Friday, 31 December 2010

When I was 31, it was a very good year…

2010 has been a very busy and very good year for me; I got married in the summer, flew to the Caribbean on honeymoon and a few weeks later acted as the best man at my brother’s wedding. We moved in to our new house in September and my wife and I got a lovely puppy a few weeks ago, which is conspiring to urinate on my lounge carpet as I type. At work I achieved the advancement I was hoping for within my career and was offered the job I have coveted for a number of years.

I have also been attempting to develop my writing, specifically with regard to video games journalism; this brought me to writing for an online publication, Game Kudos. Writing for GK allowed me to cover my first industry Expo in the form of EuroGamer in London, and gain valuable experience interviewing the lead designer of a top video game developer.

In the gaming world I have invested countless hours saving the Universe in Mass Effect 2, riding the plains of the Wild West in Red Dead Redemption, running and gunning my way through numerous FPS titles, the highlights being Call of Duty: Black Ops and Medal of Honor (American spelling of Honour!). I’ve enjoyed surviving the post apocalyptic wastelands of Fallout: New Vegas and suffered through the worst game I can remember playing in the form of Deadly Premonition. I got sporty too, kicking around with some of the world’s best footballers in FIFA 11 and beating Tiger Woods in the Ryder Cup on Tiger Woods PGA tour 11. There were lots of other games, but those are just some of the highlights. I also laid my old trust Xbox 360 to rest after suffering the dreaded Red Ring of Death, and got a shiny new one in its place.

Next year’s gaming promises much, but in particular I’m looking forward to Dead Space 2 and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (the long awaited sequel to the excellent Oblivion). After such an eventful year I’ll be glad of a rest and a chance for more gaming, but I look forward to 2011 with optimism and anticipation. Happy New Year everyone, see you in the future…

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Worst. Game. Ever.

Last month I was sent a promotional copy of Access Games’ Deadly Premonition to review in my capacity as writer for Game Kudos. The game’s concept is an interesting one; a murder mystery, survival horror title with an open world game mechanic. It’s based around an FBI agent’s investigation into the ritualistic murder of a young woman in the fictional US town of Greenvale.

When I first heard of the game I looked forward to its release, as the genre and story appealed to me. The game was released in the USA 6 months before Europe, so I had to wait a while to get hands on, while gamers over the pond got to grips with it in April. This meant that US reviews were available online months before the game’s release in the UK. Interestingly, Deadly Premonition polarised game critics; some claimed it to be the best game ever made, others condemned it as, literally, a console seller: "Once you play it, you'll want to sell your system."

Regardless, I looked forward to playing and reviewing it, but before the end of the uninspiring opening sequence I feared the worst. Despite the excellent concept, the game is flawed on every level. Poor graphics, awful sound, unbelievably slow gameplay, an un-empathic and randomly schizophrenic protagonist, a mind-bogglingly difficult and restrictive control system, ridiculous camera angles, bizarre enemies (zombie-type creatures literally bent over backwards, slowly trying to put their hands in your mouth???) and annoying voiceovers that feel like a badly dubbed foreign movie are just some of the lowlights.

Deadly Premonition is a good game concept executed very badly. It has gems here and there; the requirement to wash, shave, fuel your car, clean your windscreen, chat to Greenvale’s population and piece together the puzzle and capture the Raincoat Killer are some of the smarter aspects. Unfortunately, the below par performance of almost every part of the game vastly overshadow any potential the title may have had.

Sadly, Deadly Premonition takes the title of “worst game I’ve ever played on the Xbox 360”.

My full review, published at Game Kudos, can be read here.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

You wait an age for one….

Good games are like buses; you wait an age for one, then several arrive at once. Throughout the middle of 2010, I along with countless other gamers, suffered through a drought of decent titles. Between the release of the excellent Mass Effect 2, early in the year, and the recent release of the much anticipated Fallout New Vegas, only Red Dead Redemption stood out as a particularly spectacular game in mid-2010.

No sooner had Obsidian returned us to the world of wastelands, vaults and super-mutants, than we see the release of other big hitters; Star Wars The Force Unleashed 2, Fifa 11, Medal of Honor, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, and what is expected to become the biggest selling game of all time: Call of Duty Black Ops, to name but a few. I left out Halo Reach from that ensemble for personal reasons, but if that floats your boat it could add weight to my argument.

With such a large selection of potentially excellent titles arriving within just a few short weeks of one another, I feel like the gaming equivalent of an emaciated captive presented with a banquet; I want them all but can’t have them all at once. The games industry seems to do this quite deliberately and it’s relatively obvious that the release timing is geared to exploit the lucrative Christmas market.

This appears to be a sound business model, being as how a vast majority of games are purchased in the run up to the holiday season; but is this market mindset counter-productive? Development schedules aside, certain titles can easily lay claim to the holiday market. Over the past 4 years the king of Christmas gaming has consistently been the Call of Duty series. So then, are other great titles that simply selling themselves short by trying to go in direct competition with such a massive title? Would there be more sense in releasing some bigger games 6 months apart from the biggest of the holiday titles, to boost sales and, most importantly, fill the gap of good games during the summer?

Only the developers, or perhaps marketing experts, can answer this, but it should be noted as a combat indicator that Game, the UK’s biggest games retailer - one that is supposed to be recession proof - has seen it’s shares plummet over the past year. Last year their share value sat at £1.60, however today it is hovering around 70p. The retailer actually blamed the lack of big title releases in the first half of the year for the slump, and expects to recover over the Christmas period. That said if this is to be the trend, then Game and other video game retailers could well see their share prices in a constant yo-yo. Meanwhile, gamers will continue to wait many months for another flood of great games.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Gaming Gentleman at Eurogamer Expo

At the beginning of October I attended the Eurogamer Expo at London’s Earl’s court in the capacity as a staff writer for Game Kudos. Over the past few weeks the content I produced from the Expo has been published at the website, and I’m linking it all up here in this post.

