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gbrading Blog

Me and Julio Down by the School Yard

Well, hello. If you're reading this, congratulations. You have managed to navigate the confusingly designed profile system of GameSpot.com to find my blog and have found a method to read individual posts. I commend you for your persistence and ingenuity. It is no mean feat.

This is just a brief note to summarize in essence what has happened since my last blog way back in 2013, whenever it was. As you probably noticed, there was no "2013 in Review" blog which I customarily post... used to post for the last half dozen years. However, that doesn't mean that I didn't write anything! I did, but simply didn't post it here. If you are interested in my favourite games of 2013, I recommend you check out Entertainium.org by clicking over yonder. I would advise you to keep clicking onto that website in the future if you enjoy reading my words and the words of my colleagues c_rake, edubuccaneer and Allicrombie, all awesome in their own right.

It may also not have failed to escape your notice, blog reader, that I am no longer a Moderator of this website, after having been one since 2008. The reason for this is that I resigned from said position for a variety of factors; in part due to lack of time on my behalf and in part due to my disagreement with certain staff over the trajectory of the website, the rules used to enforce it and the atmosphere of mistrust that continues to be sown. It is a sad tale of woe I have no desire to recount again, and thus I have basically resolved to keep out of it. Que sera, sera.

This also means, by necessary extension, that I shall be mostly going dark on GameSpot and returning to my pre-2007 lurking ways. If you want to keep up with me and keep in touch, please feel free to follow me on Twitter or friend me on Steam. I shall also keep commenting on most videos over on Giant Bomb.com as I find their video content highly enjoyable.

I beg to remain your humble servant,

gbrading.

Rhythm of Life

The gaps in my blogging are becoming greater for which I must apologize. Work has been so inordinately busy as of late I sometimes come home and just fall onto my bed in a daze. This Friday I must have spent the last hour of the day just gaping at my work computer in disbelief as dozens of new requests flooded in, many of which were marked Urgent (I wish Outlook wouldn't let people do that). Luckily we are getting a few new people to assist but I still anticipate a couple of very busy months ahead. Still, that doesn't stop the video games does it Comrades? By the way, do you have adequate paperwork to be here? I think I'll need to check your passports as I have been playing quite a lot of the magnificent bureaucracy simulator Papers, Please. If you haven't heard of Papers, Please then you have most certainly been missing out on one of the most fascinating games of the year. It's difficult to explain exactly what Papers, Please is, but essentially it's a busywork simulator. You're in immigration inspector manning a border checkpoint in the fictional eastern European country of Arztotska. The country seems less than a pleasant place to live, but nonetheless there is an endless queue of people attempting to get over the border. It's your job to check their paperwork, make sure that it's valid and that they have the correct documents to enter. For my full impressions, you can watch my Vertical Slice on YouTube (apologies for the buzzing sound, I've now invested in a new microphone). You can also read a full review I wrote for Entertainium.org.

Papers, Please

On other games I have once again returned the crumbling neo-Victorian city of Dunwall for the Dishonored DLC. I played both The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches in quick succession and I can confidently say they're the best DLC Ive played for a game since Grand Theft Auto IV. When viewed together, they almost form a full game of their own. Daud is a much more interesting character than Corvo Attano ever was for the main reason that he can actually talk, voiced by a gravelly Michael Madsen (always remember him from his incredibly sinister role as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs). The locations you visit are fascinating and only occasionally repeats from the main game (as in the final level of The Knife of Dunwall and the first of The Brigmore Witches). I have said it before, but Dishonored is really a game that rewards stealth, and makes it very satisfying to play a full stealth playthrough, despite the fact that it robbed me of my no kills/never spotted achievements due to a weird glitch of some kind. I hope we won't have to wait too long to see Dishonored get a sequel. I'd like it to take place outside of Dunwall in some other part of the Empire, and I'd like to get a main character who talks. It would also be nice if the conversations were fleshed out a bit, to give dialogue trees like Deus Ex. The gameplay is excellent and the setting is superb, it's really only the general plotline and dialogue that occasionally lets the side down.

The Brigmore Manor

Back on this website, as many of you will know there are plans afoot for a GameSpot redesign in the near future. Ever since "the Widening" as I like to refer to it, GameSpot's structure has been a bit of a halfway house, given the Unions still use the old design. I feel as many of you do it is a shame that the Unions are being forsaken as a result of these changes, but I can understand why the decision was taken given that the overall popularity of the Unions has waned, primarily as a result of their marginalization within the site structure. Still, I hope active Unions will take advantage of the ability to transition to having their own board on the new site. Alas the ability to have specific Union board moderators seems also to have fallen by the wayside, which I anticipate may alarm some individuals. Nonetheless you have my word that for as long as I continue to moderate this website I will act to the very best of my ability to ensure that GameSpot is a great place to visit, and a great place to digitally socialize. There have been many changes in GameSpot's history but we, as a community, have always endured. I firmly believe the community will continue to do so. :)

Memory Motel

Well, before Monday I was going to do a blog all about how I'd seen The Rolling Stones over the weekend and about how Andy Murray had won Wimbledon and about how I'd gone to Rezzed at the NEC in Birmingham last month and about all the games I'd been playing. And then this happened.

