SSX (2012)

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My apologies for the lack of any updates recently; a mix of university exams and my laptop screen breaking prevented me from writing anything. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been gaming, oh no! Been busy procrastinating with Fallout 3 (Game of the Year Edition) and the new SSX game, both for the Xbox360. I haven’t finished Fallout 3 yet, since I’m putting off doing the final mission so I can achievement-whore and play the DLC packs, so a review for that will be coming soon. So in the meantime: SSX.

As soon as I heard about this game’s imminent release I spazzed out with excitement, for lack of a better phrase. The original SSX and SSX 3 had been staples of my PS2-playing days and were very close to my heart (as a side note, I briefly played SSX Tricky but never owned it). I was disappointed with SSX On Tour, and due to lack of a Wii had never played Blur, but this new one, by all reckoning, seemed like it would bring the series back to form.

Spoilers: It does.

Okay okay, obviously this is my opinion and such an opinion needs some justification.

SSX, as a series, is all about reality-defying snowboard insanity. A move to real-world locations in this instalment initially made me wary that the series would be deviating from what makes it great, but the courses for each area have a surprising amount of character to define them, and each presents a unique and interesting challenge. This is achieved primarily through the concept of the ‘Deadly Descents’; the final course in each region which is designed to test your skills against various conditions unique to that region, such as darkness or avalanches. This keeps each region feeling fresh and exciting, not to mention giving you new gameplay mechanics to help you out. For example, in the Gravity region, you’re given a wingsuit to help you traverse the larger jumps. Awesome.

This instalment also features the return of many veteran SSX characters, while adding a few newbies, easily unlockable in the world tour segment of the game, which acts as the ‘story mode’ for the game. All the usual suspects are present, though with a few exceptions which they’ll no doubt release in DLC in the future.

So far as aesthetics and the feel of the game go, it ticks all the right boxes. Graphics are as good as you’d expect from a big modern release, and the soundtrack contains both high-powered dance tunes for when you’re carving up snow at 120kph, as well as more laid back indie tracks which make you really appreciate the splendour of your virtual jaunt in the snow. Also contains fan-favourite “It’s Tricky” by Run DMC whenever you go into uber-tricky mode, which I thought was a nice touch. Controls-wise, I can only speak for the Xbox version, but it feels intuitive enough and helps the gameplay flow easily, even when you have to rewind your progress time and time again after you fell into a crevasse for the billionth time.

The multiplayer aspect seems interesting enough; players take part in timed events to see who can go the fastest, score the highest or survive the longest, and final winnings depend upon where you rank compared to everyone else who took part. I’m unable to specifically review the “rivals” aspect since I’ve yet to convince any of my friends to compete against me. My only criticism thus-far about the multiplayer is the lack of events at certain times of day. I’ve found that during daylight hours of GMT there are very few multiplayer events running, and those which are often have a hefty price tag for entering. Waiting until later in the evening diminishes this somewhat, presumably because the influx of American players necessitates more events. Or maybe I’m just unlucky.

It’s not a perfect game, by any means. Some of the courses are challenging to the point of frustration, and it does one of my gaming-pet-peevs by, instead of just letting you finish the game when you finish the game, pulls a new objective out of nowhere right at the end, which isn’t much appreciated when its 3am and you’ve stayed up all night trying to complete what you thought was the last course. Also the similarity of the courses to each other, in the sense that they’re all on a natural-looking mountain whereas in previous games you could be in a city one minute and an iced-up river the next, makes it difficult to remember the layout of some of the courses, leading to many a time where I find what I think is a good jump and end up flailing down into the dark misty abyss. The rewind option relieves this annoyance somewhat but its often limited in its availability, and there’s nothing quite as frustrating as rewinding and seeing all your race competitors speed past you and leaving you in their powder.

That being said, it’s stylish, fun and has lots of challenges which I expect will keep me playing for some while yet. Definitely recommended to anyone who was a fan of the originals.

Kitacon IV

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So this year I made it my aim to attend more anime and gaming events, namely conventions and expos. One of the events on my calendar this year was Kitacon IV, an anime convention at the Birmingham Hilton Metropole hotel last weekend. This wouldn’t normally have made my attendance list if it weren’t for the news that Ellen McLain, voice actress of GLaDOS from Portal, would be a guest there this year. This, in my mind, turned Kita from a generic anime convention into the hottest ticket in the country. (For some sense of context, I’ve never had the chance to meet anyone from the gaming world before and I’m somewhat of a shameless Valve fangirl.) So once I found out she would be there I made sure I got myself a ticket, talked my other half into going with me and made plans for a trip to Birmingham.

