Category Archives: Feature

‘Indie’ Means Nothing, And It’s Everyone’s Fault

Oh man. It’s time to tackle that big question: “What is Indie?” You’d think a publication that has the word “Indie” in its title, is staffed by primarily “Indie” fans and publishes articles exclusively and exhaustively on the subject of everything ‘”Indie” under the sun, that we’d sorta know what the bloody word actually means by now. Well, it turns out we don’t. It turns out no one does. It turns out that not a week goes by where I don’t hear someone meekly ask their fellow gaming compatriots whether or not GAME X is ‘Indie’ or not, only to be subsequently thrown aback by the crashing waves of wildly conflicting opinions on the matter until they find themselves gasping for air as they plunge deeper into an ocean of bickering, twisted logic and malice. It turns out this is a problem. So I’ve decided that, for the good of all the game lovin’ peeps everywhere, I’m gonna figure this shit out right here, right now!

Alright then. Let’s start this thing from the top: “Indie” is short for “independent”, right? And a game studio can be “independent”, i.e. not owned, funded or aided by the money of a publisher. So………..there ya’ go, then! Problem solved! Jeez, why have you guys been struggling with this one for so long? This question’s a cinch! Yup. Without a doubt, I have just crafted an ironclad definition that, as a community, we can all agree is 100% accurate:

In-die noun
1.      A video game created “independently” from publishers.
…..
…..
…..

HAHA. Oh man. I even fooled myself for a sec there! I mean, good lord, if only it really was that simple! Well, actually it would seem there’s plenty of people out there who DO think it’s that simple, and who are more than willing to cause one hell of a ruckus about it…….when it suits them. For a rather unflattering example, one need only think back to the 11th month of the 32nd year of our lord Notch (known to some as May 2012), when the unholy titan of evil, Electronic Arts, dared unleash a plague of cut-price video games upon the fair province of Steam. The name of this abomination? The EA “Indie” bundle.

EA

All at once, what seemed like the entire population of planet Earth (along more than a couple of douchebags jumping on the bandwagon) did cry out in furious anger, “THAT. IS NOT. INDIE.” Yes, this was an issue that got the hardcore fanatics so wound up that they started polishing off their pitchforks and declared a jolly good witch-hunt for anyone even vaguely involved in the affair.

Even in retrospect, this seems like it was a completely rational and sensible response response to the whole thing. I mean goddamn, HOW DARE THEY DO THIS? A publisher of all things trying to pass off clearly tainted tripe like Deathspank (which, sarcasm aside, did kinda suck) and Shank 2 as true, pure “Indie” products! Sacrilege, that’s what it is! Everyone knows that contracts with big mean ol’ publishers are strictly forbidden! ‘Tis our highest law after all, one punishable only by incessant whining and a few poorly worded Tumblr posts!

Well, hey, guess what? Under that same stupid logic, Super Meat Boy ain’t “Indie” either. Nor is Fez, Braid (i.e. the stars of “Indie” Game: The Movie) Bastion, Journey, Limbo or innumerable other members of the Indie pantheon that many of us so willingly worship without question. It’s no secret that they all had contracts and deals with publishers, which is why most of us have even heard of them in the first place! If we really want to move forward as a culture, then we’ve gotta face facts: simply looking at whether the devs have colluded with a publisher is a terrible barometer for “Indie” credibility. So please, for the love of God, let’s stop doing it!

So, now that we’ve put that B.S. aside for a sec, let’s have a little think about what it is we’re actually trying to imply with the word “Indie”. That’s easier said than done, of course, as it’s probably one of the most loaded words in the English language. It conjures up vague (with a lot of emphasis on the “vague” part) images of small teams working on shoestring budgets and impossible deadlines in order to create some revolutionary tour de force that’s full of so much raw passion and creativity that it’ll likely change the way we look at games forever*.

*That’s Indie speak for “it’s a 2D, 8-bit platformer with some random physics puzzle bollocks thrown in”.

Hawken

Right, so how about this one then?

In-die noun
1.      A game produced by a small development team using extremely limited resources.

Hmmm. It sounds alright, I guess. But I think we may need a case study to test this new definition. Let’s saaaaaaaaay……….Hawken.

You guys, Hawken is really cool. I mean REALLY cool. It’s about robots shooting each other n’ stuff, plus the graphics are so shit-hot that it’s like getting a sneak peak at high-end AAA gaming circa 2 years from now. I would hope that I don’t need to explain to you why both those things make Hawken totally bitchin’. But that’s irrelevant really. What matters here is that it’s ostensibly an “Indie” project, at least according to the world at large anyway (you’ll find recent talk of it on almost all major Indie gaming blogs). You can easily see why people would call it “Indie” too. After all, the Hawken dev team did start off as just a small bunch o’ dudes equipped with nothing but a dream, some cheap/free software and a garage turned into a makeshift office. That, my friends, is Indie as shit.
Now, here are 4 ways they also make a complete mockery of the term “Indie” or at least definition I of it I mentioned above anyway.

  • The dev team now have over 10 million freaking dollars of venture capital funding behind them.
  • They threw an E3 party. Take a deep breath and read that one again. E. Three. Party. Seriously guys, fucking Snoop Dogg was there!
  • I reiterate: Snoop Dogg.
  • Oh! And they totally have a big-ass publisher contract now, for those of you that care.

What this tells us is that the whole “tiny team, tiny budget” angle is also total bunk, because despite everything I just said, there’s many people out there still insist on calling Hawken an “Indie” title. Even with all the money, the publisher, the glitz and the Snoop Doggy doggness, in many a person’s heart Hawken still encapsulates what THEY feel is in the spirit of the “Indie” movement. Crazy people like me, for instance.

Vocab

I call Hawken “Indie” because, to me, all that word means is that the devs are the ones callin’ the creative shots, and not some big publisher executive dude. Is that what most people think? No. Is what “most people” think also what most OTHER people think? No.

And really, that’s the root of all evil here. We all got into this weird scene for different reasons. Some people detested the direction that the AAA sector was/is going, some people like to see tributes to the games of their childhood, and others just like being hipster wankers. But whatever our reasons were, ever since we got here we’ve all (myself included) been like, “Oh, ‘Indie’ means this” or “Actually, ‘Indie’ means that”. We’ve all been so obsessed for so long that the word “Indie” represents our particular attachment to the scene, that we’ve totally forgotten what “Indie” even is.
Protip: It’s a word.

It’s not a mystical rune forged by the elder gods, one whose power can only be divined after years of careful study and deliberation with fellow scholars. It’s a word. A combination of sounds we can make with our mouths. A sound that only exists so that we can label the stuff we wanna talk about without having to spend all day explaining it. That’s it. That’s all it is, and all it ever will be. A silly little label we made up for convenience’s sake. A label we abused the shit out of. A label we tried so hard to cram as many possible conflicting emotions and opinions into at once, that now all we have left is…….this:

In-die   noun
1.     A word that now means nothing, and it’s everyone’s fault.

Dictionary

I can’t help but feel we should be looking to the music industry for guidance here. Sure, maybe they get a little carried away with the whole labelling thing sometimes, but at least they’re TRYING to figure  this shit out. Think about it, there’s regular-ass Grunge and there’s Post-grunge, so why can’t there be Indie and Post-Indie? Or Alternative Indie, or Heavy Indie, or Acoustic Indie, or Indie-Indie or just about anything that’ll let us all have our own way with the word and end this zero-sum war? And since when did we become so bloody obsessed with trying to give our scene one singular, absolute label anyway?

Perhaps we’re just victims of our own success. Whatever this “Indie” thing is, it evolved faster than any of us could have imagined. Day by day, the barrier for entry in the game making biz is getting lower, making every year feel like the dawn of a new era of progress and discovery. But meanwhile, our lexicon has been content to simply sit on its arse all day and fiddle with its navel. Maybe with a bit more time to mature we’ll manage figure that part of the puzzle out, but it sure don’t look like that’s happening any time soon.

So, wanna hear my short term solution in the meantime? Stop giving a shit and count your blessings. Seriously, have you heard audiophiles talk about the difference between Grunge and Post-grunge? That stuff is the very definition of monotony! I bet even if we did subcategorise indie, we’d probably still spend way too long arguing about what game goes in what category, and far too little time actually playing the damn things.

I’m sure there are plenty of the fanatics out there who’d crucify me for showing such indifference over the most debated topic of our age and all, but……. hey. Come on guys. Can’t a good game just be a good game? Does it really matter THAT much what “indie” really means? Can’t we just…. oh…it does matter?

Well. Alright then.

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Rezzed 2012 Report: The Big Guns

Hail dear IGM readers! I greet you as one freshly returned from the inaugural (and hopefully now anual) PC gaming expo: Rezzed. I kid you not, there were mountains upon mountains of Indie games dotted all around the show floor. Some were ones IGM have covered in the past, but there were others that took me completely by surprise! So, I felt it only fair that I share with you some of what I learnt on my travels here in the Rezzed 2012 report. Bare in mind I’ll mainly be talking about ‘Big Guns’ of Rezzed in this article, as we’ll have a separate one about the smaller games that made up the SEGA Leftfield collection at a later date. Plus, keep a lookout for a bunch of video interviews in the next day or so!

Here’s a handy little list of shortcuts if you’d rather check out a specific game than scroll through this behemoth:

Day Z
Krater
Prison Architect
Skulls of the Shogun
Xenonauts
Serious Sam 3 BFE: Jewel of the Nile
Strike Suit Zero
Tengami
Hotline Miami

**Please note that there were a few other Indie titles at the show such as Natural Selection 2 that I didn’t really get a good look at due to lack of time, sorry about that!** DayZ

Day Z

Funnily enough, I was unable to play any of DayZ at Rezzed for more or less the same reasons people who already own it can’t either. I.e. The current build was either so buggered-up that merely glancing in its general direction would trigger a crash OR when it was working, It’d be so jam-packed with other players that you’d have needed either celebrity status and/or a hefty application of a cattle prod to get even close to it. Sadly I had neither at my disposal that day, so I’ll just have to trust it’s still as amazing as the 400,000 strong player base insist it is!

I did however manage to cram into the equally popular DayZ keynote with Lead Developer (as far as I can tell, the ONLY developer) Dead “Rocket” Hall. Unfortunately it was mostly comprised of slightly boring waffle about the game’s history, but there were a few tidbits of interesting info about his plans for the game’s future:

  • Detailed stat tracking on the DayZ site.
  • Forums, clans and other such social networking fluff.
  • Pet dogs!
  • Player-built underground bases (?!?).
  • Sorely needed performance optimization.
  • Immersive chat functions to replace the recently removed ‘global chat’.
  • Finally launching the game as its own stand-alone title.

