Wednesday, 31 March 2010

You are the controller…really?

Project Natal, Microsoft’s new addition to the Xbox 360, was announced at E3 2009 last summer and is on track to be released in December 2010. With the tag “you are the controller” the Xbox is launching a direct challenge to Nintendo Wii’s dominance of the gaming interactivity niche.

The demo videos shown on the Xbox website and at YouTube show just how far Microsoft have taken the concept of gamer interactivity. Say goodbye to your controller, games that support Natal will not need them. The device is a sensor that measures approximately nine inches in length and incorporates 3D mapping infrared technology and a camera that incorporates advanced gesture and voice recognition at the core of the concept. Able to map the area it looks at, creating a 3D model of your room to then distinguish the player from the background, Natal will use its facial and voice recognition software to tailor the gaming experience to the individual and allow a much deeper level of immersion into a game. Even your desktop will become more interactive, greeting you personally when you log on and tailoring your experience to your preferences.

When it comes to actually controlling the games, your body becomes the controller. Kick, stop or trap an imaginary ball and it’ll happen onscreen. Playing driving games will see players holding imaginary steering wheels and shifting fictional gears. The whole idea is to make the player feel more involved in the game. Interacting with AI characters will become more personal with game characters reacting differently to variations in tone and emotion in responses. It looks very much like the future of gaming is about to be unleashed.

Where I feel the technology may fall short is that it could be seen as gimmicky. It’s all very well saying that players can interact more readily, but not everyone is David Beckham. How many Xbox owners can easily move from a standing to a crouching and then prone position whilst avoiding incoming grenades and knifing your enemies in the back, or can run and jump over a car before pulling an innocent owner out of it and speeding off with the police in hot pursuit? All right, some, but not all. I am looking forward to getting to grips with this next great step in gaming technology but truly hope it isn’t the end of my beloved controller; after all, I do enjoy loafing on my sofa whilst saving (or destroying) the world.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

I’ve saved the Universe…you can thank me later

I have done it; for a second time in three years I have saved the Universe from near certain destruction. As promised in an earlier post, below is a review of Mass Effect 2, which I completed after 40 hours of enthralling gameplay.

Mass Effect 2 for Xbox 360

Carrying on immediately from the events of Mass Effect, Bioware’s hit Mass Effect 2 takes graphics, gameplay and storyline up a gear. Setting itself up as a gaming rival to George Lucas’s Star Wars in scope and intricacy, the Mass Effect universe is a well constructed, cleverly thought out and detailed to an astounding level.

As with the first game, Mass Effect 2 may be played as either gender, with a customisable main character (so you can create yourself, or an idealised version thereof, if you should wish) and there is an option to import your character saved from the first game. The opening sequence of the game see the player character and main protagonist, Commander Shepard, killed in enemy action. But don’t fret, two years later Shepard wakes up to find an old adversary, the shadowy Cerberus organisation, has spent a ridiculous amount of money and expertise to bring him back from the dead, apparently in the belief that only Shepard can save humanity. And that is where this chapter begins. Players must overcome insurmountable odds to assemble a crack team able to confront the latest greatest threat to life in the universe: the Collectors. Billed as a suicide mission, players must use all their skill, diplomacy, grit and determination to best prepare their team.

With a vast galaxy to explore, peppered with star systems with hundreds of planets, a variety of alien species and a deep back-story, players can loose themselves for tens of hours with the side missions and exploration alone. Players can dip in and out of the main story as often as they like and the rich tapestry of the universe created by Bioware will make you want to do just that.

The main gameplay mode is very similar to that of the first game, where Shepard chooses two other characters from his team to accompany him on missions, which are displayed in the third person shooter format. The AI has been improved and the computer controlled characters are less likely to run into an incoming missile and more likely to take appropriate cover and assist you as you battle through the levels. The graphics have been improved and the cinematic sequences are visually stunning. As a form of interactive story telling, Mass Effect 2 is an absorbing gaming experience that only suffers from the odd glitch in the graphics and sometimes painfully slow loading times. Clearly a middle act in a story arc, Mass Effect 2 is challenging, fun and entertaining. Completion of the game will leave you desperate to play the sequel; sadly we’ll have to wait a couple of years for that.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Beautiful Game (Pro Evolution Soccer 2010)

Playing PES 2010, you could be forgiven for wondering just how much further football games can advance. Not very much might be your initial assumption. The graphics and gameplay in Konami’s latest footballing extravaganza are awe-inspiring. Players, famous and not so, are well rendered and are instantly recognisable by features as well as more subtle observance of gait and playing style. Non-player controlled members of your team will work intelligently, depending on their individual attributes, and will place themselves in appropriate positions for seamless passes and quick runs. The more flamboyant players, your Ronaldos and Rooneys will demonstrate their skills on the ball and the referee even sometimes gets in the way. The reactions of off-the-ball players to actions such as fouls, bookings and missed chances can leave you wondering if you are watching an actual match.

The intricate detail of the game has been so well thought out that I can only assume that the next step in football gaming would be a compete, real-life rendering of a match, only distinguishable from the real thing by a red arrow above a player’s head indicating who you are controlling at any given point. The gaming modes are as expected with PES: European Championship oriented with a Master league option, where you can take your team from nothing to the dizzy heights of the Champion’s League final. There is a “Become a Legend” mode, where you can create your own player and customise everything about him, trial him for a team and work your way into the first side before becoming a legend, which gives the game as a whole a new dimension as you play as only on player and not a whole team; The player must therefore think about positioning and passing rather than simply running single-mindedly at the goal, which will more often than not result in your being run down by the defence.

