Monday, 29 March 2010

Only the good die young...

Bad things bring me joy. It is a strange admission, but one I’m comfortable with. I don’t mean bad awful things, not stamping on puppies or feeding octogenarian faith-healers to sharks, as attractive a prospect as it can sometimes be on a slow Sunday afternoon. It’s just that I’ve come to appreciate a fundamental truth: bad entertainment is an art form, and one I can really get behind.

Yes I say, art form. Godzilla may have just been a small rotund man in a rubber suit, paid to stamp energetically on a prized model railway layout of Tokyo while battling another little rotund man in another rubber suit, but inside that demented image lay the seeds of genius.

It isn’t just the special effects, although anyone familiar with such greats as “It came from beneath the sea” knows the thrills of a budgetary-constrained , six armed, stop-animation octopus (or “Hexapus” as Ray Harryhausen dubbed it) can rarely be beaten by all the CGI known to man. No. It isn’t the campy acting either, although I’d have to admit this is where the lions share of my pleasure originates, fostered one rainy autumn in the 90s when I was stuck alone with a only a pile of Shaw brothers Hong Kong films to sustain me. It’s the cats ass, Jackie.

Sometimes, just sometimes, you get a perfect storm, where everything goes utterly boobs to the sky and bang, it happens. Utter abysmal perfection. The “Plan 9” moment.

Until recently this has been mostly the purview of film, the fast pace and audio/visual juxtaposition a perfect canvas for the paints and ink of sub-greatness, a medium capable of such sublime crassness that it can effectively ironically parody a piss-take. “Lobster man from Mars” and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” being a case in point, the former being possibly the best film to feature the late, great, Patrick McNee in a crustacean related role.
But games are not wasting any time catching up. The problem we face is that while bad game mechanics can be laughable for a short while they also function as a barrier to the real meat and potatoes of the game which leads to frustration, and the death of puppies (see above).
Nevertheless bad dialogue and awful acting is as integral to games as a mouse and keyboard interface. Often translated games feature the finest examples of this, all of your grammar indeed does belong to us, however it is when the whole package comes together in just the right way it transmogrifies to something special.

My current favourite came when revisiting the Witcher the other day. Having had the game since release but only playing an hour of it in total I was prompted by the recent revelation of the sequel to go reinstall and play it again. After waking the young, attractive and leather-strainingly pert young witch from her coma in our tower, I (or rather Gerault) has his wicked Witchery way with her*, and then gets send out to some backwater village to find out unspecified “things” from people. All good stuff so far.

A cut scene sets the tone with a conversation between a boy and a woman who seem to have SUDDEN SHOUTING SYNDROME. They walk home, through the dark, monster infested wilds. Arguing loudly. The boy has to be cajoled to go anywhere, as he is presumably eager to hang about in the dark and get eaten. Sheesh. The youth of today. I just whined about getting a skateboard.

Predictably, giant green death dogs show up and the little sod is off like a hare, abandoning his sister/mother/guardian to her fate. The guards slam the town gate, behind the boy , but right in her face and we segue to the best cut-scene in the game so far: The camera flicks quickly between portraits of several characters who utter a variety of profundities like: “What is it?” “Oh no!” “They are coming!” “You can’t go out there alone, they will kill you!” “Hmm, monster attacks are getting more common these days.” “here they come!” .

Then you get dumped into combat.

It feels utterly incoherent in the same way that a story told by a gibberingly intoxicated person can be. You know there is some intention of purpose but no amount of contemplation seems to unlock the secrets therein. A later conversation with an innkeeper is equally jarring as it bounced about between sulky irritation, threats ,and business as usual. As for the barmaid... one innocent remark later and she won’t talk to me except to call me a pervert.

All of this has won me over to the whole Witcher experience. I’ve been told that there is an enhanced version that cleans up the dialogue, sorts out the random volume problems and is better translated but I’m worried now that it may ruin my fun: a clear cut case where improvement is not always the best choice.

Why be averagely bad when you can be completely, utterly, gloriously, awful?


*Presumably with his wicked witchery willy in a wilful and wanton way.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

A cancer for the cure

Cancer for the cure.

Good old Digital Rights Management software. Depending on where you stand DRM is The Beast or the last, best chance for PC gaming to survive.