You can currently download the DayZ mod from the official site, although you will also need a copy of ARMA 2 (currently £14.99 on Steam) and a saintly amount of patience to actually play the damn thing.

Krater

This was definitely one of the weirder ones out of the “big” Indies Rezzed, so much so that I’m struggling for an easy way to sum it up. The best I can come up with is an Action-RPG that blends the loot hunting and mechanics of an MMO, the randomised dungeons of a Rougelike, the control scheme of an RTS and the fast paced ability management of a MOBA. I call it the ‘MM(A)RPG/TS-MOBA Like’. Also, it’s set in postapocalypitc Sweden. Yeah.

However for something so mechanically dense, it was surprisingly easy just to pick up and play. After spending only a minute or so reading tooltips, I was already blasting my way through swaths of indigenous wildlife, managing agro, healing up and lootin’ loot like a total boss. What’s more, I never felt like it was holding my hand or anything; it just seemed to be generally accessible while at the same time not being too simple. Mainstream devs should be taking notes!

I do hesitate in calling Krater “good” after only playing it for such a short time though. As with most RPGs, there’s just too many factors in play here that’re only going to become clear after many an afternoon has been invested first. But without a doubt the way it smoothly merged together so may discrete genres makes it intriguing and, dare I say it? ‘unique’ enough to recommend than any Indie fans out there check it out post-haste!

On a side note, I was very amused that the devs like to refer to it as a “Living Game” which to me sounds like a polite way of saying the retail build still contains an ton of bugs and missing features that they’ll probably get around to patching in at some point. Innovative new development method, or just clever way of selling a product that ain’t finished? Only time -and inevitable internet based whining- will tell.

If you want to delve into the dark caverns of Krater yourself, then you can pick up for £11.99 on Steam.

Prison Architect

Much like DayZ, getting within a stones throw of Introversion Software’s Prison Architect was an achievement unto itself, and I thus was unable to get my grubby hands on it. Although I did manage to attend the (also jam-packed) developer session, which not only provided the fascinating story of Prison Architect’s origins as a level editing tool for the now canceled Subversion, but also showed more than enough live gameplay to satisfy those of us destined to never reach the fabled keyboards of the Introversion booth.

From what I saw, the closest parallel that sprung to mind was the much underappreciated Evil Genius, which in turn was sorta like the Sims, only with each sim acting as peon highly valued employee that maintain your meticulously designed institution of interlocking systems and subsystems. Basically Dwarf Fortress but, you know, actually playable by human beings. Prison Architect’s twist? A bunch of those sims (the prisoners) really REALLY hate you, and want nothing more than to send your magnificent creation into complete disarray and hightail it outta there to freedom.

The creation tools seem fairly intuitive, relying a traditional click ‘n drag interface that’ll let you build key prison facilities such as cafeteria, showers, gyms and cell blocks in all but a couple of seconds. But with the promise of complex dynamic AI behavior, It seems to me like it’s going to be just as addictive watching the prisoners go about their daily lives as it is actually creating anything for them to do it in. Definitely one to keep an eye on!

The release date for Prison Architect is still TBA 2012, so keep track over on the official site.

Skulls of the Shogun

Wow. This turn-based strategy game has come a LONG way since we first saw it way back in 2010. Starting off life as relatively obscure little gem, Skulls is now blessed (or cursed, depending on your disposition) with a juicy publishing deal from Microsoft that sees it slated to appear not only on XBLA, but is also acting as a gaming frontman for Windows phone and the supposed ‘iPad Killer’ MS Surface.

I managed to play a far bit of both the single and multiplayer modes during my stay at Rezzed, and I came away fairly impressed but also a little concerned about its future. True to their word, the developers at 17-BIT have made something that’s both a love letter to the genre, yet also provides a smooth experience that isn’t bogged down by the usual sea of menus and mechanics. Turns went by in a flash, strategies were formed, battles were fought and honorable victories where had; all with nothing but a few seconds worth of explanation from the helpful booth staff. Great! So, everything’s hunky dory right?

Well, what worries me is that they’ve maybe gone a little bit *too* far with their streamlining of the genre. In short bursts Skulls of the Shogun was definitely entertaining, but the rather limited number of unit types and overall simplicity makes me think there isn’t enough there for strategy fans to sink their teeth into in the long term. That said, It’s not really something I can say for sure until I’ve spent more time with it, so keep an eye out for IGM’s review when it eventually hits the market later this year.

As a side note, I’d like to say that my hat really goes off to whoever wrote the dialogue in the single player campaign. It was straightforward and simple, yet surprisingly hilarious. I’m not sure it’ll add much in the way of long term value, but it certainly makes the overall package fairly enticing!

Skulls of the Shogun is currently TBA 2012. Check out the Official Site for more info.

Xenonauts

Still fresh from a fairly spectacular Kickstarter ($154,000 total raised) this faithful remake of hardcore turn-based classic X-Com: UFO Defence seems to be coming along rather swimmingly so far. As well as keeping much of the depth (and soul-crushing difficulty level) that made the original so engaging, there’s also been a fair number of significant improvements on the old formula. In particular, I can now happily report that figuring out the battle UI is no longer akin to translating 8-bit hieroglyphics. Oh, you think i’m joking? You know nothing young one.

On top of that there’s also a significantly deeper aerial combat system and a host of new weapon types not found in the original (e.g. sniper rifle, flamethrower) set to add even more layers of juicy micromanagement to an already dense title. Lead developer Chris England also mentioned he’d made a bunch of more long term balance tweaks as well, such as implementing a more ‘’realistic’ technology research tree that makes exotic alien weaponry far harder to acquire than before. Whether these changes will have a positive long-term impact is yet to be seen, but I can safely say that I’m already looking forward too missing a couple of writing deadlines in order to find out.

If you want to hear more about what makes Xenonauts tick, then stay tuned over the next few days for my interview with Chris England himself. We discuss his goals for the project, the ‘official’ X-Com remake by Civilisation devs Firaxis, the rise of alpha-funding AND get progressively more and more annoyed at random people walking in front of the camera!

You can currently help alpha-fund the development of Xenonauts over on the official site, granting you access to the current alpha build as well as a free copy of the final game when it’s finally ‘done’ (TBA).

Serious Sam 3 BFE: Jewel of the Nile

Eh, I’ll be honest here, I’ve never really been much of a Serious Sam guy. For those who don’t know, the basic gist is that it’s fast paced old school style FPS (on the same lines as Painkiller) but with the difficulty cranked up to 11. As in: Is there an enemy within spitting distance? Boom! You’re dead. This new DLC pack for BFE seems to be no different; even a small contingent of troops managed to render all the health and armor packs I’d just spend the last few minutes scavenging completely moot point. So yeah; if Serious Sam was already your joint, then I guess this thing is just more of what you’re after.

The jewel of the Nile DLC pack goes live in October 2012, price TBA.

Strike Suit Zero

Oooooooh boy. No joke, getting to finally see this game in action was one of the reasons I went all the way to Rezzed in the first place! I mean come on guys; you control a transforming giant robot/fighter craft hybrid IN SPACE. What’s not not love? Well, It sounded cool on paper anyway. The development team has been real hush-hush on details since the game got announced back in August 2011, which had me more than a little bit apprehensive about what the game was actually like outside of my wild fantasies.

Thankfully for my sanity, it turned out to be more than capable of living up to its gradnous concept. Despite still being a few months away from completion, every second of Strike Suit was an absolute visual treat. The screen was constantly filled with either ludicrous amounts of futuristic projectiles, the boundless reaches of a glowing planet Earth, swarms of awesome spaceships or various delightful combinations thereof. Together, these elements created an atmosphere that should be intimately familiar with fans of space combat stalwarts like Freespace and Homeworld; that this is a *real* war you’re in bro, one that’s far larger than just you and your sweet ride. Whether you fight or not, thousands will die and the fate of millions more hangs in the balance. Plus it’ll all look really frickin’ cool.

But Strike Suit wasn’t just a pretty face. The controls seemed fairly tight and -even with the limitations of the demo- combat proved both satisfying as well as challenging. Perhaps a little bit TOO challenging in fact, as the spaceship escort mission (cue painful Sol: Exodus flashback) they were demoing seemed to prove nearly impossible for both attendees and the PR crew alike…..

There’s no way of knowing if that was just a bit of an oversight on their part, or if it’s indicative of the difficulty in the final product. However there’s one thing I do know for certain: transforming your ship into a giant death robot and then unleashing hella’ crazy amounts of ordnance on the nearest capital ship felt rather badass, and I’d very much like to do it again sometime.

If that last sentence didn’t already sell you on Strike Suit Zero (?!?!?) then keep an eye on IGM in the coming days! We should have a pair of cool video interviews featuring both the Community Manager and Lead Developer of up soon, accompanied by some epic gameplay footage that’ll hopefully have you wanting to to get behind your own Strike Suit ASAP.

Strike Suit Zero has a tentative release date of Autumn 2012 for PC and early 2013 for consoles. Hopefully they’ll update the teaser site before then.

Tengami

Undeservedly tucked away in a dark corner of the show floor was the iPad based Tengami by ex-Rare developers NyanYam games. Out of all the titles I saw at Rezzed it was probably the one that felt the least ‘finished’, with many core gameplay elements and overall structure still a little on the shaky side. But to its credit, it was also by far the most visually striking thing I’ve seen on any platform in a good while.

The entire world of Tengami (including the player character) takes the form of a pop-up book made of crisp Japanese washi paper, which creates some beautiful real-time set pieces that I quite honestly can’t do justice to with words alone. It isn’t just a visual aesthetic though; almost all player interaction comes from unfolding pages or pulling tabs to reveal hidden objects or even entirely new locations explore. If I had to categorize it (which I do, it’s a game journalism law or something) I’d say it most resembles a point ‘n click adventure, albeit it one with uncharacteristically straightforward puzzles. In fact, the devs were quite keen to point out the puzzles were never meant to provide much of a challenge anyway, as the game is more about exploring the themes of life, dreams, loss and renewal. Deep bro.

If you want to see Tengami in action and hear it described by someone far more eloquent than I, then stick around for our Interview with developer Phill Tossel coming soon!

NyamYam estimate they’ll have Tengami out between January and April 2012. Check out the official site for more.