We drove up Friday evening, fully equipped and excited for the weekend. According to the schedule, Ellen was due to be holding a Q & A session on Sunday afternoon, so until then we were free to relax, socialise and enjoy the convention.

While chilling around in the hotel bar on the Saturday, a friend of ours let us know that Ellen was doing an impromptu signing session elsewhere in the hotel. This prompted an in-depth search of the hotel (our only directions were “that way” with pointing in a frustratingly general direction), but not before I’d retrieved my plushie Combustible Lemon from my hotel room. After some frantic searching, we finally found the horde of people around Ellen and joined the queue (we’re British; we queue in every possible situation). So we queued. And queued. For about an hour and a half. But eventually we got to the front and were greeted by a very friendly Ellen McLain. I have to say, she is one cool cat. She signed my lemon, and recorded a line in the voice of GLaDOS on my phone, and was very lovely to us even though she must have been there for hours. Also, I gave her a hug. My life is essentially complete.

So at this point I’m the happiest person at the con, bouncing around like a kangaroo on pixie sticks.

The next day I was sure to be at her Q & A with front-row seats in a packed-out room. It was good fun, hearing her answer questions about her opera background and about GLaDOS and Portal. She really is one of the nicest people I’ve met. But what made the Q & A great was that afterwards she did another signing session, and we stuck around to take a photo of one of our friends with her. And she recognised us (me and my other half) and greeted us enthusiastically by name. The fangirl in me nearly died of excitement.

So that was the end of our GLaDOS stalking. Or was it..? We were hanging out in the karaoke on Sunday evening because one of our friends was going to sing, and who should come out and perform but Ms McLain herself, singing Still Alive with some of the attendees. One cool cat indeed.

And for your viewing delectation, I got my other half to film Ms McLain giving Cave Johnson’s “lemon rant”, in the voice of Caroline. Enjoy!


Pokemon: Then and Now

Pokeball

Pokemon; one of the defining game series of a generation. Whether you’re a die-hard fan, an “original 150 only” fan or you just hate it, no one can deny the impact and overwhelming popularity the Pokemon franchise has had in the gaming and entertainment industries.

My personal relationship with the games has been a bit backward. Being 10 just as the pokemon popularity boom occurred, I was one of the horde of obsessive child fans in love with the series. However, as much as I begged to my parents, I was never allowed to have a Gameboy console and so never had the opportunity to actually play the games. (This didn’t stop me memorising the game guide, but I digress.) I stayed with the series into the Gold/Silver/Crystal era, but grew up and had lost interest by Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald.

Jump forward to summer 2007 to the release of Diamond and Pearl, the fourth generation in the series and the first releases for the Nintendo DS. I was 16 and had just gotten my first job, so in celebration of my new-found employment I decided to blow my first paycheque on a new DS Lite and a copy of Pokemon Diamond, with the intent to a: own my first console, even if it was only a handheld (yes, it was my first console; my sisters PS2 which I later bought from her does not count… I digress again) and b: so I could rediscover the world of Pokemon I had so loved as a 10-year-old.

I won’t go into detail, but safe to say, I adored Diamond. I accept that I am biased towards it since it was my first pokemon game, but even with me being an original-150-fan it didn’t alienate me and I enjoyed the story and additions to the game from the originals, in particular the underground exploration feature (making finding various items like elemental stones less of a hassle) and the pokétch. It got me back into Pokemon and it will always have a special place in my heart.

After completing Diamond, I decided I wanted to “Catch ‘Em All”, which necessitated the purchase of previous games in the series in order to complete my Diamond Pokedex. Owning a DS Lite allowed the playing of Game Boy Advance games as well as the transfer of GBA-caught pokemon to the DS cartridge, so my next port-of-call was to go through the GBA games, starting with LeafGreen, the GBA remake of the original Blue. The graphics are obviously a step-down from what I had enjoyed in Diamond, but I enjoyed actually being able to play through a game I had grown up adoring from afar, albeit playing an enhanced and updated version. Now, I will confess at this point that I have yet to actually finish Leaf Green… I somehow misplaced the cartridge just before reaching the Elite Four and have only recently found it. Trust me, it will get finished.

