Sunday, 29 June 2014

Twilight Princess pretty much forces us to say goodbye to traditional Hyrule.

by Jak Marshall (Spoiler warnings).

I'm just working through my gaming list, which includes some second playthroughs of older titles including The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which I recently finished. To put this article into context, Twilight Princess was the first major console release from the Zelda franchise since Wind Waker, a game which divided opinion with it's cartoon visuals, shorter-form game structure and it's ocean dominated overworld. People would have to wait until the winter years of the Gamecube for the release of Twilight Princess or as I like to think of it, Ocarina of Mask HD as the title is essentially what I imagine a fan-made re-release of the N64 games would look like. I'm surprised there wasn't an angry moon in the sky making a cameo. The game is a deluxe package for fans of the previous generation's Zelda titles. Hell, "Zelda as a boss" comes straight out of a fan forum.

This isn't from Deviantart, this is in-game evilled up Zelda. Right outta fanfic.
Twilight Princess brings us back to a Hyrule Field which is bigger and braver than before and gives us Epona more or less from the beginning to gallop around its vast expansive areas. There is so much to find in this game that recent E3 talk of an open-world type Zelda title almost feels a tad on the late side. On my second playthrough of this giant I found entire sections of the game that I'd never seen before and a lot of this is easy to miss. Shorter form titles like Wind Waker and more linear titles such as Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword are probably Shigeru Miyamoto's way of telling us that he is sick of players not finding all the areas his teams bother to put in the game nor being good enough at his games to see them through to the later stages. He didn't work his (iron) knuckles to the bone on the Spirit Temple just so that half the player base would never fight Twinrova because the Water Temple put them off!   
Seriously though, strap in. This temple is a marathon.

This game is so generous, as a matter of fact, that we probably need never return to Hyrule in this format again. The aforementioned Water Temple was given a make over in the form of the Lakebed Temple, manages to capture the 'tricky puzzle dungeon' theme of the Water Temple without making it nearly so tedious and pace-killing. The Lost Woods type sections with the Skull Kid is about as much Lost Woods action as anyone is ever going to need. There's enough dark-world/light-world action to keep that crowd happy.
  Almost every enemy from the console releases up until this point has had a make-over and so too have many of the bosses! They were even generous with the items! Bombs come in three flavours, you not only get one but two grappling hooks. They even overhauled the fishing mini-game from Ocarina! The fact is that, by the time you've finished with Twilight Princess, you'll have stuffed your face with classic Hyrule flavour so much you'll not want any more. Heck you even have to fight four different forms of Ganondorf before this game is through.

Seven hidden sword skills... none of which are any use in this fight at all.

My point is that I honestly think that Twilight Princess is the last we should see of a traditional Hyrule for quite some time and that the series should keep experimenting with new ideas. Skyward Sword had a very different overall aesthetic to it and started playing around with some great new ideas. Time bending crystal pirate ship dungeons in a desert world manned by cute robot people? That's new. An entire dungeon built around the concept of a sliding tile puzzle? Novel. Whilst still keeping in with the mythos of the overall Zelda universe, Skyward Sword showed us that it's quite alright for the series to take us on new journeys without losing that grand Hylian charm. If E3's teaser trailer is anything to go by, the latest game in the Legend of Zelda series promises to be filled with innovative ideas that draw inspiration from the older titles in the series rather than simply rehashing them. It may well be Hyrule after all, but hopefully not as we know it.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” Should Have Been a Video Game

The notion of adapting works into different media has always been prevalent in popular culture, although this is often a cynical attempt to make money from brand recognition more than anything else. I recently watched a few episodes of the Joss Whedon TV thing, or “program”, if you will, “Dollhouse”, and it inspired me to write an article.

For those of you who don’t know, the “program” is about a company that effectively deals in slaves, or “dolls”, in modern America. The dolls, however, have willingly signed up to have their minds wiped, and then have new personalities inserted to suit the needs of the customers. This can range from fulfilling sexual desires or emotional needs to making them into temporary assassins or spies, depending on the client. After they have done the job, they have their mind wiped and reset back to their default mode. After a few years of servitude they are given their old personality back and sent back out into society. If I explained that badly, feel free to do a quick Wikipedia check.*

Joss Whedon, showing off his new banister.

 Whilst I think the “program” is okay, I couldn’t help thinking it was a missed opportunity. The creators clearly put a lot of time into devising a unique and interesting premise, and then building a world in which this premise can be explored in different ways. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that this premise would have been far better suited to a video game.

There are two good reasons for thinking this. Firstly, the idea of interchangeable personalities within the same character is a brilliant gameplay concept. Not only does it give a narrative explanation for why one person can do so many diverse things (unlike, say “Grand Theft Auto” or “Fallout”, where we just accept that a talented murderer is also brilliant at flying planes or fixing satellite dishes), but it also gives excellent progression and limitations on a character. It can also be used to explain why you lose useful abilities between levels, as your character has been reset and can no longer hack computers or speak French. Compare this to the “Metroid” games, which have to come up with increasingly convoluted ways of explaining why Samus has none of her equipment at the start of each game.

