Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Review: Snuggle Truck

Remember a while ago when I said I was writing a feature article for The Escapist? Well that completely died out of its own ass when my hypothesis didn't pan out at all. Anyway I'm back and feeling just the slightest bit jaded so I thought I'd quickly review a game I actually liked.

Snuggle Truck is a 2D driving/racing game developed by Owlchemy Labs. It stood out to me because Owlchemy Labs worked with Dejobaan Games in making "AAAAaaaAA! For the Awesome", semi-sequel to "AAAAaaaaAA! A Reckless Disregard for Gravity" and one of my favourite indie games ever made ever.  The premise is that you're driving a pickup truck full of stuffed animals to the zoo. The objective is to get there as fast as possible while making sure the animals aren't thrown off the truck. There's a button to go forward, a button to slow down, and buttons to angle yourself left or right. Along the way you can catch fuzzies (which count as extra animals) and there's powerups too. You could take this to be a good thing or a bad thing but those three sentences are pretty much all there is to say about the gameplay. I've always been a fan simplified game mechanics, especially in indie games because it means the developers can focus their precious little time and resources on expanding the game beyond the core rather than faffing about with the mechanics too much and then being forced to copy-paste things to extend the gameplay time. The level design is good, scaling the challenge well from start to finish (I still haven't unlocked the very last level that requires you to get every medal), though surely they could've made more than three backdrops? It's a short game so that's not too much of a problem, but by the end you will notice it.

Minor problems aside, when you have a good, functional game like this it's the little things that make it stand out from the crowd, and Snuggle Truck performs well in that area. It's absolutely adorable from start to finish, from the title to the colorful visual design to the mini cheers and trumpets as you catch fuzzies and cross the finish line. And all of this makes you feel like an absolute bastard when they fall out of the truck, with a mournful squeaking noise as the camera slows down and zooms in on the frozen expression on the face of the last animal to hit the ground. This kind of emotional tugging is what really makes a game stick in your mind (would Portal have been anywhere near as popular if GLaDOS was lacking a sarcasm core?)

So basically, this is a great little game to pick up and play. Simple addictive gameplay with great framing and personality. And I'm going to try and start reviewing games released more recently, now that I've got another job and can actually afford to buy things just because they look intriguing. Maybe if I do that enough I'll get my first follower sometime soon.

Until next time.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

A Quick Thought

I just realized something before. The Combine must have been using some really shit padlocks on their doors if Gordon Freeman can just whack them off with his crowbar. He doesn't even seem to be hitting them particularly hard, since it takes two or three good whacks to get through a wooden box. A good padlock would also be able to handle the handgun bullet, since the one you get in the game doesn't look *that* powerful. Anyway, I hope you found those three sentences to be quite enlightening.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Top 5 Anticipated Games

So, I'm currently writing an article for The Escapist, which means the blog might be taking a back seat for a while in favour of something that I might be getting paid for. So here's a quickie to keep all three of my readers happy: the top 5 games that I'm looking forward to playing in the near future.

5.South Park: The Game.
I'm a decent fan of the show, and Matt and Trey are actually working on the development team (rather than just handing the licence to an outside dev). I'm not a massive fan of basic turn-based RPG combat, but if it keeps the humour and personality of the show that should be enough reason to buy it.

4. Beyond Good and Evil 2.
Okay, I know this is a longshot, but there was a story up on The Escapist recently that BG&E 2 is still being made. Loved the first one, second sounds good too. You can read the story here:

3. Antichamber.
If MC Escher was a game developer who worked exclusively while on acid, the product would probably be something like this. Obtuse to the extreme and full of intriguing puzzles/mindfucks, this looks like an indie puzzler dream. There's a free demo kicking around the internet somewhere (from back when it was titled Hazard: The Journey of Life), so you should have a look for that.

2. Bioshock Infinite
The first Bioshock was a great game. The second not so much, but mainly because it was just harping on the first. But with a fresh new city (in the sky!) and a host of new plasmids (they're called vigors now but they are fucking plasmids) this new installment is set to rival the first.

1. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Oh man, where to even begin here. First, it's a horror game from Frictional, some of the best horror minds in the business. But even better, development has actually been relegated to Thechineseroom, makers of indie experimental darling Dear Esther. Now while Dear Esther itself wasn't a horror game, it did have elements that could have made it effective as a horror game if that had been the direction they'd decided to take it (Beautiful atmosphere, very subtle elements, a few mindfucks snuck in). And their previous game, a sourcemod called Korsakovia (look it up, it's free) actually was a fairly effective horror game with good pacing and atmosphere. AND this one is due for an October release. Considering the fairly ordinary line-up we've had this year, A Machine for Pigs could very well earn my Game of the Year award.