Now, we are all citizens of the Internet, and like many of you I never had the chance to meet Ryan Davis in real life. Living precisely 5300 miles from San Francisco and only having been to SF once in my life, I accept the chances of meeting were slim unless I somehow got to go to E3 or PAX or something. But having started absorbing content from Ryan since approximately 2004 (before I even joined GameSpot for real), following his tribulations in the wake of Gerstmanngate through to establishing Giant Bomb and up to the present day, I have to admit that I have spent a good deal of my time on the Internet for the past decade either watching and listening to Ryan in some fashion or another. Add all those podcasts, quick looks and livestreams together and you end up with a gigantic amount of content, and a gigantic about of happiness. And when you watch and listen to a person long enough, you feel you know something about them and you feel connected. We all knew we felt what kind of person Ryan was, despite never meeting in the flesh. That is both the power of the Internet and the power of the personality Ryan was able to portray across it: One that was friendly, fiercely-opinionated and staggeringly hilarious. Ryan Davis made me laugh more times than I can count; less of a man, more of a force of nature with near limitless enthusiasm (especially for Wake-up Club).

I cannot hope to fathom what his family, friends, and colleagues are experiencing right now and all I can say is I am so sorry. All this just makes me remember how delicate and how important life is. We've got to hold on to everyone we've got while we're all still here and were all still kicking. Even if they're hundreds of miles away or you've never met face-to-face, you still count and you're still important. Happiness is only genuine when shared. Thanks again Ryan.

E3 Doesn't Stand a Chance

It's June, it's E3 2013! Possibly the most important E3 of the last few years. Now that the PS4 and the XONE have been announced, we are awaiting more news on the details of these consoles and the bevvy of initial games we can expect on the systems. Naturally, a lot of these are expected to straddle the current generation and next-generation consoles, but word has it that there are an awful lot of new titles waiting to be unleashed. It's guaranteed to be an exciting week for video games. All of the DRM discussion regarding the XONE has been very unfortunate, especially considering the rise of always-on DRM on PC games. However, PC gamers like me have been living in a non-used game world for almost the last decade, so the entire problem blowing up now as a result of these new consoles is rather crazy. Still, it was bound to blow up eventually. Anyway, be sure to check out everything GameSpot is planning over the show including the usual stage show, interviews and the like, alongside our sister site Giant Bomb who will no-doubt be doing blow-out podcasts every evening and other nonsense. Also shout out to m'colleagues c_rake and edubuccaneer who are live in Los Angeles covering E3 for Entertainium.org (to which I've contributed a review or two including Fez and Poker Night 2), so be sure to check out all their content to. :)

Shipwreck Beach

In other news a lot of things have been happening which I haven't been telling you about because I've been neglecting this blog again. First off I've started infrequently streaming games on Twitch.tv. Already I've streamed some Curse of Monkey Island, FTL, Start Trek Online (in 3 broken parts) and Half-Life 2. Hope to continue to stream whenever I find the time convenient and I have a game that doesn't crash everything. For example I was experimenting with trying to stream XCOM and immediately my computer when to BSoD so I'm not trying that again in a hurry. Tune in some time soon (will announce on Twitter) when I hope to play through all of Portal (original) whilst discussing E3 developments we may learn this evening. Also feel free to suggest any PC games you'd like to see highlighted. Apologies for the background hissing on all the videos but this is just my bad quality mic and until I invest in a better one it isnt going away. In other news I've naturally been playing an innumerable host of video games, the major one being Tomb Raider (2013). I was pleasantly surprised by how downright great Tomb Raider was. Truth be told it isn't a Tomb Raider game anymore really, since the gameplay more closely approximates Uncharted rather than what you got in the old-style Tomb Raiders. Nonetheless, the rebooted Tomb Raider is an all-round great game to play, being a proficient third-person shooter with an interesting plot and great gameplay. Its internal progression of gradually giving Lara more and more equipment reminded me heavily of Arkham Asylum, as is its linear, hub-and-spoke approach to level design. Lara is a great character and although she very suddenly transitions from naïve archaeologist to bloodthirsty sole survivor, I had no problem with accepting it given all the downright horrible things that happen to her throughout the game.

