Monthly Archives: November 2013

Habits

My gaming habits have drastically changed recently. Since the arrival of a baby boy 6 months ago those late night BF4 sessions have disappeared and I am constantly looking at the length of games, not to see how long they are but to see how short they are. I don’t have the time or opportunity to sink 50 hours into an RPG but if I can get a game done in a couple of hours then I am more than happy. Hotline Miami and To The Moon have been two recent purchases that have given me a little gaming buzz and then let me move on to the next thing.

This has led me to a bit of a revelation that there is no right or wrong way to enjoy games. This may seem obvious but there does seem to be a little snobbery embedded in the self-titled hardcore gaming community. For example I am a big fan of gaming podcasts and regularly listen to the Videogamer.com podcast. It’s a great listen but the host, Matt Lees, is one of those that keeps trying to tell me that I am gaming wrong. Playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown on Classic Ironman is not THE way to play the game but A way to play it. I am in no way interested in playing Dark Souls because sudden and unavoidable deaths forcing me to replay the same hour of a game sounds excruciating.

Now it may seem like I am picking on poor Matt Lees (which I am) but for some, even if we did have the chance, we wouldn’t want to throw ourselves into a game that would punish us at every turn. It’s like there is this false idea that the harder the game that we play, the purer a gamer we are which is bullshit. Firaxis Games put all kinds of difficulty options in XCOM to cater for all play styles and they called them Easy, Normal, Classic and Impossible not Baby, Less Baby, True Gamer and Best Gamer. A game being hard is not a positive feature of a game, it’s just a feature.

Games used to be harder and blind nostalgia might lead us to think that games used to be better thus harder is better but back in the days of the Commodore 64 or the NES there were no checkpoints and saves only existed in very specific ways (like The Legend of Zelda’s amazing internal battery). This meant starting a game over and over and doing the same parts hundreds of times. I don’t want to go back there. I must have started the first level of Battletoads about 200 times but only started the last level once. I still didn’t finish it.

So if someone wants to blast through Call of Duty: Ghosts on easy then why the hell not. I would find the lack of challenge a bit dull but then I played To The Moon which is essentially an interactive book. At the moment I am playing Dark Void which is the very definition of mediocre but it has a jet pack. These are experiences that are not one person’s definition of true gamng but who cares. Let’s just enjoy it.

Tomb Raider Retrospective

The Playstation was a console for grown-ups. It’s flagship titles were not populated by smiling plumbers or colourful hedgehogs but by sleek vehicles and tough heroes. PSOnes were set up in nightclubs so that clubbers could play WipeOut which featured the same throbbing techno they were dancing to, hardly the kind of place you would find a child. Gran Turismo featured driving tests and car customisation instead of the usual roster of wacky racers and explosive power-ups. Even the more light-hearted Abes Oddysee carried a message about environmental sustainability amongst the fart jokes. Young gamers had become adults and Sony provided a console to take us into our early twenties with Lara Croft was a perfect figurehead.

It was at an out of the way Dixons that I finally got my hands on Lara. I had managed to get a pretty sweet deal on a console bundle that included a handful of games including V-Rally and Colony Wars but it would be Tomb Raider that would be the most enduring title from that promising line-up. Having heard a lot about the game already I was keen to try it and was impressed from the start. Although the flickering PSOne visuals look incredibly rudimentary now, the barren rock textures and sharp-edged animals looked magical to me in 1998. The game starts on a snowy mountain cave and right from the outset the atmosphere captures the creepiest parts of Indiana Jones that were undoubtedly it’s inspiration.

1: The Bear After getting charged by a couple of wimpy bats and nimble wolves I come to an area with a small pool in the centre which I will need to swim down into. A quick look around for treasure and health packs (classic gaming nonsense – who leaves these everywhere) reveals an enclosure for a large animal. I jump off my sofa as the bear jumps on Lara. A retreat to the pool is a must. (Note: it took a good 15 years to get a better bear moment than this when Condemned 2 really gave me a shock).

