Sick enough to barely click

I didn’t blog a single blog last week as I was wrapped up tight in a crappy end of summer/beginning of academic year cold.  Living in a university town can be perilous.

I didn’t really feel like writing short posts about video games.  Unfortunately, and much more worryingly, I didn’t really feel like playing games either.  Not sure why, but video games don’t work for me when I’m sick, most of the time.

Except for one game.  The weakness of my immune system apparently extended to my ability to say no to hours and hours spent online playing as my undead shadow priest on World of Warcraft.  I didn’t play with others, and I didn’t even level up much… I just spent the week retraining into another profession.

I’m not sure why, but repeatedly clicking on the same button and spending hours roaming low level areas for materials was just what the doctor ordered.  I couldn’t face Halo or InFamous (which I STILL have to get around to finishing) or Far Cry 2 (which I STILL haven’t got around to starting).  I could face one click kills of meaningless gray mobs for some reason.

That’s my problem with WOW, you see.  I like the concept of WOW as a single player game, hanging out in the environments, with a little e-bay type auction house action thrown in.  I have never gone through an instance as part of a fully functioning group.  Just not my thing.  So, last week, I sat there in my illness playing the game in my usual manner, a manner that most who play WOW probably find utterly absurd.

Now I’m healthier, and I can finish the ODST campaign. Right?  Let’s hope so, anyway.  My continuing addiction to WOW is not something I understand, and I want it to return to its rightful place: the background.

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Remaking Thexder and warming my heart.

Thexder is being remade.  This is hugely exciting for me.  The original Thexder is full of fond memories for me.  It was one of the first PC games I played completely on my own after a few years of playing Sierra adventure games alongside my dad.  Thexder had everything:  a robot that turned into a plane, hidden stuff in walls, and lava.  I loved it.  

So imagine my excitement when I discovered the other day that a present generation remake is imminent!  To be more specific, the very interesting looking Thexder Neo is coming to the PSP.  To be even more specific, it’s coming to the Playstation Network as a downloadable game for the PSP.

This makes me want to own a PSP again, load times, dodgy analog stick and all.  I decided to go back and have a look at Thexder.  Thanks to the beauty of the Internet, I got a glimpse.  It was a reminder of of the days when box art looked like this:

  How boss is this guy? The answer is very. Very boss.

And the actual game looked like this:

  This was cutting edge when I was six years old.

So... yeah.  Thexder looked a little bit better in my mind’s eye.  I’m not quite as prepared to buy a PSP just to play the remake now.  Although it does look pretty rad...

  Shiny!!! Also, bubble shields of some description.

Alright, alright.  I might not quite be ready to buy (or in this case, repurchase) a console to play one game.  And, in a way, I’d be happier with my memories of Thexder.  I must say though, it makes me happy that the game lives on.  Judging from the screenshot above and some of the video on youtube, I’m not sure I’d enjoy revisiting the original even if I could.

Still, tips on emulating a 1985 PC and finding the original game files are welcome.
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Buying a game for my girlfriend

 My girlfriend commented a few days ago that she never uses her DS anymore.   She loves her DS, but outside of a bit of Brain Age and anything Mario-themed, she’s not the biggest fan of video games.   I decided that seeing as I spend about half of my time online reading game reviews, watching trailers, and writing or commenting on blogs about video games, I was in a strong position to go and get her a game that she would like.   In turn, it might buy me some good will the next time I admit to spending half of my weekend replaying Half-Life 2.   Again.

People who do not play video games frequently make assumptions about people who do play video games.   One of those assumptions, and a very common one at that, is that video games are played by an audience that is almost exclusively male.   It fits the stereotype of a pimply and plump man who should “know better”, shouting at a television or computer screen and generally shirking life’s responsibilities while failing utterly in any attempts to win over a member of the “fairer” sex.  

That’s rubbish, of course.   A lot of different types of people play video games, including smelly people and well groomed people, athletic people and people decidedly not so, and yes, *gasp*, women. People who play videogames don’t fit into stereotypes very neatly anymore.

Unfortunately, the industry itself is riddled with them.   A lot of this can be explained by intentionally over the top story telling, but there has to be a limit. I’m a big fan of Resident Evil games.   Sheva’s unlockable costume in Resident Evil 5, however, is pushing things.   B-movie sensibilities or not.


    Now that I’m in the appropriate Zombie stomping gear, let’s go.

Faith, the fictional character at the heart of Mirror’s Edge, is a much more subtle example.   She doesn’t have the ludicrous pulchritudinous silhouette of your average Team Ninja character, but she still represents a certain standard of beauty.   Ok, fair enough: most male video game characters are to some extent designed along these standards as well, and an overweight free runner doesn’t make much sense.   Thing is, Faith’s character design is a step in the right direction, but it’s clearly within the same mould of perceived audience expectations.   These games are made with a predominantly male audience in mind.



