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28 September, 2013
by philip
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Eurogamer Expo day 2

This is exceptionally late, so details and nuances have been lost to many nights’ sleep.

Friday, as you might imagine, started a lot smoother than the previous day, though not entirely without issue with the super pass advanced access. It wasn’t access. But that’s by the by.

The important question of the morning was which game to pick first. This question dominated the previous evening’s meal and time spent in the queue. Finally, it was settled: Mario Kart 8. I’m a big fan of the original Super Mario Kart and the GameCube’s Double Dash, but beyond those games I’ve not played that many so I was looking forward to seeing it all in fancyvision. It really does look great in HD.

Due to the weirdness that is the Wii U’s input options, one of the two players had the U’s gamepad which features either tilt or analogue stick control, while the second player had a Wiimote on tilt control only. M’colleague Matthew had far more experience with Mario Kart Wii so was far more comfortable with with the tilt controls while I much favoured the more typical analogue nub. The game itself plays out like more Mario Kart, which is far from a complaint. The new features like flying and turning upside down keep it fresh along with the shiny.

While we were at the Nintendo booth, we decided to get another stamp and thus get a spin on the swag wheel. Rather than pick the nearest game that had minimal queues, we picked something genuinely interesting and that game was Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Notch up number two on the list of Zelda games I’ve played. Was it a match for Wind Waker
? No. It was frustrating. There’s a 3D-2D switch thing that I failed to understand and some buttons that didn’t look like buttons that you were supposed hit. Which I didn’t.

After having my t-shirt questioned, I departed to spin the wheel. The result? Zelda stickers. Oh well, you can’t win all the plushies all the time.

Despite the new generation of consoles being the stars of the show, one game I was really excited to try was Sir, You Are Being Hunted by the dapper chaps over at Big Robot. It’s a survival game that pits you in randomly generated landscapes where robots (presumably big ones) are trying to hunt you. I played for 15 or so minutes and eventually got shot while ineffectually hiding in some marshland. Even after I was recognised as an inverter and helped to set the controls.

My brief and ultimately tragic play on the game put it into my “must buy, but when I’m not overwhelmed by unfinished and new games” list, the chat afterwards with head (and only) programmer of the game afterwards really impressed me. A lot of the booths at the expo were staffed by PR people or (apparently) hired hands, this was the entire company showing off its creation and happy to give you a hand, explain the game in great depth or just chat about games in general.

They even posed for a lovely photo. Thanks, Big Robot. Thobot.

Big Robot

I dragged the party back to GT6 after that and made them both drive the Silverstone National circuit in the competition. Nick, who it turns out is a natural racer, did a very respectable time of a 1:02 never having, to my knowledge, driven the track before and certainly with no prior practice. Impressed doesn’t begin to cover it. Matthew also did a very decent time, around the 1:08 mark. Personally, I improved on my previous time on the first lap, but overdid it on the second and didn’t get close to the hotting pace.

Obligatory racing stuff done, it was time for more hardware. Oculus Rift, the fancy VR headset like we had in the 90s only better, had a very well hidden stand off in the corner somewhere, so we ended up queueing for quite a while to try it out an independent stand that just had it there. Thankfully it was set up with short-sighted lenses so I could use it without my glasses. It was lower-resolution than I was expecting but the effect was amazing and definitely immersive. At one point in the demo I walked into a wall and felt a distinct feeling of embarrassment like you would if you’d done it in real life.

Afterwards I did feel a bit woozy like I’d just stepped off a boat. Matthew cut his demo short as he’s susceptible to motion sickness and these symptoms are related to that, so I suspect it’s something you get used to.

By this point we’d seen most of what we wanted to see, so a change of pace was decided upon. We had a stroll around the retro zone, seeing and playing some obscure and classic games of times past. Popular titles included RoboCop on the Spectrum, Super Sprint on the Atari ST and some SNK beat ‘em up in Japanese. However, some joker decided to do this:

a600

You may need to be well into your 30s to notice the extreme insult present in that picture.