I have more to say, but I haven't time since Microsoft Conference is about to begin! Hold onto your hats. :cool:

Hail, Columbia

Always feels like its been a while since my last blog. That's usually because it has been. So, a gaming round-up then I suppose? Well, where else can we start but with BioShock Infinite. In plain terms, if you liked BioShock, you will like BioShock Infinite. It's an outstanding achievement in game narrative and finally breaks the curse and delivers an ending which is genuinely intriguing and unexpected. It doesn't have the same denouement twist in the second act, but that's because Infinite doesn't really follow a 3 act structure, which in itself is an achievement. The game is not without fault: The last third of the game is the least interesting with some rather bland environments and no down time to simply explore the world of Columbia, and there are various logical and character moments which will require you to suspend disbelief more than absolutely necessary, but overall Infinite is a triumph. I'd also call it the BioShock game with the best gameplay, which at first glance reminded me a lot of RAGE because there's a speed and fluidity to your movements and a hectic pace to the combat. The decision to limit you to 2 active guns and 2 active Vigours at a time is interesting, and whilst I think the Vigour switching works really well I did kind of slip into a rut with using the same guns I had got used to throughout most of the game. The most incredible bit of Infinite has to be its mesmerising first hour where you arrive in the floating city of Columbia and simply explore for a little while, soaking in the atmosphere and marvelling at how gorgeous everything looks. The song Will The Circle Be Unbroken will be going round in your head long after you've stopped playing. It's also good to know that the character of Elizabeth, who accompanies you throughout the game, never feels like a burden. She's an interesting and developed personality who is useful in combat by often throwing ammunition and other items in your direction. These interactions are quite "gamey" as is her chucking coins at your head every five minutes, but I must admit I really liked her scrounging for money and picking up everything that wasn't bolted down, because it was exactly what I was doing. Also, I enjoyed Booker DeWitt talking. Didn't think I'd like it before, but when I actually started playing it really helped to give Booker a proper backstory and personality.

Battleship Bay

In other games, XCOM. My god, XCOM! Prior to playing Enemy Unknown, I'd never particularly seen the appeal of turn-based strategies. I'd lived with it in Total War because if Total War wasn't turn based it would be incredibly complicated and difficult to understand (yes, I'm looking at you Crusader Kings II). The tension and drama that arises as a result of the turn-based aspect of XCOM is incredibly thrilling and difficult to replicate. More than many other games I've played, it truly feels strategic, that I am making decisions which will either make or break my team of soldiers. Occasionally XCOM does feel unfair; for example I dislike the free movement turn the aliens get after you discover them, plus some enemies seem to have uncannily accurate shots. However, the stakes always feel very high, especially when panic is rampaging out of control. For example in my game, panic in Russia is at its highest level and I'm scared that Russia might abandon the XCOM Project. I can launch a satellite over them, but the satellite takes 20 days to build which might not be enough time. There is always a shortage of resources and a scarcity of funds which makes every decision feel critical. I kind of wish you could sell off unneeded equipment on the Grey Market as you can do with alien parts, because some of the older armour I never use anymore. The story is pretty thin but really the joy of the game is inventing the stories of the soldiers in your team. I like my international band of soldiers and feel devastated every time we lose someone.

Anyway, thats video games. Work continues to be busy, the weather continues to be dreadful, and I continue to continue.

Accept the Payne

Max Payne 3 is a contradictory game which doesnt immediately ingratiate itself with the player. It's about an alcoholic ex-cop who moves to Sao Paulo and proceeds to massacre half the criminal underworld because of his deluded sense of justice. Yet playing Max Payne 3 is actually pretty satisfying, once you get used to how incredibly fragile Max has become in his old age. He can't take more than one or three shots before keeling over, so staying in cover is actually pretty important. On the one hand, a large part of me is disappointed that Rockstar Games turned my beloved Max Payne into a game which plays just like every other proficient 3rd-person shooter out there, but on the other the bullet time still looks and feels really cool, and even with the weight of 2 previous games heavy on his shoulders Max is still able to look svelte and agile. On the PC the game is downright gorgeous but I'm still flummoxed why it needed a blistering 30GB of hard disk space, because none of the textures look that good or that high rez. I can only assume it was due to poor optimization, but from a gameplay perspective there is no stuttering or lagging. Rather just some pretty obtrusive screen-tearing in several spots. The kind that when you notice it makes you go Argh! Still, I enjoyed Max Payne 3 while it lasted. Don't really want to play it again, and don't really want to play the multiplayer either, so there you are.

Nice beard

In other news my daily job has become such a frenzy since December I often find myself mentally exhausted by the end of the day, and thus my tolerance for frustrating or sub-standard games is wearing thin. My example of this is Test Drive Unlimited 2, which I picked up for a song in a recent Steam sale. Test Drive suffers from what I have dubbed the FUEL Dilemma: Its got a massive, sprawling endless world and very little interesting content with which to populate it. I still fail to see why the game should be semi-multiplayer all the time, since you hardly interact with other players unless you specifically seek them out. The game has 2 islands, Ibiza and Hawaii, which are gigantic and have a variety of roads which try to mimic real-life, but since the AI traffic is so light and the islands are devoid of pedestrians, everywhere feels like a ghost town. All of the social interactive nonsense just feels like window dressing, but the main reason I disliked my time with Test Drive was simply how badly the cars handled. I never felt like I got to grips with a vehicle, and often I'd find myself spinning out on a corner, stopping, and then not being able to get going again in a straight line. The punishing level of difficulty in the Driving Schools is counter-balanced by the laughable AI in the races. Like FUEL, Test Drive has a lot of potential but its missing an awful lot of basic functionality.