Hotline Miami

And so we finish up our little journey through the weird and wonderful of Rezzed 2012 with a high note: Hotline Miami. Man oh man, without a moment’s hesitation I’d name this my ’game of show’. Was it the prettiest game there? No. Was it the smartest game there? No. Was it the most original, did it have best music or most moving storyline? No on all accounts. Yet despite that, I had to physically tear myself away from it in order not to miss a bunch of interview appointments.

Even once my work commitments were done and dusted, the only thing that prevented me from getting right back in the hotseat was the now constant crowd of punters lining up for a turn. I should add this crowd often consisted of at least a couple Eurogamer and Rock Paper Shotgun staffers. You know, the guys actually running goddamn Rezzed in the first place! (It would seem they shared my enthusiasm).

So then, what is it? Madness. Just complete and utter madness. In particular, the sort of madness we see hollywood all the time. You know the scene: the practically unarmed hero bursts into a den of kitted-out goons and then, through a complex array of tightly choreographed gunplay and pseudo-martial arts, all them fools be taking dirt naps and our hero is none the worse for ware. Hotline Miami is that one scene turned into a game, and then encased in a psychedelic 80’s excess themed wrapper.

Your task is deceptively simple: don an animal themed mask, enter a building and then kill every heavily armed dude you find. In any other game It’d be a cinch, but in Hotline Miami there’s two rather big problems, 1) They’re all a billion times faster than you, and 2) One hit from anything they’ve got will turn out into a bloody pulp. You get one chance at clearing a room, muck it up and it’s back to the last checkpoint for Mr MacVerydead.

I still remember exactly what the guy sitting next to me said after my first couple of instantaneous deaths in a row: “Yeah, this game makes Super Meat Boy look like…..” He never finished his sentence. He didn’t really need to, I’d already begun to realise what kind of rabbit hole I’d unknowingly leaped into, and I knew it was one with no end. Also, he was playing Hotline goddamn Miami! He’d probably died half a dozen times in the brief moment he was talking to me!

It might sound like hell, but I promise you that the euphoria of successfully clearing out a floor of goons is anything but. It’s all about planning that perfect combo, and following it up with the perfect execution: knock that guy out, steal his gun, shoot those two other guys, toss the empty gun at the patrolling guard, steal his knife, etc. When it all comes together, It feels like a near perfect fusion between tactical thinking and twitch gamer skills. And when it doesn’t? Well, I guess you better respawn and try again.

I’m not sure if my feeble mind could withstand a whole game of that intensity, but man do I want to find out…..

Hotline Miami is slated for Autumn 2012, but I -along with many others- would very much like it right now. Bloody mental official site is found here.

Introducing the IndieFort GamersGate bundle!

If you’re looking for a good deal on some quality Indie games, then you may want to mosey on over to our good friends at GamersGate and pick up their IndieFort pay-what-you-want bundle worth over £45, but available for a minimum asking price of merely £6!

For those of you not familiar with these kinds of campaigns, it really is as simple as: 1) Chose a price 2) Pay it, and 3) Then all those titles will be yours forever! That’s right, if you *really* wanted to, you could get the whole bundle for as little as $6. That said, please do try and think of the hard working Indies who put their heart and soul into these projects. It’s not like we’re judging you or anything, but surely you want to show them that you care, right? So please pay what you think is a fair price if you can!

Here’s a little heads-up of what you’ll find in the bundle:

Cardinal Quest
(normal price £4.99)

Rougelike is an age-old genre that’s managed to get steadily more and more bloated over the past couple of years, but this streamlined top-down RPG cuts that beast down to the basics and runs with it! It might seem a little simple at first glance, but I warn you, it can get dangerously addictive if you let it get ahold of you.

We’ve already given Cardinal Quest pretty extensive coverage here at IGM, so if you want to learn more then check out our interview with lead developer Ido Yehieli or take a gander at our review where it earned a healthy 70% (“good”) on our rating scale.

Black market
(normal price £6.99)

Fight, trade or die in the cold abyss of space with this 2d space sim from BigBlockGames. Chose to either follow a preset storyline of space piracy and corporate conspiracy, or forge your own destiny in the sandbox free-for-all mode. Either way, you’ve got a whole universe in front of you and ton of space-age weapons to blast it to bits with!

While we don’t have any major coverage of this title just yet, there’s a free version available on the official site if you want a little taste of what this space epic has in store.

Kenshi
(normal price £7.49)

With Kenshi, enter a free-roaming RPG world with over 400km2 just waiting to be explored. Command a small army of desert samurai dudes or go it solo with just one core character, it’s all up to you. Kenshi also breaks with established RPG tradition by abandoning crutches like level scaling or giving player characters super high stats compared to their NPC counterparts. So if want your guys to be badass invincible super heroes, then you gotta work for it! Also, it has really big silly anime swords. Always a plus in my book.

Just so you know up front, this game is still very much in the alpha stage of development, thus is by no means a “finished” product. That said, it ranked in our list of Top 10 Most Promising Indie Games in Alpha Stage!

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution
(normal price £3.99)

Hey, do you want to control a giant hover tank and shoot lasers at stuff for no real reason? It’s ok, you don’t have to hide it, you’re only human after all! Steel Storm is old school styled top down shooter full of destruction and mayhem across 25 missions and various multiplayer modes. Think you could make it better? Then hop into the unique real-time mission editor and share your masterpiece with the world!

If this game tickles your fancy then you may also want to take a peek at the early rumblings of Steel Storm 2, which is going to be…… a first person shooter?? Crazy times.

Demise: Ascension
(normal price: ~ £20)

By far the most “harcore” game on this list, Demise: Ascension is the latest iteration of a long lived series of ultra in-depth dungeon-crawling fantasy romps that should be immediately familiar to anyone who’s “experienced” some of the earlier Elder Scrolls games. Be warned my friends, this one ain’t one for the faint of heart!

For more info, take a history lesson with lead developer Decklin (aka the Twisted Dwarf).

Wanderlust
(normal price: £6.43)

And last but by no means least, Wanderlust. Love your RPGs but looking for something a little more accessible than Demise but a little faster paced than Cardinal Quest? Then this is the one for you! Go it on your own or team-up for some 4 player co-op action in a colourful fantasy world that should tickle the nostalgia glands of any longtime JRPG fans.

If that doesn’t quite sell you on it, then perhaps you should take a quick read of our Review where it scored an incredible 80% (“amazing”) on our review scale!

5 Pioneering games that time forgot part 5

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Atari 2600)

Without it we might not have had: A never ending plague of awful games and the 1983 video game crash.

What did it pioneer? Bad movie tie-ins.

Not really much for me to explain on this one; even if you’re not much of a gamer you already know the score. Video games based on “family friendly” movies are just plain bad news whatever way you look at it. It’s a soul crushing fact of life that we all have to deal with on a daily basis. Occasionally we’ll get a lucky break and “Animated Animal and Friends III: the Video Game!” will stay exclusive to the DS and Wii where it’ll be out of sight to most of us, but more often than not it’ll come out on just about everything from the PS3 to the Commodore 64, thus ensuring absolutely no escape from its loathsome visage. Either way it’s almost guaranteed to sell a metric shit-tone of copies, and purely due to an association with an over-hyped movie combined with the unrelenting nagging power of children who think talking animals are the BEST THING EVER.

It might seem humdrum now, but back in 1982 Raiders of the Lost Ark for the Atari 2600 ticked all those check boxes before they even existed; a console game of extremely dubious quality that managed to sell really well by riding the success of a popular movie. So yeah, it basically set a cast iron president that hundreds of games have followed to the letter ever since. Hey, I never said these games all pioneered something GOOD.

What was it? Mind-bending

Hmm… how to define Raiders of the Lost Ark? Okay, I’m sure at some point nearly every gamer has experienced this: Your playing an adventure style game like Zelda or Tomb Raider or something along those lines and suddenly you get stuck at a particularly perplexing puzzle. In equal parts frustration and desperation you start trying every combination of item, tool, ability and button press that you can think of until you’ve done just about everything possible in that given environment. Eventually, just as you’re about to give up on the game entirely, you stumble upon the correct solution. A solution so abstract and illogical that you can only conclude it was developed by someone with a very tenuous grip on reality OR was included in the game purely to sell strategy guides to burnt out gamers.

Okay, you remembered that experience yet? Right, now imagine an entire game based around it. Congratulations! You just imagined Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m not really sure I can define its madness anymore specifically with words alone, so instead I’ll show you a nice little video guide from ‘82 that should help you understand what I’m on about.

Bet that puts that whole “water temple thing” into perspective.

Why was it forgotten? It’s hella old and got overshadowed by the “achievements” of it’s protégé.

I think it’s more than fair to say that a lot of the people reading this article were probably quite young in 1982, if indeed they were born at all. I think it’s also fair to say that anyone of any age would have found Raiders of the Lost Ark totally bewildering in every imaginable way, so it’s not really that surprising it failed to make much of an impression on gamers as a whole. Mind you it was hard for any Atari 2600 game to stand out back then as the video game industry was on the verge of collapse due to a gigantic influx of low quality titles that flooding the market. It’s a situation that eventually resulted in a sort of dark age known as the “video game crash of 1983” where most major publishers went bankrupt and video gaming industry just ceased to exist in the west for a number of years.

Raiders of the Lost Ark’s significant contribution to the crash was dramatically overshadowed by the game it made possible, Atari’s E.T (also for the 2600) a game so catastrophically awful that it’s often credited with instigating the crash in the first place, thus becoming a major subject of popular culture. But while E.T may well have been the herald of that particular apocalypse, all it was doing was following the template Raiders of the Lost Ark had proven to be profitable. That said, if you dig a little deeper you’ll find that Raiders actually had a much more direct influence on E.T than that.

Just like today, getting a licence to do a movie tie-in was extremely expensive even in the 80s, so to design Raiders of the Lost Ark Atari had to choose someone they could trust to pull it off on the cheap. For that they looked to a man named Howard Scott Warshaw, designer of the genuinely well received Yar’s Revenge which is often considered the best game of the Atari 2600 era. After Howard’s subsequent “Success” with Raiders he was then select by Atari to do another movie-tie in project, one that had cost Atari over $45 million (adjusted for inflation) to licence.

The deadline was tight: only six weeks, and Howard would be working on the whole thing on his own. But no one was worried, Raiders of the Lost Ark had proved it didn’t matter how bad your game was as long as you slapped a movie name on it. In fact Atari were so confident about Howard’s E.T. game that, under the assumption people would want to buy it multiple times, they actually built more cartridges of it than there were Atari 2600 consoles in the entire world. I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this…….

For all that it made possible I think Raiders should be remembered. Mainly so we can teach future generations to hate it with a fiery passion, but remembered all the same.

Where are the developers now? Thankfully for us, not making games anymore.