The rest of the day was spent in the board game section of the show. We played two games: a snap-like card game that I was terrible at and found deeply frustrating; I can’t remember what it was called and I never want to find out.

catan

Much better was Settlers of Catan. I’d heard of this before, but never tried it out. With the three of us plus a woman from the company, we had the ideal number to play. It’s is an empire building/resource management/trading game where you take turns, gain resources, build roads, argue over resources and eventually declare a winner. I won’t go into the games details too much, but we all declared it our game of the show and has inspired us to investigate more board games.

The photo above is a fake. We’d finished the game and our host was packing away when I asked to get the picture so the board was quickly reassembled and acting took place. Result.

eurogamer-logo

28 September, 2013
by philip
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Eurogamer Expo day 1 part 2

Nando’s provided both chicken-based nourishment and a welcome escape from the jangled nerves of the morning’s mayhem. It acted as a break point to such a degree that the morning felt like a different day. Finally over, let’s play some good games and get some free stuff.

The first of the free stuff came courtesy of Nintendo, at a price. That price was playing a game on both the 3DS and Wii U. We decided that the Mario Kart 8 queue was a bit much, but next to it was Sonic on the 3DS. I’ve never been much of a 3D sonic fan and this can only be described as more 3D Sonic. Still, cards were stamped and the only thing standing between us and the wheel of swag was a Wii U game. That wasn’t Mario Kart.

One game that isn’t Mario Kart is Zelda Windwaker. Which, if memory serves, is the first Zelda game I’ve played. I’ve watched a couple of comparison videos between the GameCube original and this version, and it’s certainly a lot shinier and the art style is more appealing than the slightly more realistic games that followed. Mostly I watched, but played a bit of a combat tutorial. If the Wii U was cheaper I’d consider picking it up. Time will tell.

Our guide to the game was very enthusiastic about all things Zelda, so she was in the right place and also sported rather fetching Yoshi earrings. But who cares about that when there’s free stuff?! To the wheel! Most of the areas on the wheel would win Zelda stickers, which my colleagues dutifully won. I was more fortunate and got a Pikmin plushy, surely the daftest thing I would end the weekend with. OR WAS IT?

Being something of a The Sims fan (more than I would admit to, anyway), I was pretty keen on checking out The Sims 4. At last year’s show I was impressed by the short demo of SimCity that was on display. It was rough, but showed promise that unfortunately the final game failed to match. All that you could do with The Sims was use the new character creation tool, with its fancy slider free, ass grabbing interface. The people playing fell mostly into two camps: sexually frustrated men creating women with enormous breasts and young women playing virtual dress up. Me? I made a man with tiny upper arms and thighs and massive forearms and lower legs, then proceeded to laugh like a drain at my own monstrous creation.

Let’s talk racing games. Last year there were more racing rigs at the show with variations of wheels and seats and that event was instrumental in my purchase of my eon racing wheel and seat. This year there was only Gran Turismo 6 that sported a wheel. My first port of call was Forza 5, partly to play the game and partly to check out the controller.

First the game. There wasn’t much of a demo: A single lap around Leguna Seca in a choice of five or six cars, ranging from a Ford Focus to an Audi LMP1 race car. Despite the new fangled console, I was underwhelmed by the look of the game. Despite running at 1080p on the Xbox One, there were still jaggies and the landscape of the race track probably didn’t show the game at its best, though the cockpit view was very nicely detailed.

Trying out the new controllers was a must at the show, so getting hands on with the new Xbox joypad was something I was really looking forward to. While I generally prefer the PlayStation’s controller, Microsoft did an excellent job with the 360 and the One’s is a refinement of that. The main new feature is rumble in the triggers and it was used to nice effect in Forza, highlighting (presumably) wheel spin and brake locking on the respective trigger’s feedback.

Forza and Gran Turismo 6 were across from each other, like Cold War era USSR and Alaska. I imagine Sony’s racer as more Russian: older, slightly rougher around the edges and bitter at the New World upstart who gets all the glory. Specifically related to the show, GT6 had more going for it: more tracks to play, more cars, competitions and four machines with steering wheels, plus another identical unit at the Virgin Media booth.

Graphically, it stands up well despite the major hardware disadvantage from my perspective. The fun in the racing games is the thrill of the chase, and their competition brought out the best. Two laps around Silverstone National circuit in the Academy GT3 Nissan GTR for the prize of a track day or Playstation Vitas for the runners up. I did a respectable lap, just two tenths off first place.

