In the time that Microsoft has been a company it has only known two Chief Executive Officers. The first was unforgettably Bill Gates, the point man of the company from its founding days that saw the company grow from a small software shop to the industry giant of the late 90s. Then, right at the beginning of the new millennium, Bill Gates stood down and passed the crown to long time business partner Steve Ballmer who has since spent the better part of 2 decades attempting to transform Microsoft from a software company to a devices and services one. Rumours had been spreading about who was slated to take over Ballmer for some time now and, last week, after much searching Microsoft veteran Satya Nadella took over as the third CEO of the venerable company and now everyone is wondering where he will take it.
For those who don’t know him Nadella’s heritage in Microsoft comes from the Server and Tools department where he’s held several high ranking positions for a number of years. Most notably he’s been in charge of Microsoft’s cloud computing endeavours, including building out Azure which hit $1 billion in sales last year, something I’m sure helped to seal the deal on his new position. Thus many would assume that Nadella’s vision for Microsoft would trend along these lines, something which runs a little contrary to the more consumer focused business that Ballmer sought to deliver, however his request to have Bill Gates step down as Chairman of the Board so that Nadella could have him as an advisor in this space says otherwise.
As with any changing of the guard many seek to impress upon the new bearer their wants for the future of the company. Nadella has already come under pressure to drop some of Microsoft’s less profitable endeavours including things like Bing, Surface and even the Xbox division (despite it being quite a revenue maker, especially as of late). Considering these products are the culmination of the effort of the 2 previous CEOs, both of which will still be involved in the company to some degree, taking an axe to them would be a extraordinarily hard thing to do. These are the products they’ve spent years and billions of dollars building so dropping them seems like a short sighted endeavour, even if it would make the books look a little better.
Indeed many of these business units which certain parties would look to cut are the ones that are seeing good growth figures. The surface has gone from a $900 million write down disaster to losing a paltry $39 million in 2 quarters, an amazing recovery that signals profitability isn’t too far off. Similarly Bing, the search engine that we all love to hate on, saw a 34% increase in revenue in a single quarter. It’s not even worth mentioning the Xbox division as it’s been doing well for years now and the release of the XboxOne with it’s solid initial sales ensures that remains one of Microsoft’s better performers.
The question then becomes whether Nadella, and the board he now serves, sees the on-going value in these projects. Indeed much of the work they’ve been doing in the past decade has been with the focus towards unifying many disparate parts of their ecosystem together, heading towards that unified nirvana where everything works together seamlessly. Removing them from the picture feels like Microsoft backing itself into a corner, one where it can be easily shoehorned into a narrative that will see it easily lose ground to those competitors it has been fighting for years. In all honesty I feel Microsoft is so dominant in those sectors already that there’s little to be gained from receding from perceived failures and Nadella should take this chance to innovate on his predecessor’s ideas, not toss them out wholesale.
I missed the boat on many of Tim Schafer’s games. Whilst I was aware of the titles that rocketed him to game developer stardom (Monkey Island, Manic Mansion and Psychonauts) I never ended up seeking them out, even more recently when I’ve been told I have to play them. You can probably attribute that to the fact that many of my friends had Apple IIs or other similar Mac computers and as such weren’t able to share games with me, the primary one being the original Monkey Island series. Still his games seem to have something of a following and if the Kickstarter for the Doublefine Adventure was anything to go by I figured their latest release, The Cave, would be worth playing.
Upon starting up The Cave you’ll be greeted by a smooth talking narrator who introduces himself as the cave you’re about to dive into, something we’re told just to go along with. After a short setting of the scene you’re then introduced to the 7 playable characters that you can choose to bring with you on the journey. They are (in no particular order): The Knight, The Adventurer, The Monk, The Twins, The Time Traveler, The Scientist and The Hillbilly. Each of them has their own little story which you’ll dive into as you venture deep into the cave, revealing their troublesome past and hopefully work towards making their present a little better.
The Cave has gone for a stylized 2.5D environment, locking your movement to the traditional 2D platformer style which uses 3D models for everything on screen. Typically heavy stylization goes hand in hand with simplicity (as the choice to heavily stylize is usually done as a trade off for better performance) however The Cave’s various environments are drenched in detail with modern lighting effects, particle systems and intricate set pieces. All put together it works very well with each of the various sections of the cave having its own distinct feeling, especially the unique character rooms.
At the beginning you’re shown the group of 7 characters and you get to choose 3 of them to go along for the ride. The choice is arbitrary as no matter who you end up choosing you will be able to make it through to the end. Your choice of characters only affects the path you will take to reach the end although there are some sections which might go a bit quicker if you choose certain characters over others. In the end though due to the unfortunate choice of 7 characters rather than say 6 or 9 you’ll have to play the game through a full 3 times in order to see all of the character’s stories, if that’s of interest to you.
The Cave is your traditional puzzler/platformer, making you jump from platform to platform in order to find the right items to use in the right place or to pull various levers in order to progress to the next section. The twist comes from each of the characters that you choose to take on your journey as each of them has some kind of special ability that can be used to solve the puzzles. Now for the most part these abilities really only come into play during the character’s unique section of the cave but there are times during the intervening puzzles where these abilities might come in handy. The Knight for instance can go completely invulnerable which is kind of handy when you want to fall off ledges in order to descend quickly.
Thankfully there’s no real inventory to speak of so you won’t spend your time hoarding dozens of items in the hopes you’ll need to use them. Instead in The Cave each of your 3 characters can only hold a single item at a time. Whilst there are some puzzles that require all of your characters to have an item and be doing something with it most of the time it’s only the main character that needs to do so. However much like other puzzle games there’s no shortage of things which you can pick up and interact with which can sometimes have you holding things that serve no purpose what so ever. This is part of the challenge of course but its usually fairly obvious what goes where.
As for the puzzles themselves most of them are relatively obvious with solutions that come about organically or by trial and error should you get stuck. Usually frustration sets in when you’ve picked up an item at one place then placed it down to get another item that you need to use right then and there, forcing you to backtrack some distance to get it again. There were some puzzles which stumped me to the point of needing a walk through guide but most of them were me thinking a puzzle should was solved when it really wasn’t. There was one puzzle which I thought was a bit rough however (the final stage, very last puzzle if you’re wondering) which whilst not being rubber duck key sort of thing was still in the realms of “LOL DEVELOPER LOGIC”.
