Monday, 28 January 2008

Where the Grass is Green and the Girls are Pretty

Two reasons why every fan of the Burnout series should be buying a copy of Burnout Paradise:

1) It's Burnout
2) The open world/exploration stuff actually works.

Somehow I managed to rack up fifteen hours of play between getting home on Friday and going to bed last night. In the same timeframe, I went to the pub, to a birthday party, to band practice and fixed a PC for someone. No wonder I was so strung out at the end of it all.

Seriously though, Paradise is awesome. I've unlocked something like 40% of the game and only had a small taster of the online stuff but I'm pretty sure this is the best Burnout yet. That Criterion managed to cram Paradise City full of things to do and see really helps carry the game along. Even when you're not in a race, you'll never be short of a car to unlock, a jump to nail, a time to beat and cars to smash.

One of my favourite features has to be Road Rules. Every stretch of road in the city is named, and has online friends leaderboards for both best time (time taken to travel from one end of the street to the other) and biggest Showtime score (like Crash mode in earlier Burnouts only freeform, think Katamari with cars). When you hold both the best time and Showtime score for a road, the roadsign turns gold and you "own" that road. Until one of your friends comes along and bests a time or a score. The gobsmacking thing is, even if you're playing offline (whilst connected to Live), the game notifies you when a friend has set a new record and on which road. Cue fist-in-the-air "you're not getting away with that, sir!", and off you go to try and win your road back. Glorious.

And so, to other less gamey news. As mentioned earlier, we had a band practice this weekend. On a Sunday. This is not right, surely! Playing guitar whilst it's still light outside? Madness. But yeah, it was the first of hopefully many bi-weekly Sunday practices. That allows for an average of six practices a month rather than the usual four.

We're wasting no time in using the extra hours - jamming on a great new song that stemmed from a riff that I had written and naturally bloomed into a full-on metal monster. It's the first song that we've written entirely with the four of us in one room with our instruments, and it shows. In a good way. With Spud able to come up with beats there and then, rather than following along to an EZ Drummer track, the song already has a really fluid feel to it. In a nutshell, when we eventually arrange to play another gig we're going to have some material that will blow away our regulars at the very least.

That's me done for now. Have a rockin' week. And buy Burnout. And if you don't have a 360 to play it on, buy one of those too.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Best of 2007 - #1

1 - Mass Effect (Xbox 360)

Epic: the only word one can use to describe the last hour of Mass Effect's main storyline. Shit: the word I used to describe Mass Effect after about two hours of playtime. Wrong: the word I used to describe myself when it all clicked into place.

Mass Effect isn't exactly a friendly game. You get thrown into combat with a very minimal tutorial and you're left to figure out most of the game's nuances by yourself. The combat is initially quite offputting, and some gamers just aren't going to get over that hurdle. But for those who do find themselves enjoying the system after the first couple of storyline worlds, the game quickly springs to life.

Mass Effect's greatest strength is its storytelling. Not the content of the story per sé (it's all very standard sci-fi cheese at the end of the day), but the interaction between the main characters and the all-round excellent voice acting really does deliver. The dialogue cut-scenes drip with atmosphere and are helped along by the gorgeous backdrop of the universe Bioware have created.

If Mass Effect does click for you, then you'll find yourself very forgiving of its glaring flaws: long load times, low framerate, texture pop-up, bad inventory management, endless driving of that damned buggy on barren planets, sidequests that quickly become samey.... the list goes on.

But for the story, the characters, the overall design and that last hour of gameplay, Mass Effect takes its deserved place as my number one game of 2007. It's the only game since... well, forever, that has made me start a new game the instant I finished my first playthrough. Not only that, it held my attention for the entire second playthrough clocking in at a total of some thirty-five hours over both games.

Bring on the rest of the trilogy.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Best of 2007 - #2

2 - Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Xbox 360)

For the first time, the Call of Duty series is taken out of its staple world war two background and brings everything bang up-to-date. Everything you'd expect from a CoD game is still present: great storytelling, epic set-pieces, squad-based combat that works, and a multiplayer portion that's fit for professional play.

