 'crunch period' over the last month or so has been Monster Hunter Freedom Unite on my PSP. I've owned the game for about five years and tentatively dipped my toes in its deep waters once or twice, but never properly taken the plunge for fear of never resurfacing. The release of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate and the coverage it got on the site prompted me to finally take a serious stab at playing the game, and once I got past the steep initial learning curve, I found a lot to like in the game. The fact each hunt typically took me between fifteen and thirty minutes, including preparation, made it a perfect game to fit into my study breaks. I decided to finish with the game after beating the Tigrex, since achieving that feels like a logical end-point for the single-player "story" (insofar as the game has one). I've since invested in a copy of MH4U and a New 3DS to play it on, and I'm hoping to get cracking on that some time soon (more on that shortly).

The talking bits of Alpha Protocol were some of my favourites. Shame the gunplay didn't live up to the same standard

When I've managed to sit down in front of a larger screen, usually late in the evenings, I've been working my way through a couple of other games. I beat Alpha Protocol back in late February/early March, and found it to be a pretty polarising experience. I really liked the concept's fusion of spy thriller fiction with some traditional RPG elements, which made for a 'James Bond-meets-Mass Effect' feel that kept me gripped right the way through its surprisingly short campaign. I appreciated the implementation of the moral choice stuff as well, although I wasn't quite as blown away by it as others seem to have been - maybe you need to invest in multiple playthroughs to get a proper feel for just how much that stuff can branch? I went from enjoying the combat in the game's opening stages to really hating it by the end - the shooting was serviceable and the combat skills I went with were both helpful and fun to use, but the late-game stages feature some really bullet-spongy bosses that are no fun to fight. I specced my Agent Thorton heavily into assault rifles and combat durability, but I still had a lot of trouble with combat situations in the game's back end, and found myself longing for some potential diplomatic alternatives to getting shot up over and over again. I'm glad I played it, although I'm not sure I'd want to do so a second time. If nothing else, it's got me interested in revisiting the Mass Effect series in the near future.

The Wolf Among Us' combination of traditional fairytale characters and noiresque narrative had me hooked from the get-go

More recently I played through Telltale's The Wolf Among Us, a Steam gift from Giant Bomb moderator and all round awesome duder @Sparky_Buzzsaw. Man, what a fantastic experience that was. I played through the game over five nights at a rate of an episode a night, and each night I had to force myself not to jump straight into the next episode. It ticks a lot of the same boxes that its spiritual predecessor, The Walking Dead, did for me, throwing a cast of incredibly well-written characters into an interesting scenario and putting the player in the shoes of someone whose moral choices influence future events, but never explicitly dictate them. Although I'd never read any of the Fables comics on which the game is based, I found the characters instantly likeable and relatable, particularly the protagonist Bigby Wolf. It's certainly not heavy on action (I think it features even less actual gameplay than what I can remember of The Walking Dead), but as an interactive narrative it easily ranks on a par with Telltale's previous project. It's got me hoping for a second season, and itching to finally get stuck into The Walking Dead: Season Two.

Seeing Sora, Donald and Goofy reunited in HD has been a lot of fun, but I'm apprehensive about the rest of the series

The fourth and final game that's been keeping me occupied of late is Kingdom Hearts, specifically the Final Mix version of the game included in the HD 1.5 ReMIX collection on PS3. I've long been a fan of the original Kingdom Hearts, but have never really became invested in the franchise as a whole due to its myriad spin-offs, impenetrable overarching plot and constant platform-hopping. The recent release of the two HD ReMIX collections has served to finally make the bulk of the series' labyrinthine storyline available on a single machine, and that prospect has been enough to draw me back in to give the wider Kingdom Hearts universe another chance. This HD remaster of the original game is still as charming as it was back in 2002, and the mechanical improvements such as right stick camera control and implementation of the Reaction Command system make it a much more comfortable game to play by modern standards. I put just over fifty hours into a pretty comprehensive playthrough back in January and February, and thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with it. The next stop on my Kingdom Hearts journey is Re:Chain of Memories, the 3D remake of 2004's Game Boy Advance release Chain of Memories. It's a pretty weird stylistic shift due to its card-based combat system, but I'm having fun with it so far.

So now that I'm back and able to commit to a more regular blogging schedule once again, I've been thinking about ways to breathe new life into this dusty, neglected blog archive. In years gone by I used to have a bit of a reputation for serial blogging, off the back of projects such as last year's Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Challenge (a let's play of the Pokémon Red remake using nicknames, capture limitations and permadeath to create an emergent narrative based on the playthrough), 2013's Metal Gear May Madness (a Metal Gear series retrospective, initially conceived as a ridiculous attempt to play through the entire franchise in a month), 2012's A Month in Skyrim (a thirty-day creative writing project inspired by my time playing the most recent Elder Scrolls game), and my 'blognum opus' Enduring Final Fantasy VII (a four-year project which forced me to look back on my favourite Final Fantasy game through more critical eyes to determine if it's still worth playing all these years later). With all of that in my back catalogue, a brand new series seems like the most logical way to come back to this blog. I've been toying with possible ideas and have narrowed it down to the following ideas. I should probably stress that none of these working titles are set in stone. Here goes:

  • Diary of a Monster Hunter - I'm keen to get into Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, and the series' world and gameplay systems seem pretty well geared towards creating an emergent narrative. I guess this series would be somewhere between A Month in Skyrim and Enduring FFVII in terms of style, combining a creative interpretation of my progress through the game with a more analytical look at the myriad gameplay systems holding it together.
  • Enduring <Insert JRPG Here> - I own a lot of JRPGs that I've never finished, or even played in some cases. A quick look at my Pile of Shame reveals titles including Wild Arms, Grandia, Suikoden, Dragon Quest VIII, Unlimited SaGa, Blue Dragon, Ni no Kuni, Tactics Ogre - the list is seemingly endless. A new Enduring... series would be a pretty neat incentive to get stuck into one of these games and see what makes it tick, with the added benefit of none of my opinions being clouded by nostalgia.
  • The Keyblade Chronicles - As I said above, I've recently set out on a quest to play through every main series Kingdom Hearts game. It's a journey that's set to take place over seven different titles across two distinct platforms, and will almost certainly take a long-ass time. Documenting that quest in a similar fashion to the Metal Gear Madness challenge could be pretty interesting, although by its nature it would mean pretty infrequent updates.

If any of the above options sounds like something you'd be interested in reading (or conversely, if one of those proposals sounds like the worst thing ever to you), please shout about it in the comments below. I write these things as much for you guys as I do for myself, and I'm keen to know what you most want to see coming out of this space now that I have time to devote to it again.

So there you have it - a pretty comprehensive update on what I've been doing, what I've been playing, and what I'm thinking of bringing to this blog in the near future. Boy, it's good to be back without the weight of a millstone around my neck. Anyways, I think I've rambled on for long enough at this point. Thanks very much for reading guys, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories (PS3)

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Getting Back On Board

For over a decade, this was the pinnacle of video game skateboarding for me

It's been a long time since I got caught up in a skateboarding game. The last one I became completely absorbed in was probably Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, for a couple of big reasons. First, it was the first game in the series to mark a radical change in design philosophy. Gone were the two-minute runs and compact, linear level designs of its predecessors. In their place were much more open environments in which to skate, and a completely reformed challenge system that allowed players to explore levels and tackle goals at their own pace instead of constantly racing against that 120-second timer. This design change was supported by a lot of minor refinements to the series' controls and mechanics, resulting in the 'flow' of the gameplay (for lack of a better word) coming as close to perfect as it had ever been and allowing players to rack up higher scores than ever before with relative ease.

