Hidden Objects Games--My New Obsession (Part One)

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I've got a new obsession, and for once it isn't some wildly unsuitable and clearly uninterested bloke. My gaming PC is currently in the computer equivalent of the intensive care ward in a hospital, and as it also acts as the monitor for my games consoles, I'm stuck with my work laptop sans 3D card for the foreseeable future.

So, what's a gaming nut to do? Since I needed something low-spec, I figured I'd go and check out some casual games. Part of the reason I haven't before is the name--"casual" somehow applies it's not something you can get into too deeply, will have low production values, be short, and way too easy to boot. Not something that a proper, hardcore gamer like myself would play. In reality, they're just games that are designed to be easy to get into, and can be picked up and put down around the rest of your life--I find myself just as absorbed by some casual games as I have been with titles in other game genres.

Since I love mystery novels, one of the first games I tried out was Mystery Case Files: Huntsville. And so began my new addiction--the genre of 'hidden object games,' sometimes known as 'scavenger hunt,' or 'hide and seek games.' The basic premise is, you are shown a picture (or photograph) of somewhere piled high from corner to corner with clutter, and given a list of items to find in the picture within a certain time limit.

If any of you have read any of the Where's Wally? series of books, you'll understand that this is something that sounds deceptively easy. The fact is, the human brain only consciously processes a certain amount of information from what the eye can see, otherwise we would be 'overloaded' with data from the outside world. It can only register what it thinks is important, and disregards the rest. This means that searching out those objects within a 'busy' image can be very, very tricky indeed. Once you've found an object after staring bleary-eyed at the monitor for what seems like forever, it seems obvious, but nonetheless seemed impossible to be hidden in the image at all at first.

So, here's the first three of my personal reviews. I'll write more when I get some time. The games are usually available for an hour's free trial, and after that the full version usually costs $19.99 (approx £10). They can be bought from Web sites like Big Fish or Gamehouse Games, although some titles are exclusive to one or the other.

Big City Adventures San Francisco
Developer: Jolly Bear Games

Big City Adventures: San Francisco

This is, as the title suggests, set in various environments in San Francisco including Alcatraz, The Mission, and North Beach. The environments are bright and colourful, with neat little animated touches, for instance cockroaches climbing the walls inside a cell in Alcatraz, and gently swaying lanterns outside a restaurant in China Town.

You choose an avatar to play as--Mum, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Brother or Sister, although this is a purely cosmetic choice, and doesn't change the gameplay at all. At the beginning of each level, you will receive a postcard from your avatar with some trivia titbits about the location you are due to visit.

The game has 60 levels, although I was disappointed after the level 20 to find that instead of 60 unique locations across San Francisco, there were just 20, and gamers would visit each area three times. Knowing there was no chance of discovering somewhere new, I somewhat lost interest in the game after level 20 or so.

You're never stuck as hidden gold coins in each environment give you the options for hints, extra time, and bonus points. They replenish automatically, so if you use up all your hint coins on one level, you'll find more hidden in the next one. If you just hold on to them, you'll find extra points coins instead.

My biggest problem with this game is the mini-games between each level, which are often frustrating and tedious--there are four, jigsaws, snap, and two matching games. Replayability is also an issue, as the game doesn't generate a random list, but rather is deliberately sloped to become harder as you progress through the levels--meaning that in your first look at places up to level 20, all the objects on your list will be very easy to find, but by your third visit are likely to be only partially visible behind other objects.

The frustrating mini games are all that stop Big City Adventures San Francisco from being one of the best Hidden Objects games out there.

My score: 7/10

Hidden Expedition: Titanic
Developer: Big Fish Games

Hidden Expedition: Titanic

In this game, you play the role of a freelance treasure hunter sent to recover items from the underwater wreck of the ill-fated ship the Titanic.

The locations you explore include the deck, bedrooms, and staircases as you move through the ship gathering items for your sponsors. Mini games inbetween the levels include piecing together eerie, old photographs related to the passengers on the ocean liner, finding special item sets, and finding 10 times one item in a single image.

