Friday, 22 July 2011

Score Whoring?

            Whether you play Xbox, PlayStation or indeed Games For Windows Live titles on PC or the Windows phone you will now be intimately acquainted with a system that gives you virtual rewards for doing things in games. Microsoft started it all by adding Achievements to their 360 games and shortly after someone over at Sony realised it was a good idea and ‘borrowed’ it for their own Trophy system. Both of these systems are essentially the same, granting you little pop ups that you get for completing certain objectives, killing x amount of enemies with such and such a weapon, reaching a certain level etc etc. Now at first this seems like a really cool idea, I mean it gives you challenges that extend the life of the game… right?
            I’m going to throw this out there, I’ve never been much of an achievement hunter, in fact there are only 2 games I have 100% points on, Fallout 3 and Assassins Creed 2, and that’s because I fucking love those two games. Now I wager that even without the achievements I would have played both of these games for just as long as I did to get the 100% and the combined 2000 and something points it added to my Gamer Score. I’ve played both for hours after I got to this point so that’s just testament to my theory here. Compared to a lot of people I know my Gamer Score is fairly low and my Trophies score is abysmal because most games I get for my 360 and my PS3 is at this point pretty much a BluRay player only until the next interesting exclusive comes along. Neither of these facts bother me in the slightest.
            I have no qualms with story based achievements/trophies or ones that are genuinely fun to get, but there are some bloody stupid ones out there that don’t bear thinking about. As an example I shall take Fallout: New Vegas which has an achievement/trophy for healing 10,000 points of damage by eating food. Food restores bugger all health so this would take forever. Furthermore food takes time to heal you when Stimpacks are abundant, instant and heal more damage. Other ones that piss me off are the ‘Secret’ ones that aren’t story based. Seriously whose stupid idea was that? ‘Here’s an idea, we’ll stick this achievement in where they have to do this really complicated thing, but not tell them what the complicated thing is!’ What really worries me is that these guys aren’t getting fired on the spot like they should be but instead being LISTENED to. Actually while I’m thinking about people who should be fired, anyone who proposes an insanely difficult task and awards it 1pt as well as the people behind any that give you a reward that is not a multiple of 5 should be next in line. Seriously I care very little about the number but when it was XXX3 I had to try rather hard to get the 2/7 (forget which) pairing to make the damn thing right.
            What I’m rambling towards is that I really don’t understand why people try so hard to increase that number. I’ve seen people buy games they openly admit they don’t like but know the achievements are easy. Forgive me but that is a terribly stupid reason to buy a game. You may have heard about the Avatar game that lets you get 1000pts in minutes, by pressing the same button over and over while standing in one place. The game is terrible but because of this one fact it was sought after in really quite silly numbers. I could see the appeal of increasing my Gamer Score if it was actually a measure of skill, but games like this and other less extreme but similar ones negate the score meaning anything at all.
            I can’t even begin to describe how I feel about multiplayer achievements either, but let’s have a go anyway. Now I don’t normally mind swearing but I shall have to engage a language filter on myself here because my true feelings on this are rather un-publishable, even on the internet. This rant is more aimed at Xbox who force you to pay to play online but it is applicable to PS3 as well. Nobody should be forced to play online to 100% a game if that is their wish. Playing multiplayer with random people is generally an unpleasant experience and it is inexcusable to make people engage in this should they want to ‘complete’ the game they have been enjoying thus far. I shall cite Assassins Creed: Brotherhood here. The multiplayer on this game is innovative and actually pretty fun, doesn’t mean that I want to spend hours and hours trying to get in certain situations that cause that little pop sound and give me more numbers for my E-ego.
            It saddens me somewhat that a lot of kids will never know gaming without this system. When I was playing games growing up the achievement was finishing the games without cheating. There was one difficulty, finite number of lives and when you ran out you went back to the very beginning and had to start all over again. We’re pampered now with save points, infinite lives and other such ‘continue from here’ methods that cheapen the achievement of actually getting to the end, which when you think about it should be the biggest one there is. Instead actually completing the game takes a back seat to killing a shit-ton of enemies for no reason other than because a little text box says you will get 30pts for doing so. Don’t get me wrong I definitely wouldn’t give up the modern methods completely; I just think everyone should experience the elation that comes from completing a game like ‘Sonic The Hedgehog’ on the Sega Megadrive.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