Whilst there I was able to attend developer sessions, get hands-on with preview demos of upcoming games and, most excitingly for me, interview some big hitters in the industry.

Today my interview with Tameem Antonaides, head designer at Ninja Theory and creator of the recently released Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, was published here.

I also wrote about several of the more important game demos I played. As I’m a big Fallout fan, I spent a little time getting to grips with life in a post apocalyptic Las Vegas. My preview of the much-anticipated sequel, Fallout New Vegas, can be read here.

I was able to play a 15-minute demo of the upcoming space horror sequel Dead Space 2. The first game scared the living daylights out of me, read about how the second game’s shaping up here.

I was also luck enough to play the multiplayer component of the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Imagine a deathmatch game where whilst you hunt your target, a third party hunts you. The game boasts all of the free-running fun of Assassin’s Creed, playable online with your friends. Read all about it here.

That’s all of the links for now, but watch this space, as I’ll be writing about my experiences covering my first event as a games journalist.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

If typewriting monkeys can do it, so can I…

I started this blog exactly one year ago this month. My aim was to portfolio my writing in the hope of making a career of it one day. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing in my spare time and interacting with those who comment here and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks largely to the existence of this blog I have been writing for other sites (mainly Game Kudos) for over 6 months now. Next week I am to get my first taste of “real” journalism. The good people at Game Kudos have arranged a press pass for me to the Eurogamer Expo taking place in London’s Earl’s Court next weekend.

Eurogamer is one the UK’s largest video games expos and is expected to draw 20,000 visitors over the course of the 3-day event. With big name developers displaying upcoming titles such as Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Dead Space 2, Fifa 11, Fallout: New Vegas and Dragon Age 2 - to name but a few - there will doubtless be plenty for me to cut my teeth on. My Director is in the process of organising appointments and interviews and my Editor-in-Chief has spent some time imparting words of wisdom to help me prepare for my baby-steps into the world of video games journalism.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m far from a fully-fledged games journalist, but I see next weekend as a first major step on that road. I still have a lot to prepare and reams of research to read through prior to my first appointments, but I can honestly say that I am excited to be going. I’m aware that it won’t be fun, not in the traditional sense anyway. I’ll be there to work, not play, and despite this I’m certain I’m going to enjoy it. If nothing else, the Eurogamer Expo will serve as an invaluable experience and one I hope I'll look back on fondly.

After the event I’ll write here about my experiences and, of course, link all of the stories I’ll be writing for Game Kudos. For now, I must get back to my research. If the old saying is true and I work hard enough and type for long enough perhaps I’ll produce Shakespeare, or at least a decent game preview.

Monday, 30 August 2010

I just don’t ‘get’ Halo

With the imminent release of Halo: Reach I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and explain why I won’t be buying it; I just don’t ‘GET’ Halo. And I have tried. I got a copy of the first game free with my first Xbox console. I played the second game through in a co-op multiplayer, but there my experience ended, for a while anyway.

Halo is huge, I understand that. Aside from the games, which have sold more than 34 million copies worldwide, the series has spawned 6 best selling novels, comics, toys and other merchandise making the Master Chief and the non-oiled-up Spartans icons of the modern gaming age. But, for me, Halo just doesn’t do it. I have had cause to consider why recently, and what I found has surprised me.

I love sci-fi. I enjoy StarTrek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica (old and new) and films like Serenity and 2001: A Space Odyssey rank among my favourites. From a gaming perspective I grew up playing Elite and other Space based games as well as early FPS games such as Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. More recently tiles such as Mass Effect and Dead Space have sapped countless hours from my life so Halo’s setting, themes and back-story should have me gripped right? Sadly no.

Then what of the FPS genre itself? I have played and enjoyed more FPS games than any other genre I can think of. From Goldeneye to Wolfenstein, Band of Brothers, Call of Duty, Left 4 Dead, Rainbow 6; there’s nothing I like more than running around a well-rendered map staring down the sights of weapon at my enemies and then ending them. Again, Halo ticks this box as one of the archetypal titles in the FPS genre, so why don’t I care about stopping the Covenant from overrunning Earth and destroying humanity the best way I know how?

One of my biggest complaints about a lot of FPS games is the formulaic nature of vehicle-based levels. Sitting on the back of a Jeep firing mindlessly at anything that moves tends to bore me and many excellent titles fall at this hurdle, in my opinion, but the Halo games don’t. They do vehicles well, with multiple vehicular positions, driver, passenger and gunner, giving variety to the portions of the game that they occupy. But it still doesn’t grip me.

So what about graphics? Is it that the colourful settings and characters, the brilliant blue skies and the bright green or purple vehicles have soured my perception? Again I don’t think so. Games like Borderlands have much more bright and cartoon graphics than any of the Halo series and yet I thoroughly enjoyed rampaging around Pandora’s bright wastelands.

And what of gameplay? Halo was one of the first FPS to integrate more complex console controls into an ergonomic and instinctive control system. It’s multiplayer, whilst not new, was a great addition and dominated Xbox LIVE for a very long time, even after Xbox 360 came along. I used to play Halo 2’s multiplayer on split screen with my friends and we had a lot of fun, but I still preferred Soldier of Fortune’s multiplayer, which seemed more considered and somehow less ridiculous. Recently, when trying to organise an online get together with my friends we discovered that of all the games we collectively owned Halo 3 was the top hit, and out of all my friends I was the only one without a copy, so I acquiesced and bought it from Amazon for a mere £10.