After being a major contributing factor in the collapse of an entire industry, it’s unsurprising Howard didn’t really do much game designing from then on. However he did manage to do a very wide range of other stuff including (but not limited to) writing a guide book about an obscure Philippine gambling game, a self-help book on how to do well in collage and directing a documentary about the BDSM scene in San Fransisco. Truly a Renaissance man if ever there was one, as this little amusing quote I found while researching for this article (i.e. reading wikipedia) illustrates:

People worry I might be sensitive about the ET debacle, but the fact is I’m always happy to discuss it. After all, it was the fastest game ever done, it was a million seller, and of the thousands of 2600 games, how many others are still a topic? Another thing I like to think about is having done ET (consistently rated among the worst games of all time) and Yars’ Revenge (consistently rated as one of the best) I figure I have the unique distinction of having the greatest range of any game designer in history.”

And so ends our little journey into the obscure. I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading about these overlooked progenitors even if you knew about them already! However these 5 games only represent a small proportion of what’s out there. So now I pose a question to you: What other influential games do you think have been unfairly forgotten by the masses at large? Please comment and spread the word, I’d love to hear about them!

5 Pioneering games that time forgot part 4

Herzog Zwei (Mega Drive-Genesis)

Without it we might not have had: Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, Warcraft (and by extension, Starcraft and World of Warcraft!)

What did it pioneer? The Real Time Strategy genre.

I’ve often found Real Time Strategy (RTS) games to be the marmite of gaming. For most people the tedious micromanaging of units and the constant balancing of resources is the very definition of boredom, but to others it represents a gateway to a deep rewarding experience that just keeps on giving. So it’s unsurprising that RTS games have always been a quintessential PC based genre, itself a rather “marmite” platform to play games on these days due to similar connotations. But despite the PC’s (unwarranted) reputation as a “dead format” RTSs are still a pretty big deal, you just need to look at the furore surrounding the release of StarCraft 2 or the upcoming Shogun 2: Total War for evidence of that.

The RTSs continuing popularity is mostly due to its multiplayer components arguably still providing the ultimate contest of wits and skill that can be found in a video game. In a good high end match, each player’s mind is constantly bombarded with a staggering level of statistics and variables that change by the second, all of which require analyses and response in the fastest time possible in order to grasp victory. For better or worse this sort of gameplay often brings out an intensely competitive side of anyone who lets it drawn them in, and if you’ve ever met someone who takes RTSs seriously then you know how deep that rabbit hole can go. At a moment’s notice they can recited so much statistical jargon and specialised lingo that pulls a game apart down to such a base level you would think they built the damn thing themselves.

If you want to see the logical extreme of such behaviour you need only look towards South Korea where RTSs have become somewhat of a national sport, one that can be taken as seriously as a high profile football match would be in the UK. They even have cyber “athletes” who train 24/7 just so they can mine that precious gold/vespene gas a few milliseconds faster than their opponent. Seriously, these guys make fighting game enthusiasts who count animation frames come across as “casuals” with relative ease.

But RTS isn’t just for the ultra-competitive gaming gladiators, without it we wouldn’t have those tower defence games that slowly eat away hundreds of hours of casual player’s lives every day. And if you take a slightly more abstract view, just about any game that requires intensive resource management such as Farmville owe their success to the RTS school of game design.

However the reason I want to talk about it in this article is because the actual chronology of the RTS game as concept is very unique. Most of the time genres develop slowly overtime, with many iterative video games giving us insight into its gradual evolution. RTS on the other hand just kinda popped out of nowhere with Herzog Zwei in 1989 and no one was quite sure what to do with it.

I should say that there are strategy games that predate Herzog Zwei that were indeed “real time” but they’re very far removed from what we would now actually define as an “RTS” mainly due to their very minimal emphasis on resource management and ticks (the pace at which gameplay moves) so long that they were rendered more or less turn based. Herzong Zwei on the other hand is where the RTS as we know it truly began, and for that monumental achievement it is criminally under appreciated.

What was it? A vision of the future

The original Herzog (German for Duke) for the MSX 2 PC was billed by the developers TechnoSoft as a “Real-time Combat Simulator”. The basic idea was that the game world was a narrow linear path with the player’s base and one end at the enemy’s at the other. By using a singular resource that replenished overtime at a constant rate, either side could create several different sorts of units such as tanks or foot soldiers, and If any of those units managed to reach the opposite side of the field then they would deal a certain amount of damage to that side’s base .

You couldn’t actually control any of these units directly, they would simply travel in a straight line towards the enemy base and attack any defences along the way without any input from the player. But unlike most modern strategy games the player actually had a personal avatar, a giant robot called the Land-Armour. Using the Land-Armour you could pick up and reposition units as well as getting personally involved in the combat if you so choose. In effect the whole thing was like a Defence of the Ancients style game that was made long before anything even remotely similar existed. Certainly an intrepid game for sure, and you could definitely see the seeds of what would later become RTS developing in the background. But it unfortunately lacked any real semblance of tactics and there was little to nothing in the way of resource management to be found.

However Herzog Zwei (Zwei being German for 2) took those seedling concepts and fast forwarded their evolution by several years. Suddenly “pop” we had a recognisable near fully fledged RTS on our hands. The battlefields were now wide open environments full of different kinds of terrain, units now had to be given specific orders and your rate of resource gain now revolved around capturing and defending outposts. You could still wade into combat on your own using the Land-Armour if you wanted to, but this time around your health and ammo was severely limited so you were unlikely to make much of a dent in enemy forces on your own. No, to win this game you had to use tactics and ingenuity to build a balanced and sustainable army, something that most console gamers hadn’t been asked to do before.

The level of micromanagement was staggering even compared to modern standards as every unit had to be given individual orders (something that also consumed resources to do) and have their ammo and health supplies constantly monitored. So with up to 50 units of 8 different types on each side it could very quickly get overwhelming even for the most adept of gamers. What’s more, you still couldn’t directly control your units, so all actions had to be performed by interacting with them via Land-Armour rather than the point and click style interface you’d find in a normal RTS. If you’re not sure why that would be a bit awkward, just imagine trying to play an arcade shooter and Command & Conquer at the same time on the same screen. Yeah.

It was as if TechnoSoft had travelled into the future, saw an RTS, returned to their own time, though “Yeah we could probably make one of those” and then fashioned the closest facsimile they could manage with late 80s technology and expertise but somehow ended up building something even more complicated that what they’d originally seen.

Why was it forgotten? Gamers weren’t ready for it and neither was the AI.

Herzong Zwei’s biggest issue was the same thing that made it a pioneer; there wasn’t really anything like it. So if RTS didn’t yet exist as an accepted mainstream genre, then what framework was left for people to judge it by? Well TechnoSoft’s only real claim to fame was their relatively popular Thunder Force series of arcade style shooters and the Mega Drive had quite a few of those already, so naturally people just assumed it was meant to be one of those. Although the cover art probably had a hand in that too.

Of course If you looked at it from the perspective of an arcade shooter it was a pretty shoddy game; your weapons were pea shooters and you died in mere seconds against a more than a handful of opponents. Not only that but would have come across as incredibly complicated for a game where people were just expecting to hold down the fire button while occasional taping the D-pad. <rant> Which just goes to show how stupid it is to judge a game based on how well it conforms to established genres, it means anything original just gets shafted! </rant>

But even those who embraced the tactics and resource managed would have quickly found Herzog Zwei to be lacking. Sure, the game had complex mechanics but the A.I. was so dumb that the developers had to give it a significantly higher number of starting units on each map to try and even the odds a little. In the end you only needed to use minimal amounts of the tactical opportunities Herzog Zwei presented in order to win, that is unless you somehow managed to find a second player who wanted to join in.

So in the end it got dismissed by a vast majority of gamers, none of whom could have possibly known what would eventually become of the style of gameplay that Herzong Zwei pioneered. That said, it has seen somewhat of a revival in recent years as people are finally starting to wise up to how incredibly ahead of the game TechnoSoft had been, but sadly it all came far far too late to save them.

Where are the developers now? Nowhere to be found.

After Herzog Zwei failed to catch on, TechnoSoft just went back to their far simpler Thunder Force games for several years which saw moderate success but little mainstream fame. Eventually it that all came to an abrupt end in 2001 when they got merged with Pachinko developer Twenty One’s R&D division, essentially ending their long but uneventful streak in game development permanently. There were some hints on their (supposedly) official website that they’d be making a comeback in 2006 with a new Thunder Force game, but they haven’t been heard from since and In 2008 when it turned out the Thunder Force IP was now owned by SEGA anyway. But hey, screw Thunder Force! I’m Not sure who owns the Herzog licence these days, but they gotta know that their sitting on a truly legendary IP that’s long overdue a comeback. Herzong Drei anybody?

5 Pioneering games that time forgot part 3

Frequency (PS2)

Without it we might not have had: Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Tat Tap Revenge + just about any rhythm game that’s not a Japanese import.

Just a bit of a disclaimer: I know that people can get very….erm… opinionated when it comes to comparing rhythm games. So I’d like to say right now that I’m very sorry if my observations on this subject turn out to be contradictory to your own, all I’m doing is telling it how I see it.

What did it pioneer? Western style rhythm games.

Mario vs Sonic, Doom vs Quake, Call of Duty vs Battlefield, Fifa vs Pro Evo. Rivalling IPs have always been a hallmark of the game industry’s history, and one of the most defining of the recent times would definitely be Rock Band vs Guitar Hero. They were two IPs that desperately battled for domination over the (formerly) very lucrative rhythm game market and were constantly trying to outdo each other with every iteration. But unlike the other rivalry’s I listed, they were fighting over a genre that that only became a viable big time money-spinner relatively recently. If you were to go back in time to about 6 years (“now” being 2011, just in case you’re reading this via the archive) and started telling everyone that rhythm games would soon be a multimillion dollar business in the western world, then you would likely become the object of considerable jeer.

Don’t get me wrong, in a way there was a lot of money to be made in rhythm games back then too, provided of course you were part of Konami’s “Bemani” music game division which was flooding the Japanese arcades with exceedingly popular (to this day) Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania and GuitarFreaks cabinets. But even those weren’t really taken very seriously in the home retail sector as they were considered little more than novelty party games to the masses outside of Asia. So what changed? Well we owe our new found reverence of the rhythm game genre to one company in particular: Harmonix Music systems, who after a decade of obscurity released the landmark Guitar Hero in 2005 which woke westerners up to how fun rhythm games could actually be.