The fate of Earth rests on XCOM's shoulders

Quick roundup of other things Ive been playing, including Skyrim (downloaded Dawnguard, pretty good), L.A. Noire (went back because damn, I love L.A. Noire) and yesterday started up some XCOM: Enemy Unknown. When youre winning XCOM feels awesome but when youre losing good soldiers left, right and centre XCOM feels like its kicking you in the teeth and spitting on your grave. Oh yes, and it was my birthday last week. 24 feels damn similar to 23.

Oh and final, final thing: SYSTEM SHOCK 2 IS OUT ON gog.com. So you know, buy it.

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream, Or: 2012 in Review

Disclaimer: My yearly awards include all games I actually played this year and not necessarily just games which were released this year.

Best Gameplay
gbrading's Game of the Year

Dishonored
: If you had asked me in January what Dishonored was, I wouldn't have known. Before E3 this year, I'd never heard of the game before. Then E3 came along and it had an impressive showing. Finally, I read Giant Bomb's review which drew similarities to Deus Ex, and I knew that I had to experience it for myself. Dishonored is beautiful, daring and primarily an absolute blast to play. Its the first game where I feel that playing as a stealthy character is actually easier than playing as a gung-ho, all guns blazing one. The game rewards patience and stealth by allowing you to perform silent non-lethal takedowns on guards, or possess a fish and infiltrate the castle through a drain grating. The Blink power is also the most robust, allowing you to teleport short range up buildings or behind enemies. Add into this mix the fascinating setting of the decaying Neo-Victorian city of Dunwall, Dishonored is a marvellous game to both see and play.

Most Disappointing Game
Biggest Mixed Reaction
Mass Effect 3: We all knew going into Mass Effect 3 that it probably wasn't going to live up to the inevitably huge expectations which the previous games in the series had built up. What we didn't expect was that the ending of this spectacular series would be so thoroughly rushed, leaving gaping plot holes and a deus ex machina resolution which pleased nobody, because its appearance was never foreshadowed. This is not to say that Mass Effect 3 was a bad game: Indeed it actually plays very well and 90% of it is what you would hope to get from Shepard's third adventure. In fact, ME3 probably contains my favourite moment in the series, which the culmination of Shepard and Garrus Vakarian's friendship. But in the end, the way the finale lets the side down is difficult to look past, and so ME3 has to be this years biggest disappointment. Our trust in the series was heavily squandered.

The Dark Knight on a dark night

Best Puzzle Game
Best Soundtrack

Splice
: Splice is the epitome of style. Not a pixel is out of place in this downright gorgeous game, with an elegant piano soundtrack and some brilliantly interesting puzzles. Splice takes its name from gene splicing, and the whole game appears as though youre looking through a microscope at individual strands of DNA, or are operating some super-advanced computer conducting genome research. The puzzles involve moving and altering splices so that they fit the corresponding shape. Its a simple goal which is more difficult than it first appears, but because it has been designed so intuitively it is easy to rollback any action and start again if necessary. In a year of great game soundtracks it was difficult to pick one, but Splice wins it for its haunting use of piano. Sword & Sworcery is a close second.

Game I Wish I Could Stop Playing
Biggest Grind
Most Addictive Game
Star Trek Online: I really wish that the parts of Star Trek Online I like were worse, because then I could turn the game off. Sadly, Star Trek Online still has enough hooks in me that I continually go back to it, hoping that it will improve. Although the move to free-to-play earlier this year has made Star Trek Online a lot easier to get in to initially, the end game content is still very grindy. More grind inducing protocols have been introduced recently in the form of reputation systems with the Romulans, and the whole planet of New Romulus is just one big fetch quest. Its all basic operant conditioning, Skinner box stuff. What I like about the game and makes me keep playing is that the core space combat has always been pretty good, but almost everything that surrounds it just feels like window dressing. It might be called Star Trek Online, but the most Star Trek-esque content you can find is in the Foundry missions which are player-created.

Best Writing
Best Narration

Thomas Was Alone
: The amount of personality that seeps from every second of Thomas Was Alone is quite remarkable. For a game where every character is represented by plainly coloured rectangles, it has a deeply emotional story where every character has a unique personality, which merges into their special power. Thomas can jump, but cant jump as high as John. Claire is a square and can float in water. Chris... can't do much. Naturally, Chris is persistently grumpy because of this. These characters are ably brought to life through the charmingly whimsical narration of comedian Danny Wallace, who imbues these pixel rectangles with a sense of community spirit and friendship. Thomas Was Alone is a Romance of Many Quadrilaterals. Oh, and the puzzle-platforming is pretty good too.

