Sunday, 15 December 2013

2013: Games of the Year

I was in two minds about listing my games of the year this time around. Perhaps the most important factor there was that I really haven't had the chance to play too many. Plenty of titles that have made it onto everyone's lists have passed me by, be it through lack of money, lack of time, or just a lack of hardware. I've not tried the excellent sounding Assassin's Creed IV, skipped over the latest Zelda and Mario offerings, and haven't yet had the chance to play through Bioshock Infinite or Tomb Raider. From that point of view this list might seem a little incomplete, but I can never resist the chance to write-up something about all that I have had the chance to enjoy this year. Whether you agree or disagree with my choices, I hope you enjoy going through them.

10: Kerbal Space Program

I absolutely adored playing with Lego when I was growing up, happily spending hours designing blocky spaceships and vehicles with my brother. Kerbal Space Program is one of those things I've always wished for: A virtual Lego set, that allows me to design and play with spaceships of my very own. Attempting to build working rockets by stacking giant fuel tanks to a cockpit and hoping for the best made for some of the funniest moments I've ever had playing any game. I'll never forget triumphantly taking twenty minutes designing a rocket in front of my friends and proudly launching it, before watching in despair as it fell to pieces a hundred feet off the ground and had us literally crying with laughter for the rest of the night. I've yet to master its surprisingly deep physics engine and have lost count of the number of poor Kerbins I've shot to their doom in deep space, but any game that can make me feel ten years old again is a winner in my book.

9: Pokemon X/Y

I fell out of love with the Pokemon games a number of years ago. Though I did play through Ruby/Saphire and Diamond/Pearl I was thoroughly put off by the creaky mechanics, which hadn't changed much at all since Red and Blue back in the day, and the lack of inspiration behind the design of the newer monsters left me cold. X and Y have attempted to freshen things up a bit, and are a good step back onto the right path for the series. The graphics have been spruced up nicely, some of the shonkier design flaws have been ironed out, and there was a very welcome focus on the older monsters that I know and love. It isn't perfect, but at least shows that Nintendo are willing to shake things up a little with one of their most important IPs. I'm just hoping that we'll see that big, online, console edition we've been waiting years for sooner rather than later.

8: Kami

You're not short of options when it comes to puzzle games on IOS, but Kami stands as one of the best of the lot. A papercraft tile flipping game, Kami has you attempting to transform its patterned screens into one colour with as few moves as possible. This is no high-octane puzzler that’ll keep you on your toes and stress you into frustration. Rather it’s a more considered, patient, calming affair. The lack of time limits and freedom to experiment makes Kami a relaxing pleasure, a Zen-like test of problem solving skills. The ability to dip in and out of levels and mull over possible solutions makes it feel ideal for train journeys or commutes. Kami may be a relatively lightweight experience, but it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable on.

7: Fez

While Fez first saw release on the Xbox 360 back in 2011, it finally came to PC this year through Steam, and as such I'm qualifying it here. It's one of indie gamings biggest success stories, having just recently broken the million copies sold mark and propelled its developer Phil Fish to perhaps unwelcome stardom. The success is completely deserved too; Fez is without a doubt one of the most inventive and charming games of the generation. Its dimension-spinning mechanic makes for some properly fiendish puzzles, as well as more than a few moments that had me actually laughing in delight. Combine that with the gorgeous retro visuals, a wonderful soundtrack, and so many secrets that I know I'll never see them all, and you have a truly wonderful game that deserves all the love it gets.

6: Papers, Please

Video games are about escapism. Playing the hero, saving the world, beating the baddies, and all that jazz. Papers, Please makes a point of turning that rule on its head, putting you in a mundane job in a drab setting and forcing you to do bureaucratic paperwork for hours on end. The glorious Republic of Arstotzka may not be somewhere you would want to escape to, but for the lines of immigrants waiting outside your border control booth every day it certainly is. Their stories, and that of your hapless paper pusher, are part of an incredibly inventive and intense puzzle experience. It's one of the most gripping and surprisingly moving games I've played in years, and further cements my notion that the most interesting work in the industry at the moment is being done in the indie development scene. Glory to Arstotzka.

5: Animal Crossing- New Leaf

You'd be hard pressed to find a company with a greater handle on charm than Nintendo. In fact, you'd probably be hard pressed to find a more charming series of games than Animal Crossing. Since the first game on the Gamecube (Or the N64, if you were lucky enough to live in Japan) countless people have happily made a simple second life for themselves in their own little village. The series hasn't changed very much in the last ten years, and New Leaf doesn't add anything particularly revolutionary, but the 3DS has proven itself to be the ideal home for the series. It's perfect for dipping into every day, seeing what happens to be new, meeting a few friends, or just tending to your plants. It's been a couple of months now since I last visited my town of Lordran, but I know that when I do I'll still be welcomed back with a smile by whichever residents still happen to be there.