Admittedly if you play the games as opposed to get paid to make them you probably hate it with a passion. It is one of those things that never fails to inspire a vitriolic response from even the mildest mannered of us. It just isn’t popular.

Ubisoft are the most recent in a line of waxen-moustachioed villains to appear, insanely cackling as they tie their maiden games down on the railway line of DRM to be run over by the brutal train of gamer outrage and technical ineptitude. We are fond of saying, as gamers, that we are the ones that are inconvenienced the most by DRM. Our enjoyment has been smeared in the thick engine-oil of disappointment and frustration. Victims? That’s us. Aggrieved victims with a righteous case to make. Let us sit upon the ground and make doom laden predictions that get us really angry.

Of course the true losers in all of this are the people that invested their time and effort into the game in the first place. The developers. Sandwiched between the need to make money and the desire to make a game that people want to play they bear the full brunt of the consequences of shoddy DRM, outraged community “boycotts” and piracy.

Last stop: this town.

On the other side of the coin, to companies like Ubisoft DRM is an attempt for them to protect their revenue, first and foremost. Yes you can argue whether it is effective at that goal till the cows come home, get changed and go out clubbing but the fact remains that there is no other logical reason for the existence of DRM than piracy. It isn’t an excuse. It isn’t some sinister land grab by the company to install evil rootkits to your PC or a Machiavellian plot to kill PC gaming so they can dance atop the tombstone on a moonlit midnight frantically waving Xbox controllers branded with pentagrams.

They want to make money by selling you games and they don’t like people giving away their product for free. That isn’t so unreasonable.

Electro-shock Blues.

What is unreasonable is the way in which it is done. DRM copy protection software has inched forward from the Dial-a-Pirate wheel in the 90s to Big Brother applications scanning your PC. The change has been one of tone as well as technology. Wheels and cellophane windows and cunning cardboard with little holes cut into it have been replaced by a digital interrogation of your electric playspace: Are you connected? What do you have installed? What is this peripheral? I don’t like that. This application looks dodgy. Are you still connected? I’d close that if I were you! What is in your registry? NERO!? I’m off for a lie down. No you can’t play. Go read the forums. I don’t like you.

It used to be common in the days of cardboard widgets for the copy protection to be connected in some way with the game, an approach that had a certain charm, and one that is harder to resent. It seems in an age of activations, licences and server validations things have become more adversarial, the consumer more affronted, the publisher more defensive.

And it drives us potty. Even more so because it doesn’t have to be this way. But don’t take my word for it. Take Valve.

Baby Genius.

Steam has it’s detractors- boy did people get upset when Half-life 2, the most anticipated sequel of the decade, also came patched with and ONLINE DRM that ACTIVATED and wanted you to LOG IN and CHECKED UP ON YOU and probably TOOK PICTURES OF YOU IN THE BATH. It was all rather upsetting. But that isn’t the interesting bit. Nonono.

Steam wasn’t much more that DRM at the start. The store was limited, the community nascent. It was also a bit ahead of the curve (at least in the UK) as narrowband internet access was still on life support so being online to play a single player game, even if just at the start, was a big deal. Lots of people got angry. Ubisoft angry. They said bad things in public places. They wrote letters. What did Valve do? They stuck to their insane plan. They made the store better, they developed the communities.

They made Steam worth having in its own right.

Yeah some people still hold a grudge. Valve games aren’t free of piracy. Steam isn’t perfect. But it is a success and one that Ubisoft would have done better to examine in more detail. It is amazing what you can get people to swallow when you sweeten it a bit.

And now, more than ever, there is an obvious and pressing need for effective DRM.

The medication is wearing off.

Currently used DRM, such as secuROM is, bluntly, a waste of time and money. Piracy in the PC market is rife. The most popular illegally downloaded games in 2008 (Spore) and 2009 (CoD:MW2) both used the secuROM DRM but were available for illegal download almost from the day they were released.

Look at the figures: it is estimated that Spore was downloaded 1.7 million times versus 2 million in sales while CoD: MW2 was downloaded an estimated 4.1 Million times against sales of approximately 500,000 units. That is eight downloads for every one sale and almost three times more than Spore, which sold four times better a year previously. Even given that every download does not equal a lost sale or even a played game these are scary numbers*.

Climbing to the moon.