Super Video Brick mode

Most Experimental Game
Dear Esther
: Dear Esther can also be added as a runner-up to the Best Atmosphere category. It has no "gameplay" per se, in that all you do is walk through a series of 4 interconnected levels. While you walk, a narrator speaks of a terrible car crash, the history of the island and the early explorers who visited. The sense of place on this desolate Scottish island is palpable and no other game have I ever just stood still and stared at the scenery. Dear Esther is a beautiful game and is unlike anything else. Not everyone is going to enjoy this kind of experience, but for those who want something a little more abstract, its fascinating.

Most Pop Culture References
Best Retro-inspired Art Style

Retro City Rampage
: Retro City Rampage is the gaming equivalent of the film Airplane! It's got so many jokes, pop culture reference and homages to other games crammed in its very difficult to keep up with the flow or even notice them when they arrive. Nonetheless, the dedication to source material is admirable and from a gameplay point of view it is a perfect emulation of the original Grand Theft Auto. Retro City Rampage however has ten times the personality of GTA 1, and any game which you can play with a filter that makes everything look like its running on MS-DOS or the GameBoy is alright in my book.

Best Story
Best Characters
Best Adventure Game

The Walking Dead
: The Walking Dead does things which no other game has ever done. More than that, it makes the player do things. Nasty, downright horrible things at times. It never cuts away, it never lets up, and it never pulls its punches. It tugs your heartstrings in all the right places. The Walking Dead is certainly the best game Telltale has ever done, and really exemplifies the very best episodic gaming can achieve. Add this to the fact that the characters and storyline are the best and most hard-hitting youll ever find and The Walking Dead is something very special. Lead character Lee Everett also wins my (Un)unofficial Character of the Year award.

Best DLC
Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City
: Although I bought Episodes from Liberty City as a standalone game, I'm still treating it as DLC for Grand Theft Auto IV since thats what it was originally. The Episodes are certainly the longest and most in-depth DLC for any game, creating 2 new storylines which run concurrently to the main plot of GTA IV. Indeed, Niko even shows up at select points in both episodes. The better of the two is certainly The Ballad of Gay Tony, partly for the fact that Luis Lopez is a more interesting person than Johnny Klebitz, but also because the gameplay is better-rounded.

Splices Matter

Most Emotional Game
Most Surprising Game

To The Moon
: My expectations were totally subverted by To The Moon. When I saw it, I expected it to be a turn-based JRPG: The Japanese art style immediately putting me in a certain mindset. Indeed, the game even makes fun of this preconception at one point. To The Moon isnt an RPG at all but is much more of an interactive story, with light puzzle elements thrown in. The plot itself is quite simple but it is your investment in the characters, their shared lifetimes and their love for each other which really drives the game. To The Moon is the first game Ive ever played that made me cry. I can offer it no higher praise.

Most Adorable Game
Botanicula
: The previous game Amanita Design completed, Machinarium, was a masterclass in how to make a modern Point-and-Click. Botanicula is less Point-and-Click and more interactive storybook, but don't let this fool you into thinking this game is just for kids. True, I would think that children would find all the weird bugs and insects which scramble, leap and lurch around Botanicula's levels endearing, but what the game does best is instilling a sense of teamwork into every action. Your ragtag band of insects is on a mission to save the tree from the evil, life-sucking spider-things, and the journey is one of psychedelic sights and sounds not to be missed.

Best Modification
Black Mesa
: Black Mesa was released. Black Mesa lived up to expectations. Black Mesa is awesome. For a long time I had joined the crowd who believed that Black Mesa would never be completed, consigning it to the dustbin of history. Im pleased to say I was evidently mistaken. Black Mesa is still the original Half-Life, but it has a huge amount of new secrets, dialogue and features to enjoy. As of writing the game still isnt really finished since the levels in the alien world Xen havent been completed, but since this was the weakest part of the game anyway, I think its fine to wait just a little bit longer before we see the final result.

Best Point-and-Click
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
: Sword & Sworcery really is an Extended Play, and is neatly broken up into individual play sessions where the game encourages you to take a break. Indeed, if you play the game without cheating it will take you a whole lunar month to finish. Ably assisted by a glorious soundtrack, Sword & Sworcery has you playing The Scythian, who must complete a woeful errand. The writing is rather bizarre, featuring a mixture of sombre fantasy and modern Twitter lingo, which is either going to irritate you or make you laugh. With a lovely pixelated art style and some interesting gameplay, Sword & Sworcery is genuinely an old-school point-and-click masquerading as something brand new.