When it arrived I decided to give Halo another chance, not just for multiplayer shenanigans, but also on the single player campaign. This was when I had my epiphany. A mere two levels into the game I realised why it was that I didn’t love the other games, or care about the release of ODST; the missions seemed fake. I’m not talking about realism, I have written before about how I feel realism is not required or indeed possible in games, but a feeling of pointlessness and fakeness about the motions of the game. The player seems herded through the story rather than driven or lead, the voiceovers seem strained and unconvincing and you can’t aim down your weapons sights! It’s a minor thing, I know, but I ‘feel’ more involved in a shooter if my left trigger raises my sights to my eye so that I can take better aim. Halo’s weapons feel like toys too, with the colourful beams of light slowly causing damage to the enemies rather than short, sharp, loud explosive thumps hammering against your foes with thunderous impact. The sound distracts me, the weapon noises are dull and the enemy vocals are just plain annoying, especially those squealing little buggers.

For all of its individually excellent aspects, Halo just doesn’t come together for me or make me want to care. I don’t feel driven as I progress the game and I don’t get that feeling of achievement when I pass a particularly difficult section of the game. The drama of Halo is lost on me and I think it is mainly my fault. With so many fans of the series around the world I’m clearly the difficult one here, but I won’t apologise for it, and I won’t pay for something that I know won’t entertain me.

So this year while many of you are spending your time with Reach, I’ll be happily battling Dead Rising 2’s zombie hordes, enjoying some post-apocalyptic gambling fun in Fallout: New Vegas and giving more of my money to Activision for the latest Call of Duty, but I won’t be sharing in the Spartans’ adventures. I’ll still be playing Halo 3 multiplayer with my friends, mainly so that I can spend some time having fun with them, but I won’t be buying any more Halo games and I don’t feel that I’d missing anything anyway. I don’t hate Halo, I just don’t ‘get’ it.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Golf and War, together at last…

As promised, I’m linking up the reviews and articles that I have had published at other sites. Today’s selection comes from Game Kudos.

I recently reviewed Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 on the Xbox 360. The full review is at the link, but the short version is:

A great golfing game; simply the best golf simulator I have ever played. The clever use of the analogue control system gives the player a level of “feel” and control usually only experienced in golf games on the Wii. Accurately rendered courses, largely great visuals (with a couple of below par aspects) and immersive gameplay. Clever XP system for character building that almost takes the game into the realms of an RPG. Ryder Cup mode gives the game an extra sense of competition and career mode will ensure game longevity. PGA Tour 11 has a superb selection of online game modes and competitions with up to 24 player multiplayer team matches. If you like golf, you’ll love this; if you don’t, you won’t.

Overall Score: 8.2/10

I also wrote a review of an older game, Call of Duty: World at War. Again, full version of the review is at the link, short version:

Good addition to the Call of Duty series. Familiar CoD game mechanics and graphically similar to Modern Warfare, World at War takes the series back to its WW2 roots. New “occlusion” sound technology creates a more immersive experience due to sound muffling (thick walls muffle sounds more than thin) and players can tell if a gunshot was fired nearby or in the distance. Good use of two-theatre story line, both of which have a feeling of retribution as the protagonists struggle to repel the invading forces of the Axis powers. It sports a great multiplayer mode that elongates the life of this game exponentially. Fans of Call of Duty will love it, as will FPS fans in general, but there isn’t much new except Nazi Zombies, an excellent sub-game that unlocks after the completion of the single player campaign.

Overall Score: 7.5/10

Both reviews were edited by Dennis Scimeca, GK’s editor-in-chief and writer of gaming blog Punching Snakes.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Realism in games? Be realistic!

Much is made of the requirements for games to have “realism”. Realistic backdrops, realistic graphics and sound, with realistic weapons causing deadly realistic reactions in our realistic enemies, but do we really want true realism in games? What’s the point?

Take for example the hugely popular Modern Warfare 2. Many gamers would agree that it was a very realistic shooter. Excellent graphics, modern, accurately rendered weapons and absorbing gameplay, all of which lead to the argument that it is very realistic. But is it? I would argue no.

In the case of the single player game, despite the accurate physics and the detailed aesthetics, regardless of how much I enjoyed the game, not once during my experience of it did I feel in danger. I was not in fear of my life and was willing to take enormous risks regularly to progress the game. That is not realistic. The “Army Of One” concept can only go so far. What are the odds of engaging literally hundreds of armed, well trained enemies and coming out unscathed whilst their corpses lie in piles tens high? It simply isn’t feasible.

If one were to make an entirely realistic war game then players would spend months training in seemingly benign scenarios over and over until they react almost instinctively to expected stimulus and follow orders and procedure unquestioningly. They would then be given an idea of where in the world they would be fighting and then spend several more weeks training for that particular environment. There would be frustrating period of acclimatization in an area of the world similar to the conflict zone and then, finally their boots would hit the ground. Once there, players would have an entirely different outlook on the gaming experience, investigating and absorbing everything in the sure knowledge that one explosion, on roadside bomb, one stray bullet would end the game. There would be no re-spawning, no restarting from last checkpoint.

In multiplayer there would be no mindless running and slashing with combat knives so prevalent in the current online experience. Players pre-disposed to this sort of activity would find their game/lives cut very short. More thought would be had to the use of cover and unnecessary risks wouldn’t be taken. That would be more realistic.

Notably, games that have tried to be more realistic, like the realistic limb controls in Jurassic Park: Trespasser for PC, were not so well received. Trespasser aimed to use very realistic physics and make players control arms and wrists individually with very realistic control of movement, but it was difficult. This made firing your weapon effectively harder and often lead to death by Raptor. The game was considered a failure selling just 50,000 copies and receiving poor reviews, this despite the game’s aim to make the experience more realistic.

