Bioshock Infinite demo looks very impressive

Bioshock Infinite is going to be phenomenal. Don’t believe me? Watch the 20 minutes of gameplay footage put up by GameTrailers right here.

The location of Columbia looks stunning. I wasn’t sure that Irrational Games could top the artistic marvel that was Rapture, but this new floating dystopia has proven me wrong. Each island is filled with a scale that is almost breath taking to look at. American patriotism is everywhere, tarnished by greed and corrupt ideals. Every street has a dark edge to it; giant posters quickly go up in flames and horses are found dying on the streets. Skylines litter the world like one giant suspended roller-coaster ride, weaving in and out of skyscrapers, streets and recreational parks. Columbia feels much more organic than Rapture, free from the restrictions of glass corridors and one way trams.

There is also the possibility of other settings. Through Elizabeth’s ability to create ‘tears’, the demo revealed a glimpse of down town New York. Who knows, perhaps the player will be able to explore this at greater length, alongside any other areas that Elizabeth can summon with this potentially limitless ability.

Elizabeth’s ability to manipulate tears also applies to combat. Throughout the demo it was obvious that Booker could call upon her powers to summon a variety of objects, such as carriages for cover or doorways for alternate routes. She acts as a simple support character that players control directly, eliminating the need for sublime A.I or complex commands. The demo showed a tendency to rely on traditional weaponry rather than ‘vigors’, the equivalent of plasmids that have been designed specifically for Bioshock Infinite. This might be due to the location of the demo in the overall campaign, or a desire to hide some of the more extravagant ‘vigors’ for a later date.

Elizabeth has an interesting personality and relationship with both Booker and the Songbird. At times she appears naive, believing plastic gold to be real and trying on a novelty Lincoln headpiece. At others she seems incredibly serious and determined, asking Booker to swear that he will never let the Songbird take her back. The dynamic between these characters looks to be at the core of the plot, offering a personal and believable take on the Bioshock Infinite world.

Although the Songbird looks pretty menacing, in my eyes it doesn’t quite have the same edge or iconic appeal as the Big Daddy. Perhaps this particular enemy will warm to me over time, but it still has a long way to go before it’s scaring me half to death with a pneumatic drill.

I came away from the Bioshock Infinite demo feeling very impressed. The scope and artistic direction of the game is like nothing else on the market, offering frantic combat and an original plot line. I can hardly wait for when this is released next year.

A retrospective for GameCamp 4

GameCamp is an event where fans of board games and video games can come together and discuss their favourite hobby. The fourth gathering was held in London South Bank University and this year I was lucky enough to attend. Despite suffering from partial deafness in one ear (I’ll have to get that checked out) I had a great time and learnt a lot from the various game developers who were holding debates.

This is the mighty whiteboard found in the base camp room. Any of the attendees can write down a game or discussion that they’d like to hold in one of the designated rooms – then it’s down to the rest of the visitors to decide whether they’d like to attend it. It all feels very creative and democratic, providing gamers with a chance to talk and play about anything that they’re passionate about.

The first talk that I chose to sit in on was about free range video games. Programmers argued that the measly pay and unfair hours that some game developers work is unfair, and that consumers should be made more aware of this. If some games were labelled in a similar manner to free range produce, the discussion questioned whether gamers would choose to purchase ethically. Do players care about the working conditions of triple A game studios? Or are they just concerned with getting the most play for their pound? It was an interesting argument, especially when the popularity of small indie developers were considered.

Another debate that I really enjoyed was about 2D art used in video games. I’m a big fan of the genre, but had never considered the technical and artistic limitations of choosing between pixel art, vectors or other digital mediums. Listening to the game developers explain why pixel art had remained so popular was insightful and added to my appreciation of modern game design.

One of the stranger talks concerned the political implications and representations of LittleBigPlanet. The host argued that the campaign in the original game stereotyped real world locations and cultures, encouraging players to plunder each country of all their resources. Personally I thought this was a complete misreading of a very light hearted game, but nevertheless it helped to create some interesting debate about the portrayal of ethnic minorities in video games.

