For All The Single Players Out There

My copy of Injustice 2 arrived on Thursday and was waiting on my mat behind my front door when I got in from work. I’ve spent the last few nights getting the hang of it and beating up the DC roster as best I can. The Flash is an early stand out, being able to punch somebody so fast it looks like you’re standing still is a certain bonus. I’m never going to be in a position of being anywhere near good enough for the online multiplayer though. Because of the forward thinking of NetherRealm Studio though, this really doesn’t matter.

Opening up the menu of Injustice 2 sees a great amount of things to choose from away from the online, ranked multiplayer. Much like its stablemate Mortal Kombat X, Injustice 2 has a sizable story mode. Carrying on from the first game in which Superman turned into a dictator and Batman tried to stop him, the second game sees Brainiac come down to Earth in search of the Man of Steel. It’s essentially a DC collective movie in which you play the fight scenes. Each member of the playable cast gets a look in from Batman and Superman all the way to Scarecrow and Captain Cold.

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Then there’s Multiverse Mode which comes across as the Injustice equivalent of Mortal Kombat X’s Towers Mode. It’s a single player campaign based on a vast variety of differing dimensions monitored by the Batcave’s computer. Some can be around three matches, others can be ten or twelve. Sometimes there are also different match stipulations to contend with. As a result of being connected online each of these dimensions changes at regular intervals be it each hour, day or week. Multiverse Mode never runs out of challenges for you to tackle.

The tagline of Injustice 2 in the run up to release was ‘Every Battle Defines You’ and this is quite true. The Gear system drops random loot after each fight. Upon decoding the boxes you gain various new armour or abilities for each character. Every item can change the appearance of your chosen character and it’s great fun to change around known and established fighters by discovering cool new items. It also enabled you to perhaps boost a part of your game plan you’re weaker on.

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I’m tempted to compare this to Capcom’s often derided launch of Street Fighter V last year. Out of the box, without the updates that followed SFV had nothing for the single player at all. There was a training mode and either online ranked or casual matches. Capcom put so much into the idea that every single person buying the game would be up for ploughing hours into playing other people they totally forgot anything else. Recent updates have improved the experience since but it took Capcom more than a year to get anything resembling the package that Injustice 2 puts together right at the start.

NetherRealm have gone to town in keeping those players who haven’t quite got the time to spend in order to get good at Injustice 2. Obviously there are people who are comfortable with the eSports idea, who want to go to The Evo Fighting Games Championship and that’s great. People like myself however, who just enjoy the idea of playing as Superman and punching Gorilla Grodd upwards into space, can also get plenty of enjoyment out of the game.

 

Stick Shift

I’m not good at fighting games. I had a period of time in the 90’s when I was at school and could easily find the time to get good at games like Street Fighter 2 Turbo and Mortal Kombat 2. These days I’m too busy to put the practice in but I still enjoy dipping my toes in the genre. I bought Street Fighter V the day it came out, Mortal Kombat X got the same treatment. I also have both Injustice 2 and Tekken 7 on preorder. Maybe it’s fighting games linking to my youth as to why I enjoy playing them so much.

From throwing my first Hadouken on the SNES I’ve been using a pad. Nintendo’s controller for the 16 bit era was one of the best as far as comfort goes (to be honest anything was an improvement over the brick like NES one). Those shoulder buttons were just lovely for getting easy access to the hard kicks and punches. When Street Fighter 4 came out on 2009 I actually decided to check out the professional choice and get an arcade stick. I cannot remember how much I paid for this exactly but it must have been around £70.

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It looked something like this.

It was horrible.

I’m going to get really nerdy here and say my main complaint was the shape that the joystick sat in (or ‘the gate’ as it’s known). As any seasoned Street Fighter player will know there are many moves in the game that require either quarter circles or semi circles to perform. Whilst trying to move around in a square I found myself just hitting corners and ruining any movement. Try as I might I could do any of the special moves so critical for success in Capcom’s fighting franchise. I actually took the stick with me to a games convention in Glasgow, found myself getting royally kicked in and traded the damned thing in against a £15 fight pad which remained my weapon of choice ever since.