In that climate where every game is only a torrent away a publisher really cannot afford to lose the support of their gamer communities with clumsy attempts to lock down their games. Such attempts are just an open invitation to the hacker community to tear them down- and it only takes one person to hack the game and put it up for download to negate the whole effort. Putting the DRM in the game is only half the solution as Ubisoft are finding. Putting it in as part of the game experience surely makes more sense.

Hark back to those cardboard wheels of the past and tie the DRM to the game, and I think that people might be more prepared to forgive the intrusion. Is there a good reason that DRM cannot be presented as a minigame? As part of the plot? Tied into some part of the gaming mechanic itself?

Would it be wrong for the publisher to reward people for buying a proper copy of the game instead of stomp around self-righteously shouting NO all the time?

Given the current situation, What is the worst that could happen?


*Piracy statistics taken from a report on popular torrents on the Torrentfreak blog. Sales numbers taken from announcements by the companies concerned. They do not include online distribution figures such as Steam.

Further reading (for anyone interested):

Thursday, 25 February 2010

In the future there will be robots

This made me really angry. Explodey-head angry. So angry I unleashed an incoherent mess of half formed objections onto the comments after watching.

Since then I’ve been trying to work out what about it got to me so much. He was working from a number of inherently flawed presumptions and assumptions, or at least his material suggested this. But that is the norm for “futurologists” and doesn’t normally press my buttons. Yes, yes in the future there will be robots. And flying cars. Oh is that the time...?

I’ll admit that I wasn’t comfortable with the barely disguised glee that he contemplated the cash generating possibilities of “psychological tricks” within some games, but again I’m not surprised by it. Advertisers have been trying to refine these tricks for decades in other media, it’s a natural progression.

It was where he described the virtual pet things. When he started talking about the inner stuffed toy that children have. He was right, and then he was massively, disgustingly, sickeningly wrong.

For those who haven’t or don’t want to wade through the whole thing I’ll give you a potted version.

He asserts children who have a stuffed toy really have two toys. There is the actual physical manifestation of the toy and then there is the child’s projection of the toy as an actual living personality. So in the child’s imagination the toy cries, is happy, wants fed, etc. While to us it is just a bag of sand. Apparently we as adults forget this. (I haven’t but then I’m a relatively engaged parent living with a boy and Mr LukesywalkerRabbit.)

Some bright spark has come up with a toy that has a digital counterpart that does have a little personality and lives in its own little world. Webkinz I think they are called. This apparently taps into this “second” toy in children’s heads and gives them what previously they had to create in their imagination (good lord!) as a fully realised digital avatar.

Except it doesn’t really tap into this at all . If it did it would be a vile and monstrous evil. Anyone who knows or has children of an appropriate age will tell you that young children spend a lot of time roaming around in their imagination when playing with their toys. It’s where children order all the information, language and concepts that pour into their heads on a daily basis. They use role-play and conversations to connect concepts to actions, words to thoughts or, in my son’s case, Rabbits to Star Wars. Sensitively approached you can approach difficult or painful subjects with your child through roleplay with their toys (as many parents do) and often a child will express their own fears and anxieties more coherently through them.

Digital systems such as games, or in this case virtual Pandas, don’t do this. They aren’t capable or flexible enough to keep pace with a child’s imagination. They are by their very nature constrained in what they can and cannot do. Their world is restrictive, written and controlled by the designers, not the child. They are attractive place to explore, they entertain, but the stuffed toy “life” he talks about is a crucial developmental aid, not a gleeful chance to squeeze more cash out of Mum and Dad, not something you should look to channel or restrict by imposing limitations and not something adults should be thumping around in willy-nilly in their size nines.

This is what is, even now, making me burn with cold fury. I am a massive advocate for gaming with children. My son and I spend a lot of time playing games together. What I know from this is that it can promote a lot of very beneficial things: numeracy, literacy, teamwork, lateral thinking to name but four.

What I also know is that games and digital environments can be the equivalent of crack cocaine to children if you allow then unrestricted access. They can replace healthy social interaction, exercise and yes, development. My feeling is that games are more responsible if they are marketed towards the child and the parent, in a sort of Jim Henson company way. A child needs space to be alone with their imagination sometimes, not alone with a Nintendo DS or indeed their Webkinz site. You as a parent need to be involved, even if it is just to watch over the shoulder and ask them what they are doing, what they like, what they think of the story now and again.