4: Gone Home

For all their unique qualities, video games are still all too often derided for their limitations as a medium for storytelling. This is a perception that is going to change sooner rather than later, and we'll have the likes of Gone Home to thank for that. Set in 1995, Gone Home puts you in the shoes of Kaitlin, who returns home from months of travelling to find her parents' house empty and her sister gone. You unravel the story by exploring the house, finding hints and audio cues that slowly unravel the story of your family. It's a brilliantly compelling piece of interactive fiction, one that treats the player with a level of respect. There are no real puzzles, no dangers hidden around the house, but it boasts a wonderful atmosphere, helped by the little details of home life and the excellent use of period trappings that will delight anyone who grew up in the '90s. At just over two hours it's perhaps a bit too brief, with little incentive to go back and play again, at least immediately. But I prefer to treat it more like an interactive novella, one you can read through on a rainy afternoon or a quiet evening, and happily keep it on the shelf to revisit again another day. 

3: Grand Theft Auto V

It's difficult to know where to begin with Grand Theft Auto V. It's certainly big. A big world, with an almost-endless list of things you can do and places to see without even thinking about the actual missions. A big story, with three characters whose lives you can dip in and out of at will, each with their own stories to tell and people to meet. It's big on ambition, as Rockstar again push the boundaries of just how much they can cram into one game world, from the single player to the amazingly generous multiplayer modes. It's evidently big business too, having already sold more copies and made more money than any other game in the series. But most importantly of course it's big, big fun. From the perfectly executed heists to the numerous side missions, the anarchic online mode and the joy of just making your way around its world. You're never left wanting for something to do, with a vast county there for you to explore right from the start, and a handy vehicle is only ever a carjacking away. It's an important release as well, arguably one that has brought games closer to the forefront of cultural relevance and acceptance than ever before. That might be its greatest legacy in years to come, by which time I imagine plenty of us will still be playing it anyway, having failed to run out of things to do in the vast and brilliant San Andreas. 

2: The Last of Us

When I first caught sight of The Last of US during E3 2012 I was left a little cold. In fact, that's exactly what I wrote in my round-up of Sony's conference on this very blog. If only I'd known then that it would end up becoming one of the most powerful and impressive games I've ever had the pleasure of playing through. Enough has been written about The Last of Us by now that I can only cover old ground. I could go on about the fantastic narrative it leads you through, horrifyingly bleak and worthy of plenty of analysis. The protagonists Joel and Ellie are two of the best-written, acted, and developed characters I can recall from any game, their story utterly compelling from start to finish. The world is startlingly beautiful as well, with an absolutely astounding level of detail in every location you visit. It squeezes every last drop of power from the PS3, managing to produce some sights that literally had me stunned into silence. It even produced a riotously entertaining and brutal online multiplayer mode, which was the source of a fair few late nights playing with friends. But what made The Last of Us special in my eyes was the sheer tension it evoked. I found it difficult to play for too long at any one time, always terrified of where the next death might be coming from or just what might be waiting around the next corner. I can't remember the last time I felt so emotionally involved while playing a game, and for that reason it's an experience that will stay with me for a long time.

1: Salty Bet

I've yet to really write at length about my love for Salty Bet. Some might think it's a bit of a cop-out to top a list of games with what basically amounts to an interactive stream, but if Charlie Brooker can get away with announcing Twitter as one of the most influential games ever then I'm sure as hell claiming Salty Bet. Effectively a round-the-clock Twitch stream of the fighting engine M.U.G.E.N, which allows you to import character data from other games, Salty Bet randomly matches fighters from a database of thousands and allows you to bet imaginary money on the outcome of the fights. Since discovering it a couple of months back I've lost track of the number of hours I've spent with it, and am becoming more convinced than ever that it's one of the greatest things ever. But this certainly isn't a mutual feeling: I may love Salty bet, but it sure as hell doesn't love me back. It delights in sucking up every imaginary dollar I offer up, teases me with the glimmer of success before swiftly knocking me back down to size with a string of upsets. I could mention the excellent playlist, backing each fight with an eclectic soundtrack that ranges from classic game OSTs to hip hop to metal, but somehow just works perfectly. I could mention the chat bar, where the stream viewers talk up a storm that's equal parts offensive and tear-inducingly hilarious. 