For the last few weeks I had been thinking about possibly getting another stick but certainly not in the previous price bracket that I shelled out for years ago. With two massive new fighting games on the horizon it felt like something I should get involved in. I was frantically Googling joystick gates and trying to find circular ones when a small piece of advice was thrown my way.

‘Just don’t ride the gate’.

Or, to put it in simple terms, don’t follow the edge of the joystick base.

So I’ve ended up with the square gated Hori Fighting Stick Mini.

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I had a chance to have a blast of it last night with Street Fighter 4 (as that game is on my PS4 hard drive) and it felt really good. It’s a little bit of a change from using a pad, almost like when you’re wearing a new pair of boots for football. I found myself just going into training mode and trying out Ryu as he’s my old Street Fighter staple. Sometimes I was pressing punch to early in the move and ending up doing an uppercut for as I went on I improved the timing.

Also, it feel pretty much ‘right’ having a stick for what started life as an arcade fighter. I’ll see if I can adapt it to Injustice 2 when that arrives in two weeks time.

It probably still won’t make me any better at fighting games though.

Drawn To Death

I’ve played games before which I don’t expect to like but then do and others that I have high hopes for but then disappoint.. On rare occasions though there comes a game which is so different to my outlook and so wildly off the mark that I simply cannot continue with it beyond the opening. Drawn To Death is certainly that kind of game.

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I will take this opportunity early on to say this is not a review. It is impossible for it to be one as I played Drawn To Death for a grand total of about twenty minutes. Luckily for me it’s a part of April’s free PS Plus games so I downloaded it to try it out. It’s now been firmly deleted off my hard drive, never to return. From this point on are my thoughts on that first experience and how I felt the game did everything within its power to be everything I detest in gaming today.

Drawn To Death is a multiplayer shooter from the mind of David Jaffe, creator of the God of War series. I’ve played the first two God of War games and quite enjoyed them. The setting of Greek mythology as a background for Kratos taking vengeance on nearly everybody around him was something different, the boss battles against huge Titans were amazing and the action never really let up.  Having had Zeus trick him into killing his own wife you could understand the anger levels Kratos would display on every given opportunity. Drawn To Death has none of that.

The entire game is drawn from the mind of a bored 14 year old boy’s notebook as he daydreams in class. The opening point of view video even shows a teacher up in front of the room trying to give some details of the lesson. We then see the notebook laid out on the desk and enter a world of chainsaws, Satanic imagery and being called a wank bucket at every available moment.

The game strongly encourages you to try out the tutorial first before you head off to the online arena. In this you are greeted by a frog who seems to hate you. In fact he seems to hate everybody. It’s the start of the undercurrent of sheer, unchained obnoxiousness that is so tightly woven into Drawn To Death that there is no break from it.  There follows a few rooms in which you are taught your character’s special moves and how to use the various pieces of weaponry. Every step of the way you’re wandering through the same white paper corridors facing off with enemies that look like they’re hand drawn with a cheap biro. There’s a tirade of bad language which gets to the point of wearing really thin really quickly. This game is from the perspective of an unseen, angst riddled teenager and it portrays that extremely well. Almost far too well. I cannot recall the time that a game has failed to click so much with me. I am in my mid 30’s and would count drinking alcopops, hormone induced acne and being nervous about buying condoms as things I’ve left behind from my teenage years. I don’t look back upon them with much delight. The attitude displayed so readily in Drawn To Death would also make that list.

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Drawn To Death bored me even in that short time. Even whilst using a small dragon to burn an armoured cat with three heads. ‘Press this’ went to ‘change loadout here’ and then to cockroaches that can only be destroyed by dive bombing them from above. It reminded me a whole lot of Anarchy Reigns, the often forgotten Platinum games arena brawler released about five years ago. I liked Anarchy Reigns because it had crazy characters in large battlefields. Unlike Drawn To Death it didn’t labour along with such a relentless and narrow mindset.