The Cave is well coded considering its simultaneous release across several different platforms however there was one quirk which proved to be endlessly frustrating and one hilarious bug (pictured above). The quirk seems to be due to the dual control scheme that The Cave uses, letting you control your characters with the keyboard or mouse (or both at the same time, if you’re so inclined). However if you click in a location and then try to use the keyboard, like I tended to do accidentally when resting my hand on the mouse, there’s a 3 second or so period where the keyboard just simply doesn’t respond. This isn’t due to my keyboard or mouse as I don’t have this problem in any other game and it caused no end of frustration when my characters wouldn’t move the way I told them to. It’s not exactly game breaking but it is incredibly frustrating so I hope it gets fixed soon.
The bug shown above is also nothing really serious, just a clipping issue where my character was able to swim through the ground, but there’s probably a quick fix to it that could be implemented without too much trouble.
I thought the story of The Cave was interesting but lacked any real depth to it. Sure the character’s backgrounds are explored decently through the cave paintings and their unique puzzle caves but none of them are particularly likeable or relatable. Now I get this is the point some what but their stories didn’t have any impact on me one way or the other. It’s made up for in spades by the fun and novel game mechanics so I guess what I’m getting at is that the story is serviceable but that’s not the reason I’d be playing the game.
The Cave is a solid platformer that brings in unique game mechanics and a pleasant art style to form a game that’s quite enjoyable to play. Many are seeing this as a teaser of things to come with the Doublefine Adventure and if this is true it should be shaping up to be something quite special, especially for fans of Schafer’s games. I had a good time with The Cave, although my second play through didn’t last particularly long (I stopped about half way through the first unique puzzle) but then again I’m the kind of player who gets rapidly disinterested in games I’ve already completed. The Cave is certainly worth a play through just for the unique experience it provides.
The Cave is available right now on PC, Xbox360, Playstation 3 and WiiU right now for $19.99 and an equivalent amount of points on the varying systems respectively. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours played and 19% of the achievements unlocked.
For someone who’s stated repeatedly that open world games are not my thing I sure have played a lot of them this year, from 38 Studio’s swan song in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning to Prototype 2 and Sleeping Dogs. I’ve come to appreciate the genre more since then as I really did enjoy Sleeping Dogs even if I avoided many of the repetitive side missions in favor of the more engrossing story missions. I had been planning to do a review of Far Cry 3 for a while now on the recommendation of several friends who have dozens of hours invested in it and, if I’m honest I wasn’t looking forward to it. I remember the original boring me rather quickly and the second was just such a mess I didn’t make it past the first hour. However this latest installment is a vast step up from either of its predecessors and I’d even go so far as to say it was rather enjoyable.
Far Cry 3 goes back to the original’s roots, putting you on the fictional Rook Island located somewhere between the Indian and Pacific oceans. You play as Jason Brody who, with a group of close friends including a couple of children of 1 percenters, have been enjoying a tropical vacation. The group decides to go skydiving together but they all land on different sections of an island which is controlled by the pirate lord Vaas. They’re then taken hostage and ransomed for their return but your brother is having none of that and breaks you both out. The ensuing escape goes terribly awry with your brother being gunned down by your captors and you falling unconscious in a river. You are rescued by the Rakyat, a group native warriors, and then swear vengeance against Vaas and his entire operation.
Whilst Far Cry might never have been the PC destroyer that Crysis was it did have a reputation for being on the upper end of the graphics scale and Far Cry 3 certainly doesn’t disappoint in this area. On first glance I was convinced that it was one of the Crytek engines but as it turns out it’s Ubisoft’s own in house engine called Dunia, made by a former Crytek employee. It features all the things we’ve come to expect from high end games like motion blur and depth of field but it also includes other impressive features like day/night cycles, dynamic weather and realistic fire simulation (which makes starting huge fires rather fun). One minor complaint I have about it is that enabling v-sync (I hate tearing) seems to make any system struggle. Taking it off and cranking up the anti-aliasing worked well to combat tearing however so its more of a FYI than a complaint.
Unlike the majority of open world games Far Cry 3’s core game play is good old fashioned First Person Shooting with an arsenal of weapons at your disposal. The whole combat system has a lot of polish to it with all the main weapons behaving how you’d expect them to and none of them glitching out in strange ways. There are a few quirks like the knife swings having a queue so if you mash the key a couple times he’ll keep on swinging that knife when you’re not pressing it. The aiming can also be a bit weird as like in say Call of Duty aiming down the sights guarantees the bullet will hit where the sites are targeted but that doesn’t appear to be the case in Far Cry 3. Everything else seems to work well though, especially the take down system.
Far Cry 3 includes a rudimentary stealth system that works on line of sight, distance and the amount of time you’re visible to an enemy. For its intended purpose it works well, allowing you to sneak up on people and take them out silently with your knife. However there are also silencer attachments for your guns that supposedly allow you to take people down without alerting others but I never found that to be the case as anyone who was shot down immediately triggered every guard to go into a panic. Realistically I get the feeling that it was primarily designed for the take downs with the weapons being something of an afterthought. This could possibly be due to my preferred weapons being assault rifles and SMGs as I didn’t really bother with sniper rifles at all.
Like most games these days there’s a talent/specialization system that allows you to craft Jason into the kind of character you want to play. There’s 3 different styles ranging from complete stealth to all out combat and many of the talents are synergistic across trees. Initially the points you choose will make a big difference to all your encounters as some of them will make certain situations a breeze whilst without them you’ll find yourself struggling to accomplish certain tasks. However as the game goes on you’ll find that most of them are more convenience factors than anything else, either allowing you to do things slightly faster or simply blunder your way through without having to think about the risks you’re taking.
The reason I say this is that whilst you can’t unlock all the talents from the get go (you can’t simply ignore the main story line and get everything) the pace at which next tiers are unlocked seems a bit off as I always found myself with extra points spare before the talents I wanted were available. Now this isn’t because I’m some kind of crazy quest nut, far from it, I in fact ignored many of the side quests in favor of the story line, only stopping to get radio towers and the occasional safe house so I didn’t have to drive so far. Still by doing that I was able to max out one tree (shown above) and was only 6 or so levels away from maxing all the others.
