A ploughin’ good time – The Witcher 2.

I’m at the climactic scene in Chapter 2 of The Witcher 2 and I’ve paused it to write this.

This morning I picked up where I had left off, very intrigued, slightly disappointed, mid-May last year, with Witcher 2. The game originally wowed me with its style and amused me with its writing but, as many a forum post will echo, was a disappointment in many ways. There were bugs (when aren’t there?) and the combat was largely forgettable. A blizzard on the marina and a girlfriend who’s read the Witcher novels compelled me to patch Geralt of Rivia up (5 consecutive downloads no less) and continue my search for the Kingslayer… oh, and my sexy long lost lady or a sexy more recently lost lady that may turn out to suffice.

The fighting is still not perfect but it’s much improved and my progression has led to fights becoming a more engaging spectacle. However the real victor here is the plot. Everything I’ve been doing has had a genuine sense of meaning – every decision has left me wondering what the alternative would have brought about. Having replayed certain areas path choosing is not always as much of a consequence as feared but CD Project never leave you feeling easy about that contextual button click. It just feels like you’re shaping the outcome of things. Most games are so flat and transparent (I’m looking at you Skyrim) that the illusion is rarely upheld but with Witcher it seems to be the reverse. The interwoven plots, the forking paths, the brilliant (and often Welsh) acting – they all have held me captive this weekend. And what’s more, for the first time in a long long time I’ve been trying to get more dialogue out of the characters.

There’s a definite charm to the writing which is carried through in the overall gameplay. Like the books (I’m told), Geralt and his cohorts are a sarcastic and rather randy bunch. It’s apt given the similarly timed telivising of Game of Thrones and I find it rather charming.

I’m at the top of a tower holding off a castle siege. To my left is a dwarf with a mohican and a passion for ‘ploughing’ his wife. There’s a bard that can’t rhyme on my right and beside me –  a virgin Knight-ess who’s secret is she’s actually a dragon. Below comes a cry as two trolls charge into the fray – an event I never saw coming, I’d helped rekindle their love 10 quests ago. They’re met with a witty comment from our vertically challenged ‘man’ at arms: ‘Aye she’s an ugly beast but she’s got titties. Shoulda seen the boys faces when those crested over yon horizon’.

**CUT TO PRESENT DAY**

As usual it looks like I started writing something and then stopped some months ago. I’ve now finished The Witcher 2, watched any and every bit of media online relating to it – helped by the imminent XBOX release and even bought one of the books.

The later chapters have some brilliant story-telling devices, the highlight of ‘witch’ is stepping into the shoes of the dead soldiers doomed to fight their battle eternally and reliving their fight with them.

The Witcher 2 created a truly brilliant world for me to exist in and, having finished it, I’ve been left with something of a vacuum. I turned to Mass Effect 3 but for some reason the controller’s gathering dust. I miss you, Geralt of Rivia. I miss you and your ploughing ways. You offered me a detailed, meaningful, beautiful world to swing my swords in. And, you know, I’ve just not found another game quest that resulted in earning a chicken beak trophy.

The medallion again. Magic or danger.

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Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – 10 levels in

I’ve been playing Skyrim for a few hours now, have reached the somewhat arbitrary marker of ‘level 10’ and have plenty of opinion of this gaming behemoth that’s taking metacritic.com by storm with an average score of 96%.

PC install complete, ultra settings selected, play.

A pleasingly short Bethesda logo and I’m at the start screen. I start. Loading times are quick and then I’m in. My eyes excitedly waiting for the screen to caress them. For an opening it’s pretty bland. I’m met by a few prisoners in a cart. Their graphical fidelity is only as good as I remember Oblivion being, which is BAD (and I’m not saying it’s the same as Oblivion, I’m not a retard. I’m just saying it’s how I REMEMBER Oblivion looking). Shadow tearing is abundant across the characters faces, there’s a noughties amount of bump mapping in use and I’m mainly unconvinced.

