Give Your Cat A Sword

A six foot tall cat, walking on hind legs, walks into a medieval city in search of food and arrows. As he gets beyond the towering wall that surrounds the houses and shop he is approached by a small child. “I work with my Mother” she starts with absolutely no other introduction. The cat walks onwards towards the main hall hoping to see the Jarl. The child walks alongside.

“I work with my Mother” she says again.

My ten year old son finds this hysterical. He creases with laughter as he sits on the couch next to me. We’re going through Skyrim all over again, this time on the PS4 Remastered Edition.

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I didn’t buy Skyrim on release back in 2011 because the fantasy setting really didn’t interest me. When I was growing up I played table top battle game Warhammer. When given the choice I went for the more science fiction based 40k edition rather than the fantasy of the original version. Dragons were fine but they were nothing compared to a hulking great mech stomping over a battlefield towards Genestealers. Fallout, Bethesda’s other RPG franchise, passed me by for some reason. I tried to get into the third instalment but always ended up giving up somewhere after Megaton (for the record, I declined the offer to blow the place up). I picked up Skyrim upon its budget re-release on the Xbox 360 about two years afterwards. As I played though my son used to sit next to me and watch my game. I was a strong Nord warrior called Bob if memory serves me correct. If I played it alone after he had gone to bed I still had to fill him in as to what had happened in the story the next morning over breakfast. He’d have been about seven years old at the time and often said that he wouldn’t actually play it but enjoyed being a passenger along for the ride. Skyrim got us both and it rapidly became ‘our game’. Once the ending arrived and the evil dragon Alduin had been vanquished the game went back up on the shelf. Skyrim had been saved, we were done, we moved on.

My son usually goes Christmas shopping with my Mother early in December. It pretty much involves his Gran ‘loaning’ him the money to get other people presents. Usually he ends up getting me a videogame that he wants to play as well. It’s a practice I’m totally fine with as it’s got me such titles as Luigi’s Mansion 2 and Yoshi’s Island in the past but for Christmas just gone he was determined the pick up Skyrim Remastered. In the run up to the 25th he would beam towards me saying that what he’d bought me ‘would be excellent’. I had a really strong idea of what it would be beforehand but he was right, it is indeed excellent.

We’ve made a ginger Khajiit called Raul, making him look like and naming him after our actual pet cat. Real life Raul spends his time sitting by the radiator and stealing food of plates as if we don’t feed him. Skyrim Raul has a bow and arrow which he lets fly with deadly accuracy and a sword that was given to him by a Goddess with the deliberate instruction of slaying the undead. Real life Raul wouldn’t kill a dragon unless it had a beak and feathers.

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Skyrim is one of those gameworlds that I don’t mind revisiting despite knowing exactly how the main story turns out. It’s such a stunning setting rammed full of characters each with their own story that it feels like opening a well loved book and going ‘Oh this bit!’ on each chapter. The Remastered Edition also includes all the previous DLC that we never had on the 360. We’re therefore enjoying owning our own home in Whiterun and have already been on the boat to Morrowind. Even if I was on my own then I’d probably still be enjoying it but the fact my son is there to shout ‘Mudcrabs!’ at me makes the journey even more special.

Skyrim is a fantastic game despite some parts of the construction showing their five year old age. Even with this in mind though, some games just have a special place because of who you play them with.

The kid still keeps telling us she works with her Mother.

In The Eyes Of Your Opponent

The 90’s were a time when you really had to nail your colours to the mast as far as console hardware went. Sony had yet to come along and make gaming an acceptable pastime for anybody above the age of 14 so the school yard featured kids who either had a Nintendo or a Sega machine underneath their fourteen inch TV. Anybody lucky (or rich enough) to get both certainly didn’t exist where I was from. From the Christmas when I received a NES bundled with Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles I was always on the side of Mario. The change in recent years however is that Nintendo’s console of the time is never my ‘main’ one. When I had a Xbox 360 there was a Wii beside it. Having a Ps4 now means the WiiU is still under the TV. Since the battle lines shifted from Nintendo and Sega to Sony and Microsoft it’s become clear that Nintendo don’t see themselves involved in direct competition anymore. As a company they’re happy to remain to the side and innovate on their own terms. It’s a feeling that permeated the recent presentation of the new Switch console.

I liked the WiiU. It probably had more playtime in my house than my Wii ever did. It dropped the continual need for motion control and instead started to look more like a Nintendo console of old again. Sadly, I seem to be very much in the minority for this. The Wii sold around 100 million units in its lifetime, the WiiU in comparison has only just about made it to the 13 million mark. There was certainly something to be said for grandmothers the world over waggling what looked like a TV remote about as they played tennis. With the Switch just around the corner Nintendo have something of a mountain to climb again. Whilst I want Nintendo to succeed I find myself looking  on with a feeling that Nintendo’s ignorance of certain aspects may cost them. When Nintendo innovate for the better then other companies tend to copy them. When other companies push things forward though it’s often Nintendo that tend to be languishing behind. If they cannot ‘Nintendo’ an idea then they don’t really see it as worth doing.