The other major reason why I think THPS4 affected me so profoundly is that it arrived on the scene at a time when real-life skateboarding was beginning to experience a surge in popularity in and around my hometown. Classmates would bring skateboarding magazines and catalogues into school and look through them during morning break, while the older kids would take their boards to the streets after school (to the upset of pretty much everyone in town). Though it might be difficult to believe now, I got swept up in this subculture movement too. I had an awesome pair of DC shoes and a rather shitty board (probably shouldn't have spent all my allowance on the shoes, in retrospect), and I would skate up and down my road trying to nail various ollies, flips and shuv-its with my friends. When I couldn't skate outside, I would end up skating indoors thanks to THPS4. As a result, I ended up playing it a lot more than I probably would have done otherwise, and it became the franchise's magnum opus for me.

So that gives some insight as to why I hold Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 in such high regard. I've played skateboarding games since, but none of them have gripped me in the same way. I played quite a bit of Underground when it came out, and the PS2 version of American Wasteland a few years later, both of which were perfectly competent board-'em-ups, but neither really held the same charm for me as the series' fourth instalment. Truth be told, nothing came anywhere near close to it, until I played Skate last month.

I put about ten days into Skate, and in that time I managed to see what I imagine to be most of its core content - being as the game doesn't have a bona fide Career mode and no end credits, it's difficult to say. I managed to get on the cover of both Thrasher and the Skateboard Mag, tore shit up at the X Games, and met a host of professional skaters along the way (most of whom I then whooped in games of S.K.A.T.E.). After all of that, I actually had to force myself to stop playing and move onto something else, and it took pretty much every ounce of my willpower not to make that 'something else' Skate 2. I genuinely enjoyed it that much.

The precision of 'flick-it' takes a while to get used to, but it feels a lot more rewarding than mashing face buttons

So how has Skate managed to dethrone Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 and claim the title of my favourite skateboarding game ever? Well, paradoxically, it's done it by being at once completely different and oddly similar to the Birdman's fourth outing. I'll start by pointing out the differences, since they're more immediately apparent. The most obvious is without a doubt the game's control system, which moves tricks away from the controller's face buttons and maps them onto the right stick. Moving the stick in different patterns and directions results in different tricks, tweaks and variations. This 'flick-it' control scheme took a lot of getting used to for me, and while it's far from flawless, it did ultimately feel like a better and more natural way of doing things than mashing combinations into the D-pad while holding down a face button. The fact it was a whole new learning experience, something the Tony Hawk series hadn't really been for me since the very first game, made landing every trick and nailing every line feel incredibly rewarding.

A lot of the fun and reward in Skate comes from finding sweet spots in the city and tearing them up your way

Skate also eschews the traditional level-based model of the Tony Hawk games in favour of a single, fully-open city for the player to explore. This brings with it an increased emphasis on exploration, encouraging the player to free-ride through the city of San Vanelona at their own pace and discover the best places to skate off their own back. It's a fantastic design choice that makes things feel a little more 'emergent' (sorry to bust out a marketing buzzword), especially when coupled with the game's video challenges that let you dictate which locations you want to attempt them in. There's a slight down-side to this, namely the loss of the sense of progress that a steady stream of unlocks brings, but Skate makes up for the lack of environmental progression by including unlockable 'zones' within the city that can't be skated until you move far enough through the career.

Weirdly, it's within these fundamental differences in design that Skate strikes parallels with THPS4 - because it successfully revitalises its genre through the changes it makes. The go-anywhere open-world design of San Vanelona reminds me of the feeling I got when I explored THPS4's larger levels for the first time, looking for spots to rack up points and seeking out challenge-givers hidden in the nooks and crannies of the gameworld. I was initially dubious about the 'flick-it' control scheme, but spending so much time with it has left me seriously doubting whether I'd ever be able to go back to the button-mashy combos of Tony Hawk. Skate innovates in meaningful ways, and those innovations improve the game. That's why I see a lot of what I loved about THPS4 in Skate, even though the two games play completely differently.

Put a photo of a real skater next to a screenshot from Skate, and the similarities are pretty striking

But above all this, there's one thing Skate does that the Tony Hawk series, for all its failed attempts, has never achieved - it manages to feel like real skating. Some people probably think I'm referring to the game's 'flick-it' controls, which are intended to approximate skaters' foot movements, but that's not what I'm getting at here. What I'm referring to is the fundamental 'flow' of the gameplay (there's that horrible abstract concept again). Remember how I talked about the 'flow' of THPS4 earlier, and said it was geared towards stringing together crazy combos to rack up massive points? It was certainly fun, but it never felt like real skateboarding - more an arcade-friendly approximation.

By contrast, Skate's 'flow' captures the ethos of real-life skateboarding. It drops you into this huge open city and lets you decide where to skate. When you do find a spot, the game's happy to let you tackle it however you see fit. It doesn't force lines on you, but encourages you to find them for yourself. When you do find a line you like the look of, chances are your first couple of attempts will be pitiful. You may fail and bail, many times over. But with repeated attempts, patience and diligence, your hard work will pay off and you'll come away with an amazing photo or some sick footage. That's what skateboarding is really all about, and it's what Skate's all about too.

At the top of this blog, I said that a big factor in why I loved Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 so much was that it came along at the right time. It supported the wave of popularity that skateboarding was riding at the time, supplemented it, and found a place in my heart in the process. Now, over a decade later, Skate has actually managed to do the complete opposite. It's managed to stir the still waters around me and generate a wave all of its own, a wave that I've started to ride with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. I never thought a video game would get me back on a skateboard for the first time in ten years, but Skate has done just that.

Yes, it's a cheap nasty board, but I figured I should make sure I can still ride one of the damn things before I put proper money into a decent one. Shitty English weather means I haven't had much chance to use it yet. Also pictured - my almost-fully-decorated bedroom, which should appear in its own blog entry in a month or so.

If you've stuck with the blog for this long, then thanks for reading. I appreciate it's a little on the long side and probably a bit rambly in spots. Truth is, this entry has gone through a number of drafts and taken me about five weeks to write, so hopefully the gestation period has been worth it and I haven't completely missed the original point I wanted to make. My next entry shouldn't take this long - it's likely to be about my time with the Final Mix edition of the original Kingdom Hearts, which I've just finished playing today. I'll soon be looking for something new to play - if you want to, feel free to check out my ever-growing Pile of Shame (now in two parts!) and recommend something to me. Once again, thanks very much for reading, take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix (PS3)

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New Year, Same Old Video Games

It's 2015. A new year, a new start, a chance to cast off the shackles of the previous year and embrace new possibilities and opportunities. It's an invitation to try and make changes in our lives for the better, that we might make this new year better than the last one.

Never was a 10/10 less deserved

It's apparently also the perfect time to play bad video games.

I'm not sure what possessed me to kick off the New Year by playing through Tomb Raider: Chronicles. It's almost universally regarded as the worst of Lara Croft's first five outings and my own personal least-favourite (with good reason, as I've come to learn first-hand over the last week or so). Admittedly, I'd never beaten it up to now, but the same is true of every other game currently sitting on my Pile of Shame - a backlog so large I've had to split it across two separate Giant Bomb lists, lest I lose the ability to effectively alter it. Why this game over the other one hundred and sixty-seven contenders? Other than "why not?", I cannot think of a single argument that makes sense.

I've covered my history with the Tomb Raider franchise several times in old blog entries, so I'll spare you another rebranding of the finer details here. Suffice it to say I grew up playing the CORE-developed games on the original PlayStation and have a pretty strong affinity for them as a result, even with the benefit of hindsight revealing that they're not as great as I once believed. There's something to be said for the way the games awaken latent muscle memory within my fingers, nailing every precarious jump as if I never stopped playing. It's why, fifteen years on from their release, I can comfortably return to old Tomb Raider games. I can even enjoy them (my time spent with The Last Revelation in 2011 is a testament to that).

