Thursday, 28 April 2011

Top 10 of '10: Number 2 - Deadly Premonition (XBox 360)

Sorry, Zach. Much as I enjoyed spending time with you, in the end it wasn't quite enough to see your game take its place at number one in my Top 10 of '10.

Deadly Premonition is, without a shadow of a doubt, an absolute certainty to go down as a cult classic. But why is it a cult classic, rather than a flat-out, bona fide classic?

You wouldn't get that in an episode of Midsomer Murders.

Cult classic - often associated with underground culture, and considered too eccentric, bizarre, controversial or anti-establishment to be appreciated by the general public.

Yep. That's Deadly Premonition.

On the face of it, Deadly Premonition is rubbish. It couples previous-gen quality graphics with clunky controls, and usually that's pretty much a death knell for any game released in 2010. This game, however, rises above initial expectations through its incredible content.

Well, there's something you don't see every day.

The game begins in shocking fashion, with two children exploring a wood and finding a bloodied, naked woman bound to a very bizarre tree. If you've ever watched a cop show from Columbo onward, you'll know that a case like this is beyond the local smalltown cops, and that a specialist will need to be summoned to deal with it. And in Deadly Premonition, that specialist is Agent Francis York Morgan...

Well, everything in this picture looks wrong.

I'm pointing this out because, when you first start playing the game, you'll think the guy (and maybe even the game) is a joke. But in actual fact, you'll come to find out that Agent Francis York Morgan is one of the best, most complex and most interesting characters ever placed in a mere videogame.

Yeah, that's him!

There are so many great aspects to Agent Morgan... his refusal to drive above the speed limit in a police car, for example, would normally be frustrating, but in this case it's quite funny. His knowledge of obscure 80s films is phenomenal, and the conversations he has about them are well worth spending the time in the car with him. And he obviously has an incredible knowledge of bizarre homicides, as he takes great delight in telling the local cops...

Judging by the way it's raining, I'm guessing he won't be using that axe for chopping firewood...

Like the game I placed at number three, Red Dead Redemption, Deadly Premonition is heavily story-driven. And there is an element of the open-world to this game, if you care to look for it. The game does lead you down the path required to play through the story, and you are forced to do certain things at certain times. But you are given an element of freedom to explore between these times. You can go around the town and just sit in on other folks' business, you can follow them around and see what they get up to in the course of a normal day, or you can go and play Peeping Tom with smalltown cop Emily Wyatt. What?

Hey, how did he manage to get Naomi Watts in his car?

When approaching Deadly Premonition, there's a danger of falling into the trap that you're only liking it because it's so bad that it's good. I don't think that is the case... it really is good. Damn good. Even the clunky gameplay elements can be worked around, in a kind of RPG-lite fashion... if you're willing to explore the game enough, you can find weapons with unlimited ammunition or that can't be damaged (great), or can cut out the road travel. You don't want to do that second one, though... Agent York's conversations with "Zach" are among this game's many highlights.

Hey, he's your imaginary friend...

I've read that Deadly Premonition is very similar to Twin Peaks... it probably works to my advantage that I haven't seen Twin Peaks, if that's the case. And for all I've maligned the clunkiness of the gameplay, it's still effective. In fact, the survival horror aspects are incredibly effective. Because they only happen every so often, as extraordinary events in a mundane world, they work far better than if the game was all survival horror. When you turn up somewhere and it's all gone wrong, it's really chilling and unnerving, and when the Raincoat Killer appears and makes a beeline for you, it really gets the heart pounding. Especially when you're hiding in a cupboard, holding your breath...

I think we're in a bit of trouble, Zach...

I bought Deadly Premonition on the day it was released, for the princely sum of twenty pounds. I bought it on the strength of a few reviews I'd read, and I expected to get some laughs out of it. And I did. But I got a hell of a lot more than that besides... I got a truly memorable videogame, memorable for all the right reasons as well as a few wrong ones. I like a quirky game with its own personality, and Deadly Premonition is nothing if not its own game. Don't write this one off because it's bizarre... embrace it because of it, lose yourself in it and absorb it. My coffee says you won't regret it.