And I absolutely love it. For the record, I've not always got on with modern shooters, preferring Battlefield 1942 to Battlefield 2, Call of Duty to Rainbow Six and so on. But even within the WW2 genre, Call of Duty has always been my preferred franchise and so I snapped up CoD4 (when I had run out of other games to play) solely on the strength of the other games in the series. Excluding CoD3. Which wasn't technically an Infinity Ward game anyway. So there.

And, unsurprisingly, the single player campaign was genius. A little short - but then, most CoD campaigns are - clocking in at around five hours playing on the lowest difficulty. I've since attempted to complete some of the chapters on Veteran (worth 40 achievement points each), and I've managed around 40% of them. I've blogged before about how well-balanced the achievements are in CoD4 - about half easy and half challenging. It's perfect.

Thinking I was done with the game after the single-player campaign, I dismissed the multiplayer portion and went on to other things. I don't do much multiplayer these days, especially with people I don't know. But one day, shortly before Christmas, I got curious and fired it up. I've since sunk nearly a day's worth of total playtime into the multiplayer game. It's fantastic. And because it kept me entertained for so long over the holiday (and during my throat infection), it gets second place on my 2007 top ten.

So what's number one then? Answers on a postcard! It should be pretty obvious by now but I'll keep you guessing until later in the week.


Just a Few Bits and Bobs

I've just spent a delightful weekend doing absolutely nothing at all! It was good in a way to just kick back and watch some films, some TV shows and so on. I even managed to tick over some achievements and I'm now sitting pretty on a 7015 gamerscore.

One of the films I watched was a really great Korean flick from last year called The Host (trailer). I've probably not mentioned before that I have no love for the way half the internet seems to be obsessed with whatever comes out of the east. A lot of the time it's just plain creepy. But that's something else entirely. The Host is not what I expected at all, and could easily have been a big-budget Hollywood film. It's a monster film done right, essentially. Check it out.

I picked up the guitar this weekend as well, and ran through the band's setlist a few times. We're currently
working on an awesome new song entitled Origin Unknown, which we're also considering as a title for our first full-length which will be out... well, when we have some money and more time I guess. Let's say next year.

The 60-odd achievement points I gained this weekend came courtesy of Live Arcade games Pinball FX and Omega Five. I've always been a fan of pinball, and Pinball FX is a great little game that now has a total of five gorgeous-looking tables (one of which is free DLC, and the other is a 200-point DLC package). I guess that getting the achievements feels like luck more than skill, but I'm going to spend a bit more time with the game in the future and work out some of the tables.


Burnout Paradise is released this week. I spent some more time with the demo on Friday night, and found that once I actually gave it a chance and explored a bit, I started to have a lot more fun. In fact, I'm pretty sure the free-roaming nature of the game isn't going to bother me as much as I expected it to. I mean, Criterion could have just released the usual bi-yearly update to the series and be done with it, but they've taken a risk to do something different and I like that. Pre-ordered in the hope that Gameplay will deliver a day early as usual!

J was spamming IRC this weekend as he attempted to salvage data from the IG.net server. Suffice to say, the hard drives are knackered (full of CRC errors), and the IG SQL database files are among the casualties. I'm going to stick my neck out and warn anyone that still cares about IG and is still reading my blog (all two of you) that IG.net is unlikely to return in the form you're used to. There have been a lot of discussions regarding what could be done, but no real conclusion has been reached and few people are likely to spend the time it would take to get a site up and running again.


And then of course, there's the server. It needs a complete hardware replacement. IG isn't the only site that was hosted on the server and I personally have a lot of vested interest in getting myself a new hosted solution, be it linked to IG or not. 1U colo is definitely cheap enough, but that means purchasing a 1U server at a cost of about £500 for a nice enough Core2 with a couple of gigs of RAM. Unfortunately, the parties interested in getting a new server have approximately £0 to rub together (myself included), so it appears that we're going nowhere at the moment. C'est la vie.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Best of 2007 - #3

3 - Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)

As much as I wanted the Wii to be my console of choice after absolutely loving the Gamecube, It's hard to find a good reason to bother even switching it on these days. Bar the odd family gathering or a drunken round of Wii Sports golf with mates, the poor thing just sits on top of my 360 gathering dust.