I did not enjoy Tomb Raider: Chronicles.

This looks like the Tomb Raider I've come to know and love

It's hard to know where to start explaining why. Under any other circumstances, I would cite its length as a problem. Chronicles clocked in at seven hours for me. That's according to the in-game clock, mind, which doesn't factor in any of the time I spent dying due to electrified floors or poorly-judged leaps of faith over bottomless chasms. Include those frustrating additions and my time with the game probably gets closer to between ten and twelve hours. Speaking entirely from personal experience, that's pretty damn slight for a Tomb Raider game. Ordinarily I'd call the game out for its brevity, but if anything, Chronicles is mercifully short - its abridged running time serves as a welcome release for some of its more glaring issues.

Issues like severe tonal schizophrenia. Chronicles is made up of four distinct scenarios, each consisting of a handful of levels, and the game's tone shifts so wildly between these scenarios that the whole thing ends up feeling like a disjointed mess. Of these scenarios, the first and third have some merit. The first sees Lara gallivanting around Rome in search of the Philosopher's Stone. It's easily the most Tomb Raider-ish of the scenarios, with old villains making cameos and a healthy mix of combat, exploration and puzzle-solving making up the bulk of the action. The third puts the player in the shoes of a younger Lara, and it plays rather differently - because Lara doesn't have her trademark dual pistols, there's no combat to be had in this scenario, making parts of it play more like a survival horror game than a traditional Tomb Raider title. Thankfully, it complements this novel approach with the best environmental puzzles in the game, making it more of a success than a failure.

This, on the other hand, looks almost nothing like a Tomb Raider game

That leaves scenarios two and four. The second takes place on a Russian submarine, which severely limits the potential for puzzles, reducing most of the levels to finding keys to open locked doors in order to keep moving through the sub. This is frustrating, but it's the fourth and final scenario that takes the cake. It sees Lara infiltrating a New York skyscraper to steal an artefact, using a combination of stealth and high-tech gadgetry. Thinking about it, I can kind of see why the developers might have thought this would be a good idea. Chronicles came out in 2000, when Metal Gear Solid was the game to beat and everyone was after a slice of the stealth action pie. Never mind the fact it's completely out of the series' comfort zone. Never mind that stealth mechanics are almost completely unworkable in our game engine. Never mind that it's completely out of character for Lara to break into a corporate headquarters to steal treasure because of a personal vendetta. Nope, let's get as many goons in mech armour dual-wielding laser guns as we can in here, and we'll worry about the consequences later.

The consequences, as it turns out, aren't just detrimental to the narrative. They're also fundamentally game-breaking. I don't know if it's because the Tomb Raider game engine wasn't built to handle so much bastardisation of its usual coding, but for whatever reason, Chronicles' final level is glitched to fuck. I saved my game about ten minutes from the end, and died shortly thereafter. When I reloaded the game, it put me right back to the start of the level, and to add insult to injury, rendered Lara completely invisible. Thankfully I was playing on a PS3 with a dedicated internal memory card, and I had a back-up save that I could fall back on. Back in 2000, when memory card space was severely limited and a lot of games were starting to take up multiple blocks on a card, people didn't have the luxury of keeping several saves. This bug genuinely could have fucked up a player's entire progress through the game ten minutes from its end. Hell, it probably did. How the fuck does something like that get marked as 'known shippable'?

The lazy holdovers from The Last Revelation include the title screen camera-pan

Even if I could overlook these problems, being the long-time fan of the series that I am, I'd find it difficult to get past the sheer laziness and lack of heart with which the whole package was put together. Things like the inventory screen being ripped straight out of the previous game, with nothing being done to tone down its 'Egyptian' feel, making it feel ridiculously out of place. Or the fact that the villain models in the first scenario seem to have been lifted directly from the first Tomb Raider game without being smartened up. It's even harder to believe this game was preceded by The Last Revelation, a game notable for its level of care and attention to detail. Quite how the development team at CORE could go from that to this in the space of a year is almost mystifying.

Tomb Raider: Chronicles is the unnecessary sequel to your favourite film. It is the last album by your favourite band before they cut ties with their old record label. It is the bastard child of contractual obligation and series annualization, a husk of its much-loved predecessors with no discernible heart or soul. To experience it is almost wholly joyless, because the rare flickers of greatness only serve to remind you of what might have been, amplifying the impact of the formulaic remainder in the process.

...but hey, at least it's better than Angel of Darkness, right?

Thanks for reading guys. I'll try to play something a bit better next (suggestions based on the aforementioned Pile of Shame are always welcome). A Happy New Year to y'all. I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Dan's End of 2014 Awards - Part Five

So here we are, at the dénouement of my End of 2014 Awards. Today’s fifth and final part sees me hand out my last two awards to games that defined this past year for me. If you’ve missed any of the preceding eight awards, you can find them by following these helpful, handy-dandy links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

Before I give out these last two gongs, I’d like to take a moment to honourably mention some Honourable Mentions that didn’t quite make the cut for various reasons.

Forza Motorsport 4 – There’s no denying that Forza 4 is a fantastic racing game. It’s got a ton of cars to collect and a ton of events to race through, to the point where completing the game’s ten-season World Tour mode left me with only 6% overall completion of the game’s event list. Unfortunately I put the game down at that point and haven’t been back to it since, due to its pitifully small roster of tracks. Note to Turn 10 – if you’re going to populate your game with hundreds of cars and over a thousand races, it might be worth including more than two-dozen locations to race in. Y’know, for diversity’s sake.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations – Oh man, this game. On paper, it should be my favourite game in the whole damn series. Mechanically it’s got the most fluid and responsive exploration and combat I’ve seen in the franchise to date. It also tells a much more introspective story about Ezio (one of my favourite protagonists of the 360/PS3/Wii generation), revisiting the characters and world of the original Assassin’s Creed while also giving you a whole new city to explore in Constantinople. Yet in spite of all this, Revelations fell pretty flat for me. I think it’s a combination of really disliking the present-day portion of the game, and just being burned out on the franchise as a whole. I’ll definitely be taking a reasonably lengthy break before I come back to check out Assassin’s Creed III.

Heavy Rain – Now this is a weird one. I remember really liking the majority of Heavy Rain, in spite of its obvious flaws. By all accounts, it probably should have been honoured in these awards for its entertaining story and the way the whole experience is driven by player choice. Yet, when the time came to sit down and actually think about these awards, I found myself brushing it to one side almost immediately. What kept me from presenting it with a proper award, you ask? Honestly, it’s probably the way Jayden (far and away my favourite character throughout my playthrough) died abruptly and without any kind of fanfare or acknowledgement in the game’s closing moments. That left such a sour taste in my mouth that, although I remember the game fondly as a whole, I came away from it having enjoyed it significantly less than I might have done otherwise.

Nothing as It Seems Award for Subverting Player Expectations

Papers, Please (PC – Lucas Pope – 2013)

I went into Papers, Please knowing that it was an 8-bit border control simulator and not much else. That lack of preparatory knowledge meant I went into the game without any real expectations. Now, I know what you’re thinking – how can a game I started playing with no expectations win an award for subverting my expectations? The answer is simple – almost the entire time I was playing Papers, Please, it kept throwing expectations at me, only to knock them down a couple of in-game days later.

In my first Papers, Please ‘session’ (for lack of a better word to describe the bevy of prematurely-ended playthroughs I experienced), I became acquainted with the order of EZIC, an anti-establishment organisation trying to bring down Arstotzka from within. “Aha!” I thought, “This must be what the game wants me to do – to get involved with these rebels and bring down the corrupt, evil Arstotzkan government.” So I let their agents through the border and received a big bundle of cash in return. I fed and clothed my cold, malnourished family, and bought a bigger apartment in another sector. What I hadn’t counted on was the omniscient vigilance of the government I was helping to bring down. They clocked I was spending a lot more than I was earning, and arrested me. Game over.

