Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “October, 2013”

Pokémon X & Y for Nintendo 3DS

Well, it finally happened. We finally got the next big step up in a Pokémon game. Although I’d contend that Gold & Silver were big improvements on Red & Blue, things went downhill in Ruby & Sapphire and then sort of plateau-d into the enjoyable, if predictable Diamond & Peal and Black & White. X & Y are the Pokémon games that we’ve been demanding for years, and probably my favourites since Gold & Silver, although a lot of its improvements are only skin deep.

Since the Unova region of Black & White, which was loosely based on New York, Game Freak are showing themselves willing to base game locations on areas more familiar to non-Japanese players, and this is extremely clear in the French inspired Kalos region. All said, Kalos may be one of my favourite regions from a Pokémon game, although I can never adore it as much as Kanto/Johto (is my nostalgia showing?) It has a lot of character, and the caves and surfing routes which I loathed in previous games (I’m looking at you Hoenn!) are cut down significantly. It also has an intriguingly bloody past, but, this being a Pokémon game, this stuff is buried under a mountain of your standard saccharine nonsense.

This is the second Pokémon generation to flirt with interesting story ideas before deciding to simply go for the standard, dull route. Where Black & White looked at the fundamentally questionable nature of the Pokémon universe (e.g. enslaving creatures and making them fight), X & Y look at the idea of the potential for Pokémon in warfare, although this is only in tales related from 3000 years in the game’s past, with the present day simply being an evil group who want to destroy the world for boring and cliché reasons. I want a game set 3000 years ago! Just as Black & White had N, X & Y have AZ, an enigmatic, mysterious and intriguing figure who naturally gets very little screen time, giving it instead to the ridiculous figure of Lysandre, the uninteresting head of Team Flare.

The biggest upgrade in X & Y is cosmetic; I don’t mean that to sound sneering, cosmetics are important and the massive graphical overhaul is a long time coming and pulled off well. Although still disappointingly built on a grid, the world is now 3D and beautiful, and best of all we can finally move diagonally! Some may miss the classic sprite style, but we’ve had five generations of games for that and it’s about time that things finally got a bit shaken up. Every Pokémon, all 700 + of them, has been modelled in 3D and uniquely animated. These animations are simple, but absolutely bursting with character; Pikachu is immediately adorable, and Mr. Mime is quickly unsettling. The essential natures of these Pokémon, even the worst ones, are well drawn out. There will be no need for a big 3D Pokémon Stadium-esque battling game this generation, the 3D battles we have are already great. The transition to 3D isn’t without it’s hitches; frame-rate drops are common (especially if you have the 3D slider turned up, which I very rarely did) and some of the camera angles in the overworld are confusing, but nonetheless we have finally got the big visual update that this series has sorely needed for a long time. The only major gripe is that Luminose City, the biggest city in Pokémon history, is unbelievably awkward to get around due to an awful camera angle to show off the new 3D. This should have been an exciting and fun place to explore, but in the end I spent the least amount of time possible there to avoid the hassle of trying to navigate it.

The fundamental Pokémon mechanics and structure are unchanged. You’re still going to be collecting a team of six creatures, fighting a deceptively deep rock/paper/scissors based battle system and beating eight gym leaders and then the Elite Four. Most of the changes are little things, but several long time Pokémon irritations are done away with. The encounter rate is significantly lowered in dungeons, which means you can walk five steps before coming across another bloody Zubat. The movement speed is raised significantly, with running shoes off the bat and roller skates only about an hour into the game. The general pace is significantly raised too; within an hour you should have yourself a nice little team going. The new Pokémon are about the same quality as usual; you have your usual embarrassments (the low point is Klefki, the key chain Pokémon) but there are enough good ones that you could easily fill out a team just of new Pokémon. You’ll find yourself spoilt for choice though; unlike Black & White which only contained new Pokémon up until you beat the Elite Four, X & Y is almost a Pokémon greatest hits. There’s a damn good chance that your favourite Pokémon will be available at some point in the game; in fact, the nostalgia factor is cranked up to 11. You’re given a second starter Pokémon before the second gym, a choice from the original three, Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle. Pikachu, unlike every other Pokémon, actually says its name in the style of the anime. Despite being the game which has most shaken up the formula, X & Y is also the instalment with the most reverence for its past, and a good balance is struck between innovation and fan service.