Top 10 of '10: Number 3 - Red Dead Redemption (XBox 360)

From the minute I first heard about Red Dead Redemption, I knew I would love it. What I wasn't prepared for was the way in which I would love it.

I played Red Dead Revolver a fair bit when it was originally released, and although I found it a little on the tough side, I still really enjoyed it. It was fairly strictly set up, having you play through a level at a time, but it had a lot of the feel and spirit of the likes of the classic Spaghetti Westerns.

Hmmm. Where next, I wonder?

Red Dead Redemption got rid of some of that linearity by putting you in an open world. And what a world! For the first few days, there was no greater joy than sitting on my horse, slowly wandering along a mountain trail at sun-up. I wasn't even that bothered about playing the game in terms of following the storyline... I was quite happy to wander into town and have a late-night poker game with the boys.

Snap! Oh, wait...

And they really did feel like "the boys"... where Red Dead Redemption excels is with its characters. You get to spend a fair bit of time with some of the characters in this game, and it's done so well that you feel a true affinity with some of them. Good writing, good voice acting... all very important parts of setting up a game like this that are so often overlooked.

Don't you hate it when you just miss the bus?

Of course, you do need a good game to go with it, and obviously this is a very good game. There's a lot to do here as you shepherd John Marston along his path of inevitable destiny. If you wander the land, and you really should wander the land, you'll encounter all kinds of strangers with their own stories that need to be resolved. Some of them are fairly straightforward, some are weird... some are downright hilarious. They're all jobs worth seeing through to the end.

Ohhh, man... I wish I'd remembered my sandwiches this morning.

If you're not in any mood for the indigenous townsfolk, then you can always go a-huntin' or a flower-pickin'. Say what? Yes, Marston is something of an enigma, in that he'll happily catalogue every species of flower in the game. There are rewards for such actions though... similarly for the gathering of dead animals. It adds a bit of purpose to your freestyle wand'rin'.

Red sky at night, shepherds' delight.

That's the real joy, for me... you can play the game at whatever pace you like. You're not rushed breathlessly from one story point to another... you're given license to wander around, taking in the sights, doing a bit of hunting should you wish, playing card games if you wish, or actually doing nothing, if you wish. When you're ready to move on, you can trigger the next event at your leisure.

This is both a plus and a minus... it made it too easy for me to push the game aside and look at other games. That's the only reason it's "only" at number three for me. Red Dead Redemption is a stunning game, stunning in every way. You really do get wrapped up in Marston's tale. I've hopped back into it now after re-visiting it to write about it, and I'm really looking forward to finishing the story.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Top 10 of '10: Number 4 - Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (XBox 360)

I hadn't heard of Enslaved at all, until just before the release of its demo. I think it was a week or two prior to that, maybe even with the announcement of the demo, that I started to look into it. And the more I looked, the more intrigued I became.

If you're anywhere around my age (and I'll be hitting 40 later this year), you'll have watched the well-remembered TV show, Monkey. And that was probably your first exposure to what is regarded as a classic Chinese story, called Journey to the West. It centres around three main characters: Monkey, Tripitaka and Pigsy. And here's where the point emerges: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a futuristic re-telling of that classic tale.

Not quite a romantic walk in the park.

Enslaved kicks off in startling fashion. The first level serves as both a tutorial and an introduction to the two main characters, Monkey and Trip, both of whom you will play through the game, although mostly you'll be Monkey. You're on some kind of flying craft, possibly a spacecraft, that is on fire, breaking up and heading for a crash on a dystopian futureworld. Monkey appears to be a prisoner, but manages to escape from his prison pod, whereupon he sees Trip (a young woman in this iteration of the tale) making a desperate bid to escape. Naturally, Monkey wants in...

Awww... look at her. You'd want to look after her, too...

That first level is a thrilling race against time, with you desperately scrabbling to get to the relative safety of the escape pod before either it launches or the giant craft crashes. Of course, with it being a video game, you can just restart if you fail. But there's a really frantic feel to proceedings as you throw yourself onwards, making terrifying last-ditch jumps and grabbing for tiny handholds.

Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!

Now, that all sounds far more exciting than the actual gameplay... in truth, you can't actually fail jumps or miss handholds. You can be too slow in performing them, at which point you fail, but you can't miss them. I know that a lot of people complained about this "hand-holding", preferring instead to have the platforming left entirely to their own skills. I came to love this method, as it allowed you to play the game and still concentrate on the surroundings (which are gorgeous), and the characters and story (which are excellent).

Monkey, you're a fine figure of a man... just like me.

As I've said, the story is cribbed from an old classic, as are the characters. But just taking those characters and plonking them into a videogame is not a guarantee of success. It still takes a lot of skill to work them into something you actually believe in. Fortunately, an amazing job was done with all aspects of the characterisation. The protagonists' expressions are wonderfully evocative and their lines are delivered superbly, as you would expect of the top-notch actors that were hired for the parts (the casting of Pigsy, in particular, is incredibly inspired and I burst out laughing when I realised who it was). You believe in these people, and it's fair to say I felt a genuine emotional involvement in the development of their plight.

Surfing with the alien. Oh, OK... I'll stop now.

It's a pretty lengthy game, although the relative ease of many aspects of the gameplay should see seasoned veterans ploughing through it in fairly short order. But I think that would be missing the point. This is a game you want to absorb... it's all very well comboing a load of mechs into oblivion, but if you don't take the time to see why you're doing it or where the story is going, I can't imagine it would be half as satisfying.

I've got your back...

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a superb piece of entertainment, which successfully places a good story into a good video game, and with the enhancements of superb production values and acting and the most believable character faces I've ever seen, the whole thing meshes into more than the sum of its parts. Even though the actual gameplay is quite simple, it's the combination of the elements that make this something special, and I hope that Enslaved becomes an important stepping stone in the evolution of story-driven video games.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Top 10 of '10: Number 5 - Split/Second (XBox 360)

Out of all the games on the list, Split/Second is perhaps the one that surprised me the most. I mean, I do love a good racing game, but this one was up against the heavily-hyped Blur as direct competition, and although developer Black Rock had a racing pedigree, Blur came from Bizarre Creations, who apart from the Geometry Wars games were known for a little series called Project Gotham Racing...

OK, so we can only have two fielders outside the circle here... what?

Split/Second comes at the racing game from a different angle, pitting you as a contestant in a dangerous high-speed TV show. To bolster that impression, the whole front end is served up TV-style, with an announcer, erm, announcing where each episode will take place and what will be involved. When playing through a Season, you get to choose the running order. That's crazy, what would the TV executives say?

As far as gameplay goes, I reckon that Split/Second comes off as kind of a cross between Burnout, The Running Man and ITV's Run The Gauntlet (who remembers that little gem?). The racing is fast and furious, some of the events are a lot more interesting than you'd expect to find in a racing game (you don't normally expect to find heavily-armed helicopters or trucks spewing explosive barrels in your way), and the stunts are spectacular...

It's all going wrong here...

Let's talk a bit more about those stunts. As the game is rigged to be like a TV show, there are explosives and set-pieces all over the place. Of course, they're no fun if they just sit there, so by racing in a dangerous or daring fashion, you're able to build up a powerplay meter. This has a number of levels... at its most basic, you can trigger it and take out a number of opponents if you time it right.

At its most powerful, though, you can unleash a course-changing catastrophe, some of which include bringing down a building, crashing a plane onto a runway or blowing away sections of a dam. These events are truly spectacular, and the first time you set them off it's a real jaw-dropping moment, and if you come through the other side unscathed you come away with a real adrenaline rush and a huge grin on your face.

Go me-ee! Go me-ee!

There are a couple of slightly weak points... the racing, thrilling though it is, has a tendency to have some harsh rubber-band AI. I don't particularly mind that, but I know that some people do, so it's worth bearing in mind. Also, considering the fact that the game is set up as a TV show, not enough is made of that through the actual racing. It would be nice to have the point reinforced now and then (not incessantly) with a little commentary on key events. Another thing... if you wreck a racer I reckon they should be out of the race and replaced by another competitor, although that might make it tricky when it came to you being wrecked...

