Monthly Archives: May 2011

Pilotwings Resort: A Review

Green tea is good. It’s not the flashiest of drinks, nor the most exciting — when I first tried it I thought it tasted predominantly of soil — but gradually I’ve come to appreciate its soothing charms. In today’s cluttered, ultra-stimulatory world, I like that I can spend five minutes away from the noise and action, sipping some earthy water, relaxing, letting my breath come naturally and my mind unfurl.

Pilotwings Resort, for the 3DS, gives me a similar feeling. It’s a small, quiet game, and has recently taken hold of my heart, in a low-key kind of way.

It’s just lovely. It’s lovely because of its free-flight mode, which lets you putter about its island setting in a plane, a hang glider or a rocket belt (plus more that you unlock), taking in the sights and collecting little fancies. You get to pop balloons, and popping balloons rewards you with more flight time, so you can pop even more balloons.

And there are location markers to collect, and flying through each one tells you a little story — not a narrative, exactly, but some words to flesh out the character of the island. There’s a dead-end halfway up the mountain that you’re told is the point hikers have to decide whether to start climbing or turn back. Or a lighthouse that was built mistakenly at twice its intended size. Or a car in the wilderness with a flat battery (“Will they make it home before dark?”). The asides are breezy and cute, and come together to create a tone that puts me in mind of Miyazaki’s equally calming film Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Pilotwings is lovely for the contrast of its vehicles, which is perfectly judged. The rocket belt is good for exploring over short distances, because you can hover and land and make little jumps (to poke around castle grounds, or inside the town) but it’s quite slow and runs out of fuel. The plane can fly forever, and lands in water and does barrel rolls (!), but it turns slowly. The hang glider is my favourite of all, because you’re not in a machine but floating on the air, using thermals to gain height, and it’s very relaxing. You get taken by a gust, then swoop at speed down towards the cruise ship docked in the harbour, then pull up at the last minute and soar over fields and windmill farms.

The game is lovely because of the light at sunset, which is golden and peaceful. And because during the day the blue skies stretch endlessly. And at night there are firework displays going off.

And it’s lovely as well because of its challenge mode — how it’s not hard to pass the missions and move on, but you’ll always be compelled to return to try for three stars, to reach that elusive perfect score.

It’s lovely because in the hang glider you’ll be drifting lower and lower, and your speed will be dropping, and there’ll be a thermal away in front of you and you won’t know whether you’ll make it or crash into the sea, and you’ll really want to make it.

It’s lovely because I’ve come home from work at two in the morning, and instead of going to bed I’ve sat up and looked for hidden passages through the mountain (always with a balloon or other collectible inside) until the sun has come in through my window. It’s lovely because Monster Games and Nintendo have put a lot of thought into creating the coastal allure of the island, which is full of varied locations and much larger in content than you initially suspect. The more you explore, the more you find there is to explore, and the world is a rich, inviting one. It’s lovely because of the music, which doesn’t draw attention to itself but is nonetheless delightful. It’s lovely because sometimes out at sea you’ll notice a whale breaking the water’s surface before diving back below.

It’s lovely because playing it is like going on a little adventure.

Pilotwings Resort might not be particularly innovative or exciting — at times it feels atavistic in its reliance on N64-era tropes and conventions — and it’s a lean package in terms of game modes, with no multiplayer at all to speak of — but you know, sometimes that doesn’t matter. I don’t always want to be pushed into the future, bedazzled by some hip new genre mash-up with a punk/grimecore/patchwork aesthetic. Sometimes it’s just nice to take a step back, sip some green tea, and enjoy a videogame that’s solid and enjoyable and gets its basic sense of exploration spot on.

And did I mention? it’s really rather lovely.

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All I want for Xmas is a 3DS

I really was going to be good. I’ve cut down my hours at work, you see, because space ants or sentient triffids or Tories might destroy the world at any moment, and I just can’t stand the idea that, reflecting upon my life in the last moments before the Earth crumbles under the weight of hordes of slimy, repulsive monsters (or the ants or triffids), I’d be left with the thought, “I really wish I hadn’t wasted all that time at a boring job.”

So, I made a plan to be sensible with outgoings, to spend less on games, to only buy budget releases and get more creative with my articles.

Then I disregarded that plan and bought a Nintendo 3DS. And you know what? I’m not even sorry. What follows are my first-week impressions…

The blowing, is what sealed it for me. Not to say I didn’t like it from the start — a sexy case (in black; the blue model looks naff), a home menu taking cues from Apple, yet unmistakably Nintendo, a mini analogue stick as comfortable and accurate as you’d like, a 3D screen that just works — but it wasn’t until I blew on the thing that I fell in love. When you’re navigating the menu icons, blowing at the 3DS (it has a microphone on the front) causes the logos to leap and spin as if they’ve been caught by a breeze.

I don’t know if this happened on the DS — I only owned the original, ugly-as-sin model for a few months, and never had a game that utilised the mic — but regardless it’s a gorgeous idea, and proof that the Nintendo of my childhood is still alive. Up until that point I’d been scrutinising the 3DS from a critical perspective; once I saw the little wheel of Mii faces twirling madly from an accidental sigh I was beyond all that. I was smiling.

This is Nintendo’s true strength. They don’t create technology you can show off with, technology that integrates and synergises with your hip connected lifestyle (despite what their ill-conceived marketing campaigns may tell you). They create technology that makes you happy.

My hours with the 3DS confirm this. The booting up sequence, scrolling the menus, taking 3D pictures with the camera, the excellent pre-loaded augmented reality game Face Raiders — it all makes me gurgle and splutter like a newborn infant caught up in the joy of existence. I simply don’t want to speak of screen resolution or battery life; I want to tell you about how I shot at a floating 3D replica of my friend’s face, covered in make-up and sporting an afro, how I played golf on a course that deformed and sank into my dining table, how I blew bubbles and love hearts onto the screen when taking a picture of myself, making me laugh out loud as the photo took.

Playing on the 3DS has become routine for me, a break from writing, replacement for listless Facebook scrolling, wind-down in bed after an evening shift at work. It’s in this traditional, almost quaint way that Nintendo’s handheld — like their previous handhelds — will enter your life: not as a sleek multimedia device to replace your iPhone or Blackberry, not as a sexy piece of kit, but as a little bundle of fun. I don’t think I want to check my emails on it (though that’ll be possible soon) or use it as an mp3 player (already possible) — I want it to play games.

As for the 3D effect: it’s … nice. It won’t revolutionise gaming, if only because the tech isn’t inclusive enough (you do have to view from the exact right angle and distance, and some people get eye-strain), but it offers an extra layer of immersion you’re sad to lose if you turn it off. With 3D off you can appreciate how crisp the screen is — but turn it on and you don’t see a screen at all, only a window into another world. It’s … nice.

The reservations — those that I have — are mostly to do with pricing. Firstly, for the machine itself. Looking to the current home consoles, a parallel can be drawn between the 3DS and the Wii, both sold on unique features rather than raw processing power, and both positioning themselves more as dedicated gaming platforms than multimedia hubs. But where the Wii launched at £180, the 3DS is currently retailing for around £200 — a testament to the costs of its 3D technology, perhaps, but still high for a traditional handheld.

Secondly, there’s the price-point for the games. I’m not entirely with the camp that sees selling full priced games in the age of the downloadable app as wholly outdated — I’d take a single new Mario or Zelda title over a million Angry Birds clones — but they at least have a point. Our attention spans are dwindling, and we’re growing used to devices that do everything, where functionality is added and personalised, where application costs are low and choice broad. Charging £35 per title just might put off too many consumers, especially as handheld games have a reputation for being shorter, more bitesize affairs than their big brothers on the home consoles. Personally, I find £25 to be an acceptable figure (bought my only game, Pilotwings Resort, second-hand for £23), but more than that and I’m getting sniffy.

The upcoming firmware update, adding an online eStore to the console, could go some way to assuaging my doubts. A plethora of lighter titles, indie games and older re-releases would be welcome — providing once again the pricing is reasonable. I never tried the DSiWare service, but my experience with the Wii’s online store is that Nintendo aren’t embracing downloadable content to the same degree as their competitors. How much will the twenty-two year old Super Mario Land offered at the eStore’s launch set us back? Looking at their track record, I’d say not so much people won’t pay, but enough to seem miserly and corporate.

Then again, this has always been the contradictory nature of Nintendo. A corporation ruthless and removed, at times almost willfully disdainful of their audience, who even so employ the sweetest bunch of designers on the planet.

And it’s this second side, ultimately, that I care about. I’m not bothered if the money men want to make their money — I know better than them. Because when I’m shooting my friends’ rouged up faces, and blowing bubbles, and smiling and laughing, I’m not holding a robustly-priced consumer product; I’m holding a magical toy. And that’s what it’s all about.

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When I’m Dead They’ll Be Still Alive: Portal School Choir

This is pretty old, but isn’t it the sweetest?

It’s hard to tell how far the audience gets what’s going on — they laugh at the Black Mesa line, but do they know the reference? — but even so, it’s not often you see a game penetrate so deeply into our cultural consciousness. Super Mario did, obviously — and maybe Space Invaders? Pac-Man?

And how did Valve achieve it? By making a comedy puzzle game about science, starring a girl of Brazilian-Japanese descent and a megalomaniac female computer. And by turning their end credits into a cute song. And by joking about cake. I’d love to see that pitched to a publisher.

I’ve always thought it was a cop-out for gaming executives to say they’re forced to greenlight games for thirteen-year-old sociopaths “because that’s what sells.” No one knows what’ll sell, no one can hold the entirety of this sprawling universe in their heads and say with any certainty how it’ll turn out.

The only gauge you have — the only one you can ever have — is that little voice within you that laughs and cries and is moved by experiences. Make a game that speaks to that voice, and it’ll speak to the voices of others, as well.

That loud, gauche whizz-bang that most games (and films and books) instead aim for may momentarily catch the attention of the passing masses, but it’s not going to mean anything. You might sell enough copies to keep your development house afloat, but two months down the line your game will be forgotten, and so will the next, and the one after that. I may not know how the universe will pan out, but I don’t feel I’m putting my neck on the line saying that school choirs aren’t going to be singing about Homefront or Bulletstorm in the years to come.

The difference is in the intention. It’s the difference between growing a product organically within yourself, and trying to piece one together from the outside. A work grown within you will be idiosyncratic, personal, bizarre. And it’ll touch people for just these reasons. A work pieced together from the outside will be full of themes targeting a key demographic, aiming to ride current market trends … and perhaps it’ll make money, perhaps not — but no one will ever really care about it.

But those executive types — the ones in suits — they always get it back to front. They analyse games that have already succeeded, dissect them clumsily with a scalpel, and try to reanimate the elements in their own games. “Recharging health and two-weapon systems and multiplayer unlocks are hot — let’s do that!”

But you don’t create life by cutting out the guts and organs and limbs of existing animals — the claws of a bear, legs of a frog, wings of an eagle — and splodging them together into some new body. I mean I know I’ve made that sound totally awesome … but Mary Shelley probably has some words of caution about that path. You don’t assemble life — you give birth to it. The same is true of art.

Valve know this. The fluid, creative approach can be seen all through their development process — the reactor sequence in the first Half Life was built by two designers working passionately across their weekend off; the insanity of Portal 2‘s final third came not from a design document but from an animator’s impulse that rooms crashing into each other would look cool — and the quality of the finished games speak for themselves.

As do their sales records. Okay, Valve will never sell as many games as Activision — like the Guardian will never outsell the Sun — but Christ, who cares? Valve’s workers certainly won’t; they get to wake up every morning and go make titles they love at arguably the best games studio on the planet. A wallet full of paper notes is neither here nor there when you’re already happy.

Which is what the suits will never understand. You don’t do things for an external prize — make a great game so it sells and you get a promotion and become famous. You make a great game to make a great game. The external, like the future, never arrives. But the internal present is always right here.

So well done Valve. And well done school kids. And well done everyone who’s not wearing a suit right now. Hurrah.

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Portal 2: A Review

You know how Bret Easton Ellis got Less Than Zero published when he was 21? His was a new voice, and the novel was a startling, iconoclastic breakthrough, a kick in the teeth for the writing world. It was unexpected, shocking, and earnest as hell.

Well that’s Portal.

The sequel, then, is an established author — a John Updike, say — midway through his career. Less exciting, maybe, but possessing the confidence and experience to craft a sprawling, elaborate work.

The first Portal bowled the industry over by being a puzzle game with a stronger sense of place than most RPGs, by apparently reinventing every convention of videogame storytelling before revealing it had been abiding by the rules all along, and by introducing us to arguably the greatest villain in gaming — the psychotic supercomputer and deadpan comedienne GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). It was short, original, and the funniest game I’d ever played.

Portal 2 does everything equally well. It isn’t the first though, and it isn’t as fresh or as pure as its predecessor. It couldn’t be. Instead, it has to fall back on just being an astounding videogame.

The story picks up years after the events of the first game, though according to one character the intervening period was, conveniently, “a long chunk of time when absolutely nothing happened.” You once again play Chell, unwitting rat trapped within the maze-like testing chambers of Aperture Laboratories, watched over by the omnipresent GLaDOS. The monstrous AI is powered down and ostensibly destroyed as the game begins, though it doesn’t take long for a few circuit breakers to get flipped and the situation to become … advantageous to testing.

Again, you are presented with a series of spatial puzzles, the only tool at your disposal the inimitable portal gun, a device that fires glowing warp holes linking separate spaces. The uses of these portals vary from room to room, though they are always key to solving the puzzles. You travel through them, use them to drop blocks onto switches, redirect laser beams, raise and lower platforms and extend bridges.

There’s still the same feeling of being overwhelmed when you step into a room and behold the myriad variables you’ll have to manipulate, the same cursing under your breath as you come up against dead ends and confusion, the same elation that courses through you as your brain unlocks the puzzle and the solution presents itself.

The world of Aperture Science is still, for a sterile testing facility, one of the most inviting in all of gaming. More so this time around, in fact. In the years since GLaDOS’s apparent demise the labs have crumbled and decayed, vines sprouting through walls, broken glass and debris littering floors, stagnant water pooling in lower areas.

The Source engine may be getting a little long in the tooth, but here it is used to excellent effect. Lighting is dramatic, spaces are large and varied, the art direction eye catching and affecting. Going back to the first game the environments feel dry and claustrophobic in comparison.

Animation, too, is wonderful. Once GLaDOS awakes she sets to work rebuilding the labs around you, robotic arms protruding from walls to sweep litter away, panels reassembling themselves, dilapidated tiling being cast down to make room for new casing.

Aperture Science is alive, its very structure an extension of the artificial queen sitting at its heart. It bends to her will, obeys her commands, throbs and pulses with her digital fury. It’s a great idea, both a continual reminder of GLaDOS’s power, and a method of ensuring the levels feel dynamic and fluid.

And this is only talking of the initial test labs, saying nothing for the later sections where — well, I can’t tell you. It wouldn’t be fair. Portal 2 presents a narrative that should be experienced first-hand, not read about in reviews or on fan Wiki pages.

And what a narrative it is. Perhaps you could call it predictable, and you’ll certainly see the twists coming, but this is because it adheres to all the traditions of classical storytelling. There’s a satisfaction, a sense of meaning, in each narrative beat. In the same way that it somehow “fits” to discover Darth Vader is Luke’s father in Star Wars, when you find out that GLaDOS is really [SOMETHING I WON'T RUIN WITH SPOILERS], there’s a feeling of glimpsing the hidden pattern behind the apparent randomness of the world, a feeling of events making sense. This is the power of stories, and it’s a power that Portal 2 draws on with skill.

As with all great stories, it is the characters who bring the proceedings to life. GLaDOS is again the star, at turns malevolent, beguiling, terrifying and, of course, hilarious (look out for the bit when she slow claps!). Having spent the first game working towards the reveal of her full identity, Valve use the sequel to go back and explain her, justify her, maybe even (almost) humanise her.

And this time round, she’s not alone. GLaDOS’s caustic wit is offset beautifully by Wheatley, a hapless little robotic eye who acts as guide and narrative instigator for the game’s opening sections. Wheatley is voiced by Stephen Merchant, who, riffing off Erik Wolpaw’s tight script, delivers one of the best voice performances yet heard in videogames.

Wheatley’s bumbling, well-intentioned (at least until … no, shh! Shh!) yet calamitous nature makes him the perfect counterpoint to GLaDOS, a companion to add light comedy and relatable fallibility to the clinical laboratory environment. An excellent running joke sees him incapable of hacking any of the facility’s computer systems. “AAAAAA,” he types in as his first attempt to crack a vital password. His next guess: AAAAAC. “Did I do B?” he asks. “Start writing these down!”

There’s nice work, as well, from J.K. Simmons, as Aperture’s founder and CEO Cave Johnson, and those peculiarly conflicted turrets return from the first game, this time providing tragi-comic moments of poignancy as they tumble into incinerators and vapourise in particle fields. It scarcely needs to be said that Ellen McLain, who once again voices both the turrets and GLaDOS, contributes a wonderful performance.

And my gosh, I’ve said nothing yet about the game’s co-op. The robotic avatars Atlas and P-Body are the perfect double-act for co-operative shenanigans, Valve aware that the only thing more enjoyable than solving a puzzle with a friend is pretending to solve a puzzle with a friend, before firing a portal beneath their feet and dropping them into a pit of lava.

The ability to travel through your partner’s portals as well as your own effectively doubles the complexity of puzzles, tests rapidly becoming multi-faceted, dizzying affairs, making you feel either a genius or a worthless moron, depending which of you figured out a solution first. I blazed through the content with a friend in one night, and I’ll remember it as one of the most rewarding evenings of gaming I’ve had.

The puzzles themselves, in both single player and co-op, are elegantly constructed wonders. An initial worry that they’ll be overly similar to those in the first game proves unfounded, a quick reintroduction of core concepts soon making way for sprawling test chambers that are fresh yet familiar. New elements are introduced carefully, merging naturally with the central portal dynamics to add variety without feeling like gimmicks. Light bridges, launch pads, laser cubes and floaty transport funnels require new methods of thinking, but integrate into the wider scheme seamlessly.

And then there are the much publicised gels: globulous, splattering wads of coloured paint, at turns springing you into the air, speeding you up or providing new surfaces to fire portals upon. I feel ambivalent towards the gels. On the one hand, it’s true that the puzzles involving them are more restricted than other tests, solutions generally requiring stumbling upon a preset configuration, rather than emerging from playful experimentation.

Yet above the functionality of the gels, their aesthetic value gives them reason for existing. Flinging splodges of colour through portals and across rooms is entertaining in and of itself, the resultant free-form mess bringing vibrancy to the metallic underground chambers.

And it is this contrast, I think, that lies at the heart of the Portal experience. Both games are, above all, about life — about the tension between the artistic and the scientific, between childlike wonder and calculated reasoning — and about the joy that harmonising the two can bring.

The tension is manifest in GLaDOS, a computer program who becomes a sadistic megalomaniac only when she is made self aware. But this tension is turned to joy through the humour we find in listening to a rogue AI who can be so monstrous precisely because she is so human.

Likewise, the disparity between our assumptions of the capability of computer intelligence, and the reality of Wheatley’s feckless buffoonery, is the root of much comedy. The inept robotic drone is just as lost hacking terminals and forming escape plans as we ourselves would be.

Most of all though, this tension, and ultimate transcendence of tension, is given voice through our very act of playing the game. What is narratively a quest for Chell to break free from her physical imprisonment, for the player becomes an opportunity to utilise the power of the portal gun to instantaneously escape — not from the labs, but within them. The environment becomes not a dull, clinical facility, but a wild and organic playground. Portal is, essentially, a game about play itself.

And Portal 2? It will never surprise as the original did. But Valve are master storytellers, and Portal 2 sees them at the height of their powers. It might not knock the wind out of you, but it is the best game you’ll have played this year. I can’t praise it enough.

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