But really the magic of Salty Bet comes from its sheer variety. Tune in any time of day or night and you're guaranteed to be seeing something new. I've won thousands betting on Dan Hibiki in a fight against a dog, and lost it all by foolishly presuming that Piccolo could batter fuck out of Sub Zero. I've watched The Flash beaten senseless by a giant squid, seen Mario forced through a mincing machine, and bet on more Dragon Ball Z characters than you could possibly imagine. There's always something different right around the corner, and any fight could be the one where you finally make your imaginary fortune. I haven't even mentioned the weekly Shaker Classic tournaments, the dizzying reams of stats on all the fighters available to paid-up “illuminati” members (a privilege I just couldn't resist), or the brilliant streak of humour that runs throughout. It shouldn't be as maddeningly compelling as it is, but I still come back to it almost every day. That I'm playing it while I write this, and have been non-stop since this morning, should say it all.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Nintendo Direct: Excitement Overload

This afternoon I spent three tedious hours finishing off Resi 5's co-op campaign with my brother. A real chore of a game, that. Between the daft locations, buggy action, and a final boss battle that took away an hour of my life I'll never get back, I managed to develop both a splitting headache and a real grudge against Capcom. I came out of it frustrated with myself for wasting time I could have better spent catching up with work, doing laundry, or maybe staring into space. And hey, what better way to bring myself out of that funk than by finding out I'd missed a thoroughly brilliant Nintendo Direct?

Now I'm a fan of these things. When I caught one for the first time, right before Nintendo's maligned E3 presser in the summer, I had no idea what was going on, but they've grown on me. Iwata's a charming host, always chirpy and as polite as you could ask for, with an enviable array of hand gestures. There's always a wee sense of mystery as to what they'll be about too. Ninty could pull out a couple of brand new Pokemon games out of nowhere, or they might just announce some daft Mario DLC. But they really managed to set the bar with this one.

Wind Waker, if done right, could set a new standard for HD remakes
Not only did we get confirmation that we'd be seeing a new 3D Mario, cross-platform Smash Bros, and Mario Kart at E3, but we were also teased with the prospect of a new Zelda, an HD re-release of Wind Waker, and a ton of other tasty stuff. A Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem crossover? A new Yoshi game in the style of Kirby's Epic Yarn? A lush looking RPG from the Xenoblade team? More footage of The Wonderful 101? It was all I could do to keep myself from giggling with joy. However cynical I find myself feeling about games sometimes, I can always count on Nintendo to reduce me to the level of a wide-eyed 12 year old.

This was an important little broadcast. The last few weeks have been dominated by ongoing speculation over Sony and Microsoft's next-gen machines. Every day seems to bring spectacular new rumours, every little titbit poured over in excruciating detail while both companies remain tight lipped. We're all waiting for what we might get to see at E3. But with this, Nintendo have stolen a march on the competition. Given us a glimpse of what they'll be offering, telling us exactly why we should be excited, and putting themselves back on the radar. No matter how tantalising the prospect of new hardware may be, there's not much that can touch a new Zelda when it comes to getting people excited, let alone one that hints at a radical departure from the well-worn formula.

It all points to an explosive E3 this summer. While Sony and Microsoft are tripping over themselves to tease us with new machines, Nintendo will be bringing out the big guns, setting up a stellar few months for the Wii U and 3DS. With their own hardware stuff out of the way, and a dull couple of years behind them, Nintendo could have set themselves up for their best conference showing in a long while. Presuming that they haven't shot their load early and announced everything today, there'll be more surprises to look forward to as well.

A new 2D Yoshi game is another simple way to win me over
But it's more than that. This was Nintendo re-engaging their fanbase, giving something back to everyone that's derided them for embracing the lure of of the casual market, or blasted their sparse release schedule for the months ahead. With humility, here was Nintendo announcing nearly a dozen new games in 30 minutes, every one of them a uniquely tantalizing piece of software. They've shown that they're grabbing the potential that HD brings with both hands, giving one of their most beautiful games a loving rebuild. They're showing off the kind of exclusives you won't find anywhere else, from first-party gems to new titles from the likes of Platinum and Monolith. It was Nintendo doing what they've always done best: focussing on delivering innovative, exciting, and fun games for us to play.

Over on IGN, Richard George made the point that this was what made today's Nintendo Direct so exciting. Nintendo will always be able to hold their own precisely because you won't be able to play the likes of Zelda and Mario on your Playstation, your Xbox, your iPhone. “At the end of the day, gamers care about games. That’s what they want, and nothing else matters.” It's true enough, and marks why today left me as excited about Nintendo as I have been since the early days of the Gamecube. Back when Nintendo were teasing us with the prospect of new Zelda, Metroid, and Mario titles. Back when they were tying up Capcom to exclusive five-game deals, demoing the likes of Eternal Darkness and Phantasy Star Online, and the GameBoy Advance was going strong. There was a similar vibe today, an irreverent embrace of the sort of stuff that got us all excited by Nintendo in the first place. It may all come crashing down soon enough, but for now at least, the Big N have made a statement of intent for the coming year. And I, for one, couldn't be more intrigued.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Goodbye to Nintendo Gamer... Er, again

Back in September I ended my post about the closure of Nintendo Gamer magazine with the small comfort that they would be able to continue their particular brand of irreverent nonsense through the website. But just over three months down the line it's been announced that even that's now shutting its doors as of next week. As a consequence CVG will apparently be upping their Nintendo coverage, while Nintendo Gamer frontman Chris Scullion will be moving over there as Reviews Editor, but it I can't help but feel a little gutted at the news. Combined with the recent loss of PSM3 and Xbox World magazines, it's a depressing indictment of Future's strategy of bringing all its titles under one roof, with a strong digital focus.