ST Oh no... more problems for Cryptic

             As you may know I recently purchased a gaming PC and once everything was set up and ready to go I thought to myself ‘Hmmm, it’s been over a year now since Star Trek Online first came out, I wonder if it’s fixed yet?’ For some background on this we travel back to February of 2010…*wibbly memory music*
            The situation: I have played the beta and thoroughly enjoyed myself despite a few niggles, but after all it’s beta so what do you expect? I pre-order the game and play in the 2 week ‘Head start’ for either pre-order holders or lifetime subscribers. I point out here that I was both of these after having being conned by the beta, but more on that story in a bit. The start of these 2 weeks are plagued by server problems and downtime but again, a new MMO launches and I expected a few hiccups at the beginning. Head start finishes and oh boy here comes a metric fuckton of problems. Server wait times are huge, quite often the server is down though so you don’t have to wait. The Klingon side of the game basically doesn’t work; you have 3 charcter slots and have to pay for more if you want them and worst of all is the lag that makes the game damn unplayable. Now the lag problem may have been at least partially down to my machine but everything else? Not so much.
            It was at this time when I regretted buying the lifetime subscription, which at the time seemed like a great idea. I mean the beta was fun and I’m a massive Star Trek nerd, what was not to love? I try every now and again to play the game over the next year and handful of months only to give up because of horrific lag. However once everything was installed on my new rig things were…smooth. I pressed W and immediately walked forwards, a quick press of 2 on my Naga mouse fired my phaser’s alt-fire straight away. There was still a lot of ‘Go to the C-store to buy X’ and I think this is a unforgiveable. If you make an MMO do EITHER monthly subscriptions OR micro transactions, both is simply greedy and I can think of a C that describes that store, and I tell you now it’s not ‘Cryptic’. Despite this though things seemed to be looking very much in the upward direction.
            This lasted for all of 5 or maybe 6 days before they released the next big ‘Season 4’ patch. First time I log in after said patch I’m playing for about a minute before I’m looking at my desktop somewhat bewildered and reading a ‘Fatal Error has occurred’ message. Low and behold it happens every time I try and play now and I thought that maybe it was just me, I mean my internet connection is truly shocking at the moment so it must be that I foolishly thought. A quick check of the forums shows me that I am most definitely not the only one experiencing difficulties with the new patch.
            This is such a shame because in STO Cryptic Studios have something that could be incredible. The space combat is genuinely a joy and I love that I have (sort of) command of my own Starfleet ship. I just wish they could sort out all the technical difficulties and actually let me play the game I so want to love. I’d rather it not take about 18 months this time either, it’s not fair on the people who put their faith in the game and bought the lifetime sub but in a way it’s even less fair for those customers paying monthly and not being able to play the game, but surely still being charged for the privilege of reading error messages.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Had to happen eventually...

