Played It: FTL: Faster Than Light

Mayday... Mayday...

This is the S.S. Space Cat, a Federation starship deep in Mantis territory. We have been attacked and boarded by pirates and are in need of immediate assistance.

Attempts to expose the invaders to space have back-fired... They disabled our life support systems before teleporting away and we are unable to re-pressurise those sectors... We've already sent two crew members in there, and both suffocated before they could even begin repairs... Fires are raging out of control, consuming even more oxygen that we don't have...

Is anybody out there? We are carrying information vital to the Federation.

Please respond!




Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
"Just in time for the holidays, NASA's Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn for more than eight years now, has delivered another glorious, backlit view of the planet Saturn and its rings. (Click to read more and get a larger view...)"

Happy holidays, you lot.

Buy yourself something nice and we'll say that it's from me.


Played It: Zeno Clash

Zeno Clash is a game about punching people. Punching people and sometimes shooting them. Or hitting them with a club.

Our anti-hero and puncher-in-chief is Ghat, a tattooed human on the run from his multi-species brothers and sisters after murdering their hermaphrodite Father-Mother. Together with his horned girlfriend, he flees civilisation: past the territory of the voluntarily insane Corwid of the Free; pursued through a desert by a squirrel-bomb throwing bounty hunter; to the End of the World, where he awakens a strange and morally ambiguous entity of incredible power...

Zeno Clash is delightfully barmy, unrepentantly imaginative and daringly original. It's also unpretentious, good-humoured and colourful. I am, sadly, not the most comfortable with beat-em-ups, but if I were this might actually be the perfect game for my tastes.


Played It: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The original UFO: Enemy Unknown is one of my all-time favourite games and - in my opinion at least - this modern version is a fantastic update. I wouldn’t be one to say that it’s better than the original, but it does manage to improve on it in a few areas.

Being able to customise your troops, see people milling about inside your base and view the battlefield from more human angles are welcome additions. It’s just a shame that like so many of these updates (see also Deus Ex: Human Revolution) the original is actually larger and more complex. This new version also, and this is probably the clincher for me, lacks that unremittingly bleak atmosphere that made the whole world feel endangered by inscrutable alien foes.

It’s still a solid, addictive and challenging strategy game, though, and hopefully a chink in the armour of the overwhelming lack of diversity we've seen in terms of big budget game genres.



Old? Me?

Do old people get awesome birthday presents like South African Adventure Time DVDs and retro consoles?


"You never know."

If you're not already interested in this film for other (old, Austrian) reasons, you may like to know, if you don't already, that Kim Jee-woon is the director.

If that name seems familiar, it's because he also brought us A Bittersweet Life and The Good, The Bad, The Weird - two of my favourite films.


Played It: Spec Ops: The Line

Although some of the initial discussion suggested that Spec Ops: The Line might be a game to handle war well and realistically, by now I think it's commonly accepted that this is more a deconstruction of the gung-ho portrayal of war in modern military shooters.

The order of the day is running through pretty much every standard trope in the big book of generic war game Lego components and making you feel really, really bad about everything you do. This is the game to take our culture's current most popular role for the player character - the tough guy who kills hundreds of people for what he believes to be right - and actually tries to characterise him appropriately. Not to spoil too much, but it turns out he's probably a guy with a few character defects, to say the least.

There are debates to be had about whether this is a game that tries to have its cake and eat it - to titillate with violence and military fetishism, only to absolve itself of responsibility with a fancy plot. Whichever side of the fence you fall on (and for me I think the gameplay and plot interwove very nicely) Spec Ops: The Line is certainly thought-provoking. Not a perfect game, by any means, but ample proof that both the will and the ability exist to make video games that tackle weighty themes with a modicum of complexity.


Played it: Sleeping Dogs

Drawing inspiration from movies like Infernal Affairs and City On Fire, Sleeping Dogs puts you in the role of an undercover cop infiltrating Hong Kong triads and getting tangled up in a web of conflicting loyalties.

Structurally and thematically it seems to draw a lot from Red Dead Redemption. But while RDR's John Marston is fleshed out beautifully as a man who wants to reform even while events (quite possibly including the maniac holding the controller) continue to force him to do bad things, the pacing in Sleeping Dogs feels slightly off, the stakes rise unevenly and the twists are telegraphed far in advance.

