Best of 2012: Introduction

Life, you know, it’s bigger. It’s bigger than you, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you are not me.


So, it’s nearly over. The year 2012 that is, not the world (I hope). I thought I would run a little series of posts to take us through to new year, posts in which I talk about some stuff that I liked in 2012.

But first, a video for no raisin.

Due to an period of travel, and then unemployment followed by low-paid work in a foreign country, I haven’t been keep up with music like I have done in previous years. I realised this when I came to write my top ten records of 2012 list, and struggled to even think of ten records that came out this year that I even bought.

So I figured I would write about some other stuff as well as the music I liked. Some movies, some places, some experiences, and maybe that’s a more interesting read for people who don’t really care about any of the music I listen to or whatever. I’d write about books, except I read so slowly I almost never read books the year they come out. Would be dumb of me to name my favourite book of the year out of the one new book I actually read.

But hey, maybe I’ll write about that anyway, because poo to you, naysayer!

So anyway, that’s the introduction to this bit. Starting tomorrow, through to the end of the year (and maybe beyond if there’s more to talk about), I’ll be posting about a whole plethora of miscellaneous junk, and you can tune in, or tune out, or whatever you want to do. And if you do I hope you don’t think your time wasted, and the author an interminably dull cretin. Cheerio!


Limbo! Everybody do the limbo!

Limbo is a video game, originally an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive title last summer, recently made available on PSN and Steam. The game was critically acclaimed as you may be aware, so I really wanted to check it out, especially given my experience with Braid, a game of similar origin and acclaim. Also like Braid, Limbo is a puzzle-platformer with unique presentation, but I would say that’s where the similarities end.

A boy and a boat. Nothing too creepy going on.

This game is a strongly designed puzzle-platformer, wrapped in one of the most convincingly realised aesthetics of any game I have ever witnessed. Breathtaking monochromatic audio-visuals aside, this game is also a bold gameplay statement, revolving around environmental puzzles so tightly structured that every object in the game world has a purpose as part of the perpetual journey from left to right. This genre is certainly not unique amongst downloadable indie games, but the execution is so tightly tuned and unobtrusive that you can sit back and soak up the experience as a whole.

Limbo de-constructs the storytelling of the genre in a quietly organic fashion, telling its minimalistic tale in images and sounds rather than words. When your avatar, a small and silent boy, wakes up in a dark and strange world, your first instinct is to run to the right of the screen, to progress and overcome any obstacle in your path. Initially it’s the joy of discovery that drives you, especially in a world so compelling as this. There are no levels, no cuts. The world continues from beginning to end without break.

The economy of storytelling here is pretty astonishing. It is a closed experience – everything you need to know is in the game, and you make of it what you will. I had a pretty strong personal moment with the ending, which similarly to Braid, re-contextualises your time spent with the game – though unlike Braid, it doesn’t hit you over the head with it. The story of Limbo is not really told, it is suggested by the game, and inferred by the player. I found it utterly compelling.

One of the larger "enemies" in the game. Without wishing to spoil anything, your interactions with this spider evoke a remarkable pathos.

The gameplay is appropriately minimal in its setup, using directional control, a jump button and an action button. It is the satisfying internal realism of environmental interactions that truly impress. Several early encounters with bear-traps set the stage for what’s to come – a world where the simplest object can be an obstacle, a weapon, a tool, a platform, depending on how you interact with it. That’s not to say you have any real freedom. Limbo is entirely linear, and almost every puzzle has a single correct solution, but the sheer breadth of puzzle designs made possible by such a small selection of objects and interactions is a near-endless source of surprise and delight.

Limbo is a game of trial and error. Nothing is explicitly explained about the world, nor the objects in it. Often, the first time you encounter a new situation, you will walk right into a trap and die – and in some pretty brutal ways. Fortunately, the game checkpoints very regularly, so it’s easy and actually quite rewarding to learn from your mistakes and adapt your strategy accordingly. Despite the tone of the game, player death is taken very lightly, and is as much a learning tool as a punishment.

Outside of a few puzzles with a precise timing on them that require quick reflexes, the majority of the game’s running time has a leisurely, considered pace that really heightens those brief moments of panic when you realise an unstoppable boulder is rolling toward you. Again though, the checkpoint system means you are not heavily punished for your bravery, and that every seemingly-unseen death the game springs on you teaches you a little more about the mechanics of the environment, and the puzzle at hand.