Being excited about marketing anything – far less Webkinz- directly to children I personally find repulsive. But that could just be me., and anyway the cat has been out of that particular bag for a long time now. Irresponsibly encouraging developers to push technology, especially games, into children’s lives based on a misunderstanding of a developmental need? It angers me as a parent and it disgusts me as a gamer.

If the only way some people can approach children within gaming is as a potential audience then I have a little “Futurology” of my own for them. These are your future customers, it’s probably not wise to mess with their heads.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.


Sunday, 21 February 2010

My Way!

I’m currently having all my free time consumed by the Last Stand mode in DoW2. I’m determined to find out which one of the three (soon to be five come expansion day) characters is the hardest one to master. Then I’m going to play it till my eyes dry to shrivelled raisins.
Currently my money is on the Demented Teleporting Ork flamer build, although I do keep dying on wave 7, much to my team-mates disgust.
It’s the way I play though. It’s the same in WoW. My first ever character was a Feral Druid, back in the days when Druids were only really any good as healers. Every character I’ve ever levelled to the endgame since has been the same. Assassination Rogues, Elemental Shamans, Shadowpreists, you name it.
It’s a compulsion driven by a number of things. I will freely admit part of it is that it provides a good cover for being crap at any given online game. I don’t react well to criticism and I’ve found that, strangely, this approach allows for some salvaged pride. Also I can feel smug when I’m near the top on a UT game wielding the Bio-rifle. No expectation gaming. It is very liberating.

It is strange how many of my peers have a good scoff to themselves. I get called a Noob a great deal, which doesn’t really bother me. Except on those times that it does. The prevailing attitude seems to be that to play in a way that presents a challenge isn’t what people in the know do. That somehow it is stupid?

Ah the Webbernet. Haven for the sideways-minded.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Every day is a little adventure.

You are in a well lit room, lined with bookcases. In the corner on a desk sits a keyboard, a mouse and a large blank screen. There is a door to the north.


You check your dressing-gown pockets.

You find :

A creased copy of “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill.

Half a pint of Shandy.

Indigestion pills.

An apple.

A slightly rotten apple.

An apple core.

A piece of folded paper with the word “Sleep” written on it.

You are holding:

A cold cup of tea


You try to go north. You hit your shin on the coffee table. You swear loudly. You spill cold tea on your slippers. You hear a reprimand from the next room.

You reach the door at a limp. You have lost 2 sanity points.

You go NORTH to a dimly lit corridor. Shoes are lined up on a rack by a door to the EAST. To the WEST stairs wind upwards out of sight. To the NORTH you can see an open door to a kitchen. There are clattering noises from the kitchen and a greasy smell that could be food. Unopened letters spill from a hole in the eastern door. Something is knocking on the EASTERN door.

You can go back SOUTH, NORTH to the Kitchen, WEST up the stairs or open the EASTERN door.

>Open door.

Outside the door is a GRUE. He is lost and lonely after being evicted from his cave. It is snowing outside. He is looking for somewhere to live.

>Slam Door.

You slam the door in the face of the distraught GRUE. You can hear: some muffled sobbing. You lose :13 sanity points.


I’m sorry, could you be more specific?

>Why is their a GRUE outside my front door?

You hear a muffled reply from the kitchen but it is drowned out by the clattering. You can hear: muffled sobbing. You can see: unopened letters. You can go WEST back to bed, EAST to the slammed door or NORTH to the noisy kitchen.

>Pick up letters

You pick up the letters awkwardly, slopping cold tea onto the shoes. The GRUE wails disconsolately.


You are in a hot, busy kitchen. Your wife is currently making her breakfast, her six metallic limbs flashing and clanging. Her laser-beam eye flashes as it lights upon your dishevelled form. She takes the letters and the mug of tea from you as she pours a fresh one , fries eggs, toasts scones and puts the milk back in the fridge, all at the same time. There is an old oak table with six chairs in front of you. One of the chairs contains your child, beeping contentedly as he eats from a bowl full of AA batteries. His lights are green with pleasure. Distractedly you notice that it has started to snow in earnest outside and the GRUE has pressed it’s face against the window, slowly freezing tears congealing round his nose.