I guess where I’m going with this is that in Far Cry 3, like with nearly all the open world games I’ve played, the bevy of additional side missions and activities available are simply not required. Whilst some of them might be a fun distraction from the main plot line they are, for want of a better word, fluff that doesn’t really need to be in the game. Now I know that this is part of the appeal for a lot of people, being able to wander around to do whatever you want and I admit that not being on rails is quite refreshing but I’ve yet to see a game where these side missions aren’t repetitive wastes of time that don’t bestow any real benefit for the player. This is especially true in Far Cry 3 when you can make all the weapons free in a rather short space of time and upgrade all your other stuff through crafting.
That’s one thing that Far Cry 3 does do rather well actually as the upgrades really are completely optional but taking the, admittedly small amount of, time to go and find the right animals, skin them and then craft your upgrades is pretty cool. It does start to get a little ridiculous if you’ve got the fervent RPGer mindset though as there’s animals and herbs everywhere and your loot sack is only so big, usually meaning you end up with a lot of left overs. There is a quick sell button for the trash loot but it unfortunately doesn’t extend to skins that you have no use for anymore which can sometimes leave you with a surplus that you don’t need but don’t have an easy way of knowing that. This is only made worse if you get the double harvest talents so some inventory management is required.
Far Cry 3 also loses points for this kind of bullshit that Ubisoft has been renowned for: highly connected games that shit themselves whenever your Internet connection drops or the Ubisoft servers have a conniption. This particular error was coming from their end however as I was able to Google search and Steam chat with all my friends whilst it was deciding what to do and then when it timed out it said I could keep playing anyway. Now I’m not a professional coder but I definitely know that if you have a mechanism for allowing players to keep playing offline you can certainly do that check in the background without putting this prompt up in front of them. This is on top of the fact that even the Steam copies of the game come bundled with Ubisofts Uplay social gaming network thing which is just as bad as any game that bundles Games for Windows Live in the same fashion. Seriously just stop doing it guys, the “rewards” you offer us for playing your games aren’t worth the precious seconds we have to waste clicking past your crappy social networks.
Far Cry 3’s story is somewhat confused in its execution, starting off strong with Jason being a bewildered upper-middle class boy stuck in a woeful situation to this kind of fever dream sequence where its hard to understand whats real and what’s not. It’s not in a good way either as there are many sections where these dream sequences seem to happen only as a way to gloss over how things actually happened in that situation (the final knife fight being a great example of this). I’ll admit that one interpretation of this could very well be some kind of Fight Club-esque idea but in reality it seems more like there were many great disparate ideas that are linked together in really tenuous ways and just ends up feeling like a jumbled mess. At least the ending didn’t scream sequel, which would’ve had this review being a lot more ALL CAPS ragey.
Far Cry 3 is a beautiful game that pays homage to its roots, making up for the mistakes of the sequel in spades. Open world games aren’t usually my forte but I definitely enjoyed the majority of my time with it and this soared to new heights once my character achieved that broken state where I felt like I was invincible. There are still some niggling issues however with the pointless side quests, half baked stealth system and a story that does more to confuse than anything else. All that being said however it’s still a pretty good game, one that deserves much of the praise that’s been leveled at it and for those who love titles like Grand Theft Auto et. al. I’m sure there’s a lot for you to love in Far Cry 3.
Far Cry 3 is available on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 right now for $69.99, $68 and $68 respectively. Game was played on the PC on the Survivalist difficulty setting with 14 hours total play time and 60% of the achievements unlocked.
An old friend of mine wrote a post not too long ago saying that the FPS genre had almost run its course and was in either need of a reboot or a bullet. I agreed with him although countered with a single game that was, technically, a first person shooter but flipped the idea of what constituted a traditional FPS and got it all mixed up with some heavy RPG elements. Whilst I didn’t mention it at the time (mostly because the question was centred around player agency) Borderlands was another title in the FPS genre that felt like a breath of fresh air when compared to all the other generic shooters that have graced our gaming platforms over the past few years. Its sequel, released a couple weeks ago, stays true to the original’s FPS/RPG hybrid styling whilst provided some much needed polish in the areas that needed it.
Borderlands 2 takes place 5 years after the events in the original and with the vault opened and the monstrosity contained within it defeated a new valuable resource, a purple metal called Eridium, has sprung up all over Pandora. Handsome Jack, a member of the Hyperion corporation, notices this and secures the resource for himself allowing him to take over Hyperion. Jack now uses his power, as well as a giant orbital satellite in the form of a H which can be clearly seen from the ground, to control the inhabitants of Pandora. However rumours have been spreading of another vault contained on Pandora and a new set of vault hunters have come seeking its contents.
Just like the original Borderlands 2 sticks to cel shading for its graphics style and 3 years down the track its not looking any worse for wear. Whilst many have praised Borderlands 2 for being a graphical step up from its predecessor (and it is, in many ways) if you were like me and dived into the configuration files you would have been able to get similar levels of detail. That being said not having to do that now thanks to a menu that reveals all those options to you is a much better alternative and speaks volumes to the lengths that Gearbox has gone to in order to not make the PC version a bastard child of a port. Seeing as that was one of my main gripes with the original I’m glad to see this was addressed as I wasn’t looking forward to panning them again for it.
As I mentioned previously Borderlands 2 is a hybrid FPS/RPG with core elements of both combining together to form the core of the game play. The FPS portion, at its most basic level, is your typical run and gun affair with regenerating health (in the form of a shield) and chest high boxes littering the landscape to provide you with cover. The RPG elements aren’t as deep as full on RPG titles like say Skyrim but you’ve still got 4 distinct character classes each with a talent tree that contains 3 different paths in it giving you quite a bit of freedom in how your character ends up playing out.
Now whilst the basic aspects of the FPS part of Borderlands might not be too different from any other generic shooter the way in which combat actually plays out is nothing like it. Just like in the original each of the character classes has a unique action skill that can drastically change the way a fight goes. Since I choose the Commando I had myself a sentry turret that provided both added damage but also a distraction for some of the tougher enemies so that I could run up behind them and unleash hell in relative safety. Talking it over with my friends the Sentry gun is one of the most useful but apparently Zero’s ability (being able to turn invisible whilst leaving a decoy behind) is by far the most fun.