Yeah, well, it's not like it hasn't happened before...

Those are minor quibbles, though, and don't serve to spoil what is an extraordinary video game racer. I don't usually sell or trade in that many games (although I might be having an eBay blowout in my week off!), but sometimes needs must, and after I'd seen the end credits on Split/Second I flogged it off and put the money towards something else. I kind of regret that, and in fact I'm going to re-buy it, such was my enjoyment of the game. If you haven't played Split/Second yet, I'd highly recommend you hunt it down yourself.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Top 10 of '10: Number 6 - Game Room (XBox 360)

In some ways, it pains me to put Game Room in my top 10. Arriving with something of a fanfare and the promise of several new arcade games a week, the ability to design your own arcade and to have friends over to visit, it sounded like a retro gamer's dreams come true. Well, barring a lottery win and buying an entire real arcade, that is.

At first, Game Room seemed great, despite the lack of publishers at the outset... all we were given were Konami and Atari arcade games, Atari and Activision 2600 games, and games for the Intellivision. Not exactly "arcade" games in many cases, but still interesting in many cases, and it meant we got to discover some of the more obscure arcade classics from Atari and Konami. But the fact that the release of the first add-on pack of games was delayed should have been a warning to us all...

I've got no more tens left now...

Still, I bought loads of games, played them all, unlocked new stuff for my arcade and earned loads of Achievements. It seemed a bit odd that we were still only getting games from the same few companies, but everyone expected the announcement of new parties before long.

And then it all went wrong. There were no new parties announced. Krome, the developer, was shuttered. Pack 13, ominously, was sent out in one go, rather than over three weeks, as had been the norm for a while. A Christmas present, perhaps? Apparently not... there have been no new releases for Game Room in 2011. And there hasn't been a single word from Microsoft as to what's going on with it. So you have to figure it's dead.

Arrrr... here, there be... ducks?

And the worst thing of all for me... after gaining 980 of 1000 Achievement points, and putting in around 30 hours, I was forced into an update... which completely wiped all my progress. And with the only Achievement I haven't yet won being for playing for 36 hours... well, I was too crestfallen to continue.

Which is ridiculous, really. For all I've said up there, I spent a lot of money and had a lot of fun out of Game Room in 2010. And I do still own all those games, and I do still enjoy them, so I'm sure to play again over time. Even though it's a dead duck in 2011, it was good enough to be my number six of 2010.

Top 10 of '10: Number 7 - Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (XBox 360)

This was always going to be a tricky one for me to look at, because I was coming into it with a massive sense of bias. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 on the PS2 is possibly my favourite racing game of all time, so I had a tremendous sense of anticipation for this one, and when that's the case, it's often possible to convince yourself that a game is awesome when it really isn't. So with that in the back of my mind, I put my sensible head on, remained objective, and played the latest entry in the Need for Speed series with a clear mindset.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit is awesome.

Rather than have an open world where you drive around looking for events, Criterion have gone back more towards the roots of NFS, and although you can drive around Seacrest County (where the game is located), events are chosen from the map, a lot like that in Burnout 3: Takedown (also a Criterion game). That leads to a more focused game with less boring bits... if you feel like having a look around, great... I don't like being forced to do it just to find bits of game.

Forza! No... it's Need for Speed Hot Pursuit...

As is the norm for any racer these days, you start out in some "lesser" cars (that said, there's nothing here that you'd feel embarrassed going to the supermarket in) and earn access to better and better ones as you progress. And as you do move further along, you gain access to "weapons"... nothing stupid, just the same equipment the cops have got, such as EMP or spike strips. This adds a little bit extra, but without being over the top.