As a magazine Nintendo Gamer, in all its guises, was an excellent source of witty and often hilarious coverage of all things Ninty. While the website was a one-man show, it was still a brilliant source of interesting and funny features, and it'll be a shame to lose that. What's more sad is that the Nintendo Gamer brand really is gone this time, bookending twenty years with a bit of a whimper rather than the bang it deserves. Well, we'll always have the flood of tributes from when the magazine shut down. The sentiment is still touching.

But one of the more jarring aspects of this closure is that it'll also mean the death of the magazine's forums, which have been going for a good seven years or so. Future pulled the same stunt when Edge redesigned its website last year. The old old Edge community famously became rllmuk in 2003, after Edge closed the forum down, and this time around the community went to form the Bear and Badger once we realised that the re-designed place was a broken mess. It's never nice when to see the online community suffer along with the website, and I hope the Nintendo Gamer forumites are able to land on their feet somewhere nice.

But I guess that's it. Farewell Nintendo Gamer, and thanks for all the laughs.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Games of the Year 2012

I will be the first to admit that I didn't exactly consider 2012 to be a vintage year for games. Perhaps it felt worse coming off the back of 2011, which was about as good a period as gaming's ever seen. My top ten last year was able to boast titles like Rayman Origins, Dark Souls, and Skyward Sword, amongst others. This time around I'm not even in a postion to push out a list of ten. Doing a list of more than five would have felt a little too generous this time around. I'd have been making space for games that didn't really deserve to be there at all, which is no good. Anyway, this top five represents, for me, the best of what the year had to offer. Let's go.

Number Five: Super Hexagon

Everything about Super Hexagon seems simple. From the retro-flavoured geometric visuals to the glorious 8-bit soundtrack courtesy of Chipzel, it all wraps around a concept as straightforward as "avoid the walls for high scores". The controls don't get any more complex than left and right, as you tap each side of the touchscreen to guide your tiny triangle through the gaps in the onrushing obstacles. But the challenge, well that's another matter. What makes Terry Cavanagh's iOS masterpiece so brilliant is its unflinching difficulty. Levels come in Hard, Harder, and Hardest flavours, each faster and more punishing than the last. You'd imagine that hearing the words "Game Over" droned at you every few seconds might be off-putting, but something keeps dragging you back. Maybe it's the compelling high score chase, the hypnotic combination of visuals and music, or perhaps the zen-like state it drags you into that turns seconds into minutes, and minutes into hours. There aren't many better examples of "just one more go" mobile gaming to be found out there. To put it simply, Super Hexagon was perhaps the most addictive game of the year.

Number Four: FTL Faster Than Light

Almost every sci-fi fan will have, at one point or another, daydreamed about their own interstellar adventures. Battling pirates, meeting strange new races, capably commanding their ship through brutal space battles, the lot. FTL let you live out those dreams in glorious top-down, RTS style. It sticks you in control of a ship, its crew, and throws you into a race across the galaxy from the pursuing rebel fleet. In true roguelike style, star systems are randomised and death is permanent. Real-time combat and micro-management add to the fun, but what makes FTL so brilliant is the stories you'll come out with. Every star seems to contain some new encounter, be it slaver ships, merchants, alien planets, or pirate assaults. My own Starship Nemesis started out as a crew of three, battling their way between stars. But when Barry was lost in a tragic engine room fire, then Jill forced into slavery on the threat of death, captain Chris was left to command alone, limping across the galaxy before finally losing the ship in a hostile alien encounter deep in a nebula. You'll end up so attached to your crew and ship through all the adventures that it's truly heartbreaking when they begin to fall. And that attachment, along with everything else, makes for one of the most compelling sci-fi games you're likely to play.