The Virgin Media stand was also running a competition, this time on the International layout, where I was a couple of seconds off the top time, which had been set by someone on their fifth or sixth attempt, so no shame there either. Gran Turismo 6 impressed me and may be a sooner purchase than I originally thought. No doubt it still has that fundamental GTness that is a blessing and a curse.

We’re a diverse bunch of gamers, us who went down, and there’s not many games that cross our various tastes to become universally anticipated. It turns out that Watch Dogs is one of them. Assassin’s Creed 4 aside, it was the only game in the upstairs 18+ zone that we were keen to see. It was also quite alluring, being kept a secret in its own little room. There also wasn’t much of a queue so in we went. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a playable demo, rather a narrated demo played by one of the developers. Secrecy was high, with no filming or photos allowed. Despite the lack of interactivity and linear demonstration, it does look good. It will be nice to see a city I visited a couple of times in a former life, Chicago, rendered onscreen for me to hack and shoot at.

On the theme of former lives, Chaos Engine is one of my all-time favourite games and there’s a new HD version. Sadly I don’t think the demo was running with the remastered graphics and the Xbox 360 controller felt wrong to use with the game and the sound didn’t work. So I made my own sounds. NODE ACTIVATED.

Finally, during the final hour of the show, I visited the PlayStation area. First up was an indie title name Hohokum. It reminds me of a mix of Noby Noby Boy with a touch of Fl0w, played in a colourful 2D world. You control a line that moves around and does stuff. It’s relaxing, though not really a great demonstration of the new hardware. It also didn’t use a great deal of the controller, just the analogue sticks and face buttons.

Moving to the main area, I spied Driveclub. The first thing the game did was take your photo. The camera was angled up, so it was far from flattering, but once that was over the game proper started. It had a short course which gave the impression of being part of a larger free roaming world, but I can’t vouch for that. A points on the track, you were pitted against your “friends” – presumably other Eurogamer players – to beat a sector time or do a better drift. It’s not my kind of racing game by a long shot, but definitely fun.

The game has had some slack for being 30 frames per second instead of 60, but I’ve never been able to tell the difference. Anyway, it looked nice enough, but again there were jaggies but as alpha code I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. It did look very nice, with a nice reflection of the dashboard on the inside of the windscreen that shifted in relation to the angle of the sun.

It also proved a good test of the Dual Shock 4. I was spoiled by Forza’s trigger rumble, but overall impressions were great. It’s a bit wider than the Dual Shock 3, so no more clashing thumbs on the analogue sticks. L2 and R2 are a lot more precise and feature a more pronounced by still subtle trigger. It’s a massive improvement on the old one.

Finally, I played Rain on the PS3. It’s a nice stealth game that features an invisible character whose physicality is revealed by being rained upon. I didn’t play for long. Like a couple of other games at the show that will follow, I don’t think the environment does them justice, it’s a slow, thoughtful game and when I played it I felt like I was keeping my mates waiting, so gave up rather quickly. It does look really good though and one I’ll enjoy in the quiet darkness my own surroundings.

And that was day one.

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26 September, 2013
by philip
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Eurogamer Expo day 1 part 1

A day of two halves.

The day started early, though not as early as for some. Tales of camping out, walks. From distant train stations and early starts grew the closer you got from the front. We arrived at around 7.15am and met up with a friend who’d arrived at 6.

> wait

Time passes…

The main talk was of Call of Duty Ghosts (not featuring actual ghosts, to my disappointment). £180 worth of Prestige edition for the first 500 people to play the game. Eurogamer had changed their usual policy and super pass ticket holders, of which we were three, did not have early access on the Thursday due to Activision’s plan for the giveaway. The vibe was a patient one, enthusiasm was high, the weather was kind.

At around 8.30 we were moved to an access tunnel under Earls Court. Everyone was penned into a hot, stuffy corridor, jostled and crushed as more people were let into the area. Then left there. For an hour. Getting hotter and hotter, realising that here was no safe way out if the need arose. The mood, still positive and expectant was not tinged with worry. Where was all this leading?