Firstly Nintendo make reference to their online service which will become subscription based in the near future. This isn’t a radical move, Microsoft have always had a subscription based model for Xbox Live and Sony have slowly got Playstation Plus as the main method for their network. The benefits or paying your way in both of these services are discounts on downloadable games, access to multiplayer and free games each month. Nintendo have been remarkably coy about any details regarding what’s planned once their network starts charging. Despite having far more games at their fingertips than both Microsoft and Sony put together we’ve been told that you’ll be able to ‘borrow’ one Virtual Console title a month before you have to give it up. It seems incredibly half baked compared to what else is out on the market, almost as if Nintendo wants to guard the very thing that would probably get people to sign up in droves. Rather than releasing one retro game every week or so like the Virtual Console offerings on the Wii and and WiiU surely it would make more sense to give paying customers access to that back catalogue on demand? Imagine having a catalogue of Mega Drive, Master System, NES, SNES, N64, Gamecube and Wii titles available to play when you wished either at home or on the move. For whatever reason Nintendo seem happy to keep their back catalogue under lock and key.

Breath Of The Wild seems to have a lot of expectations riding on it as it’s really the only big hitter in the Switch’s launch library. It does look fantastic, pushing the series into vast open world territory, but development started on the WiiU to the point where Nintendo are still releasing a version for the older console. Apart from the ability to play it on the bus, how different will the Switch version be to warrant players buying the hardware for that version instead?

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1-2 Switch appears to be the similar to Wii Sports in that it features a collection of mini games designed to show off what the system can do and bring players in who may not have tried any kind of game before. Wii Sports however was bundled with the console whilst 1-2 Switch is looking like being an entirely separate package costing around £35 here in the UK. Is this a price worth paying for the chance to look somebody straight in the eye whilst you both pretend to milk a cow?

Splatoon 2 is the sequel to one of the genuine surprises over the WiiU’s lifespan. Nintendo’s take on the first person shooter genre certainly had many fans and I’m hopeful that they can carry over to the new hardware. The demonstration of Splatoon 2 being played not only online but over a local network with Switch units linked together looked really good. It’s certainly Nintendo giving the player options to remain in the same room. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Edition looks like a smoother version of what came before on the WiiU. MK8 is a fantastic racing game and it’s wonderfully fun in multiplayer but I’d still question what exactly would make this so different to warrant another £50 purchase.

Part of the problem Nintendo had with the Wii and WiiU was the lack of third party support for the system. Many of the bigger publishers simply stayed away due to the lack of power in the hardware and (in the WiiU’s case) the dwindling user base. Electronic Arts have said that FIFA will be coming to the Switch though. It’s a big grab for Nintendo but it relies on the fact that, if you’re a fan of one of the biggest sports games in the world, you haven’t already got it on PS4 or Xbox One. Taking your Ultimate Team out on the road has to be the major selling point here. Bethesda were also at the presentation saying that Skyrim is on the way. Whilst Skyrim is brilliant I’ve already finished it back on my 360 and have the HD remaster on my Ps4. It’s not the reason I’ll be buying a Switch.

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Today a story has broken that the Switch won’t support Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube or Hulu. It seems to be a backward step especially as Netflix and Amazon Prime have the ability to download shows for offline viewing later. With the size of screen on the Switch pad would loading up a few episodes of a show or a film for viewing on the morning commute not make sense? Whilst Sony and Microsoft have made efforts to make sure their machines are multimedia devices Nintendo remain rigid in the Switch being a games machine only.

I’ve probably railed enough about the company that introduced me to the joy of video games to start with. I’m still keeping my WiiU, I love playing Mario Kart, tearing apart levels in Super Mario Maker and wandering Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda. I really want the Switch to provide a complete jolt to the industry and be a marvelous success despite all the points above going against it. I recall people snorting in derision back in 2004 when the DS was announced as they wondered why touchscreens were needed. I also have a memory of the same thing happening with the Wii as nobody thought motion control would ever be anywhere near a best seller. Sony gave us Playstation Move in response, Microsoft ditched the controller altogether yet only Nintendo truly made a go of the hardware. When Nintendo gets it right and it all comes together then they are truly one of the best games developers in the world. I just hope the Switch can provide me with the same buzz I had from plugging in my NES for the first time all those years ago.

 

Firewatch (and things we lost in the flames)

I’ve had a slightly strained relationship with so called ‘walking simulators’ in the past. The term itself is rather lazy, often describing games in which action and set pieces take a backseat to exposition. As I’m interested in how story can be relayed in games I’ve played a few examples of the genre lately. ‘Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture‘ left me cold as it had a fantastic setting but just felt like you were moving around having the events taking place in Yaughton told to you rather than finding out anything else for yourself. It also felt like you’d arrived after the fact, all the interesting stuff having long since passed you by.