Number Three: Okami HD

I've never been fully on board with the trend for re-releasing older games in HD. The whole thing always struck me as greedy, and somewhat pointless. But if anything was going to convince me otherwise it'd be Okami. Clover's take on the Zelda formula remains as fresh today as it did in 2006, offering a sprawling adventure with a brilliant cast of characters and a truly beautiful world to explore. The beauty is the real hook, actually. In its first outing on the PS2 Okami was hailed as one of the best looking games of the generation, with a glorious cell-shaded style inspired by traditional Japanese prints giving it a look that no-one else could match. And surprise surprise, it looks the absolute business in high definition. You won't often be able to say that a re-release of a six year old game is the best looking title of the year, but Okami could take that title by some distance. Combine that with a sweeping score, some fine combat, and more collectables than you can keep track of, and you've got an adventure that truly earns the tag "epic". With this HD remake we've got the definitive version of one of the best games in the last ten years, and a title that comes closer than any other to beating Zelda at its own game. Not to be missed.

Number Two: Hotline Miami

And now for something completely different. Sitting down to play Hotline Miami was unlike anything I'd tried before. A sharp blast of trippy 80s style, coupled with a pounding retro soundtrack and the most brutal depiction of violence you're likely to see in 2D, wrapped up in the guise of a top-down arcade shooter. Within five minutes I'd been taught how to kill by a tramp, awoken to find three masked strangers talking riddles in my living room, and assaulted a building full of thugs with nothing but a lead pipe. Five hours later I took off my headphones, switched off the computer, and tried to re-adjust to the real world. From the trippy Suda-style plot to the drug-induced haze of the music and visuals, Hotline Miami is a game that oozes cool from the word go. It's a challenge as well; a game, like Dark Souls and Super Hexagon, where death is as rewarding as it is inevitable. But it was also easily the most fun I'd had playing a game in 2012. The action was so slick, the unlockables a treat, and the style was unbeatable. I ended my review by calling it a modern day videogame nasty, and that rings true. Cheap, brutal, and fun as hell.

Number 1: Journey

Let me tell you a story. My brother and I grew up sharing a love of games, spending most of our childhoods playing away together. Sadly distance and adulthood means we don't get the chance to do that so often anymore. One night my brother phoned me to suggest we take the crazy step of playing something together online. But what? We're so used to sharing games that there isn't much we each have a copy of. The only title we both had was Journey, and thanks to the random pairing system and lack of communication there meeting each other was a tough prospect. But we were determined to at least try. Staying on the phone, we both managed to reach the same area, and after some fairly comic verification ("Is that you making all that noise over there?" "Aye jump up and down so I know it's you I'm talking to") we hung up and were able to get on with the adventure. In the sun we sailed side by side down cascading sand, and glided together above ancient ruins. Deep underground we cowered from ominous monsters, scrambling away when one of us was spotted. There were times I was afraid I'd lost him, but he always seemed to pop up around the next corner, chirping away. We reached a blizzard-scarred mountain, and our strength started to fail, but we never left each other's side. And at the end, when the credits rolled, I had the biggest smile on my face. I'd played through the game several times before, but never with the same person all the way through. That it was my brother somehow made it all the more special. Our journey had become a memory that will stay with me for years to come.

That's why Journey is my game of the year. I could mention the spellbinding visuals, from the desert bathed in the glow of sunset to the dank and moody underground temples. I could bring up the sweeping score, that thrills and moves in equal measure as you travel further on. I could talk about the glorious design, or the story, or the atmosphere, or any number of things. But what matters is that Journey was one of the most amazing and moving experiences I've had with a game, not only last year, but for many years. Magical.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

That was the year that was: 2012

A lot can happen in 12 months. 2012 has been a tough year for certain studios, one where we've lost the legendary Sony Liverpool (formerly Wipeout developers Psygnosis), troubled publishing house THQ, and even good old Eurocom (who gave us The World is Not Enough, easily the second best Bond game on the N64). The U.K games journalism scene nearly tore itself apart over rows about integrity, while Kickstarter launched its British operations with mixed results for industry veterans Molyneux, Braben, and the Oliver twins. Speaking of Molyneux, his studio 22 Cans faced no end of issues with their controversial debut project Curiosity, which at one point had the man in tears. E3 proved to be an oddly compelling car crash of conferences, with Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo jostling to outdo each-other in the let-down stakes. Perhaps most sadly of all, 2012 saw the closure of some of the best loved games magazines on the market, a depressing indictment of the state print media finds itself in these days. Rest in peace Nintendo Gamer, PSM3, Xbox World, and in the U.S the Official Playstation Magazine and the legendary Nintendo Power; you'll all be sadly missed. And of course we can't forget the sad passing of the Gamesmaster himself, Sir Patrick Moore. So long and thanks for all the cheat codes.

At least as a legend he'll live forever

But with death comes new life. The next generation of home consoles sorta-kinda launched at the start of this month with Nintendo's Wii U. Sure it may not be as powerful as the PS3, but we were so starved for new hardware we'll take whatever comes our way. In March the government finally popped its thumb out and offered the U.K games industry some long overdue tax breaks, the benefits of which will hopefully be felt as we move further into the next gen. A personal highlight of the year came in raising over £200 for Sick Kids Save Point through my 24 hour gaming marathon. Never in my wildest dreams did I think people would sponsor me to do something so daft, so I can't express how grateful I am to everyone that supported the cause. I'm already planning for next year.