So perhaps when we talk of realism in games we are referring to the graphics and the sound and the physics engines, but not necessarily the social realism. If we were to act in games as we do in reality then titles such as GTA wouldn’t have such a large appeal. How many of us would actually steal a car, run down pedestrians or leap from skyscrapers after peppering a street full of innocents with a helicopter’s mini-gun? Surely there can’t be that many sociopath gamers. It is the inconsequential nature of games that allows us to act without moral reprisal that would normally be attached to such behaviour.

The mentality of gamers plays a large part in what makes games so popular and successful in the first place. Recently Sid Meiers, creator of Civilization, gave a keynote speech at the 2010 GDC covering the psychology of game design. When games are being made the developers must consider the way gamers think. Why do they play the games in the first place and why they would stop playing? As Meiers said at the conference, “I never received a letter that said ‘Hey Sid, great game but I win too much.’” What he says is true; gamers wouldn’t play a game that they thought was too hard, or which they constantly fail to progress. When you consider that the majority of games place players in situations and roles in which they would never find themselves in reality, then it calls into question whether gamers actually want games to be realistic. They want games they can beat, regardless of the odds and often feel hard done by or cheated if they lose to AI.

There is suspense of disbelief at work here. For an ordinary gamer to expect to be able to take down a special forces squad single-handed isn’t realistic, so surely realism isn’t actually what players want. That’s not to say that we don’t want to be challenged though; a game too easy to beat would be boring, or at the very least have a short shelf life.

So I would suggest that what gamers want is fantastic, not realistic. Fantastic graphics and sound with realistic physics that allows players to engage the fantasy of the game coupled with intuitive control systems. Actions without consequence in the real world are what draw people to games. You may not be a good footballer, but when playing a football game you can compete against and beat some of the greatest athletes in the world. Now that’s fantastic and that’s what video games provide: an escape from day-to-day reality and the ability to pit yourself against unthinkable odds and, more often than not, win.

This article was written for Game Kudos and can be viewed in its edited format here.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Red Ring Of Death! - Farewell to a friend, and hello to a sexy new model

After 5 long years and countless hours of awesome (and some not so awesome) gaming, my trusty Xbox 360 slipped away to a better place last week. The dreaded “Red Ring of Death” left its mark on my otherwise happy home. For the uninitiated, the Xbox 360 has a ring of lights surrounding its power button that are generally green. Green is good. When those lights turn red then you have issues. It means that, for one reason or another, your console is dead or dying and needs repair.

The warning signs came a couple of weeks ago, when playing Borderlands the screen froze a few times. That was followed by one red segment of the ring being displayed. Panicked and confused I blurted my worries to the world in general over Twitter. Surprisingly, the good people at Xbox Support, who obviously trawl the social networking site looking for poor unfortunates like myself, got in touch with a solution to my problem. They sent me a message linking a help forum at their website dealing directly with “Red Ring of Death” and the solution described therein worked. I was pleased.

Sadly, one week later the inevitable happened; the screen froze again and this time it was accompanied by a full “Red Ring of Death”. Nothing in Xbox Support’s solution arsenal was effective and I had to accept the fact that my old friend was gone.

Ordinarily you can send your console off to Microsoft for repair, but only if you’re still within your warranty period, and as mine was a launch model my warranty had expired years ago. I was forced to submit to the inevitable, to lay my old friend to rest and to visit my local store for a replacement.

As timing would have it, a sexy new model, the Xbox 360 slim, was launched recently and has improved in many ways upon the original 360. With a smart shiny black veneer, the slim is more compact than its predecessor and has built in WiFi. The model I bought came with a 250GB hard drive, a vast improvement on the 20GB of my old launch model, and the cooling fan is nearly silent, quite unlike the sound made by my old console, which was reminiscent of Seaking helicopter launching. What’s more, the system makes a satisfying “Ping” noise when you press the eject button (simple things please simple minds).

However, I have cause for concern. When I bought the slim the helpful staff member at my local Game store told me that some people have been experiencing problems with the new console. She claimed that fans break, the laser disk reader burns the faces of the disks on occasion and many have suffered the same catastrophic shut-down that killed my old model. What worried me most was when she said “You don’t need to worry about Red Ring of Death, you don’t get them with this console. Oh, that’s not because they don’t break, Microsoft have just removed the red light bulbs!” A grim thought indeed.

That said, forewarned is forearmed and I’ll be on the lookout for any of these supposed problems. As it stands the new slim is occupying old-faithful’s plinth and is serving very well. Something about the whole experience has been niggling at the back of my mind though, and I have finally put my finger on it. Many who I have spoken to about the demise of my first 360 have expressed surprise that it lasted as long as it did. One of my friends told me he was on his 4th model, having suffered “Red Ring of Death” 3 times.

I’m now wondering why we, as consumers, accept this. Surely something as expensive as an Xbox 360 should be expected to last more than a couple of years, and the general acceptance of regular breakdowns is infuriating. These things should work. Unless you drop them, spill something on them or leave them on too long and overheat them, why don’t they just keep working? It’s not for this post, as I intend to research this more and write about it more thoroughly and thoughtfully, but can you imagine if you bought a car and then after 2 years it catastrophically broke down only to hear from the world in general that that was expected, and have you checked your warranty? I wonder how many people would buy an expensive TV or other household appliance if the life expectancy were so low.