> wait

Time passes…

From there we went up once again, to receive the wristbands that granted us the much sought after access to the sweet, sweet games. Then, more waiting, but at least with breathable air. While there was a great deal of talk about the health and safety implications of the previous situation, the mood lightened. Just minutes away! At this point a man, armed only with only a megaphone, tried to make himself heard across the massive space of people having their own conversations. With limited success.

Don’t run, he said. By this point the original order from the queue outside was rather shaken up, so we were ahead of people who were outside. Threats ensued that they were getting the game no matter what.

Finally we made it to the show floor. Penned in once again, with repeated warnings that running would result in expulsion. Once the gates opened, did people run? Of course they did.

Some ran. Some jogged. Some walked with great purpose. Presumably some decided to forgo the carnage and queue for less rewarding games. The runners knocked people over, banged into stands dislodging TVs from the walls to get further up the queue. At this point my friends and I were separated due to variations in velocity.

Me? I walked with some purpose and ended up at the arse end of the show near some pinball machines. Chances of getting the game seemed slim, but I was there so lets wait and see.

> wait

Time passes…

Finally, at t-shirted man appeared armed with cards. We were in the first 500 and the much earned prize would be ours. I joined one of my party and we eventually played the game.

My verdict? I wasn’t able to change the vertical orientation and I got shot. A lot. No stars.

500_Kimi cap front angle

11 September, 2013
by philip
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Forza Kimi, Forza Lotus

I’ve yet to reach either Lotus or Sauber (where Raikkonen started his F1 career) in the heroes and villains series, but today’s news is topical enough to warrant comment.

In the last few days, all the F1 media was confidently claiming the Kimi-Ferrari deal was done and with Massa announcing his retirement yesterday the scene was set for the Finn’s return and away from Lotus team he joined after Ferrari paid him handsomely not to drive for a year.

I really didn’t see it coming. After his return from a mediocre (to be generous) rally career, Raikkonen seemed like a person rejuvinated. Free from much of the press and sponsor demands and even having to walk the track on Thursdays, he seemed to focus on what he does well: drive a Formula 1 car really well. Sure, his qualifying performance frequently lacked that couple of tenths to be called great but his race pace was unequalled and he was the most reliable driver in the field, picking up 27 consecutive point finishes.

However, when it came to pushing for a genuine championship challenge, the car and sometimes team faltered just a little bit. On top of that, rumours of financial troubles and not paying for his services. So while he clearly had freedom at Lotus, sometimes success is more important. If Ferrari have a decent car they are well placed to take the 2014 constructors’ championship now that Red Bull have a driver lineup that is less experienced and unproven. Drivers’ championship? That depends a lot on Adrian Newey dropping the ball, I suspect.

Lotus have really impressed me in the last couple of years and have redeemed themselves in my eyes for past crimes and will certainly get my support in the future, hopefully with Nico Hulkenberg at the wheel.

PS, I bought a Lotus Kimi cap less than a week ago. €35 well spent.

williams-f1-logo

4 September, 2013
by philip
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Formula 1 heroes & villains – part 2 of 10

Williams F1

Formerly: BMW Williams

If the new teams can be said to be a disappointment, what word can we use for Williams’s current situation? Travesty? Tragic? Either work.

I’ve never been a massive Williams fan. During the 90s, along with Adrian Newey, were at the fore of technical development and produced some amazing cars and won a great many championships. Senna drove for them. Prost. Mansell. Names and moustaches that speak to us of a bygone age where teams had the freedom to innovate much more than they do today. They had some great characters, both on the pit wall and in the car and were the epitome of a pure-racing team. They didn’t make road cars. They didn’t sell clothes or energy drink. Producing an F1 car that was the class of the grid was what they did.

I’m not sure why they never gelled in the same way other teams did. They clearly had spirit and a desire to win and weren’t cooly corporate like McLaren, but never inspired me to get behind them in dark times. Now are surely the dark times, and my thoughts when it comes to Williams? Meh. A meh with a certain respect for their achievements, but nevertheless.