The underwater images of the doomed ship are atmospheric and spooky, and trivia about the boat between the levels is by turns horrifying and fascinating (telling you facts, like for instance, what the people left behind on the boat did to while away the time as they were waiting for the vessel to completely sink and for themselves to drown). However, a disclaimer at the start of the game states, "Any resemblance to authentic historical or scientific fact is unintentional." So is this real history or not? Hmmm...

I frequently found myself running out of time in this game and having to restart levels, as the allotted time for each series of rooms frequently seemed to not be enough. The amount of time left is shown as an oxygen gauge, and when you run out of oxygen, you must abandon the current diving mission and resurface. There are a limited amount of oxygen tanks hidden in the wreckage, which, when clicked on, slightly increase your oxygen levels and the amount of time you have. Hints are always available, but as they decrease your oxygen levels drastically, are frequently not an option.

Well presented, atmospheric, but definitely one for those who like a challenge.

My score: 8/10

Paparazzi
Developer: Goggii Games

Paparazzi

A much more lighthearted game than the last one, Paparazzi puts you in the shoes of the man (or woman) everybody loves to hate--a paparazzi photographer. You are tasked by your editors to investigate a series of would-be scoops by gathering photographic evidence from a variety of locations to prove a story is legit. For example, when on a story about a star reputed to be pregnant, you have to photograph items visible through her gate, including baby cribs, dummies, and strollers.

In between the hidden objects levels are amusing mini-games which see you trying to grab pictures of the nutty celebrities you have been stalking. They will pop up in various places in the picture on screen--but only for a second or two--and you have to get your lens on them and snap a decent photo before they disappear again. You also get a bonus round for every story--a kind of a spot the difference, where you have to circle as many items that have been moved or changed in an attempt by the star to "cover up" whatever it is they're hiding.

Depending on how good your photos look, will determine on which page your story ends up, and your high score at the end of the level. I loved Paparazzi, my only complaint is that the game seemed to be over way too soon.

I really enjoyed the zany humour, and exposing the daft celebs that populated the games world. However, replayability is a bit of an issue, as there are few locations, and upon reloading the game, the items I needed to search for on the list appeared to be much the same as the first round--possibly because the items needed to be the same to make sense in the stories.

My score: 7/10

Leipzig airport

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Leipzig is not a big airport. Apart from a little cafe selling delicious snacks and treats like Bum Bums (see previous post), there's not an awful lot to do there.

Just before you go through to get your bags screened, there's this yellow BMW car display with these three weird wooden mannequins fondling it. Perhaps it was a little early in the morning, but I thought they were creepy as all hell...

mannequin

You've got to be kidding me!

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The Sony goat debacle continues to amuse me more than it really should. And I don't seem to be the only one... here's my top ten favourite headlines for the story...

10. Freddie Starr got my goat -- MCV
Really it's a shame that Rock Star games weren't involved somehow, then it could have been 'Rock Star Ate My Goat.'
9. If You Don't Buy This Console, We'll Kill This Goat -- Dealbreaker.com
8. Sick Sony Goat Stunt Backfires -- Smarthouse
Nice use of alliteration.
7. Sony's Silence of the Goats -- 3yen
6. Sony Slammed Over Goat Slaughter -- PC Advisor
Again, nice alliteration there.
5. Meat soup: Goatgate: Sony's side of the story -- Kotaku
Goatgate? Brilliant.
4. Goats Boycott Sony in Slaying Protest -- UnNews
It's good to see that the goats are united on this.
3. All Your Goats Are Belong To Us -- Gizmodo
2. The Mail lost its head, blasts Sony - MCV
Can you see what they've done there?
1. The Offal Truth Behind Sony's Goat Stunt -- The Sydney Morning Herald
Best. Headline. Ever. I'm so jealous I didn't think of this myself. 

Please feel free to add your own/any that I've missed. For, you know, posterity.

Annual joke

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Today is the 4th May.

So, May the fourth be with you.

I know, I know. But I HAD to.

Lego games that never made it

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I interviewed Jonathan Smith, the production head at TT Games this week after he did a presentation to a full house of hopeful young game designers at London's Science Museum. During the interview we laughed about Lego games that wouldn't be "commercially viable." Has anyone got any suggestions for games combining the Lego and some other license that would just not be, um, appropriate (but very funny)?

Wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!

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This morning we had a special delivery marked 'from Nintendo'. Could it be?? Yes, it was! We finally get our hands on a Wii!

