My End Of 2012 Awards - Part Three

Welcome, welcome, one and all, to the third part of My End of 2012 Awards. Those of you who've missed Parts One and Two can find them here and here respectively. The rest of you should pull up a chair and get comfy, because we've got some gongs to hand out. The first of today's eight categories is:

'Take Me Back To The Islands' Award for Best Atmosphere

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is nothing short of stunning, and effortlessly captures a sense of place

I had a very conflicting experience with Dear Esther when I played through it in a single sitting back in September. I loved the way it told its story, through piecemeal fragments of letters written to the eponymous Esther, but found the content of the story a bit airy-fairy and lacking in substance due to its deliberate vagueness and ambiguity. What was undeniably brilliant about Dear Esther, though, was its undeniable sense of atmosphere and place. Set on an unidentified Hebridean island, the game takes a wholly unlikely setting for a video game and turns it into one of the most memorable locales I've ever had the pleasure of exploring. So real did the whole thing feel, I could almost taste the salt of the sea, feel the bitter chill of the northern winds on the exposed hilltops, and smell the musty air in the subterranean caverns. Dear Esther has single-handedly made me want to retire to the Hebrides, and see out the rest of my days there doing nothing but writing and walking over those windswept hills.

'Old Red Wine' Award for Vintage Video Game That's Aged Well

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

It may not look the part these days, but Vice City is still as fun to play now as it was in 2002

Another returning award from last year, I've recycled the Old Red Wine Award due to the identical circumstances under which I presented it last year - specifically, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of one of the most influential games ever. Last year the award went to Grand Theft Auto III, and this year it passes on to its sequel, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It's incredible just how well this keystone of the open-world genre has held up in the decade since its release, even more so than its predecessor. That's probably thanks to the game's distinct atmosphere, which perfectly captures the vibe of 1980s Florida in every aspect of its presentation and design. The series' trademark gameplay is as fun to get lost in as it ever was, supported this time around by much more elaborate and inventive mission design. Even now, ten years on from its release, Vice City is still playable, and still a ton of fun.

'I'm In Love With My Car' Award for Best Racing Game

Colin McRae: DiRT

DiRT is a very different beast from the bloated racing sims I'd grown tired of

Here's an award I definitely wasn't expecting to hand out this year. Last year I handed the otherwise-exemplary Forza Motorsport 3 an award for Most Repetitive Racing Sim, cited driving game fatigue as the reason, and declared myself officially done with the genre for the foreseeable future. Twelve months later, I became inexplicably hooked on Colin McRae: DiRT, playing through the entire career mode in little more than a week. After years spent with Forza and Gran Turismo driving round the same courses in the same cars following the same career progression, it was hugely refreshing to drive a little differently, throwing an assortment of off-road vehicles round dirt tracks and through rally courses. The more forgiving handling, simpler career progression and wider variety of courses all combined to renew my interest in racing games. Climbing the full course with a flawless run at Pikes Peak in a Suzuki Escudo was without a doubt one of my favourite gaming moments of 2012.

'Blood On The Valley Floor' Award for Most Blood Spilled in the Shortest Time

The Ultimate DOOM

This is just a minuscule fraction of the blood spilled by the average DOOM player in a single level

I was originally going to call this award simply 'Most Blood Spilled', but very soon realised that such an award would almost undoubtedly go to Skyrim, - I must have spilled a LOT of blood in my 167 hours in Tamriel. So instead, I've renamed the award 'Most Blood Spilled in the Shortest Time', and while I haven't gone to the trouble of working out any exact gallon-to-hour ratios, I feel pretty confident in saying The Ultimate DOOM takes this award comfortably. It took me little more than four hours to hurriedly blast my way through the hundreds of Hell-spawn that litter the corridors of DOOM's three-chapter campaign, leaving no moving thing spared in the process. Given that I also died (a LOT), I also need to take into account the amount of my own blood spilled, and that's what definitely seals the deal for DOOM as the goriest game I played this year.

'Laugh Like You're Mad' Award for Most Laugh-Out-Loud Moments

The First Four Episodes of Sam & Max Save the World

"They're probably hiding a cow!"

Given all four of the episodes I've played of Sam & Max up to this point have all been cut from the same cloth, I feel like it's more appropriate to present them with a collective award rather than trying in vain to identify individual merits within each episode. That being said, no other game I've played this year has even come close to making me chuckle as much as even the least funny episode of Sam & Max Save the World. The unique, surreal brand of humour that Steve Purcell's dog-and-rabbit duo deliver is able to hit me square in the funny bone, and more than once I've found myself laughing out loud at irreverent on-screen happenings. My personal favourite joke so far has been the running conceit of the Toy Mafia and the Mafia-Free Playland and Casino they run in the third episode, perhaps best epitomised by this wonderfully hilarious song. I can't wait to play more Sam & Max in 2013, and I look forward to all the laughs that the remaining twelve episodes are bound to bring me.

'Last Ever Lone Gunman' Award for Best Call of Duty Game

Medal of Honor

Don't be fooled by its appearance - Medal of Honor is a surprisingly modern FPS

The title of this award probably comes across as pretty cynical and sarcastic, but it's not my intention to upset the Call of Duty fan-base. It's more my slightly abstract way of saying that I was surprised by just how playable the original Medal of Honor's campaign was, despite the game being well over a decade old. I was shocked to discover that most of the things I've come to expect from modern shooters were already present in the genre as early as 1999. The controls are logically mapped with a modern configuration (albeit not by default). The missions aren't a straight run from one end of a linear level to another, but punctuated by a series of objectives that must be completed to proceed. There are undercover stealth levels which are all about procuring security papers rather than shooting your way through. Enemies take different amounts of damage depending where you hit them on their bodies, and won't just rush blindly towards you but will drop and take evasive action from your gunfire. All these modern bells and whistles made Medal of Honor much more enjoyable to play than I was expecting it to be.

'Lover Of The Light' Award for Best Use of Light and Darkness as a Gameplay Mechanic

Alan Wake

Effective use of Alan's flashlight is imperative if you intend to stay alive

Consider this a slight spoiler for tomorrow's Top Ten list - Alan Wake was without a doubt one of my favourite gaming experiences of 2012. A big part of that was down to the combat, which combined solid third-person shooting mechanics with a unique 'fight with light' system. Effectively, before the player can turn a gun on an enemy, they must first wear down its shield of darkness by exposing it to enough light using Alan's trusty flashlight. It's a simple idea, but one that kept every gunfight feeling tense and dangerous - having to hold the light on a single enemy in front leaves Wake vulnerable to attack from other angles. Light can also be used to keep enemies at bay in the form of flares, which can either be held or dropped to create a temporary safe-spot for Alan to stand in. This dichotomy between light and dark is masterfully used throughout the game's combat sections, to the point where I came to fear what might be lurking in the darkness much more in Alan Wake than I've ever done in any other video game.

'More Of That Jazz' Award for Best Expansion Pack

Halo 3: ODST

Battling on the streets of New Mombasa felt like Halo, and yet also like something new

From personal experience, the best expansion packs I've ever played have historically offered more of the same gameplay that fans love, while also bringing something a little different to the core experience to differentiate it from the vanilla game. I honestly can't think of a better way to describe Halo 3: ODST than with the aforementioned sentence. It reminds me heavily of Half-Life: Opposing Force, another of my favourite expansions, in that it re-tells a story familiar to fans of the series, but through new eyes and from a different angle - in this case, from the perspective of a squad of ODST troopers dropped into the war zone of New Mombasa concurrently with the events of Halo 2. The combat is unmistakably Halo, but the new perspectives, original setting and film-noir presentation serve to differentiate it from the more familiar feel of Master Chief's three adventures. I'm now really excited to find out what approach Bungie took with their other spin-off, Halo: Reach, when I play it in 2013.

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Here ends the third part of My End of 2012 Awards, and with it the individual awards for games played in the last twelve months. Join me tomorrow for the fourth and final part of this year's awards, when I'll be looking at my favourite album of 2012 and honouring some also-ran games before revealing the Top Ten games that defined my year. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 (X360)

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My End Of 2012 Awards - Part Two

Welcome back to the second part of My End of 2012 Awards. On the off chance you missed the first part of this four-day extravaganza, you can find it by clicking this link here.

Let's hand out some more o' them there awards, shall we? First up:

'Halo / Halo / Halo' Award for Being More Halo

Halo 3

Master Chief's third outing is just as much fun to play as his first two

Quick disclaimer time. First, I promise all the above links are completely safe to click, and not one of them will bombard you with Beyoncé. Second, I realise the name of this award probably makes me sound like a member of the crowd who shouts 'oh look, more Halo' whenever a new trailer is released for an upcoming game in the series. That's honestly not the case - I've come to enjoy Halo because I know the reliably constant gameplay will provide me with exactly what I'm looking for out of this kind of game. Halo 3 certainly didn't disappoint in that respect. The gunplay was consistently fun, and challenging enough to be rewarding without ever feeling unfair or punishing. It's a distinctly beautiful game, and the campaign features some of my favourite set-pieces from everything I've played in this series to date. Halo 3 is more Halo, and that's just about the best compliment anybody could ever give it.

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

Vagrant Story

Vagrant Story is a masterpiece that I wish it hadn't taken me ten years to finish

The second category to return from last year's awards (and one that's very likely to return every year, given my game-playing habits), the Ten Years Gone award recognises games that I played to death back in the day, but never actually completed until recently. Vagrant Story comfortably assumes the position that Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation held on this pedestal last year. I played it for the first time about ten years ago, and loved it immensely, but was never able to get beyond the Snowfly Forest. Fast-forward to 2012, and I was finally able to lay this wonderful game to rest when I saw it through to its end in June. The gameplay and story were every bit as enthralling as I recalled them to be, and even now I'll still champion the game as the finest-looking full-3D title to ever be released on the original PlayStation. I've long held Vagrant Story to be one of my favourite games ever made. Now that I've finally finished it, I feel that claim to be justified, and stronger than it's ever been.

'Creepin' Up The Backstairs' Award for Best Stealth Game

Batman: Arkham Asylum

The Joker's fellow inmates won't know what hit 'em...

In retrospect, I guess Batman: Arkham Asylum isn't really a stealth game, per se. It's a game that features stealth, sure, but it's not the sole focus of the gameplay. That Arkham Asylum is still able to comfortably take this award, over an actual stealth game that I played this year, is testament to the strength of its sneaky bits. What I really loved about Arkham Asylum's take on the age-old gaming trope was how much power it left in the hands of the player, where so many other games would traditionally strip that power away. Rather than sneaking past the Dark Knight's foes, Arkham Asylum encourages you to experiment with the various gadgets hanging off your utility belt, dispatching them swiftly and silently from the shadows. The game's free-flowing melée combat was amazing, arguably even revolutionary, but I had my most fun with Arkham Asylum taking out the Joker's unsuspecting henchmen in a more stealthy fashion. I really hope Arkham City's transition to a more open game world doesn't come at the expense of those incredible stealth sequences.