It’s not the drivers. Being British and a BBC viewer, I was spoon fed support for Mansell, Hill and Coulthard during the 90s and I did root for them at the time. It was the arrival of Villeneuve that really put the team on the map. I was only vaguely aware of his successes in Indycar, but he made quite an appearance when he nearly won his first race and was only denied due to a technical problem; he ended the season runner up. But it wasn’t just the pace that impressed. He had a refreshing and much missed attitude – unafraid to speak his mind and was always a pleasure to listen to in an interview. It’s a feature that will always endear a driver to me. Though the less said of his brief music career the better.

It’s not even Senna’s death. Tragic as it was, it didn’t have the impact it should have had. I was fairly new to F1 and wasn’t aware of how great a driver Senna was and wasn’t a massive fan of his to start with. It’s not a popular opinion, but there you go. He had that desire to win at all costs (costs like being honest and sporting) that, unlike being witty and eloquent, turns me right off. Other drivers have it and I feel the same for them.

But I digress. During the BMW years, they had Montoya. Like Jacques, not someone to hold back from a contentious opinion and very occasionally be a camerman-hitting, sweary latin jerk. He was also a much better driver than Villeneuve, despite his lack of a championship. We’ll come to his exit in a future post.

Since Juan Pablo left, it’s been pretty downhill. Finances clearly dictated the smörgåsbord of engine suppliers and pay drivers. The current lineup is markedly different. Future star Valtteri Bottas, unable to show his full potential due to a terrible car and loaded money man Pastor Maldonado. I loathe Maldonado. In races, he’s overly aggressive and barges his way past or into opponents’ cars; but it’s his antics in and after qualifying sessions where he used his car as a weapon against Hamilton in Spa and Perez in Monaco that really speak to how much of a bully he is. After the flag has dropped he drove into them in an apparent act of revenge and anger. He has no place in F1 and Williams are implicit by continuing to take his money.

Quite how Lotus’s Romain Grosjean is the whipping boy for driving standards when Maldonado drives the way he does is beyond me, as is how he’s managed to keep free of race bans and has kept his super license.

2014 is Williams’ big chance for redemption. Another engine supplier (this time Mercedes), new rules and their hybrid experience may pay off. They showed the depths of their engineering qualities in 2009 with the double diffuser, to a lesser extent than Brawn, but they were clearly on the right track. With more investment and a replacement for Pastor, I could see myself getting on side with them again. We will see.

Plus: Motor racing at its most pure.
Minus: Pastor Maldonado, terrible car.
In a nutshell: Faded glory.
Don't Starve

31 August, 2013
by philip
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Starving is so rarely the problem

It turns out I’m really bad at blogging about games. No, I’m not talking about the great swathes of time between posts. That’s perfectly understandable and socially acceptable. More that I’d rather “finish” a game before putting my thoughts down on pixels, you know, that moment where I move the game from “in progress” to “completed” on my Trello board. Yet so many games I’ve been playing lately don’t fit nicely into that process.

The latest such difficult game is Don’t Starve.

Not having a single player narrative, it’s difficult to decide the point at which I feel compelled to write up my thoughts. Not wanting to let it go unmentioned, like FTL was, it seems like a good time to gather my reaction to it.

The name is misleading, for a start. I’ve yet to actually die from starvation, but here’s a list of alternative titles that would suit my outcomes:

Don’t get killed by…

  • Penguins
  • Tentacles
  • Nightmares
  • Spiders
  • Hounds
  • Tallbirds
  • Bees
  • Ghosts
  • Bats
  • Darkness
  • Trees
  • Beefalos
  • Frogs

As well as:

  • Don’t Freeze

It’s fair to say I die a lot in Don’t Starve. Usually, this is down to my own over-ambition (or, if you prefer, recklessness). Sometimes it’s down to the game thinking you want to attack a monster when you really want to pick up an item, though this was fixed in the last update.

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Don’t Starve is a game about survival and crafting. Like FTL, it’s a game where every time you play it creates its own story. Stories of hunting for resources, near misses with enemies, stupid decisions and new discoveries. It’s your story, but one that is emergent from the game unlike the story you play in The Sims where you guide the actions of the game characters. The story, for me at least, does include a lot of death, but that’s always a popular plot in TV, films and novels so why not here? It’s a bit like Miss Marple but where there’s only ever one victim (you) and the murderer may be a frog. Okay, perhaps not Miss Marple. Philip Marlowe then.