The times that I do want to play on the Wii, I liken the console to a desert island; and theres me floating in a sea of utterly shit third-party games with the odd shark-of-a-game-that-promised-much-yet -ended-up-with-shitty-PS1-era-graphics-and-tacked-on-motion-controls snapping at my ankles whilst I try to reach Wii island desperately clutching a copy of Nintendo's latest first-party offering.

I own a grand total of five Wii games. Well, three really as Wii Sports was a pack-in and Wii Play was an excuse to buy a second remote. And you know what? I don't care that 99% of Wii games are shit. I don't care that Nintendo completely ruined any chance of capturing the hearts and wallets of semi-serious gamers. My parents love the Wii (or, you know, Wii Sports) and that's fine.
I can only imagaine that 80% of the people still snapping the things up a year after launch are buying it just as a Wii Sports player.

But as long as Nintendo release one game a year that's as brilliant as Super Mario Galaxy, then my purchase is justified. I don't think I need to say anything more than that.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Best of 2007 - #4

4 - Bioshock (Xbox 360)

Now we really start getting into the meat of my top ten. In actual fact, these top four games are all completely equal in my eyes - joint first if you will - and I've ranked them literally on the amount of time that I spent playing them. That's not a cop-out, it's a reflection of the quality of the games that 2007 produced. In my mind, it's been the best year in gaming for as long as I can remember, and Bioshock was the first title to really cement that notion.

The actual combat in Bioshock is pretty average. Had this not been Bioshock, it would have been just another average first-person shooter.
But then there's the atmosphere, the art design, the characters, the flawless detail that oozes from every crack in Rapture's underwater utopia. You get two plot twists for the price of one. Bioshock's world just draws you in and makes you forget that you're playing an average FPS with some RPG-lite tacked on.

Fully deserving of every Game of the Year award it took home, Bioshock is a work of art. A game that dares to do something different in an industry of clones, eschewing what is expected of modern games in favour of Ken Lavine's vision. It was a gamble that paid off, selling well over 2 million copies worldwide.


Now, would you kindly keep reading and find out how I've ranked my top three games of 2007...

Friday, 11 January 2008

Last Night

I took a last-minute trip over to Southsea to support local band, Penny's Dropped. I'm hoping that my band will eventually get to play there, but it's going to be difficult to break into the mainland scene without the necessary contacts. The Wedgewood Rooms is a great venue and once again all of the bands from last night had a good sound. Penny's did well with the 25 minutes they had, but being first on they were playing to a cold audience.

I was impressed at the turnout actually. For a Thursday night the gig was well-attended and the crowd would certainly be bigger than any than I've previously played to. We're hoping to get there this year.

Videos are going up on my Youtube channel.

Best of 2007 - #5

5 - The Orange Box (Xbox 360)

I'm going to come straight out and say it - I don't get all the fuss over Portal. I'm not saying it's a bad game, but in my opinion it wasn't enough of a game to warrant the seemingly unanimous praise it received both from the press and gamers alike.

Yes, the boss battle was truly funny. The ending tune is definitely Grammy material. But what about all the stuff before that? Most of the time to me it felt like less of a game and more of a tech demo. I vaguely remember enjoying myself at some point during the first part of the game, then marginally maybe a bit more during the escape part. Blink, though, and you'll miss it. Just as I was starting to enjoy myself, it was game over.

For me, Episode 2 was the real meat of the Orange Box experience. That's why I bought the game. Before I got stuck in with Ep 2, I enjoyed running through both Half Life 2 and Episode 1 again, mainly for the achievements. Episode 2 really made the purchase worthwhile and that ending... just wow.

I'll admit that I have yet to try Team Fortress 2 - the one time I did fire it up the matchmaker didn't find any games for me to join. However, the rest of the package - the entire HL2 experience and that song with a game tacked on - was well worth the price of entry.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Best of 2007 - #6

6 - Puzzle Quest (XBLA)

I'm not usually one for playing puzzle games; for me a game needs to have some kind of a storyline or be a little more fast-paced to hold my attention. So it came as a bit of a shock to find that I rated the Bejewelled-alike Puzzle Quest among my favourite games of 2007 after spending an unhealthy portion of time playing it.