Subway Town

Best Licensed Game
Best Action-Adventure Game

Batman: Arkham City
: Arkham Asylum is still an all-round better game than Arkham City, but City has a much better sense of scale. The freeflow fighting system has also been very finely tuned to make using Batmans plethora of gadgets and gizmos even easier, so that even in very challenging situations you always feel like you have another trick up your sleeve. The plot of Arkham City features a rogues gallery of most every Batman villain from the series, whilst the side missions fill in even more of the backstory. Playing as Catwoman is interesting and fun for a while, but it isn't the main draw. Once again, the highlight are those situations where youre trapped in a room full of armed enemies, and get to silently take the down one by one.

Worst Texture Pop-in
Best Shooter

RAGE
: RAGE is also a pretty big mixed reaction. It features a lot of really engaging and hard-hitting shooting, with some superior animation where characters move and express themselves in a very involving way. Because the shooting is satisfying and graphically the game is gorgeous, it is pretty easy to overlook the more challenging aspects of the game, such as the dull buggy racing and the lack of a tangible storyline or characters. RAGE's worst crime though is its coma-inducing texture pop-in, which bleeds into and out of focus every time you twist around. Its much improved on when the game originally launched, but its still downright terrible.

Best Independently Developed Game
Thirty Flights of Loving
: Thirty Flights of Loving lasts at most, 10 minutes. After youve played it, there is little need to experience it again. And yet, Thirty Flights tells a better story in 10 minutes than many games tell in 10 hours. The game isn't the prettiest and nor is it the most fun, but as a self-contained little bit of narrative theres really nothing else like it. Id like to see more ultra-short games in future, but I think pricing needs to be sub-99p in the same way Apps are.

Funniest Game
Saints Row: The Third
: Saints Row 2 was a bit of a mixed bag: It had reasonably fun gameplay but a very poor storyline and an apocalyptically bad PC version (it won my Worst PC Port award in 2009). Saints Row: The Third suffers none of these problems and is the most accessible and downright fun Saints Row game to date. Whats more, with the third game Saints Row has finally thrown off the oppressive GTA clone moniker and becomes a series in its own right. Some parts of Saints Row: The Third is so downright ludicrous and hilarious you'll stare in disbelief. Although the characters are still very 2D, everything has been thrown into overdrive to such a degree that somehow they all, even The Boss, come across as likeable.

Best Atmosphere
Most Unexpected PC Release

Alan Wake
: For a game which was so long in coming to the PC, I was incredibly surprised when Remedy announced a PC version was finally arriving, financed off their own backs without any assistance from Microsoft (who had initially touted it as a 360/PC release and then quietly dropped the PC version so it could be advertised as an Xbox exclusive). There is a lot to like in Alan Wake, but there is also a fair bit to dislike, mainly about the repetitive gameplay and how weak Alan is at taking any damage. The non-resolution of the storyline was also rather disappointing for me. Nonetheless Alan Wake creates a palpable atmosphere akin to a Stephen King horror story, with believable characters and a great setting in the form of Bright Falls, which is almost an alter-ego of Twin Peaks.

Most Forgettable Game
Q.U.B.E.
: Q.U.B.E. has a lot of great ideas, and certainly looks pretty cool whilst youre playing it. All the levels have a very Portal-esque appearance to them, and the puzzle solving mainly involves getting and changing the colours of various balls into their respective receptacles. The problem is there is absolutely no plot and no characters in the game whatsoever. It's like trying to play Portal without GLaDOS or Cave Johnson hurling insults at you: Most of the fun is drained out of it. Q.U.B.E. is a perfect example of why you should always conceive some justification for your gameplay, otherwise it feels unwarranted.

Keep Feeling...

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? The light of being alive. I have just had the honour and privilege to play To The Moon, a Canadian/Japanese-esque adventure RPG. When I first saw To The Moon in screenshots, I was immediately put off. I personally dont have much nostalgia for Japanese RPGs from the 1990s ala Chrono Trigger, so when I saw that To The Moon was emulating the style of those games I braced myself for turn-based combat and all the associated grinding that comes with it. To The Moon subverts these expectations rather cleverly, and it must be admitted the game has zero combat and indeed relatively little in the way of typical gameplay. To The Moon is a story-driven game which is almost entirely reliant on your involvement with the characters. Considering this game has zero voice acting, it is a master class in writing and presentation alone. I would call the story both a love story and a life story, where some questions are left purposefully unanswered or vague until much later on, whilst others are never answered altogether. The plot is kind of a reimagining of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where a dying elderly man (Johnny Wyles) is offered the chance by a pair of doctors from the Sigmund Corporation to fulfil his lifelong wish of going to the Moon. In order to do so, the doctors enter Johnnys mind and revisit memories throughout his life, to implant in his psyche the conscious will to go to the Moon, and thus within his mind, have lived a life where he accomplished this goal. However, the exploration of why Johnny wants to go to the Moon is intricately linked to his relationship with his deceased wife, River, along with other recurring themes such as lighthouses and origami rabbits. All this may sound rather pretentious, but I can assure you it is anything but. At the end of To The Moon, I literally burst into tears. The last time a piece of entertainment made me do that was the introduction to the Disney/Pixar film Up. Its the very first time its happened with a video game.