The characteristics of these kinds of games should be familiar to most people, even if you’ve only ever glanced at one you’ve probably at least got the basic gist of it. Basically there’s a big conveyor belt sort of thing that’s separated into several lanes and each lane is filled with little buttons representing notes in the music for that stage. To make those notes play correctly you have to wait for them to reach the bottom of the screen and then with the correct timing press the correct button on your controller relevant to that lane while…… uh…… you know what? That’s probably not the best description in the world. Just watch the first few seconds of this video and we should all be on the same page.

As genius as Harmonix is, this style of gameplay was in no way their creation. Instead they totally riped off took inspiration from Konami’s Bemani titles, particularly GuitarFreaks which uses a near identical guitar peripheral to Guitar Hero/Rock Band. But it wasn’t the mechanics of rhythm game gameplay that Harmonix revolutionised as such, it was more the presentation and the content.

As you can see from the picture above, the way Bemani style game’s “look” is very different, and to be quite honest is relatively drab compared to what westerners are used to. One side of the screen is reserved for simplistic (but admittedly very awesome) pre-rendered animations, the conveyor belt is vertical to the screen instead of at a 45 degree angle, the buttons are very subtle 2D sprites and the UI is extremely cluttered. What’s more, almost every song in Bemani titles where either specifically made for the game or taken from the back catalogues of Japanese artists that (understandably) only Asians would have likely heard of.

What I’m trying to say is that even though mechanically Bemanis are nearly identical to western rhythm games like Rock Band or Tap Tap Revenge, there’s still no way you would ever be able to confuse the two. Their ascetics and content are were just so radically different from what we now thing of as rhythm games, and that’s all thanks to one particular pioneering Harmonix game. Without it rhythm games would have likely never been popular outside of japan and the entire sub-industry of music games simply wouldn’t exist in any form at all in the west.

So we owe everything to Guitar Hero right? Well yes and no. Guitar Hero was certainly the first popular Harmonix rhythm game and undeniably the one that breathed life into the genre. However it wouldn’t exist without a certain other game, one that was the true pioneer of western style rhythm games. Harmonix’s other game: Frequency, released in 2001 on the PS2.

What was it? A blueprint.

This look familiar? It should do! It served as the basis for almost every subsequent rhythm game for over a decade after its release! There weren’t any peripherals involved at this point but other than that you still got the 3D buttons, angled conveyor belts, licenced English tracks, snazzy 3D effects and all that Jazz that laid the foundations for Guitar Hero.

Surprisingly the gameplay was actually a little less derivative of Bemani games than Harmonix’s later works; instead of “playing” a single conveyor belt of notes you actually had up to 8 different ones you could switch between at any time using the R1 and L1 buttons and each of them corresponded to a different element of the music such as bass, vocals, synth, lead guitar etc. Once you’d hit enough notes correctly then that belt would begin to play itself automatically for a time, allowing you to switch to a different belt without that element of the music stopping. This meant that rather than just influencing one instrument in the virtual band while the rest of it played perfectly, you were instead gradually building the song up from nothing bit by bit. It was a little weird but also incredibly satisfying.

Of course the reason Frequency is on this list is because wasn’t exactly a mega hit, in fact it wouldn’t be wrong to say that it kinda tanked. Regardless, Harmonix didn’t give up and eventually released an improved sequel named Amplitude (pictured above) in 2003 which went on to…. also not do too well. But still, peripheral makers RedOctane took notice of Frequency/Amplitude and later commissioned Harmonix to combine it with what were essentially knock off GuitarFreaks controllers. The rest is history.

Sadly Frequency as its own franchise hasn’t been heard from since, but Harmonix did see fit to give it spiritual sequels in the form of Lego Rock Band DS and Rock Band: Unplugged (PSP) both of which bare Frequency’s on the fly instrument swapping mechanism. Not exactly a fitting tribute for a game with such a significant legacy, but I guess I can’t really blame them considering how few people would actually care.

Why was it forgotten? Obscure music and no physical instruments.

The most immediately apparent reason it never came even close to the meteoric success of its successor is that it lacked any kind of peripheral, something that these days we would consider an absolutely essential part of the experience. Part of the whole draw of music games is that they allow you to immerse yourself the illusion that you’re actually playing the music rather than just telling a computer when to play some pre-recorded soundbites. However without the physical instruments it was impossible to make that illusion particularly convincing, especially since Frequency let you switch which instrument you were playing whenever you wanted at the touch of a button.

But beyond that there was a far simpler and more depressing reason that Harmonix’s magnum opus didn’t really take off. Although the in-game music was made up of licenced tracks with very high production values most of the artists were so distinctly “underground” that a vast majority of players wouldn’t have had even the slightest clue who the hell any of them were. The only vaguely recognisable name on the playlist were the Freezepops, who even today are relatively unknown to mainstream music fans. Amplitude managed to do a little better in that department thanks to a single track each from Blink-182, David Bowie, Weezer and Slipknot. But other than that it was still far too obscure to garner mass market attention, and it’s that mass market you need to appeal to if you want your game to sell.

That’s something Harmonix learnt the hard way in 2004 when they took a break from music games and released a monition controlled extreme sports game called EyeToy: AntiGrav for the PS2. Despite a distinctive “meh” from critics compared to Frequency/ Amplitude’s “hell yes!” it went on to sell way more copies than both those games combined. Honestly, It’s a miracle they just didn’t give up on the whole thing right there and then.

Where are the developers now? Recovering from a music game meltdown.

From the moment Guitar Hero hit the scene in 2005, realised there wasn’t actually a scene to hit, then made one out of thin air, then hit it again, Harmonix went from obscure down on their luck developer to one of the biggest names in the industry. Of course inevitably this lead to Activision coming along in 2007 and buying up RedOctane (thus obtaining the Guitar Hero IP rights) in order to save them the trouble of having to develop a rival franchise from the ground up. It was a bold move at the time, but these days it’s just kinda what Activision is all about, it’s sorta like their a force of nature that keeps franchises from getting too good.

This didn’t slow Harmonix down one bit, within a year they launched a new rhythm game franchise called Rock Band, basically just a better version of Guitar Hero that introduced support for microphones and a new range of drum kit peripherals, both of which became industry standards soon after. Unfortunately Rock Band never managed to outperform the now Activision controlled Guitar Hero franchise in terms of total sales, but it was still a major success that earned Harmonix hefty financial bonuses from Viacom (their new publisher).

But as you’re probably aware, the good times eventually came to an end in 2010 when the entire music game sector totally collapsed. Sales of both the latest iterations of Rock Band, Guitar Hero, DJ Hero and newcomers Power Gig were abysmally low, and that was despite Rock Band 3 being heralded by many critics as the greatest music game of all time*. Ironically Harmonix’s other 2010 music game Dance Central managed to totally circumvent the crash by virtue of being the only Kinect game that didn’t kinda suck. Still, that wasn’t enough to stop everyone involved taking a gargantuan hit financially that they weren’t really expecting.

*Power Gig on the other hand was heralded as one of the worst of all time, so I guess things came full circle that year.

Now I wouldn’t (yet) call myself an expert industry analyst or anything, but pining down some of the factors that lead to the crash ain’t rocket science. Like a lot of the big issues in game development over the last year or so, it involved Activision doing what they do best: milking the cash cow till its udders bleed. If you include all the various spin offs such as DJ Hero and Band Hero there have been a staggering 14 different titles in the Guitar Hero franchise in the 5 or so years since they too the reigns. Essentially the entire rhythm game audience was so spoilt for choice that it was far more appealing to buy one of the many older titles at knocked down prices second hand than it was to buy anything new. If you combine all that with a post-recession public who are far less willing to splash out on expensive pretend instruments than they used to be, you end up with a state of play where no one can profit no matter how good their product is.

Anyway whatever the reasons were, the fallout was still harsh. Activision demolished what was left of RedOctane and Neversoft (the guys who took Harmonix’s place) putting an indefinite end to the Guitar Hero franchise that had once dominated the gaming scene. At one point it looked like Harmonix would join them too, as Viacom started frantically trying to sell off the legendary company that by their own admission they had no idea how to handle anymore. But to the surprise of many (myself especially) Harmonix was neither disbanded nor sold off to a major publisher. Thanks to some timely assistance from investment firm Columbus Nova, Harmonix essentially bough themselves from Viacom and once again became a fully independent game development team, albeit one that had to axe ~15% of their staff to stay sustainable.

Now that all their competition have bit the dust and Activision have publicly sworn off music games for the time being, they essentially rule the roost of the sector they nearly single headedly created anyway. Where they’ll go from there is anyone’s guess, but I think it’s safe to say that Frequency 3 isn’t on the cards right now.

5 Pioneering games that time forgot part 2

Body Harvest (N64)

Without it we might not have had: GTA, Just Cause, Assassins Creed.

What did it pioneer? 3D Sandbox environments (in console games).

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but sandbox games are a big deal these days. It’s not really surprising since they represent the pinnacle of what modern gaming hardware can accomplish; wide open worlds where you can go where you please and do anything you want, whenever you want. It’s a style of play that’s given us a rather gratifying amount of freedom from the linear style progression that’s been the foundation of games since Atari era, and for pioneering that experience I think we owe 1998’s Body Harvest by DMA Design a debt of gratitude.

But just so we’re clear, I am in no way saying 3D sandbox games didn’t exist before Body Harvest. Hunter for the Amiga and Atari ST is generally considered to be the first of its kind, and it came out way back in 1991. Further more, Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall for the PC which came out in 1996 is still to date largest 3D sandbox in gaming history by a significant margin, dwarfing all competition at a staggering 62,394 square miles large. To put that into perspective: you could fit the ginormous Just Cause 2 into Daggerfall 155 times and still have enough room for the entirety of Azeroth.  In some ways Body Harvest it wasn’t even the first 3D open world game on a console either, you could easily argue that Mario 64 beat it to the punch on that one by a long way.

But the concept itself isn’t the issue here, it’s the scope and the platform. True 3D sandbox games as we know them, ones that span many towns and cities, were the soul privilege of PC gamers for longest of times. Consoles simply weren’t capable of providing a decent enough large scale environments that people actually wanted to explore the way we do now. It essentially locked a vast majority of gamers, particularly the younger sort, out of the whole experience of a sandbox game entirely. That is, until Body Harvest came along and showed us how it was done! Not that many people noticed of course.

What was it? A bunch of open worlds anda collection of tools to blow them up with.

In short, Body Harvest was ambitious, violent, innovative and downright awesome in a lot of ways. But like most games of the era it had a fairly simple premise. You play Adam Drake, a space marine sent back in time to prevent various attacks on the human race by alien insects at different points in earth’s history. Each time period had its own unique fairly large (for the time) sandbox to explore, with the overall mission in each being to find and destroy the shield generator that keeps the local populace at the alien’s mercy.