Of course, Puzzle Quest isn't just a Puzzle game - there's also Questing to be done! The RPG side of the game is simple but engaging, and drives the game along nicely. For those that don't know, PQ is a connect three/four/five style puzzler, with four colours of gem that correspond to four types of mana. Each spell the player can cast uses one or more type of mana. You're playing against an opponent that also has spells to use against you. You play until either you or the computer opponent run out of hitpoints. Simple really.

Then there's the overworld map where the crude-but-functional storyline takes place, complete with random encounters, city capturing, citadel-building and all manner of lightweight RPG elements. The Live Arcade version of the game is well-presented, and entirely worth the 1200 point entry price. A game worthy of closing off the first half of my 2007 top ten.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Best of 2007 - #7

7 - Guitar Hero 3 (Xbox 360)

Rhythm games are a fad. They're not real games. And yes, my opinion probably has everything to do with the fact that I suck at them. And look, just because I had a moment of weakness and let myself enjoy GH3, does not mean that I'm interested in hearing you talk about how awesome Rock Band is going to be. I don't care. Hitting dodgy plastic buttons on fake plastic instruments is never going to be as fun as the real thing, and I should know.

But yes, I'll admit it: I can now at least see why people enjoy this series so much. It is fun. It's amazing how hitting buttons in response to little coloured circles on-screen can actually make you feel like you're a rock star. Oh, and it helps that the tracklist in GH3 is pretty damn superb as well.

So there. A rhythm game in my top ten of 2007. Something you won't see in my 2008 top ten. Nosir.

Best of 2007 - #8

8 - S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Shadow of Chernobyl (PC)

Oh how I wish this game was higher up on my list. I'd followed Stalker (sod using the silly acronym) since February 2003 when I saw one of the first previews in PC Gamer. I took in every single little piece of information I could about the game. I laughed at people that tried to tell me it was vapourware or that it would suck when it came out.

And you know what? Never again. Stalker was a good game. It was hard to get into, but the atmosphere made it worth the effort. But in no way did it live up to my expectations. It stank of needing another year's worth of work and given more time I'm sure it would have been truly amazing.

GSC just had to cut too much. They'd created this whole world to explore, but in the end it was nothing more than a number of maps divided up into linear progression zones. The huge openly explorable world that had been promised really wasn't there, and even if it had been, there wouldn't have been enough to do outside of the main storyline to make it worthwhile.

Stalker, then: a perfect example of a game that bit off more than it could chew.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Best of 2007 - #9

9 - Space Giraffe (XBLA)

The first of two Xbox Live Arcade games to make it onto my top ten list, Space Giraffe is a remake of the Jaguar game Tempest 2000. Being a Llamasoft title, from the mind of the wacky Jeff Minter, I knew exactly what to expect from the game - a psychedelic music-driven shmup with rather bizarre in-jokes.

And the exact same things are what turned off many of the people that downloaded the trial version. It's a Marmite game - you either love it or loathe it and the result was poor sales and an unfortunate internet outburst from Jeff himself.

But that didn't stop me loving the game. This is my favourite XBLA dual-stick shooter by far, and there are a lot of them up there. I think maybe you have to have been there back in the day and enjoyed a previous Llamasoft title (for me, Llamatron) to really understand just what the hell Jeff is getting at.

I imagine he's learnt from his mistakes and will tone down the craziness somewhat for his next Arcade title, an update of Gridrunner. Let's hope it performs better than Giraffe did, eh?

Best of 2007 - #10

2007 really was the year of the 360 for me personally. I've decided to list my top ten games of last year and write a little bit about what made them special. Eight of the ten were 360 games (or were played on the 360 in the case of multiplatform releases). Let me know what you think of my selection!

10 - Overlord (Xbox 360)

This little gem of a game was released during the late spring / early summer gaming drought and kept me amused for quite some time.

Gameplay was kind of a cross between Pikmin and Diablo, with your avatar (the Overlord) taking charge of a band of minions who are only to happy to carry out your evil bidding.

Unfortunately, the few original ideas in the game weren't enough to hold my interest until the end of the single player campaign, although I definitely plan to get back to it at some point in the future. A lot of the quests felt a bit samey by halfway through the game, and I found myself getting frustrated with commanding several different types of minion at once.