I came away from GameCamp 4 feeling humbled and educated. If you’re a game designer or have ever wanted to debate the culture of video games with other people, this is a fantastic event that I can heartily recommend. Everyone that I met was very friendly, courteous and interesting to listen to. It was a shame that my damaged right ear affected my experience, because otherwise it was a very pleasant and memorable day.

GAME British Academy Video Games Awards 2011

The BAFTAs is a rare chance for video games to gain some positive attention. The ceremony is never particularly ground breaking, but it’s a good excuse for us Brits to sit down and commend some of the best titles from the last year. Dara O’Briain will be hosting the event on March 18th, so in the meantime lets analyse the nominations and make some predictions. I’ve picked out the most interesting categories to discuss, but a full list of nominations can be found here.

Action
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
BioShock 2
Call of Duty: Black Ops
God of War III
Halo: Reach


 

Such a tough one to judge. Although Call of Duty outstrips them all in terms of sales, but there are also a lot of prolific and platform exclusive titles. Halo: Reach has been commended for its excellent multiplayer suite on Xbox 360, but conversely God of War had a stellar single player campaign on PS3. Battlefield has its fans, but I’m just not sure if it had enough to make it stand out from the crowd. Bioshock 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood were both phenomenal, but will likely be perceived as extensions of  past games.

Predicted to win: Call of Duty: Black Ops
I would vote for:  Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

Artistic Achievement:
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
Call of Duty: Black Ops
God of War III
Heavy Rain
LIMBO
Mass Effect 2

Strangely, the nominations for artistic achievement are quite similar to the ones for action. Personally I can’t see how Black Ops could possibly be justified in this category, but who knows, maybe it’s destined to clean up this year. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood had an excellent vision of Rome and the time period, but I don’t think there’s enough imagination to really win it. LIMBO is undoubtedly the favourite, the creepy puzzler winning over the XBLA community with it’s monotone visuals and infuriating puzzles. Heavy Rain is probably a close second, the sense of story and unorthodox gameplay structure lending itself to a more cinematic product.

Predicted to win: LIMBO
I would vote for: LIMBO

Best Game
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
FIFA 11
Heavy Rain
LIMBO
Mass Effect 2
Super Mario Galaxy 2

No doubt the award that everyone’s hoping to win. I thought that 2010 was a fantastic year and it’s been represented fairly well through these nominations. The exclusion of Black Ops is refreshing, although the inclusion of FIFA 11 and LIMBO will be likely to raise some eyebrows. Super Mario Galaxy 2, known for holding one of the highest Metacritic ratings ever recorded, will hold a slight advantage over the others. Holding the fort for Nintendo, the sheer range of gameplay ideas will put it in good stead. Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood all hold an equal pedigree in second place.

Predicted to win: Super Mario Galaxy 2
I would vote for: Heavy Rain

Handheld
Cut the Rope
God of War: Ghost of Sparta
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4
Professor Layton and the Lost Future
Sonic Colours
Super Scribblenauts


 

Admittedly, not a particularly strong year for portable titles. How LEGO Harry Potter found its way onto the list, I’ll never know. Regardless, Professor Layton is always a hot contender; although there was nothing particularly new or revolutionary in the Lost Future, it was another solid title with excellent presentation values. Cut the Rope has a huge novelty factor, representing the rising popularity of gaming on the iPhone and iPad. Super Scribblenauts had a fantastic concept, but is still pretty boring as a game. God of War and Sonic Colours are unlikely to get a look in either.

Predicted to win: Cut the Rope
I would vote for: Professor Layton and the Lost Future

Original Music:
Alan Wake (Petri Alanko)
Fable III (Russell Shaw)
Heavy Rain (Normand Corbeil)
James Bond 007: Bloodstone (Richard Jacques)
Mass Effect 2 (Jack Wall)
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Koji Kondo)


 

Admittedly, I had to go back into these games to remind myself of their compositions and scores. Alan Wake blended songs from legitimate artists with its own original soundtrack, creating an interesting sense of sound throughout. I’m not sure if it would win, but Welcome to Bright Falls is a chilling, brilliant example of why it should be remembered. Fable 3 hosts a series of sufficient but stereotypical adventure compositions. Kingmaker Theme will remind you of how it can still give you goosebumps from time to time. Heavy Rain is my personal choice, complimenting the drama of its narrative in emotional, wholly unexpected ways. Just listen to the Main Theme if you want to have your heart racing. Super Mario Galaxy 2 will be boasting something different, the quirky Nintendo spirit ever apparent in it’s combination of world themes and humorous power ups.