Of course there’s even more variation in the FPS aspects thanks to the near infinite amount of guns, grenades and other inventory items that can drastically change the way you engage hostile targets. Whilst there’s a couple simple mechanics like different types of elemental damage that are more/less effective depending on the type of enemy you’re facing there are many guns with ludicrous abilities that can transform a meagre character into an unbridled tool of destruction. Indeed finding such weapons are usually key to progressing past certain points and you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a couple a long your way.
For me it was a rocket launcher called the Partisan Mongol which upon firing launched a barrage of rockets that did several orders of magnitude more damage than I was capable of unloading with any of my other weapons. This weapon became a key part of my arsenal as it meant that should I get into a jam and need to kill something quickly to get second wind all I needed to do was whip out my launcher and lay waste to whatever was in front of me. Sure it wasn’t fool proof and the amount of ammo it consumed meant it wasn’t particularly sustainable but considering I carried that weapon with me from level 20 something right up until the end just shows you how valuable weapons like that can be.
Your talent trees will also have a major impact on how you progress through the game. I played as a Survival Commando mostly because the initial talents went a long way to reducing the amount of down time I had to endure. As I went up in levels however the skills made me almost unstoppable as I was able to take massive amounts of pounding without breaking a sweat. Couple this with a couple other items like say an amp shield that imbues your weapons with extra damage at full charge and a build that was primarily defensive in nature suddenly becomes wildly offensive. In the end I settled on a build that reduced the cooldown of my turret skill by half and enabled me to have two turrets out at a time that both had shields on them, giving me both amazing survival power and an incredible damage output.
There’s also another levelling system on top of the regular one and its called, eerily enough (considering the title of my last Borderlands review), Badass Ranks. In essence they’re like a sub-achievement system, they’re only tracked in game, but you get ranks for completing things like setting a certain number of enemies on fire, using certain item abilities and performing all sorts of weird and wonderful acts. Once you rank up you’re then given a token that you can spend on a percentage based perk that can be things like increasing your shield regen rate. According to what Gearbox tells you these perks are unlimited and thus function as a levelling system that will continue long on after you’ve hit the 50 level cap. Unlimited is a bit of a misleading term though as its clear that as you level up the same perks you start to hit diminishing returns on them and I get the feeling that the upper bounds for many of them are in the realms of 10% or so.
In terms of overall polish Borderlands 2 is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor. Gone is the GameSpy account requirement and the need to open up a rather excessively number of ports on your router in order for it to work. The menus are also not painfully console specific reacting much better to the additional input options offered by the mouse and keyboard of the PC platform. I did encounter some interesting and quirky bugs along the way and there was only one that actually broke the game in a serious way.
Minor plot spoilers follow:
For the BNK-3R boss fight I spent most of my first try of it running around looking for ammo drops to replenish my stash. Now I’m not sure if it was due to me being in a strange position or not but once it was past a certain percentage of health and Roland said something like “Now that’s a big gun” it jammed itself on the corner of the platform and then started violently shuddering whilst not getting anywhere. I figured it was just stuck and hopefully wearing its health down would trigger it to teleport out or get unstuck but unfortunately after wearing it all the way down to 0 health it just sat there. After jumping to my death (and eating the respawn cost) it regenerated all its health but was still stuck in the same position. The only way to get it unstuck is to reload and then hope it doesn’t happen again. Thankfully for me it didn’t but there are many people on the forums reporting the same issue so hopefully it gets fixed soon.
The writers have also out done themselves as the comedic tones that are interwoven in through a semi-serious plot make for a story that’s engaging, entertaining and completely hilarious at times. All of the characters have their own unique brand of humour and whilst I didn’t find all of them laugh out loud funny they all had their moments. Handsome Jack, your nemesis for the entire game, is also an extremely hateable character and they did a great job of making him a real douche bag. Needless to say that I spent the majority of the game just waiting for a moment when I could put a bullet between his eyes.
The story itself was good too and whilst I didn’t feel a deep emotional attachment for many of the characters (apart from Mordecai as I played him in the original) I did genuinely care about how the ending panned out. If pushed I’d say it was the game play that made it for me rather than the story but overall I’d rate it far above other titles in the FPS genre which usually only use a paper thin storyline in order to keep you going.
Borderlands 2 is an amazing game having taken all the ideals of the original and polishing them up to a glorious hue. All the complaints that I had about the original are gone and save for a few bugs the experience is seamless. Even for those who didn’t play the original Borderlands 2 offers a great FPS/RPG experience that is only matched by other greats in this hybrid genre like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you’re one of the many who enjoy games with a long shelf life then Borderlands 2 is definitely a title for you as my play time is probably only a quarter of what’s possible.
Borderlands 2 is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 right now for $49.99, $69 and $69 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 25 hours of total play time, 58% of the achievements unlocked and reaching level 31.
Striking the right balance between making a game enjoyable and it’s relative difficulty level can be a rather tricky task. Way back in the dawn of gaming developers would often shoot for the high difficulty level simply because that meant people would play their game longer, even if that came at the cost of some enjoyability. It worked, for the most part, because I can remember becoming infuriated with many games yet still being unable to put them down, losing many hours to challenges that had long lost all meaning to me and all that remained was a desire to see it finished. They Bleed Pixels, the latest game from Spooky Squid Games Inc, feels like a homage to those days and if my reaction to it was anything to go by it’s a pretty authentic experience.
They Bleed Pixels puts you in a Lovecraftian world where you’re put in control of an anonymous (I couldn’t find out her name, at least) girl who’s dropped off at a home for troubled girls. It’s at this place she discovers a book, dripping in blood and pulsating with a decidedly evil red glow, that invades her dreams and twists her physical form into a purple skinned version of herself with claws for hands. She then has to battle her way past countless enemies and obstacles in order to reach the end and wake up from the terrible dream that is holding her captive.
As my long time readers will know I’ve got a bit of a thing for pixel art games, probably due to the nostalgia factor, and They Bleed Pixels delivers quite well in this regard. The art direction is great as everything has this eerie vibe to it, even when the music playing behind it is quite upbeat. This is only made better by the very satisfying explosions of pixels when you dispatch enemies (or yourself if you find the wrong edge of a saw) which fly across the screen and coat every surface they touch. Combined with the meaty foley that accompanies it They Bleed Pixels is quite a visceral experience for the eyes, ears and mind.