Speaking of the environment, the game does a pretty astonishing job of setting a tone through its striking visuals, and exemplary sound design. Everything is dark, misty, slightly blurred, and yet sharply detailed, full of little touches like electrical cables gentle swaying and roof tiles that slip underfoot, sliding down the roof and over the edge into the darkness below. The animation is similarly sublime, and contextual. As you approach objects, the boy’s hands will reach out to touch them, or to push them. There are some pretty amazing set-pieces too – in particular a large hotel sign.

The music and sound design of Limbo is, to my ears, wholly astonishing, and may well be the single element that glues the experience together. The music itself is barely perceptible as such, consisting of muddy distant tones and the ambience of the immediate environment. Again, that hotel sign is made that much more memorable by its use of throbbing electrical hum and crackle. Machines clank and groan, insects buzz and chirp, and vague organic drones ring out from somewhere in the background gloom.

Limbo is not a stroll in the park, but it is an order of magnitude more forgiving than Super Meat Boy, because it relies on logic and ingenuity rather than pixel-perfect jumping. I feel like this is the type of game almost anybody could enjoy and in time even complete.

I honestly cannot recommend this game highly enough. It’s original, it’s tightly designed, it’s exceptionally well presented, it’s well paced and pretty much the ideal length for an experience so self-contained and memorable. That said your mileage may vary depending on your appreciation of the presentation style or the puzzle-platforming gameplay. It is also quite short, taking me under three hours to complete, but I always appreciate a game that is short and perfectly-formed more than one that is overstretched. My three hours playing Limbo were a more enjoyable experience than fifty hours of Fallout 3.

Portal 2…

… is pretty awesome.

I can see there’s a ridiculous amount of backlash out there right now, some grounded and some not. I followed the potato ARG only casually for the most part, and it’s fair to say that like every other ARG ever created, its ultimate end didn’t really justify the time spent. That being said, I appreciate the effort.

There’s a position now amongst a growing number of PC gamers that pay-for DLC is bad, and launch-day there is pay-for DLC available for Portal 2. But it’s not main content, merely cosmetic upgrades for co-op mode. It’s not super-tasteful to have it in there from the start, but it doesn’t affect the game itself so I don’t care.

There are even suggestions that it’s a console port, which is a fairly ridiculous accusation in the first place because it runs on the source engine, A primarily PC engine for the past seven years. Part of this complaint is the same crowd who got all up in a twist about no dedicated servers in Modern Warfare 2, or action-oriented gameplay in Dragon Age 2. It’s PC gamers refusing to acknowledge console gaming as the market leader, refusing to give any ground at all. While I can sympathise with the position, it doesn’t stop people expressing their poorly constructed opinions like a bunch of entitled children.

Portal 2 does not “feel” any different to any other source engine game, and the graphics are pretty stunning. The only difference I can see is a save dialogue telling you not to turn off your console. Seriously. An image file during saving, and people are outraged that Valve could have left any reference to a console in their PC game. Fuck off. And besides, even if it were a console port, it’d be about the most PC-like PC port of a console game in the history of  console to PC ports.

As for length, I got through it in seven solid hours, bt they were a more enjoyable seven hours than I think I’ve had in any Valve game to date. And that’s single-player only, haven’t touched co-op yet. I’m a Portal veteran, but even I couldn’t see the various plot twists and turns coming. The set-pieces, the structure of the game, the writing, the personality of it oozes from every reconfigurable panel. So once again, another big thumbs up to Valve. Is it as good value as The Orange Box? No, obviously. It’s also probably better than anything in the Orange Box.

Now for the mandatory episode 3 reference, in regards to them finishing it: please do so!

Portal 2 co-op partner wanted

I have problem. Problem is no friends.

No, I’m kidding. Kind of. But seriously though. Portal 2 is coming out next Tuesday (unless some crazy ARG turns out to be true). I’m pretty excited by that. However, as far as I can tell, nobody else I know will have Portal 2, day of release. I’m stuck with friends who have bad computers, don’t play games that require mice, or don’t play skill-based games. Certainly none of them have an especially strong bond with the original Portal, because none of them completed it.