A year or two later in 2010, HeartGold and SoulSilver were released; DS remakes of the generation II Gold and Silver titles. I quickly bought HeartGold (complete with a Pokewalker I never used) and had a lot of fun playing it. If I ignore my emotional attachment to Diamond, I’d say it’s my favourite game in the series. However, completion-wise the fates were against me once again; while stuck training up for the Elite Four (who handed my ass to me on a plate multiple times) my game was wiped by a friend. Incidentally, we’re not friends anymore. I ended up giving the game to them, lamenting the loss of my squad probably a little more than is normal. They, in turn, purchased a replacement copy for me, but this time it was SoulSilver. This gave me the opportunity to play the two near-identical games and compare their minor differences. I didn’t find much preference for any of the version-specific pokemon in either game, my only comment is that while the random-number-generator was on my side in HeartGold (I caught Ho-Oh with a single ultra ball), it took me significantly longer than I would have liked to catch Lugia in SoulSilver (because I’m stubborn and refused to use my master ball, preferring to save it for the roaming legendaries later). But again, that’s down to the random-number-generator. However, while playing SoulSilver, I did make use of the PokeWalker, which is quite a cute way of levelling up a pokemon and finding items.

Jumping forward yet another year, generation V of pokemon is released with Black and White, and I enthusiastically bought Black version, getting ready for another pokemon adventure. A common complaint is that the pokemon designs in the newer games pale in comparison to the originals. Up til generation V I had disagreed with these opinions, but Black I struggled to like any of the pokemon. I chose Oshawott as my starter (don’t judge me) who was good and reliable, and later caught a Munna which was handy… but that was it. I caught others, but they didn’t prove useful in battle so I didn’t train them up. It’s a pain to train up a pokemon when it has no good attack moves so it can’t fight for itself, and when I found myself needing to do this for most of the pokemon I was catching I just kept falling back to my starter and munna. This got ever-more frustrating as I got further in the game when only having two types of pokemon becomes a huge disadvantage, and it was too late to easily train up some of the earlier-caught ones. A further complaint relating to this is the omission of pre-generation-V pokemon until after the Elite Four (a fact I had to look up, since I gave up playing sometime after the second gym badge). Unlike Diamond, which introduced new pokemon along with old ones, Black/White completely alienated me and made the game annoying to play. The one thing I will say it has in its favour is the graphics; the Skyarrow Bridge absolutely took my breath away and was one of the most stunning pokemon locations I’ve ever visited.

Earlier this year I also picked up a copy of generation III title Pokemon Sapphire for the GBA, but due to other life commitments (read: university work owns my life) have been unable to play it for more than an hour or two.

So that brings me to here and now and the catalyst for writing this rather lengthy throwback to my pokemon-playing saga; my recent purchase of a Nintendo 64 console and copy of Pokemon Stadium prompted the need for an original generation I game to play with it, so I hit up ebay and appeased my 10-year-old self by finally buying a Gameboy Colour console and a copy of Pokemon Yellow. The packages arrived on Monday. It is now Wednesday and I’m at the 3rd gym and absolutely adoring it. I’m making good use of that game guide I memorised 11 years ago, and it’s a welcome return to the original 150 after the disappointment of Black. It does, however, highlight to me how much I like the gameplay additions to the series in later instalments (in particular the running shoes) and the updated graphics of the later games; the colour coding of attack and species types in later games is, in retrospect, very useful.

It’s been said that in the upcoming Black 2/White 2 games, pre-generation-V pokemon will be available to catch and train similar to previous versions of the game, so hopefully that’ll be an improvement. I hope that will give me an opportunity to enjoy exploring the region of Unova and fully appreciate the generation V era. Until then, the older games can still be enjoyed and in my opinion they are just as playable as they were way-back-when. The world of Pokemon is truly a magical one, and I think it’ll keep my inner-child enjoying it for a while yet, in whatever form the games take.

Gaming’s Least Favourite PAL

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So I live in the UK. South of England, to be more (but still not particularly) precise. It’s a lovely place to live, and I’m very grateful for everything my country offers me.