Firstly, stop the presses. There were two men, Reading An Instruction Manual. Really. There is photographic evidence.

Almost as momentous as that, the arrival of the Wii itself quickly drew a huge crowd as people saw us all waving our arms about like "very bad dancers" and wondered what we were doing. This probably breaks the nanny-like instructions given by Nintendo at the beginning of the game to "make sure there are no people or objects nearby". No injuries have yet been reported, although it is only mid afternoon.

Here's Geoff, taking out his aggression in the boxing section of Wii Sports--the boxing game quickly proved a favourite in the office, with one person asking "can you scan in people's faces that you don't like?"

And here's the console, fresh out of the box, with a PS2 behind it for comparison. It really is quite tiny. I'd like to point out that the desk is NOT mine, it's Guy's.

So far my favourites are the boxing and tennis parts of Wii Sports, though I daren't open the copy of Zelda: Twilight Princess during working hours.

So, that's why there's no news today! Just kidding.

Video Games Live

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This Saturday I went to check out the Video Games Live concert at the Hammersmith Apollo--allegedly the first video game music concert in the UK. It was pretty awesome, they played music from games like Headhunter, Final Fantasy VII, Beyond Good and Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Sonic, and tons of other stuff. They also played videos of a montage of the cut scenes and gameplay of the games on a big screen, so it was kind of like watching a music video. They had a full orchestra and choir there, as well as a light show, and I think there were tons of competitions going on before I got there, as lots of people were playing with suspiciously shiny new white Nintendo DS Lites.

I think it's an interesting idea, but what I'd really like to see is a concert of songs like Faye Wong's 'Eyes on Me' from Final Fantasy VIII, 'A Love Suicide' from Rule of Rose (that song is so creepy!), Passion from Kingdom Hearts II, and maybe even some songs that weren't specifically made for the games, but are great to play videos of car chases and explosions and the like to all the same. I guess it would be a huge expense to fly all those different artists out on tour, though.

Video game soundtracks, like film soundtracks, used to be unbelievably crap so it's great to see how they've really improved. The Apollo was packed out--definitely a sell-out--so hopefully there'll be more similar events in the future.

They also had some guests come up on stage, including Michel Ancel, the creator/designer of Beyond Good and Evil, who wouldn't commit to a sequel to the game, but all the same made the possibility sound quite positive... "Me and Christophe (Christophe Heral, composer of BG&E) are working together to see if this could be possible...so maybe."

I tried to take pictures but none of them came out. They have way better pictures than I could have taken on their Web site, though.

Etiquette guide for camping out in console launch day queues

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Yesterday I was slightly amused and a little disturbed to discover that people are already standing in line in the US (in California, natch) for the PS3, which isn't out for over a week.

Following on from that, I happened upon an online 'camping out' guide for console queues, written by a hardcore gaming enthusiast called Devron.

Devron, who says that he has been a gamer for over 20 years, admits that he himself has always reserved new consoles well in advance, but says he has drawn on the knowledge of many other gaming friends to write a list of tips. These include "get to know the store manager," "be social," and "bring a survival kit."

These events can be fun with the right attitude and planning, believes the blogger. "Some folks just can't stand to be away from the action. After all, launch days are kinda like the Olympics--they only come around once every four years," he writes.

Depending on how hardcore gamers are in your neighbourhood, it could be sensible to set up camp around 24 hours before the expected launch hour, according to Devron. "The [US] PlayStation launch is on a Friday this year (November 17). If I were crazy enough to camp-out, I’d probably think about taking a few days off and starting to camp out no later than early Thursday morning (…or possibly as early as Wednesday….or maybe even earlier...)" he ponders.

The list also provides some "'worst case scenario survival guide" style advice--for instance, what to do if you are threatened or harassed in line? (Talk to the security guards at the store entrance.) Or, how to disguise your new system on the way home to prevent it being stolen? (Bring a covering, a big bag or some other means of disguise.) The article also gives etiquette tips, including the correct behaviour while queuing and proper rotation details for sleeping shifts.

I've personally never been part of a console launch line-up, I usually prefer to wait a few months until there's a wider choice of games to buy before I spend my hard earned cash. What does everyone else think? Would you guys queue/stand in line? 

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