The core game of They Bleed Pixels is the tried and true platformer which seems to take quite a lot of inspiration from the Super Meat Boy style of games. The mechanics are quite similar: you can grab onto walls and slide down them at varying paces, you have a double jump so that areas that seem inaccessible actually are and as you progress nearly every wall has something on it that will kill you. Like all games in its genre the platforming sections start off simple and then ramp up the difficulty slowly which I believe is the key to cementing you in your seat as you die repeatedly to the same obstacle.
Unlike other platformer only titles They Bleed Pixels includes a combat system that makes use of only a single button for attack that can then be modified by the use of the movement and jump keys. For a game that obviously prefers a controller based scheme (most of the menus reference button A, for instance) I can see this working quite well, indeed Super Meat Boy’s developers recommend this as the conrol scheme of choice, but I ignored their advice and used my keyboard. Using these techniques, which are laid out for you in a tutorial, you can rack up big combos on your enemies which leads into one of the other game mechanics.
Unlike other platformers which have set check points or only save at the end of the level They Bleed Pixels has a meter at the top of the screen which fills up when you dispatch your enemies. The higher your combos the faster it will fill so the game encourages you to blast through as fast as you can in order to fill your meter faster. Once its filled you can then stand still to create a checkpoint however you can also risk it and keep going in order to push your score even higher. It’s a dangerous mechanism and more than once I found myself sent back much father than I would of liked just because I wanted to amp my score up.
For probably the first 2 dreams I was really enjoying the play style of They Bleed Pixels mostly because it felt like Super Meat Boy without the tendency to induce RSI. Sure there were a lot of tense moments but I never finished a level without more than a few dozen deaths, something which in Super Meat Boy just counted as the warm up. However as the game went on I found myself stuck on levels for up to an hour or more, throwing myself repeatedly at the same obstacles and seeming to get no where. Whilst I’d like to blame game bugs for it (and did for most of the time) after carefully watching what was happening I could only blame myself for what was happening, but that didn’t stop me from feeling frustrated.
I think primarily my gripe with the later levels comes from the repetition of challenges that the player has already beatn previously. If you look at the screenshot below and compare it to the second one in this post you’ll note how similar these challenges are (jumping from one side of a block to the other) and that particular challenge is present in nearly every level. There are also long sections where you’re basically doing the same thing over and over until you get to the end which doesn’t feel like a good challenge. Indeed it feels more like a punishment for not being able to execute the moves correctly which can happen quite easily when you panic and hit the attack button rather than jump.
Now don’t get me wrong, the game stands well enough on its own, but there was definitely a point where it transitioned from being a fun level of challenge to being just straight up insane and that’s where the fun started to rapidly drain out of it. I got to the last level, heck I was only about 3 screens away from finishing the game, but after spending a good 20 minutes or so on a puzzle and seemingly getting no where I just couldn’t bring myself to go back to it. I will take the criticism that I just wasn’t good enough to complete it (my performance in Super Meat Boy is a testament to how mediocre I am with these kinds of games) but even that knowledge won’t change the fact that I stopped having fun in the last couple hours.
For its genre They Bleed Pixels is an incredibly well polished title that will provide hours of frustrating enjoyment. Whilst I’m not into that whole achievement scene there are enough challenges listed to keep even the most dedicated achievement hunter mashing buttons for double, maybe even triple my play time. Whilst I might have lost interest in it right towards the end I can’t deny the overall quality of They Bleed Pixels, especially when compared to others in its genre.
They Bleed Pixels is available right now on PC and Xbox360 for $9.99 and an equivalent amount of Xbox points. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 7 hours played and 19% of the achievements unlocked.
The number of games that find success on one platform and then spread to others has trended upwards significantly over the past couple years. If I was to hazard a guess as to why this is I’d have to say that the tooling available is probably the primary reason as many of the games that make the transition are Xbox Live Arcade titles. For that we can thank the Microsoft XNA framework which does a lot of the heavy lifting for the developers meaning that the only thing holding back a cross platform release is reworking the UI/controls for a different platform. That’s still a challenge which is why you don’t see every single XBLA game instantly on the PC but even a modicum of success will usually mean a PC release not long after. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is one such title having found wild success late last year and then debuting on the PC this year.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (I’m going to abbreviate this to ITSP from now on) takes place in a far off galaxy in a solar system inhabited with a highly advanced race of aliens. Everything seems peachy until a tangled black mass rockets through their home system, eventually crashing into their sun. Instead of being instantly vaporized however it appears to take over the sun itself, forming a kind of Dyson Sphere around it. Then it launches several other replicants of itself at all the planets in the system that perform much the same function as the original asteroid did. You then take it upon yourself to rid your solar system of this menace, jumping in your hilariously stereotypical UFO and heading out with nothing much more than a scanner and a vendetta.
Right off the bat ITSP sets itself apart from all the other 2D puzzlers I’ve played recently by having some incredible cinematic direction. Whilst games like Unmechanical did the majority of their story telling through the game itself ITSP does quite a bit in some incredibly well directed cutscenes. Indeed the initial plot summary I gave you above all takes place within one such scene and everything about it, from the choice of artwork to the awesomely epic soundtrack, just made it feel like it was ripped directly from a high budget animated movie. That artistic style continues on throughout the game and it’s probably one of the most enjoyable things about ITSP.
ITSP brands itself as a “multi-directional shooter” however I feel like it’s far more appropriately classified as a 2D puzzler with shooter aspects. While you will spend a good amount of time firing at all the various enemies that will try to get you in all sorts of random ways the majority of your time will be spent solving some kind of puzzle. They’re not mutually exclusive things either as quite often you’ll be force to try and solve some kind of puzzle whilst under fire from all directions making what would be a simple encounter much more challenging. The two core game mechanics blend well together making for both exciting and challenging game play.
Initially you start off with just a few simple tools with which to complete your tasks. The first tool you’re given is a scanner which allows you to investigate objects in ITSP and then get a visual cue as to what you need to do in order to interact with it. This is extremely helpful as if you get stuck on at a particular stage you’re usually only a couple scans from working out what the intended solution is. Of course there are still some puzzles that are non-obvious even with those little clues but suffice to say that it serves well as a built in hint system that doesn’t feel like the answers are being handed to you on a plate.
As you progress on the tools you have at your disposal increase with every passing section leading to more and more complicated puzzles. In all I believe there were a grand total of 8 different tools at your disposal each of them with a unique ability that unlocks another section of the ITSP map. You’ll often find yourself flying past obstacles that you can scan but don’t yet have the tool to access it giving you a kind of foreboding as to what is to come later on.
The puzzles are, for the most part, quite well done as there’s a good balance between challenge and progression. Indeed if you’re struggling with a particular puzzle or boss fight then its usually because you’re not understanding the mechanics properly or you’re going about it in a really odd way. There are some challenges that are far less fun than others (I’m looking at you, rocket in a maze where you can’t hit the walls) but I didn’t often find myself stuck on a particular section for long which made the game feel a lot better paced than some other games in similar genres.
ITSP does have a few glitches that I believe are worth mentioning however. So to the developer’s credit they included a map that helps you navigate your way around ITSP, which is good. However should you go into said map whilst you’re holding something in the claw tool or holding a key down you will drop said object or that key you were holding down will stop working. It’s not game breaking but it is rather annoying when you’re in the later stages of the game where you’re required to drag an item along with you all the time and there’s not a lot of light so you have to keep checking your map to make sure you’re going in the right direction. Yes I know that you can use the power wheel thing to get a direction queue but that has the unfortunate side effect of changing whatever tool you had equipped at the time which can be deadly if you do it at the wrong time.
The physics are also a little wonky for some of the challenges, the most notable being the one above. Again it’s not game breaking but trying to get those damn crystals into the holes (or indeed anything that requires a little precision) is fraught with difficulties. ITSP does have a rudimentary snap-to system which works for something but not others and the crystals in the ice stage appear to be one of the things it doesn’t work for. It might make sense when you’re using a controller however I don’t know anyone who’s played this on the Xbox so I’m not completely sure of that.
The boss fights are equal parts fun and challenging with each of the bosses being unique in their own weird way. The one above was probably the most challenging boss fight of the lot as one mistake or slip up could easily see your ship ruined long before you had enough time to react. They were a very good way to break up the relative monotony of flying around, solving puzzles and looking for hidden stashes and it’s something that a lot of similar games forego because they simply can’t be worked in well. ITSP however does a very good job with them and they were definitely my favourite combat challenge.
ITSP’s story is a simple affair when taken on face value and really I’m not sure if there’s much more depth intended by the developers. Sure there are many themes that you could say are explored (invasion, uprising, etc.) however since there’s no real backstory or explanation behind the vast majority of things that happen within ITSP I can’t say that I was playing it for the plot. Thankfully it doesn’t matter that much as the game play and cinematic quality of ITSP carries it without the need for an in depth storyline.
ITSP was one of those unexpected gems that I came across by chance when I was in a hurried state looking for the next week’s game review. It’s cinematic cut scenes are a joy to watch, it’s game play is fun and varied and there are only a few issues that detract from it overall. Its short length also make for a good Sunday afternoon distraction that doesn’t drag on unnecessarily. If you’re a fan of 2D puzzlers or shooters or just enjoy a well crafted game then I can’t recommend ITSP enough as it really is just damn good fun.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is available right now on PC and Xbox360 for $14.99 and 800 Microsoft points respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 3.6 hours of total game time.
In the middle of last year I commented on some rumours that were circling around the Internet about how Xbox Live was coming to Windows 8 and along with it the ability to play some Xbox titles. The idea would have seemed to come out of left field for a lot of people as there’s no real incentive to enable such functionality (especially considering just how damn hard it would be to emulate the Xbox processor) but considering it alongside the Three Screens and a cloud idea it was just another step along the platform unification path. Since then however I hadn’t seen much more movement on the idea and instead figured that eventually everything would be united under the WinRT platform and was waiting to see an announcement to that effect.
The lion’s share of the titles that will be released on the Windows 8 platform are from Microsoft Studios with a couple big name developers like Rovio and Gameloft joining in the party. All of the first wave of titles will be playable on any Windows 8 platform and a few of them (most notably the relatively simple titles like Solitaire and some word games) will stretch onto Windows Phone 8 with things like resuming games that you started on another platform. Looking at the list of titles I can’t help but notice the common thread among them and I’m not quite sure to make of it.
For many of the third party titles its quite obvious that their release on Windows 8 (ostensibly on WinRT) is just yet another platform for them to have their product on. Angry Birds, for instance, seems to make it a point of pride that they’re on pretty much every platform imaginable and the fact that they’re on Windows 8 really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Indeed quite a lot of them are already multi-platform titles that cut their teeth on one mobile platform or another and realistically their move onto the Xbox (and from there to Windows 8) will just be another string in their bow. I guess what I’m getting at is that many of these titles already had the hard work of getting ports working done for them and it’s less indicative of how flexible the underlying WinRT platform really is.
Indeed the most innovative uses of WinRT come from the first party Microsoft titles which, whilst being unfortunately bland, do show what a truly agnostic application is capable of. They all feature a pause/resume function that works across platforms, ability to work with both touch interfaces as well as traditional mouse and keyboards and lastly some of them feature cross platform competitive play. It’s unfortunate that the third party developers didn’t look to take advantage of these capabilities but I can understand why they didn’t for these first wave of games; the investment would be too high for the potential pay off.
What I think really needs to be done is to bring the WinRT platform to the Xbox360 via a system update. Whilst its all well and good to have some Xbox titles ported to Windows 8 its really only a stopgap solution to bringing a unified platform to all of the three screens. Right now the only platform that’s lacking some form WinRT is the TV screen and that could be remedied via the Xbox. Whether that comes in the current generation or in Durango though will have to remain to be seen but it would be a great misstep from Microsoft to ignore the fact that the final piece of the puzzle is WinRT in the living room.
Microsoft really is onto something with the unified experience between all their available platforms and they’re really not that far off achieving it. Whilst it will take a while for third party developers to come out with apps that take advantage of the platform the sooner that it’s available across all three screens the sooner those apps will come. This first wave of games from Xbox live gives us a tantalizing little glance of what an unified platform could bring to us and hopefully subsequent waves take inspiration from what Microsoft has been able to do and integrate that into future releases.
Even though in my heart I’m a PC gamer I was never without a console growing up. For the most part I was a Nintendo kid, seeing every console from the NES upwards making its way into my family’s living room. That changed when I had my own job and enough money to buy a PlayStation 2, secluding myself away in my room to play Gran Turismo for hours on end trying to justify the $700 odd sum I had spent on this magnificent piece of hardware. Nowadays you’ll find every major console lining up beside my TV so that I can indulge myself in any title regardless of its platform.
The past couple decades has been quite an interesting time for consoles. They really came into prominence after the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1985 (2 years later for us Australians) and Nintendo continued to be highly successful with it’s successor. Their reign as the king of consoles came to an end with the release of the original PlayStation back in 1994 which saw Sony catapulted to the top of the console kingdom. Microsoft, seeing a great opportunity to compete in the gaming market, released the Xbox back in 2001 and whilst it didn’t dethrone Nintendo or Sony it enjoyed some mild success in the market, even if it wasn’t a success financially. The release of the PlayStation 2 kept Sony at the top for quite a while as neither the Xbox nor Nintendo’s GameCube could hold a candle to it.
The current generation of consoles saw another shift in the king of consoles crown, but not for the traditional reasons that gamers had come to expected. Whilst the PlayStation 3 was a technical marvel the Xbox360 hit the trifecta of price, performance and catalogue of good platform exclusives that helped build it up to the success it is today. Neither of them however could hold a candle to the success that is the Nintendo Wii. Aiming at their largest untapped market Nintendo created a console that appealed to non-gamers and gamers alike. The result being that they couldn’t manufacture the things fast enough, seeing wide spread shortages for the console that only helped to sustain the fever pitch surrounding it. With a grand total of 90 million consoles sold to date it’s well on its way to be the most successful console ever released, although it still has a long way to go to match the PlayStation 2 (coming in at a whopping 153 million).
The next generation of consoles is still some ways off however. Traditionally you’d see a new console generation every 5 years but the only ones with any official plans so far are Nintendo with their Wii U console which isn’t slated for release until sometime next year. Granted the current generation of consoles has aged far better than any of their previous generations what with developers finding all sorts of optimizations to squeeze extra performance out of them but even the best programming can’t hide the aging hardware that’s running in these consoles. It is then up for debate as to what the next generation of consoles will look like and there’s speculation that it may be the last.
Richard Garriott AKA Lord British, games industry celebrity and space tourist, has gone on record that he believes that the next generation of consoles will be the last:
IG: It’s always tough to completely change the way you look at things. The bigger the company, the more conservative they tend to be. Do you think consoles as we know them are doomed, or are we going to get a new generation, or is it just becoming irrelevant?
RGC: I think we might get one more generation, might, but I think fundamentally they’re doomed. I think fundamentally the power that you can carry with you in a portable is really swamping what we’ve thought of as a console.
IG: If we’ve got a smartphone that can do Xbox level graphics, which we’ve almost got, and I can hook that up to a TV and use a controller, what’s the difference between that and a console? It’s just whatever games are available.
RGC: Yes, exactly. That’s why I think there may be one more round of consoles left, but not many.
The idea of consoles going away isn’t a new one, hell there was a time when everyone thought the PC would be the dominant platform for all time, but them being replaced outright by mobile devices is a new one on me. For starters whilst you can get current Xbox level graphics on a handheld it’s always going to be a game of cat and mouse as to how far ahead the consoles are. Realistically current smart phones capabilities are only catching up to what was possible 5 years ago, not what’s possible today. Indeed once the next generation of consoles is released the smart phones (and other portable entertainment systems) will again be behind in terms of technology. The fact of the matter is you can’t shoe horn current generation technology into a portable form factor so I doubt we’ll see the loss of consoles after the next generation.
Although there is potential for the console market to be shaken up somewhat by the portable industry. The Wii showed that a console can succeed without having cutting edge technology in it (the Wii is basically a GameCube on the inside) and it’s that same market that gobbled up the Wii that will turn to other places for their gaming fix. Whether this will make the transition into some form of home based entertainment like consoles currently do remains to be seen however, but there’s definitely potential for it to happen.
As for the the future of console gaming? More of the same I believe. Whilst we may have seen some technical marvels in the form of the Wii, PlayStation Move and Kinect the bread and butter of these consoles doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, even in the face of challengers like the iPhone. For the non-gamer market however there’s a strong possibility that they’ll shift away from their Wiis in favour of their smart phones or tablets but there’s still a massive market that will crave the better graphics and performance that can only come from a console.
So long time readers of this blog will know that I’m somewhat of a fan of the Call of Duty series of games but I’ve only recently begun to appreciate the multiplayer in it. If I’m honest I was intimidated by the multiplayer scene because I thought it would be swamped with ex-Counter Strike pros who would eat a relative noob like myself for breakfast making the game boring and unsatisfying. I was proved wrong however and as of writing I’ve sunk a good 22+ hours into just the multiplayer, 3 times of that of the single player campaign. I’ll admit that what got me hooked was the levelling system but I also found myself rapidly improving as I progressed through the levels, always wanting to unlock that next bit of kit.
You can then imagine my surprise when Activision contacted me out of the blue and asked if I’d like to come up to Sydney for the day to play a beta of their upcoming release Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Of course I said yes and I dragged myself out of bed yesterday morning at the ungodly time of 5:45AM so I could catch my flight up and arrive there before the event started. 4 hours later I found myself sitting in the Parkview room of Doltone House here in Sydney, the same place that houses the Australian branch of the mighty search engine Google.
The room we were in was quite intimate and there were numerous other writers, web masters and clan members filling out the ranks. The man in the picture is none other than Robert Bowling of Infinity Ward, creative strategist and all round nice guy. After showing us a promotional video showcasing many of the games new features he then opened up the floor to some Q & A, and boy was it ever telling about their current market.
To put it in perspective out of the ~16 or so people that were there on the day (and the day previous I was told) I was the only one who’s preferred platform was the PC and 95% of the questions asked related to the Xbox or PS3 version of Modern Warfare 3. Thankfully though it looks like PC players won’t be second class citizens in any regards as we’ll still be getting dedicated servers in addition to the matching system that the console platforms have. Bowling wasn’t able to confirm if the PC would be getting a hardened edition however as he said it was something that the where still looking into (it’s not currently available for pre-order anywhere either).