Having finished the tutorial I thought about jumping in to try the multiplayer. I have a slightly strange history with competitive FPS games in that I’ve never really got along with many of them. I was originally encouraged to switch from my planned PS3 purchase to get a 360 instead because a friend got me into Halo so much. We played a lot of Halo 3 and Reach a few years ago. I made a few friends through playing Bungie’s space marine odyssey. I ended up playing with people who were very friendly ad this helped the experience for obvious reasons.

As I hung around on Drawn To Death’s title screen I thought back to those days and then had a thought. If this game introduces new players by calling them shit stains then what will the actual community playing it be like?  I had half a notion that, if the game itself was hostile, the community would surely follow suit as such behaviour was normalised. I’ve reached the age when being yelled at down a headset is something I really don’t want in my life. I reset back to the dash and deleted it off the library.

When I was around 15 years old I discovered Quake. I hadn’t played a great deal of Id Software’s Doom beforehand but Quake’s freeware demo had arrived on a cover disc with PC Gamer magazine. The soundtrack was composed by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame, a band I listened to a lot at that time. I was given the full game that Christmas and proceeded to rail gun a long line of demons down in a tidal wave of gore. Quake spoke to who I was at that time. I’d wager that going back to Quake now would leave me cold. I’m just not in that mindset anymore.

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Most of my gaming these days is alongside my ten year old son. We’ve recently bought Stardew Valley and were happily tilling soil and fishing on Pelican Town pier the other night. Rather than satisfy myself with what I want to play (which does still happen after he’s gone to bed, Mortal Kombat X please take a bow) I find myself gaining far more by showing him how much fun games can be. I don’t really want gaming to be an isolating thing anymore. I’m going to give it a few years and I may well find him playing something like Drawn To Death. On that day I shall take the role of ‘Father shaking head in resignation’.

For me Drawn To Death is the ultimate example of ‘fun, if you like that kind of thing’. Try it, play it and see. If you have a PS Plus subscription like me then you really have nothing to lose. It shall forever be know to me as the game which made me feel my age.

All 36 years of it.

Street Racer

Yes, yes Mario Kart…

…greatest kart game of all time…

…Nintendo magic…

…in the days before blue shells appeared.

Mention karting games for the Super Nintendo and Mario Kart is probably the only one that springs to mind. Indeed Mario and co’s racing debut is held in high regard for good reason and the series has become a long standing gem with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe waiting in the wings for the Switch soon.  Back in 1994 though there was a game that took what made Mario Kart so good and added plenty to it. I don’t recall ever owning Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo, it as a game I usually went round my friend’s house to play, but I ploughed hours into Street Racer in my own bedroom.

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I can still hear the music just by looking at that screenshot.

The best part of Mario Kart was the multiplayer, it’s hardly a stretch of a statement and yet there was only room for two.  Street Racer has the rather glorious idea of doubling that amount and splitting the screen into quarters. This was well before consoles arrived with four joypad ports meaning you had to dust off that multitap you initially only really bought for Bomberman for maximum thrills. It was well worth the effort though because Street Racer was a little more combat based than Mario Kart ever was.  Alongside items you could pick up during each race you could also use the shoulder buttons to make the driver punch, whip or slap anybody alongside them at the time. Even if you had nothing in the item box in Street Racer you could still drive through the crowd battering people as you went.

The cast list of drivers varied from the cartoonish to the bordering on complete racist. A German pilot called Helmut? Yes, he was there. An African witch doctor complete with a bone sticking through his nose? Yes indeed. An Italian who drove something that looked like a Ferrari and kept lowering his shades to look at people? Of course there was. It was almost as if the cast of ‘Allo Allo’ had decided to stop trying to have sex with each other and race around in small cars instead.

Add to this the football mode which was essentially Rocket League twenty years early and Rumble Mode in which every car was placed on a large floating platform with only a collapsing wall separating them from the dark abyss below.  If you didn’t fancy racing then there were still plenty of giggles to be had.

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The game was ported to a vast range of consoles including the Mega Drive and Playstation but never received a sequel. It remains a fleeting example of a gem that was perhaps overshadowed by something a little more well know. It is firmly on my list of favourites however.

Super Mario Bros 2

There are far better Mario games than this. Mario 64 broke new ground by transferring the plumber’s jump mechanic to three dimensions and Super Mario Galaxy had bucket loads of inventions behind the planet based levels. Quite famously Super Mario Brothers 2 on the Nintendo Entertainment System wasn’t even a ‘proper’ Mario game. Rather than release the original Japanese sequel to the first Mario game in the West, Nintendo deemed it far too difficult for gamers in America and  Europe. As a plan B a game know as Doki Doki Panic was repurposed and released instead. Rather than jumping on enemies to kill them you have to land on them, pick them up and then throw them. Bowser is also nowhere to be seen. Mario Brothers 2 is often seen as a black sheep, something to be shunned and forgotten. For me though, it’s the first Mario game I ever completed and will therefore always hold a high place in my heart.

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My NES didn’t come bundled with the original Super Mario Bros, nor do I have memory of having SMB3 later on (I think the first time I played that particular game was when it was part of the Super Mario Collection on the Super Nintendo). Super Mario Bros 2 is therefore my earliest experience of Nintendo’s mascot. As a young kid I joined Club Nintendo which gave you a magazine through the post every few months. There was an entire issue dedicated to the game with massive stitched screenshot maps.

My Dad and my Sister spent some time in China in the early 90’s. I stayed home with my Mum for the two weeks they were away. Their return journey saw them getting stuck in Istanbul for a night due to flights getting cancelled. Among the objects my Dad brought back  were two small statues of terracotta soldiers, some kind of chest infection which kicked his asthma off grand style not long afterwards and a copy of Super Mario Bros 2. To this day I’m not sure where he got it from. It certainly wasn’t Asia as it was clearly the PAL edition. I’ll take a guess at Dixon’s duty free in Heathrow Airport.

First came the character select screen. A definite change to the usual Mario formula. Even more surprising was the fact the characters were not interchangeable pallet swaps. Toad was fast, Princess could float through vast portions of levels, Luigi had a very strange high jump that seemed to be accomplished by waggling his legs and Mario was down the middle average.

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It doesn’t play as fast as any other Mario game, the pace seems slow and jumping up and gaining score multipliers by hitting enemies in sequence isn’t really an option. There is however a certain otherworldly charm about a game which is entirely Mario’s dream. There’s a strange theme regarding root vegetables being thrown around, vases that are bigger on the inside than the outside and alternate shadow worlds that hide bonus items which can only be seen via small bottles of chemicals.

Most of the enemies in Mario Brothers 2 haven’t really ever been seen again in the series. There’s the introduction of the Shy Guys who have since popped up a few times (in Mario Kart mainly).  As far as I’m aware Wart, the final boss who takes the shape of a large frog, hasn’t been seen again. The game’s influence on the series overall is fairly minimal and yet it’s probably because it’s so different that I remember it so well.

I played Mario Bros 2 intently over a period of a few weeks. It was one of the first games I played so much that I knew every in and out of each level. I was probably trying to speedrun the game years before speedrunning was a thing. I loved it that much. I’ve played a lot of the mainline Mario games since and, whilst each are pretty amazing in their own right, none of them hold the memories and are linked with such a time in my life as this one.

Super Metroid

This list of games won’t be in any particular order. It won’t feature some of the cornerstones of gaming as far as we know it. Some of the games will be technically clunky and perhaps not seen as much good by most people. All of them however have influenced how I see games. They have all, at some point, made a mark that has stuck around for years.