So that just leaves us speeding around a virtual Hong Kong in flashy cars, getting into fist fights, blowing things up in slow motion and singing karaoke. Nothing in this game is original, that's true, but it's all slickly implemented, consistently engaging and good rollicking fun.


Played it: Binary Domain

When it comes to Japanese studios attempting to pander to occidental audiences with their own limp take on over-saturated, traditionally Western genres, Binary Domain seems like it should be exhibit A. We have here a cover shooter in which a shaven-headed American soldier blasts his way through a futuristic city supported by a cast of national stereotypes. It's rather unsurprising that this game has largely sunk without a trace - and considerably more surprising that this is actually a bit of a shame.

The basic gameplay mechanics are extremely solid. The cover system - which is both the defining trait of the cover shooter genre and the part that's most frequently implemented poorly - works smoothly. The enemies are a variety of robots which are great fun to blow to bits, capable of adapting to damage (at one point one still came at me after I blew both its arms off) and understandably prepared to risk their metal necks. This is not a game where you can pick a good piece of cover and spend the whole battle popping in and out of it. Enemies will flank and rush you. Pushing forwards is often safer than hunkering down and being outmanoeuvred.

Pulling your weight is also important to the game's trust mechanic, where if the other characters think you're rubbish (or possibly even a secret robot), the story will take a turn for the worse at key points. And although the dialogue is predictably cheesy and the characters are well-worn stereotypes, Binary Domain does actually have a surprisingly cool story and setting.

This is a future where rising sea levels have all but wiped out the world's major cities. Advanced robot workers have enabled the rich to build gleaming new metropolises on top of the old ruins, while the poor still languish below. When it's discovered that advanced robots are impersonating humans, that aforementioned team of national stereotypes is dispatched to the once more isolationist Japan, infiltrating the lower levels of Tokyo and ascending to its high tech heights with the help of the criminal underclass - all while under attack from the local robot militia.

Naturally there's some attempt to cover Blade Runner style themes, with a sprinkling of Alex Proyas' I Robot and Hideo Kojima's Snatcher, and at times it manages to be very effective. One scene in which some yakuza brutalise a man who hadn't realised he was a robot, for example, really stuck with me. The architecture of the city, both above and below, is also properly awesome, and gorgeously depicted.

For all that, though, this is still Yet Another Cover Shooter. The developers show that they've learned well from Western games, and in the case of the boss fights demonstrate a subject where they should probably be giving the lessons, but this is a refinement of the genre - not a reinvention or even reinvigoration. If you're bored with this kind of game by now, Binary Domain probably won't be able to revitalise your interest. Familiarity aside, if you like action games and science fiction, do give this some consideration.


Played it: The Last Story

Along with Xenoblade Chronicles, this is the one of the handful of innovative Japanese role playing games that have been released in the twilight years of the Wii. Where Xenoblade streamlined and opened up the traditional JRPG formula in a highly original setting, The Last Story opts for more of a stock medieval fantasy land, while also ripping out all of the gameplay you might expect and replacing it with transplants from completely different genres.

The result is something that could best be described as a spiky-haired Gears of War with an emphasis on close combat and with the ability to issue orders to your AI team mates. This form of gameplay is actually enhanced by the linear, scripted nature of each quest and side-quest, with every battle carefully crafted to give you a different challenge. The bosses in particular require a high degree of strategy, and developing effective tactics to beat them is very satisfying.

Although I did grow to like all the characters as the game progressed, the script is rather weak, relying on the cast delivering lengthy explanations of motives that fail to flow naturally from their reaction to events. These are nicely entertaining heroes to send battling through dungeons, but most attempts to develop them and embroil them in drama manage to feel both forced and predictable.

One surprising high point of the game is the setting of Lazulis City, the hub that the heroes return to between dungeon crawls in order to buy and upgrade items and find optional side quests. At first this may seem like a disappointing stock medieval city, especially compared to the more imaginative settings we often get from JPGs. As you spend time inhabiting it, though, you find a complex geography of streets and alleys, populated with plenty of people (and the odd cat). Shouldering your way through a busy shopping district, or finding a quiet courtyard where you can sit and listen to an old man's nostalgic stories, Lazulis City feels vibrant and alive where many RPG cities are static and sparsely populated.

The Last Story emphasises a narrative that should be a lot tighter, with stronger character motivation and less exposition, but it's still a solid action RPG with a surprisingly interesting setting.


Read it: Bryan Q. Miller's Batgirl Rising; The Flood; The Lesson

The problem with DC superhero comics is one of impenetrability. The characters themselves are great, but the stories told with them rely on knowledge of complex backstory, are frequently told over multiple concurrent titles, and are subject to editorial fiats more about repositioning franchises in the marketplace than creating solid drama. Coming from a background of television, writer Bryan Q. Miller is well versed in telling a story in linked but approachable episodes, while dancing to the tune of the men in suits - and the result is very much the superhero comic I have been looking for.

Miller focuses on a solid, entertaining story of costumed crime fighting, developing new Batgirl Stephanie Brown as a character, and fleshing out strong relationships with her unknowing mother and a sceptical Oracle. Where events from other comics intrude on this core, Miller actively skirts around the foreign plot, turning what could be unwelcome interruptions into fun diversions. This strong sense of a unified story, so uncommon in DC comics, extends to the entire series exhibiting a beginning, a middle and an end. Compared to the usual sense of incompletion, the three collected editions of Miller's run on Batgirl form a uniquely satisfying whole, and turning the last page provides an actual sense of closure for a character who (I believe) has yet to appear in the new DC continuity.

A variety of artists contribute to the visuals, leading to an uneven quality, but things are always colourful and there are enough contributions from the awesome Dustin Nguyen to keep me happy. Pere Perez, who pencils the final issue, also pulls out all the stops for a spectacular few final pages.

Of all the DC books I've read (admittedly only a tiny fraction of those published), these are the three that I'm happy to recommend unreservedly.


Played it: NeverDead

NeverDead is a game with enormous potential, but which manages to flub pretty much every one of its selling points and remain struggling to escape mediocrity.

The promise of playing as an immortal character who remains in control of his severed body-parts is alluring, but in practice the game is frustrating even on its easiest difficulty setting. You spend too much time gathering together your disparate bits only to lose them again right away, all while menaced by a breed of annoying, endlessly respawning monster that is more than capable of inflicting you with a game over screen.

The setting is an intriguing Japanese fantasy world that has progressed from spiky-haired heroes to sleazy corporate commercialism, but we never find out much about it beyond the fact that getting anywhere requires killing an undisclosed number of demons to banish various force fields.

And the characters are fun and likeable, if archetypal, but used for little more than cheap laughs and obvious melodrama. Anti-hero Bryce in particular is refreshingly depicted as quite the underdog, but the few attempts to capitalise on any sympathy we may have for him fall rather flat.

NeverDead is certainly far from a bad game, but in a way it's almost more disappointing than that: the seed of a cult hit that instead grew into something improbably unremarkable.


Played it: Xenoblade Chronicles

It's taken me almost a year to get through Xenoblade Chronicles, completing the better part of its over 400 side quests and fully rebuilding a ruined city. There are still a few quests, hidden skill branches, optional bosses and rare items I've yet to tick off, but I feel that I've fully enjoyed the game without needing to scrape the sweet-but-crusty residue out of the bottom. Or not for a while yet, anyway.

Over 160 hours of gameplay later, I stand by my original opinion that this is the Japanese Role Playing Game we've been waiting for: the one that keeps everything that makes a JRPG a JRPG - the imaginative fantasy setting that mixes magic and technology, the beautiful heroes in outrageous fashions, the pacifistic and humanistic themes that nevertheless result in epic battles - but while clearly having learned the lessons of more open, less heavy-handed Western RPGs.

Xenoblade Chronicles is a progressive JRPG, and an enormous open-world adventure. Its only significant flaw is that its size and openness extend beyond what its otherwise laudable improvements are readily able to cope with. Exploring the huge, memorable, beautifully designed landscapes and discovering new things is one of the chief appeals of the game, but encountering numerous side quests that require finding a particular minor character in one sprawling level, who you've probably already met (but you can't remember exactly where or when) gets pretty tedious, and tracking down the items needed to rebuild that aforementioned city will be impossible without a detailed guide for all but the most dedicated players.

