An X-Com FPS? Sacrilege!

Creative plundering’s all the rage at the moment. While Hollywood’s rifling through its knicker draw, busily remaking, rebooting and regurgitating every old television show, horror movie and line of toys it can find (coming in 2012 – Keypers: 3D), the music industry has taken to booking dozens of acts who all sound a bit like Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran, and ITV has just served up a lightly warmed-over rehash of The Prisoner starring Jesus and Gandalf.

The videogame industry isn’t immune from plundering its back catalogue either, with Final Fight: Double Impact reintroducing the street fighting antics of its topless, raging mayor to a new generation of gamers. One of this month’s oddest announcements comes from 2K Marin, who in its infinite wisdom has decided to remake Julian Gollop’s strategy masterpiece X-Com.

If you’ve been playing videogames for a very long time, the name Julian Gollop may mean something to you. Beginning in the early 80s, he earned a devoted following for a series of increasingly ambitious turn-based strategy games. Chaos was among his first, and still stands as one of the very best games of its ilk you’ll find.

Essentially a computerised card game, Chaos pitted a group of wizards against one another in a straight fight to the death. One of the few eight player strategy games then available, Chaos made for a uniquely entertaining multiplayer game, and even its more obvious drawbacks (your opponents would have to promise not to look while you selected your spells) added to its charm.

Thereafter, Gollop released the sci-fi strategy classics Rebelstar, Rebelstar II and Lasersquad, before returning to his earlier fantasy theme for Lords Of Chaos, which took the spell-casting concept of the original Chaos and expanded it into a strategy RPG. While a clear line of evolution can be drawn through all of Gollop’s games, the key thing that links them all is their uniquely addictive quality.

Since the advent of the Command & Conquer series, it’s more-or-less taken for granted that a strategy game can make for a compulsive evening’s entertainment. In the 80s, the genre was still largely the preserve of people wearing sandals who enjoyed reading lengthy books about Rommel.

For many, Gollop reached the height of his powers in 1994 with the release of X-Com, or UFO: Enemy Unknown, as it was called in some territories. Although expanded, after publisher MicroProse suggested its gameplay lacked the epic sweep of  Civilization, X-Com was a natural progression from the Aliens-inspired squad management of Rebelstar and Laser Squad. Like those games, X-Com made what, in lesser hands, would be the most ponderous of genres both compelling and addictive. That it’s still regularly mentioned in ‘best games of all time’ forum threads is a testament to its timeless ability to enthral and engross.

Given the widespread devotion that X-Com still receives, it’s unsurprising that 2K’s series reboot hasn’t been given a warm reception by gamers of a certain age. If there’s one thing the PC doesn’t need, it’s another first-person shooter, and one based on a resolutely cerebral strategy game like X-Com is needed still less.

Other retro titles have survived genre crossings, of course. Metroid Prime shoved Samus into the third dimension with aplomb, but how can 2K possibly retain even a small percentage of the original’s tactical depth from a first-person viewpoint? It makes about as much sense as ‘re-imagining’ Halo as a pet simulator.

For a developer with more than the cachet and industry clout of 2K Marin, the appropriation of an old and much-loved property like X-Com seems like a curiously opportunistic move. Without the X-Com name, wouldn’t the project be just another generic sci-fi FPS? Does 2K’s announcement make other fondly remembered retro titles fair game for the FPS treatment? Will Crytek make a shooter based on Horace Goes Skiing, Atic Atac, Monty Mole or Frogger?

If I found myself in Julian Gollop’s position, there’d be only one course of action to take: create a turn-based strategy game based on Bioshock. A properly old-school 2D one, with Rapture rendered in blocky tile-based graphics like a Byzantine floor, and hulking Big Daddies moving around one square at a time. Hell, at least old duffers like me would buy it.

Originally posted at the wonderful Den of Geek

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The rising value of virtual tat

There’s a strange law that governs digital television which dictates that, as you flick further on through the stations, the content presented to you becomes steadily more strange. The early channels are conventional enough – the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 with their soaps and property programmes – but then, as you pass through the barrier reef of E4+1, the laws of logic begin to break down. Here lurk the Turkish music stations and channels devoted to gambling, the obscure channels about religion, dating and Japanese flower arranging.

Best of all, though, you’ll find the shopping channels, and it was there, on a quiet Monday evening,  that I beheld the single most gorgeous, crappy object I’d ever seen. It was a globe, standing two feet high on a faux gold pedestal, inlaid with mother of pearl and sparkling things. The place names were set in Zapf Chancery, one of the top ten most awful typefaces in the world. It rotated and glowed. It was £200.