 “Hardcore gamers”, as various marketing departments in the industry insist on calling people who like to play more than three hours a week of video games, make similar assumptions.   The majority of people who play Gears of War or Halo are men.   The main audience for such “triple A” titles are men.   Games that are seen as more attractive to a female audience are often relegated to the tier of “mass market” or “casual” games.   That doesn’t mean we should accept overly-sexualized female stereotypes in the “triple A” games because all the female video game players are supposedly off playing  something “casual.”

I wanted to get my girlfriend a game she would enjoy.   Clearly, I was setting out to buy a game for a person who doesn’t like video games as much as I do, not necessarily a girl who doesn’t like video games as much as I do.   I got her the very awesome Professor Layton and the Curious Village.   If she likes it, maybe she’ll get the sequel.


    There is nothing dodgy going on here.

She is much more open to enjoying video games now than she was when I first met her.   Happily, and mostly thanks to Nintendo, there is an ever increasing number of games that I think she would enjoy playing.   She’s never going to want to buy an Xbox and play Halo with me.   That’s fine.   But I don’t want her to catch a glimpse of a game that I am enjoying and seeing something that she finds offensive, or that reinforces stereotypes that once provided a barrier between her and the enjoyment of any type of video game.   People have different values and expectations, and thus differing thresholds of what they will consider offensive.   Thing is, I’m not even talking about a person being outraged.   I’m talking about my girlfriend or any female acquaintance seeing something on my TV screen while I’m playing a game and rolling her eyes.   It’s those potential reinforcements of (often false) assumptions that harm the growth of video games as a viable part of popular culture.  

Overall, though, things are looking good.   My girlfriend is rocking out with some Professor Layton puzzles.   I’m looking forward to shooting things when Halo 3:ODST comes out.    Aren’t video games great? 

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Going Back: Forza 2

 

One of the plus sides of almost never finishing computer games is that when I’m stuck between releases I can go back and play a game I’ve left behind. Normally I just get sidetracked before I can finish out the game. Sometimes, as is the case with Forza 2, there’s just too much to do to “complete” the game in a reasonable amount of time. At least for someone of my skill level.

I had forgotten how amazing Forza 2 is. It really holds up well against anything I’ve bought recently, and I was dragged back into the leveling system almost immediately. There are so many cars, so many tracks... there is just so much STUFF. This game is a real gem. Despite my limited ability, I really got into this game when it came out, and I even got into painting cars for a while. Not long enough to get any good at it, mind you.

  It blows my mind someone did this with standard vinyl shapes and colour shades.


The beauty of Forza 2 lies in the way it embraces people who know nothing about cars and perhaps not a lot more about racing games, but like playing video games in general. A lot of people talk about the racing line, a guideline alternating in colour between green, red and orange to indicate good braking technique. That’s just part of it though; Forza 2 feels welcoming to people who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to tuning up a car’s suspension without alienating people who are really, really into that kind of thing.

  This is probably super basic stuff, and I'm lost.


It’s gotten me really excited for Forza 3, a game I had somehow forgot about until recently. Forza 2 is one of the few games I really got into playing online, and it’s the main draw for the sequel. The first two Forza games did a fantastic job of integrating a single player career with online play. If Forza 3 can bring this to another level, I will be hopelessly addicted.

There is one drawback, though, one that reminds me why I stopped playing the game: it gets tense. In most racing games I cheat the system disgracefully by amassing enough in-game finances to buy cars that blow the opposition away, at least on straightaways, and grind my way home. This is possible in Forza 2, but I find myself in situations where one small mistake effectively ends my involvement in the race. This, allied with my own fragile psyche, results in lots of spinning off the track on final laps. Most of my “replaying” of the game has involved learning and relearning how to take each corner of a particular track. This hasn’t stopped my enjoyment of the game. I am in video game fail heaven and I love it.

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Post-game slump

 So, yesterday was the ten year anniversary of the Dreamcast.  I don’t have a lot to say about that, except that I really dig the Dreamcast.  Funnily enough, I didn’t have one “back in the day.”  I was too busy playing Championship Manager on my PC at home, which was busy rapidly becoming an impossibly dated machine.

I bought a Dreamcast in 2005 from the now defunct lik-sang.com; I then spent weeks hounding out copies of Dreamcast games from ebay and having them delivered around the world.  I got games in Taiwan, where I lived, I had my friends in England get a couple from sellers who didn’t want to mail stuff too far, I ordered games from US websites.  That console has a lot of very awesome games.  My biggest regret is never getting my PAL version of Skies of Arcadia to work with any of the TVs or displays I had at the time.