You feel: guilt. You can hear: clanking. You can smell: breakfast.

You can go SOUTH or SIT DOWN.

>Freak out

You: freak out, thrashing wildly. You drain your tea in one swift gulp, place the mug on your head and sing incoherently. Your performance of a Russian dance is limber and well co-ordinated. You tell: a ribald joke backwards.

Your wife is clearly unimpressed. Your son bleeps questioningly The GRUE is now frozen to the window.

You see a threatening Skillet. You hear bleeping and the faint crackling of freezing cartilage. You have lost: 14 Billion Sanity points.


You are in the dark hallway. Behind you is your Cyborg wife, loading her plasma skillet. You can go NORTH, EAST, WEST.


Sorry you’ll have to be more specific.


A Plasma bolt sears the wall next to you.


Sorry, but she is your wife.


You go outside into the Blizzard. It is cold. You can see a GRUE stuck to the window to the NORTH. You can see nothing but WHITE in every other direction. The snowflakes all seem to be in the shape of Jim Morrison. Somewhere “Dead flag blues” by Godspeed you Black Emperor is playing. Your dressing-gown has change into a white tuxedo, dusted with miniature Jims. Your indistinct reflection in the window looks like Manny Calavera.

You feel: cold and scared.

>Help me GRUE!

The GRUE shrugs helplessly, before being torn off the window by a bolt of fuzzy blue energy. You spin round to see your cyborg wife bearing down on you, Plasma Skillet aimed directly between your eyes. Behind her, your child is having problems with his wheels getting stuck in snowdrifts.

>Oh GODS what is happening? I’ve got to WAKE UP!

You have lost the piece of folded paper with the word “Sleep” written on it.

You wake up.

Well done. You have progressed to level 2.

You feel: Sleepy. You hear: loud bleeping.

You are in your warm bed. The world is dark and obscure. Somewhere an alarm is going off. It is possible you are late for work. Swimming up into focus at the foot of the bed is a GRUE. It gives you a small wave and a nervous smile. Something clanks in the bed next to you.


Monday, 8 February 2010

It isn’t easy being a marine. The hours are awful. You get shouted at a lot. Your haircut choices are very short or extremely short. Clothing comes in green, khaki or brown. Your job requires you go to some very badly lit places and die. Repeatedly. In messy ways.

Just another day in the Corps.

My first experience with the new AvP multiplayer demo was as the Marine. The Loneliest Marine on the planet.

It is was dark and that darkness held the echoes of gurgling , thrashing, screaming sounds signaling my impeding death. Clutching an oversized pulse rifle like a comfort blanket, I creep forward, poking a weak beam of light into the most sinister and dangerous looking puddles of gloom. The blip blip blip of the motion tracker trips irregularly and I swing wildly round, a moment of trigger incontinence spraying against the nearby wall. Phew. It’s another marine.

Who shreds me with a blast from his shotgun and steps confidently over my twitching corpse.

My feelings of betrayal are somewhat soothed by the sight of his sudden evisceration two steps later as I faded to the CCTV cameras and await respawn. All is fair in love and deathmatch it seems.

I respawn and decide to take a different tack, holing up in one of the rooms in a sort of crossroads. Ooo a shotgun. I’m feeling braver now so I click off my light and back into the darkest corner, this being my cunning plan. Invisible Death Marine! Muhahaha! Seconds pass and I hear some scuttling coming closer. My mouse finger tightens as the screen goes wobbly in anticipation. Here it comes, Baby!

Except when I try to move I suddenly can’t. I look down and there are large blades sticking out from my chest. Oh bugger. watching the CCTV again.

After a few more hideous deaths I’m on a razors edge, firing into shadows wildly and running from room to room whimpering like a dog with the squits. It is while doing this I score my first kill, reflexively firing as I burst round a corner onto a Xenomorph still gloating over the corpse of another marine. It dies in the first burst but I’m so keyed up I unload a whole clip on it, hooting wilding. I’m not dead! Take that and PARTY you BASTARD! I die shortly afterwards, French-kissed into oblivion by a vengeful Stabby-head, but it doesn't seem to matter so much. I held my own. I can do this.

