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July 2011

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Month in Review: July 2011

Not a huge amount of acquisitions this month and not much playtime squeezed in either. On the other hand, I had an amazing holiday, saw loads of sights and did loads of cool stuff in glorious 34 degree sunshine. When I get time I'll upload a bunch of pics to my Photobucket.

New Acquisitions

Children of Mana gets a bad rap, but when I saw it marked up at £4 used in CeX I decided to risk it. I still had some money left on my voucher anyway, so I didn't actually pay a penny. Gabriel Knight 3 was from a charity shop, but is still completely sealed so for £1.50 is a right bargain!

Some new games, picked up in various sales from Amazon, Zavvi and Game. I figured I'd better pick up the latest Dragon Quest retool before it goes out of print (both IV and V are creeping up in value), but since I've not yet played either of those (for shame) this will be sitting on the shelf for a while. I debated over Dungeon Siege III, the first two games were never amongst my favourites, but I'm still a sucker for fantasy games and the price was right. It's the limited edition version with some extra in-game doohickeys.

Now this is a blast from the past. I had one of these as a kid – a poor substitute for a much-coveted Game Boy or Game Gear. It's a pretty weird idea: barcodes found on everyday items are swiped and translated into warriors, weapons or enemies with different statistics and powers, enabling you to battle it out against your friends or the computer. Admittedly pretty crap, but my brother and I always used to fight over the barcodes from boxes of Wheetos (heh... remember those?) so something must have kept us hooked! Apparently the Barcode Battler was big in Japan too. Anyway, these pop up on eBay pretty regularly but there was no way I would pay the usual £15-20 asking price. £1.99 in a charity shop though? Deal. The box has some damage, but the item itself is practically brand new, complete with both instruction books and a full set of starter cards.

From the same charity shop as the above, comes possibly the strangest PlayStation item I've come across. A glove! That is also a game controller! Control your games with just one (1) hand! Ye gads! It looks like something out of some cheesy kids sci-fi and works like crap. Hardly surprising: didn't the designers remember the Power Glove? At least that had a cool name... the Video Game Control Glove just sounds like something you might come up with for a school design project. Anyway, I bought this for £3.99 for the collectable value alone – I've seen these sell for £60 loose; this one is boxed with the manual (a scary read consisting of around thirty pages of calibration instructions) and informational video. Sadly, an old price sticker reveals that someone paid £44.99 for this thing from Beatties back in the day.

I also picked up the most recent piece of DLC for L.A. Noire from the Marketplace courtesy of the Rockstar Pass.

Games Played

Condemned (X360)

Even though I love horror themes and creepy games in general, Condemned and its sequel have become shamefully neglected titles in my 360 collection. I have decided to rectify this right now and have just started playing the first game. I'm only on Chapter 2, but so far I'm loving the atmosphere and the general scary feel. Crazy nutjobs are the scariest foe in games like this. Of course zombies et al are fearsome, but they are also deliberate and predictable. There's something genuinely unnerving about facing a human foe that has sunk to the lowest depths of depravity, insanity catching like a plague. Combat is a little clunky, but that actually adds to the suspense rather than being a mere frustration. I'm also doing my best to collect all the birds and bits of metal as I go, which means much exploring of each area. So far I've cracked 5 achievements for 100 points.

CSI: Fatal Conspiracy (X360)

It didn't take me long to wrap this one off, with just the final case to go at the end of last month. Of the three CSI games on Xbox 360, this is probably the best – though to call it a great game would be stretching the truth beyond belief. Simplistic clue-hunting and deductive reasoning with wooden acting and last-gen graphics, yet strangely therapeutic to this gamer after the overwhelming intensity of most modern games. Easy achievements too: another 3 achievements ticked off for 210 points and the full 1000 Gamerscore.

L.A. Noire (X360)

I finally got around to downloading the most recent L.A. Noire DLC the other day and played through it in one sitting. My impression was that the case was rather short (seemed to be much shorter than the main game cases and even the other DLC cases), but since I got the Rockstar Pass at a discount price I'm not too bothered. It's a good little diversion, light on the interrogation and heavy on the bullets. Unlocked 5 achievements for the full 100 points.

Professor Layton and the Lost Future (DS)

This was my main diversion during the 'down hours' of my trip to Austria – planes, coaches and the occasional impressive lightning storm. Reached about Chapter 6 while I was away and have been playing sporadically since my return to the point where I think I'm very close to finishing the game. Upon reaching Chapter 10 most of the major revelations have come to pass, so it's just a case of finishing of the villain of the piece with my impressive wit and determination.