'Supersonic' Award for Best Audio

Bastion

Bastion's audio is without a doubt the best I heard from any game in 2012

The potential award for Bastion went through a couple of drafts before arriving in its current state. I had initially wanted to give it Best Soundtrack, but to do so seemed like a refusal to acknowledge the game's brilliant narrator. I then contemplated giving it an award for Best Narration, but doing that would have meant overlooking the first game soundtrack ever that I've actually done out of my way to buy and download. My solution was to cover everything under the blanket category of Best Audio. I've spent a lot of the latter part of this year listening to Bastion's soundtrack on my iPod, and I love the ethereal merging of samples and electronic drum loops with rustic guitars. Combine Darren Korb's score with Logan Cunningham's incredible performance as Rucks, and it's very easy to see why Bastion was the game that pleased my ears most in 2012.

'Handwritten' Award for Best Hand-Drawn Animation

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Puzzle Agent looks and animates very similarly to many of my favourite kids' TV shows

The fact this award comes directly beneath the colourful, detailed, hand-crafted beauty of Caelondia in Bastion probably makes this award seem misplaced, but please hear me out before you force me into a straitjacket and ship me off to the nearest padded cell. I didn't have any personal affinity towards Graham Annable's distinctive art style before I played Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent earlier this year. But while playing through that game and solving its many devious puzzles, the simplistic sketch-style artwork and stilted animation transported me back to my childhood. I found myself barely five again, recalling classic, crudely-animated children's TV shows like 'Roobarb and Custard' and 'Henry's Cat'. It was also evocative of one of my all-time favourite kids' shows, 'Mr Benn'. So, while Bastion is undoubtedly the prettier game, it's impossible for me to deny the amount of nostalgic, child-like joy that Puzzle Agent's hand-drawn art brought me.

'What If I Do?' Award for Most Memorable Moral Choices

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

You as the player can decide in a split-second whether this guy lives or dies

It seems strange awarding a game like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory an award pertaining to moral choices, mainly because it's not something many people would associate with UbiSoft's stealthy franchise, myself included. Sure, Chaos Theory presented the player with plenty of new gameplay choices, allowing them to decide to approach any given situation in a few different ways, but to any of those choices really present a moral conundrum? I'd argue yes, and I think it's present in the extreme dichotomy between the L1 and R1 buttons and how they influence Sam Fisher's actions whenever he takes an enemy guard hostage. With one delivering a non-lethal concussive blow and the other dealing a fatal knee strike to the spinal column, the player literally has the power to choose between an enemy's life and death in a split-second. It's this aspect of Chaos Theory that remained with me through the year, long after all the gadgets, locales and labyrinthine plot twists had left my mind.

'Man With Money' Award for Best Tycoon Game

Theme Hospital

It's a proven fact - people pay more when their heads aren't all bloatified

Theme Hospital is technically the only tycoon game I played this year, so I guess it's earned itself this award by default, but that doesn't mean it was a bad gaming experience by any means. On the contrary, I had a lot of fun building various hospitals and watching my doctors cure all manner of weird and wonderful diseases as the cash rolled in. While I'm by no means 'au-fait' with the tycoon genre, Theme Hospital seems to boast as much or as little depth as the player demands of it - I was able to comfortably roll through most of the game's scenarios without too much menu micro-management, but there do seem to be a wealth of options under the hood that would satisfy stat-lovers desperate to maximise their profits. It also helped that the game was pretty funny, although as an NHS employee its satircal take on the notion of putting money before the needs of patients did hit a little harder than expected.

'Somewhere Else' Award for Best Side Quests

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

When in Rome, do as the Romans do - massacre all Templars in sight with a primitive gatling gun!

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is essentially Side Quests: The Game (and in a year when I played Skyrim, I'm not using that phrase lightly). Players looking to take a little time out from Ezio's ruckus with the Borgia will invariably end up in danger of drowning beneath all the odd-jobs and distractions scattered throughout Rome. Most of the fun stuff from Assassin's Creed II makes a welcome return - assassination contracts, rooftop racing, object-collecting and unique subterranean environments that this time serve as optional dungeons housing Keys of Romulus all supplement the game's main missions. In addition to these tried and tested mainstays, the guys at UbiSoft have crammed in even more awesome diversions to whittle away the hours with - city liberation, shop renovation, stopping Da Vinci's war machines... I could go on forever. Without a doubt the biggest addition, though, is the deep and surprisingly engaging Assassin's Guild side-stuff. I spent a lot of time building up my roster of assassins, to the point where it probably defines Brotherhood for me even more than its lacklustre story.

'The Place I Love' Award for Most Memorable Game World

Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee

There's no other world in gaming lore (or anywhere else, for that matter) that's quite like Oddworld

Oddworld was one of the first fictional universes I ever fell in love with. Before I ever picked up a Harry Potter book, or sat through a Lord of the Rings film, I spent hours of my life dodging sligs and scrabs in Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus. As a result, the creatures and lore of Oddworld will always hold a special place in my heart. One of my favourite gaming experiences of this year was finally returning to Oddworld, and for the first time seeing it rendered in full 3D, in Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee. The contrast between the feral beauty of Oddworld's natural environments and the oily oppressiveness of the Glukkon-run industrial sectors is just as striking as it was in Munch's 2D predecessors. The interactions and relationships between the various inhabitants of Oddworld don't seem quite as complex as they were in Abe's Exoddus, but that didn't stop the series' unique blend of platforming and dialogue-based puzzle-solving from captivating me all over again. I really love Oddworld as a setting, and can't wait to return to it next year with Stranger's Wrath.

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There you have it guys - another day, another nine awards handed out to the games that made my 2012. Be sure to come back tomorrow for the final batch of eight awards. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (PC)

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My End Of 2012 Awards - Part One

Welcome, one and all, to the first part of My End of 2012 Awards.

I've been doing these end-of-year, Game-of-the-Year-style blog posts for a few years now, but it wasn't until last year's sprawling effort that I hit on a formula I was really happy with. I've decided to stick with that same formula for this year, using the next three days to present each game I played in 2012 with a unique individual award. The reason for this is simple - rather than giving all the most prestigious awards to a handful of the best games I played this year while ignoring the vast majority, I feel like this approach results in a better representation of how my entire gaming year unfolded. On Day Four (New Year's Eve), I'll round out the awards with a definitive list of my top ten gaming experiences of 2012, so the best games I played have a proper chance to shine.

As with previous years, My End of 2012 Awards won't just be limited to games that came out in 2012. To do so would restrict my awards to a single game (Final Fantasy XIII-2), the end result of which probably wouldn't be all that interesting. Instead, I'll be throwing the award-doors wide open to every game I've played and beaten over the course of the last twelve months, no matter when they were released. Alongside the aforementioned token 2012 release, you'll see a game from all the way back in 1993, and plenty of stuff that came in between. As long as I played it in 2012, I think it's fair game to be considered for a 2012 awards blog.

So with all that explained and hopefully out of the way, let's proceed with the first batch of awards, shall we?

'Bricks And Mortar' Award for Most Promising Foundation for a Series

Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing

I would love to see Sega do more with this great base for a franchise

I had more fun playing Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing than I've had playing any other kart racer since Crash Team Racing way back on the original PlayStation. That's largely because the core racing mechanics are so much fun, offering a simple but thrilling take on mascot racing not wholly dissimilar to the aforementioned CTR or even the Mario Kart franchise. There are lots of cups to win, a host of missions to complete, and all manner of awesome rewards to unlock in the game's shop menu. As I played Sega Racing, though, I couldn't help but feel that with a little more time, every single aspect of it could have been a little better fleshed-out. By the end of my time with it I was longing for a little more depth to the racing and a proper story mode to sink my teeth into. As things stand though, Sega Racing is a brilliant starting point for a kart-racing series, with load of potential for growth and improvement. I haven't played the recently-released sequel Transformed as yet, but I hope to find out whether Sega have delivered on that potential in 2013.

'Shiny Happy People' Award for Most Memorable Characters

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES

I won't be forgetting the awesome S.E.E.S. team any time soon

Despite finishing the game as early as February, Persona 3 has stayed with me all through the year. A big part of that is down to the personalities of the game's cast of characters, all of whom left a lasting mark on me long after my playthrough of The Journey was over. The characters that make up the player's S.E.E.S. squad all have distinct personalities, and to begin with they seem to adhere to conventional JRPG archetypes, but as the adventure runs its course every member of the squad is revealed as a well-written, well rounded individual. That care and attention shown by the writers is extended to the various Social Links within the game too. Most of these interactions are centred on the theme of loss, and more specifically dealing with loss, and really resonated with me due to what I was going through in my own life while playing Persona 3. I don't think I'll ever forget the likes of Bunkichi and Mitsuko, little Maiko, Akinari, and all the other people I met in my time at Gekkoukan High.

'Shatter' Award for Game That Broke My Rose-Tinted Glasses

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend

Legend is good, but nowhere near as great as I used to believe it was

I've long been a Tomb Raider fan. Anybody who read this year's Christmas Mega-Blog has probably ascertained that much about me. When I elected to replay the entire Crystal Dynamics trilogy in quick succession earlier this year, it was a decision motivated by nostalgia. It didn't take me very long to learn that in the case of these particular games, nostalgia can be a fickle mistress. I recalled Tomb Raider: Legend as a stunning return to form for Lara Croft after the disappointing Angel of Darkness nearly wiped her off the face of the gaming industry - a little on the short side, but redeemed by its innovative gameplay improvements, beautiful environments, and better-realised heroine. Fast-forward to 2012, and the benefit of hindsight reveals those innovations to be directly lifted from Prince of Persia, and the 'new-and-improved' Lara undermined by a plethora of skimpy unlockable costumes tucked away for the most dedicated players to sniff out. Legend is still a good game, but it's not the Tomb Raider I once imagined it to be.