I promised myself I wasn’t going to do this but with bugger all having come out at the moment I have decided to break my promise and review the greatest game of all time. Ever. Without question. At this point if you know me you will know the game of which I speak, even if you don’t you should know anyway; Final Fantasy VII is obviously the game in question.
I’m only going to mention graphics once and I’m going to get it out of the way right at the start. They are not that bad. You must remember that this game came out in 1997and therefore cannot be accurately compared with the hyper graphics of today. In fact working with such simple character models whose only facial features are eyes Squaresoft achieved far more than Square Enix was able to do with the gorgeous looking (only complement I have for this) Final Fantasy XIII. I care about the simple little guys in VII; in XIII all I wanted to do was punch Hope in the face and rip out Vanille’s voice box.
The story is by far the most engaging, well written, heart tugging video game plot ever written. The characters start out as a rebel group thinking big but acting, in the grand scheme of things, small. By the end of the game you are fighting to literally save the planet upon which they live. You may think this sounds unoriginal and in a sense you may be right, however it’s the journey from one state to the other, both literally and the individual journey each character has to make to get them to the point at which they can fight that fight that is the true draw. The protagonist, Cloud Strife, obviously has the biggest trials to overcome but he is by no means alone in this as each character has their own demons they must face.
The dialogue between the characters is superb. You feel like the things they say are realistic, by that I mean what those people would be saying to one another in real life, without the insane censorship that would prevent companies from doing this in new games today. For example, during a long stair climb (which is optional so may be missed) Tifa says to the complaining Barret “Shut up and climb you retard.” There’s no way you could get away with saying that these days and this is a shame, not because it’s funny but because it’s real. Something else you couldn’t do in a game of this rating in these days where everything must be voice acted, badly, is the amount of swearing that particularly Barret and Cid come out with. Again this seems real and how these people should be talking, you can’t hide behind %^&#* anymore. While I’m on the subject and closing out this paragraph, what the hell was wrong with games having entirely text based dialogue? They gave you the chance to imprint your own personalities onto the characters within the game and surely that is better than the pre-described bullshit you usually get now. I guess we aren’t trusted with our own imaginations anymore.
The game itself is huge, we’re talking proper RPG length here folks with upwards of 60 hours if you want to do everything there is to do. It won’t have the same significance now but when I first stepped out onto the world map those years ago my mind was blown by the scale. Fortunately despite the size you are, at least in the beginning gently lead through the main story by conversation prompts and a map design that means you can’t go everywhere until you have a certain vehicle to allow you to cross terrain features, for example the buggy that allows you to cross quicksand and rivers. It all opens up once you get the airship but again you will never be lost as long as you listen to the dialogue and even if you forget you can talk to people on the bridge for a reminder.
The thing the game hinges on, second to the story anyway, is the battle system since you will spend a lot of time in battles as you progress through the game. It is a simple turn based system with the option to have the enemies turns paused whilst you are selecting commands from windows. This option means you can take your time over what abilities you want to use and not have to worry about getting attacked while you do so. You can of course turn this off so there is always a sense of urgency to the battles, in particular the bosses later in the game.  The abilities you can use are what make the battle system come alive. Each character has a set of unique attacks called Limit Breaks in addition to the basic ‘Fight’ and ‘Item’ options. As you take damage a bar charges and when it fills you can unleash one of these powerful moves with varying effects. Each of your weapons and pieces of armour also has a number of slots, some linked and some single, and into these slots you can put materia. Materia are spheres of varying colours which do different things. Green materia are magic spells, red allow you to summon monsters as special attacks, yellow give you special attack abilities, blue adds effects to either your attacks it’s paired materia and finally purple enhances your base stats. The sheer number of combinations and pairings you can make means that there are some incredibly potent pairings. The materia system is truly a triumph and to this day is the best ability management system I have come across because of the freedom it allows the individual player.
Nobuo Uematsu (composer of Final Fantasy soundtracks and lead of the epic band ‘The Black Mages’) has composed a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to accompany the game. The boss music gets the heart beating, the battle music doesn’t get tedious and the different music for the various towns gives each one its own personality. For example the military city of Junon has loud, impressive music suitable to its own grandeur and massive coastal defence cannon. In contrast Cosmo Canyon has an earthy, tribal tone which compliments its natural red rock setting, building styles and back story given in the game.
I honestly believe that in Final Fantasy VII we have as close to a perfect game as there has ever been and, to be honest, ever will have. The story, character developments and relations, music and mechanics are faultless. If you put a gun to my head and told me I had to say something negative the only things I could provide are that since O is the select button I find myself accidently cancelling things in other games after I’ve played it for a while and that I can’t use the analogue sticks to move around due to them not being on the controller when the game first came out. That is literally it and neither of those is really a problem or indeed much to do with the game. I urge you all to play this game; it is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

99% (only because I feel that 100% isn’t viable as a score, because I guess technically something better COULD come along, however unlikely that may be)