Likely to win: Heavy Rain
I would vote for: Heavy Rain

Who do you guys think will win? Leave all of your comments below and let me know what you think of my predictions!

Retrospective: Microsoft in 2010

Microsoft has done a much better job of selling the Xbox 360 throughout 2010, with sales now close to rivalling the Nintendo Wii. The redesign has reinvigorated the console, heaping on a new set of features and adding some much needed aesthetics.

A significant percentage of sales are from existing owners that have chosen to upgrade. The built in wireless network adaptor, improved storage and quieter internal fan has made the Xbox redesign very desirable. Microsoft is trying to attract a family audience with the launch of Kinect, but their marketing strategy has also been very successful for ‘hardcore’ gamers. By improving each iteration’s functionality (in a similar sense to the iPhone) I think consumers see each purchase as a piece of cutting edge technology.

Kinect has surpassed all sales expectations, throwing the traditional controller out in favour of full body input. The current selection of games is hardly imaginative though, taking reference from Nintendo with a heavy influence on sport titles and party games. It’s been a big risk for Microsoft, but they’ve backed it with an appropriately strong marketing campaign. However, I’d like to see the technology integrated into existing titles in a similar manner to the PlayStation Move, or with full retail games that encourage an adult audience.

Kinect has fantastic potential, but is currently struggling to persuade ‘hardcore’ gamers with its steep price point. Until it steps away from the experiences we already own on the Nintendo Wii, I suspect its sales spike will begin to slow down in the spring of 2011.

Call of Duty: Black Ops and Halo Reach were big titles throughout autumn, but it’s left Microsoft exposed for the Christmas period. Favourable, but not great ratings from Fable 3 will likely leave them scrapping for multiplatform sales on titles such as Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

In 2011, I predict that third party support for Kinect will improve and recognition will grow for original XBLA titles such as Limbo and Plants Vs Zombies. Gears Of War 3 and Batman: Arkham City are my most anticipated full retail titles.

Final Grade: A-

Final Fantasy XIII: Part Two

The thirty hour mark rolled past my eyes this morning, swiftly sending me onto the finale of Chapter Ten. With disc two far behind me, I felt it was appropriate to give another update on my time spent with Final Fantasy XIII.

Square Enix had previously fooled me into believing that Final Fantasy XIII was an RPG ‘light’, removing a lot of the traditional customisation and difficulty options that older gamers had grown used to. The use of an auto-attack command personifies this perfectly. But then the band of heroes slowly come together and Squeenix decides to rip the carpet of ease from under your feet. The bosses suddenly become grippingly tough and require the use of multiple paradigm styles. For example, I had to retry the battle with Barthandelus numerous times and level up for a good couple of hours on the Palamecia. The player is suddenly given the choice of any battle team and evolving characters in any job class.

It may have taken over twenty hours, but the JRPG has finally hit the tempo and spirit of one of my favourite games in the series, Final Fantasy X (mostly due to the similarities with the crystarium and sphere grid). I think Square Enix have been very clever, slowly easing casual players into the ‘hardcore’ mould of most Final Fantasy titles, whilst relying on veterans to simply go with the flow. By disc three, they’ve successfully pleased both parties, including me.

The plot has been somewhat slow, relying on the immediate ‘fight or flight’ dilemma to deliver the biggest set pieces. There have been noticeable improvements though, including the revelations of Vanille’s past and the motives of the fal’cie. Hope and Vanille were my least favourite characters in part one, but have finally developed into what I can believe are normal human beings. There haven’t been many genuine tear jerking moments, but the reunion between Sazh and his child brought me pretty close.

Environments have maintained the impeccable standard set out in Chapter One, consistently surprising me with their versatility and detail. The sky views on board the Palamecia look exceptionally believable. I’ve also noticed that they’re slowly becoming more expansive, perhaps hinting at the open world of Gran Pulse which I’m just about to enter. Players have ranted persistently that Gran Pulse is the pay off for playing through Final Fantasy XIII, so it’ll be interesting to see whether it lives up to my high expectations.