Did I mention that it’s all very compelling. The cartoony art style, wonderful music draw me back in seconds after another pointless death and vows that I’ll never play it again. This is without any hint of bitterness. Some games when this happens it’s an angry “I’ll show you, game” that will usually end in repeated attempts, each more futile than the last. With Don’t Starve it’s more that I like being in the world, even if each visit is pathetically cut short by the local wildlife.

It is safe to say that I really like Don’t Starve.

Caterham F1 & Marussia F1

10 July, 2013
by philip
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Formula 1 heroes & villains – part 1 of 10

When asked who is my favourite driver or team, I usually answer with a slightly evasive “I’m a fan of F1 as a whole, not any one team”. It’s mostly true, but not entirely accurate. There are drivers that I cheer on, others that I cheer when they have a gearbox failure or puncture.

Because Formula 1 thrives on heroes and villains.

The heroic or villainous nature evolves over time. Once great drivers show themselves up while others grow up into people you’d happily invite round for nibbles. Okay, chicken and pasta, they are F1 drivers after all. Or vodka if you’re Kimi Raikkonen. Even teams evolve. Names and management change and this changes our perception of their policies and actions.

Let’s take a trip up the grid and see where the team is now, where they’ve come from and my feelings about them over time.

Marussia

Previously: Virgin Racing

marussia
Starting with the new teams, Marussia have little history in F1 but have had success in Formula 3 and Formula Renault. They came into being alongside Caterham in the form of Virgin Racing and lost out on 10th place in last year’s championship in the final moments of the Brazlian grand prix.

They’ve been firmly stuck at the back of the field so it’s been difficult to get a feel for them as a team, though with moves like signing Timo Glock for 2013 and then backing out in favour of a pay driver (who was then replaced by a pay driver who could pay).

Jules Bianchi is the best thing about the team this year. He’s consistently significantly quicker than teammate Tom Chilton and if they ever develop the car he’ll be the one to get the results. Chilton, despite being a Sky favourite because of his birthplace, isn’t worthy of an F1 drive and you have to wander what Glock would bring that money simply can’t buy.

Plus: Bianchi is a future star.
Minus: Desperate cash grab over driver talent.
In a nutshell: forgettable.

Caterham

Previously: Team Lotus

marussia

Caterham are the biggest disappointment in Formula 1 today. That’s a pretty big claim, with McLaren and Williams having record-breakingly poor years, but I think it stands up to scrutiny.

Right from the start they had it all: A technical director that you’d heard of (Mike Gasgoine, previously of Jordan and Toyota) and aspirations for being in the points within three years. Recently, they’ve also dropped the under-powered Cosworth engines for Renault and entered into a deal that gives them Red Bull gearbox. They were the first of the new teams to have KERS and still only just beat Marussia.

They were also partly the cause for annoying confusion in team names. In 2011, both they and Renault rushed for the rights over the Lotus name so we ended up with Team Lotus Renault and Lotus Renault. The latter being the current Lotus team.

Gasgoine and then-team principle Tony Fernandes made promise after promise with exactly zero results and like Marussia picked less experienced drivers over the solid pairing of Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov. New boss Cyril Abiteboul is doing a much better job of managing expectations and not coming over as his deluded egomaniacal predicessor.

Plus: Kovalainen’s limited Friday running and hopes for a return.
Minus: Broken promises
In a nutshell: all mouth and no trousers.
Dualshock 4

2 July, 2013
by philip
0 comments

On PC vs console gaming

Since the Xbox One’s short-lived attempt to restructure how console games are owned and the rights of consumers, there’s been a clamouring for the high moral ground.

PlayStation fans feel justified in Microsoft change in direction and feel that Sony were “right” in the first place.

The Xbox faithful fall into two camps: The first group relieved that they can justify buying the machine and rid themselves of the unusual and frightening position of liking something Sony has done. The rest mourn the loss of your game library to follow you to any machine and only having to insert the disc once.

Then there are the PC gamers.