And, believe it or not, I managed to play some games outside of that as well. Not as many as I'd hoped to, mind, but a couple of decent ones. long-term fans of the blog, if such weirdos exist, might remember me counting down my top ten games of the year around 12 months ago. I stand by the feeling that in 2011 we were truly spoiled for choice when it came to quality titles, which made picking a top ten a fairly easy task. I haven't been so lucky in 2012. Through a mixture of not playing enough games, not owning the right systems, and good old fashioned shite releases, tossing out ten games of the year would be impossible. I'm having to settle for five, which better reflects my feelings without having to resort to padding the list out with games that don't really deserve to be there. Nae luck, Playstation All-Stars.

So in the next few days leading up to new year's eve, look out for five upcoming posts on my games of the year. All being well I'll have the first up tomorrow, and the final one up before we ring in 2013. What a rush that'll be, eh? Christmas is coming a little bit ea... Oh wait no, that's not right at all. Er, merry Christmas! Disregard that I'm clearly not as organised as I thought I was. Oh well!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Wii U- Hands on

The launch of a new Nintendo console is always a reason to get excited. Few, if any, games companies can boast such a rich history of quality releases, while so many of us will have cut our gaming teeth on one Ninty machine or another. After the stunning success of the Wii, and the intuitive motion-controlled revolution it brought, eyebrows were raised when details about its successor began to emerge. Back in June 2011 Nintendo unveiled the Wii U, with a strong focus on its key selling point: the GamePad. A sort of Swiss Army controller, the pad boasts a number of features, including a front-facing camera, microphone, gyroscopic control, traditional face buttons, and of course a tablet-esque touchscreen right in the middle. But in the 18 months since announcing it Nintendo have done a poor job of communicating why exactly the Wii U is something we should want to buy. After the universal simplicity of the Wii's motion controls the feature-heavy GamePad came across as confusing, and the more Nintendo tried to explain the more baffling it seemed.

The console finally launched in the U.K on Friday, and courtesy of a very accommodating pal I was able to get my hands on one for a few hours that evening. Even after a short time it became obvious that this is something people are going to have to try for themselves. Picking up the pad, you're immediately struck by how light it is. For its size you're expecting something a bit weightier, though it does feel very robust. The size makes it bulky but not unwieldy. It's comfortable to hold and use, though people with smaller hands might find it tricky to juggle using the face buttons and the touchscreen.

On that, the screen itself is the real treat here. Brilliantly clear and bright, it's almost a surprise to see it display everything with the same sharpness as your TV. The Wii U allows you to stream your console game onto the pad. So if, for instance, someone wants to interrupt your gaming so they can watch something, you can switch to playing on the pad's screen with no issue. This is the sort of innovation you feel could become quietly revolutionary, especially considering that it'll work at a range of up to 25ft. Quite apart from being able to take games with you into different rooms (finally, a home console you can play on the toilet. The future is brilliant), built-in Lovefilm and Netflix apps will make streaming films in bed a tempting proposition, and surfing the internet should be simple too. For anyone that doesn't have a dedicated tablet, the Wii U could prove to be an ideal substitute.

The touchscreen also proves to be an entirely natural way to navigate menus, much more so than the slightly skittery Wii pointer. The screen isn't as touch-sensitive as you'd find on an iPad, instead making use of a stylus that slots into the back of the controller. It feels nice and precise though, with the pad easy enough to hold in one hand. Small functions, like being able to use the pad to change channels on your TV, are a very nice touch as well. Overall you realise that, as a selling point, the GamePad isn't too bad at all. There's something that just clicks when using it, and after no time it feels completely natural.

But how does it work for gaming? Nintendo are clearly pushing the social side of the pad first and foremost, with their minigame compilation Nintendoland filling the Wii Sports role of introducing people to the new controller's potential. As a collection it's typically charming, a virtual theme park that acts as a love letter to Nintendo's past. The games themselves range from the chaotically brilliant to the surprisingly dull, depending on how many people you have playing at a time. My own experience was with two other people, one on the pad and two with Wii remotes. The GamePad player will typically have a different role to play. For instance in the riotous Mario Chase the GamePad gives you an overview of a mazy stage in which you run and hide, while the other players on the TV have a limited view and have to hunt you down before the time runs out. It's a neatly balanced concept that comes to life after a few drinks, with a lot of shouting and giggling as you chase each other around the level.