The combat hasn’t changed all that much, but mastering it has become a necessity rather than a choice. I used to hate using Snow as a Sentinel, watching him stand like a buffoon and protect Hope while he whines from the corner of my screen. However, effectively watching him block and counter the toughest attacks of Cid Raines, whilst at the same time utilising Fang’s Saboteur abilities to debuff him, is simply beautiful. The active time battle system works incredibly well because you can see plans unfold in real time, rather than having to wait for a few turns just to see if your plan is working. It gives the player a sense of true leadership and strategy, flipping between offence and defence manoeuvres on the fly. Choose incorrectly and you will be severely punished. Also, the inclusion of a retry option when you’re defeated in battle (how long has it taken them to finally include it?!) encourages experimentation. The boss battles are long, challenging and epic in scale. I’m hooked.

I’ve enjoyed my time with Final Fantasy XIII so far. It’s a long way away from being perfect, but I commend Square Enix for taking the next step forward in the JRPG genre. The turn based battle system is outdated and needs a replacement; a future rendition of the ATB gauge maybe the replacement players are looking for. We need far more exploration, but the beautiful landscapes on show in Final Fantasy XIII are the new technical benchmark for what should be possible. The cut scenes are gorgeous, but only time will tell if the final act in the plot makes it all pay off.

If you’re into the RPG genre at all, I feel you need to play this game just to have an opinion on it. It’s been interesting for me to try and formulate my own ideas through these quick blog posts and I hope it’s sparked a few different discussions. I’ll try and upload a final part soon!

The Best Of 2009

Another year in gaming has almost passed, so with it comes an inevitable Top 5 picks. Be aware that these are not my definitive choices for the year, but instead simply video games that I want remembered and commended. I’m well aware that the other writers on Thumbsticks have loved similar games to me, so rather than simply replicating their choices, I want to choose sleeper hits that may otherwise go unnoticed. Hope you’ve all had a fantastic year and I’ll see you in 2010!

If you had asked me twelve months ago to try and predict my ‘top five of 2009’ list, none of the titles below would have made the cut. To me this really personifies the year in gaming.

We’ve had dozens of western releases pushed back to 2010 (Bioshock 2, Heavy Rain and Final Fantasy 13, etc) but as a result we’ve also had a number of sleeper hits creep through. Where on earth did Batman: Arkham Asylum and Scribblenauts erupt from? (More)

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everyone!
JetSetNick

Are you STOKED for a Europe release date?

Ever since I played the SSX franchise, my fingers have been itching for a new and high quality snowboarding game. I’m a big fan of skiing and snowboarding, but living in the United Kingdom (where in the winter it’s 100% rain and 0% snow) I usually have to make do with virtually riding powder.

After a completely average next-gen outing in the form of Shaun White Snowboarding, the title Stoked began to gain momentum on internet message boards. A snowboarding game in the style of EA Skate? A dynamic weather system that changed as you played? It was a tough deed for the relatively unknown developer Bongfish, but I held on with a lot of hope. I had been playing SSX 3 for simply too many years.

While the Americans play in the snow, Europeans are stuck waiting

While the Americans play in the snow, Europeans are stuck waiting

What surprised me the most was that the release date for Stoked came and went. Checking the high street and online retailers, I was confused when I couldn’t the game stocked anywhere. Was it such an indie game that no-one decided to distribute it in England? That was when I checked again… finally realising that it had only been released in America.

So European fans of Stoked waited and waited. I grew tired and eventually my interest waned, forcing me to pick up the PR momentum of other, more widely renowned games. I was no longer Stoked… for Stoked.

A sad end to the story? Fear no longer! The website GettingStoked has announced that Destineer’s title will finally be hitting European shelves in… September. A few months yet, but plenty of time to pick up hints and tips from our American neighbours (who already have their mitts on it, grrrr!).

Stoked is offering:
• Five gigantic real world mountains
• Dynamic weather and environments
• Seamless multiplayer
• Choose your boarding style – Hucker or Style?
• Real riders, pros and sponsors

Stoked will be released in the UK by Zushi Games exclusively on the Xbox 360.