There are two big gameplay changes to the classic battles though; Mega Evolution and the Fairy Type. Mega Evolution is a temporary evolution that can be used for one Pokémon once per battle, offering an extra stage in evolution for many classic Pokémon, such as the Kanto starters, Mewtwo and Ampharos. They’re basically Digivolving. Mega Evolution is interesting, and it’s certainly fun seeing souped up versions of classic Pokémon, but its significance isn’t nearly as vital as the new Fairy Type. Fairy Type seeks to balance the game, offering an advantage over the overpowered Dragon and Dark types. There is a handful of new Fairy Pokemon, with some older Pokemon such as Jigglypuff and Snubbull reclassified with the new type. Dragon Pokémon aren’t the trump card that they once were, and Fairy offers a nice new twist on a long standing formula; there hasn’t been a new Pokémon type since the addition of Dark and Steel in Gold & Silver.

X & Y make a really good job of appealing to a wide range of gamers, without making concessions for any one of them. For example, the Experience Share is incredibly generous this time round, making this game a breeze for casual players, but upon turning it off you have a much harder (but still easily doable) experience for those who fancy a bit more challenge. The ‘Pokémon-Amie’ mode, which is basically a simplified Nintendogs but with Pokémon, is charming and silly and perfect for kids. ‘Super-Training’ makes EV training easier for hardcore players through little minigames; I have no idea what EV training is, but apparently if you play competitively it’s vital, so it’s probably a good thing. The online features a very well integrated; even misanthropic old I was tempted to venture online simply by its extreme ease of use. Nintendo are constantly being accused of dumbing down its games to appeal to a casual audience, but Pokémon X & Y are proof that you can appeal to everyone at once if you really try.

As well as being extremely visually impressive, the soundtrack is pretty solid as well. There are a few rough edges to X & Y, but that’s to be expected in a visual overhaul so drastic. The Pokémon (apart from Pikachu as mentioned before) still generally sound pretty terrible, but they are slightly improved. After the massive visual step up in X & Y, the next step I’d like to see is an improvement in the audio department.

Pokémon X & Y are the breath of fresh air that the series has needed for a long time. It’s a game which is extremely well balanced, between casual and hardcore, between innovation and nostalgia. It understands that many players have an extreme fondness for the past, and embraces that whilst shepherding us gently into the future. If you’ve given up on Pokémon recently, feeling that they’re all the same, X & Y may just be the games to bring you back into the fold, and maybe, just maybe, make you feel like you did when you played Red & Blue.



Grand Theft Auto 5 for Xbox 360 and PS3

A month later, what is there to say about GTA 5 that hasn’t been said already? It’s been a source of almost constant discussion in gamer circles the last few weeks, and it’s without a doubt a truly fantastic achievement. It has its flaws, massive gaping flaws which might cripple many other games, but by the skin of their teeth Rockstar were just about able to pull it off with GTA 5.

GTA 5 follows three criminals in Los Santos, (a parody of LA) and the surrounding state of San Andreas. In a bank robbery gone wrong seven years before the events of the game, Michael Townley turned informer to the government and entered cushy witness protection alongside his family, but not before faking his own death. Best friend, fellow bank robber and psychotic monster Trevor Phillips mourns Michael, and moves out into the desert outside Los Santos, to pursue a career as a drugs/arms dealer. The final piece of the puzzle is Franklin Clinton, a former drug dealer who now works repossessing cars with his best friend Lamar. When he retakes a car bought with questionable credit from Michael’s useless son Jimmy, Franklin and Michael meet up and begin to draw out the worst of each other, as Michael returns to his old ways and inducts Franklin into his more glamorous lifestyle. It’s not long before Trevor joins them, and the three of them get drawn into more and more dangerous circumstances.

GTA 5’s plot is highly entertaining, and often extremely funny. In many ways, GTA 5 is a dark comedy, and is played much less po-faced than Niko Bellic’s adventures in GTA 4. There’s a continual escalation in the mayhem and carnage, whilst never getting away from what makes these three men so entertaining to follow. They’re not good people; Michael is a raging hypocrite, desperate to be the hero even as he guns down innocent police officers. Trevor is pure id, a raging monster that is nonetheless endearingly earnest and honest. Franklin has been seen by many as the moral centre, but being the sanest of the three protagonists in some ways makes him the most reprehensible of the three; he doesn’t have insanity as an excuse. Some have criticised just how terrible these men are, but they’re missing the point. We’re not meant to root for them, but we are meant to be engaged by them, and the three of them make up some of the most engaging, funny and psychologically complex protagonists in videogame history.

The story isn’t perfect. The plot is extremely meandering, with no real narrative thread at its core. It’s refreshing to see GTA try something aside from its traditional ‘rag to riches’ storyline, but it doesn’t quite work. GTA 5 is less of an epic gangster movie, but more a serialised TV show with a whole bunch of separate plot strands which pop up and leave with alarming pace. The sheer charisma of the protagonists, as well as the supporting cast (Michael’s terrible family and Franklin’s hilarious buddy Lamar were my favourites), do manage to make up for the fact that the actual story itself really isn’t that great.