'Time Flies' Award for Biggest Time Sink

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim is huge, and the only restriction on one's time spent there is oneself

I spent more time in the snowy wastes of Skyrim than I did with any other game this year. I played Bethesda's latest RPG masterpiece for a total of 167 hours. To put that into perspective, that's just one hour short of a full WEEK. In that time I led my humble Nord through not only the main quest, but also to the head of the Companions and the Mages' College, and I even found time to help the Stormcloaks win the civil war. Even if that were the total of my time spent with Skyrim, it would have waltzed home with this award comfortably. But I can't write about this game without mentioning my A Month in Skyrim blog series, a monstrous thirty days of consecutive daily blogs, chronicling my first eighty-odd hours of adventuring in the north of Tamriel. The fact each entry took me a couple of hours to write adds another 60 hours to my total, bringing it to nearly 230 hours of living and breathing Skyrim this year. And do you know the scariest thing? I'm more than ready to jump right back in in 2013, to see all the unexplored content and new DLC the game has to offer, and lose my life to it once again.

'You Could Have It So Much Better' Award for Best Remake

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary

Anniversary is faithful to its inspiration, but confident enough in its own strengths too

After the aforementioned disappointment of Legend not living up to my nostalgic memories, I was very worried about picking up the next game in the Crystal Dynamics trilogy. Thankfully, it didn't take long for the game itself to prove me wrong. Tomb Raider: Anniversary carries forward everything I loved about the original Tomb Raider - the brilliant puzzles, the memorable level design, and gorgeous environments that pique the exploring player's interest - and faithfully re-imagined them using the Tomb Raider Legend engine. The slicker platforming and traversal, more interesting combat, and the extra graphical horsepower of the PlayStation 2 all help to make Anniversary feel like the game the old CORE Design team might have made if they hadn't been limited by technology. As it stands, Tomb Raider Anniversary is far and away the best Tomb Raider game, and not only the best remake I played in 2012, but probably the best remake I've ever played, period.

'Tales Of Brave Ulysses' Award for Worst Use of Real-World Mythology in an Original Narrative

Tomb Raider: Underworld

Nothing says 'Viking end-of-days myth' quite like Southern Mexico

There are lots of things I could have criticised Tomb Raider: Underworld for when it came to giving it an award. I could have singled out its decision to abandon everything learned in developing Anniversary in favour of reverting to the framework established by Legend. I could have picked on it for its bugginess, citing a frustrating camera, level geometry and collision detection for wrecking the otherwise fluid platforming. But instead, I've chosen to draw attention to the game's fucking batshit crazy bastardization of Norse mythology. That Crystal Dynamics ret-con a bunch of Norse motifs into various other ancient cultures (many of which preceded Norse culture by several centuries) is bad enough. What's completely unforgivable though, is the absurdity of the final level, in which Lara is actually given the fucking Hammer of Thor to wield, against an immortal Atlantean queen, in a subterranean ocean cave in the Arctic Sea, while proto-Norse machinery threatens to bring about the end of the world. It's poetic license so outrageous that it makes even Legend look faithful to its source material by comparison.

'Pain Is So Close To Pleasure' Award for Most Sado-Masochistic Gaming Experience

Grand Theft Auto

Forget drugs, kids - THIS is what self-destruction looks like

Playing Grand Theft Auto this year was, at times, little more than an exercise in punishing myself. Part of that was down to the game's archaic mechanics, which were very much a product of their time. Drawing inspiration from arcade releases, as many games did back then, the original GTA was built on the premise of earning high scores by chaining multipliers and trying one's damndest not to die. The gameplay is pretty unforgiving though, with devilish design decisions such as 'only taking one hit before you die' and 'not being able to retry any failed missions' making things nigh-impossible by default. Add to this the personal frustration I experienced from frequent, irregular and unpredictable disc lock-ups, one of which struck as I was on my way to a final meet after hitting my target in order to complete a level, and you have a recipe for the video gaming equivalent of self-harm. I don't know what kept me going, but I did finally see the end of GTA, and shortly afterwards vowed to never, ever play it again.

'You Better You Bet' Award for Most Improved Sequel

Final Fantasy XIII-2

Exploring Final Fantasy XIII-2's environments was a much more rewarding experience

Final Fantasy XIII-2 earns itself the first of only four returning award categories from last year, wrestling the award from Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood by achieving something I honestly thought it would fail to - specifically, being better than Final Fantasy XIII. My feelings on the thirteenth instalment of the long-running Final Fantasy series were conflicted, and to be fair so were my feelings towards its sequel. What really earned FFXIII-2 this award is the fact that it improves on what I felt to be the weakest aspects of FFXIII - namely its linearity, and a lack of gameplay variety. FFXIII-2 addresses the first of these concerns by providing the player with much more open environments that, while still ostensibly fairly linear, provide the player with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. It also boasts a much wider variety of gameplay types and side-quests to keep the player engaged. On top of this, it preserves the awesome Paradigm-centric battle system of FFXIII, as well as throwing in a monster-raising aspect to keep things interesting. It may have been a little weaker in terms of its story and characters, but as far as actually playing the game went, I found FFXIII-2 much more engaging than the game that spawned it.

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Well, that's a wrap on the first day of My End of 2012 Awards. Tomorrow I'll be serving out another nine individual awards to games that defined my year. It'd be awesome if you could join me for it. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (PC)

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Dan's 2012 Christmas Mega-Blog - Part Three

The gifts may all be opened and the turkey all gone, but here at DanKempster Towers, Christmas isn't quite over yet. There's still one thing that must be done, and I'm not talking about that mountain of washing-up in the kitchen. I'm referring to the writing of the final instalment in this year's three-part Christmas Mega-Blog. If you missed part one or part two, you can find them here and here respectively. While you get caught up with those, the rest of us will move on with today's entry into the esteemed Hall of Mega-Blogs:

Part Three - The Master League Mystery

A quick disclaimer to avoid any potential confusion: for the duration of this blog, I will be using the word 'football' to refer to the sport you American-types know as 'soccer'. I am not talking about American football.

This man is a proven racist. Yet he is still internationally lauded as a hero. Look at his fucking smug face. This is why I hate professional football.

Let's get this fact out of the way first and foremost - I am not a football fan. I have no real problems with the sport itself, which by all accounts seems like a perfectly fine game on the occasions I've played it with friends. My problem with football is derived purely from the professional game and everything that surrounds it. I cannot abide the whole 'money culture' of top-flight football - the fact that some players earn more in a week than a lot of regular folk bring home in five years, simply for kicking a bag of wind around, is enough to make my blood boil. It irritates me that several of the sport's most-revered players do nothing to earn the adoration they command, their behaviour in too many cases landing at the opposite end of the spectrum. The yob culture and hooliganism, which while no means widespread is nonetheless tolerated and even condoned by some fans, makes me sick to my stomach. That people can be abusive, racist, or even murderous over a fucking game of football was enough to convince me I wanted to play no part in the upholding of this sporting institution.

And yet, removed from the grimness of reality and transposed into a virtual realm, football becomes something that not only interests me, but also that I can become completely absorbed in. Yes - despite hating professional football, I thoroughly enjoy playing football video games. This year alone, I have invested a surprising seventy hours into Pro Evolution Soccer 2011, a time sink beaten only by some one-hundred-and-fifteen hours spent in Skyrim at the start of the year. Almost all of that time has been spent in the game's deep and involving Master League mode, in which the player takes a default team of fictional footballing no-hopers and, through a combination of training and transfers, tries to turn them into European champions. There's just something about virtual recreations of the sport that manages to captivate me in a way that their real-life counterpart could never hope to. I've long wondered what that something might be, and after giving it a lot of careful thought, I think I've got an answer.

Strip away the real-world drama and all that's left is the football itself

I've been intending to write a blog about this for quite some time, but it's only while playing through more of Pro Evolution Soccer 2011's Master League mode over the last couple of months that I've started to feel that I can justify my willingness to play these games at length, in spite of my distaste for the sport they represent. In that two-month time frame, I've taken my team of promising young players from relative obscurity in the middle of the second division to competently holding their own in the English Premier League, vying for a potential qualifying spot in the lesser of two European tournaments. Part of it might well be down to the separation from reality inherent in these games - within the virtual realm, their ungodly wages don't matter, their inappropriate behaviour ceases to exist, and abusive fans are reduced to lifeless cardboard cut-outs sitting in the stands. All that's left, then, is the action that unfolds upon the pitch - the game itself, and as I've said above, I don't have any problem with that at all.

But if that psychological aspect plays any part in my enjoyment of modes like Master League and the FIFA series' Ultimate Team, I'm convinced it's just a small one. What really draws me into these modes, I think, are the same attractions that still draw me into vast RPGs - namely, the promise of character management and development, strategic battling, and several hours of progression from next-to-nothing status, ultimately paying off with an ultimate showdown. That probably sounds crazy, but give me a chance to explain:

  • Character Management & Development - This is evident in the mechanics of squad management and player growth and decline. A big part of building a competitive team in Master League is picking up promising young players from the transfer market and encouraging them to develop into potentially world-class players through a combination of training and match experience, in much the same way an RPG player will see their characters grow and become stronger over the course of an adventure. I get an undeniable thrill out of picking up a tender youngster and turning him into a defence-terrorising monster or an unbeatable centre-back.
  • Strategic Battles - This, unsurprisingly, refers to the meat and potatoes of the gameplay - the football matches themselves. While the mechanics can be explained reductively as 'get the ball and kick it into the net', there's a lot more than that going on in any on-pitch battle. Every player has their own individual strengths and weaknesses, the former of which can be used to one's advantage, and the latter of which should be guarded against as best as possible. There's nothing more exhilarating than identifying an opponent's weakness, exploiting it successfully, and being rewarded with a goal. Sometimes it happens the other way, of course, but such is the nature of football. These battles of strategy and attrition are a big part of what keeps me coming back for one more match in Master League.
  • 'Zero-To-Hero' Progression - Pretty much every RPG ever conceived has been centred on the idea of taking one or more relative nobodies and, through the investment of time, money and experience, gradually transforming them into the most powerful force their world has ever known. Replace the fantasy world and tropes with a football pitch and you essentially have the core conceit of any Master League campaign. Building a squad to be reckoned with is no easy task - you have to scour the transfer market for bargains, allocate your training resources wisely, and then (most importantly) translate those purchases and statistics into a convincing performance on match night. Currently nearing the end of my fourth season, I've come a long way from my starting point, but I still have a long way to go if I hope to keep moving upwards and ultimately achieve my final aim of winning the UEFA Champions League.
Pro Evo 2011 - released in 2010, bought in 2012, keeping me busy well into 2013.