Now, about being a cop. I never really enjoyed that mode as much as I could have in NFSHP2. Stopping the racers always felt a little difficult... you could ram them and park in front of them, and they'd cheekily reverse off and be out of sight as your time limit came to an end. Slightly annoying, that. However, in what is a stroke of genius this time around, Criterion have changed the cop mode into the nearest thing you'll ever find to a new version of Chase HQ in 2010 (or 2011, as it is now).

And if you look to your right, you'll see the lovely Stegosaurus.

Now, this all sounds just about perfect, but although I love this game, I've been a little frustrated by it. The main reason for that is... I'm rubbish at spotting the shortcuts. You might wonder how; after all, there are tons of them. But I get so into the actual racing that the scope of my vision doesn't stray far from the actual road and cars. As a result of that, although I can usually scrape through to the end of the race, my ten-year-old son has beaten me by some seemingly impossible amounts of time on some tracks. How the hell does he do it? Easily, I suspect... just as I would have if I hadn't started getting old...

Need for Speed Hot Pursuit has basically everything I want from an arcade racer. So why isn't it higher in the list? Well, this is my top 10 favourite games of 2010, based on how much time I put into a game and how much I enjoyed it over the year. For a while, I thought this might have been my number one game of the year. But once my progress was halted, I moved on to other things. And although I do love this game and expect to until the next one comes out, there have been others this year that I've enjoyed for longer...

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Top 10 of '10: Number 8 - VVVVVV (PC)

I just about squealed with glee when I first played VVVVVV. That was just before I nearly put my controller through the screen of my laptop in frustration...

VVVVVV is another indie game, although it's now available through the mighty Steam, so it's not exactly difficult to get hold of. The reason I almost squealed with glee is that VVVVVV loads like a Commodore 64 game... and then when it's loaded, it looks and almost sounds like a Commodore 64 game. The reason I almost put my controller through the screen is that it plays like a Commodore 64 game...

But I don't mean that in a bad way.

Old computers are so fiddly...

VVVVVV is a platform game in the grand tradition, albeit with a slight twist. You can't actually jump... instead, you can do a gravity flip. So from running along a floor, you'll flip onto the ceiling. And then you'll flip back down onto the floor. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you do it works well, and lends itself to some pretty tricky puzzley manoeuvring.

Stopping you from getting about are spikes... that's where the game gets its title from. In another homage to the old-school platformers, each screen has its own name. Unlike those games, you might not spend long on some of those screens. You whizz about at a fair old pace... too fast if you're not careful. It's all too easy to overcook it and land on a rack of spikes. Ouchie.

Who the hell builds a spaceship like this, anyway?

I've bought VVVVVV twice now... once it was released on Steam, I picked up a second copy in the sale, and it's now only £3.99 at its full price, so I'll once again recommend it to anyone that's a child of the Eighties and loved a rock hard platform game. I was torn about whether or not to put this above Hydorah, but despite its difficulty I actually progressed further with VVVVVV than I did with Hydorah and had more nostalgia-fuelled giggles, so although I probably enjoy Hydorah a little more now, VVVVVV just squeaks in as my eighth most-enjoyed game of 2010.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Top 10 of '10: Number 9 - Hydorah (PC)

Finding new games in the genuine old arcade style these days can be a bit tricky. The current generation of consoles is a decent place to look, with big name companies producing updated versions of their classics, and services like XBox Live's Indie Games being an outlet for bedroom coders to release their latest homages to games from yesteryear. WiiWare and Playstation Network are great outlets for indie innovation, and the iPhone has risen to great heights as a gaming platform. The PC though, as ever, still seems to be the main breeding ground for small-but-great arcade games. Even so, it still takes something really special to stand out... and Hydorah is something really special.

Don't have much choice here... liberation of the human colony it is!

I'm not entirely sure where I discovered Hydorah, but I will remain eternally grateful to that person or place. The reason for this is that Hydorah is a Gradius/Nemesis-inspired shooter, and I happen to be rather fond of that particular arcade game.

Of course, there are plenty of Gradius-inspired shooters that aren't very good. But with Hydorah, programmer Locomalito obviously took a lot of time, care and attention in making sure that this game was a fantastic and authentic shmup.

Isn't the countryside nice? Lush green grass, rolling hills, deadly enemy spaceships...