No Gods or Empresses

Anyway, away from the Moon, Ive also been playing a lot of other things, Dishonored primarily among them. Goodness, Dishonored is excellent. Its definitely a game which came out of left-field, and there was literally no buzz about it before E3 this year. Even at E3 after seeing the trailers, I wasnt sure what to expect. Was this going to be a first-person Assassins Creed? In the end, Dishonored is more of a Deus Ex style game merged with the atmosphere of BioShock. The industrial Victoriana city of Dunwall is a believable and interesting location, certainly the most fully-fleshed out place Ive visited in a game since Rapture. Although the plot itself is just so-so and comes to a rather anti-climactic finish, the gameplay is really what holds the experience together. As Corvo Attano, disgraced former bodyguard to the Empress framed for her murder, you can either sneak your way across the city or go in all guns blazing. Both ways are perfectly valid, but actually I found it easier to sneak through silently taking guys out. Id like to try doing an all-out assault playthrough, but Ive now got sneaking around down to a tee and its really fun to freeze time, take out a couple of guards and then have the remaining few wonder what happen to their compatriots. Anyway, outside of video games I must admit I havent been active on GameSpot in recent weeks. Work has been exceedingly busy and currently shows no signs of slowing down, so most evenings I come back, play a bit of Dishonored or watch an episode of Homeland (which is great by the way, watch it), then fall asleep. I hope it will quieten down a bit soon, because most of the time I feel exhausted and I dont think thats particularly healthy. On a final note, go read my review of Black Mesa over at Entertainium, a website run by our very own edubuccaneer and DouglasBuffone. Then you should immediately go play Black Mesa, because its awesome. :)

Fin.

The Golden Age of Steam

Feels like a long while since I've blogged, and indeed it is: Almost 2 months. In that time we've had a Steam sale and now the Olympic Games. I don't follow sport at all, but I have really loved the Olympic Games this year, partly/mainly because of the resounding success of my namesake Team GB. We've had the best Games since 1908. For a country of 60 million people, to be 3rd in the medal table with only China (1 billion people) and the United States (500 million people) above us is quite an achievement for a small island nation. As a result of this I have been watching more television than normal, and been playing less video games. Couple that with work being extremely busy (it won't mean anything to you, but it's Impact Factor season in the Academic Journals world and this is when everyone in Journals goes crazy, even those who don't write Schizophrenia Bulletin). Therefore my time for video game-playing and being on GameSpot as of late has been rather limited, much to my chagrin. Still, I have been playing some things when I have been afforded the time. First was Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City. I had 100% completed GTA IV back in 2010 I think it was, and bought the EFLC in a Steam Sale, probably last Christmas. It was nice to dive back into Liberty City, and instantly know where everything was. Episodes from Liberty City is the two DLC packs from GTA IV rolled into one, with some additional unique radio stations thrown in for good measure. So far I've finished The Lost and Damned and played approximately 2/3rds of The Ballad of Gay Tony. The Lost and Damned was good, but I never understood the motivation for Johnny. Nonetheless, interesting characters and the gameplay is just as strong as ever. The Ballad of Gay Tony I think it even stronger, with a better cast and quite a few more interesting side missions to do, such as base-jumping, drug racketeering and club management. Once again though, I fail to understand why Luis would be happy to devolve to a life of crime when he seems to have a very respectable and well-paid job running nightclubs. Still, the game plays excellently on my newer computer and with the widescreen monitor Liberty City has never looked so gorgeous.

Panau International Airport

On from that, the title of the blog is a nod to the Olympics and a nod to the inexorable rise of Steam in PC gaming. I look back to 2005 when I joined Steam, and the service I see now is unrecognisable. In 2005, Steam was a patching service for Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: It did nothing else. It was lambasted as another form of DRM being put on the shoulders of PC gamers. But as the years have rolled by and its given us a gigantic library of games at reasonable prices (many of which, often sadly, seem never to actually get played), the benefits of Steam have outweighed whatever problems it has. I think the console manufacturers underestimate the power Steam and Valve currently hold. Today it has never been easier to be a PC gamer, and it has never been easier to play games for either very little, or no price at all. The rise of free-to-play means that even if a kid hasn't got much pocket money and only a second-hand laptop, they can still enjoy a plethora of games with untold hours of content for zero cost unless they choose it. The price barrier to entry on consoles is still remarkably high, whilst most homes have at least one PC in them which is used for work, but can also be used for play. Now I'm not going to go out and say that the PC is going to come back to the dominance it had back in the 1990s, but I do think that it isnt going away any time soon. Anyway, tangent back into the games: Just Cause 2 multiplayer is insane. Oh yes, there is multiplayer, after a fashion. A crazy mod team has managed to make the absolutely enormous playground of the Republic of Panau a virtual sandbox for apparently around 1000 players at the same time. I think the way the stop the server from failing is to only show you players who are within 500 metres of you, but even so having to track where everyone is on the enormous map must be a nightmare. At the moment the game has no objectives aside from messing around and trying to kill players, but its nonetheless a lot of fun to just drive around watching the carnage. As development continues I think it would be interesting to do a kind of Cops and Robbers style objective where half the players are the Revolutionaries tasked with destroying things and the other half are the Panauan Military. Anyway, must stop now because my eye is twitching, which I think means I need to go to sleep.