So there you have it. That's the most likely reason why this anti-soccer fuddy-duddy loves football video games - because under the hood, they're essentially just great big football-themed Final Fantasies and Skyrims that stimulate all the same RPG-loving pleasure-centres in my easily-fooled brain. I'm sure Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 will continue to see several more hours of playtime well into 2013. If I ever lift that Champions League trophy, I'll be sure to let you all know. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading this year's Christmas Mega-Blog. I hope you've all had a brilliant Christmas, and wish you all the very best for the coming New Year. I'll be taking a brief break from my hectic year's-end blogging schedule tomorrow, but I'll be back on Friday night with the first instalment of my four-part End Of 2012 Awards. Take care y'all, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (PC)

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Dan's 2012 Christmas Mega-Blog - Part Two

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, unto the blog of dankempster. You're just in time for the second part of Dan's 2012 Christmas Mega-Blog. If the first part eluded you, it can now be found here. It also explains the concept of the Christmas Mega-Blog, and the tradition behind it, so I won't get into all that again here. Instead, I'll plough straight on into the meat of this blog:

Part Two - The Festive Tomb Raider Retrospective

As part of last year's Christmas Mega-Blog, I did something I'd been meaning to do for years and finally laid bare my personal opinion of every core game in the Final Fantasy franchise that I'd played. Part Two of this year's Christmas Mega-Blog sees me revisiting and re-evaluating another video game franchise that has long been close to my heart - namely, Tomb Raider.

The end of 2012 feels like an ideal time for me to make this journey through my own personal gaming history, not least because the year itself has been pretty Croft-heavy for me already. Earlier on in the year I replayed all three games in Crystal Dynamics' Legend/Anniversary/Underworld trilogy, an enjoyable experience that nonetheless left me a little clueless as to where I actually stand with Lara these days. Another reason I've decided to pursue this idea is due early on next year, in the form of a series reboot - the simply titled Tomb Raider. Hopefully by looking back over the series one game at a time, I'll be able to ascertain exactly why this series held so much sway over my young gamers' mind (even at this early stage in the proceedings, I'm pretty sure it wasn't the breasts), and what aspects of the games I've enjoyed and deplored.

As with last year's Final Fantasy retrospective, I'll only be considering the nine games from the core franchise (and no, I don't mean the CORE franchise). Partly because Lara's handful of spin-off adventures don't really serve to represent the franchise as a whole, but mainly because I've never played any of them. As a consequence, you won't see any Guardian of Light or Curse of the Sword on this list. After racking my brains for some vestige of how fondly (or not-so-fondly) I remember them, I'll try to assign each game a star rating out of five in the true Giant Bomb spirit.

...man, I wish I'd given this a little more careful consideration before leaping in blindly on the strength of the premise alone. Ah well, can't be helped. Let's begin, shall we?

Tomb Raider

The start of something special

I can still recall the day that Lara Croft entered my life - Christmas Day, 1998. My parents brought a PlayStation into the house that day, accompanied by games including Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and the original Tomb Raider. I wasn't allowed to play it at first, my parents adopting the 'it's got guns in it and therefore probably isn't appropriate' line. I was allowed to sit and watch them play it, though, and marvelled at what I perceived to be huge open environments and fiendishly difficult puzzles. My first taste of the series as a player came when my dad asked me to make a jump that he couldn't, thus kindling a player/character relationship that has lasted almost fifteen years.

I think Tomb Raider won me over at the tender age of eight largely because it represented the partial realisation of a fantasy. I was obsessed with dinosaurs at the time (you can imagine how much of an impact The Lost Valley left on me), and aspired to become a palaeontologist when I grew up, gallivanting to every corner of the world to unearth hidden treasures in the form of fossils. For as long as I held that ambition, the Tomb Raider series managed to at least slightly appease it. Most of the game was centred on well-designed puzzles (to date, the Temple of Midas remains one of my all-time favourite Tomb Raider levels), exploration and discovery, with combat playing only an incidental, auxiliary role in the proceedings. Working out how to navigate the game's myriad rooms and open its numerous locked doors was challenging but immensely rewarding, to the point where the plot, the characters and the settings didn't really matter. Even looking back at it now, I find it easy to forgive the awful draw distance, the rudimentary graphics and the tank-like controls, because the simple act of playing it is enough to make me feel like an adventurer.

Rating -

Tomb Raider II

A little less exploration, a little more action please

My strongest persisting memory of Tomb Raider II is that it was a lot more combat-heavy than its predecessor. This was evident not only in the game's decision to feature larger numbers of mostly human enemies, but also in its much wider arsenal of weaponry - some nine or ten different weapons by my reckoning, compared to the original's humble total of four. This focus on gunfights is ultimately what has pushed Tomb Raider II below the other CORE-developed PlayStation titles in my nostalgic memory, I think. As I said above, combat in CORE's original Tomb Raider engine was simple, and presumably intended to be an auxiliary component of the games' mechanics. By bringing the most shallow facet of Tomb Raider's gameplay to the forefront of the experience, Tomb Raider II's development team stifled the thrill of exploration and discovery that ultimately made the first game so memorable to me. More to the point, fighting enemies that could shoot with pin-point accuracy meant that combat became less about opening fire while dodging the enemy, and more about holding down X and waiting to see whose lifebar dwindled more rapidly. That being said, there's no denying it was kind of fun to launch a grenade into an enemy and watch him gib into his constituent body parts.

In retrospect, the other problem I have with Tomb Raider II is that it was the first game in the series around which Lara Croft was openly treated like a sex-object. Promotional material for the game depicted Lara not only in her traditional aquamarine shirt and brown shorts, but also in revealing evening-wear and even a bikini. The fact that the publishers felt the need to appease the drooling, hormonal teen male demographic from here on out is something I've long found to be more than a little irritating, even if it's no fault of the game itself. I'm not saying Tomb Raider II was completely without merit, though. It expanded on the exploration gameplay in some meaningful ways, most notably by giving Lara the ability to climb on certain surfaces. Drivable vehicles, now a mainstay of the franchise, made their debut in Tomb Raider II. The puzzles I remember to be fairly solid, if not as outright memorable as some of those in the original, and the variety of new locations was pretty cool too. It's just a shame more time wasn't spent bringing those aspects of the game up to the level of its predecessor, instead of filling every single room with umpteen black-coated thugs wielding sub-machine guns.

Rating -

Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft

Better balanced, with player-oriented choice

I have fond memories of Tomb Raider III, the first game in the series to boast a silly subtitle (seriously, what were the first two Tomb Raider games if not adventures of Lara Croft?). Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that CORE redressed the balance of gameplay somewhat, cutting back a little on the shooting and once more placing emphasis on exploring the game's environments and solving the cryptic riddles of long-lost civilizations. The puzzles didn't always hit the mark from what I can recall, but the outdoor locales are some of my favourites in the series on PS1. From India and Nevada to the South Pacific and Antarctica, there's a very broad variety of environments to explore in Tomb Raider III, and thanks to some iterative improvements to the engine, there's a few new ways to explore them too. Additionally, for the first time in a Tomb Raider game, players were given a choice in which order to tackle them. This illusory premise of player choice doesn't really amount to much - the game starts in India and ends in Antarctica, but between those two bookends players can choose which order to tackle the game's other three scenarios in.

While the outdoor and natural environments in Tomb Raider III are some of my favourites in the series, its indoor and urban environments are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. I recall hating the London levels of this game with a raw passion, to the point where I've never actually finished them, and consequently have never completed the game. That may, again, be down to the over-reliance on human enemies in combat for these levels, which is made even more frustrating within enclosed environments and small rooms. Ultimately though, Tomb Raider III was an improvement on Tomb Raider II - an iterative improvement, perhaps, but an improvement nonetheless.

Rating -

Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation

Focus and direction are the strengths of The Last Revelation

In tough competition with the original Tomb Raider for the title of my favourite game in the series on the original PlayStation, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation represents the closest the series ever came to truly evolving on Sony's old grey box. The engine, controls and gameplay components might all have been the same, but The Last Revelation marked a step forward for the franchise in other, less obvious ways. Taking a leaf out of several adventure games, inventory items could be combined in order to create new items or upgraded weapons, opening up new opportunities for the game's puzzle designers. At certain points, players could move back and forth between some locations at will, again encouraging level designers to stagger puzzles across multiple levels. The graphics were revamped, extending to more detailed characters models, better fire effects, and even moving lips, all making Lara and her surroundings look a little more realistic.

The most important improvement for me though, was the developers' decision to set The Last Revelation entirely within a single locale - specifically Egypt. Having a unified foundation on which to build their game, the developers put together a more focused game, and through drawing on a single subset of mythology managed to deliver the series' strongest story since the first game. The Last Revelation is by no means perfect - the aforementioned freer level and puzzle design make for some confusing puzzles in the game's later stages, and can even result in the player putting themselves in a game-breaking position on the penultimate level. There's also the ever-present issue of Lara's over-sexualisation to appease the male twenty-somethings, this time in the form of a demure, pigtails-sporting teenage Lara in the game's opening tutorial flashback. These issues aside, though, I was very impressed by Lara's fourth outing.

Rating -

Tomb Raider: Chronicles

Not a bad game, but far too formulaic

I don't have too many memories of Tomb Raider: Chronicles from my childhood, but that's probably because I was never a huge fan of it. Built around the idea of Lara's friends gathering together to share memories of her after her supposed death in Egypt at the end of The Last Revelation, it's split into four isolated 'chapters', each one telling a small story about everyone's favourite video game heroine. There's a fair bit of globe-trotting, some obscure puzzles to be solved, and plenty of treasure to be reclaimed - business as usual for Miss Croft, then. And that's kind of the problem - Chronicles doesn't throw the player any curve balls at all. The whole thing feels just a little too 'safe'.

It's probably a weird comparison to draw, but Tomb Raider: Chronicles reminds me a lot The Black Crowes' By Your Side. Much like that album, Chronicles feels like a piece of work made to fulfil a contractual obligation of some sort - like Eidos wanted another annual Tomb Raider instalment, and this is what they got. But while it's a perfectly serviceable Tomb Raider game, it's missing a lot of the soul and identity that defined the earlier games in the series. There's nothing inspired or forward-thinking about it - it's simply Tomb Raider-by-numbers, both for better and for worse.

Rating -

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness

A mess, and that's putting it politely

Oh man. Where do I even begin to dissect the steaming pile that is Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness? I waited three years for the release of this game, a length of time that may not seem unreasonable in these post-Duke Nukem Forever days, but which seemed interminable as a youngster who at this point was used to getting an annual dose of Lara. Not a month went by without reassuring words from the developers at CORE appearing in a copy of Official PlayStation Magazine, assuring eager fans that the delay was simply to ensure Lara's latest outing was polished to a diamond-like sheen. What we got when the game was finally released in the summer of 2003 was a near-unplayable, rushed and likely unfinished mess.