These sandboxes had just about everything we would associate with a modern open world game: guns, cars, missions, side missions, hidden collectibles and most importantly, vehicles you could steal at the touch of a button. Those vehicles weren’t just bog-standard cars either; you could jack anything from a submarine to a helicopter, all of which were period specific to each time frame. It really puts a lot of contemporary Sandboxes to shame in terms of variety.

Another thing it had in common with modern sandboxes (one that I doubt Nintendo was best pleased about) was the ability to slaughter innocent civilians at a whim and watch them collapse into a pool of their own blood after giving off one final scream of pain. It was pretty graphic stuff for the time but at least the developers put in a mechanism to help keep homicidal tendencies in check, which is probably how it got away with only a T rating.

Just below your own health bar was a second gauge that measured the number of civilians that had been “harvested” by aliens or killed by your actions in that time period, and should that gauge ever be filled to the max then you would automatically get a game over. It’s a somewhat far cry from today’s open world games that more often than not encourage relentless carnage, but that’s not to say you couldn’t raise a little hell in Body Harvest if you wanted to! Plenty of buildings and objects could be bulldozed over or obliterated with heavy ordnance if you so desired, something that even games aimed at the PC master race didn’t really offer back then.

Why was it forgotten? Mistargeted, ugly and more bad timing.

Despite managing to do fairly well with what passed for video game “critics” in the 90s, Body Harvest had the same problem as WinBack: the horrible misfortune of being released on the N64. A beautiful console yes, but also one where the games had to retail at an absolutely staggering £72/$117 (accounting for late 90s UK inflation) just to cover the construction costs of those lovely cartridges. Essentially that meant if you wanted to buy an N64 game it had to look and sound pretty damn good to be worth the money.

That “Looks good” part was a bit of a problem for Body Harvest, as even by the very low standards of the time it looked absolutely ghastly. Which is no surprise considering it was originally meant to be a launch title for the N64, but due to the objections by Shigeru Miyamoto over the games adult content it ended up getting delayed by nearly 2 years. It was also a completely new IP, which just like today meant that there was no brand awareness to act as any sort of guarantee of the games quality to potential buyers. DMA couldn’t even rely on their successful Lemmings franchise for leverage, as this was WAY before most console gamers were savvy enough to bother tracking who made what.

You also had the little problem that the N64 (and console gaming in general) was primarily aimed at youngsters at the time, people who were unlikely to have £72 worth of wonga as pocket money. The result of that was that the purchase of games, and ultimately the selection process itself, was likely to be performed by parents on the prowl for anything that might harm their poor little child’s psyche. So let’s do a little role play; Imagine you’re an average parent in ‘98 on the lookout for a nice little game for your child to play on their “Nintendo”. Let take a look what’s out at the moment:

Banjo Kazooi, a game about a cute animated cartoon like bear called Bajo and his bird buddy Kazooie on a quest to rescue Banjo’s sister form an evil wicked witch. Well, that sounds pretty wholesome doesn’t it! I’m sure they’ll love it. Hmm let’s see what else is here before we decide though….

………OH MY!

Yeah, the cover art (in Europe at least) didn’t really do Body Harvest any favours, especially as it featured what appears at first glance to be a pair of exposed buttocks. Even if the parents got as far as reading the back of the box they would likely find its subject matter off-putting enough to give it a miss in favour of something else a little more low key.

To top it all off, Body Harvest had the absolute motherload of misfortune by being released a matter of weeks before what is considered by many to be one of the greatest games ever created.

………OH MY!

Yeah, the cover art (in Europe at least) didn’t really do Body Harvest any favours, especially as it featured what appears at first glance to be a pair of exposed buttocks. Even if the parents got as far as reading the back of the box they would likely find its subject matter off-putting enough to give it a miss in favour of something else a little more low key.

To top it all off, Body Harvest had the absolute motherload of misfortune by being released a matter of weeks before what is considered by many to be one of the greatest games ever created.

Yes THAT Rockstar. The guys who like making the game industry their bitch on a regular basis, usually via their somewhat renowned Grand Theft Auto franchise. The GTAs were already a successful 2D sandbox series at the time of Body Harvest’s release, and that was despite (or as some argue, because of) what would later Rockstar’s trademark: the deafening howls of angry parents who were utterly convinced GTA was the spawn of Satan himself.

But when Rockstar combined GTA with the 3D sandbox elements they had pioneered with Body Harvest in order to make GTA3 in 2001, THAT’S when shit got real. That’s when devs started realising that making 3D sandbox games on consoles was kinda awesome (read: profitable) that’s when almost everybody started calling every sandbox game a GTA clone, and that’s when the course of game design was forever changed.

But without Body Harvest, there’s a good chance none of that would have been possible. For all we know the very idea of having a 3D sandbox game on a console and not a PC could have still sounded absurd by now, much like how the idea of a console based RTS is still considered fairly ridiculous. But either way, Body Harvest was rocking the 3D sandbox on consoles WAY before it was cool. Oh, and it was pretty damm fun too!

5 Pioneering games that time forgot part 1

Pioneers have always been a very important part of the video game industry, they mark the few occasions where someone tried to do something different and that something different actually turned out to be cool enough for other people to rip-off. And if it turns out to be REALLY cool, then it eventually even becomes the new standard that everyone has to adhere to if they want to be taken seriously.

Screen vignetting, multiplayer perks, hidden collectibles, regenerating health, achievements, all features that a lot of us expect to find in modern games without question. But they weren’t always there; somewhere along the way there had to be a game that marked the beginning of that trend. A game where a bunch of smaller ideas came together in the exact right combination for someone to think “Hey, that’s a pretty good thing they got going on there. We should all probably copy that!”.

Sometimes the effects are instantaneous and publishers will start to shoehorn this new idea into every project they can overnight. Other times the idea will lay dormant for years until it finally clicks in someone’s mind what they’d been missing out on. Either way, in most cases the games are well remembered as pioneers of design. Just ask around, most serious gamers can tell you off the top of their head all the things that modern FPSs owe to Halo, why just about every multiplayer game is considered a Call of Duty clone or how MMOs are desperately trying to ape World of Warcraft.

But sadly, some get left out of the limelight and are only remembered by a relatively small number of people who try to preserve the memory of these gaming pioneers as best they can. So that’s what I wanted to write about in this 5 part series, I wanted to tell people about 5 games that I think represent significant moments in game design history that too many people don’t really know about. 5 games that I believe have pretty major resonance with modern gaming, and as such deserve to be remembered by more people than they are. It’s my hope that these articles can in some way spread the memory of these forgotten games and their developers, but most of all I hope you find this little history lesson both interesting and entertaining. So here we go, enjoy!

WinBack (N64/PS2)

Without it we might not have had: Gears of War, Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid 2 onward (as we know it anyway).

What did it pioneer? The modern cover mechanic.

Here’s a little question for you: imagine you’re playing a run of the mill third person shooter and you’ve just walked into a gunfight. You’re taking a lot of damage so you need somewhere to take cover. All that stands between you and your assailants is a box that you think might be large enough to obscure the lower half of your characters body. So what do you do?

A) Press the crouch button (if the game even has one) then walk up against the surface of the box which may or may not actually cover enough of your body to prevent you getting hit. When you want to start shooting back you then have to un-crouch, take your shots, then crouch again before your health bar (remember those?) gets chewed up.

B) Run up to the box and have you character, either automatically or via button press “snap” to box’s surface in such a way that they will be full protected from oncoming fire. When you see an opportunity to shoot back, you simply press the aiming button to have your character pop out from behind the cover, and then automatically return to the exact same “safe” position behind the box when you feel you window of opportunity is up.

If you selected B, then congratulations! You’ve probably played a generic third person shooter made in the last 4 or so years. These days if you tried to publish one that didn’t have this sort of “Snap to cover” mechanic, then you’d likely be made laughing stock by the gaming community. It’s one of those features that most players subconsciously DEMAND be present, anything short of it is simply ridiculous right?

It can be a bit of a culture shock when you realised how quickly the cover mechanic became a standard. It really wasn’t too long ago that most third person shooters were of the run-and-gun variety, where the closest thing you had to the concept of “Cover” was the aforementioned rather haphazard crouching maneuver. Even then that only worked on objects approximately 2/3 the height of your character; the idea of being able to take cover behind anything taller was more commonly known as “accidently circle strafing behind a wall”

Tracking this mechanic’s origin doesn’t seem too hard at first, it’s undoubtedly late 2006’s Gears of War that made the whole thing popular, and lead developer Cliff Bleszinski unapologetically admitted that the cover system in that game was lifted from a 2003 title called Kill.Switch (another unsung gaming pioneer for implementing the “blind fire from cover” technique shown above). But to find out where this party really got started we need to go all the way back to 1999 and take a look at a game way ahead of its time, a game that saddens me so few people have heard of. WinBack for the N64.

What was it? A standard shooter.

WinBack‘s story can be summarised thusly: terrorists have taken over a military base housing a super weapon and the player takes the role of Jean-Luc, an agent of Special Covert Action Team (yes that’s right, S.C.A.T) who’s been sent in to shoot all the terrorists until they die from it. You may laugh, but I bet you there’s at least a hand full of “next-gen” shooters in development right now with the exact same premise. Anyway, the narrative is irrelevant in this context, just watch this little gameplay video and see if you recognize anything.

(Before any complaints about the quality, this isn’t my video it’s just the most illustrative one I could find on YouTube.)

Yup there it is. That cover system that we all know and (hopefully) love in all its glory. You may also notice its aiming mode is the sort of “precision fire” laser sight assisted type popularised by Resident Evil 4. While that never became a standard itself, it’s still pretty amusing to see it being used in such a similar way over 5 years earlier than most people would expect.

Speaking of RE4, I’d say WinBack’s 2006 sequel, WinBack 2: Project Poseidon is also worth a mention. It didn’t do anything new as such, but it was one of the first games to combine RE4’s “over-the-shoulder” aiming perspective with the cover mechanic its predecessor pioneered, a combination that most certainly DID become a standard!

Why was it forgotten? Really bad timing.

Despite the evolutionary leaps forward for the genre, the WinBack series was a victim of some truly awful timing on multiple occasions. By the time of its release in 1999 the PS1 had already spent a good few years beating the N64 into irrelevancy, destroying any chance WinBack had of stardom. It was eventually re-released in 2001 as an early PS2 game, but even with a significant graphical overhaul it came across as somewhat dated, and ended up being buried underneath the multitude of major blockbusters that came out that year.

WinBack 2: Project Poseidon ran into similar problems. When it came out in 2006 all three major 7th generation platforms had launched, meaning the expectations placed on any games that were part of the mighty PS2′s (and mighty huge Xbox’s) swan song were rather high. So despite yet another evolutionary step forward in gameplay mechanics, WinBack once again came across as lacking, especially when the revolutionary graphical bonanza Gears of War was only a few months away from release. But would Gears of War of have ever existed at all without WinBack? I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Where are the developers now? Hacking ‘n Slashing.

When I was doing research for this feature, I was totally prepared for this section to be ultra-depressing. I expected for these noble game developers to whom we owe so much to have faded away from memory just as their games did, and that their teams had been disbanded by mean old publishers never to heard from again. I was wrong. Oh so wrong. Because I’d forgotten who made WinBack; a small development team owned by Koei (now known as Tecmo Koei) called Omega Force.

So then, what did Omega Force do after their revolutionary third person shooter was a flop? Well it seems they decided to revisit their first title, a fighting game on the PS1 called Sangoku Musou. Don’t recognise the name? Well let’s just say westerners know it as Dynasty Warriors.

Calling Omega Force prolific would be a bloody understatement; since 1997 there’s been a mind blowing 40 titles bearing the “Warriors” name, and they don’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down (even though Capcom’s copycat franchise Sengoku Basara is WAAAAY cooler).

But just to make sure you realise that not all these stories have a happy ending; Cavia, who developed WinBack 2, didn’t have it quite so good. They spent most of the last decade developing a vast range of distinctly average tie-in games for pre-existing franchises like Ghost in the Shell and Dragon Ball Z, none of which received much critical acclaim. The only games they worked on that you’re likely to have heard of are Resident Evil: Darkside/Umbrella Chronicles and Neir Gestalt/Replicant. In late 2010 Cavia was disbanded, and I think I must be one of the few people who actually cared. You see, Cavia were also responsible for Drakengard on the PS2, which despite some awful gameplay had one of my favourite storylines ever! Rest in peace Cavia.

9 Soundtracks from 2010 worth listening to

It’s one of the inevitable facts of life that every given year you’re going to get legions of game journalists writing at least one “Top [whatevers] of [whatever last year was]” for just about every conceivable topic. Best graphics, best moments, biggest flops, best dark horses, best performance by Nolan North etc etc. However there’s one subject that often gets shafted, something that’s so fundamental it’s easy to forget it’s even there until it really isn’t. I speak of course, of that which brings game worlds to life through our ears: the soundtrack.

Music is a vital yet underappreciated element of almost every game; you just have to try and imagine Mario without the ditty tunes or Fallout without the vintage harmonies and you realise music can be an integral part of an entire franchise’s identity. So I present to you my little celebration of the unsung arts of gaming music: In no particular order, 9 soundtracks from games released in 2010 that I humbly feel are worthy of note.

Tatsunoko vs Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars

I’m being a bit cheeky with this one; this arcade fighter did get a limited Japanese release back in 2008 under the name of Tatsunoko vs Capcom: Cross Generation of Heroes, but it was essentially a rather primitive arcade port. It wasn’t until 2010 when heavy fan demand resulted in a remake released in every territory titled Ultimate All Stars. It saw huge improvements over the arcade original including a host of new characters and gameplay tweaks.

But that’s all irrelevant at the moment as we’re only concerned with the music, so what did it sound like? Well let’s just say that even the Daftest of Punks might feel compelled to tip their cyberpunk hats at All-Star’s hyperactive techno remixes of classic Capcom and Tatsunoko themes. It’s fast paced rhythms had perfect synergy with All-Stars unrelenting light speed combat; guaranteed to get most potential combatants hearts pumping before they’ve even selected their character.

Favourite track: Orbital Ring Systems Cargo Bay

If bringing in 90s Tatsunoko legend Tekkaman-Blade (or Teknoman for those who grew up with the English version) wasn’t good enough already, we also got blessed with possibly the best song on the soundtrack to be his theme!

Mass Effect 2

Nothing quite relaxes like the smooth soothing synth of a good sci-fi space epic such as Eve Online or Sunshine (the 2007 movie, not the Mario game), and the OSTs of the Mass Effect franchise are no different. Its slow relaxing rhythms fill you with a sense of wonder at the incomprehensible vastness of the void that lies before you, as well as the sleek cyber-punk technologies of the future.

Favourite Track: New Worlds

Anyone who’s played much of Mass Effect 2 should recognise this pretty fast, at least you should do considering how long you spend in the Galaxy Map! You may even recognise it even if you only ever played the first Mass Effect, as it’s a remix of the original Galaxy Map tune “Uncharted Worlds”. But don’t misunderstand; it’s far more than cheap rehash of an old song. While it retains the deep space exploration vibes, there’s something else just beneath the surface; a reflection of the underlying urgency in your supposed “Suicide Mission” and the unknowable dread of what lurks beyond the sinister Omega 4 relay…

Bayonetta

The problem with launching a game early on in the year, especially if it’s a new IP, is that it often gets ignored when these sorts of yearly retrospectives come around. But Bayonetta was different, because I could never forget Bayonetta after how it gave the tired old beast of Devil May Cry “character action” style games a firm kick up the ass. Nor could I ever forget its soundtrack of pure unadulterated funk that was about as smooth and stylish as the witch herself, something that couldn’t paint a harsher contrast with the standard grim dramatic tones of the genre.

Favourite Track: Let’s Dance, Boys!

Even with such a large number of amazing tunes to choose from, I had no hesitation in choosing what I feel is the definitive track for both Bayonetta the game as well as Bayonetta the character.

I chose not to include the really awesome music video that goes with it because it’s one of the unlockables for finishing the game. But for those who don’t intend to play at any point, the video’s still worth a look.  If watching that doesn’t make you interested in Bayonetta, I don’t know what will. Oh, and the game that’s named after her is pretty good too I guess…..

Another Century’s Episode: R

What? You haven’t heard of this game? You been living under a rock or something?!? Okay yeah seriously, this game is about as nerdy and niche as it gets; available only in Japan the A.C.E games (of which this is the 4th) pits pilots and giant robots from popular anime TV shows against each other in all-out war. The game itself was a little disappointing for reasons outside the scope if this article, but the soundtrack more than lived up to the very high standards set by these sorts of crossover games.

You see, while developers and publishers are more than willing to navigate the merciless seas of copyright law to try and get accurate likenesses of all the popular characters and robots from various shows, they vary rarely use exact duplicates of theme songs to go with them. Instead we often get some classy guitar riff heavy remixes that in many cases improve on or at least provide a cool new spin on some signature tunes. Obviously your mileage is going to vary massively by how much you care about the shows involved or even if you like anime at all, but to a fan it’s certainly a nice treat to hear your favourite songs given such respectable treatment.

Favourite Track: O2

In recent years, crossover games like A.C.E have been reluctant to feature some of the newer anime IPs such as Gundam 00 and Gurren Lagann, probably because of absurd licensing issues far beyond our comprehension. So it was a nice breath of fresh air when it was announced that characters and robots from Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, a very popular anime that had ended “only” 2 years before hand, were going to make a significant appearance in ACE: R. Things got even better when I discovered the awesome remix they did of Orange Range’s “O2” to be the franchise’s in-game theme song.

If you’re interesting what the original sounded like, it was used as the first intro song for the shows second season.

BlazBlue: Continuum Shift

Most fighting game franchise worth mentioning have a pedigree stretching back into at least into the late 90s, and while BlazBlue certainly takes considerable cues from Arc System Works previous franchise Guilty Gear, it managed to succeed largely due to its own merits alone. However, one thing it certainly inherited directly from Guilty Gear was a taste for raw guitar shredding ROCK, a tradition that the second BlazBlue title Continuum Shift proudly upholds.

Favourite Track: Gluttony Fang

Character specific songs are generally there to help represent the personalities and traits of the characters themselves, subconsciously giving you an impression of who they are and what they’re about. None of that is truer than in the theme song for BlazBlue’s current main villain: Hazama. Right off that bat with Gluttony Fang you know Hazama is a very dangerous and chaotic man. The intricate guitar work overlaid with the classical piano themes reflecting the image of suave sophistication he uses to disguise his true nature as a twisted sadist, ready to torture and kill on the slightest whim.

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

After the rather disappointing Portable Ops it would be easy to dismiss Peace Walker as another minor spin-off not really worth anyone’s time. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a good reason Kojima wanted to call Peace Walker Metal Gear Solid 5; it’s nothing less than the next pivotal chapter in the Metal Gear Saga.

Like most games in the franchise, Peace Walker had an emotionally charged highly dramatic soundtrack, with each song conjuring up feelings of patriotism, sorrow, crisis and the grim realities of warfare. While such music is certainly at its best when being overlaid by some sort of pretentious speech from the now very Che Guevara-esque  Big Boss, it’s still pretty moving stuff in its own right.

Favourite Track: Heavens divide

Of course you can’t have a Metal Gear game without some kind of epic ending song, even Portable Ops managed to have one of  suitably high quality.  When Heavens Divide started playing over the (sort of) final mission, I knew I was in for one hell of a finale.

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes

Sadly this is yet another Japanese franchise that doesn’t have much name recognition in the west. Sengoku Basara is Capcom’s answer to the popular (in Japan and Europe at least) Dynasty Warriors series, and can be summed up as a Japanese history lesson as taught by a ten year old who just finished a Power Rangers marathon. In a similar vein, a lot of the soundtrack uses all tropes and sound effects you’d usually associate with ultra-serous samurai epics, but appears to have been composed by someone who plays way too much BlazBlue.

Favourite track: Date Masamune’s theme song.

Nothing personifies Sengoku Basara’s combination of traditional history and anime absurdity better than its resident king of cool Date Masamune. While his theme song certainly leans far more towards the latter than the former, it doesn’t stop it from being seriously hardcore.

Deadly Premonition

Oh god. Deadly Premonition. I could write an entire dissertation on this damm game; a train wreck of insane design decisions that is yet somehow incredibly compelling. Okay!  Got to restrain myself! Save that story for another day…….just focus on the audio. Right so; imagine you’ve just been appointed producer of an upcoming Twin Peaks inspired survival horror game, what sort of music do you want a majority of the soundtrack to have?

A) Slow eerie tracks aimed at causing an uneasy atmosphere.
B) Dark foreboding music with a dynamic tempo to help build tension.
C) A lot of ultra smooth jazz + whatever else you feel like, for reasons known only to yourself.