My Sister is older than me by three years. Whilst we may have had our fair share of sibling arguments in our time we’ve got along for the most part. One occasion of pure little Brother malice on my part occured when I went with my Dad to buy the Super Nintendo console that would be my Sister’s birthday present. Inwardly jealous that she was getting a new console before me I convinced our Dad that, rather than buy it with the Zelda game she’d love,  Street Fighter 2 would be a far better option. Yes, I was a total prick when I was 12.

It backfired in spectacular fashion when she was allowed to keep the console in her room and I was forced to ask her permission to enter whenever I wanted a few rounds with Ryu. This continued until I got my own SNES many months later. Being pretty much into different games at the time (she really didn’t like Street Fighter 2 it turned out) we played games alone in our separate rooms across the hall.

Until the summer of 1994.

Until Super Metroid.

Cartridge based games were massively expensive back in the 90’s, often being around the £60 mark in some cases. I have a strong memory of us splitting the cost of Samus Aran’s 16 bit debut down the middle as we both wanted to play it. The box was huge, double the size of any other cart packaging there had ever been before. Nintendo actually broke thier own rule about uniform box size to bundle the game with its own printed guidebook complete with detailed artwork. It was the sort of thing you’d be skinned an extra £15 today at the counter of Game.

My sister and I loaded up the game for the first time and witnessed that intro. The speech sample of ‘The last Metroid is in captivity, the galaxy is at peace’ was a truly great moment as was stepping into the research station after receiving a distress signal. The opening escape from the station and landing on the planet below is still one of the most atmospheric introductions to a game world I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.

The summer of 94 was, unusually for Scotland, quite warm yet we both spent hours inside taking it in turns to play through the entire game. We drew maps detailing each part of the cavernous system underneath Planet Zebes. Super Metroid wasn’t a game to hold you and give infinite details on how each of Samus’ weapons worked. Progress in Super Metroid was made by exploration and experimentation. It was because of this that sharing tips back and forth with my sister was one of the best parts of playing through it. Gaining Samus’ powers back gradually after losing them all after the introduction was a fine feeling. A new item would allow access to a previously fenced off area. 

The ending, without spoiling a 23 year old game, is fantastic especially considering it features no pre rendered footage nor dialogue. It remains one of the best conclusions in gaming. I think we were both in the room when the credits rolled.

Sometimes good games are made even better by who you play them with. Super Metroid shall forever be considered as the game that stopped my Sister and I gaming in separate rooms.

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.

No Man’s Sky

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“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

The radiation levels were off the charts. I got out of my ship and darted across to the trading station in order to offload the vast chunks of aluminium I had gathered from my previous stop on the neighbouring planet. The station looked familiar. Despite the billions of light years I had travelled so far on this journey the buildings all looked the same. I was greeted by a Gek who squawked at me whilst tapping his tablet screen. He has a name but he looks just the same as every other Gek I’ve met so far. Maybe that’s space racist.

No Man’s Sky is a really big game. It’s probably the first detail that we were told upon the game after being announced two years ago. A vast number of planets, probably far too many to compute for any human mind, stretching out into a map of stars upon stars. So large is No Man’s Sky that developers Hello Games said there was minimal chance of ever meeting another player online. Anybody who thought it was going to be a console version of games such as Eve, with players joining together in gargantuan space wars, was to be left disappointed. No Man’s Sky is very much a solitary experience designed around the single player.

As you awake on a far flung alien planet at the beginning of the game you find the burning hulk of what used to be your ship. Your ownership of the vessel is assumed because there’s no other indication as to why you’re there or what happened previously. The first few hours of No Man’s Sky find you searching around your environment trying to find the minerals needed to get the ship in a condition to take off again. The game doesn’t want to guide you through this process too much. Space is a lonely place and you won’t get anywhere needing somebody to tell you what to do all the time. Once you’ve fixed the hull, put the thrust boosters online, made sure there’s enough fuel to get the thing off the ground and perhaps equipped a laser or two should any pirates find some cargo they feel is worth the firefight for then you’ll be off into the stars beyond.