Such as the incident at the start of "Other M", where Samus loses her character traits, empowerment and likability.

The second reason I think the “doll” idea would work so well is the narrative potential. Throughout the course of “Dollhouse” we learn more about the previous life of Echo, the central protagonist and one of the dolls. Whilst I think “Dollhouse” does a decent job of exploring her past and her motivations, I think this could have worked far better in the form of a video game. A confused perspective works to a degree in a television “program”, but when we experience that character’s confusion in an interactive way it becomes far more engaging. There is an episode of “Dollhouse” where Echo has memories of breaking into a laboratory, and these break through her memory loss, helping her artificial personality do it’s job. This is fine to watch, but I feel it would have worked a lot better if we were playing as Echo, and had the choice between relying on her amazing but artificial skills or her personality, something that is a central and seemingly invincible part of her. This tension seems so much more exciting in a video game format.

I think it’s such a shame that there is a perceived cultural hierarchy, that seems to suggest that film and television are always the best formats. It is a simple fact that some ideas suit some media formats better than others. Should fans be constantly pushing for a “Halo” film? Would “Citizen Kane” work as a television series? Could “Watchmen” work the same way as a film?

I'm pretty sure Alan Moore loves it when his deconstruction of an entire medium is reduced to "ooh, look at her bum".

 Well, at least for the last one we know the answer. And it’s no.

*A fun game to play with Wikipedia with a friend or friends is to hit “random article”, read out the title (and nothing else) and then you all have to draw your interpretation of that title in 5 minutes. Jak and I have spent many an evening playing this, and I now have a whole stack of drawings that look like the holy book of the shittest cult ever.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

103% Board Gaming - UK Games Expo 2014 Survival Notes

I'd never been to the Birmingham NEC before, nor the nearby Hilton Metropole hotel, but my Weekend Pass to the UK Games Expo, a three day event for all things board, card and roleplaying games clearly stated that it was meant to be here someplace. I mistook the luxury goods fair in the NEC for the expo, and a proper well hard security guy asked me what I was trying to find. I said I was looking for the gaming event, to which he replied "Is that the Yu-Gi-Oh! event?" which he said with no detectable hint of mockery but I still recoiled at being asked, selectively forgetting that I at one point in my life clocked up more hours than I care to admit on am emulated copy of the Game Boy Advance version of the card game. I quickly informed him that I was taking part in the far more sophisticated tabletop gaming event. He gave me some directions. 

Some people go to T in the Park. I do this shit with my weekends.

The Hilton Metropole is a large ass building and as I approached it I wasn't sure whether I was even remotely approaching the right part of the building. I saw guys two with long greasy hair, spectacles and unmistakably whiny voices smoking outside and talking to each other. One was wearing a T-shirt featuring a pixelated 8-bit Mario sprite, where all of the pixels were made to look like a plumber shaped section of the Periodic table. The other guy's shirt just said 'Bazinga!' on the front. Sigh. I was in the right place.

Like delving into a rulebook of a new board game, the expo itself was initially daunting. The entire ground floor of the massive hotel was dedicated to various trading rooms, playtest areas, seminar rooms and tournament areas. Myself and two gamer friends of mine were using the expo as a reunion venue and just as with any seemingly baffling situation we've been in before, we just bumbled our way around it the best we could until we got the hang of it and within the hour we were clued up as to the lay of the land and were expo-ing like champs and we were trying and buying new games out with the best of em... sort of.

One poor woman tried to teach Dan and I how to play this. Never felt more stupid in my life.

My first pro expo tip is simply to bring your own food. You would be surprised how effing hard it is to acquire cheap meals at these things and we got shafted with expensive cafeteria prices. It sounds petty but as any tabletop gamer will tell you, food and snacks are a wee bit important to say the least. You've been warned.

Second of all. If there's a games library, you should just spend most of your god damned time there. It was by far the best part of the weekend for me. There was a dude with a wealth of slightly used but perfectly playable board games that we could rent on a 'one game at a time' basis for absolutely no charge at all. I managed to play all kinds of games I didn't own, but had heard so much about. The much praised 7 Wonders was enjoyable with three of us, but I regret not inviting four more players for the full seven player mega-game with a 'friend flag', which is expo code for 'please play with us'. There were some guys sitting alone with such flags awaiting friends to play games with, bless 'em.

We got to play Kingdom Builder, by game author Donald X. Vaccarino of Dominion fame, which was a very enjoyably light but sufficiently cunning strategy game to keep us interested. Speaking of Dominion, we played a railway themed deck-building game simply called Trains which also features a double sided board representing the Osaka and Tokyo regions of Japan, which was actually quite a lot of fun despite having particular naff box art.

I also ended up buying a quirky game called Quantum,which sees 2-4 players racing to extract quantum energy from planets as quickly as they can. It involves big chunky colourful dice which represent different space ships depending on what number is showing and each number has a special ability associated with what how it can move and attack other dice-ships. It's bonkers and weird and I was most glad to take it home with me, along with some other swag that I've got my hands on, including expansions for games I already own, such as Netrunner.
Speaking of which, there was a fairly intense sounding tournament taking place for Netrunner, which apparently has a booming tournament scene in the UK. Not that I was paying attention to any of what was going on. I was too busy being bewildered by the sheer amount of choice on offer in terms of new games to buy as well as play. It quickly became obvious that as much as I've really enjoyed getting into board gaming over the past year or so, I am just not that hardcore! I've played Netrunner about a handful of times so far with friends at home who learned to play using my core set and I still find myself fumbling over how to build a half decent deck.

It's well worth the purchase though. Never had a dull game of this.

Contrast this to the men's loos between tournament rounds that were going on and I heard various pro hackers and corp players talking all kinds of dense nerd lingo that I had no chance of understanding which was enough to make me go running away to the lovely nice and whimsical world of Dixit where I didn't need to worry about the massively deep intricacies of asymmetric card games!

Not that it mattered. I really don't know where the past two days have gone! Between playing board games, browsing the various stalls on offer and ignoring as much sunlight as possible, the time just evaporated, as did fair amount of my disposable income. No doubt I'll be pestering people to come around and play Munchkin (insanely popular, never tried it) and a Carcassone expansion I picked up. There was something very pleasing about seeing a huge room full of people at tables enjoying each other's company over an endless variety of increasingly inventive boxed games that really got me in the spirit of the event. It's nerdy as all hell (there were fully human operated Daleks) but it's about as pleasant as a geek-out weekend as I could have wished for. I'm all gamed out and barely able to write this post so I'm going to sign off for now. Game on!


Liked this article? Why not read more board game related content. Eldritch Horror anybody?

Who has wheat?


Sunday, 27 April 2014

Dave Lamb's Top 25 games of all time (10-1)

Carrying on from 25-11 here's my top 10 games of all time.

10. Shenmue
Many people will think I’m crazy for placing Shenmue in my top ten but I think it’s severely underrated. The story surrounding its creation is remarkable. A game which allegedly cost $47 million to produce in 1999. It would have required everyone with a Dreamcast to purchase the game twice to make a profit! This game took the excellent fighting system from Virtua Fighter series and expanded it into an open world with many more aspects of gameplay. Metal Gear Solid introduced us to games that felt like an action movie but Shenmue is a game where you step into the life of a character in an action movie. The level of graphical presentation had also greatly increased by this time which made me feel this was another benchmark of what was possible in games.

9. Portal 2 
Portal 2 is my favourite puzzle game of all time, but maybe the best way to describe it is a first person shooter mixed with a puzzle game. The game features brilliantly designed puzzles using the ingenious mechanics of placing portals around each room. The game is brought together with some hilarious writing and excellent voice acting. The challenges are never tedious and are always satisfying to solve. The first entry in this series is also worth a huge amount of praise. However it was slightly short and Portal 2 managed to make a larger and deeper experience, while adding in an excellent co-op mode for you to enjoy with a friend.

8. Grim Fandango
Grim Fandango is a dark comedy neo-noir adventure game that I love to death. It’s the best adventure game I’ve ever played and if you missed it’s well worth revisiting. The artwork in this game is incredible but it’s the characters and story that make it stand out. Grim Fandango features outstanding voice acting to bring every character to life and cement the varying concepts behind each of them. This game also made me start to view video games as an art form due to its neo noir style. I’m thrilled that the museum of modern art is adding this game to a permanent exhibition that showcases video games as art. MoMA - Video games as art

Grim Fandango sales were poor despite the very positive reception of the game. This was taken as a sign that the adventure genre was commercially dead. The video game market was turning towards action-based games but again, there’s a large story behind that one too.

7. Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is a terrifying game with one of the most intense atmospheres I’ve ever experienced. It’s a deep adventure that's scary and disturbing which could not be achieved through anything other medium. When I played Silent Hill 2 did it with a friend because playing this game by yourself can really put you on edge. You know, a problem shared is a problem halved and you need all the help you can get with this game. The reason horror games work so well is because you genuinely feel fear for your characters safety. Silent Hill creates a town where you never know what strange experience may occur next. Most of the characters you meet seem blissfully unaware of the horrors unfolding and this is where the game can really start to mess with your head. You start to feel unsure of what’s real and what’s not. Is this all occurring in the protagonists head or is the town messing with you? This helps create a great sense of despair that makes this game my favourite horror game of all time.

6. Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect is in my view, the best trilogy ever created in video games. It’s a comprehensive experience where actions from the first game carry through to the final act. The game is a perfect blend of the action and role playing genres. You are given the freedom to shape the story through the many choices and dialogue options, making it one of the most personal games you’ll ever play. The writing is excellent, the voice acting is excellent, in fact, pick any aspect of Mass Effect and you will find that it’s above many other games. The characters you meet are so strong they will be engraved in your brain for many years to come. Mass effect 2 is the strongest game in the series but the trilogy should be played throughout as your character and decisions are imported from game to game. Every gamer should experience this trilogy regardless of their genre preference.  