So there it is. If I find time later on I might do a Top 5 "Games that look like they'll be pretty crap" list.

Until next time.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Whatever happened to fun?

Okay, so the big gaming story this week is the official Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 reveal. Apparently it's set in the near-future, around about the same time Crysis was set (though apparently in an alternate universe with far less gameplay innovation (ooh, edgy)). Anyway, I was discussing it with a friend of mine who's into that sort of thing when this exchange took place:

Him: "I've always thought they should set a Call of Duty game in the near-future."
Me: "Will there be jetpacks?"
"Why not?"
"Because that wouldn't fit the Call of Duty gameplay style"
"It would be made more fun because there would be jetpacks"

My point is that Call of Duty gameplay is very, very dull. It's like someone took the Quake 3/ UT shooter formula of "Run, Jump, Shoot, Repeat" but then changed it to "Run, shoot, die, blame lag, repeat". I played about half an hour of MW3 during the steam free weekend which served to reinforce my opinion on that matter.But by setting Black Ops 2 in the future Treyarch have the opportunity to rectify this and make an actually fun shooter with awesome shit like laser weapons and jetpacks. But no, from what I can tell Treyarch is taking the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" path (or in this case, the "it's not technically broke but it is a giant congealed brown mess that people keep giving us money for so let's make it again" path). They can have as many bloody armoured quadrotor killstreaks as they want, they're still just something else that flies around shooting ordinary old bullets into ordinary old non-flying soldiers (Though if Treyarch were to add an orbital laser cannon killstreak that would be a step in the right direction. At least that adds spectacle if nothing else).

If you asked me why I think Call of Duty exists as a gaming property I honestly couldn't tell you. It doesn't seem to be so people can have fun playing it, considering that every match plays out like a carbon-copy of every other match (unless everyone who likes it just slams their head in a car door between games to forget the last 15 minutes of their lives). It doesn't seem to be to provide the world with a realistic simulator of modern armed combat (unless the US army has some kind of "Suicidal Retard Squadron" that I'm unaware of). It's certainly not for an engaging narrative And it doesn't seem to be so people can have fun working alone or together to achieve some kind of goal, considering that pretty much no-one works together and the only measure of one's success is how many people they killed and how much dying they did/didn't do. So I really cannot comprehend why this property is considered to be gaming nirvana by the masses when it's compared to other games that have genuinely fun and involving gameplay or actual charm and character.

I suppose the obvious comparison to make here is Team Fortress 2. The gameplay is fun and caters to all flavours of the gaming spectrum (sneaky-pants stealth to capturing objectives to killing as many people as you can), you can switch styles whenever you want, the player-characters are actual characters and the visual design matches this well (and stops people from blending into the background). And that game is bloody free too! (even when it wasn't it was like $20 or something). I just really don't see how people can compare those two games and actually believe that Call of Duty is more enjoyable to play. 

So, the main point of this rant is to say that somewhere along the line we lost track of fun. We traded Half-Life for COD (Completely Obviously... Bad) and Super Mario for EVE online (Which is basically the space-themed version of Microsoft Excel). Why is this? how did this happen? When did we decide that cliche and repetition deserve our praise and money more than fun and imagination? I'm going to stop typing now so that I don't become any more depressed than that aforementioned half-hour of MW3 already made me.

*Footnote* Pretty much everything I've said about cod applies to Battlefield 3 too. I rank the latter as being slightly less horrible because I at least have the option of jumping in a car and running over every motherfucker I see.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Review: Lone Survivor

So, last week I was looking through the steam store and saw a game on the front page called "Lone Survivor", which touted itself as a "psychological survival adventure". I'm a big fan of survival horror and psychological themes in games, so this sounded like it was right up my alley. After playing it, though, I must say that it fails on those points (but it does almost make up for it elsewhere).