The dark, gritty presentation was unnecessary and unwanted. The gameplay hadn't really evolved beyond the formula established with the PS1 titles. Ideas such as dialogue trees and an economic system lie half-finished, seemingly abandoned in the middle of development. Weird level geometry, frustratingly bad collision detection and an unwieldy camera turned every platforming sequence into a test of the player's patience. If the game has a single redeeming feature, it's in its visuals - I remember the locales of Paris and Prague being strikingly detailed, and the design of some of the dungeon interiors has left a lasting imprint on my memory (the Hall of Seasons in particular). But given a choice in the matter, I don't think I'd be willing to return to Angel of Darkness for another go round, even if you paid me.

Rating -

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend

Crystal Dynamics handled Lara's rebirth brilliantly

Here is where I begin to feel like I'm moving into safer critical territory - having played all three Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games earlier this year, I'll be less reliant on nostalgia to guide my writing from here on out. I remember being reluctant to pick up Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend, as after the abomination that was The Angel of Darkness, I wasn't sure that Lara's new developer would be able to restore her to her former glory. Thankfully I couldn't have been more wrong. Legend revitalised the decade-old franchise with slick Prince of Persia-style traversal, improved third-person shooter-style combat, and a wealth of large-scale environmental puzzles to solve. Legend did everything that The Angel of Darkness should have done, and for that I both loved and respected it.

If I had to level any complaints at Legend, the first would be at its length. Clocking in at only seven or eight hours, it's significantly shorter than anything that came before. Crystal Dynamics attempt to make up for this by throwing in a huge number of distractions and unlockables, but therein lies my second complaint with Legend - far too many of those unlockables are there for the sole purpose of over-sexualising Lara. To give an example, the final, most prestigious unlockable, the highest possible reward the player can attain in Legend, is a skimpy bikini outfit for Lara. It goes a long way towards undoing a lot of the effort that Crystal Dynamics went to to make her feel more human - more realistically-proportioned dimensions, a great voice actor in the actress Keeley Hawes, and enough human interaction to portray a personality beyond a wise-cracking Indiana Jones-type. The story is also shockingly terrible, a bastardisation of Arthurian legend homogenised with myths from various long-lost cultures. But if you can look past these flaws, Legend is an absolute joy to play, and is without a doubt one of the best reboots of last generation.

Rating -

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary

A superb remake, and the greatest Tomb Raider

This might be strange to hear coming from a big fan of the original Tomb Raider, but when I heard that Crystal Dynamics were planning to celebrate its anniversary with an updated remake, I was instantly excited. The prospect of marrying the revamped gameplay systems introduced in Legend with the story, levels and puzzles of the original piqued my interest as soon as I heard the news, and I ended up buying the aptly-titled Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary pretty much immediately on its release. It didn't disappoint. Members of the original's development team were brought on by Crystal Dynamics to help build the remake, an effort that's clearly reflected in just how much a labour of love the resulting game is.

As I've said above, the puzzles of the original are almost certainly my favourites of the series, and I loved the environments too. To see them recreated in Crystal Dynamics' new engine really hit me in the nostalgia-centres of my brain, and gave the feeling that this is the kind of game the original CORE team wanted to make, had technology not put limitations on their vision. It addresses my chief complaint about Legend by clocking in at around twice its length, while still offering just as many unlockables as its predecessor. Admittedly some of those unlockables still fall into the age-old trap of turning Lara into little more than an adventurous pair of tits, but when the overall package is this great, even that's easy to forgive. If you only ever play one Tomb Raider game, make it this one.

Rating -

Tomb Raider: Underworld

Gorgeous, but that's about all that's going for it

Tomb Raider: Underworld is much to the Crystal Dynamics trilogy what Angel of Darkness was to the CORE-developed titles. That might sound harsh, considering Underworld is ostensibly a much better game, but I think their positions in relation to their peers are comparable. Both games were developed for a new generation of hardware, resulting in games that were far more graphically impressive than their respective predecessors. However, they also both suffered from crippling bugs and a lack of innovation that ultimately disappointed the Tomb Raider fan base. Underworld is at least highly playable, and a great deal of fun when it's working properly. it's a shame, then, that it's further hampered by a terrible story that, in trying to tie together the narratives of Legend and Anniversary, makes the plot of Legend look positively Shakespearean by comparison.

When Underworld is good, it's very good. It features some of the series' greatest, largest and most detailed environments (due in no small part to the extra horsepower of being developed primarily with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in mind). The environmental puzzles are at least equal in quality to those of Legend, even if they don't quite reach the same lofty heights of Anniversary. It's just a shame that those good moments are punctuated by moments of platforming frustration and overly familiar combat. Underworld also reverts to the eight-hour length of Legend, although in this case, that could be considered more a relief than it is a disappointment.

Rating -

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As I wrap up writing this blog, I've checked the Steam Winter Sale and have just noticed that a collection pack comprising all nine of the games above is currently on sale for the very reasonable price of £9.99 (I'm not sure of the American store price - $14.99 maybe?). If you're willing to look past some of the archaic mechanics of the CORE-developed titles (and to overlook Angel of Darkness completely), that bundle at that price is a veritable steal. At the very least, I highly recommend you pick up Anniversary (it's just £1.74 on its own), to experience the series at its very best. I guess all that remains to be done now is to wish all of you at Giant Bomb a very Merry Christmas. I hope it's a fantastic day for you all. Hopefully I'll see you again this time tomorrow for the third and final part of this year's Christmas Mega-Blog - a ponderous look at my irrational obsession with Pro Evolution Soccer's Master League mode. Until then, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (PC)

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Dan's 2012 Christmas Mega-Blog - Part One

I am dankempster! I am feeling festive!

Christmas is a time that's all about upholding tradition. From the giving of gifts and the cooking of tremendous turkey dinners, through to the heated family arguments over games of Trivial Pursuit, we all feel somehow obliged to adhere to these Yuletide mainstays every December. Break with any one of those traditions, no matter how inconsequential it might seem, and the whole day feels a little less like Christmas as a result. One of my own personal Christmas traditions that I've upheld every winter since joining Giant Bomb back in 2008 is to celebrate the festive season by writing a multi-part Christmas Mega-Blog. Typically posted on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, planning and writing a triumvirate of tantalising blogs has become as much a part of my countdown to Christmas as the opening of an advent calendar. In previous years I've written about everything from Final Fantasy and Majora's Mask, to loading up old game saves and even a Christmas-themed Giant Bomb poem.

So what's on the agenda for this year's Christmas Mega-Blog, I hear you cry? Well dear reader, allow me to sate your blog-thirst with my traditional food-based analogy:

  • Part One serves as the prawn cocktail starter to this festive feast. Traditionally, this has always been a brief summary of how I intend to spend the Christmas period, what gifts I'll be giving, and what I'm hoping to receive. That's a tradition I plan to uphold below.
  • Part Two, coming tomorrow on Christmas Day, acts as the main course - a ginormous turkey dinner of a blog, complete with all the trimmings. I'm planning to borrow the format of last year's Final Fantasy Retrospective, and apply it to another beloved franchise in the form of Tomb Raider. Having played through three of Lara's adventures this year, and with a new game just around the corner, now feels like an ideal time to revisit my opinions of every single core title in a franchise I pretty much grew up with.
  • Part Three, served up on Boxing Day, is the equivalent of a healthy helping of Christmas pudding and custard for dessert. This year I'll be looking at my long-standing obsession with the Pro Evolution Soccer series' Master League mode, and trying to deduce what's made me sink over seventy hours of this year into a game based on a sport I don't follow or even particularly like.

That all cleared up? Good. Now let's get stuck into the first part of Dan's 2012 Christmas Mega-Blog proper!

Part One - A Very DanKempster Christmas

It wouldn't be Dan's Christmas Mega-Blog without a stock festive image stolen from Google!

This year's Christmas is going to be a low-key affair, even by my family's already-reserved standards. It's been a pretty crappy year for all of us, punctuated by bad news and the losses of good friends, beloved family and incredible colleagues. However much we don't want it to, Christmas is going to serve as an unavoidable reminder that those people are no longer with us. On the other hand, though, it's also going to serve as an opportunity to bring a battered and fragmented family back together, to unite us and remind us of what we do still have. On Christmas Day evening we'll be going to my mum's parents' place, and my dad's father will be joining us for the day on Boxing Day. I love spending time with my grandparents, especially at this time of year, and I can't wait to watch terrible Christmas TV and play old board games with them.

People who've read previous Mega-Blogs will be aware that the commercial side of Christmas has never much interested me, and this year is certainly no exception in terms of receiving gifts. I haven't asked anyone for anything this year, largely because I'm not really wanting for anything at the moment. My parents are just giving me a little money this year, but I don't have any idea what I'll be spending it on. Not having asked for anything means I'm a little more excited about the prospect of receiving gifts this year, though - because I haven't given my sisters or friends any real hints, I genuinely have no idea what I might be receiving from them this year. It's a slightly more tantalising prospect than last year, where I knew or could guess what everyone was going to buy me based on suggestions I'd given them.

Instead of thinking about what I'd like to receive, I've put a lot of thought this year into gift-giving. One of the best (and simultaneously one of the worst) things about this year is that thanks to finally finding an awesome job back in April, I was able to save up enough money to get my family and friends some half-decent gifts this year. Last year I ended up having to sell a lot of my own possessions in order to pay for presents, and while such an act might epitomise the spirit of Christmas, it was tough having to part with some of my favourite games, CDs and DVDs to that end. This year has been much less self-sacrificing. Below is a list of some of the gifts I've given or will be giving this year:

  • My father is notoriously difficult to buy for, but I'm pretty pleased with what I got him in the end. His wallet fell apart earlier this year, so I've got him a Primehide leather one to replace it. We have two dogs, an Alaskan malamute and a collie/malamute cross, both of which he adores and walks most nights, so I've also bought him a hoodie which reads 'Keep Calm And Walk The Alaskan Malamute'.
  • My mother had half of her Christmas present last month, when her old phone went through the washing machine and my sister and I collaborated to replace it. The other half, which she'll be opening on Christmas Day, is a cross-stitch tapestry of Elvis Presley playing his guitar.
  • My older-younger sister (so dubbed because she's older than my other sister, but younger than me) is obsessed with Hello Kitty, so I got her a branded pink bathrobe. To complement this I've also bought her a box of goodies from natural cosmetics company Lush.
  • My younger-younger sister is a big fan of Green Day, so my Christmas presents to her are centred on her favourite band. I ordered her some official merchandise in the form of an American Idiot hoodie, and I've also bought her copies of both of their live albums to round out her CD collection.
  • I bought CDs, DVDs, books and games for most of my friends. My best friend is a huge Gerald Durrell fan, so I've bought her a handful of his books that she hasn't read yet. Another of my friends loves the GTA series, but has steered clear of Red Dead Redemption for reasons unknown, so I've used this festive season as an opportunity to force it on him. A third friend, who adored Skyrim when he played it earlier this year, has been treated to a copy of Morrowind. No doubt you get the idea, so I'll stop now.
Kookie is both a loyal companion and trusted accountant

So there we have it - that'll be my Christmas, and I'll be celebrating it in roughly twenty-four hours' time. Speaking of which, be sure to return then (if you can) for the second part of this year's Christmas Mega-Blog. I'd love to know how you guys are planning to pass your Christmas Day too, so please feel free to share your plans in the comments below. Until then, here's a picture of my two dogs, one of whom is wearing a very fetching purple tie. Merry Christmas, Giant Bomb! I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (PC)

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Beating Bosses To Beat Blood Cancer

Tomorrow, I'm going to be doing something I've never attempted before - playing video games for twenty-four hours straight, to raise money for charity. I've spoken about it a little in my last few blog posts, but as the event looms ever closer, I feel it's probably a big enough deal for me to devote a full entry to it.