However, I have my entertainment for now, my gaming may continue. But I’ve got my eye on you, Xbox, and I will be far from pleased if this happens again.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Bad Journalism

It is a sad state of affairs when a national “newspaper” resorts to inventing stories to fill pages. It’s sadder still when the story in question surrounds a murderer and preys on the emotions of the families involved. On 21st July 2010 The Daily Star, a newspaper with a circulation of over 800,000 (the UK’s 4th largest), published a story reporting that a book, movie and game were to be developed concerning the actions of murderer Raoul Moat. The game to which he refers is a fictional version of the hit series Grand Theft Auto, purportedly set in Rothbury, the scene of Moat’s demise.

The journalist in question, Jerry Lawton, claims in his story that gaming websites were showing pictures of the front cover of such a title. As far as anyone can see the first instance of the image’s publication was in Lawton’s story and games websites have only subsequently published it to underline the ridiculousness of his “journalism”. He has not produced evidence demonstrating that other sites did so first.

What is most reprehensible about the story is that Lawton approached the grandmother of Moat’s ex-girlfriend, who was shot and left for dead, and showed her the image to obtain a reaction for his article. He got what he wanted, an angry response denouncing the game as “beyond belief”. And it is, as it does not exist.

There was, as you would expect, a big backlash from gaming websites denouncing this as gutter journalism. Apparently “baffled” by the reaction, Lawton has hit back by reportedly publishing the following on his Facebook page:

“These are grown (?!?) men who sit around all day playing computer games with one another who’ve today chosen to enter the real world just long enough to complain about my story slamming a Raoul Moat version of Grand Theft Auto!”

and,

“You would think I’d denied the Holocaust!!!”

The post speaks for itself as to the attitude of this journalist and his contempt for the opinions of people rightly affronted by an unprofessional and abhorrent style of reporting. Perhaps they are right as the invention of such an inflammatory title directed the blame at their industry to begin with. The Daily Star has since removed the article from its website.

This incident does highlight an apparent hypocrisy; Video games journalists have long been accused of bad practice and poor or lazy writing, and in some cases this is true. However, a mainstream, albeit tabloid, newspaper allowing its reporters to produce such articles only serves to undermine all journalism and make the general public suspicious of news sources.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

DLC: Elongating gaming experience or simple profiteering?

DLC may now be an institution in gaming, but it is not a universally acclaimed practice. There are complaints about cost, and the deliberate withholding of content by game developers from the release of titles to ensure extra revenue streams shortly after the bulk of initial sales are made. DLC add-ons for games like Fallout 3, GTA IV, and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are touted as a great value by developers and gamers alike, as they represent entirely new content created after the game's release.

Other "DLC," however, such as the downloadable costumes for characters in Street Fighter IV were not, in fact, downloads. They already existed on the disk. Players pay for unlocks, not downloads, and therefore many of them feel they are paying twice for content. Many gamers also feel cheated when add-ons are released shortly after the release of the game proper, for example the extra downloadable missions for Assassin’s Creed 2 and Mass Effect 2. If this content was available so close to the release of the game, why wasn't it included to begin with? Capcom faced criticism over Resident Evil 5, which had a downloadable Versus mode. When players paid and downloaded the content the file size was a mere 2 megabytes, leading players to believe that this mode was on the disk already.

When loyal fans discovered that the first batch of content for Bioshock 2 was already on the disk, they felt rightly affronted and expressed their anger on forums and with direct appeals to 2K Games, the developers. But is there a reasonable explanation for 2K’s choice to block content like this? They retorted to criticism in a calm and low-key fashion, explaining in a short post that the decision had been made due to the way that post-release DLC is made. 2K argued that if the extra multiplayer levels were developed separately at a later date then gamers would be separated from their friends in online sessions, if one set had purchased the DLC and the other had not. This is apparently due to how players are grouped in multiplayer. They seem to suggest that if you have downloaded post-release DLC then you will only be grouped with other players that have it, but if the extra content is present on the disk then players can be grouped together when playing the basic multiplayer levels, even if some had the DLC and others don’t.

So this begs the question: why not simply make the maps available for all? The customer had already paid a lot of money for the game, so why don’t they deserve to have access to all of the content? It brings us to the sad conclusion that developers do see DLC primarily as a way of generating cash. Even with 2K’s explanation, which if true could hold for the Street Fighter and Resident Evil examples too, then they are making a conscious choice to charge more for content available at the game’s release. From a business stand point this is understandable, as selling DLC can net vast sums of money. Call of Duty: World at War generated $70 million from its map pack sales alone; but there is a clear line between what people consider to be value for money and what is seen as simply profit generating extras within the realms of DLC.

It is possible that DLC is produced on a separate budget from the main game, and that it is developed in tandem. If this is the case the 2K’s explanation may hold some water, as the development costs would need to be recovered. It also leads to the conclusion that if multiplayer DLC is so difficult to integrate then the future of DLC may be on-disk. That being the case then I would suggest that the DLC tag be dropped and the term “unlockable content” may be a suitable substitute. This doesn’t make the players feel any better about shelling out cash for more game, but it doesn’t wrongly lead them to believe that what they are paying for is being downloaded separately either.

Judging from what is posted in the forums and chatrooms of the gaming world, gamers don’t mind paying for DLC if they deem it value for money. There are many examples of excellent DLC which adds so much to the gaming experience, but the large sums of money created by DLC has made the industry greedy it is now rare to find a game release that doesn’t have some form of DLC attached. Ultimately gamers are the judges in this trial and the only way for their complaints to hold weight would be to boycott the purchase of DLC considered below par, or which is obvious profiteering.

That all said, Xbox LIVE is the biggest online DLC provider and a business model that remains extremely profitable, so as long as we keep downloading it appears that they’ll keep charging. Perhaps players should take a look at what it is they’re paying for though, before they part with their hard earned Microsoft points.