Things feel a bit like wading through porridge. It’s the same feeling you get when on an escort quest in WoW or at a key point for the AI in the original Operation Flashpoint. Immediately you can feel the engine creaking beneath your ‘fur wrap’ covered feet. People seem to float about like in Fallout or Oblivion or Fable. The bubble is close to bursting.

Some ‘stuff’ happens that I won’t spoil and then you’re out on your own, holding a sword and wondering what the fuck to do. ‘Great!’ you might think, and I normally would in a sandbox environment except this isn’t a sandbox. There isn’t anything you can do except float across the terrain looking for someone to give you a fetch or deliver quest.

There doesn’t seem to be any tutorial element in Skyrim which surprised me as it left me not knowing I had the power to cast fire from my hands for the first hour. Under ‘system’ in the pause menu there is a ‘help’ option which is quite detailed but it’s hidden in the wrong place for sure.

Graphically the world is at times beautiful, the night auroras and excellent use of HDR being particularly noteworthy. At other times you will find yourself trudging across a landscape rife with popups and only average Level Of Detail control. It’s a shame to stand at the top of a vista and be able to see the polygonal downsizing of distant lakes. I’m sure that’s not how LOD is supposed to work.

The problem for me so far is that this pretty thing Bethesda have made is big, not clever. They have emphasised finding ways to get more and more people to interact with you and give you quests but if the quests are boring then more and random is not a great idea.

I just keep thinking of the tight gameplay of Zelda, especially in light of the latest incarnation, Skyward Sword. Everything means something in a Zelda game. Everything is worth searching for and finding. In Skyrim however, at least thus far, nothing is worth having yet there’s 100x more of that worthlessness to explore.

Of particular frustration is the sneaking elements, the success of which seem entirely down to chance and, to be honest, lady luck has not once smiled on me.
Sure, I appreciate I need to level up my sneaking but the game just misses the trick of all sneaking predecessors before it. Metal Gear, Thief, Splinter Cell… it’s like the developers never played them.

Here’s an idea. Let’s kill a guard and put on their clothes. That way I can blend in for a bit at least… oh, no. The game doesn’t understand that.

Let’s kill a stable owner and steal a horse without anyone knowing. Oh, no. The stable owner telepathically related his searing pain to the city guards 1 mile up the hill and I’m under arrest before I’m on my steed.

The game does do well to make you feel in control when dual wielding. The bumper buttons are satisfying to press as you blast lightning from one hand and swing wildly with a dagger from the other. Actual contact feedback from a sword swing is much less impressive though. It feels like you’re swinging through honey and when you hit them the enemies generally refuse to acknowledge it until their health is at 0.

A major controller frustration is its poor use of button real estate. Instead of a weapon/spell rotation button Bethesda have opted for a ‘favourites’ list. In principle it makes sense when the game has so many items to choose from but it is mapped to my top and bottom D-Pad buttons simultaneously and the right and left buttons are left unmapped. Much better would have been to map your 4 favourite magic schools to each button and a button press to rotate through them. Pausing the game to select a barrier spell to protect against a fireball for 3 seconds… it’s never going to happen for me.

The layout is further frustrated by a split pause and items screen. Both could have been wrapped into one and indeed would make more sense to do so, providing a more fluid access to quests and their locations. As it is, one button provides a map with quest markers and a back pedal and secondary button give you the quest information.

The quests themselves are frustrating to track and it is probably down to Bethesda’s efforts to minimise screen clutter with a tidy UI but the compass in particular is inadequate and would most certainly benefit from Warcraft’s new numbered questing system. Am I trudging across 10 miles of tundra to give someone a hat or is it because I need to save a village from a dragon attack? Shrug.

I have fought 3 dragons so far and, at least currently, the game engine seems to have been designed without aerial combat in mind. All 3 fights were a frustration and my AI companions did most of the work in bringing the dragon down from the sky.

Fights and the world at large are further diminished by a lack of any cinematic elements. Whilst this might well be seen as a good thing (look at Half-life 2) it lets the player down here. There’s no true sense of awe or power; things feel big but not grandiose. This is something that is conversely so brilliantly affected in the fantastic TV and cinema trailers for Skyrim.