Tomb Raider Wolves

Tomb Raider was a tough game for me. Enemies like the bear were very powerful and Lara’s fragility became even more a problem as bears made way for gorillas, dinosaurs and slender mummified demons but Laras gymnastics evened the fight and bouncing around these 3D arenas was a pleasure. Max Payne featured dramatic leaps but they were strictly limited whereas Lara could bound around without penalty. Lara was tough, a tough woman no less and one who definitely held her own in a man’s world. There’s no doubt that she has been portrayed as the pin-up girl but it’s also important to remember that she had a strong and independent character.

2: The T-Rex It’s a bit of a surprise to get rushed by a couple of Velociraptors but I manage to fight them off and after some further exploration I find a shotgun and a few shells behind a stunning waterfall. When I wander into a massive underground cavern the screen starts to tremble, then shake, then an enormous Tyrannosaurus appears out of the gloom heading straight at me. I panic and start to somersault backwards firing off shotgun shells in a desperate attempt to flee to safety and inflict some damage on the beast. Eventually it slumps to the ground and I realise I have just managed to survive a close call with an enormous dinosaur.

Tomb Raider Water Room

So the game had some tough fights but it taxed the brain as well. Puzzles were a lot different to how they are in similar games today and Tomb Raider had little or no signposting so could require a lot of trial and error to get through. I remember one particular room (Tomb Raiders very own water temple) that took a lot of headscratching and even getting around these enormous riddles could prove tricky.  However it was worth remembering the game had a deceptively simple set up and was essentially built on blocks much like Minecraft is. This meant that you could measure how far that jump could get you (two blocks for a standing jump and three with a run-up) and work out whether to take the risk or not. Plus all those dusty corridors and creaking machinery really made you feel you were getting deeper into the secret lairs off a long dead civilisation.

3: The Sphinx After a long series of corridors and block climbing I see a hole in the ceiling. As I climb out, the camera pans back, and back, and back and just keeps going. I realise I am standing on top of a full sized sphinx which has been built inside a colossal cavern. The scale is immense and below I can see one of those mummified demons gambolling about like a little white rabbit. Hes not though, hes a 7 foot monster.

Tomb Raider Sphinx

Tomb Raider had plenty of great moments and by the end of Lara’s adventure you had battled, thought and jumped your way around ancient curses and greedy mercenaries. Tomb Raider was a terrific achievement in pure game mechanics but it also created a virtual star for a grown-up crowd. So much so that Lara became the face of Lucozade for a while. The adverts were terrible but the principle was very important. This wasn’t a cartoon character selling cereal or toys. This was the first true media personality that was born from a videogame. Tomb Raider may have been standing on the shoulders of 3D giants like Mario 64 or Banjo Kazooie but it was a grown up game on a brand new grown up console. As gamers came of age, so did their consoles, games and image and at the spearhead of this maturing revolution was the fantastic Tomb Raider.

Next Gen Woes Solved

Times are tough for us console gamers. We have to buy a machine that will sit under the TV for 6 months like a dumb gorilla until Titanfall comes out and in the meantime play Call Of Duty: Ghosts in 720p. Bleurgh. We will be forced to spend money on this generations Perfect Dark Zero to justify getting it in the first place or even get the few indie games that will tide us over until those monsters at Ubisoft let us get hold of Watch Dogs, indie games that use a fraction of the infinite power of a cloud or all those RAMs. Whatever that means. Bullied into buying a machine that requires a day one patch just to enable blu-ray playback or the ability to turn off the internets. Why are you making me do this Sony? Stop your Chinese burn Microsoft. It hurts. Wa, waa, waaaaaahh!

If only there was some way to avoid crippling buyers remorse this November. What’s that you say? I DON’T have to buy a new console? But, but, but, me is gamer, me buy new shiny box! Fetch me that Morpheus bloke because the rules of this world just went red-pill crazy!