I wrote this article for Game Kudos, a new web publication. It can be viewed in its edited format here.


Sunday, 11 July 2010

Gaming, on a jet plane…I don’t know when I’ll be back again

On my recent honeymoon trip to the Caribbean I flew on Virgin Atlantic. Imagine the feeling of joy I experienced when I took my seat and saw the entertainment system control that looked very much like a gaming console control. The shiny black plastic with the familiar yellow/red/blue/green colour coded buttons as well as left and right bumper buttons had my hopes raised high.

I had to wait a while to see what gaming gems were waiting for me as the entertainment system wasn’t switched on until a good 20 minutes into the flight. When I got to grips with it, I was slightly disappointed. I shouldn’t have been really, what did I expect? Xbox? The games available were simple and quite dull by today’s gaming standards. Titles included Backgammon, Blackjack, Chess and Cave Crunch (a maze based “action” game), not quite what I was hoping for. There was a multiplayer option so you could play against other passengers, but it didn’t float my boat. After a quick browse I quickly dismissed it and reverted to my iPhone (in Airplane mode, of course) and enjoyed some serious gaming including Championship Manager 2010 and The Settlers.

This got me thinking, however, that if Virgin Atlantic have an onboard system that allows literally hundreds of passengers to watch, pause, fast-forward and rewind nearly 50 movies at their discretion as well as play some albeit basic games, then it can’t be a large jump to having a next generation gaming console linked to the seat backs. And on a 7-hour flight I can’t think of a better way to pass the time. Considering that the average age of gamers is considered to be between 30 and 40, it’s not like it would be a feature that only kids would use in-flight.

I can but hope at the moment, but you never know, maybe in the future airlines may see that gaming, as an ever growing portion of the entertainment market, is a great way to help passengers forget that they are strapped into 400 tonnes of metal being propelled at 500mph through the air at 37,000 feet. Sobering thought.

Friday, 18 June 2010

“I’m going outside…. I may be some time.”

The Gaming Gentleman is getting hitched.

This is just a quick note to say that I won’t be updating the blog for a couple of weeks. I’m off this weekend to get married to my long-suffering fiancée and will be loafing on a beach for a while, enjoying my new life as a married man. But don’t fret; I’ve no doubt that my mistress, video games, will be waiting for me upon my return.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Red Dead Review

My review of Red Dead Redemption on the Xbox 360 has been published at Game Kudos.

I thoroughly recommend it to any fans of sandbox action adventure games and to anyone who enjoyed the GTA series. For me, the most surprising thing about the game was the very clever way in which the developers used the classic style of story telling, prevalent in the great western movies, to usher the game along. Playing Red Dead Redemption feels as close as possible to being in the toughest parts of the old west without the aid of Doc Emmett Brown.

In short, the game scores 8.2/10 and the single player game far outstrips the multiplayer. Utterly engaging and entertaining, a great buy that offers a bare-bones minimum of about 20 hours of superb gameplay.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The missing link(s)


Over the last couple of months I have been writing for a new website, Game Kudos, which launched in May and which is truly one to watch. With great reviews, thoughtful articles and commentary on the gaming industry as well as a fledgling community, GK is making waves in the gaming world. We have been granted press access to E3 next week and our writers will be updating the site from the floor at the exhibition.
I have had several articles published there already and, from today, will be linking them to the blog whenever my work is published. Below are the articles and reviews available to read now:

I remember that! Rick Dangerous, 1983 - This is an article adapted from a post here at The Gaming Gentleman, discussing one of my favourite platform games on the Amiga 500.

Dragon Age: Origins - A review looking at Bioware’s RPG epic on the Xbox 360.

I remember that! The Elite series Part 1 - The first part of a two-part article covering the groundbreaking work of Elite creators David Braben and Ian Bell.


The Settlers - A review of the RTS adaptation for iPhone.

The “I remember that!” series is a group of articles written for the Retrospective section of the site, which covers the history of gaming and looks back on some old classics. A couple of other articles are in the editing process at the moment and will be available to read shortly. There is, however, no need to wait for my updates, as the site is full of content submitted by a great team of writers. You can join our community at the website and also follow GK on twitter (@GameKudos) to get minute by minute, interview by interview updates from our team at E3. Watch this space!

Friday, 4 June 2010

The etiquette and idiocies of in-game chat

With the advent of multiplayer networks, such as Xbox LIVE, a new level of interactivity in gaming has been possible. In the past the only way to enjoy a console game in the company of your friends was to do so together, in the same room using split screen multiplayer games such as Golden Eye (007) on the N64. This had its own charm, of course, not least because it meant you would be spending time with your friends whilst engaging in some co-operative team based mayhem or simply blasting each other into the Stone Age.

With Xbox LIVE came in-game chat. Players could now have the same joshing banter with their friends while enjoying a game, despite being geographically separated. This doesn’t mean an end to groups of friends convening at one place to play, just an addition to the gaming experience.

However, with in-game chat came a problem: strangers. It is entirely possible to converse, in-game, with people you have never met, and who aren’t even on your “friends” list of gamer-tag contacts. As you can’t see the person you are talking to, and don’t know them, this could open up a Pandora’s box of multiplayer problems. Although a vast majority of gamers are at least polite and congenial during heated exchanges of gunfire or whilst sneaking up on an unsuspecting guard from two flanks, frustratingly, some of the people encountered in the game-o-sphere can be most politely described as idiots. There are those who are simply abusive; who curse vulgarly and launch violent verbal assaults upon anyone they deem to be lesser gamer, or who has simply done something, in-game, that they didn’t like.