I'm ready to game for leukaemia research!

I was inspired to set myself this challenge by the Extra Life initiative, an annual charity event that encourages people to play games non-stop for a whole day to raise funds for children's hospitals. It's an incredibly worthy cause, one that I highly recommend you all try to support in some capacity when it rolls back round next year. Unfortunately, by the time I learned about Extra Life back in the middle of October, I was a little too late to hop on the fundraising bandwagon. Rather than waiting a whole year for the chance to come around again, though, I figured I'd attempt something similar off my own back. I've spent the last month or so organising and raising funds for a twenty-four hour video game marathon of my own. For the record, my longest straight run playing video games prior to this challenge stands at about eight hours, a feat I managed at the launch of Grand Theft Auto IV way back in 2008. This is nearly three times that, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about the prospect of pulling such a lengthy non-stop gaming session. I'm just planning to keep the cause in mind, and soldier on through.

These guys do awesome work

Speaking of causes, my chosen charity for this sponsored game-a-thon is Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. It's a cause that's particularly close to me, having both family and friends whose lives have been affected by blood cancer in the last couple of years. When it came to choosing a charity to run this marathon in support of, there was no doubt in my mind it had to be this one. If the money I raise can go towards preventing even one family from having to go through what those people close to me are going through, I'll consider this challenge more than worth it.

So what exactly am I going to be doing tomorrow? Let me break down some of the specifics for you:

  • The marathon is going to run for a full twenty-four hours, starting at 9am GMT on Friday 23rd November and ending at 9am GMT on Saturday 24th November.
  • This challenge isn't restricted to a single game, franchise or platform. I can play any video game I like, on any console I like, as briefly or for as long as I like.
  • I'm allowed bathroom breaks, and brief interludes (no more than a couple of minutes) to grab/prepare food and drink. They're the only concessions, though - I'm not allowed to put the controller down for any other reason.
  • People will be joining me at a couple of points through the day. Partly to play some multi-player games with me, but also to provide me with what I imagine will be some much-needed social interaction.

So them's the rules. Next I suppose you'll want to know what I'll be playing. I've compiled a shortlist of games I'll probably pick up over the course of the twenty-four hours, which you can find below. It's by no means a 'definitive' list - there's room for manoeuvre, and I may well end up playing something completely different that isn't on this list at all. Still, it's a pretty good indicator of how I'm planning to pass the time:

  • Alan Wake - I'm already pretty set on the idea of this being my 'through-the-night' game. I've been told by a Twitter acquaintance that it's around ten hours long, so it will hopefully keep me busy through the night and (what I anticipate will be very difficult) early hours of the morning.
  • Crash Team Racing - One friend is joining me for a couple of hours in the afternoon for a little multiplayer fun, This will no doubt be one of the games we play, as it's long been a mainstay of our competitive multiplayer sessions.
  • FIFA 12 - Another game I'll no doubt be playing with my friend in the afternoon, as the series is one of his favourites. I fully expect to have my arse handed to me, even despite the fact he'll be playing on an alien Xbox 360 controller.
  • Final Fantasy VII - Because of this challenge, there won't be an episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII this week, but that doesn't mean I won't be playing it. I may use some of the time on hand to grind out some of the side quests, such as the Battle Square at the Gold Saucer, and the annoyingly lengthy process of breeding a gold chocobo.
  • Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - Given that this is my current 'game-on-the-go', I'd be remiss not to play at least a little of this strategy RPG. I'll most likely just grind out some battles, push through a couple of missions, and improve my clan a little more.
  • Pro Evolution Soccer 6 - My other friend will be joining me late in the evening for another couple of hours of multiplayer. His game of choice will be this old incarnation of Pro Evolution Soccer, so we can relive some of our fondest gaming memories from years gone by.
  • Sam & Max - Situation: Comedy - I played the first episode of Telltale's Sam & Max adventures last week, and this seems like a perfect time to dive into the second (not to mention an ideal excuse to finish it in one sitting!).
  • Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing - While I've chosen this game specifically, it's more an indication that I might use some of the time available to return to old games and polish up some unearned Achievements. I've got a few missions still to finish in Sega Racing, not to mention those Silver and Gold Licences to earn.
  • TimeSplitters 2 - If we've got enough time after FIFA and CTR, my friend and I are hoping to play a little of this classic first-person shooter together. I'm not sure if we'll play competitive multiplayer modes or attempt some of the campaign co-operatively, but either is just fine with me.

I guess all that's left to do is let you know how you can get involved. If you want to follow my endeavour, there are a few different ways you can do so. I'll be sharing my progress periodically through status updates here on my Giant Bomb profile, and will probably do the same a little more frequently through my Twitter feed as well. People who want to see the action unfold as it happens can tune into a live-stream, which (internet connection permitting) will run for the whole twenty-four hours. I've embedded a player below, for the sake of convenience:

The most important way you can get involved with my marathon, though, is by donating to the cause. I've set up a JustGiving page for the event, which you can find here. I'm not asking for much, even a little pocket change would be brilliant. Heck, I've got over 250 followers on this site - if every one of you donated just fifty pence, we could collectively raise well over £100 for a very worthy cause. Your money could contribute so much, and make real, tangible differences for families affected by blood cancers in the future. Surely that's worth passing up a single beer, or that game you're eyeing up in the Steam Autumn Sale that you'll never get around to playing anyway?

Thanks very much to all of you who take the time to read this post. Thanks a million to those of you who choose to support me, whether through a monetary donation or simply by leaving some words of encouragement below. It all means a lot to me. This is an awesome community of game-playing duders and duderettes, and I know you won't let me down, just like I don't plan to let the brilliant folks at L&LR down. For now, I'm off for a cup of hot chocolate and a fairly early night. Tomorrow, I've got one heck of a day ahead of me. Hopefully I'll see you on the other side of it.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)

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A Little, More Often #4

Hey guys. Once again, I've found myself back in that position where I don't have a lot to say about any particular game, but I do have a little to say about a few titles I've played recently. This means I'm reverting to the 'A Little, More Often' blog format this week. Let's get started, shall we?

DOOM

I don't think I've ever played an FPS as fast and frenetic as DOOM

I've owned The Ultimate DOOM on Steam for quite some time now, more as an item of historical video game interest to dabble with than something I'd ever seriously considered playing. That stance on the game changed last week when a friend picked it from my Pile of Shame and advised me to try playing through it. Over the course of a few days I powered through its relatively short but incredibly challenging campaign, seeing the end of its third chapter on Tuesday. As somebody who doesn't play a lot of first-person shooters period, let alone with the unfamiliar mouse-and-keyboard method of control, I found DOOM to be very difficult, but I also found a huge element of reward in overcoming that difficulty. The combat is fast-paced and the enemies relentless, a world away from the design ethics of modern shooters, but that was precisely what kept me interested in DOOM right through to its final climactic showdown. I did briefly toy with the idea of playing through the bonus fourth chapter included with The Ultimate DOOM, but quickly decided against it - the difficulty of that expansion is markedly higher than anything in the game's vanilla campaign, and several steps above my personal DOOM threshold. With its sequel and the first two Quake games also sitting in my Steam library, I'm sure it won't be long before I sample the delights of another of id's formative shooters.

Sam & Max: Culture Shock

Where are you, you elusive licensed psychotherapist?

As of the time of writing, I'm not sure if I'm still playing the first episode of Telltale Games' inaugural season of Sam & Max. I bought all three series (a total of sixteen episodes) last weekend while they were on sale on GOG.com, with a tentative view to playing through one episode every couple of weeks or so. Unfortunately that plan's been thrown into jeopardy before it's even really begun, because I seem to have hit a game-breaking glitch that won't allow me to finish Culture Shock. To cut a long story short, I'm at a point where I need to speak to Sybil Pandemik to progress, but she's nowhere to be found in the gameworld. I've played through the bulk of the episode a total of three times now, and each time I've run into the same issue of this missing crucial NPC. It's a real shame, because up until I hit this snag I was having a blast with Sam & Max. It's well-written, genuinely funny, and the puzzles are rewarding to solve without ever feeling too difficult or deliberately obtuse. I'd seen this as my doorway back into point-and-click adventures, a genre I've been trying to get into over the last couple of years, but unless I can find a way around this persistent problem, I don't think I'll be pushing through the episodes in the way I'd hoped.

Medal of Honor

It may be over a decade old, but Medal of Honor is still pretty playable

Taking time out from Culture Shock, I've turned my attention to another vintage first-person shooter in the form of Medal of Honor. Considering it's thirteen years old, it's still remarkably playable, thanks in large part to the number of current industry conventions it features - an objective-based single-player campaign, body-part-specific damage to enemies, a control scheme that approximates what's now become the industry standard for first-person gaming, and cinematic presentation. It's a game that must have felt prophetically ahead-of-its-time back on its release in late 1999. The graphics are rough around the edges, the enemy AI leaves a lot to be desired, and success in the forced stealth 'undercover' sections is very hit-and-miss. But fundamentally, it's very much the same core experience of shootin' dudes that you'd find in any military FPS of the last ten years, which is to say it's still pretty fun. I'm seven levels into its twenty-four-level campaign, and anticipate that I may well see this one through to its end within the next few days.