The next time I played the game, I figured that it would be best not to get involved with EZIC. I dismissed their agents and ignored their kick-backs for fear of being implicated in some terrorist action in the future. About ten days into my new job, an inspector arrived enquiring about EZIC, and whether anyone had tried to pass through the checkpoint. Being the good Arstotzkan citizen that I was, I obediently handed over all the EZIC paraphernalia that their informant had given to me a few days previously. For my loyal actions, I was arrested and implicated in EZIC’s activities due to possessing those items. Game over.

It was only after a few of these sessions of the game setting up my expectations only to knock them back down that I realised what it was the game actually wanted me to do. In my next (and most recent) session with Papers, Please, I opted to simply do my job. No getting involved with organisations, no deals with corrupt guards or overbearing superiors, I just focused on reading those immigration documents. I let through those who met the criteria, and turned away those who didn’t. I sacrificed my personal stake in the events that were unfolding and became the soulless archetype of the model border control officer. And do you know what? As soon as I started doing that, I managed to see through my thirty days of service and beat the game with comparative ease.

And the craziest thing is, Papers, Please probably still hasn’t finished subverting my expectations. The game has twenty endings, of which I’ve only seen four. Should I ever return to it (and I suspect I might, at some point in the future), there’s still a wealth of content left unexplored. Content that I’m once again going to have to go against what I think the game expects of me in order to find and experience. Not bad for a game I didn’t expect anything from, eh?

Sweet Morphine Award for Most Addictive Game

Pokémon. All of them. (Various – Game Freak – Various)

Let’s be honest here. You all knew that Pokémon was going to feature on this list somewhere in some form. The only element of doubt in anybody’s mind was probably regarding which game I’d choose to honour above the others. Would I recognise Pokémon Y’s incredible longevity now that my in-game clock has passed the 800-hour mark? Would I praise Pokémon Colosseum for delivering a 3D Pokémon adventure that deviates from the series’ standards in some really interesting ways? Would I acknowledge Pokémon White 2 for finally delivering on the promise shown by its underwhelming predecessor? Ultimately it was impossible for me to choose between them. That’s why I’m jointly presenting this award to all of the Pokémon games I’ve played this year, for keeping me thoroughly captivated and invested in a world that, by all rights, I should have lost interest in a long time ago.

So how has the Pokémon franchise maintained its iron-fist grip on me throughout 2014? I have a couple of theories. First up, I became interested in competitive battling at the start of this year. Playing through the entire series in 2013 left me with a much greater appreciation of the games’ mechanics and the nuances of the battle system, to the point where I wanted to explore that side of the game in greater detail. I started to learn about EVs and IVs, about Natures and the competitive value of some moves that I’d previously considered useless. All this culminated in me starting to train and build my own competitive Pokémon team, which I put through its paces in a league devised my myself and my friends, coming second in the league tournament and winning the knockout cup. Even now this aspect of the series has a firm hold on me, and I’ve just finished training an all-Dark-type team to participate in the next season of the friendly league we set up. It kicks off on January 2nd, and I cannot wait for it to begin.

The other big thing that has kept Pokémon at the forefront of my gaming habits this year is my discovery of the Nuzlocke format. For the uninitiated, a Nuzlocke is a playthrough of a Pokemon game under a self-imposed set of rules intended to make the game more challenging. The only two core rules are that you can only try to catch the first Pokémon you meet in each area, and that if a Pokémon faints, it is dead and can no longer be used. I first tried out this combination of limiting captures and permadeath with Pokémon FireRed, an adventure that I documented in blog form right here on Giant Bomb throughout the spring of 2014. While I didn’t win the Nuzlocke, I had an absolute blast with the game, and resolved to take part in more Nuzlockes and Nuzlocke variants in the future. Thus far my experience with the format has grown to include an ‘Egglocke’ of Pokémon X (in which every caught Pokémon was swapped for an unhatched egg donated by my league-buddies) and a currently-in-progress ‘Randomizer Nuzlocke’ of the original Pokémon Red (in which Pokémon locations are randomized to create a much less predictable playthrough). The Nuzlocke format has certainly breathed new life into old adventures, and I suspect that the Red Randomizer won’t be my last.

2015 is now just a few days away, and with it comes the promise of yet more time spent in the wonderful world of Pokémon. I’m slowly working my way through my copy of the series’ latest release, Pokémon Omega Ruby, in which I’ve just earned the fifth gym badge, and the Red Randomizer is still ongoing at the time of writing. My plan is to try and turn down my Pokémon activity once those two things are complete, and redirect my focus back onto my Pile of Shame (which has recently reached an embarrassing height of 170 titles). But when I’m dealing with a series as addictive as Pokémon, I can’t make any promises.

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So that’s it for this year. Ten awards, ten games (sort of), and the conclusion of a fun look back on the year that was. I hope that 2015 is a great year for all of you, both in front of your consoles and away from them. I’ve been Dan Kempster, and these have been my End of 2014 Awards. Thanks for reading, take care, and I’ll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Dan's End of 2014 Awards - Part Four

It’s the fourth day of my End of 2014 Awards, a five-part blog series wherein I honour the most memorable games I’ve played this year by presenting them with awards whose names rival their very concepts in terms of ridiculousness and stupidity. Just in case you missed them, here are some helpful handy links to Part One, Part Two and Part Three. In this penultimate instalment I’ll be handing out another pair of awards to a couple of great games that I played at some point in the last twelve months. Read on to find out what they are, and what I’m praising them for.

Come Together Award for Best Multiplayer Experience

Halo: Reach (X360 – Bungie – 2010)

I’ve never been one for multiplayer in first-person shooters. Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag don’t really scratch my competitive itch, and I’ve always been much more drawn to the single-player campaigns in games like the Halo series. So when my friend Duncan suggested we play some Halo: Reach together earlier this year, you can probably understand why I was quick to try and make my excuses in an attempt to get out of it. Those excuses quickly turned to acceptance, though, when I realised it wasn’t competitive multiplayer he was proposing, but co-operative multiplayer – a shared journey through Halo: Reach’s campaign, where we’d be working together to survive, rather than against each other in some point-scoring exercise.

It took us about half a dozen sessions of play across two weeks to see the credits roll on Reach, a campaign so blisteringly good that revisiting it has cemented it as one of my favourite first-person shooters ever. During that time I noticed my play-style shift from selfish and reckless to being much more considered and aware of my team-mate’s situation. We learned how to play to each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. When we became stuck we’d talk tactics, after which we’d invariably come out on the other side of whatever skirmish had been holding us back. What makes it even more special is that we didn’t do this sitting on the same sofa, but with a distance of hundreds of miles between us, our camaraderie transcending the obstacle of distance as well as the in-game challenges before us. It was a phenomenal gaming experience - one that I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to partake in, and one that I won’t soon forget.

Since wrapping up our tenure on Reach, we’ve played through Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (a much less fun experience due to persistent technical gremlins delaying our journey) and at the time of writing we have made it a fair way through the original Borderlands (which I’m sure would be earning this award if we’d been able to finish it before the year was out). In 2015 we plan to postpone our adventures on Pandora, sidelining Borderlands 2 in order to return to the Halo universe for co-op run-throughs of ODST, 3 and 4. That should keep us pretty busy through until the summer. I’m just stoked to have a good friend that I can play these games co-operatively with, and I hope we’ll be teaming up for a long time to come.

Bridge Burning Award for Best Next-Generation Game on a Current Generation Console

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PS3 – Kojima Productions – 2014)

(I’m fully aware that my use of ‘next-generation’ and ‘current generation’ for this award isn’t in line with that of most people. To put it simply, I’ve decided to refer to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as ‘current generation’ consoles here because I own them, and to call the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 ‘next-generation’ hardware because I don’t own either of them yet. I hope that clears up any confusion.)