Essentially, thus far at least, Skyrim feels like a big, beautiful, boring game. Where other games are smaller so as to give meaning to their contents Skyrim seems to do away with that for anyone but the hardcore RPG fan.

At level 10 Skyrim is full of elements that snap you out of the world Bethesda has created leaving you thinking that cardinal of RPG thoughts – ‘this is just a game’. Hopefully by level 20 it will be ‘Is this just a game?’ but I have my reservations *equips Fur Wraps*.

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Deus Exodus

Sad times then, eh. And I think I knew it was coming all along.

I’ve been playing Deus Ex for 10 hours or so and unless it suddenly gets MUCH better, I’m a disenfranchised chap.

I knew I shouldn’t have got myself worked up, but the build up was all just so exciting. I even convinced myself the main character’s resemblance to Neo from The Matrix was in fact a GOOD thing. Sigh.

So, the first Deus Ex. A game I’ve refused to return to because it was simply so good that first time round that it just has to stay that way in my mind. A game-changer of a game. Stealth and violence and tactics and decision making and PLOT and an amazing new way to develop yourself as you played. Memory recalls it to be dark and moody, sprawling and intriguing, full of story but never dull. It had multiple endings, multiple paths, multiple rewards.

One thing I remember though is that it never looked *that* good. Not like ‘woah, Pippa Middleton’s bum…’ good. The weird thing is, the new game seems to look worse.

Sure, I like their so-called ‘gold and black’ theme, though it makes certain trips like the one I’ve just made up a skyscraper rather predictable landscape-wise. Oh, look. It’s sunrise! WTF is everyone already doing at work?

Anyway, I digress. The graphics are poop. Stylish poop. Given how we’ve had the likes of LA Noire wowing us recently with its facial animations I expected more than the visibly polygonal assault that are the seemingly cloned denizens of Deus Ex land. In the first ‘hub’ I doubt there are more than 10 different faces, repeated again and again.

“No biggie!” we cry in unison. It’s not about the graphics it’s about the immersion. Well, yeah. There isn’t any. And it aint helped by the constant reminder that our world is built out of (rather ugly) triangles.

So, immersion. Not much of it, as we’ve gathered. The characters are Bond-esque without the charm of imagining the original author penning their lines but more’s the point, the cities are DEAD to me. I seriously thought (hoped (knew it wouldn’t ever fucking happen)) that EIDOS/SQUARE might step up to the plate regarding realism, but no, all you ever hear on the streets is ‘I told Dave he should hide the guns, you know, somewhere like in a dumpster in the north quarter, by the yellow cat and the banjo-playing tramp’. That kind of stuff has seriously harshed my intrepid-explorers chill. I don’t want to find anything as it’s all so carrot-on-a-stick.

The clumsy manifestation of the world is made worse by the typical rolling out of ‘hookers’ “looking for a good time baby” and the polarised idea of ‘AUGMENTATIONS ARE AGAINST GOD. SAY NO, BITCHES!’ vs ‘AUGMENTATIONS MAKE US GOD. SAY YEAH, BITCHES!’.

The cinematics are those awful ‘in-engine’ pre-renders. Why the hell do they do that? It looked alright in 1080p, now I’m looking at grainy video?

The worst cinematic culprit reminds me of an email I sent to Eidos when I first saw footage of the game. The ‘plane’ thing you get couriered around in had markings on the side that read: ‘800-8ee’ i.e., BOOBIES. It upset me. I wrote an email. It was lame of me. I was pleased to see in later clips that this had been changed to 008-Bee. Yay, I said, until I got an in game cinematic last night and the pre-render had been made so long ago it didn’t feature the change… Boobs it is then.

I said ‘hub’ a while ago. Ugh. It’s not 1999. In fact I barely recall hubs in Deus Ex IN 1999. Hubs and loading screens kill a lot of the fun. Made worse by the HUD guidance system always leading you to a quest via the next ‘zone’. Oh, I’m 5metres from the quest, yay… oh wait, it’s just a gate to the next zone. Urgfff.