Shadow of Memories (PS2)

I've not made much progress with this one lately and have only reached Chapter 5, which I'm on my fourth playthrough of. Ugh. I like the idea of Shadow of Memories, but the execution is often clumsy. For example, while investigating the past the game often makes you sit through extremely long and unskippable cut-scenes, only for your character to keel over dead immediately afterwards because your fate timer ran out midway through the conversation. You don't get a chance to save yourself by jumping back to the present, not even a fraction of a second to mash the button. More than once I've been happily going about my business with 20 minutes or more to spare, only to get dragged into a half-hour chat about kittens, with no warning. I might add that upon dying in the past you are forced to replay the entire chapter from scratch. Anyway, I'm sticking with it, mainly because I find the overall idea unique.

Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People (PC)

I've now completed four episodes of Strong Bad, each to maximum awesomeness of course. Episode 4: Dangeresque 3 is the best of the bunch so far, a great riff on the action-espionage genre complete with humour oozing from every screen, puzzle and line of dialogue. Great stuff from Telltale, as usual.

The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings (PC)

I'm still on Act II of The Witcher 2, but scratch my earlier comments about the lack of mystical happenings in the game. This chapter starts by flinging you right into the midst of a supernatural nightmare. Political conspiracies and rebels abound however, and the plot has most definitely thickened. The plotlines, dialogue and unfolding events are detailed without becoming heavy-handed and altogether The Witcher 2 is turning out to be a damn fine adventure – maybe more so in the storytelling department than in certain aspects of gameplay. If I may make a criticism, it's that I find myself relying less on alchemy and magical signs and more on simple swordplay – a shame since artfully balancing the three was a major part of The Witcher's appeal and part of what made it stand apart from the RPG crowd. In The Witcher 2, potions are all but useless – you can only drink them when meditating and not mid-battle, but since I'm not psychic and don't know when a battle will occur I generally don't bother with them at all. Throw in some woefully underpowered signs and I find that a big silver sword becomes my best friend rather quickly. Still, I quite like hacking away with swords and stuff and honestly, I can't say my enjoyment of the game has been spoiled in any way by this.

In Conclusion...

Deus Ex 3 comes out soon, so guess what I'll the main feature will be next month... heck, I'd better hurry up and finish The Witcher 2!

June 2011 Part Two

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Month in Review: June 2011 Continued

As promised, the games played.

Games Played

CSI: Fatal Conspiracy (X360)

I think I've gone on a bit of a crime thriller binge lately and what better way to counter the polished quality of L.A. Noire and the originality of Fahrenheit (see below) than with the latest in a string of decidedly average point-n-click CSI licenses? Some of you might know that I have a BSc in Forensic Sciences, a course of study that allows to me ridicule said TV show and by extension, any games based upon it. In the words of bully Nelson: Ha-ha! Anyway, I play these games as a brief diversion, nothing more. I don't expect wonders and actually appreciate the chance to apply a straightforward sense of logic without all the distractions found in other, better games. Four cases down, just one to go. And 22 achievements unlocked for a whopping 790 points.

Fahrenheit (PS2)

Just as I prophesied in my last blog, Fahrenheit (that's Indigo Prophecy) does turn into one rather long Quick-Time Event as the game progresses, with entire sequences, chapters and even cut-scenes reliant on swingin' those analog sticks like a high paced game of Simon. But you know what? I actually didn't mind a bit. In a way it feels therapeutic, more like a rhythm or casual game than the obnoxious interrupt-styIe button mashers that plague some games. In other words, because the QTEs are completely integral to the core gameplay that kind of makes them okay in my eyes, inoffensive and even welcomed when they appear. Fahrenheit's easy on the eyes, easy on the thumbs method is a stylistic design choice, not a random irritation thrown in by masochistic game devs looking for a way to make their boss fights or chase sequences more frantic: "Press X-Y-UP-DOWN-IN-OUT-SHAKEITALLABOUT now or die! Mwahaha!" Anyway, despite my acceptance of Quantic Dream's controversial design choice, I cannot afford to be as forgiving with regards to plot. Fahrenheit starts out as a fantastic crime thriller with a supernatural twist, a tense tale with neatly interlaced chapters told from opposite sides of the law and three different perspectives. A neat idea and one that works fantastically well until about a third of the way into the game where things start getting flabby and way too much time is spent doing mundane, unrelated activities: kick-boxing workouts, playing yo-yo in the office, even horizontal dancing. I can imagine the reasoning behind getting to know our characters intimately (even the boring stuff), but that thinking is promptly thrown out the window sometime in the third act where the plot suddenly jumps from 'interesting, implausible but I'll run with it' into 'what the heckers?' territory, missing several key turns along the way. It's like there's a missing reel or something... scratch that, it's like the entire ending was supplanted with one from another narrative. The supernatural weave quickly unravels into a mess of loose threads, the action seems lifted directly from the third Matrix film and previously well fleshed-out, cautious characters take such leaps of baffling anti-logic and blind faith that I struggle to reconcile that with the dedicated, plodding approach to character development taken in the game's first two-thirds. It may seem like I'm ratting on a good game so let me stress that I really did enjoy playing Fahrenheit right to the closing credits – it is different, quirky, fun and mostly gripping stuff – but like so many have mentioned, Fahrenheit is a game of two halves and is certainly not for everyone.