5. Bioshock
Bioshock is a work of art, it may still have all the violence and action of a first person shooter but that doesn’t detract from its artistic nature. The game's developers drew heavily on literary fiction such as Atlas Shrugged, which leads to themes few developers are willing to tackle. The game follows the story of Andrew Ryan, an individual who has rejected society's ideas of capitalism, socialism and religion. He has withdrawn from the world and built his own city under the sea. You play a nameless character who arrives at the city where it becomes immediately clear Andrew Ryan’s vision has failed catastrophically. 

You are left to explore the decaying city containing the horrors of genetic modification which sent people insane. The game has a brilliant atmosphere which often uses terror juxtaposed with humour. The world here is so cohesive you get the sense this world could actually exist. The game also has some excellent action. There’s a deep combat system the combines the use of special attacks named plasmids with gunplay to provide the player with endless variety. This game reaches some notes that were previously untouched in video games which is why I believe it’s one of the best games ever created. 

4. Shadow of the Colossus
Sometimes people talk about boss fights being their favourite part of a game. With that in mind a very talented studio from Japan made a game which is essentially just 16 boss fights. However, they made them the best boss fights you will ever experience. But maybe the phrase “boss fight” isn’t even applicable here. The genius of each boss is that it’s a giant puzzle. You are trying to fathom how your comparatively tiny character can reach the colossus and navigate to its weak point without being crushed and maimed. This brilliant experience is combined with superb art direction, a gorgeous world to explore and a very fine example of how to convey emotion through gameplay. Shadow of the Colossus uniqueness is the reason it ranks so highly on my list and I believe any self-respecting gamer should play it.

3. The Last of Us
The Last of Us is the reason I say to people they are missing out by not playing video games. It’s been hailed as the “HBO” of video games and I whole heartedly believe it is. It proves you can have cinema quality presentation while combining it with the interactivity of a video game. To me, it sums up the true potential of video games. They can tell a heartfelt story about characters you care for but also immerse you deeply through its interactive elements, something that still isn't standard in video game narratives. This game almost takes it for granted that the gameplay is rock-solid and shifts its focus to the writing and story. It’s a beautifully written and has expert voice acting. You only need to compare the voice acting in this game to the first Resident Evil title to see just how far video games have come. The Last of Us is a masterpiece that will be remembered for many years to come.

Have a look at the videos below and compare the voice acting and presentation of Resident Evil to The Last of Us .

Resident Evil (1996)

Last of Us (2013)

2. Super Mario 64
After all the praise I’ve given games for being arty and telling a top-notch story Super Mario 64 runs counter to that logic! There’s little to no story here accept rescue Princess Peach from Bowser. What Super Mario 64 is, is a shining example of a traditional video game. Collect the coins, collect the stars and beat the boss. It’s all here, everything you associate with video games. However, what makes Mario 64 so special is that it does all these aspects so well and it was one of the first to do so in 3D.  

There were other 3D games around at the time but none of them created a fully realised 3D world like this one. Crash Bandicoot was a 3D game but the levels were essentially lattice like corridors rather than a fully three dimensional environment. I remember my first time playing this game at a Toys 'R' Us promo kiosk and it completely blew my mind. I’d never experienced a 3D world you could run around so freely and easily. At the time it just wasn’t even something I thought possible or expected from the gaming world. The fact that one of the first open 3D world platformers is still one of the best, speaks volumes about how good this game is. The levels are incredibly varied, the puzzles are expertly designed and I’d recommend this game to anyone who enjoys video games.

1.The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time
OK so here it is my number one game of all time - The Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time. A huge open, long-form, action adventure game that excels at everything it touches. Again with this game Nintendo were introducing new ideas in the transition to 3D gaming. It was the first time lock-on targeting (then called "Z-Targeting") and context sensitive buttons were used. These ideas were so strong that they are still widely used today. I’m not sure how Nintendo struck gold with their first 3D iterations of games but struck gold they did. 

The art direction used for the characters and world design is stellar, the gameplay is gripping and the puzzles innovative. This game is unmatched when it comes to the variety of puzzles and diversity of actions. Even mini-games such as fishing are so good they could be fleshed out into their own games. This outstanding game is accompanied by the most memorable melodies you’ll ever hear and it gets my vote for best soundtrack on this list as well. Ocarina of Time is just as important today as it was back then. If for some reason you haven’t played this game, go out of your way to play it! It will be worth it.

So there you have it my top 25 games of all time hope you enjoyed reading it. Let us know some of your favourites in the comments section below and here's a few honourable mentions that crossed my mind.

Honourable Mentions
Super Mario World - Nintendo's most iconic 2D platformer.
Jak and Daxter - An excellent spiritual successor to Crash Bandicoot.
Final fantasy 10 - One of my favourite JRPGs.
Banjo Kazooie - A wonderful platformer from Rare.
Rayman Origins - An excellent modern game still flying the flag for 2D platformers.
Portal - An ingenious puzzle game as stated above.
Pokemon Red and blue  - Because you gotta catch em all!
The Walking Dead season 1 - Raises the bar for emotional story telling in games.
Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2 - The original fun and crazy extreme sports game.