Overlord scrapes in at number 10 with some original ideas, great presentation, good voice acting and some decent British humour. However, I'm not sure the game would have made this list had it been released much later in the year!

Monday, 7 January 2008

Over Christmas...

...I was mostly ill. Came down with a throat infection on Christmas eve and today is my first day back at work. It still hasn't properly cleared up. All the awesome-fun plans I had made for the holiday period were rudely snatched away, and the most I could bring myself to do was play on the 360. Even that felt like a chore somedays, when my throat was so bad it felt like I had a cactus permanently wedged down there.

I managed to get out of the house twice, and felt like crap the next morning after both evenings out. So, a complete bust really.

My illness did give me the opportunity to sample a couple of new 360 games. First off was Call of Duty 4. I've come to expect nothing less than a brilliant single-player campaign from the CoD franchise and wow, does CoD4 deliver. I was worried about the reports I'd heard regarding the length of the campaign, but the sheer quality of the content far outweighed that it only took me five hours to get through.

People that know me and my gaming habits will know that I'm a strong advocate of the single-player game, and rarely dip into multiplayer outside of co-op with friends. I'd heard that CoD4 had the best Live multiplayer experience thus far and so decided to just give it a little try to see what I was missing out on.

The sheer ease of getting into a game really helped me in the first couple of hours of play - being able to flit from match to match as players moved on and shut down their hosted games; the ability to see at a glace how many players are playing which gametypes; the ease of navigation of the menu system - all add up to an extremely usable experience.

With a ranking system similar to that of Battlefield 2(142), unlocking guns, perks and mods as you go - you always feel like you're achieving something. Which is good, as the multiplayer portion of the game offers no actual achievements. More games need to take note and do this. Whilst I will play the everliving shit out of a single player game for the achievements (at least, the ones that are fun to get!), making me play the multiplayer portion to get the other 500 points just isn't on. CoD4 gets it exactly right - 600 relatively easy points, 400 hard ones and a multiplayer portion that offers its own rewards system that engages me yet doesn't force me to play just to get points. Thank you, Infinity Ward.

I played Guitar Hero on PS2 at the beginning of 2007 at a LAN. In the short time I had with the game (one song, failed miserably on Easy), I decided that I would never play Guitar Hero again.

So when my sister's boyfriend bought GH3 round to my parents' on Boxing day, I convinced myself that I would hate it before the controller had even been assembled. I, of course, blame my weak-willedness squarely on being ill but we ended up spending most of the day unlocking songs in the co-op career mode.

Now, I'm in a band. I play onstage semi-regularly. I like to rock out. I know how absolutely badass playing a gig feels. What took me by surprise is how easily GH manages to re-create that feeling of badass-ness. When you nail a complex run; when you finally finish a song that's been driving you nuts for half an hour; when you activate that star-power at just the right moment. Guitar Hero does exactly what I initially hated the concept for: It makes playing fake guitar look cool.

And although playing real guitar and playing fake Guitar Hero guitar are two completely different skillsets (anyone that tries to convince you otherwise is a pillock), I can now see why the whole fad has got people going crazy in such numbers. It's F U N. And yes, it is a fad, and no, it's not real gaming. And if this is what gaming is going to become, shoot me now.

I bought GH3 as soon as my local independent game retailer was open the day after Boxing day.

And as if I hadn't already lowered my credibility as a gamer enough in this post - this weekend I started playing World of Warcraft again. From scratch. I promised myself I never would, but some real-life friends convinced me to go run around as Horde with them. So I did. I'm disgusted with myself. You should probably stop reading right now as I'm just a filthy hypocrite.

Go on, stop.

P.S. WoW is still as fun in the early game as I remember it. And I'm not likely to get anywhere near 60 70 this time, so it's okay. Okay?

New Year, New Blog!

Again, the Island Gamers server has gone down (or rather, it's been down for a couple of months) and as there's currently no end in sight for the downtime I thought I'd start up a new blog so that I may continue writing.

For those of you that don't know, I'm Gareth "Fats" Williams, a twenty-something Microsoft-certified development consultant from the Isle of Wight. I also happen to like games and music a lot. I like to blog about all of the above when I'm in the mood. My blog is normally hosted at www.fatweb.org