Other games in the collection provide plenty of laughs. The Pikmin dungeon-crawler is charmingly tricky, while a Zelda-themed slash 'em up has you using the GamePad to fire arrows at onrushing enemies. Sadly Nintendo run the risk of over-explaining everything to players. Each game is preceded by lengthy tutorials telling you the exact rules for each player, what the controls are, and it all flits by so fast that you can go in fairly confused. Things click easily enough in practice, but it highlights the downsides of Nintendo's explanation-driven approach when marketing the console. It's tricky to communicate, but the best way to sell this to people will be to simply put it in their hands.

I sampled a couple of the other launch titles as well. New Super Mario Bros U is what you'd expect from a brand-new 2D Mario game, offering some brilliant platforming challenge and a great multiplayer. Given that this is Nintendo's first console to support HD, you can imagine it looks pretty wonderful as well. Everything's so bright and colourful you can't help but smile. Though it lacks the striking style of Rayman Origins, you get the impression that Nintendo and hi-def graphics are going to be a very nice match indeed.

Tekken Tag Tournament 2 has already been out on the PS3 and 360 for a few weeks, but Namco have upped the ante for the Wii U release. It looks just as good, if not better, than the other versions, showing off the console's graphical muscle, but it's the Wii U specific modes that stand out. Mushroom mode sees the stage littered with Mario mushrooms, that make the characters larger or shorter, all while thumping remixes of Nintendo tunes play over the action. The characters have alternate costumes based on Nintendo characters as well, adding a hell of a lot of charm. There's nothing like seeing a massive Mario-suited Kuma battering into a tiny Yoshimitsu in a Link costume to have you in tears of laughter.

Outside of Mario, the big launch title is clearly Zombi U. Ubisoft's survival horror exclusive has been developed with the console's features in mind, and it shows. The game has you stalking through a deserted London, fending off attacks from the rabid undead hordes. The GamePad is used to access your inventory and tools, but all in real time. There's no pausing to manage your items or solve puzzles, meaning you're constantly on your guard. What little I saw of the campaign seemed suitably tense, bringing to mind games like Bioshock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. It includes some Dark-Souls style twists, with a brutal difficulty level making death almost inevitable, and online components that will see your game world crossing over with those of other players'. It also includes some interesting multiplayer modes; Capture the Flag has one player strategically controlling zombie placements on the GamePad, while the others survive in first person on the TV. It's fun when it clicks, but that will take a while. It's clear that Zombi U's real strength seems to be in its single player campaign.

And that's lucky, because the Wii U is strangely lacking in solo titles at the moment. It's launched with a handful of third-party ports, including Assassins Creed 3 and Darksiders 2, but it's unusual for Nintendo to release a console without a big first-party title that has solo players in mind. While you can play through games like NSMB and Nintendoland yourself, they'll be at their best with some mates round and a few drinks down. This has been designed as a party console first and foremost, and it seems you're best keeping pals in mind if you're going to pick one up for gaming, at least until the big first-party titles start dropping. Then again, I wasn't able to touch on the online modes during my time playing. Reports suggest that the Miiverse, Nintendo's stab at a sort of Wii U social network, is an absolute joy, with the potential to change the online side of console gaming.

Even as a bit of a Nintendo fanboy, I have to admit the Wii U has surprised me. For months I'd been telling myself this wasn't for me, that Nintendo didn't really know what they were doing with it. But having had one in my hands I can say that Nintendo might have convinced me they were right all along. It's now much easier to see why this touch screen integration might be the next big thing, one that will doubtless be copied in some way when Sony and Microsoft bring up their own next-gen offerings. However, as with the Wii the real key to its success will be to get people trying it. A few hours playing on a Wii U has done more to convince me it's worth buying than 18 months of marketing and explanatory videos ever could have. And as far as first impressions go, that's not too bad at all

Monday, 12 November 2012

Curiosity- Enter the Hypecube

I'm fairly late to the party on this one, because I've been really conflicted over whether or not I should write something about Curiosity. Not because I'm unsure about the project itself, or because I feel it would be unfair to judge it when the whole thing's suffering from so many teething problems. Nah, it's because I genuinely believe there are better things I could be doing with my time. Cleaning my room, for instance. Or perhaps eating biscuits while staring at the wall. These also happen to more entertaining and fulfilling pursuits than actually spending minutes of my day with this inane block clicker.

Fuck-all of interest, no doubt
For the blissfully ignorant, Curiosity is the latest blue-sky concept from the mind of Peter Molyneux. Billed as the first in a series of experimental titles from indie studio 22 Cans, Curiosity presents you with a white room and a giant cube. When the first players logged in back on Tuesday morning the shape was black all over. Tapping it zoomed you in to reveal that it was made up of millions of tiny, breakable squares that could be cleared by tapping the screen. Since, naturally, clearing away millions of squares by yourself would be a bit of a task, we're all happily battering away at the same cube in real time. Soon large patches of green peppered each side, as more players joined in with the fun and started adding their own patterns. People were getting creative, as the swathes of flaccid cocks, swear words, and warped smiley faces proved. By the time I managed to battle my way through the server issues to become the 16,825th person on the cube whole sides of it were nearly cleared.