If you seriously chose C, then congratulations! You obviously worked on Deadly Premonition!

Favourite Track: Life is Beautiful

Not only is this track incredibly catchy, it’s also weird and above all wildly inappropriate; the very essence of what makes Deadly Premonition so incredible.

Comic Jumper

And so we finish by moving from one beautiful train wreck onto another. To cut a long story short, the gameplay in Comic Jumper was abysmal, but the game as a whole was redeemed by laugh out loud humour that just kept on giving.

The soundtrack was no different; a majority of the songs were fairly generic background tracks that were so bland I struggle to even remember what they sounded like. However, interspersed between those where the diamonds in the rough, songs of such immense comedic value it somehow more than made up for the rest of the soundtracks deficiencies. Even the developers themselves seem to agree with me on this; going so far as offering all the joke songs in one free downloadable pack on their website.

Favourite track: Brad’s theme song.

When trying to select a stand out track from Comic Jumper’s (admittedly thin) selection, there’s only one real choice. Nothing can compare to Captain Smiley’s brolicious rival: Brad. A man so egotistical that his vehicle of choice (the Bradcopter) is essentially a flying boom box that he uses to bombard poor Smiley with his self-performed theme song.

Playstation Vita Impressions

The Device

I’d been forewarned by my colleagues that the PS Vita was deceptively lightweight device for something so powerful. But hey, what do they know? Thinking myself well prepared, I continued onward and held the future of portable gaming tech for the first time. My first thoughts? Jesus Christ, this thing is light! I mean REALLY light, far more so than the 3DS and perhaps even the PSPgo (oh boy, remember those?). Maybe the battery pack had been removed from the demo units or something, but still, it felt as though I was holding nothing but an empty shell, and not the most powerful handheld gaming console ever made!

However, I resist the temptation to call the Vita “fragile”, mainly as it wasn’t socially or professionally acceptable to put the device through its paces at the time. But even if they had let me throw it around a bit, I doubt that I’d want to risk doing the Vita any harm anyway. Just holding it felt so…… nice. My hand’s extensive memory of the many years of abuse suffered at the “mercy” of the PSP’s rough and uncomfortable edges were washed away as they gently wrapped around the Vita’s perfectly rounded contours. The entire device was exceptionally smooth, with little to no uncomfortable protrusions. Everything about it was beautiful to the eye and to the touch, right from the crystal clear OLED screen all the way round to the ……*sigh*…. rear mounted touch panel (yes, that’s a thing now).

But while my index fingers and palms where busy having trauma therapy, my thumbs were busy exploring something else entirely: the new twin analogue sticks. Not analogue “nubs”, not “circle pads”, not “d-pads with some kind of exotic mounting”, but actual analogue sticks on a portable device! My thumbs promptly reported back (after much random fumbling which I think slightly confused the booth clerks) that the sticks were relatively firm and functional, but also had a surprisingly limited range of movement. While I assume that might make precision movement very difficult when a situation inevitably calls for it, I didn’t really have enough time with the device to see for myself if it was a problem.

Unfortunately, there were a few other minor but irritating issues that struck me unawares. For one thing, those analogue sticks are WAY too close to the face buttons, making it exceptionally easy to nudge the former when attempting to utilise the latter. And it wasn’t until I was prompted to “Press Start”, as every gamer is at some point in their lives, that I realised how ridiculously awkward the start/select buttons are! Not only are they tucked away in a corner of the Vita that’s near impossible to reach when in standard gaming posture, but the actual buttons themselves are significantly firmer that you would either expect or desire such a thing to be. I ended up having to take several attempts at the gargantuan task of “Press Start”, eventually using the tip of my fingernails to force the button down far enough for the system to acknowledge my intentions.

Are these fairly small and petty criticisms? Totally. But that’s only because I’m really struggling to find much fault with the Vita as a gaming device right now (Well, other than how ridiculous that rear touch panel still is!), I’m not trying to say it’s perfect or anything like that, but it’s certainly more than satisfactory in all the areas that count:  portability, visuals, controls and ergonomics. Whether the games on the Vita will correctly leverage these assets is another thing entirely, as the ones I was shown at E3 were a bit of a mixed bag.

The games

Note: During my hands-on session I was only allowed to play the 5 separate games for a maximum of 4 minutes each, so I can’t do much more than make a fairly cursory analysis at this point.

Little Big Planet Vita

It should be no surprise that this game is more of the patchwork platforming that you (hopefully) know and love. The graphics were fairly decent and the jumps were suitably “floaty” to the point where, from a distance, it’s more or less indistinguishable from its console cousins.

Gameplay wise, the only big change is that certain physics objects (most of which were marked with a special blue texture) can now be interacted with using the touch screens rather than sackboy’s grab ability. I got to play with a several different applications of this new mechanic, such as being able to “push” objects out from the background using the rear screen or pulling back a slingshot with the front screen. Even though these were pretty basic examples, they were still quite fun to mess around with. Regardless, there’s a good chance they will pale in compassion to whatever crazy stuff the LBP community will make once the game goes public. Can’t wait!

Virtua Tennis 4:

Much to my own surprise, this ended up being by far the most entertaining title of the lot! Technically it was just your standard Virtua Tennis game, except now in order to hit the ball you had to swipe across the screen. The angle of your stroke determined the trajectory of the ball, and the direction of the stroke added either a top or bottom spin to the shot. At one point the booth clerk reminded me that the game is also playable with traditional analogue stick and face buttons, but that she “preferred the touch screen controls anyway”.

Even though I have fairly strong suspicion that that’s just a pre-canned phrase that she was being paid to tell people, it totally echoed my own sentiments on the matter! Using the touch screen to control the ball’s trajectory and spin felt infinitely more precise than simply taping a button, possibly making it the first time I’ve ever felt touch screen integration actually enhancing my gameplay experience rather than being a tacked-on gimmick! This is one to watch.

Little Deviants:

You may remember Little Deviants from Sony’s original “NGP” press conference a while back. It was shown as a possible application of the rear touch screen, allowing you to “push” parts of the game-world upwards in order to solve puzzles. But it turns out that that was actually only one of several different mini games present in the full title, all of which somehow involve these little orange monsters (who I assume are the titular Deviants). This gives me the impression that Sony are keen on making Little Deviants the Vita’s answer to Ubisoft’s smash hit Raving Rabbids franchise. Unfortunately, while the three segments I played made neat little tech demos and all, I can’t really see any of them providing much entertainment after the first few tries.

The first one was an augmented reality minigame where you had to use the Vita’s gyroscope and front camera to hunt down enemies hidden around you, then press the shoulder buttons to shoot ‘em. If that sounds a little familiar, it’s because it’s almost identical to the 3DS’s built in Face Raiders game (but without the face-scanning party trick!), something that I doubt was a mere coincidence.

Next was a slightly more original game where I had to use the Vita’s tilt sensor to steer a flying character through a maze of hazards. Trying to see where all those aforementioned hazards where while moving the Vita about in such a fashion was extremely awkward, but I think that’s just a testament to the general stupidity of tilt based games as a concept.

And to finish off, I played a quasi whack-a-mole style game where I had to poke the Deviants using either the front or the back touch screen, depending on which direction they were facing. Sounds simple enough, but unlike Little Big Planet Vita, the game gave me no indicators as to where my fingers where on the rear screen, which made it nearly impossible to hit the targets I was actually aiming for!

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

This is probably many a Sony fan’s most anticipated title for the Vita, and for good reason! It seems perfectly in keeping with Naught Dog’s ludicrously high standards when it comes to visuals; a wonderful showcase for the Vita’s vast graphical capability if ever there was one! Sadly though, the control system really lets it down hard, particularly when it comes to the extensive (but thankfully optional) touch based controls that have you make all sorts of weird gestures to do even the most basic of actions.

I really tried my best to embrace this new control scheme rather than be a fuddy-duddy about the whole thing. I failed. Long before my 4 minutes were up, I was already reaching for the traditional button inputs out of shear frustration. But even with old school controls, aiming and moving felt far too sluggish and imprecise for me to really have much fun with it. Overall, a rather disappointing experience that I really hope will be touched up before the game launches.

Sound shapes

This was more or less the only “original” title on display at the public Vita booth; created by none other than Queasy Games, the developers of the somewhat overlooked PSN classic Riff: Everyday Shooter back in 2008. Much like Riff, Sound Shapes is all about music that dynamically affects gameplay, this time in the guise of a side scrolling platformer instead of a twin stick shooter.

Your main objective (as far as I could tell) is to get to the end of the level while collecting as many glowing orbs as possible. As you obtain those orbs, the background music changes according to where the orbs where on the screen when you picked them up. E.g. orbs found at the centre of the screen might add a subtle chime to the track, while ones in the top left might add some funky synth to the mix.

It differs from Riff in that the music is far more than just a neat little distraction. Enemies will often shoot at you in time with the beat, requiring you to keep a constant feel for the level’s rhythm if you want to survive.

Although I didn’t have time to take a look at it myself, I’m told that Sound Shapes will also have an extensive level creation system akin to Little Big Planet. But sadly there’s no word on if there’ll be any sort of online infrastructure in place to support a full blown community around that feature.

It was definitely a very enjoyable title from what I played anyway, but it was also extremely abstract compared to the rest of the PSV lineup. So yeah, don’t expect it to set the retail charts on fire. Hopefully they’ll at least have the sense to make it a downloadable title; I’d hate to see Queasy’s second professional game be their last!

Summary

I don’t think the Vita quite lives up to the dream of a portable PS3, but it defiantly met me half way there with a well-crafted and (mostly) logical successor to the PSP that looks like it’ll stand the test of time. While quite irritating at first, the few minor issues I had with it were just that: minor. Of course if we’re lucky, Sony may just deal with them at production stage before the console even hits the market anyway.

The only real elephant in the room, in my book anyway, is that goddamn rear touch screen. It seemed silly before, and after my hands-on time with the Vita, it just seems even more ridiculous than ever (no mean feat!). I’ve yet to see anything that makes it look like anything other than an ill-conceived gimmick, and my heart sinks whenever I think about how much could have been shaved off the Vita’s production costs if it had been omitted from the design all together.

As for the games, while each of the ones I played did a good job of expressing the individual strengths of the Vita, they all did so in isolation. None really came even close to demonstrating good graphics, gameplay, rear/front touch screen usage and decent controls all in one complete package. But then again, that’s likely something for future generations of Vita games to be concerned with. For now at least, it looks like the Vita should be off to a fairly solid start. At worst, it should make the 3DS launch look more of a joke than it already does!