Modern Warfare 3 has been designed from the ground up to be more appealing to a wider audience of gamers with a reworking of many core multi-player mechanics. For instance they have removed all multi-player achievements with the only ones available being in the single player game. They’ve also reworked the kill streak system into what’s now called the Strike Package system which varies depending on your choice from three options:
There’s also the return of death streak perks which give you some interesting abilities should you get your ass handed to you round after round. Guns now also have their own ranking system allowing you to specialize in a particular weapon, making it far more effective. This includes unlocking things like attachments, reticules, camos and Weapon Proficiencies (new attributes, some unique to particular weapon classes).
Prestige mode has also seen some reworking with a new Prestige Shop that allows you to buy rewards for your prestige levels. The currency of this shop is the Prestige Point which you get upon prestiging or you can also acquire through challenges in both single and multiplayer. Additionally you can now take one weapon along with you when you prestige which is great since sometimes your weapon of choice might be far down the level tree, far enough that prestiging feels like a grind.
Modern Warfare 3 brings with it 2 new game modes as well: Kill confirmed and Team Defender. Kill confirmed is much like team deathmatch except that when you kill an opponent they’ll drop a dog tag which anyone can collect. If you collect it you gain points for your team, however the opposition can also collect them, denying you those points. Team Defender is like capture the flag except that there’s no capture point, instead you must defend your flag carrier as long as you can to gain points.
Bowling also mentioned that he’d been working closely with the crew at Major League Gaming in order to cater to the local tournament and greater eSports communities.
With all that in mind they let us loose on the 16 Xbox consoles they had set up there with some gorgeous LED TV sets. After setting up a custom class we played through a couple matches of Kill Confirmed. Whilst I struggled to get my bearings initially (FPS’s without a mouse or keyboard is inane IMHO) I did manage to find my stride towards the end. I was playing the support strike package as I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a kill streak any other way and found it to be quite enjoyable, especially as it meant I could get some decent streak rewards without having to play conservatively. The maps we played on were also quite good with many different paths and choke points available ensuring that camping wasn’t a viable tactic.
Graphically the game is definitely a step up from both its predecessor and Black Ops, even when viewed on the Xbox360. Even in the most heavy action scenes I didn’t notice any slowdown so Modern Warfare 3 appears to be heavily optimized. Bowling also mentioned that every platform was given the same amount of development time so that the experience should be nearly identical across platforms. With that in mind I’m sure it will look amazing on my PC, whether it will be Battfield 3 level of amazing though remains to be seen.
Overall though I feel like Modern Warfare 3 has all the same traits that got me addicted to Black Ops in the first place, with enough new material to keep the game interesting for both long time fans and new comers a like. With both Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 releasing at very similar times it’s going to be interesting to see how this showdown plays off as they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Needless to say I’m looking forward to playing both of them but I can only say for sure now that Modern Warfare 3 definitely hits the mark on the multiplayer aspect. The rest will have to wait until release day.
I’m not usually one to comment on rumours since most of the time they get us no where and have great potential to disappoint, something I like to avoid. Still if there’s a plausible root to a rumour that warrants investigation I’m more than happy to have a go at it since the sceptic in me loves debunking stuff and the geek revels in future possibilities that have their base in reality. Today such a rumour fell right into my lap with the usual lack of any official confirmation (or denial) and just a few tenuous clues as to how this reality could come to be.
That rumour was that Microsoft’s next iteration of Windows would be able to play Xbox games.
Of course the first part of any rumour is to try and track down the original sources to see if there’s any more information you can glean from them. After starting at Destructoid and working my way down the rabbit hole of back links I eventually came to these two sites who don’t even classify this idea as a rumour but give little else on the details. It’s long been known that Xbox Live would be coming to Windows 8 (much like it has come to the Windows Phone 7 platform) but the idea that you’d be able to load up your Xbox games on your PC or tablet device was a new and novel idea that no one had really considered before. Since this information is coming to us via reports of finding Xbox360 code references in the leaked Windows 8 builds it would be easy to write it off as pure rumour milling, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that.
I’ve long talked about Microsoft’s Three Screens vision for the future world of computing, an idea where no matter what your viewing device (being either that of your PC, portable device or TV) the experience remains the same. Windows 8 was the first step towards this with the Metro inspired UI that will be available across both PC and tablet devices alike. One piece of the puzzle was missing however, the TV, and if I’m honest I wasn’t sure what strategy Microsoft was going to go for in order to bridge the gap. The answer, I believe, lies within Xbox Live as with its debut on the PC it will become the very first Three Screens enabled application, being available on all of them with a comparable experience on each. Once the path is paved by Xbox live it should be a lot easier to bring further applications into the Three Screens world, especially if they’re able to bring the .NET platform to those same platforms.
One of the big questions that looms over this rumour is how a PC will be capable of playing Xbox games, especially some of the more recent titles. Many of the games on the Xbox and Xbox360 make heavy use of the specific architecture of the platform in order to gain significant performance benefits. Whilst you could emulate the entire system in software it’s more than likely that any recent title would run quite poorly, to the point of not being playable. Taking this into consideration I believe it’s more likely then that, at least initially, the only games that will be available will be those developed on Microsoft’s XNA framework. It can be argued that most of the games built on this framework are more than likely already available on the PC (indeed this is the main reason many choose XNA in the first place) but since there’s no market currently the visibility of such games is a lot lower than it could be. Thus the introduction of Xbox Live (along with its Arcade section) coupled with the availability of XNA titles is a very real possibility for Windows 8, but how Microsoft will go about this remains to be seen.
It will be interesting to see how Microsoft reacts to this rumour as whilst they’re not usually into playing the rumour game they’re definitely more loose lipped than say, their Cupertino counterparts. Personally I’m more excited about the possibility that Microsoft is pursuing their Three Screens vision with the beach front into this world being one of my passions. Whether this rumour has any shred of truth to it though remains to be seen and we could be waiting up until the betas before we know any more about it. Still with the amount of interest this has generated in such a short time it would be interesting if Microsoft didn’t pursue this at least in some fashion since it would be a massive step towards their platform unification strategy.