They looked on with barely disguised grins on their faces while everyone else talked about which expensive, limited consoles they would rather buy. Toys, they say. Today, Edge magazine had this cover:

Edge cover: PS4 is your next console

In return, indie love in site Rock Paper Shotgun tweeted this:

Recently, I had a shakeup in my computer setup. Replacing my Windows 8 desktop, I got a shiny (and it is shiny) iMac. Given that I don’t have the space to have both machines set up at a desk, the PC has spent most of the time plugged into the TV. It’s not quite a sibling of the PS3 and Xbox 360. Its huge footprint means it’s sat off to one side, just in front of the subwoofer.

First step done for the console-PC. It runs Windows 8 on an SSD so boot times are great, with Soluto reporting a boot time below 1:30 minutes. Sound is sent over HDMI and switches over seamlessly when headphones are plugged in. I’ve got the 360 controller wireless receiver. I can’t think of anything more I can do to consolify the thing.

Where it all falls down is what makes PC gaming great: keyboard and mouse. Even with Steam’s big picture mode and a “standard” controller, you still need the actual standard input method to set things up. New game? Keyboard and mouse to configure the controller. This is especially true of racing games where setting up the wheel is a long and involved process.

Even after the in-game controls are configured to your liking, there’s no guarantee that the keyboard can be safely set aside. Even then, mid-game or when you’re done for the night, what do you do with it. Stick it on a side table? Throw it across the room so it’s out of the way.

I have a Trello board of games. I’m cool like that. The list of games that I’ve preordered or crowd funded lists is as such:

Only one of those is a console game. The rest are games I couldn’t imagine playing on a console. The controller is just too limited and the distance from the screen affects how games feel. Something intricate like Civilization just doesn’t work on the TV.

The PC a few years ago was on the defensive with very few “mainstream” console games getting a version on the computer. Those days are long gone. There’s a richness and depth to PC games that consoles could only dream of. Even with Sony’s pledge for more indie titles on the PS4, there’s plenty of games that will only ever, could only ever, be released on the PC.

None of this requires trying to shoehorn a desktop computer into the living room where it is an unwanted and uneasy guest. So, PC gamers, don’t be a bunch of smug gits.

20 June, 2013
by philip
1 Comment

Musings on F1 games and their career modes

With the imminent release of Formula 1 2013 (it hasn’t been officially announced, but it’s become a September staple of racing since Codemasters released the 2010 game), combined with the recent next-gen shiny loveliness of Forza 5 especially, the time-honoured art of driving a car really fast like has been on my mind more than usual.

In the modern landscape of racing games, Formula 1 and NASCAR stand alone in that they provide a fully fleshed out career mode. In other games, with their progression of ever faster cars, there’s little opportunity to enter into a gruelling 20 or 36 race season. What these long seasons give is an opportunity to lose: the aim in any Gran Turismo or Forza championship (typically a handful of races with around four laps per race), with no qualifying session. What makes F1 as a game special is recovering from a poor qualifying or collision on the first lap; you might not win, but it could be the best race of the year.

It’s a shame that Codemasters career mode doesn’t give you that much in terms of help that a real driver would expect from a team. The game throws you in the practice session at the start of the year and you’re pretty much left to it. In the 2012 game, you get a single 60 minute practice session to learn the track should you need to and set the car up how you like it.

While I enjoy the career mode, there are some areas where I think it could be improved both as a player and F1 geek.

How fast should I be going?

Now that I’ve got used to driving with the wheel (overdue post is overdue), my focus is mostly on the career mode. While time trials are fun, there’s no sense of the track as a living thing in that mode. You’ve got your car, which never wears out the tyres or uses any fuel and the track is always at optimal grip. It’s great for lap times but doesn’t serve you well in the race weekend when all those variables are, well, variable.

At the end of a lap, your race engineer might tell you that you’ve improved or dropped down the timings and give you an impression of what your lap was like. Good in sector 2, terrible in the others. This doesn’t take into account the state of the track, tyres or fuel load. If you’re on used tyres with a full tank, you’re going to be off the ultimate time by perhaps 10 seconds. So telling me I’m slower than P1 isn’t helpful.

It would be nice to have a target time taking the conditions into account.

Tell me where I’m going wrong!

The other thing the game fails to tell you is if you’re racing well. Real racing drivers have mountains of data to analyse and it would nice to be able to get an impression of where you’re losing time.