Sigh.

I finished Batman:Arkham Asylum, and it got better and better right up to the end.  A great game.  Now I’m in a bit of a post-game funk.  I’d love to go right out and buy a game but with Halo 3: ODST on the way and an absolutely manic October ahead I can’t afford it.  And yet... DIRT 2 calls to me.

Agh!  The curse of being into playing the video games and not having unlimited money and funds.  I’ll probably just play some more Shadow Complex.  That game also rules.

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Batman at the midway point.


I’m obviously a bit behind the curve on this, but that’s the price of reduced playing time.  I suppose I just wanted to weigh in before everyone else has moved on to the next big thing.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is really really good.  There.  That was easy.  My rebellious streak rears its troubling head once again.

Actually, Arkham is really really good but it’s not earth shattering stuff.  For the first few hours of playing the game, I wondered where all these big score reviews, where some of the Bioshock talk, had come from.  I’m only halfway through, so there might be a big twist in the works, but so far I don’t really see it.  However, I do see a really well made game.


Everything about Arkham feels right.  The stealth aspects are fun, even for someone who doesn’t like stealth games an awful lot.  The beat-em-up style aspects are fun.  The detective mode, which I assumed early on would get stale very quickly, continues to be lots of fun.  The overall package? Perhaps if I was more into Batman, had read more books about the Caped Crusader, knew more about the backstory behind characters like Killer Croc and Bane, I would be going nuts over this.  

The game has made me much more enthusiastic to get over to my local comic book store and actually grab a couple of the major books though.  In that respect, Arkham has a lot of appeal to lots of different potential Batman fans.  If you liked The Dark Knight, you’ll probably like this game.  If you dig Batman at all, you’ll probably like this game.  If you like video games, you’ll probably like this game.  Bit of a perfect storm, no?

So, halfway through, as stunningly unfair as it is to offer an opinion, here’s one of mine:  you should play Batman: Arkham Asylum if you’re into video games and you can afford the money and time.  If not... Well, it’s a classic example of the choices so-called “hardcore gamers” often have to make.  I am really enjoying this game and I would recommend it, but it’s just not in the Bioshock “you have to drop everything and play this game RIGHT NOW” category.  But then, how many games this generation really are in that category?
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Shadow Complex, why can’t I quit you?

 I don’t go back through games very often.   I loved the original Fable for Xbox, but after I played through the game with a good character, I only played a bad guy long enough to see the horns show up.   I recently played InFamous and absolutely loved it, but again felt a decided lack of interest in playing it again.

These are games that offer the classic good path/bad path option for replayability.   In truth though, I don’t do a lot of “replaying”, which makes the last ten days pretty weird.   Shadow Complex is a short game.   The story, which is normally a big factor in the games I most enjoy playing, is virtually non-existent and kind of predictable (though still a bit fun… G.I. Joe without the licence).   The “metroidvania” concept apes games that I admire but suck at to an exceptional degree.   Despite all this, I started up a new campaign as soon as I finished Shadow Complex the first time round.   I wanted to find more items, all of them if I can manage it in fact, and I want to level my designer t-shirt wearing fratboy avatar up a little.   If I’m still having fun with the game I might actually hit 50.


Foam Party! This is exactly what Ibiza was like in 1997.

 What’s going on?   I don’t really know.   True, it’s not the only video game I’m currently playing.   I’m toying with a return to the original Fallout, and I’ve spent a lot of time controlling a dude in a cape with funny ears (more on that another time).   Shadow Complex is, however, consistently a central part of any time I’ve spent in front of the Xbox for the best part of two weeks now.   And I’ve only just started messing around with the challenge packs.


Cyber-bro

 I suppose Chair just did a great job with the sheer fun of classic gameplay on this one.   It’s very rare that I actually want to sit down and spend time looking for health packs.   I am by no means a completionist.   I could be using my limited free time doing a bit of extra work, playing other games, or even writing blogs.   Still though, it’s a lot of fun.   You should play some Shadow Complex if you have the means.

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Buying Batman: I kind of do what I'm told.

 Today, I bought Batman: Arkham Asylum.

I bowed to the insane growing machine of the nascent Internet media complex! In other words, I put aside all my doubts over third person action games and licensed games and bought it purely because the reviews online were really good.

I’ve got a dodgy record with third person action games.  I like the two Gears of War games, but not as much as some, and kind of moved on from them a little too quickly.  There’s something about that type of game that just puts me off.  I can’t really put my finger on why, at least not as far as naming a specific failing within that specific genre goes.

I had heard the talk of Eidos getting up to its old tricks, being stupid enough to try and bribe journalists into providing good coverage of a game that was almost certain to get good reviews anyway. I ignored everything and still bought the game though.  