But game release dates tend to screw us Brits over. Okay, that’s a bit unfair, it’s not always us who gets the short straw; at least we actually get the full game instead of censored version *cough*nevermovingtoAustralia*cough*. But it always feels like we’re waiting longer than should be needed for the latest gaming titles to be released over here.

I’m happy to admit I know nothing about game release schedules. My knowledge extends only to “I want this game, it’s released on xyz date so I shall wait til then to break open my piggy bank”. There isn’t too much need to pay attention to when a game is released elsewhere, after all, I don’t live ‘elsewhere’.
But like all issues, I didn’t think about it too much til it affected something I care about. So last week, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance was released on the 3DS. Well, released in Japan. Okay, this I can understand; it was made in Japan in Japanese language and it’s not like they can translate everything overnight. However, on its day of release in Japan, there wasn’t even a solid release date for North America or the UK, just an estimation of “summer 2012”. A few days later, a release date of July 31st was confirmed for the North American release, but it wasn’t until another few days later that a UK release date was announced for August 3rd.

And this is my problem. Why is a UK release date not only announced later, but the release itself is later than the North American equivalent?

Similarly, looking back at the release dates for the new SSX game, North America, New Zealand and Australia, Europe and Japan all have different release dates, with 16 days between the first and last release dates. I don’t understand this. Surely, with our technology and communications, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get the game out to all territories for release at the same time. Or, if that’s not an option, just delay the release by a few days so it’s released simultaneously around the world.

My beef over this isn’t just out of petty annoyance akin to jealously that some people get games before others. Okay, it is a little, but more than that the thing about this that bothers me most is the need to avoid spoilers. When you frequent gaming websites and blogs and social media sites, it’s sometimes hard to avoid spoilers about the gameplay or story. For example, it’s hard to avoid screencaps of Kingdom Hearts 3D on my Tumblr, where I follow a number of Kingdom Hearts blogs.

Maybe there is a good reason for the delay, such as translation or programming or something else I can’t claim to know anything about. But not knowing it, all I can do is complain about it in ignorance. If anyone can explain this to me then please do, I’m genuinely interested, but I get the feeling it’s “just one of those things” similar to the way films are released at different times in different places around the world and I’d suppose it’s not going to change any time soon.

ME3 Ending: Differences in Opinion

Mass Effect 3 Ending: Differences in Opinion

Okay, so I’m gonna throw in my two-cents on the ME3 ending controversy.

I have no useful contribution to the discussion of whether the ending was good or bad, because honestly, I haven’t played it; I tried playing the original Mass Effect and just couldn’t get into it (each to their own, and all that) so I have no real interest in the series itself. However, being a frequent visitor of gaming websites it’s been impossible to ignore the furore surrounding the game’s ending, so here’s my highly uninformed view from an outsiders perspective.

From what I’ve read of fan opinions, reviews, forum threads and the like, it’s blindingly obvious that a lot of people have a huge amount of emotional investment in the game. This I can understand; I feel similarly attached to game franchises I’ve played and loved too. So the fact that people have gotten in such a state about the ending at least tells me that something has gone wrong here, and I can hazard a guess that I’d be equally upset if the ending to a game in a series I loved that I was expecting to enjoy turned out to be unsatisfying.

But it’s gotten to the point where peoples’ opinions are so strong that they refuse to listen or acknowledge any view other than their own; if someone else disagrees, then they are dismissed as being ignorant or stupid. This is true for either side of the argument. It’s become similar to other controversial topics like politics or religion, where people are so convinced that their way is the right way that they get aggressive or dismissive when people’s opinions differ. This is the part in this whole ME3 issue that annoys me because it means there’s no room for any actual constructive debate. There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion that differs to yours and getting personal in your insults takes it too far. It’s gotten to the point where people who did like the ending, or at least didn’t find is as offensively bad as the masses, are either being verbally abused by the fanbase, or are remaining silent to avoid being verbally abused by the fanbase. That being said, don’t take that to mean I’m on the side of the favourable reviewers. They can be just as condescending when addressing the disgruntled fans, and so begins a vicious cycle of ignorance.

Meanwhile, the storm of the dispute rages on so strongly that people who have absolutely no interest in the series or the issue at hand, such as myself, are dragged into the fight, adding yet more ignorance to fuel the fires.

I guess what I mean to say by all this is just… be more open-minded. Or, at the very least, tolerant that not everyone will agree with you.

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