That's Yer Lot

I think that covers more or less everything. I've not made much progress with either Final Fantasy Tactics Advance or Persona 4, so no need for a JRPG progress report this time around. All that remains for me to do is remind you all that this coming Friday (November 23rd), starting at 9am GMT, I'll be embarking on a twenty-four-hour video game marathon to raise money for charity. I'll be doing an in-depth write-up nearer the time, but if you're feeling generous already, you can donate on my JustGiving page here. I'd be eternally grateful, as I'm sure would the people the funds raised will go towards helping. Anyway, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Medal of Honor (PS1)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Thirty-Two

Welcome, one and all, and especially you, to Episode Thirty-Two of Enduring Final Fantasy VII. That's right - much like the original PlayStation I first played this game on some twelve years ago, this blog now has 32 bits. This is the most recent instalment of a long-running, fairly ubiquitous serial blog in which I try to determine whether Final Fantasy VII (one of my all-time favourite video games) has weathered well as the years have passed. How do I determine that? Why, by playing it, of course! And that's what I'm about to do now. Roll title card!

Episode Thirty-Two - An End To Bad Science

At the end of the last episode, I left our crew of competent adventurers after they'd just parachuted back into Midgar to stop a crazed Professor Hojo from destroying the city by overheating the Sister Ray. They've landed just inside the perimeter of Sector 8, and are planning to use the underground to avoid SOLDIER troops and make it to Shinra Headquarters. Cait Sith has located a trap-door leading down into the myriad tunnels beneath Midgar, and as Cloud approaches he throws it open, ushering the party into the bowels of the city. As he does so, a familiar piece of music begins to play:

I closed the last episode with some brief thoughts about how the return to Midgar at the end of the second disc effectively brings the whole game full circle. The recycling of 'Bombing Mission' as the team begin their descent into the Midgar underground is a very welcome nod to this cyclic progression of the narrative. The last time we heard this music over forty hours ago, Cloud was bound for the Sector 1 Mako Reactor on a terrorist mission with AVALANCHE. This time it signifies a similar journey through the city's industrial workings, but with a view to saving the city from almost certain destruction. I really like the parallels between these two different points of the game's story, and the incorporation of 'Bombing Mission' into this second visit to Midgar only serves to increase that appreciation.

The Midgar underground only amounts to a few screens' worth of navigation, but its maze-like layout and a handful of scattered treasure chests serve to turn it into something of a mini-dungeon. I've rambled on at length in other episodes about how Final Fantasy VII uses unconventional settings to make traditional JRPG tropes feel fresh, so I'll just say that this is another fine example of this and leave it at that. I take my time moving through the underground, engaging in a few random encounters and picking up all the goodies along the way (among which is an awesome new weapon for Barret, making my primary fighter even more powerful). The enemies that litter the underground don't pose any real threat, with the exception of the irksome Crazy Saws - these robots have the ability to inflict Confuse on my party members, turning them on each other. Given the amount of damage I'm now causing, Confusion could be potentially disastrous, and in one battle my party very nearly wipes itself out. Without an appropriate accessory to remedy the situation, all I can do is prioritise my attacks towards them and hope for the best.

The party emerges from the underground into what seems to be a disused portion of Midgar's rail system. Here they encounter three familiar faces in the form of Turks Reno, Rude and Elena. Even with the Shinra Electric Power Company in turmoil and Midgar on the brink of disaster, they've been sent after Cloud and co. to stop them before they can reach the cannon. The party are given the option to talk their way out of this fight, an option that, given the progression of the relationship between the party and the Turks, might be a more fitting way to conclude their story arc. On the other hand, I find it very hard to say no to more EXP and Gil...

This incarnation of the Turks is without a doubt the strongest yet. Even with Cid casting a protective Wall spell on his first turn, the collective battering from Reno, Rude and Elena deals quite a bit of damage. While Cid continues to set up the party's defences with Regen and Haste, Barret launches his usual physical offensive (bolstered by the '2xCut' Materia, which allows him to attack twice per turn) and Cloud attacks with sweeping Summon spells like Alexander and the recently-acquired Bahamut ZERO. In this fashion, it doesn't take long for my party to turn the tide of battle and put paid to the Turks one last time. As is customary for them, they turn tail and run from the battle, leaving Cloud's party free passage into Midgar.

Before heading for the Sister Ray, I take advantage of the opportunity to pay a return visit to Shinra Headquarters. After Diamond Weapon's attack it's impossible to go any higher than the 65th floor, and there's nothing to do besides picking up a few items, but boy, do those items make the trip worth it. Cait Sith's ultimate weapon, the HP Shout, is tucked away in a locker on floor 64, and a powerful new weapon for Tifa, the Master Fist, sits in a treasure chest in the gift shop just off the lobby. There are also new weapons for Barret and Cid, albeit inferior to what I have now (especially after stumbling upon the Max Ray in the underground only recently.

Considering it's such a short detour I'm surprised I manage to get annoyed about two things during my time back in the Shinra building. The first is the handful of random battles I encounter while I'm exploring, which are against the same enemies I fought on my first visit. The problem here is, I'm a full fifty levels higher than I was then, and as a result these fights serve as nothing more than an annoyance. It would have been preferable if the developers had either thrown some tougher enemies at me, or simply switched off the fights altogether this time around. The second annoying thing I encounter is a pair of translation issues, directly tied to the aforementioned items I've picked up. When retrieving the new weapons for Barret and Cid in the field, they're named 'Pile Bunker' and 'Glow Lance' respectively. Opening the inventory, though, I discover they're now dubbed 'Pile Banger' and 'Grow Lance'. It's a small thing to get worked up about, and I can't really explain why it irritates me so much, but it does, and serves to reaffirm just how much I'd love to see this game get a new translation.

When I've finished taking care of business at Shinra HQ, it's time to double-back on myself and head for the Sister Ray. As the party emerges from the rail network, they're greeted by yet another unwanted welcoming committee - this time in the form of Heidegger and Scarlet, both riding in an anti-Weapon artillery unit called the Proud Clod. They're planning to finish what the Turks couldn't, and end Cloud's meddlesome crew once and for all. This cues the second boss battle of our return to Midgar, and one of the most difficult encounters I've faced in a long time. Proud Clod is every inch the tank he appears, boasting an enormous amount of HP. On top of this he can cast Reflect on the party, an inconvenience that can result in some very frustrating moments where healing spells bounce off weakened characters and restore some of the Proud Clod's plentiful HP reserves. DeBarrier proves to be my best friend here, although it does mean my usual defensive strategy of regularly casting Wall isn't quite as reliable as it usually is. It takes a lot of gradual whittling, but eventually the Proud Clod falls, destroyed in a brilliant explosion that presumably takes Heidegger and Scarlet with it. My reward is the Ragnarok, a slight improvement over Cloud's current sword which I equip immediately.

With every obstacle removed, all that remains now is to ascend the makeshift scaffold of the Sister Ray in pursuit of Hojo. Halfway up to the control platform I open a treasure chest containing the 'Missing Score' - Barret's ultimate weapon. I promptly do the only sensible thing I can do - tuck it away in my inventory and forget about it. Call me crazy, but I've never seen much point in Final Fantasy VII's ultimate weapons. Yes, they're incredibly powerful. Yes, they have eight Materia slots, all paired up to encourage experimentation with different combinations of Materia. The problem lies in their putting a total block on the growth of any attached Materia. I'm not a huge grinder in RPGs, but I do casually appreciate the pursuit of better stuff through levelling up, and having an ultimate weapon equipped in Final Fantasy VII effectively kills that chase. I guess eventually, when the player reaches a point where they've mastered all the Materia, the ultimate weapons can be used without any detrimental effect, but I've never played obsessively enough to be in that position, and if I did, I probably wouldn't need the ultimate weapons anyway. Final Fantasy X did something similar with its celestial weapons, but at least their full potential could be 'unlocked', removing their 'No AP' clause. As things stand in Final Fantasy VII, I've only ever switched to ultimate weapons for the final boss battles, when earning AP to grow Materia simply ceases to matter.

Still favouring the Max Ray, and having switched Cid over to the Glow/Grow Lance (I decide its additional Materia slots will make up for the lower attack power), I approach Hojo as he mashes violently at the Sister Ray's control panel. He's initially disinterested by the team's arrival, but soon begins expressing his frustration at having evaluated Cloud as a failure when he was, ultimately, the most successful attempt to recreate Sephiroth. It's at this point that Hojo spells out something only hinted at previously - that he is Sephiroth's biological father. Hojo volunteered his unborn son as a candidate for Professor Gast's Jenova Project, for which the infant Sephiroth was injected with Jenova cells while still in the womb. Seeing all this revealed once again draws my attention to the sheer complexity of the interpersonal relationships that serve to hold up Final Fantasy VII's story. The connections between characters, both playable and non-playable, are interwoven in such a way that the resulting web is nothing less than impressive. It lends the narrative the feeling that every character's fate is intrinsically linked to that of the others, and serves to make the gameworld feel more alive, more believable, and more interesting to spend time in.

With the Sister Ray almost ready to fire again, Hojo turns toward the party and tells them he has also injected himself with Jenova's cells. Cackling maniacally, the Professor begins to transform...

Hojo is an example of one of my least favourite JRPG tropes in action - namely, the multi-tiered boss. Hojo has three different incarnations in this battle, each one progressively more deformed and deadly than the last. Presumably the intended effect is to lend the conflict a sense of gravitas by making it lengthier and seemingly more epic, forcing the player to change their tactics on the fly to accommodate each new incarnation's attack patterns, and construct an air of uncertainty as to just how much fight the incredibly strong opponent has left in it. Personally, I've almost always come away from multi-phase boss fights feeling like they're an unnecessarily long and pretty cheap way of trying to make fights more interesting - I think things like facing multiple enemies who co-operate with each other, or a single enemy with the ability to change its strengths and weaknesses at will, fit the bill much more effectively. I remember the first time I played through Final Fantasy VII some twelve years ago, I'd never before encountered the phenomenon of the multi-tiered boss battle. I wasn't prepared to face more than one version of this deranged scientist, and dumped all of my most powerful abilities onto him right from the off. By the time the third, most deadly incarnation rolled around I'd exhausted all my summons and MP and ended up watching my severely debilitated party succumb to a barrage of status effects. That, too, may have gone some way towards shaping my opinion of this trope.