Futhermore, whilst I remember, what’s with the hacking?! It’s cool’n all but as soon as you find somewhere important the door lock is level one, which can be opened by anyone.

“Sorry sir, I can’t let you in there, it’s restricted” *stands next to guard and types in code to door* *opens door* *goes through door* “huh, thought i heard movement” *guard goes through door* *Jon hides* *Must’ve been my imagination*. UGGHHGHGHGGHHHHH.

It just doesn’t wash any more. It’s age old lack of innovation heaped onto a good legacy to make money. It’s an Eidos and Square Enix game.

This is definitely not JC’s second coming.

(JC’s second coming sounds like a porno.)

I have decided next time I lock myself out of my house I shall put a heavy box in front of the door so as to make an air duct appear around the corner. Sorted.

This isn’t the refined cinematics of Halo. It’s not the unbound glory of Mass Effect. It’s not the problem-solving of Half-life. It’s not the brilliance of Deus Ex. It’s golden, shiny bargain bin material. Boo.

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Notes to bike thieves

1. When stealing a bike don’t use your own security card to access the bike shed.
2. Don’t stare at the CCTV in broad daylight.
3. Don’t steal it from the same university you also study at.
4. Don’t, having successfully stolen the bike, ride it to said university and park it out front a week later.
5. Don’t think the owner won’t recognise it if half of it is covered in green electrical tape (WTF).
6. Don’t commit the felony when a bracers-wearing Canadian bike fanatic happens to be in charge of security.

Jon (and the awesome Canadian security man) 1 – 0 Highly retarded bike thief.

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Portraits

I’m going through the old version of the site I’m currently working on some designs for and came across this fascinating page of staff headshots.

What a surreal collection, I feel like I should be looking at them in the National Portrait Gallery, or at least that weird little gallery under Loughborough Junction.

I honestly don’t think they would be out of place on Platon’s website

They make me feel weird but in a cool ‘I’ve just been to an art gallery’ way.

Jeremy PayneFlorence BillPaulo Gomes

Mary IversLaura Palmer Jennifer Palmer

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Red Dead Redeem my money and buy a better game

**I just found this and it’s in note form but I have little to ZERO interest in finishing Red Dead Redemption. I got 80% of the way through. It hurt. So I’m posting up my whinings in note form and you can read them if you like! PS It gets less ‘notey’ after a couple of paragraphs.**

Train journey, Mexicans. wave after wave. not one of them thought to just put a log on the track… very repetitive and unrealistic having killed 80 or so Mexicans who just kept on coming. Yawn.
Been comparing to Halo in my head. Halo plays as if the world was built for the enemies, RDR plays more like they sandbox rendered a whole world and then spawned enemies in at random. It actually feels like a step backwards from Operation Flashpoint’s use of this tactic.

Main protagonist doesn’t stand up for himself or his morals, especially bad given you have the choice to be good or bad. Sure, he’s fighting for his wife and kid (which I haven’t yet seen) but at the least we need some flash backs to them being held captive/tortured/whatever to make us sympathise with Marsden and accept his being a cunt (see the bit above where I talked about killing 80 seemingly mindless Mexican rebels).

This game feels lazy. Ride here, shoot that, ride back, talk, ride out, shoot this, ride back, ride a wagon, attacked by rebels, act surprised about attack, ride back, ride out BLAH BLAH BLAH. This game needs: FUCKING COWBOYS, FUCKING INDIANS, FUCKING GOLD, A FUCKING AWESOME TOWN/CITY.

Deadwood

Cease and Persist

The attention to detail is upsettingly low, especially given that it’s from Rockstar (although I’d argue they’re nowhere near as good as most people gush that they are at doing living worlds).

For example: I walk into a bar. I’m a badass gunslinger, one of the last. My name precedes me. People heard I was coming. There’s whores and alcoholics left, right and centre. The music stops, chairs scrape back, heads turn. Silence. “I’m here for X”, tentative glances all round. The inevitable lackeys of Mr X go to draw, I shoot them both dead before their guns are unholstered. There’s a bar fight, crashing of stools on heads, drunks falling over banisters and a wisened bar man that pours me a free drink, the piano starts up again.