Gone Home was a vast improvement that I actually enjoyed greatly. Taking place in a house unfamiliar to both the character and you as the player was a good step.The focus on your younger sister as the character you discover the most about through letters and everyday objects gives the game focus. It was also a story about family even though in the opening moments it seemed so much like a haunted mansion tale. It was shorter than Rapture but probably better for it.

SPOILER WARNING- The following text goes into a fair amount of depth about the storyline of Firewatch.

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Taking advantage of the price drop in the PSN January sale I picked up Firewatch. Having finished it a couple of evenings ago I can honestly say I’m very glad I did. Like ‘Rapture’ and ‘Gone Home’ it’s a first person game that features a main character with a very personal story.

Henry is a rather gruff man whose life has been dealt a shock because his 41 year old wife, Julia, has developed early onset dementia. As her condition worsens she goes back to see her parents in Melbourne whilst Henry takes a job as a Firewatch in the National Park of Wyoming. He is assigned a watch tower for the summer and has contact over the radio with another more experienced member of the watch called Delilah.

All of the background part of the story is pretty much ran though with a few multiple choice questions in the introduction. You have to decide what to name the dog you both buy, if Henry wants kids or not and if Julia accepts a job offer three hundred miles away. Apart from one phone call later in the game you never see or hear Julia. Usually I’d be frustrated that such a crucial part of this story is dealt with so quickly but Firewatch has a major difference in that all this is the part of Henry’s life he’s running away from. The information that you’ve skimmed over is what Henry wants to put in the back of his head. As a part of the overall narrative it works well.

I still started the game proper sort of hating Henry though. Here was a guy who had purposely travelled thousands of miles away from his wife to simply forget about her. Rather than be next to his wife in this difficult time he’s wandering Yellowstone Park instead. I felt like I was entering the shoes of a complete jackass. It isn’t that long into the game and the interplay between Delilah and Henry shines through. Whilst it is possible to render Henry a complete arse during your initial conversations with Delilah by batting back her questions I found myself really opening up to her. I chose not to lie about why I was in Wyoming and to tell her about Julia early on. This led to a good few conversations with the two joking back and forth. It’s then you realise that Henry has missed the style of conversation he’d usually get with his wife. Once that’s established Henry’s position makes much more sense.

There’s a lot of walking in Firewatch. It helps greatly that the game’s art style is so good meaning the park is a pleasure to wander around in. The first day opens with fireworks being set off near a lake as Henry goes off to investigate. He finds two drunk teenage girl skinny dipping. He mentions this over the radio to Delilah.

“I’ve found a bra”

“A what?”

“Please don’t make me say it again”.

“Why? Is it because you’re 12?”.

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From this moment on Firewatch unravels into a mystery as the two girls seem to vandalise Henry’s tower and then go missing. Then there’s the small matter of somebody listening into and recording the conversations between Delilah and Henry. As the story goes on the relationship between Henry and Delilah gets closer. There’s something of the internet chat relationship between the two as they have to imagine what each other looks like. At one point Delilah reveals she’s drawing a picture of Henry and you are given various choices as to how to describe yourself to her. I went for ‘the better looking brother of Tom Cruise’. There’s another moment in the game in which both are looking at a fire in the distance and Delilah mentions something about wishing ‘they were together’. I went along with the conversation which, although never actually fully mentioned, is obviously about to turn sexual in nature. The next morning, before Henry leaves for his hike, it’s possible to find his wedding ring on the table. I ended up picking it up and putting it back on. Henry’s struggle becomes that of the player very quickly.

Firewatch’s final stretch sees the forest in the middle of a huge inferno and helicopters coming in to evacuate everybody. Upon discovering who exactly had been spying on you both all summer you are told to hike towards Delilah’s watch tower as it’s right next to the evacuation point. It feels like the game is finally going to reveal Delilah and she’ll fall into Henry’s arms. It doesn’t work out that way however. Before Henry gets to the location Delilah says she must leave as the helicopter is doing rounds. Henry can protest but it feels in vain as she departs anyway. When you get to her tower you see the picture she drew of Henry and all the other things she referenced during your conversations. The helicopter then lands and waits. As Henry walks down the stairs I had a feeling that something was about to happen that would prevent him from escaping. Would Henry decide to stay? Would the helicopter leave him? The final exchange Delilah and Henry have over the radio is when Henry invites her to meet him back in Colorado. She seems to brush him off, saying that she might drop by sometime. You take the hand of the rescue personnel and fly away from the flames.

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There isn’t much actual interaction with the objects you find in Firewatch, you don’t actually really meet another human close up and there’s often a fair bit of wandering involved but unlike some other games you’re fully involved in the story. I might have started the game feeling that Henry was running away from his duty as a husband but as I spent time playing through Firewatch his situation and feelings became clearer. By the end I felt for him and understood him more. Credit must be given to the development team at Campo Santo for not only telling a good story but making the player feel much more than a bystander.