As much as I’d have loved one of these gloriously dreadful abominations, there was no way I would actually buy one, and I assumed at first that nobody else would either. But incredibly, I’d underestimated the public mood. The consignment of forty or fifty globes sold out within a few minutes.

On a somewhat related topic, I learned this week that a twelve-year-old boy had spent around £900 – much of which had been purloined from his parents’ credit card – on Farmville, the browser-based management game hosted by Facebook. This story, along with the light-up self-propelling globe, was a timely reminder of how true the old adage about a fool and his money really is.

Yet, as ridiculous as spending almost a grand on a virtual farm may sound (and I shudder to think what my mother would have done if I’d done the same thing as a youth), this pales into insignificance next to recent sales in the free-to-play MMO Planet Calypso.

Funded by micro-transactions, the game has become chiefly notable for the increasingly outlandish prices some of its items fetch in online auctions. In February, David “Deathifier” Storey handed over the equivalent of £45,300 for a non-existent egg. The most bizarre thing about this? Storey doesn’t even know what, if anything, the egg holds.

The whole idea of games based on micro-transactions seems alien to me in any case. I’m too steeped in the old-school method of buying games, where money is handed over and the game is yours to play. The notion of having to pop into a virtual shop every few days to buy more bullets or whatever seems insane. This probably comes down to the fact that I can be quite miserly over how much I’m willing to spend on videogames. I’m constantly hunting around for the cheapest deal, or buying ancient Mega Drive cartridges second-hand from eBay.

Nevertheless, the buying and selling of virtual goods represents a potentially lucrative money making opportunity for those brave enough to invest their money. The original owner of the Planet Calypso five figure egg, John “Neverdie” Jacobs, originally bought the item for around £6,500 in 2006. In 2005, Jacobs purchased an asteroid from another Planet Calypso player for almost £65,000. And while remortgaging your house to pay for a gigantic in-game rock sounds like financial suicide, his gamble appears to have paid off once again. After building a nightclub on it, Jacobs has reportedly seen the value of his asteroid increase ten-fold.

To somebody as tight as me, it seems inconceivable that something so intangible – a piece of data that could quite easily disappear off a server at any moment – could be valued so highly. It seems more like (virtual) insanity. I’d lie awake at night, terrified that the MMO’s production company might go bust, or that all the in-game data might spontaneously disappear.

On the other hand, is investing large sums of cash in virtual items really any more risky than betting it on stocks and shares? For those with a sound head for business and a strong stomach, the answer is “possibly not”.

And if dozens of people are willing to pay significant sums of money for a hideous spinning globe that will almost certainly end up in a car boot sale in a few years’ time, then maybe investing your disposable income on virtual eggs and asteroids isn’t such a ridiculous proposition after all.

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Evidence that Kratos will return for God of War IV?


So the final bloody QTE has played out, and Kratos lies fallen on his own sword, with Zeus defeated and Athena thoroughly disenfranchised. But as the camera pulls out for one last, lingering shot on Kratos’s bloodied corpse, there’s a clue that the belligerent anti-hero won’t stay that way for long. Etched into the rock beneath him is a giant bird – could this be the mythical phoenix?

It’s pure conjecture for now, of course, but if the bird does indeed represent the phoenix, then Kratos could be returning for another sequel in a couple of years’ time. And if you watched beyond the closing credits, you’ll have noted that Kratos had apparently crawled out of frame – possibly toward the edge of the cliff – leaving only behind only a pool of blood. Did Kratos sprout his legendary Icarus wings and fly away? Only time will tell.

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The PS3 is a middle-aged rock star in a black t-shirt

Stern silence. It’s Saturday morning, and the PS3, which I ordered in secret the day before, has just arrived on the doorstep. Sarah’s in the hallway, and she’s not amused. She has her arms folded; if her eyes had arms, they’d be folded too. “We don’t need another console,” she says, as I drag the box into the living room. “We’ve got too many already.”

I’ve made several attempts to justify the purchase, to myself as well as my better half: that I got it for a really good price; that we truly, desperately need a Blu-ray player to go with the HD television; that the PS3’s black case will go really well with the TV stand.

Ultimately, I bought it for the system exclusives now available and yet to come: for Heavy Rain, Uncharted 2 and, best of all, Fumito Ueda’s forthcoming Shadow Of The Colossus sequel, Last Guardian. It was therefore with eager hands that I tore the sticky tape from the PS3’s cardboard cocoon.