Well. No. Sadly not. The bars I’ve been in make the place feel like a ghost town. Just these half realised figures swanning about, despawning when I’m a horse-shoe’s throw away, lacking any real depth of interaction, any complex goals. A prostitute might go up and talk to someone but that’s it. No flirting, no ogling, no going off to the back room, nothing really. It’s all actually very shallow which makes the game feel very superficial, all the worse when there are no skyscrapers, helicopters or drug deals to take your mind off it all.

I have always felt frustrated by GTA’s system whereby the AI seems to operate in a 2 block radius around you. Go further away and the Intelligence Routine on whatever it was, ends. This is most notable when you see something like a nice car and you chase after it only to find it has, impossibly, vanished. If I recall correctly this was especially obvious with cop cars once you lost your wanted level.

It all just serves to make the game world feel fake. It lacks persistence. There were sensible reasons for older GTA games, i.e. memory constraints, but they’re surely no longer such an issue?

I keep thinking back to Halo and how I never knew the AI shut off when I was far away until I heard that Reach could manage double the amount of enemies. I also keep thinking back to Outcast which was a 90s game with better persistence (seemingly) than RDR.

Outcast was awesome

Travelling sucks to hell as well. Currently I’m doing missions for just 1 person. He likes to live on the west of the map and do his business on the east so it’s a cutscene/carriage ride/’press A to skip’ and I’m there. Kill some things. Make a camp fire so I can automatically return to the quest give… oh, wait ‘You can’t make a camp fire here’. Off I run to a nondescript part of the world where there aren’t any houses or roads. Apparently campfires can’t be lit on roads or on porches 😦

The riding is OK but far from exotic. I’m getting extremely fed up with constantly mashing A to get my horse to ride at full pelt which is nothing more developed than The Ocarina of Time’s carrot system. On top of that it really could benefit from a more detailed system for finding a speedy steed. In GTA you could tell a car by eye immediately, in RDR it’s a trickier prospect. Some horses do look scrawnier but I only really notice I’ve been riding a fast beast when I accidentally shoot it in the face and end up on a slow one.

Ha, as I finished that paragraph a tumbleweed just rolled past the screen.

The whole game feels like a ghost town.

Slinging my hook

The weaponry, of what I’ve seen, which I believe is most of it, is rather boring. True enough this is the Wild West and we can’t be expecting lasers out of eye balls but the variety between guns, especially of the same class, is negligible. The main problem with this is the Dead Eye and Auto-target functions. Both are disgustingly easy. All you have to do is alternate tapping Left Trigger (auto aim) and Right Trigger (fire) and you really don’t need to concern yourself with what you’re shooting with. And yes, I know I can turn off auto-aim but I am always loathe to play a game on anything but the settings it was designed at as ‘normal’.

DeadEye, the much vaunted Matrix mode from the original game is fun… for a while. The trouble is it doesn’t feel very rewarding. I just tend to hit it when there are a lot of people on screen and then… ho-hum… click, click, click, click and they’re all targeted. Click again and they’re all dead. It needs something more. Perhaps the variety between weapon types could take a role here. After all, when you realise (too late) you’re not using your pistol, it’s a very tedious and unrealistic affair to watch yourself reload in slow motion between each shot.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this, I do need to do more shopping but I’ve just not seen the point in wasting the dollar bills when I can clear a wave of rebels with my eyes closed with my pistol.

Poker-haunts-us

Poker. Bloody hell don’t bother. It’s so slow and unamusing when it should be one of Rockstar’s mini games that actually beats all the full blown poker games out there. HOW(?!) is it so bloody crap?! It lacks all of the nuance you would expect. Sure there are a couple of ‘characters’ at the table but only in so much as they are modeled differently and each has about 2 lines to REPEAT AND REPEAT AND REPEAT AND REPEAT. You can’t work out who has what chips very easily (although they do change). Nobody has any traits. There’s some kind of way to palm a card off the bottom of the deck which I ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS get wrong, mainly because the instructions on how to do it appear DURING THE EVENT. Failure results in a duel. It doesn’t matter if it’s against another cowboy or against the 60 year old owner of the general store. IT’S A DUEL. Sigh. So so rubbish is the poker aspect that it makes me cry at night.