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Dave Lamb's top 25 games of all time.

In light of some of the IGN editors recently sharing their top games, I thought I'd lay down some of the best experiences I've had with gaming. Games are a relatively new medium but there's so much potential in what can be achieved though interactive storytelling. We're still in the early days but many studios are proving why the format can be so powerful. Here's my top 25 favourite games of all time. Enjoy!

25. Skate 2
For a long time, the Tony Hawks series was the king of the extreme sports games and many others copied its formula. Then along came Skate, which completely reinvented the wheel. No longer were you grinding the loops of a rollercoaster. Instead, Skate brought things down to a much more realistic level. Its biggest change was using the right analog stick to perform ollies and flip tricks, by pulling the stick back and flipping it in any direction. After you become accustomed to this, you were left with one of the most realistic and organic action sports games ever created. Added to this is a generously large open world to explore. You can happily skate around at your leisure searching for nice spots to pull off tricks. It’s the finest example a game that captures the feelings associated with the real sport itself. 

24. Devil May Cry                                     
Devil May Cry puts you in the shoes of a half devil anti-hero named Dante, who is rebelling against the Dark Lord himself. This game has some of the most incredible heart stopping action you’ll ever encounter. It creates fluid and exciting combat by effectively combining sword and gunplay. Its revolutionary combat system created its own genre and it was adopted by modern action titans such as Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden. It has a very stylish atmosphere akin to the Resident Evil series but more gothic and decadent. If you can forgive the slightly wonky camera this game is a real gem. I also thoroughly enjoyed the recent reboot of this series. It was quite underrated and is more than worth a look if you didn’t catch it.

23. Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped
Whatever happened to Crash Bandicoot? Once a world phenomenon but now I wonder if children today would even recognise him. While I won’t get into the mistake Sony made in selling Crash to Activison, the original games made by Naughty Dog are still superb today. At the time, it created a familiar, yet unique formula of platform gameplay that was very enjoyable. The third entry in the series was a particular favourite of mine. At least we can say Naughty Dog went on to bigger and better things. I’m not sure I’d trade The Last of Us for decades of Crash sequels.

At E3 last year Sony showed a live action trailer in which the sign on the left was shown. It's been suggested that the picture is Crash Bandicoot with an arrow pointing towards the Sony logo as show on the right.  Could this possibly mean Crash Bandicoot is returning to the property of Sony? Could we eventually see another high quality first party Crash game from Sony? I for one,  certainly hope so.

22. Halo 
This was the game that gave birth to the modern console first person shooter. It led to the genre becoming the forefront of the industry in the Western world with the likes of Call of Duty. While it didn’t invent the first person shooter it did nail the mechanics on a console for the first time. It effectively used the dual stick layout of the original Xbox to deliver a fluid experience. I enjoyed this game so much that first person shooters became my genre of choice for a quite a few years. Sadly, the current genre behemoth that is Call of Duty has done few favours for the industry by producing the same uninspiring game every year for the sake of profit. If like me you feel disillusioned with COD go back to Halo and remind yourself of the potential of the genre.

21. Metal Gear Solid
One of the first games I played that offered a cinematic experience combined with excellent action/stealth gameplay. It set a new precedent of what was achievable in games. I’d never seen a game offer such a compelling blend of cinematics and gameplay. It was a sign of a shift towards producing grand thematic titles, that games would eventually offer legitimately cinematic aspects as well as an immersive experience.

20. Super Monkey Ball Deluxe
Some great games are also simple. Super Monkey Ball involves navigating a ball around obstacles towards a goal. The player maneuvers the board underneath the ball, causing it to roll. That’s it, no power ups or special moves, just simple gameplay that leads to a challenging and addictive game. It’s most memorable aspect is its turn based multiplayer where players compete to see who can complete the most boards. I had hours of fun playing this with friends and would recommend it to anyone looking for some excellent offline multiplayer fun.

19. SSX3
While I chose Skate (25) because of its realism, SSX3 I chose because it committed itself to the eccentric. This incredibly fun game lets you pull off physically impossible tricks and gets everything right while doing it. Whether its sound, course design or gameplay SSX3 exceeds at all of them. I’d played a few snowboarding games before this series came along but I never realised just how good they could be before SSX3. It’s still unmatched today due to its mechanics and wonderful presentation which makes the game a spectacle to behold. SSX3 is my favourite in the series and I feel it is the best snowboarding game ever, even if it does make the purists furious. 

18. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Sonic was the reason I started playing video games. I must have only been around 5 years old when I saw and played Sonic at my cousin’s house. It was probably the first time I’d touched a video game and the memory stays with me to this day. While I recognise it technically may not be one of the best games ever made, it holds a special place in my heart for starting my interest in gaming. That said, it’s still a more than worthy platform game that anyone interested the classics should check out and arguably the best all round game in the series!

My love of Sonic also led to this rather extravagant purchase. 

17. Burnout 3: Takedown
I don’t mind realistic racers but Burnout’s insanely fast arcade action is what created my favourite racing game of all time. The game’s extremely fast pace is balanced by not punishing you too much for mistakes and a clever crash system. I’ve never had more fun playing a racing game than I did with Burnout 3. The game also incorporates an excellent crash mode where you try to cause as much damage as possible to the surrounding area. I haven’t liked the series transition into an open world game recently. I just don’t think speed mixes well with tight corners and staring at a mini map. The thrill of belting it down a race track against traffic was the whole reason this game existed.

16. Goldeneye
Goldeneye was the one of the first first-person shooters I had ever played and I was blown away at the time. Although the control scheme may not stand the test of time, it is without doubt the best video game adaptation of a film, an area in which few studios have ever pulled off so well. The game forces you to think before you destroy everything in sight by adding spy based objectives into the mix. This deep gameplay is combined with excellent presentation though skilfully recreated set pieces from the film. I’ll always have fond memories of the 4 player split screen multiplayer as well. This game also receives a bonus point for having the best pause screen ever and we all know why pause screens are important!

15. Grand theft Auto 5
Grand Theft Auto 5 (GTA5) is the most impressive technical achievement I’ve seen to date. Not only did Rockstar manage to create a huge open world, they managed to make it incredibly detailed as well. It’s received much criticism for essentially being a crime simulator but there’s no denying its popularity. It’s so huge but also includes so much detail. It’s GTA5’s beyond-obsessive attention to detail that truly sets the game apart from others. Take a street performer in the game, in most other games they would just recite the same action over and over again, till you perhaps run them over and the rag doll physics kick in. Not in GTA5. If you take a picture of them and don’t tip they will become annoyed. If you watch them long enough they may eventually get a phone call and break character. It’s this insane level of detail in parts of the game that many people won’t even encounter that makes GTA5 so special.

14. Skyrim 
Skyrim is one of the finest single player fantasy role playing games going. It takes place in a huge beautifully crafted world, which includes a staggering amount of creatively designed content, and the game gives you an enormous amount of freedom to choose how you play. Don’t fancy the main quest? You can get lost in hours and hours of side quests and exploring. Don’t like hand to hand combat? Then make use of magic and the shouts gained from defeating the huge dragons that roam the lands. Skyrim allows you a wealth of choice when it comes to play styles and narratives, both of which are missing from the GTA universe generally. You can often choose how quests conclude and there’s more freedom to be good or evil without being forced to restart a quest if you kill an NPC you don’t like. The variety here is endless and the whole world is thrilling to explore.

13. Super Smash brothers Melee
This is my favourite multiplayer game of all time. An excellent fighting game where choose one of 25 iconic Nintendo characters to do battle with up to 4 players. While the game may seem simple at first, the depth here comes from the decision making and learning how every action plays out. It’s no button masher and novice players stand little chance against skilled players. It may be a little difficult to attract new players to a clique of experienced players but the enjoyment I’ve had from this fast and frantic game is second to none. It’s still gets broken out every time I’m with my friends I started playing this beauty with over 10 years ago.

12. Psychonauts
I love games with character and Psychonauts has bucket loads of it. A free roaming adventure platformer, where Tim Schafer's comedic stylings make it one of the few games I find genuinely funny. The game has excellent artistic design which is beyond many others. When I first played this game there was a moment that clicked for me when I realised how important variety can be in video games. Psychonauts has diversity between levels, both in aesthetics and gameplay which keeps it feeling fresh throughout the adventure. This is unfortunately something which Activison and EA have made it their mission to ignore. I was pleasantly surprised the first time I played this game and would recommend it to anyone who missed out.

11. Conker's Bad Fur Day
In this game you play as a squirrel who gets so drunk he doesn’t know where he is in the morning and your first task is to cure his hangover. This sets the tone for this twisted adventure which is one of the most hilarious games I’ve ever played. At the time the industry was flooded by cutesy titles like Banjo-Kazooie, the developers were inspired by South Park to make a more adult themed title. The game features a well-written, lewd script that uses witty parodies of the likes of Alien and Saving Private Ryan as themes for the various chapters. This game is a blast from start to finish and there’s never a dull moment. For instance you battle the gargantuan and operatically inclined “Great Mighty Poo” or you meet a talking cog on the wall who demands you recover his counter parts or “fuck off”. It may sound puerile on paper, but Rare's sense of humour really shines through. It’s a shame Rare aren’t still producing games like this rather than terrible Kinect games but that’s another story.

Carry on top my top 10 on page 2

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Saturday, 12 April 2014

Gaming Netiquette: "Well Played" in Hearthstone.

For those of you who haven't tried Blizzard's new entirely virtual collectible card game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, I would heartily* recommend it. It's one of the few competitive online games which is appealing to all skill levels, handles the free-to-play/monetisation side of things with great care and probably most appealingly, protects you from unwanted abuse from those toddlers out there who like to swear at people on the internet whether they are winning or losing. But that's not to say that Blizzard didn't leave considerable leeway for complete strangers to taunt each other in a subtle but powerful way. 

The most common meanings of this emote.

Emotes are the six word language that each character class in the game possesses. To actually chat with someone the traditional way you need to 'friend' them first so for the most part you will be letting the voice actors do the talking for you. I'm sure that the most widely used emote by far is 'Well played' some common uses of which are listed in the above image. A friendly post-game handshake to indicate that all important "gg" moment is something that polite players should do in almost each and every game they play, if you're losing I'd almost say that acknowledging defeat in this way is tantamount to a post-game handshake anyway. It's just the decent thing to do because it's sportsmanlike and everyone who takes part in gaming should feel like they are having fun, even in defeat...

 ...except this guy.

Three turns in a row he's kept me waiting like this...

For those of you who aren't familiar, my opponent (whose name has been blurred) has lost. 100% Lost. The only way that I could have lost at this point is if I had conceded the game voluntarily. Yet in theoretical defeat, my opponent has decided to leave his keyboard and force me to wait for his turn timers to run down in full before allowing me to actually win, or concede defeat out of sheer impatience. This is sour grapes at it's finest. In a game which is deliberately designed around preventing abusive players from having a negative influence, this player, in spite of well funded opposition, has found a way to stick a thorn in my paw. I feel safe in saying that I did not waste time shaking this player's hand as I whittled his health down to zero. This did not make me feel any happier.

Luckily, someone in Blizzard was watching and decided that I was worthy of compensation. After winning the game I was awarded with enough gold to purchase a booster pack and lo and behold, a legendary card for the Paladin class I was just playing as.
Getting one of these 'orange gem' cards feels incredibly satisfying anyway.

Well played Blizzard, well played indeed.

*The temptation to have the 'hearth-ily' pun in my opening sentence was great, but I thought better of it. I leave it here for the hardcore** readership.

**Footnotes are hardcore. Deal with it.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

2048, 4096 (and possibly Threes) - a brief strategy guide.

In a lazy and cynical attempt to cash in on the buzz around smash hit browser game 2048 (and it's countless clones) I'll tell you briefly how I managed to do this.

I won!
Just follow these simple heuristics:

1) If you see a risk free chain of moves which combines several high value tiles in a row 32's into a 64 that will then be next to another 64, which when combined to make 128 will be next to another 128... then take advantage of it!

2) When you have more than 7 empty squares (ish), try and bunch up your tiles in a corner. That is to say, ban yourself from using one of the four direction keys (say up) and sparingly use one of the orthogonal keys if you can help it (say, right).

3) If you're in the situation as in 1) but you have no choice but to use your forbidden key (up in my example) use it once and immediately press the opposite key again (down), unless....

4) If you're running out of room, STOP and take a quick breath and see if you can find a good way to combine high value tiles together or just free up some space. If you can combine two or more tiles at once this way that's preferable as you'll have a net space gain of at least one.

5) Be aware that a 2 is most likely to appear in any one of the random empty tiles after every move. I know that sounds obvious but it drives how the game works.

Good luck!

Also be aware that Threes for iOS is a subtly different game altogether, but a lot of the above strategies will still help a little.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Gamification Part 1: Gamified e-business

I invited as a guest speaker to run an interactive session on the subject 'gamification' aimed at third year business and marketing undergraduates. Gamification is simply the process of incorporating game elements into functions which are not purely designed for gaming entertainment. In this article I focus on how this technique is used to gamify online businesses. An expanded and edited segment of my original lesson content and publish it here on 103 for the interested reader. 

Games have been proven to reinforce engagement and influence consumer behavior in the business world. Social games (e.g. Angry Birds, Candy Crush) currently integrate many desirable features of online businesses, as specified in e-business literature. Games are rich content by definition, syndication is readily implemented, gaming necessitates a level of participation (especially if it has a strong social element) and games already appear on every relevant variety of electronic content access platform. It is also very easy to gather and track a wealth of gameplay data to track engagement and conversion rates once a game has been created.
Here are a couple of simple examples of game mechanics that are designed to get you to spend real money online buying products or services which are not necessarily games or game related merchandise.

Free to Play: 

A website or e-community built mostly around participation in a game where the cost to play is usually nothing at all. The attraction and retention comes from the game itself being popular with the customer base. The conversion can come in many forms. Social games such as Candy Crush Saga are extremely popular and the product is in fact the game itself. Coursera is a free-to-play model of education. You can take online courses for nothing and get achievements and points for doing well in quizzes but you need to pay to be accredited. 

In Hearthstone you are always exposed to the opportunity to shop, and people frequently do for that reason alone.

Players tend to purchase real and virtual merchandise to celebrate their enjoyment of the game’s community and this investment in the experience positively feeds back into sustained future engagement in the system over time by the consumer (game first, products second). However chances are your target product/service isn’t peripheral merchandise to a game so developing a game to complement a product you want to sell is challenging to do in an engaging way. Products first, game second is often what we want in business so let’s look at some examples of that.

Points, Levels and Badges:

By far the most common form of e-business gamification is to simply provide some sort of positive stimulus to the customer when they do something you want them to do more of. Loyalty schemes are an example of this but monetary rewards and freebies aren’t the sole driver of repeat/increased business to your website over your competitor’s sites when you use a game. The spectre of saturation means that if a competitor can easily implement your successful game for their own business then they will do so and the differential advantage over rivals is diminished to what it was before everyone implemented their games except now all business have lost money and time implementing games and offers. 