2014 saw a lot of games straddling the inter-generational gap, with versions coming out on both old and new hardware. Being one of those people yet to make the brave leap forward onto a new console, this strange state of affairs has left me in two minds about whether to pick up a lot of games this year. There’s a niggling worry at the back of my mind that by picking up the Xbox 360 or PS3 version of these games, I’m somehow buying into a vastly inferior product, and that I should be holding out to experience them on the newer hardware when I finally make the jump to an Xbox One or PS4. Consequently, I’ve held off from picking up a lot of this year’s biggest releases in favour of waiting until I can experience them as the developers intended on a next-generation machine.

The one game that I did buy and play on less powerful hardware this year was the PlayStation 3 version of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. I didn’t intend to initially, for the reasons outlined above, but I found the urge too great to ignore after seeing it heavily discounted on the PlayStation Store back in August and snapped up a digital copy of Hideo Kojima’s latest. And do you know what? I’m really glad I did. Sure, the textures aren’t as high-fidelity as its next-gen counterparts. The frame rate gets pretty choppy in spots, particularly during the in-engine cut-scenes. But once I took control of Big Boss and started exploring the island facility in front of me, none of that mattered. Not a bit.

What the PS3 version of Ground Zeroes does is make good on its promise of delivering a next-generation gameplay experience on current generation hardware. In fairness, a great deal of that is probably down to the enhancements inherent in Ground Zeroes’ core gameplay, which is a huge leap forward from everything the Metal Gear series has done before. The refined stealth mechanics and the introduction of an open world encourage a more emergent and organic approach to the series’ hallmark tactical espionage action. Because of this, it felt like I was playing something that was a marked step up from what I was used to, without needing any physical hardware upgrade to make it possible. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is due next year, and while I’m hoping to have a PlayStation 4 to play it on by then, it’s good to know that I won’t be getting a majorly stripped-down version should I opt to play it on PS3 instead.

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Eight awards have been presented, and only two remain. Which games will earn this last pair of coveted gongs? Come back tomorrow to find out. Thanks for reading folks, take care, and I’ll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Dan's End of 2014 Awards - Part Three

It’s Boxing Day, which means it’s time for Part Three of my End of 2014 Awards. If you missed Part One and/or Part Two, you can find them by clicking through on their respective links. Today sees us reach the halfway point of this little awards ceremony, with two more awards going out to games that managed to define the last twelve months for me. Here they are.

Second Chance Award for Being Better with the Benefit of Hindsight

Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer (PS1 – Insomniac Games – 1999)

The second of these awards to be won by an Insomniac-developed game, I’d long considered Spyro 2 (subtitled ‘Ripto’s Rage’ in the States) to be the weak link in the scaly purple chain of PlayStation platformers. I had fond memories of the original Spyro the Dragon because it was one of my first platforming experiences on the old PlayStation, and even more fond memories of the third Spyro game (subtitled ‘Year of the Dragon’) because it such a huge game with a great deal of variety thanks to its various mini-games and the introduction of new playable characters. Somewhere between those two lay Gateway to Glimmer, all but forgotten because I believe it lacked the impact of its predecessor and the size of its successor.

Until now.

After playing through all three PS1 Spyro games earlier this year, I’ve been forced to reassess my stance on Spyro 2, and the result is a much more positive outlook. With hindsight to improve my judgement, I’m able to recognise Gateway to Glimmer as the game that pretty much completely rewrote the Spyro rulebook. It took the core collect-a-thon platforming gameplay of the original Spyro the Dragon and applied it to a mission-based structure, turning the collecting into something measured and purposeful, a means to an end rather than the sole purpose it had been before. The decision to gate player progress by locking away certain items and areas behind new abilities and Moneybags’ insatiable gem-lust was inspired too, making the game feel larger by sealing off earlier portions of the game until you were able to return later and access new areas.

It wasn’t just gameplay improvements, either. Gateway to Glimmer boasts a charming story full of great characters and driven by a much more likeable incarnation of Spyro, who’s nowhere near as much of a cocky, jumped-up little purple shit this time around. The level design is a huge step up from the first game too, both in terms of variety and playability. While Year of the Dragon does a fine job of building on Gateway to Glimmer’s foundations with a greater number and greater variety of challenges, I honestly think that game feels a little bloated and over-long by comparison as a result. There’s something about Spyro 2’s concise cohesiveness that just feels right. That’s why from here on out, I’ll be defending Gateway to Glimmer as the best of the original Spyro games. If anybody disagrees, I’ll meet them outside in five.

White Blank Page Award for Best Literary Adaptation

Alice: Madness Returns (PC – Spicy Horse – 2011)

As triggers of inspiration go, the one that got me to finally boot up the copy of Alice: Madness Returns that’s been sitting in my Steam library for the last two years is fittingly bizarre. I went to watch an amateur dramatics production of Alice in Wonderland, adapted and directed by a good friend of mine. Witnessing his own interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s wonderfully weird narrative unfold on stage was enough to renew my curiosity in American McGee’s adaptation of the same source material. So I downloaded the game, hooked up my 360 controller to my laptop, and leapt down the rabbit hole.

What greeted me at the end of my descent was a brilliant twist on the traditional perception of Wonderland, and one that has probably satisfied more than any other that I’ve seen to date. My friend’s stage adaptation reminded me that there’s definitely something incredibly dark and sinister about Wonderland - a mark that Tim Burton’s recent interpretation didn’t quite hit for me, and something that the famous Disney cartoon didn’t even try to capture. Alice: Madness Returns lands square in the bullseye by comparison, framing Wonderland and its inhabitants as a manifestation of Alice’s own traumatised mental state. The Gothic and Victorian motifs applied to Carroll’s world and characters result in something that’s at once strikingly unique to McGee and instantly recognisable as Wonderland.

Of course, all this would be for naught if the gameplay wasn’t up to scratch. Thankfully it was, combining a traditional style of exploration and platforming with a more contemporary approach to combat and character development. The fact the game wasn’t a chore to play meant I could focus on drinking in the aesthetic experience without getting hung up on minor niggles. When the credits rolled on Madness Returns I was still hungry for more of that wondrous incarnation of Wonderland, and although a sequel looks unlikely at this stage, inwardly I hope that this won’t be American McGee’s final trip through the mind and words of Lewis Carroll.

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Three days through and six awards down, with just four left to go. The next two will be coming some time tomorrow, and the final two on Sunday. As always, thanks very much for reading, and I’ll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Dan's End of 2014 Awards - Part Two

Welcome back to the second part of my End of 2014 Awards. If you missed the first part of my own take on the traditional Game of the Year format, you can find it here – it outlines the motives behind these awards and also justifies the format, so if you’re a bit perplexed as to why games from the late nineties are appearing on this list, you’ll find the answers there.

Today I’ll be presenting another pair of games with awards in commemoration of the lasting memories they’ve left with me this year. What with it being Christmas Day and all, I’ve spent most of my time with family and haven’t left myself with much of a window in which to write up today’s entry. For that reason, it’s probably going to be a little bit shorter than yesterday’s. Here goes.

Ten Years Gone Award for Game I Should Have Finished a Decade Ago

Final Fantasy VIII (PS1 – Squaresoft – 1999)

I can vividly remember the day on which I received my copy of Final Fantasy VIII. It was February 28th 2001. Two months previously I’d spent some of my Christmas money on a second-hand copy of Final Fantasy VII, starting a love affair with the franchise that’s lasted almost a decade and a half at this point. My mother, seeing how much I was enjoying my first foray into the world of Squaresoft RPGs, surprised me with a copy of the series’ eighth instalment for my eleventh birthday, further fuelling my passion for all things Final Fantasy.