Los Santos is an absolute joy to explore, with a welcome variety of locations from the big slab of city that has become the open world crime game norm. There’s more cool stuff to see in one quarter of GTA 5’s map than the entirety of Sleeping Dog’s Hong Kong. There’s never a lack for stuff to do, and although not all of it is hugely fun, it seems churlish to complain considering that the main campaign, and the fully realised side missions, make up at least 35 hours of gameplay. The tennis minigame is surprisingly fun, and the races are extremely enjoyable as well, especially the dirtbike races in the foothills of the skyline dominating Mount Chiliad. There’s a great amount of mission variety, with the typical GTA mission of ‘Go here. Kill X. Return’ largely absent. Still, my favourite moments were simply driving from point A to point B, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the beautiful world Rockstar created.

The gunplay and hand to hand combat are sadly still rubbish, which is a real shame. The general character controls are still unbelievably clunky and awkward to manoeuvre, and any subtlety of movement is simply impossible. The driving is improved from GTA 4, but it’s still not great. The flying mechanics take a while to get used to, but when I got the hang of them (particularly the planes) they were a lot of fun. Overall though it’s a real shame that the gameplay of GTA hasn’t progressed more, with GTA 5 largely containing the same flaws as GTA 4 did.

There are some great new gameplay additions though, with the character switching mechanic being the best. As well as giving us some great narrative moments, it’s generally used well during story missions, with rapid switching offering some really cool moments as we leap around different areas of a gun battle. It’s not used quite as much as you’d expect, with missions containing all three working together slightly sparse, but when it is used it’s a lot of fun. The heists are the other major addition, and they were the real highlight of the game. The player is given a slight hand in the planning of each heist, with the ability to pick a crew (with the best taking more of the cut) and sometimes the approach taken. There’s not quite as much player involvement in the planning as it may seem, but they’re so much fun that I didn’t really mind. There aren’t a large amount of heists, which makes a crew levelling system feel oddly pointless, but this is the number one feature which has to be in future DLCs.

GTA 5 is a real achievement, but it’s clear that it’s struggling on the hardware. The fact that they were able to squeeze this much out of the now quite aged PS3 and Xbox 360 is certainly impressive, but it does mean that there’s frequent texture pop up and other visual irritants. GTA 5 manages to shine through these problems though, with the presentation in every other area utterly top notch. The characters are beautifully animated and voice acted, feeling very real, the music is generally good. I wasn’t a massive fan of the choice of licenced music for the radio, but that may be more about personal music taste than anything else.

All in all, GTA 5 is a truly excellent game, and although it occasionally stumbles in its ambitions, it soars in the end. I cannot think for a better end to this console generation. gta55

Hunter’s Run by Gardner Dozois, George R.R. Martin and Daniel Abraham

The story of the publication of Hunter’s Run is epic in itself; begun thirty years ago by Gardner Dozois, continued by George R.R. Martin after Dozois stalled, and finished off by Daniel Abraham almost thirty years later, this has been a book a long time in the making. Ok, yes, I really only bought this book because it had George R.R. Martin’s name on it. He’s my favourite author, and I’ve probably read him more completely than any other, but despite this my hopes weren’t high. Three authors seemed like a ‘too many cooks’ situation, and the fact that progress had stalled so many times suggested that maybe this wasn’t a story worth saving. I was very wrong. Although it’s not revolutionary, Hunter’s Run is an absolutely cracking read, which plays with familiar tropes in new and interesting ways.

Hunter’s Run opens in a bar in Diegotown, the largest city on the planet of Sao Paolo, colonised primarily by Mexicans, under the guidance of the seemingly benevolent curator race known as the Enye. Diegotown is a rough place, and despite the futuristic setting the quality of life is no higher than it is now. Hunter’s Run presents a dismal view of extra-terrestrial colonisation, but one which seems depressingly plausible, and Sao Paolo itself is a desolate and dangerous place.

The protagonist is Ramon Espejo, a pugilistic thug whose first action in the novel is the stabbing to death of a European diplomat in a bar fight. Ramon decides to lay low for a while and head out into the Sao Paolo wilderness, where he works as a prospector. Whilst out scouting for minerals, Ramon makes a discovery which utterly changes his life, and potentially the lives of everyone on the planet.

I’ve said very little about the plot, because it’s worth it to discover for yourself the myriad tricks and depths that this novel has. My low expectations were confounded very quickly, as it became clear what Hunter’s Run was actually about. Although originally conceived as a novella, Hunter’s Run doesn’t feel padded the way that many novels extended from novellas can. This is a lean, tight book which maintains high tension and enjoyment throughout.

The editing, largely done by Dozois and Abaraham, is excellent, with the transference between the three authors largely seamless. If you didn’t know the history, you wouldn’t guess the ‘three author thirty year’ ordeal that this novel went through to get here. The best collaborations are this way, reading seamlessly and consistently throughout. This is probably my favourite collaborative novel since Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.

Ramon is a really excellent character, coming from a demographic largely underrepresented in science fiction. Although he’s something of a monster, as the novel goes on we find more depths to him, and grow to sympathise with his brutal world view. We don’t like him by the end, he doesn’t lose the edge which makes him interesting, but he does genuinely develop and change over the course of the novel is interesting ways. Hunter’s Run is a novel that really focuses on one character, and the strains Ramon is subjected to present some really fascinating psychological moments.

Hunter’s Run doesn’t feel like Martin’s work, and I suspect that it doesn’t feel like Abraham’s or Dozois’ either. The three of them have created a really great novel here, which is highly entertaining as an adventure story as well as containing some wonderful philosophical and psychological depth. download (1)

Rayman Legends for Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita and PC

I don’t think anyone could have seen this happening. We currently live in a world where the king of the 2D platformer isn’t Mario, or even Sonic the Hedgehog, but Rayman. Rayman. I cannot recall a single moment in the (competent but bland) New Super Mario Bros. U that rivalled the sheer joy of Rayman Legends. Rayman Legends builds on the already excellent Rayman Origins, confidently signalling that the new and improved Rayman as a franchise with legs and oh God I have to think of limbless Rayman joke now.

There’s actually little new gameplay in Rayman Legends, with the running and jumping intact, with the most interesting gameplay addition being surprisingly excellent stealth levels. Stealth stages in games not explicitly about stealth are traditionally dire, but Rayman Legends bucks that trend by implementing stealth perfectly. The basic physics of Rayman and Co. are excellent, broadly different from those of other games due to the large number of levels focused on constant movement and quick reflexes. A great addition is a refinement of the ‘treasure chest’ levels of Rayman Origins into music stages, which follow the same basic reflex based gameplay, but set to music. I found myself getting into Rock Band-esque groove whilst playing these, and although there aren’t many of them, I always looked forward to the next one.

Rayman Legends contains one of my favourite co-op modes that I’ve ever played. Alongside the chaotic four person platforming that has become the (in my opinion tiresome) norm, the Wii U version has a wonderful mode which absolutely makes the game. One player has the Wii U gamepad, and interacts with the levels through the touch screen. This can vary from simple tasks such as tickling enemies to stun them, but eventually there are some incredibly clever and unique uses for this mechanic. Sadly, there aren’t a huge amount of levels built around these features, but the ones that are are ridiculous amounts of fun. Apparently this feature does exist in the other console versions of Rayman Legends, but I can’t imagine it working well. Rayman Legends may not be a Wii U exclusive any more, but it is quite clearly a game designed around the Wii U and then later on smushed into another console, rather than the reverse which has become the depressing norm.

Rayman Legends has even less plot than its predecessor, with the traditional world map replaced with a series of rooms filled with paintings. Although there are only five worlds, and not a massive number of new levels in them, Rayman Legends is way more packed with content than it first looks. Each level has a parallel ‘Invasion Stage’, which must be completed in a minute and always involves the constant running and dodging that is my favourite element of these games. If enough ‘lums’(the coins of the Rayman universe) are collected in a level, the player unlocks a scratch card which contains rewards. Some are fairly dull, but the best are entire levels of Rayman Origins remade in Rayman Legend’s graphical style. Rayman Legends contains a significant portion of Rayman Origins simply as an added bonus, which reinforces the great value that this game has. There is a social competitive element known as ‘Challenge Rooms’, with new levels updated daily, but I often felt that these levels were rather repetitive, and not nearly as well designed as the main game. This does ensure a massive amount of replay value, but it didn’t particularly appeal to me.

Rayman Legends is absolutely gorgeous, taking the playable cartoon aesthetic of Rayman Origins and adding a wonderful painted effect that makes every level and detail seem lovingly constructed. The character animations are incredible; Globox makes me laugh just by watching him move. There are all kinds of wonderful little details; my favourite is that when you run and slide as the barbarian princess Barbara, she jumps onto her axe and it makes a little grinding noise as it goes. This is a tiny, tiny thing, but it made me smile every time I heard it. They didn’t need this detail, the game wouldn’t have been any worse without it, but they put it in anyway, and that philosophy underpins the entire game. The soundtrack isn’t quite as excellent as that in Rayman Origins, but it’s still catchy and charming enough.

Rayman Legends feels like Ubisoft throwing down the gauntlet to Nintendo and Sega. This is the kind of game which should make rival developers want to do better, and I hope that Nintendo and Sega look closely at Rayman Legends and realise how much there can still be done with the basic concept of running left to right across a screen and jumping. 270015

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