That is the crux of the game as a Marine. The AvP demo keeps you in a state of constant paranoia. You can’t see very much, everything is faster, stronger and uglier than you (that is some bad ugly) and you are very definitely on the menu. Your weak torch serves more as a call to lunch than a useful tool and while the weapons are meaty and remarkably well stocked with ammunition you spend most of that blasting shadows and phantoms. You feel small and weak and utterly alone. The terror wiped the usual concepts of deathmatch from my mind and later I reflected that I was rather impressed with that. Ok. a fair bit later.

Deciding that my love of flamethrowers and guns with LED displays has blinded my good judgement I opt for a Xenomorph for the second game. This surely will be easier. Anything has to be easier...

Except it isn't. I start out scrambling across a ceiling in pursuit of a hapless marine who gets away from me long before I work out how to get unstuck from the flaming ceiling and actually eat his head off. Totally disoriented I eventually get picked off the wall by a predator who casually lobs a spear through my head. More savvy to the deathmatch dynamic this time when I spot an alien tail flicking past in my peripheral vision, I immediately spin round , claws at the ready. And again! The Bastard is circling ME!

Except it is my tail.

Even after the embarrassment had worn off I found it hard to enjoy playing as the Alien. I found the transition mechanic from wall to floor to ceiling where you press the middle mouse button to attach yourself to the new surface to be a bit hit and miss. Sometimes you just climb up the walls and sometimes you have to press the button. I always seemed to stick to the walls like glue when in hot pursuit of someone and end up suddenly the other way up and traveling away from them at speed, while later be confronted by a small step up and have to press the transition key. The spirit-levelesque T indicator in the middle of the screen did make it easier to orientate myself most of the time but I never truly felt wholly in control. Overall it gave me a creeping feeling of frustration so I moved on.

Predators start out with the obligatory cutlery strapped to each arm, can cloak (from humans) and see either normally, in the rather spanky infra-red we all know and love, or the green on green (with green) “Alien vision”. There are other weapons scattered about, such as the spear, the discus and the shoulder-cannon which are apparently rather groovy. Certainly I died to them a lot. In fact every time I chose to be a Predator there seemed to be at least two others turning me into a Shis-Kebab. The Predator is, on paper, the strongest of the three however divorced from his big hitting weapons and limited to up close and personal tools of death it isn’t the easy option. I’d say still that the balance still favoured Old Uglychops when tooled up and able to hold the high ground. The targeting laser does make them very visible but when you can’t get close it isn’t much of a consolation to your cooling corpse.

It is only a demo and these are just first impressions from three days play, but I would say it has plenty of atmosphere for a one-level deathmatch-only map. I felt vulnerable in all three modes and I’m sure there are some who will scoff at my Nooblishmishness* , which is fair enough given I spent a few minutes scared of my own tail, but I think that the game balance shows promise given that there was no obviously easier choice (at least for me).

It does have one strong element in its favour in that it feels fresh, with three very distinct ways to play. Whether Rebellion have capitalised on this in the full game remains to be seen but the early indicators seem good here. The option for a cinematic one button kill (Alien and Predator only it seems) was a nice touch the first few times but it does leave you very vulnerable while you are caught in the animation.
Personally I’d like to see the Alien wall crawling thing be less awkward as that did cause some mouse-champing moments.

Lastly although I appreciate it is a demo, and a limited one at that, the lack of any real guide to the abilities and keys for each race contributed greatly to my early bewilderment. The Marines are pretty standard drop-in-and-shoot types but I still have no clear idea what focus does for Aliens, so I just use it arbitrarily. Using weapons for Predators seems overly complicated too.

But that don’t matter. I’m back as a lean, mean, green, fighting machine. Gimmie a HOORAH people!


*this is my word. There are many like it but this one is mine.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

NOLF- A retrospective

“I have to go home now and wash myself with soap.”

Of all the girls in all the games in all the world Cate Archer was the one I remember with the most ardour. Thief cum new agent of UNITY ( a top secret agency eternally at odds with the evil H.A.R.M.) she was a goddess of tight leather cat suits, bizarre gadgetry and dry , laconic observation. Two parts Emma Peel, one part Vanessa Kensington and one part Pussy Galore she was the ultimate strong female protagonist set against a backdrop of sixties spy intrigue redolent of The man from UNCLE, The Avengers and of course, James Bond.