In retrospect, Final Fantasy VIII was probably the game that kick-started my incredible ‘Pile of Shame’. When I received it, I’d just reached the start of the second disc in Final Fantasy VII. Not long after that came the European release of Final Fantasy IX, which I snapped up with my birthday money just a few days later. In the space of just over two months, I’d gone from owning no lengthy games to owning three, and not being anywhere near finishing any of them. The Pile of Shame was thus born, and it seems to have done nothing but steadily grow ever since.

Under such circumstances, it’s understandable that one game might fall by the wayside, and Final Fantasy VIII was unfortunate enough to be that game. For whatever reason, its more realistic presentation and cumbersome Junction system didn’t grab me in the same way that VII’s Materia or IX’s throw-back mechanics did. What isn’t understandable is that it would take me almost fifteen years to see Final Fantasy VIII through to its ending cinematic. That’s right – up until this year, I’d never made it beyond the start of the game’s third disc. For someone who considers themselves a bona fide Final Fantasy fan, that’s just downright unforgivable.

Completing Final Fantasy VIII back in March of this year has definitely laid some personal demons to rest. In some ways I’m glad I waited this long, because I think I was able to appreciate it more as a result. While a lot of the interpersonal drama didn’t move me very much, I loved the main story arc (even If it did jump right off the deep end in its final act), and there’s no denying that Rinoa is a pretty fantastic character. The Junction system felt a lot more intuitive to my adult mind than it ever did to twelve-year-old Dan, meaning I was able to get a lot more out of it from a gameplay standpoint too. It’s still the black sheep of the PS1 FF family in my eyes, but it would be unfair to expect it to live up to my nostalgic love of VII, or the sheer brilliance of IX. I’m just glad I’ve finally seen the game through to its conclusion and experienced everything it has to offer. It was an experience that was definitely worth the wait.

Oh Beautiful! Award for Best HD Remaster

Ratchet & Clank (PS3 – Insomniac Games – 2002/2012)

Here’s an award I very nearly gave to God of War II yesterday. There’s no denying that the God of War HD collection looks great, thanks to its detailed character models, slick animation and epic sense of scale, all up-res’d and prettified to take advantage of the PlayStation 3’s extra horsepower. Having said that, it’s still somewhat held back by virtue of being a game with a realistic art style originally developed for the PlayStation 2. The limitations of the original hardware are still visible underneath the improved textures and stable frame rate, meaning that while the God of War HD collection looks great, it's still recognisable as a PS2 game.

Compare this with the cartoonish Ratchet & Clank series, and it’s easy to see which games have better stood the test of time from an artistic standpoint. Ratchet & Clank looked great when it first debuted on the PlayStation 2 back in 2002 thanks to its vibrant colour palette and distinctive art style. Because it works within the constraints of the console rather than striving to push the boundaries with a limited attempt at realism, I think Insomniac Games’ PS2 debut has visually aged much better than SCE Santa Monica’s masterpiece. The remastered HD version from 2012’s Ratchet & Clank Trilogy for the PS3 takes that already timeless source material and applies just the right amount of make-up. The textures are sharper, the frame rate is silky smooth, and the colours seem to pop even more than they did in the original game. It’s ultimately this which led to Ratchet snatching the award out from under Kratos’ angry Spartan nose.

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That’s going to do it for today’s awards. Be sure to come back tomorrow when I’ll be dishing out another pair of gongs to games that defined my 2014 in the third part of this series. I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas Day. Take care, and I’ll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Dan's End of 2014 Awards - Part One

I don’t normally go in for Game of the Year awards. While I’ve always enjoyed the coverage from Giant Bomb at this time of year, I tend not to get involved in the discussions myself. There are two main reasons for this. First, I tend not to play many games at their time of release. Thanks to the combination of a pretty small gaming budget and a ridiculously large backlog, I usually gravitate towards older games when selecting something to play. As a result, most of the things being discussed by the staff in their end-of-year deliberations end up soaring over my head, because I haven’t played the games they’re talking about. Second, I’m not a fan of the numbered list format that all the major games news outlets tend to roll with. While I might be able to single out three or four games that were definitely head-and-shoulders above the rest I played in any given year, it’s a damn sight more difficult to apply some form of arbitrary ranking to ten of them.

That’s not to say I don’t partake in the Game of the Year festivities at all. I just tend to do my own thing rather than conform to the structures and rules laid out by the powers that be. Typically my End of Year Awards incorporate everything I’ve played in a given year, prescribing a unique award to each game in acknowledgement of what I thought it did well (or perhaps not so well, in some cases). It’s a fun way of looking back over the year as a whole, and saves me from having to go to the trouble of singling out ten specific titles and putting them into some kind of hierarchical order. It worked nicely in 2010, 2011 and 2012 (2013 not so much, but I’ve learned my lesson and am writing all of this in a word processor before I copy it into the Giant Bomb text editor).

This year I’ll be doing something a little bit different, a sort of combination of the two formats. The framing of my awards will remain the same, with games being rewarded for their strengths, but this year I’ll be attempting to limit the awards I’m giving to just ten. I’m not going to lie, the main reason I’ve decided to concede and impose this restriction on myself is because I really haven’t played a lot of games this year (just twenty-seven at the time of writing, compared with last year’s thirty-five). Also, a lot of those have been multiple games from the same franchise (and one franchise in particular), and giving every single game within a franchise its own unique award would probably be pretty dull to follow.

So that’s ten awards for ten games. How will I be distributing them? I’m thinking two awards per day for five days, running from today (Christmas Eve) to Sunday (December 28th). Now that I’m off work until Monday and don’t have much to do besides this whole Christmas thing, this seems like as good a time as any.

Before I get started, I just want to clarify two things – things that should probably be self-evident from the preamble above, but it’s probably best I lay it out in black and white here. First off, a lot of the games I’m giving these awards to won’t be games that came out in 2014. As I said above, I don’t play very many games the year they come out. In fact, I’m pretty sure my grand total of new releases beaten in 2014 stands at just one, and I don't have high hopes of bumping that up to two before the year ends. Consequently, anything I’ve played to completion in the last twelve months will be eligible, whether it was released this year or not. Second, these awards are not ranked, numerically or otherwise. As I’ve said above, I find it difficult and largely pointless trying to boil these lists down to a ranked order – is there really that much difference between what I'd choose to put in the eighth and ninth slots? Instead, I’ll be handing out the awards based on the order in which I completed the games through the year, with the first beaten at the start and the most recently beaten at the end. With those little disclaimers out of the way, let’s hand out some awards, shall we?

An End Has a Start Award for Best Ending

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX (3DS – Nintendo – 1999)

By way of its Virtual Console, my 3DS has opened up a window into a piece of the Zelda series’ history that I’d missed out on up until this year. While I’m still yet to dig into either of the Oracle games, I spent a big chunk of my January getting acquainted with Link’s Awakening DX. In a lot of ways I actually preferred Link’s 2D top-down adventure to its more recent home console brethren – the rudimentary graphical design and mechanical limitations of the old Game Boy were easily offset by the incredible world and dungeon design, not to mention the game’s rather brave decision to turn its back on the kingdom of Hyrule for the fantastically weird Koholint Island. While the game played like a conventional Zelda title, its vibrant setting, its crazy cast of characters, and the scant lore surrounding the mysterious island and the Wind Fish that lives there helped it to carve out its own identity and make it one of the most memorable of Link’s adventures in the entire series.