So basically you play as some dude, living in an apartment building in a ruined post-apocalyptic city ravaged by a strange disease that turns people into shambling monsters with a hunger for human flesh (sounds familiar, no?). Your main goal is to escape the city and find other survivors (if there are any). The game disappoints on the whole "psychological" aspect right off the bat by basically establishing that your guy is crazy from the word go. Pretty much the first thing you do in the game is go to your friend's apartment across the hall (didn't the game say there weren't any other survivors?) where there's a party going on. Next minute she disappears, the party's over and there's zombies in the room with no explanation of what happened. There is a mental health mechanic in the game, where apparently not eating random crap, not taking drugs, sneaking past the zombies instead of killing them and doing a whole heap of other arbitrary crap gets you a better ending. I played through doing what comes naturally (i.e. trying to play that way but then getting bored and failing miserably) and got a D+ for mental health and a pretty disappointing ending. I guess I could play the game again and try harder to get the good ending, but then the gameplay (while not completely terrible) wasn't exactly enthralling enough to warrant me doing that.

Gameplay consists of a fairly standard adventuring (find item, stand in the right spot and use it) with a dash of stealth in the form of avoiding the zombies (the game doesn't call them zombies but they are bloody zombies). The actual puzzles are disappointingly straightforward, so the only challenge comes from making your way back and forth between the zombies while you're trawling the map for every item you can find. This really becomes a chore before long, which is why i was so inclined to forget about the mental health system and cap every zombie I saw so that I didn't have to sneak around them the long way.You also have to eat food and sleep properly to stay alive, and you can cook certain kinds of food to make them taste nicer as part of that mental health thingy. This leads me to the only part of the game that I really liked, which was the characterization. At first the guy you play as came across as being one of those emotionless tossers you see all too often in games. The mask he wears has him permanently frozen in the same facial expression and his running monologue wasn't exactly enthralling me either. But he has just enough nice character moments (such as making friends with a shadowy figure, or being able to cook food when he finds the gas cylinder) to make me invested in his survival on a personal level. The fact that I was genuinely interested in finding out what would happen to him next is pretty much the only reason I kept playing. And thanks to the main character being insane there were enough entertaining moments to maintain my interest in the plot. So I guess this is proof that a good story can save a game from total damnation.

Anyway, I guess the only thing left to talk about it the horror aspect. Well, It's not scary. I was a bit surprised myself, since the (very) pixellated graphics and generally dark colour scheme give the levels a very gritty, oppressing feel. Unfortunately the other elements of the game completely ruin this feeling. For starters when you're so much as in the same room as a zombie this loud static noise starts up, which removes that feeling of uncertainty that is used to create tension in good horror games. As well as this even when you don't have your flashlight on the screen is bright enough that you can see the zombies on screen perfectly. So yeah, it fails as a horror game too.

Overall, not a great game. The story brings it up to a passable level (even if the actual gameplay was mostly crap), and it's smart enough not to drag on too far. The ending I got was a disappointment, but I guess it would be a bit mean of me to judge the game on that when there might be a really good ending tucked away somewhere else in my steam folder (though I will judge it for having a weird choices system in the first place). And the game didn't technically advertise itself as a horror game, so it would be unfair of me to deduct points from it for that. there's certainly worse ways to spend $10, but a much better way to spend it would be to go see Cabin in the Woods. Seriously, that movie was awesome.

Until next time.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Crazy game idea: Fight Club

Possible mission
Okay, bear with me for a moment. I know that out of the four or so people who are going to read this half of you are exasperatedly sighing at the idea and the other half are at least raising an apprehensive eyebrow. But I was reading the book just the other day and it got me thinking about the prospect of having a videogame based on Fight Club (whether it carried the actual licence or not). The main connection I made was that in Fight Club the members of project mayhem, through their fight club preparations and other various rituals, are taught to live without fear of death or consequence. And anyone who's ever played either Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row should know that this is inherently how you play through a fun sandbox game. So why not incorporate that fearlessness into the narrative and gameplay, rather than just letting it slide like every other game does?

*Please keep in mind that I am assuming whomever is reading this has read or seen Fight Club. If you haven't then some of what I'm talking about might not make much sense, and I'll probably spoil the story for you. So you should probably go do that before reading on*

So now that we've established the idea let's get into the details. So it'll be a sandbox action game (it's not like it was going to be a JRPG) set in a New-York style city (again, not like it was going to be Azeroth). The player character would be the narrator of the story, Tyler Durden's right-hand-man-later-revealed-alter-ego. The first hour or so would probably be a play through of the character's boring, ordinary life (Everyday the Same Dream style) in which the players control would be restricted. When driving only a few roads would be open, only certain places accessible, few dialogue options, basic controls like punching don't work. However before too long (that bit really shouldn't drag out) we are introduced to Tyler Durden, and the fight club begins. The main entertainment value of the fight club sequences would probably just come from the spectacle of skinny businessmen in slacks beating the crap out of each other, but really we could just skip them and move straight to project mayhem (where the real fun is). The point at which project mayhem is established is where the game really starts to open up (symbolizing the player character throwing off the shackles of society, or whatever). Now you can drive along any road at whatever speed you want, say whatever you want and deck whatever random passerby you decide you don't like very much. Now the real fun is starting.