Second Hand News

Feels like a while since I've written a blog, indeed almost 2 months ago. In that time I've played a few games and also been on holiday to Washington D.C. I had a great time there, going to almost every conceivable museum Washington has, riding the Metro, getting into the US Capitol Building, and indeed managed to go and see the Smithsonian's exhibit on The Art of Video Games at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibit was alright, but what I felt it was missing was what it should have been all about: Art. The "video games as art" debate is a long one, but for me a beautiful game does not immediately make it art. What makes it art is the emotional connection to it, the feeling it gives you. Therefore, whilst you could walk around the exhibit and listen to how Ocarina of Time was a seminal game (still need to get my In Search of Zelda quest on!) and play a giant version of Pac-Man on a wall, there was very little aesthetic analysis of the games on display. The whole thing felt much more like a history than an art exhibition, to show how the evolution of games design has created more complex games. So for me, the playable demo they had of Monkey Island felt a whole lot more like art than the lady explaining how the Intellivision game Utopia works (despite the fact that Utopia is probably way more important than Monkey Island because it's probably the first real-time strategy game). Still, the exhibit was definitely a step in the right direction considering the Smithsonian agreed to put it on display in the first place. I also recommend Washington D.C. wholeheartedly. It's a great city to visit with lots to see and do, plus quite a few nice places to eat. Now I'm home I have this urge to play Fallout 3 again and look for all the similarities (or glaring dissimilarities) I can spot. As a testament to this, observe the picture below of myself wearing my snazzy hat on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial: Nary a Project Purity in site. :P

The Art of Video Games

In video-game-playing news it's a tale of the big-budget vs. the indie. I've been continuing my exhaustive quest to play Skyrim to what I deem to be 'completion', but I think that's the kind of game which you can't ever actually complete. I started a new character to try and mop up some of the remaining achievements I hadn't gathered on my main character. I also got into The Binding of Isaac quite a bit. I still don't like the politics or message of that game (basically it's a pastiche of the biblical story of Isaac and Abraham: I'm agnostic but it's kind of sacrilegious), but it plays and looks like the original Legend of Zelda (so I'm told). There are a lot of random dungeons, random enemies and random power-ups, so sometimes a playthrough can be punishingly difficult and at others very easy. So it's Zelda-esque and Roguelike, plus it plays reasonable well. I've liked playing through a couple of times because you encounter a good variety of enemies and almost always get an interesting power-up you've never received before. Next we turn to Eufloria. Straight off this is a beautiful game, with a very soothing soundtrack which makes it a very good experience to spend a lazy half hour with. I suppose you'd call it a real-time strategy, but the strategy is limited to creating a larger group of insects than your opponent. It's difficult to explain what the game is about without actually showing it, but save to say you control a group of flower-like beings who move from asteroid to asteroid around the Galaxy, killing foes and planting new seeds on conquered asteroids. Like I said, you've really got to play it to experience how this works in practice. Finally I finished the single-player of Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Man, that was dull. I'll play the game again for the multiplayer which was excellent, but the single-player is straight-up boring.

Myself at the Jefferson Memorial

Work proceeds at a work-like level where it is constantly busy each week and there are never enough hours in the day to finish everything, but we are getting two new people in my team who will hopefully help to offset that somewhat, although I bet a load of new work will turn up which will keep us all equally busy. :P And since I haven't mentioned it so far this blog, I will say that E3 this year was a resounding disappointment for me personally. This was because of 1. Sony, Microsoft & Nintendo didn't seem to have anything fascinating to show off (hell, my Game of Show is Watch Dogs and I categorically hate Ubisoft for their lousy DRM!) and 2. GameSpot got rid of their Chat Room in favour of the new streaming comments system. Trouble is, the comment system is impossible to follow and indeed can slow down your computer if you kept the automatic feed on. So there was no-one to chat with and not many great games to see. :( Don't get me wrong: There were still plenty of great games, but it felt like to truly enjoy E3 this year you actually had to be there. So next year we must mount an impassioned defence of the GameSpot Chat! Maybe then we can bring it back. :) That's your lot for now: Hope you're all doing well out there/in here and we will speak again very soon.