For a console named and marketed as the PS3 Slim, I’m slightly alarmed by the size of the thing as I haul it out of the box. It looks like a middle-aged rock star in a black t-shirt: weighty, ungainly, and not as svelte as it thinks it is. (Having said this, the PS3 is a wee slip of a thing when placed next to the hulking menace that is the Xbox 360. The Wii sits underneath, looking gaunt and anxious.)

This sense of bloatedness continues as I power the beast up. The UI is a turgid mess of options and lists of settings with other lists of settings within them. Scrolling through it all is akin to the bafflement I feel when poring through a restaurant menu with too many dishes to choose from.

And then there are the updates. My God, the updates. First a gigantic system patch which, thanks to my village’s own patented 1MB Hickband service, took close to three hours to download. This was followed by the endless forms to fill in for PSN. It’s now three-and-a-half hours since I pulled the tape off the box, filled with enthusiasm, and I still haven’t played a game.

It took an unpleasant, swear-filled ten minutes to find a username that hadn’t been taken or wasn’t mystifyingly refused. At the end of the whole, draining process I was asked if I’d like to fill in a questionnaire. My resulting outburst was keenly audible, and I’m almost surprised the neighbours didn’t call the police.

With the head rush of new toy joy rapidly ebbing away, I shoved Uncharted 2 in the drive. Another patch update. I’m beginning to feel like Sisyphus. I try to form a Vulcan mind meld with the progress bars, and will them on as they crawl across the screen.

But then, just as my patience reaches breaking point, a ray of light appears among the figurative clouds. I finally get to play Uncharted 2, and it’s very, very good. I begin to titter and grin, my enthusiasm at last beginning to return. Uncharted 2 is everything you could want from an arcade action epic. It’s Indy 4 without the bad bits (which were many); it’s Prince Of Persia with Kays catalogue models. I like the characters. I like the script. I like the way the gorgeousness of your surroundings in any of its 25 chapters successfully disguises the reality that you’re actually shooting away at three or four kinds of bad guy for hours at a time.

It may have taken until Saturday afternoon to get to play it, but Uncharted 2 is perfect Saturday matinee material: trashy, airport fiction fun that wears its pulpy heritage proudly on its sleeve.

So, I’ve just about forgiven the PS3 for its finicky menu system, its opaque shopping experience, and its obsession with downloading things. Sarah’s just about forgiven me too, especially when I tell her about Noby Noby Boy, a typically surreal PSN game created by Keiti (Katamari Damacy) Takahashi. Featuring a central character that grows and stretches as he eats his way around a world of doughnut clouds and starry-eyed animals, we both agree that it sounds like videogaming manna.

A protracted purchase from the PlayStation shop and a 365MB download later, and Noby is ours. We load it up, our thumbs primed and waiting. But what’s this? A 550MB patch update. My reaction was sharp, vocal, and loosened several roof tiles.

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Final Fantasy XIII and the need for invisible walls

In the final analysis, videogames are just a collection of rooms and corridors. Sometimes, the rooms and corridors are very, very large and the walls very well disguised, but nevertheless, the walls are there. You may remember, with a shudder, the 2008 reboot of Turok, in which you wandered around a lush green planet infested with dinosaurs – or this was, at least, the illusion. In reality, you were actually being herded through a series of corridors dressed up to look like a forest. Attempt to stray far beyond the ferns and fauna that lined your path, and you’d come up against an invisible barrier. The woods and soaring vistas beyond were little more than wallpaper.

Nothing takes you out of a game more quickly than, while playing the part of a rock-hard space marine who looks as though he could pull the head off a horse with his bare hands, you find your path mysteriously blocked by a flower bed. You’ve got arms like a shot putter’s thigh, yet you’re unable to break the stem of a daffodil, or jump over a rock no higher than your ankle.

Most recently, Final Fantasy XIII has come under criticism from some quarters for its particularly obvious linearity. Its environments, it’s been said, are little more than a series of long corridors with a huge boss at the end of them.

The flipside to these kind of experiences, of course, is the open-world sandbox game. These take the rooms and corridors and make them much, much bigger. They take the boss encounters, non-player characters and objectives and place them much further apart, to the point where you need a car to traverse the vast distances between them.

By Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar, apparently worried that the length of time it would take to traverse Liberty City in a hotwired Nissan Cherry would leave players falling asleep at the wheel, decided to lay on an optional taxi service to chauffeur them to and from the main points of interest.

I have a love-hate relationship with sandbox games. In fact, some of them leave me with a particular kind of dread. I’m the kind of person who gets lost looking for a post box in my own village, or who will walk out of a shop and forget which direction I came from. I’ve heard and read numerous reasons for this condition: a genetic deficiency; a misfiring hippocampus; outright stupidity.

Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: put me in a free-roaming virtual world, and I will get hopelessly, utterly lost. I’ve wandered the forbidden zones ofS.T.A.L.K.E.R. like a well-armed ghost with no idea where I am or where I’m meant to go next. I’ve thundered around the mean streets of Liberty City in my Nissan Cherry, only to take a wrong turning onto a railway line and into the path of an oncoming train. I’ve lost myself among the crimson dust and prefabricated houses of Mars in Red Faction.

Oh, I know there are maps. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. even provides you with a PDA and GPS, kind of. But these toys and gadgets provide problems of their own. I’ve stared at the little maps too long and crashed into walls. I’ve stared at a PDA screen with a furrowed brow, only to receive an uncharitable bullet in the back.

So before you criticise FF XIII‘s invisible corridors too harshly, spare a thought for gamers like me, the perpetually lost and confused. Those of us who spend so long squinting at radars, maps and diagrams that we barely notice the wonderful world around us; those of us who are perpetually disoriented, bewildered, discombobulated and stumbling around in maze-like networks of avenues and alleyways.

Without games like FF XIII or Turok, we’d probably have had a nervous breakdown by now. Without those invisible walls to guide our path, we’d almost certainly never find our way home at all.

Originally published over at Den of Geek

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Grown men gurgling over gerbils

The glorious chaos of Gerbil Physics

The glorious chaos of Gerbil Physics

It’s an awkward moment. We have friends around for dinner, and as we relax in our chairs with brandy and cigars, Sarah (my long-suffering better half) decides to show off her animals. “That’s my Lickatoad, who I’ve called Jeremy,” Sarah explained as she scrolled around her virtual garden in Viva Pinata. “And this is Hillary, my Chippopotamus. I’ve already got an achievement for romancing geese, and once I’ve romanced my salamanders I’ll be a level 52 gardener.”

To our friends, who are dyed-in-the-wool FPS fanatics, this is mystifying, horrifying stuff. They stare at the television with incredulous eyes. One of them looks as though he has a headache. Rare’s pastel-hued animal management game is not going down well at all.

“It’s good!” Sarah insists, to a wall of utter silence. Someone coughs. Far away, a church bell issues a muffled clang.

“Perhaps we should play something else?” I suggest, quietly removing the 360 controller from Sarah’s grasp. “A shooter?” one of our friends asks, suddenly perking up.

Gerbil Physics!” Sarah blurts, taking the controller back again. “It’s brilliant!”

Our friends settle further down into the sofa, their faces clouding with gloomy resignation. Things are looking bad. If they don’t like whimsical management games full of animals, I think, they’re not going to be thrilled at the sight of a puzzler full of rodents either.

But I’m forgetting the fact that Gerbil Physics is one of the most accessible, gleefully fun puzzle games ever made. The aim is simple: to use your limited supply of bombs to knock down a stack of blocks (which, by-the-by, are full of gerbils) so they fall below the lower quarter of the screen – kind of like Jenga in reverse.

Within seconds, the atmosphere of the room has changed from apathy to a strange kind of sugar-rush glee; we’re shouting advice at whoever happens to be playing, laughing as another gerbil is sent flying off the screen with a squeak, or jeering as a tower refuses to collapse. It may only possess a single player mode, but this is party gaming at its purest and most simple. Everybody has an opinion about where the next bomb should be placed or which block should be blown up first, and everybody wants to have the next go.

Gerbil Physics‘ destructive gameplay taps into a universal desire to blow down a house of cards or kick over a sand castle, and its cutesy presentation is brilliantly at odds with its explosive concept. Its gentle soundtrack is constantly punctuated by the crockery-rattling din of another explosion. The gerbils themselves are full of cheeky personality, screwing up their eyes when a bomb is placed next to them, or muttering “abject fail!” when a level goes awry.

Given that it’s the product of a tiny developer called Pencel Games, and that it costs a piffling 80p on XBox Live, it’s unsurprising that Gerbil Physics ends all-too-quickly – we finished the 24th and final level after around ninety minutes of shouting, swearing and cheering – but it’s a proof-of-concept for a potentially incredible commercial release in the future.

With Gerbil Physics completed, we began a Halo 3 deathmatch. Curiously, the mood began to drop again. Our friends, too used to their PS3, began to moan about the 360’s controller. They grumbled about the positioning of the analogue sticks, and tutted at their apparent unresponsiveness. After less than half an hour of running and shooting, these self-confessed FPS junkies wanted to go back to playing Gerbil Physics. And that, surely, is the sign of a truly great puzzle game.

Originally published over at Den of Geek

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