No-one Lives Forever (affectionately abbreviated to NOLF) appeared in 2000 to a genre crammed with shooters still defining themselves against two year old Half-life. NOLF didn’t bother, and was all the better for it. Interestingly what made it different then still marks it out ten years later: it doesn’t take itself seriously.

“Excuse me, do you mind if I borrow that parachute?

NOLF was a game that wanted you to have fun. Big extreme mad fun. With frickin’ sharks. Through the course of the 60 level (yes, 60!) game you travelled through almost every conceivable environment, moving from queuing at a nightclub to skydiving in hostile skies , then underwater shark-infested wrecks to zero-gravity space stations. These exotic locations encapsulated perfectly the grandiose flavour of the best Bond films and with Cate’s armoury of special spy gadgets you really felt the part of the globe-trotting super-agent. Whether you were shooting a special gun attachment to blind a camera or distracting the guard-dogs with a robotic lady-poodle it was always Fun with a big F. and although the sneaking parts didn’t always work (levels that end when you are detected are a particular peeve) it was refreshing to have such a varied and unique toolkit and the options to use it instead of running in firing from the hip.

“Bullets are not my favourite!”

Even now you are left wondering why there isn’t more of this crazy “fun” stuff in shooters now. NOLF was a great work of entertainment; it took the source material and tried to give you the most enjoyable experience possible from it. It let you play all the best bits while still using lengthy, yet well acted cutscenes where you could choose from a limited selection of response every so often, to get you involved in the story. The characters (especially the bad guys) are memorable and larger than life , a standout example is the huge psychopathic Scotsman, Magnus Armstrong. The story rattles along with many moments of genuine hilarity: many of the henchmen, if not blasted immediately in traditional shooter style, will have amusing idle conversations that never failed to raise a smile.

“You look like you need a monkey.”

NOLF is infused with an undeniable charm that fosters a genuine affection for the characters and the story. It is by today’s standards a monster of a game, weighing in at over 20 hours, but I remember wanting much more once I’d finished.

There were some complaints (such as the stealth options) that were addressed in an equally good sequel that also added RPG elements, character development and a really cool opening fight where you battle girl- ninjas as a hurricane rips a building apart. However this, and the ill fated straight-to-budget, Contract J.A.C.K didn’t ever gain the success that the first two games richly deserved. Despite a lot of the gameplay elements resurfacing in Monolith’s Tron 2.0, NOLF sunk without a trace.

Was it due to the predominately male FPS audience’s reluctance to play a female? Was it due to the off-beat humour and less serious tone? Was it that it wasn’t a game about big men shooting other big men in grey, brown and black environments? Was it the gadgets?

I suppose we will never really know now. To think that when NOLF first came out the other big shooter was Soldier of Fortune which people lauded mostly because it was possible to dismember and maim the opponents in a visceral manner makes me champ my explosive lipstick in frustration. Here is a whole 20 HOURS OF GAME crammed with ideas each as good as that one trick pony that you didn’t play.

Sometimes you just can’t win.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Parent Hell awaits

“Gimmie a HOORAH daddy!”


I’m probably going to hell. The special hell set aside for bad parents, mass murderers and South American Dictators. You see I let my 5 year old child play games. Violent games. Games stuffed full of death, boobies and rock and roll. I’ve ENCOURAGED him to do it.

I’m a bad man.

Just before I get thrashed by the flaming sword of do-goodery and issued the battered copper coin for the boat-ride to Hades I’d like to present my case, such as it is.

Even I, monster that I am, can see that there are games that are definitely not suitable for children. I don’t let him play or watch GTA IV, Prototype or Dead Space for example. They are adult games with very adult themes and the last two make me wee my pants.

We do play the wholesome parent-and-child games. Mostly Lego themed ones as there isn’t actually that much else that bridges the gap and allows you to play together. We loved Psychonauts, Portal, Crayon Physics and Osmosis but sadly the majority of PC titles “suitable” for children are a terrible mess draped over a “child-friendly” licence or movie tie-in . Sometimes they are pink. Sometimes they are blue. Unsurprisingly they are frequently poo.

“Boom! Headshot!”