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Pointing your ship towards the next planet, flying towards it and then watching the heat of the atmosphere burn the outside of your ship before landing on a new place is a certain thrill. Knowing that you’re probably the first player in the game to actually arrive here and getting to name the planet so that others will come to refer to it by that name is a good feeling. The flora and fauna need to be documented. These moments of turning around corners and muttering ‘What the heck is that?’ to yourself are a high point of the game.

No Man’s Sky is a game built on mathematics and systems designed to generate new lands and planets. It’s not long though until you become part of a system as a player also. You’ll find that your ship will need fuel even for the simple act of taking off so unless you fancy walking for a long while to all the locations you want to find then you’ll need a constant supply of plutonium to keep it going. You inventory space is so limited at the beginning of the game in both your exosuit and your ship’s cargo hold that you’ll often receive the dreaded robotic drones of ‘Inventory Full’ from your system software. Spaces in your inventory are also used for any extra equipment you wish to install meaning you often have a hard choice between upgrading and making life easier with mining or combat as opposed to just leaving it and having more room for things to sell and use towards the ship’s demands for power and shielding. There are plenty of blueprints for new technology to be gained from searching abandoned buildings and factories but it’s often a case of forgetting all about them because the room in your inventory is that scarce. The game becomes a process of land, seek, gather, build, sell, take off and repeat. No matter how different a planet looks from the last, the buildings you visit and the processes you have to go through are the same.

The in game story is left incredibly vague, The stated aim of reaching the centre of the universe is the main thread. It’s shown as a line on your star map but you’re never given any reason to actually go that way. You seem to be expected to make that long journey without any reason to. There’s also ‘The Call Of Atlus’ which sees a strange signal appear on your charts. Following that seems like the preferable option if only because it actually has some sort of detail to it. A third choice of simply wandering the stars of your own free will appeal to begin with but the similarity between each space station, trading post and factory will mean you would quickly see what the game has to offer. Many games have large maps and yet it always feels like something is happening even when you are not there at the time. The planets are just sat in space waiting for you to mine them. Everything is reactive to you.

The closest I got to a small scale story breaking out of the game was arriving at a trading post and seeing a Gek (standing in exactly the same position every Gek does in every other trading post). Upon interacting with it the text revealed that I had caught him stealing from the storage vaults. I had a choice to either split the spoils with him and say no more or call the security forces down on him. I choose the latter and a message popped up saying I had been rewarded by the local police. There was no animation to show this, the guilty Gek was still standing in the exact same position even after all this had happened and I could still trade with him as normal. No Man’s Sky is such a slave to its own process it cannot deviate from them lest something truly spontaneous shine through.

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Add to this the fact that the game seems to have some strange design choices that seem to make the game more frustrating on occasion than it really should be. Why is the visor you use to scan animals part of your mining tool and not part of your exosuit? Why do you need an inventory slot free to even talk to some traders? Why is it possible for pirates to scan your ship and find out what’s in your cargo hold yet impossible for you to do the same to them? Why does your ship’s engine run on both Plutonium and Thanium 9 meaning it’s easy to fill yet the thrusts used for take off exclusively use Plutonium? There’s a long list of odd things that could so easily be remedied to make for a better experience.

Getting over all of this however, somewhere in the deepest core of No Man’s Sky, is a game seemingly wanting you to switch off and let your brain operate on a subconscious level. It wants you to not think too hard, admire the green sunsets over the mountains ahead whilst you laser through some iron and carbon, fly through space learning an alien language whilst trying to find your place in the world. Even after all the faults I’m still playing No Man’s Sky in blasts, clocking up at least twenty hours or so now, still forging through to the next star system whilst naming planets after former Glasgow Rangers players (you must visit The Laudrup System sometime).

Just try not to think to hard about it.

Because space might be big but the theatre curtain that reveals the inner workings behind it all is extremely thin.