EDIT –  You can’t even have a drink at the poker table. I just remembered! GRARRRHRHRHFHGHGHRHRH!

GAH WRITING THIS IS MAKING ME ANGRY I’M GOING TO THE PUB

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Vergismeinnicht – keeping secrets in a war

I remember in Upper School English classes, reading Birdsong, reading All Quiet on The Western Front, reading soldier poetry, and me seriously riling a group of girls. I found it extremely frustrating reading the female accounts of war. The ‘anguish’ and ‘suffering’ of staying at home and working in munitions factories etc. And yes, it would have been totally rubbish. I never ever disputed that. The problem I had was that I had spent a good deal of my teens morbidly obsessing over how utterly terrifying it would be if I was forced into the position of a soldier on a beach in Normandy or in a trench in Ypres using bodies to reinforce my walls.

The conclusion I reached was that whilst being back home suffering from rationing and an all-round upside-down world would make the anguish of being separated from your partner all the more unbearable, being knee deep in mud with rotting shoes, no food and a constant fear of standing upright was another thing altogether. I felt that the thought of your ‘girl’ back home was quite frequently the only semblance of sanity a soldier would have ever had and likely the only truly wholesome idea worth clinging to amidst the bullets and the rotting corpses and the futility.

I notice I’m talking in the past tense. I think this is just a defense mechanism. I still see the scornful looks I got, not least of all from my teacher. I guess I still believe it. When i think of war I think of a puddle, a man in that puddle and a picture in his hand. But this is a little beside the point.

The point I’m trying to make is that whilst I’ve now had a good 12 years of imagining the horrors of hiding in a mortar crater to stay alive I have only just began to think about the secrets the soldiers must have chosen to hide. You hear stories of shell shock and nightmares for years to come and I think about the utter impossibility of coming remotely close to a comprehension of what they must have endured. Thinking about me being at war is like thinking about me playing Halo or Lazer Quest. It’s like drink driving. It ‘won’t happen to me’. Because, and yeah I’m not going to trawl out my philosophy degree here, but it’s not really possible to imagine being dead. It’s an abstraction.

So, back to my point.

If someone is simply incapable of comprehending the events you have endured, and that someone is everyone who hasn’t experienced the siege of Bastogne or the like, then you can’t talk to them. Further to that, and my history is flaky, but didn’t people tend to keep ‘unseemly’ things to themselves in the 40s anyway? Was it not considered inappropriate to discuss things such as looting a corpse of his water bottle? And so, inappropriateness, and a desire not to discuss; but isn’t there also the feeling that to talk about it might make it real again? To discuss it would be to burden someone you loved with something so utterly incomprehensibly awful that you would likely vow never to open your mouth again?

This has been brought on by my having just finished watching The Pacific. Whether I liked it or not is a different post but what struck me was the closing credits. Photos of the real marines that the characters are based on are shown and, watching it just now, for the first time I felt like ‘windows to the souls’ was an appropriate, and not irritatingly twee, way of talking about the eyes. Most of them, those whose photos were taken after service, have a look that I can’t comprehend and that I’ve only seen on the news.

How do people live without talking about it? I find the idea impossible – because I’ve never experienced something so awful I would want to keep it from someone, and because I’ve grown up running my mouth off at anyone and everyone within earshot. I’ve also been born in a time where it’s totally cool to discuss everything with everyone and I always make the most of that.

It’s something I can’t get into and if I had the ability to observe it I’d almost certainly not be the same person that’s contemplating it now so, gah, I’m thinking about it yet I CAN’T think about it. It’s impossible.

My favourite poem, Vergissmeinnicht (Forget me not):

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.
Posted in Dreams, halo, TV, Videogames, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment