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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