These angry shouting morons are one of the main reasons that many people choose not to use their console’s voice chat feature and play muted. This doesn’t entirely remove from their gaming experience, but they aren’t then able to interact with other human players, for the banter, for the tactical exploitation of information that they wouldn’t otherwise have, or just to gloat (in a Gentlemanly/Lady-like way, of course) after a particularly spectacular kill/stunt/crash. There are also idiotic tendencies with regard less experienced gamers playing co-operative games. Very often the infamous words are heard “Help me, I’m over here!” without reference to where “over here” is. Unlike in real life a comrade’s panicked voice doesn’t come from any particular direction that you can follow, it’s transmitted directly to the ear. Where are you? I want to help, but you aren’t helping me to help you!

Finally, although there are many other examples, one of the most annoying traits of uncouth chat fiends is the unacceptable practice of male gamers being abusive to female gamers on the basis of gender. Some male gamers seem to think that they have an inherent right to gaming and if they get “humiliated” online by the superior skills of a “mere girl” then they retort with a torrent of inexcusable insults.

The idiocy plaguing multiplayer chat can be stemmed with the judicial application of etiquette. Be polite, don’t be overly aggressive or abusive and treat other gamers with the same respect with which you would wish to be treated. Above and beyond all of that, even if you are losing, remember: It’s only a game.

Id like to tip my figurative hat to a gentleman friend of mine with whom I have spent countless hours enjoying multiplayer gaming using in-game chat, and whose drunken suggestion led to this article. I salute you, sir.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Booted and Spurred

As you can see, The Gaming Gentleman is booted and spurred and ready for action on the frontier. I’m currently working my way through the treacherous terrain of the Old West, blasting my way through gangs of bandits and rescuing maidens, and hookers, in distress. It can only mean that I have finally gotten my hands on a copy of Red Dead Redemption on Xbox 360. For the princely sum of £49 I purchased the limited addition version available from GAME stores in the UK, which includes not just the game itself but exclusive downloadable content.

The added extras are Golden Guns, weapons that increase your fame when kills are made with them, War Horse, quite simply the fastest, strongest horse available to you in the game, and the Deadly Assassin outfit, which allows your Dead-Eye metre to refill more rapidly after kills.

I am enjoying progressing the single player game and will shortly be reviewing it here at the blog and at a website that I am working for as a writer. The multiplayer aspect of the game, however, has me a little concerned. Despite being hailed as a new, greater standard of multiplayer experience, one which will allow players to explore the vastness of the Old West and team up with fellow Xbox LIVE players to create posses and take on other gangs, thus far all I have encountered are players more concerned with shooting you as soon as you re-spawn, before you can get together with other players and generally making the multiplayer experience a frustrating and deeply un-entertaining one.

To add to the multiplayer woes, it appears to be full of glitches, like disappearing characters, and the sheer number of people trying to log on to the servers seems to be overloading them and causing problems when connecting to a game. That said, the single player game is impressive and addictive and I hope to have completed it soon. Perhaps in the meantime Rockstar San Diego may have addressed the glitches and server issues on multiplayer, and the obtrusive players may have gotten sick of ruining the fun for everyone else, or fallen off a cliff. I can but hope.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Nobody Does It Better (Splinter Cell: Conviction)

Ubisoft’s stalwart sneaky spy Sam Fisher returns in Splinter Cell: Conviction, the much-anticipated recent instalment in the series that is redefining a genre. The game begins with Sam having left Third Echelon after the death of his daughter in a hit and run incident. Sat in a Mediterranean café, Sam gets a phone call from an old colleague from his shadowy ex-workplace warning him of an imminent threat to his life. This kick-starts the story and Sam’s journey to find his daughter’s killer, which will drag the world’s greatest (non-British) spy back into the world of international espionage and pit him against his former employers.

Although still a 3rd person stealth action thriller, the tone of the game has shifted from the constant shadow dwelling of its predecessors to a more open, upfront approach to the gameplay. It’s noticeable in Sam’s appearance too; rather than the skin-tight black-ops body suit he once sported his attire is more urban chic, in the Jason Bourne style. The action and story also seem to take influence from the Bourne series, with a gritty atmosphere and flashback storytelling projected onto walls as you progress the quieter sections of the single player mission. The cut-scene animation is breathtaking with very realistic rendering of characters; Sam himself has wrinkles, realistic eyes, individual strands of hair and a split-lip that doesn’t miraculously repair itself. Even his stubble grows as the game progresses giving it almost a “24” feel, and this is backed up by the clever, jerky camera movement during some of the more tense and sinister cut-scenes.

Sneaking is still a large part of the gameplay, but so is timely dashing from one place to another, tactically avoiding enemies or luring them into traps, separating them and taking them down one or two at a time. There are times when all out assault is required and the game utilises a mechanic whereby Sam can disappear into the shadows, leaving enemies shooting at his last known position whilst he flanks them. The “execute” function is also very useful, allowing players to mark and execute two enemies quickly after successfully taking down another by a hand-to-hand quiet kill. During interrogation scenes Sam can use the environment to punish those who won’t talk and convince them, with the use of things like sinks and pianos, to let him know what he wants to know. The weapon outfit is the standard expected; a mix of pistols (silenced or not), sub-machine guns, assault rifles shot guns and an array of devices including grenades, mines, EMP charges and sticky, exploding cameras to assist Sam’s progression.

For all of it’s impressive features, graphics and gameplay there are a few flaws. The camera angles, as with most 3rd person games, often become obtrusive and cause difficulty for the player to see an area that would be clearly viewed through the character’s eyes. The sound track is largely in keeping with the game but sometimes descends into irritating techno-punk at inappropriate times, usually during intense action, probably intended to add to the atmosphere, but it seems only to annoy and detract. Strangely, Sam appears to have forgotten how to drag a body away from where it falls and to a convenient hiding place, rather remiss of a veteran black-ops agent. This means that players need to be extra careful when felling a foe in case their lifeless body should serve to alert other enemies to Sam’s presence.