Really, the success of this game is probably a testament to the success of all things Batman right now.  Is there any kind of fictional intellectual property that is doing better right now?  Great movies, successful cartoons for years, a successful comic as always, and now a great game, what’s next?  Bruce Willis could probably release a Batman-themed blues album and get away with it the way things are going.  
 
 
In fact, take out the “ goddamn batman” stuff and the caped crusader’s recent record is flawless.



So I got the game.  Now let’s see if it really is any good.
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Blizzard leads the charge into a brave new world.

 

Blizzard Entertainment hosted their fan convention Blizzcon this past weekend in Anaheim, California. Blizzard's relationship with it's fans is one that has changed drastically with the huge success of market-leading MMO World of Warcraft, but one thing remains the same: after eighteen years of excellence in producing single player and multiplayer video game experiences, Blizzard’s fan base is willing to wait for the good stuff.

So, when Blizzard creatives tell fans the game will be ready "when it's done" they get more leeway than most. Wings of Liberty, the first installment of Real Time Strategy sequel Starcraft 2, won’t be “done” until online service battle.net is fully revamped.  Or so the unofficial story goes. However, Blizzard went into greater detail on their plans for battle.net over the weekend, and if they achieve what they want to do, it will be worth the wait.

It will be a complete revamp; a drastically improved UI, a World of Warcraft style party system for playing with others, sophisticated matchmaking (particularly good news for Starcraft 2 players) and a chat system that will leave its competition in the dust.  Microsoft’s online service Xbox Live does a great job of integrating an online presence into the experience of playing games on the console, but that presence is becoming increasingly muddled.  Micro-transactions and a proliferation of virtually anonymous gamertags hinder the development of genuine online communities.  Blizzard creatives made this point over the weekend.  Many Xbox players have a lengthy list of gamertags on their friends list, but not necessarily a clear idea of who half of these people are.

Blizzard, looking to solve this issue, have moved beyond video game examples to study other online communities including Twitter, Myspace and Facebook.  The ultimate goal here is something more than improved matchmaking or a more pleasant experience for people who play games for a limited amount of time per week.  The goal is to make the experience of being a member of this online community more personal.  The new battle.net will share a common community across all Blizzard products, including World of Warcraft.  The idea is simple:  people should have more fun, and people should know the players with whom they are killing aliens or wizards.

The whole basis of how you “know” someone carries no assumptions of having physically met that person.  World of Warcraft has shown Blizzard that people are willing to develop extremely complex personal relationships via an online community.  Blizzcon featured a confessional booth that filmed players telling their own stories of friends made and romances born through friendships made in-game.

Companies across the world are spending millions in a desperate attempt to understand this phenomenon, and thus make money from it.  Blizzard is leading the way.  Battle.net will have an online marketplace, but the emphasis is on improving the player experience rather than trying to sell them the meaningless micro-transactions of the sort that infest Xbox Live.  Blizzard’s emphasis on the player community and their decision to make the continuing development of this community the driving force in their business is the future of video games, and the future of online communities.  The issue of how to capitalize on social media to generate revenue is being taken very seriously across many industries, but people are extremely sensitive to crass attempts to make money or advertise across services like Facebook or Twitter.  Blizzard will make plenty of money from their new approach, not least if they succeed in getting sizeable portions of the nearly twelve million strong World of Warcraft player base to purchase copies of Diablo and Starcraft.  That’s not to mention the unannounced MMO that they are working on.

Blizzard have a major advantage.  They have an installed fan base that exhibits intense loyalty to their brand.  Whatever service the company could provide would be a huge success.  However, Blizzard is a company with a culture of creativity that has earned that loyalty.  The achievement system that has proved popular on World of Warcraft servers will be shared across all games. Players can earn in-game rewards, as well.  Starcraft 2 players can earn special decals to put on their individual in-game units, to distinguish their online personality and show off a bit of bragging rights.  Similar graphic touches on Xbox Live go for at least $0.99; see the difference?

Of course, there will still be an online marketplace. However, this marketplace will have user-generated content at its heart, not meaningless corporate virtual baubles.  Starcraft 2 modders will have a chance to earn money from their work, so long as their work is good enough for enough of their fellow players to be willing to buy it.  This generates further good will. If the ability to instantly antagonise thousands if not millions of people with a crass attempt at online advertising is the true sin, Battle.net is looking to be holier than most.

The signs are good.  Blizzard will be raking it in.  And millions will be happy to hand the money over.  This is the future.

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Madden Football...

Actually, I'm kind of up for it this year.  I haven't played a Madden game for a couple of years, and haven't enjoyed one since Madden 03.
 
Mind you, my version of being interested in a Madden game is a willingness to play a friend's copy.  If there's beer involved.

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