The first phase of this fight, simply dubbed 'Hojo', doesn't pose much of a threat. I get Cid to cast Haste on the whole party and lay into Hojo with a swift barrage of physical attacks. It only takes a few turns to cause the second form - 'Helletic Hojo' to emerge. Cid throws up a party-wide Barrier spell and heals as necessary while Cloud and Barret chip away at the monster's HP. This conservative approach to the first two phases ensures that when the third form - 'Lifeform Hojo' - arrives on the scene, I can launch an all-out offensive with my most powerful spells and summons. Cloud calls on Alexander, whose Holy-elemental Judgement, combined with an equipped Magic Plus Materia, encroaches on the range of the 9999 damage limit. Barret's 2xCut ability ensures a comfortable 4000 damage per round. Cid's role becomes a completely supportive one, healing any damage dealt and casting Esuna to counter the boss's constant infliction of negative status effects. The whole battle takes around eight minutes (longer than I'd expected it to), and when it reaches its conclusion, Hojo is no more.

I mentioned this briefly in the comments below the previous episode, but I feel the need to reiterate here that this whole 'return to Midgar' part of the game leaves me feeling a little underwhelmed. Given how much time the player spends in this city in the game's opening hours, it would have been great to see this return be a little more substantial. As things stand, it ends up being little more than a quick bombing run through a series of boss battles, and that's what underwhelms me about it. Midgar is a huge place, but over the course of the game we only see a handful of locations within it. The amount of untapped potential makes the brevity of the party's return even more disappointing. I realise it's possible to get back into Midgar on disc three, but it's a convoluted and completely optional process with (as far as I can recall) very limited pay-off story-wise. I guess there just seemed to be so much potential to do something more interesting with the team's return, but a lot of that potential was squandered.

With Shinra in tatters and Hojo defeated, the party return to the Highwind to re-assess their gameplan. Cloud instructs everybody to leave, return home, think about why they're fighting, and come back to the airship only if their reasons are good enough. That leaves just Cloud and Tifa behind - two former residents of Nibelheim who have no home to return to and nobody to fight for but themselves and each other. The pair spend the night together under the stars, in a scene which I've always considered to be one of Final Fantasy VII's most understated brilliant moments. Returning to the subject of the game's interpersonal relationships, I've long been fascinated by the 'love triangle' between Cloud, Tifa and Aerith. What follows is my own personal interpretation of that triangle, and an attempt to explain why it's captivated me through several playthroughs:

I've always thought it to be pretty clear that under different circumstances, Cloud and Tifa would have quite happily ended up together. Ultimately though, it's the trauma that Cloud goes through, and his subsequent assumption of several of Zack's traits and thoughts, that rob them of whatever happiness they might have had. I've long believed that it's Cloud confusing himself with Zack that brings him and Aerith so close - by thinking in the same way he comes to admire Aerith in much the same way as Zack did, while his assumed mannerisms and traits draw Aerith towards him. It's this (ultimately artificial) connection that prevents Cloud and Tifa from ever truly becoming an item - even with Cloud's thoughts now reconciled, he can't quite let go of Aerith. Thinking about things like that makes these closing scenes from the second disc much sadder to watch.

The next morning Cloud and Tifa return to the deck of the Highwind and are discussing their plans to assault the North Crater when the airship unexpectedly roars to life. The pair rush to the cockpit, where they find the entire party has returned. One by one they each reaffirm their commitment to the cause, encouraging Cloud to set a course for their final destination. As the fully-laden Highwind approaches Sephiroth's subterranean lair, Cid starts to lose control of the airship. Looks like the crew are in for a pretty bumpy landing...

It's here that disc two of Final Fantasy VII comes to an end. I take the opportunity to save my game and switch to the third and final disc before turning off my PSP.

So at the close of Episode Thirty-Two, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cloud (Lv 65), Cid (Lv 66), Barret (Lv 62)
  • Current Location - Highwind
  • Time on the Clock - 44:36

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion BrokenEpisode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon
Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No DealEpisode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train
Episode Twenty-Four - Fort Condor's Final StandEpisode Twenty-Five - Revealing A Clouded Truth
Episode Twenty-Six - Under The SeaEpisode Twenty-Seven - Tying Up Some Loose Ends
Episode Twenty-Eight - Choc-A-Block With ChocobosEpisode Twenty-Nine - Touching The Stars
Episode Thirty - An Ancient SecretEpisode Thirty-One - Weapon On Weapon

This is a very long blog. It's almost certainly the longest episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII I've done to date. To tell the truth I did think about cutting it off before the Hojo fight, but it felt like it made sense to carry on right through to the end of the second disc. From here on out I have a choice to make - do I postpone the end-game in order to dick around some more with the game's myriad side-quests and distractions, or do I simply press on into the North Crater and bring this seemingly interminable series to its grand finale as soon as possible? The first is more in line with my original plan for this series, but after Giant Bomb moderator ZombiePie wagered that I couldn't possibly finish the game before the end of the year, the second has become very tempting indeed. Be sure to tune in to the next episode in a fortnight's time to find out what I'll have chosen to do. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

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Shifting Gears

Oh boy. I knew I'd be making my return to blogging at greater length about individual games at some point, but I never would have guessed this would be the game to make me do it. Around this time last year I was bemoaning how Forza Motorsport 3 had all but destroyed my enjoyment of the racing genre, proclaiming that it would be a very long time before I could invest myself in another driving game. And up until a couple of weeks ago I still believed that. Earlier this year I attempted stints with Gran Turismo 3 and ToCA Race Driver 3 on my PlayStation 2, neither of which I managed to stand for more than a few races before my racing game fatigue re-emerged and I was forced to retire them back to my gaming garage.

And yet here I am, dedicating an entire blog entry to a driving game whose career mode I raced through in the space of a week. What the hell happened?

DiRT. DiRT happened.

At this point I can't remember what inspired me to pick up Colin McRae: DiRT (to use the full title of its UK release) when I popped it into my Xbox 360 a couple of weeks ago. I'd just finished a tenth anniversary run-through of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and was on the look-out for something to replace it as my go-to console game, but I really don't know what possessed me to choose DiRT. As if my aforementioned 'racer fatigue' shouldn't have been enough to dissuade me, the game had also left a pretty negative first impression when I initially checked it out not long after purchasing it last summer. Trying to pick it up right off the back of several lengthy Forza sessions, I was put off by the comparatively loose handling, tier-based career structure and dearth of options. Why would I be interested in playing a game with less than fifty cars when Forza boasted a figure closer to five-hundred? In every respect, DiRT was a non-starter for me.

The Hill-Climb events were among my favourites

When I booted DiRT back up a fortnight ago, I was fully expecting to dislike it. And initially that same disappointment from last year began to surface. Chugging round Knockhill in a Renault Clio isn't fun, no matter how enthusiastic the game's announcer sounds about it. But once I broke through the tedium of the first few events, unlocked some cars that were actually enjoyable to drive, and started throwing my vehicles round the courses a little more assertively, I began to have a lot more fun with it. By the time I reached the top tier of DiRT's career mode, I was completely converted and reluctant to let the experience end. Even now I find myself switching the game back on at least once a day, eager to race the Suzuki Escudo to the top of Pike's Peak, or wrestle aggressively to the front of a pack of dune buggies in a CORR event. Right now my career completion percentage stands at 80%, but I wouldn't be surprised if that rounds out to the full 100% before the year is out.

So what exactly is it about DiRT that's seen it achieve what neither Forza nor Gran Turismo could? If I'm honest, I think it's a combination of its entire feature-set - the same feature-set that put me off the game just over a year ago. The smaller overall scope of the game makes it feel like a less daunting proposition to pursue that coveted 100%, but within that narrower focus there's a great deal of variety to the events themselves - traditional rally is far enough removed from, say, CORR, to keep the whole experience feeling fresh. The fast, loose driving model makes driving the zippier cars feel exciting and precarious, but it's also forgiving enough to encourage players to take risks without having to worry too much about potentially disastrous consequences. While it's got a wealth of tuning options for petrol-heads, more casual gamers like myself can ignore all that stuff and still do respectably well on the higher difficulties - I went through most of the game on Pro-Am without ever tweaking anything. Pretty much the only thing I dislike about DiRT are the Crossover events, which feel like they're governed by cheap rubber-banding AI. Take those out of the equation, and it's a game that I'd find incredibly hard to fault.

Will GRID be able to scratch the same itch that DiRT satisfied so effortlessly?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about why a game I'd previously had no interest in has managed to completely subvert my expectations of it, and the best I can come up with is this. A lot has changed since last summer, and I'm certainly not the same person I was then. I have a lot of commitments that demand huge chunks of my time - my job and the obscene amount of overtime it's thrust upon me recently, playing drums for a new band, and playing and practising darts, just to name a handful. I don't have the time or the energy to invest in a simulation racer with the size and scope of Forza or Gran Turismo any more. I have no desire to dip my toes into another car collect-a-thon, spending scores of hours earning credits and working my way through an interminable list of events. When I've finished doing everything that needs to be done, I just want to sit down, pick up a controller and throw a virtual car around a virtual track, with no additional commitments. DiRT satisfied that need perfectly.

So now that I've finished with DiRT, what's next? While I don't think I'll be playing any other racers for at least a few months, I've got a title waiting in the wings in the form of Race Driver: GRID. Also developed by Codemasters, GRID falls under the same umbrella as DiRT, so I'm hoping it will provide a similarly smooth, enjoyable racing experience. I'm also keeping a tentative eye on Forza Horizon, the new release under the Forza banner that seeks to marry the series' reputation with the open-world model pioneered by Burnout Paradise. Again, it's not something I'm planning to play immediately, but it's intrigued me enough to think about buying it once it drops below £20 or so. Right now, I'll be diverting my attention back to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance - I'm now around halfway through the core story missions, with thirty-five hours on the clock and sixty-or-so missions completed in total. I've also been craving a first-person shooter of late, and am in the process of narrowing down my options on that front before picking one to play. And of course, there'll still be the odd intermittent racing session with DiRT.

Will I manage 24 hours of non-stop gaming for charity?

Before I sign off this blog, I'd like to draw your attention to something I'll be doing in a few weeks' time. Regular readers of this site are no doubt aware of Extra Life, a charity event which encourages gamers to play for twenty-four hours non-stop to help raise money for childrens' hospitals. Unfortunately I didn't catch wind of the event until just a few days before, and so I wasn't able to take part. The idea has stuck with me, though, and I've spent the last couple of weeks putting together a little charity event of my own. On Friday November 23rd, I'll be running my own one-man twenty-four-hour gaming marathon to raise money in aid of Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. Some of the finer details (like which games I'll be playing, and how I'll be broadcasting the event) are yet to be finalised, but you can read about the marathon (and if you're feeling really generous, slip me a small donation) on my JustGiving page. Wish me luck, Giant Bomb - I have a feeling I'm going to need it. As always, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)

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