Where this game really triumphs is in its world building, an aspect of fiction that video games are uniquely qualified for. Here we get the opportunity to explore an imaginative, colourful and heartfelt world, infused with its own consistent mythology and replete with interacting cultures and conflicting characters. We get a sense for its inhabitants, and their relationships (positive or otherwise) are linked explicitly with the gameplay. The chemistry between the main party of heroes is also made central to the story - not uncommon in JRPGs, but here developed with particular care, good humour and humanity.

For me, this is the best JRPG I've played since Chrono Trigger, and probably a game that I'll remember as one of my all-time favourites. But, as with its otherwise awesome interface, its incredible size works against it. If you find that you love it, Xenoblade Chronicles will consume your time and leave you with a sense of having spent it somewhere wonderful (in the literal sense of the word). Anything less than that, though, and it's probably just too big to swallow.


For Your Consideration

I think you should go see The Raid.


Played it: Metal Gear Solid 3 (HD Edition)

The year is 1964, and CIA infiltrator Naked Snake has been sent into the Russian wilderness to extract a defecting scientist. When Snake is betrayed by his mentor, "the Boss", and her elite Cobra Unit, he finds the US threatening him with execution, while the Soviet Union teeters on the brink of nuclear war.

If Metal Gear Solid 2 saw the stealth component of the series properly mature (bearing in mind that the first game in the series was released at about the same time as Thief: The Dark Project), Metal Gear Solid 3 is where this gameplay truly comes into its own. The radar is de-emphasised in favour of proper control over the camera. Camouflage, silencers that degrade over time and a made-up martial art called CQC are thrown into the mix. Things work differently enough from the previous two games that I pretty much had to learn the rules all over again, but, as always, while things may not be very realistic, they are consistent, entertaining and open to possibilities.

As you collect equipment, the number of different ways you have to get through each area will increase dramatically. You can avoid, kill, tranquillize and knock out enemies, interrogate them, jam their radios, distract them, throw venomous snakes at them... And there are a lot of areas to get through. Sneaking is now what you'll spend the vast majority of the game doing: through numerous large, open environments. This game dwarfs its predecessors, while still being packed full of little details and taking you through an absurdly wide variety of terrain types.

In addition to the refined gameplay, Metal Gear Solid 3 also tightens up the storytelling. Yes, there are still plenty of lengthy cut scenes - but they're considerably more focused, and with a lot less bald exposition. Nowhere is this more apparent than the boss fights with the various members of the Cobra Unit, who are left intriguingly mysterious - while bosses of previous games in the series usually poured their hearts out in lengthy, demystifying monologues. Elsewhere there's more of an emphasis on action, humour and actually getting to the point.

The cartoon-ish, sometimes supernatural characters are always interesting and frequently likeable. Ocelot, for example, who had been becoming more and more of a cackling, moustache-twirling villain, is here an ambiguous youth with conflicting ideals of honour and loyalty. The Boss is an awesome and sympathetic antagonist, making you hotly anticipate the final showdown, even as you understand Snake's reluctance to fight her. Snake himself is equal parts bad-ass super soldier and ignorant comic relief. And for all that many games may moralise about the ethics of war, it's difficult to imagine a more organic incentive not to kill your opponents than the creepy and blackly comic boss fight/puzzle that pits you against "spirit medium soldier" the Sorrow.

In one word: I found this game fun. The straightforward but flexible gameplay, the outrageous story, the unforgettable characters and their idiosyncratic boss fights, the explosive finale - everything adds up to an enjoyable and surprisingly unique whole.


Posty Posty

I'm busy for a couple of weeks, and everything goes and changes on me. At least it seems we finally have cuts in Blogger.


Played it: Metal Gear Solid 2 (HD Edition)

I loved the first Metal Gear Solid game for its unique atmosphere, memorable boss fights and endlessly inventive gameplay, but one thing I always thought it fell short on was the supposedly prominent sneaking element. There were only a handful of areas to sneak through, and once you learned the right strategies it was trivial to traverse them (arguably a good thing given the amount of backtracking). Yes, the game mixed things up occasionally – giving you a cold that alerts the enemy when you sneeze, or forcing you to figure out which guard is a disguised ally - but for the most part it was the bosses and action sequences that made the biggest impression.