That’s probably the main reason why the finale ended up hitting as hard as it did for me – the game’s setting and characters are so distinctly unique and memorable that it hits you like a gut-punch when they’re erased from existence in the closing scenes. It’s not what you’d call a surprising reveal, either – as Link gathers the instruments he needs to wake the Wind Fish, it’s made pretty clear to him that doing so will cause Koholint Island and everyone living on it to disappear forever. As the player you’re put in a very conflicting position, because the game requires you to explore this wonderful island and meet all these interesting characters, all the while reminding you that should you succeed, it will all cease to exist. Even as the game’s closing cut-scene unfolded I found myself willing it not to be true, but knowing deep down in my heart that it was. Link’s Awakening is a rare example of the tired ‘…and it was all a dream’ trope done exceptionally well, and I applaud it heartily for that. I’ll never forget you, Marin

You Better You Bet Award for Most Improved Sequel

God of War II (PS3 – SCE Santa Monica – 2007)

I struggled long and hard over this award. For quite a while I was on the verge of giving it to Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, but ultimately decided not to because I’m much more in love with that game on paper than I am in practice. My eyes then fell back upon God of War II, a game I knew to be a vast improvement on its predecessor due to the fact I played them back-to-back at the start of this year.

The original God of War is a fantastic action/adventure game with a couple of noticeable shortcomings. For a start, it clocks in pretty short for a game of its kind. Also, while it features its fair share of puzzles and a little bit of platforming, it doesn’t really do enough to break up the combat that makes up its core, which led to it feeling a little repetitive at times, even in spite of its brevity. God of War II addressed those issues, as well as a couple more that I wasn’t even aware of, and then tied it all up into a package that somehow managed to look and play even better than the game that came before it. It clocks in at almost double the length of the original (my playthrough of GoW took me eight hours; my playthrough of GoWII took me fifteen), and throws a ton of new mechanics into play to spice things up and break up the combat. Flying sequences with winged horses? Check. Icarus wings that let you glide across long distances? You bet. Time-rewinding mechanics straight out of Prince of Persia to mix up the puzzles? Gotcha covered. All these little iterations are supported by presentation values that are even more epic than the first game, resulting in a game that feels like a warranted sequel and not just a new adventure rendered with the same old assets.

God of War II isn’t an improvement in every respect though, and the most telling area where it fell short for me was in its story. In the first game Kratos’ anger is both well-justified and more sparingly used, resulting in a character whose motives and actions feel at least somewhat believable. In God of War II though, it feels like someone cranked Kratos’ anger gauge up to eleven before snapping off the dial for good measure. This permanent rage makes Kratos a lot less likeable as a character, and somewhat detracts from all the leaps forward made by the gameplay. It’s a shame, and I’m kind of wary about jumping into God of War III as a result.

…but still, at least it doesn’t have any fucking ridiculous tower defence mechanics, right?

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And with that, the first day of this five-part awards extravaganza comes to an end. Be sure to check back tomorrow, when I’ll be revealing the third and fourth games to earn recognition as part of my End of 2014 Awards. Thanks for reading guys. A very Merry Christmas to all of you. Take care, and I’ll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Hey Guys...

So I've been a little quiet on Giant Bomb recently (and by 'recently', I mean the last three months). There are a multitude of reasons for my inactivity, and I'll do my best to explain what they are in due course. Before I do, I want to stress this is not an "I'm back!"-style blog. I framed my last blog entry as one of those back in August, and look where that got us. Nope, this is just me touching base with you guys, to let you know I'm still here and still playing those video game thing-a-ma-bobbins from time to time.

The biggest reason for my lack of presence on Giant Bomb through the autumn has been real-world developments. Work continues to be a drain on both my energy and what should be my free time. Between mid-July and mid-October I clocked up almost 150 hours of overtime. That's 150 hours of un-contracted work, time that would otherwise have been mine to spend however I wished, covering for staff who were either sick or on annual leave. I wouldn't mind so much if that figure wasn't so much hideously higher than those of everyone else I work with, but that is a different story that should probably be told on a different platform. I've also been enrolled in a pretty intense course which should make me a qualified dispenser by the end of March 2015, but I get no study time during work hours, which means I need to use a hefty chunk of my already drastically depleted free time to study and complete coursework.

Alongside all these responsibilities, I decided back in September that my bedroom could do with sprucing up. I was pretty non-committal to begin with, taking delight in stripping off the old wallpaper without much regard for the mammoth task I was setting up for myself. As a newcomer to DIY and decorating, it's certainly been an eye-opener, as each apparently complete job has revealed another unexpected obstacle to overcome. As I write this blog near the end of November, I've managed to finish the ceiling and walls and will hopefully soon be laying new flooring to replace the tired old carpet. It's been pretty disruptive, particularly to my sleeping patterns (I'm currently having to sleep on a mattress on my bedroom floor, having long since dismantled all my bedroom furniture to make enough space to do the decorating). Hopefully it will all be worth it when it's finished.

It's played a minor part, but I also think that the whole 'GamerGate' debacle has influenced me to keep my distance from games media in general over the last couple of months. A lot of shitty things spiralled out of that movement, and I guess I felt reluctant to weigh in on anything video game related while that shit-storm was still raging for fear of getting caught up in it all. Now it seems to have largely blown over, I feel a little more comfortable coming back to Giant Bomb and taking up my blogger's mantle again.

I'm still playing games, although right now I'm in a bit of a weird place when it comes to what I'm playing. The 'one game at a time' philosophy that has served me well for so long has been cast aside in recent months, in favour of the slap-dash, haphazard approach of playing several games at once. It's not been a conscious choice, more just a lack of discipline that's managed to creep into my gaming habits. To be honest, I'm happy for things to stay that way for a little while - if it keeps my tendency to deviate from schedule away from the more important things like the aforementioned coursework and decorating, then I'm happy to finish a few less games in the back end of 2014 than I might have done otherwise.

Lately I've been playing bits and pieces of all sorts of games:

  • I started playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword back at the start of October. I made it just past the first dungeon, and was really enjoying it, but then the decorating situation demanded that I disconnect my Wii and I haven't got around to setting it back up yet. As a result, Link is now hanging in suspended animation until I finish my decorating and get everything re-connected. I'll probably start a new game when I do, so I can experience the whole of Link's latest journey uninterrupted.
  • I'm playing the HD remaster of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on Xbox 360, in celebration of its tenth anniversary. The original plan was to dig out my PS2 and play it the same way as I originally did ten years ago, but the lure of a better framerate, crisper textures and Achievements managed to sway me in the end. I haven't put much time into it and I'm still in Los Santos, but it's been great to revisit one of the video games that played an integral role in shaping my tastes.
  • Also on the 360, I'm replaying the original Borderlands. Up until this month, I'd only ever played the Borderlands games solo, but this playthrough is a co-op effort between me and my good friend Duncan. We decided to take a break from our co-op run-through of the Halo series to get our shoot-and-loot on, and so far it's been an absolute blast. We're both lv19 and should be moving out of the Arid Badlands soon.
  • I've been dabbling with a bunch of sports games over the last couple of months. I picked up FIFA 15 on the PS3 at the start of October, and that plays pretty much exactly how you'd expect it to. I've also found myself getting caught up in Don Bradman Cricket 14 on the 360, which offers pretty much everything I've wanted from a cricket game with the exception of licensed teams and players (I really wish EA would stop sitting on those licences and either make a game or let somebody else snap them up). After the real-world team I used to play for folded this year, its compelling Career mode has been the closest I've come to replicating that feeling of playing an actual game of cricket.
  • Pokémon continues to maintain a vice-like grip on my gaming habits. In the run-up to the release of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire (which don't launch here in the UK until Friday), I've kept myself occupied with a couple of Nuzlocke challenges. The first was an Egglocke of Pokémon X, for which several of my friends donated eggs to the cause. Despite a lot of losses along the way, we managed to beat the Elite Four and Champion, making it my first victorious Nuzlocke. Currently I'm running a Randomizer Nuzlocke through the original Pokémon Red. It's another variant on the conventional Nuzlocke format which randomizes all Pokémon encounters, turning every battle into an unknown quantity and throwing up some really interesting scenarios. I'm documenting it by way of a YouTube series, which I've embedded below:

So that's what's up with me. I'm not sure if I'll have much of a blogging schedule for the remainder of 2014, but I'll try and get something sorted out before the end of December. At the very least, I'd like to throw together some kind of End of Year Awards blog to celebrate some of the fun games I played this year. Until then, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Blog Revival: A Bunch Of Stuff From July Edition (WARNING: May Include Video Games)

It's been around six weeks since I last posted a blog here on Giant Bomb. There are a handful of reasons for that. I think some of them happen to be pretty good, but don't just take my word for it. I'm going to outline them in this blog post, so you can be the judge.