Of course, the make-or-break element of a sandbox game is the missions. If those aren't any fun then the game will ultimately wind up being pretty dry overall (*cough* Mafia 2 *cough*) . But this is where i think the fight club premise will really shine through, as it allows for any number of crazy, havoc-causing missions without even needing an appropriate context. They're creating mayhem for its own sake, there's no explanation required. This is also what will set it apart from the other popular sandbox crime games that I mentioned previously. In those games there are story missions that actually progress the game, and side missions that earn the player some extra pocket money. But in this case the ultimate goal of both the story and the missions is to create mayhem, which means that every mission completed works towards the same goal as the story, giving the player more motivation to complete them. As for the missions themselves pretty much whatever can be imagined up would be fine (a few off the top of my head: Dirty Skywriting, destroying construction sites, encasing luxury cars in hot tar). Maybe we could play as different members of project mayhem for different missions, so we can hear some funny original dialogue between members.  And so the more missions are completed the more messed up the city becomes when we're playing as mr. narrator in the open exploration bits between missions. Maybe when we've done enough missions we unlock special solo missions where we play as Tyler (though we would probably have to make room on the control scheme for a witty one-liner button). And if you've seen the film you know what happens, story progresses until we're sitting on top of a building waiting for the bombs to go off, waiting for society to fall.

So that's my idea. I'm pretty sure this game is never going to get made (unless any of my readers has 10 million dollars and a few programmers lying around), but there's no harm in dreaming. But then, since this is an adaptation we could just assume that it would be a terrible game and move on with our lives.
Until next time

Monday, 16 April 2012

Chilling: My horror game idea

For a few weeks now I've been mulling over an idea for a survival horror game. I've considered making it myself using something like Unity 3D, but that sounds like too much time and effort for me. So I'm posting it here, just in case anyone with a bit more initiative wants to have a crack at it.

So it's a survival horror game with no combat at all, only stealth, similar to Amnesia: the Dark Descent . It could be in either first or third person, that's not important. In Amnesia, however, when a monster appeared you could hide behind a bookshelf for as long as you liked. I wanted to change that. What if you could only stay still for a certain amount of time? This would increase tension by removing the comforting knowledge that the player is safe when they're in cover. The time limit would probably be made fairly lax. Not so much that the player can disregard it altogether, but enough that it was a guarantee that the player wouldn't find themselves in cover with no opportunity to leave safely before the time ran out (and they presumably died). Now that we've established this mechanic, we must find a way to put it into appropriate context.

So, what if the character suddenly found themselves in a situation where they might freeze to death. Say they're driving through a forest, late at night in the middle of winter, and their car crashes (that's the first scenario that comes to mind). They're very tired, it's snowing heavily (horror bonus points, reduced visibility)and they're not wearing thick clothing. They know that if they rest for a second and fall asleep they will not wake up. As such they must keep moving, to keep their mind alert and their core temperature up. And that's it in a nutshell, forcing the player to break cover in order to survive, putting themselves in harms way. As for the enemy/monster in question, that's not entirely important at this concept stage. When I was considering making the game itself I imagined a lumbering beast shrouded in a black mist. Partly because it creates confusion about what the creature actually is (the less the player knows, the better), mostly because this would give me an excuse to cover it in particle effects to hide the lazy design (I'm not a graphic artist to any degree). Minimalist design in horror is important, it keeps the tone serious rather than silly and allows an independent designer to work within the limitations of their resources.