It is safe to say that on initial inspection PES 2010 is an extraordinary game. However, on closer inspection it is not as perfect as it may at first seem. Where PES 2010 begins to fall down is that it doesn’t have the image rights to use all of the major teams in Europe. The majority of English Premier League clubs have had their name and strip changed just enough that PES won’t get sued, although the players names are correct with their likenesses rendered correctly. The control system is incredibly intricate, which could be seen as a good thing by those who like to control the game intrinsically, but to your average player it’s over-complicated with too many incarnations of shot variation and pass style. This is not a problem on the title’s main rival, FIFA 2010, which has the sponsorship rights for all the major teams, not only in Europe, but also throughout the world including international sides. FIFA 2010’s control system is simpler and more intuitive and it also has another extra touch that PES 2010 sadly lacks: linesmen (who just add that much more realism to the gameplay).

All of that said, however, PES 2010 is still and excellent game that offers hours of enjoyment for football fans. Online multiplayer and player vs. player matches ensure that the gaming experience can live beyond the challenge of the games AI, although as always with football games, it can expect to have a shelf life of about a year before they release the next instalment. Overall PES 2010 is a great game that suffers a little from trying too hard and from the obvious comparisons to FIFA 2010. Having played both I can say that I now wish I had purchased FIFA instead, however I have a nagging feeling that if I did I would be saying the same about PES 2010. Footballing gamers will love it.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Malice in Wonderland (a grumpy review)

What follows is a post in two parts; A rant and a review, in which our hero is frustrated by a lack of common sense of the management of a cinema and the rude idiocy of other film-goers whilst trying to enjoy Tim Burton’s latest lunge into lunacy.

The Rant

A nice Saturday night out to the cinema with my fiancée. That was the plan. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, a plan never survives first contact with the enemy. Having paid extra to see the 3D version of Alice in Wonderland we were told to turn up early to ensure we could get seats together. This set my mind racing. Surely getting seats together should not be such a hardship. When I looked at my ticket I saw the dreaded GA (General Allocation). What that meant was that the seats were not allocated and that there would be a rush for seats when the door opened.

What this effectively did was to cause a queue, which lined the length of the cinema, and forced punters to wait in line standing for up to an hour before the performance. This could have been avoided if the management of the cinema (my Gentlemanly values prevent me from naming the venue) had applied a modicum of common sense, not to mention the technology they already possess, to allocate seat numbers as the tickets were sold, thus removing the requirement to queue needlessly, safe in the knowledge that your seat would be vacant when you arrived at the showing on time.

Furthermore, the already frustrating and uncomfortable wait was made near unbearable by the idiocy and rudeness of a particularly loud mouthed buffoon who decided that the best way to pass the time, as we all waited for the doors to open, was to proclaim in his loudest voice how much his legs hurt, what a great football game he had seen that afternoon, why he was glad he had only had four pints of beer that afternoon and what he thought of the concept of 3D movies amongst other inane ramblings. He also laughed at his own (unfunny) jokes. Rant over.

The Review

In typical Tim Burton style, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (3D) dips its toe into borderline madness. But that’s to be expected from a film based on the famous Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. And “based” is the correct term. Anyone who has read the classic will recognise the characters and the settings, but the story itself, whilst anchored in the book, diverges and follows its own path. The more astute viewer may notice that Wonderland is a darker place than you might think, and that some of the famous scenes, The Mad Hatter’s tea party for instance, have a more solemn and painful undertone.

Initially you may chalk this up to the film having been directed by Tim Burton, whose mantra is dark and disturbing, but that’s not the only reason for the shift in mood. The story unfolds to reveal that Wonderland, which is actually called Underland, has fallen under the dominion of the Red Queen (from Alice Through the Looking Glass and not to be mistaken with the Queen of Hearts) who has stolen the crown from her sister, The White Queen. The array of familiar characters are searching for “the right Alice” who is prophesised to kill the Jaberwocky (a creature that again features in Through the Looking Glass and not in Wonderland) and restore The White Queen to the throne of Underland.

A pedantic literary comparison aside, the film itself is visually stunning. The 3D option fills the frame and the wonderful colours and effects make it so that sometimes you forget to blink. Burton’s regular troop of Johnny Depp (who steals the show) and Helena Bonham Carter are superbly supported by Anne Hathaway, Alan Rickman, Mat Lucas and Stephen Fry to name but a few. With a compelling pace and an engaging plot, characters you care about and laughs abound (especially from The March Hare), Alice in Wonderland is a wonderful pass time that will see you leaving the cinema with a smile on your face. Although a Disney production, I would hesitate to show the film to younger children as, although the violence is cartoon, the dark setting and irregular jumps may be too much for a very young viewer. Overall, Alice is another showpiece for the emerging 3D technology to demonstrate exactly what cinema can be.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Gaming Gentleman on Facebook

I have created a page on Facebook. I will use it to regularly update readers on articles, news, thoughts and anything else that “tickles my fancy” between posts here at the blog. Like-minded souls can use the page as a forum for discussions on gaming, life, the universe or any number of subjects that come to mind. If you are one of the 300 million plus people who use the world’s most popular social networking site, then you are more than welcome to become a fan and keep updated. Click here to see my page. You can also follow me at Twitter, which I update on the go.