Many of us bought or played inferior Xbox 360/PS3 titles for no reason other than that this felt great.

Creating the belief in the consumer that their actions are contributing to some over-arching record of achievement has a positive impact on sales and engagement. There is a healthy flow of pull marketing from the consumer as they play more of your game and actively seek out content, and push marketing as special offers and new products are integrated into the game in the form of limited time goals/quests. The idea of wasting an opportunity to build up your Nectar or Club Card ‘score’ of points can influence customers into limiting their shopping for goods at stores which do not offer such a scheme.

Abstract, colourful but tangibly worthless experience points, virtual trophies and milestones are powerful on their own but the interactivity needs to be active in order to have the most impact on the consumer’s psychology.  Interest rates, loyalty cards and points which are automatically earned are very passive non-interactive effects in a game.
Bottom centre. Even Snapchat has a completely arbitrary scoring system.

Creating the idea in the mind of the player that they have ‘played’ their way to the offer and the feeling of having ‘won’ the prize of a special discount can be emotionally engaging and more difficult to refuse than if the offer was open to everyone without the need to strive for it. This sustained engagement promotes the brand, sells products and creates a social buzz about the business. All of this hinges on creating a compulsive game environment that integrates the business in an appealing way.

Next Time: 

I'll talk more about how general approaches towards gamifying your online business to make your business stand out on the web. I'll also recount how business students used these lessons to come up with some fairly solid sounding pitches for gamified e-businesses.

Further 'Reading':

1. Skinner Box video by Extra Creditz:
2. Foursquare Analysis.
3. How Nike uses Gamification.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Eldritch Horror: Fighting Cthulu with a Shotgun

Here at 103% we don’t like to limit ourselves to any one type of game, but rather discuss gaming as a whole. As such, we occasionally discuss games that aren’t electronic but more traditional. In the past we’ve covered the stone-cold classic “Settlers of Catan”, and we’ve also talked about various 2 player games that serve as a great alternative to sex (after all, sex isn’t always the best way of interacting with any given person).

Sex may not be appropriate at a job interview, but Yu Gi Oh sure is!

I recently acquired a brand-new copy of the Fantasy Flight game “Eldritch Horror”, a sequel to the relatively popular “Arkham Horror” game and it’s various expansions. The mythos of the game is based around the works of H.P. Lovecraft (I always like to pretend that the “H.P.” stands for “hit points”), and as such features various monstrous abominations to be fought, as well as a heavy focus on Lovecraft-crafted narratives. After playing half a dozen times I felt I should share my thoughts and reactions with the 103 community.

The game is a co-operative effort to win against the game itself, that can be played by 1 to 8 players. I for one like to envisage the battle-hardened nerd opting for a solo playthrough yet still reading every single card aloud. Each turn involves each player taking 2 actions in an attempt to prevent the advancing of the Ancient Ones, before moving on to the encounters phase, where each player has a narrative encounter of some sort, before the monsters make their moves against humanity. These encounters tend to be the most entertaining part of the game. Either the collective players choose to embrace these Lovecraftian nuggets with a horrified gravity or they laugh knowingly at the melodrama of it all; every game I have played thus far has fallen into the latter category. A particular highlight was when a “partially insubstantial insect” flew out of Jak’s brain “leaving knowledge of an alien world”. I hate it when that happens.

After a couple of test games where we had put the game together with a very easy set up we decided to go for the full Eldritchian experience, pushing aside the casual menace of Azathoth for the famed insanity as that internet favourite, Cthulu. Team 103 (myself, Jak, and Liam) did everything we could to make the game as hard as possible, thinking ourselves invincible after our near-victory over Azathoth. Oh, did I not mention that even when scaling the game to super-easy mode we lost? Yeah. Azathoth devoured our planet. You have us to thank for that one, humanity.

We're sorry.

Needless to say it was a massacre. The focal point of Cthulu’s Blitzkrieg of insanity ended up being Sydney. You see, if a character dies surviving investigators can attempt to recover their belongings, and eliminated players can respawn as a new investigator. Sydney rapidly became 103’s folly, as the more dead investigators piled up there the more tempting booty appeared. Also, on an unrelated note, “Cthulu’s Blitzkrieg of Insanity” would make an excellent name for a band. That’s a freebie.

As the patented “doom” counter hit zero and we had failed to make any substantial progress we set ourselves the makeshift win condition of killing Cthulu himself (this can happen in the game, but we were a long way off it happening. Lovecraft was quite right in describing him as “an excessive motherfucking badass”). We piled all our weapons and buffs on to my character, Norman Withers, the aged astronomer, and flew headlong into battle. Wielding a double-barrelled shotgun with an axe in case things turned ugly, I tried my luck. Did I win? No.

And so, as I left that accursed object on the table where it lay, I knew my mind was only a few days away from complete collapse. I leave this document as a testament to my time table-topping a really, really hard game.