However, despite the downsides, the game is overwhelmingly impressive, addictive and fun. The change of pace is refreshing and the lean toward a more beaten, gritty and weatherworn Sam Fisher is a welcome change from the previous formula. It’s cinematic, engaging and entertaining. Fans of the series will love it and new comers will find it easily accessible without the need to have played the previous games. A multiplayer option extends the life of the game beyond the completion of the single player campaign, the content of which will be covered in a future post.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Video Game Time Machine: Rick Dangerous 1989

After a random Google browsing section I found myself being dragged in a figurative Delorean past 88mph and back in time to the land of gaming nostalgia. Thanks to a great website, I have rediscovered one of my childhood favourite video games: Rick Dangerous.

Rick Dangerous was a platform action puzzle game originally released in 1989, which not only toyed with plagiarism, but openly flouted it. Undoubtedly based largely on Raiders of the Lost Ark, even the Front cover of Rick Dangerous looked suspiciously like Indiana Jones. If the game had been made now Lucas Arts would be suing for copyright infringement, however, as it was made before the fiscal power of the games industry had been discovered, it passed by unscathed.

Much more cartoonish than Dr Jones, Rick Dangerous was a British agent who travels to the Amazon to find the lost Goolu tribe. His plane crashes and he parachutes into the jungle. The beginning of the game sees the fedora-sporting Rick running away from a giant boulder (just like the opening sequence of Raiders) and negotiating a maze of traps, triggers and Amazon warriors. The game was very clever too; although armed with 6 bullets, 6 explosive charges and a stick for stunning opponents, players would need to pick their battles, decide who to shoot and who to avoid in order to conserve the valuable arsenal, as reloads were few and far between.

A thinking kid’s game, Rick Dangerous played out over 4 levels; the Amazon, Egypt, Castle Schwarzendumpf (a Nazi stronghold) and a Nazi missile base, where Rick must stop a deadly missile attack on London. Some of the traps had no visible warning so the only way to progress the game in many areas was through trial and error, something that would annoy many but which I found to be one of the great draws of the game. The graphics and gameplay were in keeping with other games of its time, 2-dimentional and comic with individual screens that needed to be negotiated one at a time in order to progress the game. The music (midi files of course) was comic and, bizarrely, very appropriate to the gameplay and the setting.

I was ten years old when Rick Dangerous came out on the Amiga 500 and it was addictive. Like Super Mario Bros mixed with my all time hero Indiana Jones (was then, is now), it’s clear to see why it had such appeal at a time when video games were becoming a much larger part of our lives. Anyone who is interested and has some spare time should visit the website where a full version of the game is playable on your web browser for free.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Haunt (A Super-Ghost Story)

In 2006 Spawn creator Todd McFarlane and Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman agreed to collaborate on a new title during a question and answer session at the San Diego Comic-Con. The result, albeit a few years later, was Haunt, a super-hero ghost story in based around two brothers, Kurt and Daniel Kilgore who are far from the best of friends. The brothers are very different characters; Kurt is an accomplished and capable Special-Ops agent working for a shadowy government agency, Daniel a less than perfect Priest who is first seen arranging his next appointment with a naked prostitute.

Daniel’s self-loathing and questionable lifestyle are in stark contrast with his brother, who seems to enjoy his work and have a perfect life outside of the shadowy world of espionage; however, fate conspires to drag Daniel into his brother’s life when Kurt is killed whilst being tortured for information. Assuming he is seeing things, Daniel initially dismisses Kurt’s ghost, who appears to be haunting him, as a figment of his imagination only to discover that the apparition is real and that Kurt is trying to stop the people who killed him from attacking his wife.

We begin to discover that the reason Daniel hates Kurt so much is because of Kurt’s wife, who Daniel was once in love with, so he acquiesces to Kurt’s request to stay with her for protection. It is here, when under attack that Kurt’s ghost tries to push his brother out of harms way only to find that he instead fuses with Daniel to become a symbiotic being of great power, Haunt.

The story mechanism is very clever, only when the two brothers are fused as one can they use the power that has been be bestowed upon them, and their uncomfortable personal relationship makes it difficult for them to use the powers to their utmost effect as they don’t always work together well. However, as the story progresses, the brothers will need to find a way to come to an understanding in order to combat the organisation behind both Kurt’s death and the dangers his living loved ones are now in.

The comic is very-much adult themed and deals with issues such as betrayal, dependence, love and loss in an intelligent way. The character of Haunt will make some comic fans raise an eyebrow, as the black and white “suit” looks very similar to Marvel’s Venom (one of Spider-Man’s regular foes), who is also a symbiotic being. The powers Haunt appears to wield, the ability to extend his body into writhing slicing tentacles and as a method of quick manoeuvre, both look very similar to Venom’s powers too and Haunt also has the standard “super” strength. But that aside, readers will forgive the similarity of the character because of the strong storyline and the fact that throughout the fusion into Haunt, both Daniel and Kurt’s characters are clearly independent and talk and argue with each other, even during battle.

The artwork is very good with a classic comic style subtly mixed with a more serious and adult overtone. Pencilled by the excellent Ryan Ottley and inked by McFarlane himself, the entire franchise has an aura of professionalism to it that can only be achieved when such giants of the comic world as McFarlane, Kirkman and Ottley collaborate so seamlessly. There is surely a lot more to come from this exciting twist on the superhero genre. Haunt is published by Image comics and is an ongoing title.