Now that we've established that core mechanic, we're free to look for ways to expand upon it (or outside of it) to make the game even more frightening. The sanity mechanic has been pretty popular in recent horror games, but I don't feel that it's being implemented as well as it could be. For starters having an actual "sanity meter" doesn't make much sense to me. When you're going insane you don't know it, so the knowledge of precisely how sane you are is comforting. The other thing is that the only consequence of the player going insane is that the screen goes weird and the player might fall over or something. I think it can be taken further than that. Maybe the character starts slowly moving by themselves, or they start making noises that alert the nearby enemy(s). That would force the player to take measures to preserve their sanity, rather than just allowing it to slide like you could in Amnesia. The other way to (possibly) implement this is to mess with the player themselves, rather than the character. You could change the volume slightly, cause slight screen tearing, change camera angles etc. Any of this would have to be implemented very subtly, or it would damage the player's immersion. But then, having never tried this it might damage their immersion anyway. Seems like it would be worth a shot at least.

So that's about it, that's my brilliant idea for a survival horror game. On the slight chance that someone does actually read this, think "wow, that's a great idea and wouldn't at all wind up being a really cheap and gimmicky version of Amnesia" and makes the game, could you link me to it. I don't care how it turns out, there just aren't enough horror games being made these days. Or maybe too many, and we should be keeping each game a special, unique experience. One good one every two years or so might be enough. In which case you should wait another years if you want this one to be good, A Machine for Pigs is coming out later this year (Frictional + TheChineseRoom sounds like a great match to me).

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Review: PixelJunk Eden

Okay, so here's my first review: PixelJunk Eden. Apparently this has been out on the PSN for a while now, so for some of you this will be a bit dated. But I don't own a ps3 and I just recently picked it up on steam and had a play through. So let's take a look at it:

In PixelJunk Eden you play as something called a "grimp" (?) who floats through various forests looking for the elusive "spectra" (??) which are good for... some reason. The grimp also has to contend against the (supposedly) evil "pollen prowlers", which he must attack and burst to get the pollen within to open new paths through the world. The game really doesn't explain any of this to any detail, and I suppose it doesn't really have to once the gameplay picks up speed, but it does leave the player wondering exactly what they're supposed to be doing here. Most of the pollen prowlers aren't even doing anything, they're just floating through the air and explode at the slightest touch. In later levels they develop a few different variations that do appear to be actively trying to hurt you, but they still explode after a few chest-bumps which certainly destroys the notion that they're meant to be formidable in any way.

Anyway, since the game is a platformer gameplay consists of jumping from one thing to another thing, while exploding as many prowlers as possible to grow new paths through the level towards the spectra that you are searching for. There are several spectra in each level, collecting one of which ejects you back to the hub world which connects the levels. Collecting so many spectra opens new levels, and that's about it. After a jump the grimp (still sounds weird) can float through the air to a certain point. This can make it very difficult to judge whether or not you're going to make a jump, and missing a jump means you have to very slowly fall through the air and hope to land on something that's at least slightly closer to where you were than the floor is, and then jump/float your way back up. This really isn't good for the flow of gameplay, and can be especially frustrating when the time limit becomes constricted later on.

As a game going for the "artsy" sector of the indie market the visual design and soundtrack are really quite good. The plants you jump between stand out well against the backdrops and the levels are quite colourful without becoming visually cluttered and confusing. The soundtrack features a mix of mellow-yet-upbeat techno tunes which blend nicely with the visuals and the pace of the game overall. This makes the levels quite fun to explore and does make me want to keep playing just so I can see each one. However, with each spectra you collect in a level your time limit (represented by an "oscillator" bar at the bottom of the screen) depletes faster, forcing you to maintain a quickness of pace. I understand that a game requires some degree of challenge, but when the game so proudly touts its "original techno soundtrack and unique graphic style" then punishing the player for wanting to indulge in the level design and visuals seems like a step in the wrong direction. If they wanted to make the game challenging they could've started with including some enemies a bit more formidable than a china statue balanced on a pool cue in an earthquake.

Ultimately, PixelJunk Eden feels like a game I'd expect to see in the ipad app store, rather than on steam. At the time of writing I haven't played enough to unlock every level, and while I don't see myself hundred-percenting it I do want to continue playing. If you can get absorbed in it then it can be quite entertaining, but it only takes a few frustrating falls to slap the player back to reality. The question of whether or not I would recommend buying it is a bit difficult to answer. If you're a bit of a casual/non-gamer looking for a simple pick-up-and-play game that you can enjoy in 15-20 minute intervals between meetings or whatever than you can certainly do a lot worse for your $10 than PixelJunk Eden.  However, if you're looking for something with a bit more narrative or gameplay substance than this probably isn't for you.

Until next time