July was a very busy month...

...with most of my time divided between working and attending 'the Tringe'. For the uninitiated, allow me to explain - the Tringe Festival is an annual comedy festival held in my hometown of Tring. Now five years strong, it basically consists of a bunch of comedians (some very well-known, some fairly obscure) coming here to perform previews of their shows before taking them up to the Edinburgh Fringe in August. It runs for the first three weeks of July, and is probably the single best opportunity to experience great comedy in this country without high-tailing it down to London or up to Edinburgh. We're incredibly lucky to have it on our doorstep, and I hope it continues for many years to come.

In previous years I've attended a handful of gigs at the Tringe, predominantly those featuring acts I'm already an established fan of including Richard Herring and Peacock & Gamble. This year, I decided to do something a little different - I bought a Tringe passport, essentially a season ticket granting me access to every show of the festival. I then proceeded to use that passport to attend as many shows as possible. The result of this was that I had no free time whatsoever - a typical day in July meant getting up around 7am, getting into work for 8:30, staying there 'til 6:30pm, then walking the forty-minute journey to our local theatre and watching two hour-long comedy shows back-to-back, before finally walking the forty-minute journey back home, fixing myself some supper, and going to bed to try and get some sleep before having to do it all again the next day.

The Tringe was a fucking draining experience, but also an incredibly rewarding one. I saw a lot of great comedians I probably would never have even heard of if I hadn't gone, and some of them have become firm favourites - including the hilarious sketch troupe Late Night Gimp Fight, to name but one. I was also fortunate enough to see some huge names in incredibly intimate venues, including Shappi Khorsandi, Milton Jones, Mark Watson, Josh Widdicombe - names that probably won't mean anything to American readers of this blog, but should elicit some response from any Brit who's ever watched a BBC panel show. Only one act disappointed, namely Jim Davidson, who stuck out like a sore thumb on the festival's billing and delivered a tired hour of borderline racist, sexist, homophobic "comedy" that only managed to draw a single laugh out of me. The fact he then proceeded to attack one of my friends on Twitter after the show (after actively seeking out criticism he wasn't even tagged in) simply cemented my low opinion of him.

I say I attended 'as many shows as possible', because other commitments meant I did miss a handful of nights. My band Sudden Gunfire opened a local carnival on the second Saturday of the month, a reasonably successful gig from my perspective as a performer, even considering I very nearly fucked it up by forgetting the outro to Metallica's 'Enter Sandman'. Thankfully very few people were there to witness it, because the start time on the printed tickets for the event was a whole hour after we took to the stage (yeah, I'm still a little bitter about that). Perhaps the most frustrating missed show was on the final night of the festival, when I missed Jon RIchardson, one of my all-time favourite comedians, because I was nearly two-hundred miles away in the Peak District (more on that in a bit). I did catch his show back in April, but that was in a thousand-seater theatre, and it would have been amazing to see him in a much smaller, more intimate space. Even in spite of missing some shows, I wound up being one of the festival's top forty attendees, and was rewarded for my dedication with a poster signed by all the performing comedians (pictured right). It's an awesome memento of the month, and I plan to get it framed and up on my wall in the near future.

No sooner had my commitment to the Tringe finished than I found myself being whisked away to another part of the country, for a week's holiday with some friends in the Peak District. Again, for the uninitiated, the Peak District is a national park here in England that sits snugly between the Midlands and the North. It's full of great big hills (hence the name), cliffs, reservoirs, underground caverns and quaint rural villages and towns. It's a beautiful, inspiring part of the country, and I wish I'd been there for more than just a week so I could have taken in a little more of everything. I'll probably end up writing something a little more detailed on my other blog (again, more about that in a while), but for now here's a handful of photos from the trip, all taken by my friend Dean, that say more about the place than I ever could in words:

So that covers pretty much everything that I've been up to in the last six weeks. Except, of course, for the thing that's most relevant to this here website - the video games I've been playing. Yep, that's right - even between work, the comedy and the holiday, I've managed to find a little bit of down-time to play some video games. Which video games, you ask? Let me tell you...

Alice: Madness Returns

I leapt into Alice: Madness Returns after watching an amateur dramatics performance of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland back in June. While the play didn't quite live up to all of its promises, it did leave me eager to spend more time in the weird and wonderful realm of Wonderland, and I chose to do so through the medium of video games. I played the PC version, and even on this humbly-specced laptop, the game ran smoothly and looked great. The lack of free time meant it took me around three weeks to make my way through its fifteen-hour campaign, but although it was a fragmented journey through American McGee's interpretation of Wonderland, it was still an enjoyable one. The gameplay left me satisfied throughout, combining floaty pure platforming sequences with simple puzzle-solving and Zelda-esque combat so successfully that I didn't tire of it at all during my time with the game.

Pokémon Trading Card Game

I spotted this had been put on sale on the 3DS eShop the day before I went away on holiday, and rapidly downloaded it with a view to spending some of my holiday down-time playing through it. I ended up doing just that, beating most of the game's 'club masters' (its equivalent of gym leaders) during the week, then polishing off the 'grand masters' (read: Elite Four) upon my return. It's a surprisingly solid conversion of the actual card game, and despite being fifteen years old it holds up really well. Structurally it's similar to a regular Pokémon game (collect 'em all, beat the eight leaders, get their badges, and take on the Elite Four to prove you're the very best like no one ever was), and It's got a pretty good learning curve that doesn't spoon-feed you every nuance and rule, but doesn't throw you in kicking and screaming at the deep end, either. Card battles are pacy, exciting affairs that fuel a 'just-one-more' mentality in the player that isn't easy to ignore. Sure, it may not look great, but the visuals are functional and do their job well. More than anything, it's got me really secretly hoping that the folks at Nintendo might be testing the waters for a new handheld incarnation of the Pokémon TCG. Throw together a new game like this one with an up-to-date card roster and online play, and I'd be all over that shit.

So only two games beaten in July. A pretty meagre total, but not too bad when you consider the vast amount of other stuff happening at the time. Thankfully August is looking like a much calmer month, with less overtime, less out-of-work commitments, and no three-week, energy-draining, insanity-depleting comedy festival to attend. Under those circumstances, two games in a month looks like a pretty easy number to beat.

I'll be back to writing much more frequently about my gaming time from here on out, mainly because I'm writing more in general. In a bid to re-kickstart my creativity and actually finish my first damn novel, I've committed myself to a programme of daily writing and weekly blogging. That doesn't necessarily mean I'll be blogging weekly here on Giant Bomb, as I've also started maintaining a personal, non-video-game-related blog over on my website, but it does mean that I shouldn't be going through any more six-week stretches without updating you all on what I've been playing. You can expect to hear more from me later in the month, when I'll hopefully have some interesting things to say about Pokémon Colosseum, Fable III and Halo: Reach. Until then, I'd like to thank you very much for reading (especially if you persevered through the first half of this blog, considering it doesn't really have any business being on this website). Take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Colosseum (GCN)

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