Lewis Hamilton telemetry F1

This is an example of actual F1 telemetry, as leaked by Lewis Hamilton on Twitter. Now, this is very difficult to understand, but there are other ways of displaying the data. A circuit map with colour overlays for throttle and brake would go a long way to explaining what is possible.

Help me out with the set up a bit.

You get all the regular options for car set up – ride height, toe in, wing angle and that’s all good and it’s possible to dial in performance over a single lap. Setting purple sectors is satisfying and it’s only natural to want to push and get the quickest time possible.

But single lap pace is useless if you’ve got to make another stop. It would be helpful for the game to make predictions on your current set up, if only to predict tyre strategy before the car goes into parc fermé.

Make more use of the sessions.

In the 2012 game, Codemasters removed all but FP3 from the career mode. If all you want to do is get your eye in on the latest track, fine, but there’s scope here for more a structured session.

Modern F1, with its limits on testing (ooh, topical), the first free practice session is used as a test session for the new car developments. The game already has certain races where there’s a performance test (set a lap time below such a time), but this could be expanded and the results of your efforts used to enhance or detract from the development of the car.

Generally, I’m very happy with what Codemasters are doing with the F1 license, but sometimes the core career game feels like more of the same in each release and I’ve been meaning to take a brain dump about how I feel it could be improved.

Legend of Grimrock logo

2 August, 2012
by philip
0 comments

Legend of Grimrock

512 kilobytes.

That’s the RAM expansion I was desperate to get for my Amiga 500 so it could play Dungeon Master.

To me, and even now it’s the first thing to come to mind, Dungeon Master and its ilk WERE RPGs. First-person view, grid-based movement system and everything you’d expect: character classes, inventories to manage, working your way down into the depth of the dungeon.

Many of my favourite Amiga games follow that pattern: Eye of the Beholder, Captive, Bloodwych and DM’s sequel Chaos Strikes Back. Yet as time moved on, free movement in 3D worlds became the norm and the idea of jumping forward or only turning in ninety degrees became unthinkable and the genre faded into obscurity.

UNTIL TODAY! Or, earlier this year. Finnish funsters Almost Human revived the format, but dressed up in a sleek 3D-rendered package but maintaining the limited movement and other elements that so defined my teen gaming years.

Last night, I finished it. So here’s my thoughts.

THE GOOD

The world looks fantastic – the 3D environment feels solid and the shadows cast by torchlight, combined with the creeping monsters in the darkness, give the game a wonderful atmosphere. Spells and teleports give a hint of colour.

Within that world, there’s plenty of fun stuff to do. Puzzles are (mostly, there are the odd exception) tricky enough to be a pleasant challenge, but stop short of being needlessly obscure and I only chickened out and looked at Youtube twice. Both times I facepalmed in “why didn’t I think of that?” moments.

There’s an automap. Somewhere, probably in a dark box in my parents’ house, there’s a folder with my maps from twenty years ago. These days, I have far less time and limited attention and if I had to make my own maps I probably wouldn’t have got through the game.

Combat is mostly fun (see below). It’s a streamlined take on the classic “click on the hands to use what’s in them” and old tactics like “move, turn, attack” still work a treat.

THE NOT SO GOOD

The flip side of the combat is the spell system. It’s similar to Dungeon Master in that you have a combination of glyphs to select and a big button to cast the spell. In a quick fight it’s easy to take a little too long over this (a fireball takes five clicks) and that moment can often be the difference between their death and your own. Perhaps I’ve just got used to easy control systems over the years.

The AI of the enemies is sometimes a bit dim. If you step away sometimes they’ll just keep turning, one way then the other on a single square until you move back into where they notice you. Sometimes the game will have death rooms that trap you on all sides, that you would never know to avoid first time round. Saving often is key in this game.

The ending is a touch abrupt. You work your way down the levels, have a bit of a fight and then it’s over.

THE VERDICT, SUCH AS IT IS

I loved Legend of Grimrock. It’s a great nod to the games I played to death a long time ago and I know I missed a bunch of stuff in my first playthough so will be going through it again. I also want to dust off the old Amiga (it’s not actually that dusty) and play Dungeon Master one more time.

DO YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Legend of Grimrock official site