For about five minutes it threatened to be some kind of vaguely interesting community drawing experiment. Tapping away squares has a nice tactility to it, coupled with some relaxing chillout tunes it becomes almost soothing. I zoomed in to what seemed like a blank patch and imaginatively scrawled out the word "Hello". That was immediately wiped out by some marauding tapper blowing chunks out of the area. Oh, well fair enough. Zoom out and pick another bit. Think I'll go bigger this time. Really take this graffiti wall concept to heart and tap out "Fuck" in giant letters. Yeah, that'll turn some heads. Well it certainly wasted a couple minutes, and as I zoomed out and realized you couldn't see it from any real distance anyway, dwarfed by the shapeless scrawls of other players, I had to ask why I'd bothered.

Though I'll admit tapping this out made me smile.

 Of course by now the first layer's been peeled away, revealing a picture of a lava lamp. Tapping away at that told us the next layer was red. Fascinating. It's been widely reported that something "life changing" lies at the centre of this monolith, but only the player who taps away that final square will get to see it. So we're all co-operating in a race against each other for some unnamed prize, hidden under an unspecified number of cube layers? Quite apart from sounding like the world's shittest gameshow concept, you have to ask what Molyneux could possibly have to offer that would change my life in any meaningful way? Given that it's already been revealed as a video link, and that the man himself admitted it wouldn't point to wear he'd buried a suitcase full of money, I'm really scratching my head.

This has been widely billed as some sort of large-scale social experiment, one whose data will provide the basis of 22 Cans' next release. I can't for the life of me work out what this experiment is attemtping to prove, unless it's perhaps working from the hypothesis "How many otherwise sensible punters can we get tapping this cube for hours on end?" Judging by the number of folk downloading it, and the subsequent server crash it's caused, the answer is clearly "Too fucking many". Is that useful data? Perhaps it's a variation on the infinite monkey theorem. Will a million gamers tapping at a million screens eventually produce something other than scribbles and dicks?

The game's technical issues aside, auld-Pete's clearly relying on the pull of this overdone mystery box routine to keep people tapping away until it's done. But he should have learned from shows like Lost that when people put time into waiting for a resolution to your mystery, they tend to get pretty pissed when it ends up being nothing of interest. This'll be a bigger problem when only one person gets the resolution, especially if the cheeky beggar decides to keep it to themselves.While I don't doubt there are going to be a few hardy souls sticking it out to the end, the vast majority will give up once they've satisfied their curiosity and realised that the game offers nothing but pointless busywork for no reward. Sure there's some kind of coin system there for tapping away enough squares, which you can spend on tools to, er, tap away slightly more at a time. That's just another layer of the deceit on offer, tricking you into believing this is a game that's worth the hours you're expected to put into it.

It is none of these things stop lying

But it's difficult to even think of this as a game. The closest comparison I could muster is with is the National Lottery. It's equally competitive, with everyone hoping to win that jackpot, and co-operative, as there'd be no jackpot unless we all kept buying tickets like the gambling sheep we are. But at least the lottery has more than one actual life-changing prize, often revealed several times a week, and as a player you're not expected to waste large chunks of your time playing insipid minigames before they'll crank out the numbers. Just buy your fucking ticket and wait. Pretty simple, pretty effective. Perhaps 22 Cans can look into that model for their next release.

Maybe I'm being too cynical here. A whole chunk of the games press have had a great time writing about this over the last week, and I must admit to thoroughly enjoying CVG's ongoing blog about the progress being made, packed with funny speculation and pictures. But there's the problem with this project: following the progress of it is proving to be more fun than actually participating. I'm presuming I won't be the only person to have downloaded Curiosity, given it five minutes before tossing it, but with the intention of keeping tabs on how it's going as time moves on. I'm willing to bet that'll be an ever-growing crowd over the coming days.

Maybe Curiosity is the purest form of Molyneux's special formula of "interesting in concept, disappointing in practice" we've seen so far. But when the man's output is properly overlapping with that of his twitter parody, you've got to start asking questions. I'm all for experimental ideas in gaming, but this kind of thing pushes the envelope just a little. One has to wonder what exactly we'll see from his studio next. And while there may have been many better ways for me to spend my time than typing up this fairly ill-formed rant, I know some poor souls will have probably spent that same time tapping away on the cube. And if nothing else, that makes me feel a whole lot more productive than I really should.