I have heard a lot of moaning about the new gen across various podcasts, articles and forums but what some don’t seem to realise is that you don’t actually have to buy a new console if it doesn’t make you happy. Of course there are plenty of people who are genuinely excited about a new piece of kit and are looking forward to the new consoles but they are not kidding themselves that there will immediately be some massive revolution. They just want to be a part of it. However for some it seems like some cross-bearing badge of honour to hate the next-gen while still spending money on it, people who have considered cancelling their pre-order for such feeble reasons as it not having any games they want on it. They stuck to their guns though. Well done, I guess.

I understand wanting to be a part of a new wave of gaming but for me, and this is my own personal feeling, there is plenty to do on the last gen. In fact, I am trying to find the best way to play Majora’s Mask which was about three generations ago. So if you are not sure you want a new console then just don’t buy one. Wait until it’s cheaper, there are more games and you have exhausted what you already have. Is that so bad?

Soul Reaver Retrospective

There is a point in Soul Reaver where protagonist Raziel moves from the spectral realm into the physical one. He shifts from the land of the dead into a world of flesh and blood. Ironically this is the moment that Soul Reaver came alive to me. A Link to the Past introduced the idea of passing between two simultaneous worlds but it was not done anywhere nearly as spectacularly as in Soul Reaver. Rocks around you squirm into their new form, cracks in the wall become gaping caves, ghoulish mist becomes cool water and life materializes in front of you. It’s an amazing transition. There is no fade to black, no lazy palette swap, but a living, writhing move between two distinct vistas. Further into the game you go back and forth between the decaying world of Nosgoth and it’s twisted spirit realm and every time it looks phenomenal. When I saw that I knew that games couldn’t get any better (I used to get that feeling a lot).

Soul Reaver is 14 years old this year and I am still impressed by that shift. At the time I would jump into water just so that Raziel would lose his physical body and move into the spirit realm, then collect a few souls and use a portal to go back. Then I would do it again. It was seamless. There were never any breaks in travelling around either as the world was one continuous space instead of being broken up into areas, you only ever saw a loading screen once. Even ten years later the Fable series couldn’t match that feat. There were telltale joins in the odd s-shaped tunnels that gave the PSOne a bit of room to load up the next region but it still felt incredible.

So a great world then, but what about the story within it? On the surface it seems like a simple revenge story, handsome vampire lieutenant Raziel (complete with Peter Andre haircut circa 1996) is thrown into the Lake of the Dead by jealous leader Kain and revived 500 years later with a need to absorb souls instead of drink human blood (but haircut intact). He swiftly sets out to kill his former leader but soon discovers that the world is not the place he left it in and that perhaps there are bigger motives surrounding his revival. Amy Hennig of Uncharted fame created the story (as well as producing and directing the game) and it is far superior to any action game of it’s time and possibly since, her experience on RPGs really shining through. Sequels would massively increase the complexity of Raziels tale, occasionally to the point of absurdity (time travel anyone?) but the first played it’s twists and turns in a nicely timed manner…. Except the ending.

How disappointed that end left me. A new character ‘deus ex machina’s his way into the last cutscene and if it feels like a big set up for a sequel then that’s because it is. What makes this more frustrating is the final lacklustre encounter with Kain which is nowhere near the quality and scale of previous boss encounters. An additional boss was cut from the final game due to lack of time which may explain the spotty finale and it’s a shame that for what is an incredibly well paced title there is a pronounced rough spot, especially one at the climax.

However, just as Raziel absorbed the souls and abilities of greats around him, Crystal Dynamics absorbed the most amazing elements of gaming at the time. Titles like Zelda, Metroid, Tomb Raider and Blood Omen are not just poured into an empty vessel but folded into a great body of art direction and ambition. Soul Reaver is no imitator but an innovator, full of the inspiration and promise of great works of digital excellence and making a creature that is more than the sum of it’s parts. If ever there was a game that deserved an HD remake it’s this. I just hope it doesn’t get forgotten as a footnote in the history of the PSOne.