Hydorah features sixteen levels, although the chances are you'll never see most of them. As I said, this is an authentic arcade shooter, and that authenticity extends to its difficulty level - it's rock! Actually, in saying that, if you're careful then you should progress quite well. Any time you die, it's your own fault, the game will never cheat you. But you do have to be good... really good... if you want to get anywhere.

In a way that's a bit of a shame, because there's so much to love in Hydorah. Of course, there's a huge amount of stuff to blast. It looks absolutely gorgeous, and sounds great too, with some music sounding similar to classic SNES tunes. It's even got little secrets tucked away to try and discover. But as I said, you might never see most of them.

In an interesting twist, if you destroy that factory you'll lose points.

Still, Hydorah is truly worth persevering with, particularly if you have any love at all for Gradius, or any 80s arcade shoot 'em up, really. It's a wonderful piece of work, which makes it all the more surprising that it's free. I would seriously pay good money for this game. I'm not sure if there's a Donate option because the website is down at the moment, but you can download the game here: Hydorah download. I would seriously recommend anyone download this immediately. If it's your thing, there are also two soundtracks available: the original soundtrack, and a selection of arranged tracks.

Hydorah is a brilliant homage to the glory days of the arcades, and a fantastic game in its own right. The only reason it isn't higher on my list is because I'm rubbish at it. But that hasn't stopped me from playing...

EDIT: The website is back up now, and there is indeed a "Donate" button. So I'll be chipping in, it's well worth it. Have a look at the site, there are some cool extra materials, such as an instruction manual, and everything you need to make a DVD version of the game.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Top 10 of '10: Number 10 - Pinball FX2 (XBox 360)

I'm rubbish at pinball. I don't even understand it, to be honest. You have all these objectives that you're supposed to complete, and I never know what I'm supposed to do. So I just bat the ball around the table for as long as possible. And that's OK. I enjoy that. It's all good.

But you'll already know all that if you read my take on it back in October.

Never saw Spidey resort to using shiny metal balls in his fight against crime.

Since I first played Pinball FX2, Zen Studios have released a series of Marvel-themed tables, which I have also bought. They're all pretty good, and having familiar sights and sounds on a table adds a bit extra to the appeal. So altogether, with the imported tables from Pinball FX, I've got seventeen tables on my Xbox 360. That's one of the best things about playing old-school games on a modern system... where the hell would I store them all if they were real tables?

Careful, Wolfie. You'll have the table on tilt with your temper.

Pinball FX2 is probably one of the ultimate “casual” games for me... I really only tend to play it when I'm not in the mood for anything specific or can't be bothered trawling through my shelves of partially-played games. It's a great way to kill fifteen minutes or so, too... and I've killed an awful lot of fifteen minutes', I have to say.

And that's about it, really. Besides the great online Friends' leaderboards, there's nothing terribly revolutionary here, just an awful lot of good pinball. But what more would you want from a pinball game? Pinball FX2 does exactly what it's supposed to, and that was enough to land it at Number 10 in my rundown.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Top 10 of '10 - Intro.

So, 2010, then... wasn't it a good year for games?

To be fair though, you can say that about every year. There are always tons of games released, and if you sift through them, you're guaranteed to find a number of gems that make it all worthwhile. There aren't actually many rubbish games any more... but it can be a crushing disappointment when something you've been looking forward to for ages turns out to be no better than mediocre.

I had a lot of fun in 2010, with plenty of games floating my boat. They weren't all games that I'd expected to love... some, I hadn't heard of until just before release, others were unassuming little indie games that turned out to be awesome. And yes, there were the bona fide blockbusters that lived up to all the hype.

They all combined to make 2010 a pretty memorable year, with some titles that really stood out, for one reason or another. What I've done is list them in order of how much I enjoyed them, rather than what I think is "best". There's no definitive "best", but anyway, those lists have already been done to death by all the major (and minor) sites and magazines. Far better from my point of view to celebrate the games I've played the most and enjoyed the most... I hope you enjoy reading about them.