This means I’m somewhat locked out of the co-operative mode of the main game because I won’t have a partner to play with. Now I’m sure there’s an option to just go through it with another randomly chosen person, but I don’t really like that idea because it throws up so many different variables; what if the other person has played through already and just wants to run through it as quickly as possible? What if the other person is no good at Portal and I can’t proceed at a decent pace because of their lack of experience? What if the other person drops out twenty minutes in?

Anybody out there reading this want to be my Portal 2 co-op partner? You know, for the first play-through of the game. I wish I had someone special to share the experience with by now, but alas I do not. I guess I could go trawling players on my favourite TF2 servers to see if anyone’s in a similar boat, but I expect not.

So, anybody want to take pity on me, and bond over a little Portal 2?

Oh, and also, I have a free copy of Portal on Steam. If you want Portal, I can give you it for free right now. No strings attached – it was part of my Portal 2 pre-order. You can hit me up here or on Steam for either.

Star Trek Online (Open Beta)

Hooray for GiantBomb which handed out a bunch of Star Trek Online beta keys a couple of weeks back, allowing myself and Mr. MyCousin to play through this beta.

Let me first state upfront that I have never played World of Warcraft. I have played trials of EVE, Warhammer Online, Final Fantasy XI and even the first Everquest though, and I found these games to be little more than repetitive almost storyless RPGs with unnecessarily clunky interfaces and control systems. Even with Warhammer Online, whose world and background I have some nostalgic love for, nothing about these games seemed like they would be in any way worth the effort and investment in both time and money required to enjoy them.

I should also admit at this point that I am something of a Trekkie, having seen all seven seasons of The Next Generation (over a stretch in 2006), and owning the first six of Deep Space 9, plus all of the movies, and having seen most of Voyager and about half of The Original Series… Read into that what you may, the point is that the universe of Star Trek is something I am fairly well versed in.

So, Star Trek Online? I must say that I have been pleasantly surprised. It seemed like it could have been a massive mess of clashing styles and stories, but somehow they’ve managed to pull it all together in a cohesive direction. Everyone is given their own ship in the game, and they have their own away team for ground missions. There are three fairly wide open character classes based on Star Fleet divisions of Tactical (red shirt), Engineering (gold shirt) and Science (blue shirt) (the same breakdown exists on the Klingon Empire side too), but what’s particularly interesting is the level of customisation on offer, even if it is cosmetic. Characters can be chosen from a number of races, or the player can create unique alien of a race of their own design. Which is what I did obviously. Enter Lt. Cmdr. Uderik Zabop Ankyla Amundsen of the USS Surfingturd (and later, the USS Bustard Booby and the USS Baboon Funk Egg).

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Final Fantasy XII

One of the more elaborate Final Fantasy covers, this box depicts one of the game's Judge charactersThis is an odd one. Professional reviewers everywhere loved it. Final Fantasy fanatics however were split down the middle. The legacy of Final Fantasy VII is that every time a new Final Fantasy comes out, it’s judged by how far it fell below that high water mark. Personally, as someone who preferred Final Fantasy IX, I try and remain open to wherever the franchise goes. I fall on the side of the reviewers. Here’s why:

Once upon a time there was a game called Vagrant Story, which mixed a complex but subtle story painted in mute earthy tones with an odd battle system and almost impenetrable weapon customisation. I got nowhere near the end of this one, but it stuck with me as a game that stunk of awkward wonder. I’d be fighting off goblins with a massive hammer on the end of a 9 foot pole that I’ve named Tiny Tim in a cramped brown dungeon corridor, and loving it. This is why I love Final Fantasy XII. It may as well have been Vagrant Story II.

A lot of the complaints about FFXII are that the story is lacking, not as epic or interesting as before, and I have to say I agree to an extent. The problem is that it’s very political and muted. On the other hand, I loved that about it. I’ve personally had quite enough of the young spikey-haired lad who gets swept up in a personal quest to save the world. In this case the spikey-haired lad has only peripheral involvement in freeing a kingdom from colonial rule.

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I was playing Left4Dead earlier, and I was kicked out of an 8v8 game of Verses mode, literally for dying immediately after saving some guy from a smoker and saying afterwards “Man, I try to save a guy, and this happens.” Almost got kicked in the previous round as infected because I pounced a smoker’s target without realising that it’s not actually about eliminating players, it’s apparently about leaving a smoker to get points while doing minimal damage before getting killed.