So sometimes we play Halo. Yes, Halo, and Halo 3 on the Xhoofer. We shoot aliens in the face. Sometimes we laugh when we do it, in a latently psychopathic way. We’ve tag-teamed Hunters and stood back to back against the flood. We have also created a huge mountain of grenades by killing each other repeatedly, igniting them just to see how far we will be thrown in the explosion. Just because. I’ve discovered 5 year olds play games far better than we do. Not with madskillz maybe but if there is a way to break the game or do something the designer never intended, give it to a child.

My worst crime though was the day we made the WOW characters. Plural. Six female Blood Elf Warlocks and a scattering of Gnomes with pink hair. Once weaned off the character creator the elf Svart (“Fart! Fart! Sounds like fart!”) spent the next half hour chasing lynx cubs, swimming, jumping up and down at baby dragon-things and taking her clothes off to “cool her boobies”.

Strangely the warped and anti-social child you’d expect to develop under these conditions hasn’t materialised. Quite the opposite. The nightmares that were predicted as a result of exposure to games like Halo just didn’t happen. In fact they have provided a framework for overcoming the more standard monster-under-the-bed anxieties. It would seem that giving a 5 year old a metaphorical pulse rifle to take to bed has been more empowering than enraging: Anything lurking in the cupboard better be wearing Kevlar body-armour. The tide has turned- so suck it down, monsters.

“I’m the Chief this time!”
“I’m still The Daddy.”
“But I’m the Chief!”

The crucial element for us though is we play together. It is a shared interactive experience where we both get something out, unlike bloody Charlie and Lola. These days we are encouraged to dump our children in front of the telly or off with a DS when time for families, especially families with working parents, is at a premium.

I can understand the reluctance for parents to encourage a pastime that is continually demonised and decried in the mass media, even when they strongly reject the premise for themselves. We parents are a twitchy lot when it comes to our children, especially the younger ones. However to my mind we are missing a huge opportunity to engage with them in a meaningful and healthy manner, on their terms, and for the worst reason: Fear. We worry what people will think so much we don’t think for ourselves. We worry about going to parent hell.
Well bring it on. I’m ready for my spike now.

“You shot me!”
“You shouldn’t just run in like that daddy.”

Friday, 29 January 2010

What a piece of work is a game.....

What a piece of work is a game,

How noble in interface, how infinite in expression,

in form and moving how textured and animated,

in action how like a Ninja, in apprehension how like a Cyborg!

The beauty of the world, the paragon of NPCs-

and yet to me what is this quintessence of fatal errors?

Games delight not me- nor gamepads either, though by your fragging you seem to say so.



Thursday, 28 January 2010

Entropy Abides


The chemical processes that fuel life are continually breaking down the long hydrocarbon molecules and creating them again. Creatures consume food from microbes right up to whales, breaking them down into more simple chemicals and then converting *those* chemicals into movement, heat, fat and lots of other things. All things die and decay as they are changed by the bacteria they carried around with them all that time, forming soil.

Rocks corrode leaching their mineral contents to enrich that soil that feeds the plants that grow high in summer and die back as autumn comes. Rock is created by the compacting of sand and other, small rocks and mud that are put under heat and pressure, then these rocks are altered by energy and chemical processes that transform them into quartz, marble and all other types of metamorphic rock. Other rocks are spat from the fiery heart of the earth as the ground is torn asunder and remade from volcanoes and other magmatic events.

The tectonic plates that underly the ground on which you walk on are forever crashing into each other, subducting, melting, deforming, reforming. Oceans open and close in the blink of a cosmic eye while mountain ranges punch into the heavens to be worn down by water and time till they become gentle hills, then back under the sea again. Continents collide and fall away, slowly dancing across the surface of the planet.

The planets wobble round the sun, gently slowing down like giant spinning tops while the rubble of failed planets and icy comets crash around, and sometimes into them. Even the sun is slowly changing, a slave to entropy it cools until in a few billion years all that will be left is a small brown dwarf surrounded by some cold dead rocks. Then a neutron star. Then if it's lucky a black hole, or maybe nothing but a thin film of cold matter.

Galaxies fly apart from each other travelling at fractions of the speed of light, uncounted teeming billions of them. They tumble out into the dark as they themselves expand and lose cohesion, spreading out to fill the universe as they fly towards the omega point.

There isn't one thing in this universe, with the possible exception of light, that is immutable and unchanging.

Entropy abides, everything changes.