Starting Metal Gear Solid 2, my immediate impression was that the stealth gameplay had finally matured. There are a large variety of ways to kill guards, knock them out or avoid them, and they've learned plenty of new tricks themselves for detecting your presence. This upgrade isn't one of realism, I should add, so although downed baddies no longer blink out of existence, if you want an assault rifle you'll have to find it in a floating power up rather than take one off the enemy. But that's all well and good: the Metal Gear games have never been about realism, but about presenting a world with a consistent set of video game-ish rules that even spill over into the story (where many game stories seem terrified of acknowledging how the world they're set in actually works).

So the stealth is pretty fantastic, equalling the Thief series in my estimation, and the boss fights and action sequences are naturally great as well, even if several seem analogous to parts of the previous game. I even quite liked the early twist in the story that enraged many fans at the time of the original release. Where the game did start to quickly burn through the good will it had earned was the ending. I found the final boss fight really fun, but it's sandwiched between two very lengthy cut scenes that are pretty much solid exposition.

I don't know, I really did like this game a lot, but I was hoping for a definitive Metal Gear Solid experience, and I still don't think this quite got there. The self-deconstruction is either very clever or utterly self-defeating; Big Shell is a cool location but the slightly wonky tone stops it from obtaining the epic atmosphere of Shadow Moses Island; and Dead Cell are a reasonable substitute for FOXHOUND but not quite as memorable.

Perhaps I would find what I looking for in Metal Gear Solid 3... (Spoiler: I did.)


Played it: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Whether it's visuals or audio, you'll be hard pressed to find a more sumptuously atmospheric game than Deus Ex: Human Revolution. This is a future of audacious mega-structures, human augmentation, renaissance fashion - and, naturally, a cyberpunk underbelly of lofty goals turned sour. If nothing else, this game is a treat to explore.

Ignoring the second Deus Ex game (a mediocre shooter that might have been well received if not for its supposed heritage), and comparing it to the first, Human Revolution has more satisfying and consistent gameplay, and a tighter, more natural storyline. But the environments of the first game are still much larger and allow for more emergent styles of play. It's a shame that the focus on technically superior graphics above all else is leading to smaller and narrower games, even as platforms increase exponentially in power.

But despite a few hiccups (see also: the out-sourced and utterly incongruous boss fights), this is a first-class game that combines old-school ambition with a more refined sensibility.


Played It: Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare

The over-saturation of zombies these past few years is often remarked upon, and add-ons shoe-horning them into otherwise unrelated games are far from uncommon. But this downloadable side-story (which I bought as a stand-alone disc), depicting the sudden intrusion of a zombie plague into the waning wild west of Red Dead Redemption, is one of those instances where two disparate parts mix to produce a strong, internally consistent tone.

The dry humour and moral ambiguity of the original game lead to an unusually Romero-esque zombie apocalypse, where the dead show glimpses of humanity, pathos and slapstick. In keeping with the God-fearing setting, they also have a decidedly supernatural element, displaying inhuman strength and moaning in creepy, distorted voices. Coupled with a considerable resistance to being shot anywhere other than the head, an encounter with a horde of these zombies carries genuine threat. In every way, these are far from the usual cannon fodder that we've come to expect from the video game undead.

Like the game it branches off from, Undead Nightmare excels at allowing you to inhabit its creepy world, oozing atmosphere and character, but, sadly, it's not really sure what to actually do with the setting. The main storyline involves finding the various characters from the original story and seeing how they've adapted to the dead rising from their graves. This bit is superbly handled, but once that's over we get only a highly unsatisfying ending that is then immediately undone in order to provide the new game+.

This whole new take on the original game is an astounding endeavour even so, but given how the "real" story so adeptly characterised its protagonist over the game and provided a note-perfect resolution, this otherwise entertaining spin-off can't help but suffer in comparison.



For a while now, it's been clear that my Space Cat has been getting old, but he's always kept his kittenish charm and seemed full of life.

Over the weekend he took a sudden turn for the worse, and while travelling to the vet's this morning, curled up in a fluffy ball, he peacefully passed away.

He's been one of my best friends for over fifteen years now. Although his departure isn't unexpected at this point in his life, it leaves a big hole in my life.

I'll miss him.


A Squirrel

How ya doin', squirrel?


New Year's Resolutions

1. Write a novel.