So my point is, Left4Dead is a fun game, it’s just played by the kind of assholes I thought I left behind when I gave up Counter-Strike Source. Back to TF2 it is then. Where the assholes at least don’t have a big shiny votekick button.


So, I got Braid last week. Mind blowing.

Here's something I did earlier - moments earlier, and then rewound time and sat and watched my time shadow copy do...

So what is Braid? Well, Braid is an independently produced “videogame” by a “man” named “Jonathan Blow”. It’s a 2D platformer on the surface, drawing heavily on classics like Super Mario Bros, but in actuality it’s more of a puzzle game than anything else. The hook is that all the puzzles play with time. For example, in the first world, you are introduced to the main character Tim’s ability to rewind time.

Now in most games of this ilk, you would gain an increasing number of time-based powers which would then open up the world in new ways, ala Zelda, ala Metroid. Not so in Braid. In Braid, each of the six worlds has its own has its own unusual and unique temporal properties. One world, for example, introduces green objects immune to time rewind, allowing you to use a key on a green door, and then rewind to before you used the key, and the green door stays unlocked, allowing you to keep the key for use on the door behind. Another advances time as you move right, and erases it as you move left, freezing time when you stand still.

It’s hard to really describe how these things work without playing the thing. Well maybe you need to watch this video?

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Control: A Historical Review of Joypads

That is by far the geekiest title for a post I have ever made, and I only hope the full 3000-word text lives up to that expectation.

You see, I thought I’d do something different today. Rather than review an album, or the latest BSG or whatever else, I was sitting on the toilet reading Edge (as I am wont to do), when I hit upon something I’ve always found quite fascinating.

I’ve grown up with videogames as part of the tapestry of my life, through my childhood, and now into my 20s. My first console (ignoring an old Acorn Archimedes system of my parents’) was the Sega Master System, and now I own a Wii. One thing that’s not talked about that much in the history of consoles is the controllers, which strikes me as odd considering how fundamental they are to the whole experience. Indeed they are the very mechanism through which one interacts with the games, and as such deserve to be treated with my own brand of beard-stroking bullshit faux-academia.

So long story short (after having already heard the long version of course), I thought I’d do a basic review of all the pads I have experienced, complete with handy pictures for the folks too young/old/cool to know what I’m talking about. These are based on subjective assessments and are not about the game systems, nor the games themselves – although these obviously informed the experience I have with the controllers. I will try to objectively assess the build quality, features, ergonomics, and overall feel of each controller individually. Naturally, the 8bit systems are at a disadvantage, but hey, that’s the nature of the game.

Additionally, I should note they’re in roughly the order that I experienced them (while in brackets I note the year of the pad’s release – don’t get confused by this), or as close as my memory can reconstruct, rather than their release order, so each subsequent controller is naturally compared to its predecessors. Again, that’s just the nature of the game (and as Mike Patton sang, “… and you have to play”).

So, let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?

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Bioshock (PC)

The Mole was clearly the best of TB2's Pod vehicles. Better even than the DOMO.Sometimes I realise that I tend to review things I like rather than things I don’t, which is fair enough considering I’m not a professional reviewer. However, just to balance things out, every once in a while I like to be more critical.

Bioshock is a game that has recieved almost unanimous praise, and yet, I come away from the game feeling extremely underwhelmed. Something about it doesn’t feel right to me somehow, which is a shame because I love the concept and the setting.

Maybe it’s coming off the back of the Source engine that Bioshock seems a little bit clunky. The majority of First Person Shooters I’ve played in the past five years have been Valve games on their Source engine. While far from the graphical excess of Crysis or Unreal 3.0, the source engine runs smoothly thanks to years of optimisation and continued development. And I’ll be honest here, I actually find that the Source engine looks much prettier than the over-hyped Unreal 3.0 engine that appears here in Bioshock. Why?

Here in Bioshock, much as in Doom 3, everything, from walls to floors, to people seems to be coated in a horrible shiny plastic look, detracting somewhat from the realism. Clothes and fabric all seem to have the ridiculously bump-mapped texture of shiny concrete. In Source things have some grit, some dirt, and most of all, you can actually see the textures of surfaces and not huge lo-res shiny white highlights every-fucking where.

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