L.A. Noire (X360)

In the end I really liked playing L.A. Noire, even though my previous comments about oversimplification of the dialogue/interrogation system stands. I want to focus on the parts of the game I enjoyed the most: the setting, atmosphere and cIassy 40's film quality throughout. The story picked up too, with Cole's background, the cases he works on and the newspaper reports all interweaving with the overall plot arc. Actually, I enjoyed my time in 40's L.A. so much I even took the time to track down a bunch of the collectables, post-game. I found most of the film reels (picking up the remainder with a guide), all the landmarks, street crimes and a large chunk of the cars. I don't think I'll 100% the game, there are just too many vehicles to track down! Anyway, I've finished the game, resting on 91.9% completion and have so far completed three of the four DLC cases. I also dinged 33 more achievements for 825 points.

Shadow of Memories (PS2)

A bit of an oddity, plucked at random from my extensive PS2 backlog to play after finishing Fahrenheit. Known as Shadow of Destiny elsewhere in the world (a much more apt name), Shadow of Memories is a unique take on the puzzle/adventure genre. You start the game off by dying, attacked by an unknown assailant, only to be plucked from oblivion by a meddling little creature intent on giving you another chance... and another... and another. Armed with a nifty time-travelling device you must jump back and forth in time, attempting to unravel your current destiny and hopefully find some way to prevent it before the fated hour. Trouble is, changing the past has consequences and, since somebody up there really wants you dead, has little effect other than to change the time and method of your imminent execution. So on and on you must go, mucking up timeline after timeline in an attempt to stave off your grisly fate. Rather selfish (how many grandfathers did you kill today?) though I dare say Sam Beckett would approve! The limited game environment and somewhat repetitive nature let the game down, but kudos for trying something different.

Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People (PC)

I like point-n-click games. I also like my adventures humorous and if at all possible, nonsensical. Strong Bad is nothing if not nonsensical. Although I've never really paid much attention to the Homestar Runner web comics etc., I enjoyed Telltale's other episodic adventures enough that I was sure a lack of familiarity with the source material would not be a hindrance. Episodes 1 to 3 completed so far and I'm pretty sure I've reached the maximum awesomeness level for each by collecting all the trophies, outfits and whatnot.

The Typing of the Dead (PC)

House of the Dead II was always one of my favourite arcade games, with many a shiny 50p coin lost to the imposing depths of the colossal cabinet. I didn't own a modern console at the time, so instead I longed for some way to faithfully recreate my arcade experiences on PC – a dream that, given the technological nightmare of PC peripherals such as lightguns in the late 90s, could not possibly come to pass. I did however, find something with a much more ingenious approach. I caught a glimpse of The Typing of the Dead in a copy of PC Gamer. It was superficially House of the Dead II... but instead of trying to emulate brain-blasting, gun-blazing action in the home it was mutated into a sickeningly whacked-out typing tutor! I remember thinking that I'd found my calling. I could touch-type proficiently since the age of eight and here at last was something that could put my skill of limited practical application to real use. Imagine being twelve years old and saving the world from a zombie apocalypse with just eight speedy digits and a keyboard slung around your neck like all the cool kids are wearing... err... well, suffice to say I never, ever tracked down a copy of The Typing of the Dead in stores at the time and since then it's become rather the collectable. Thanks to the internet though, I can finally bring my dreams of typographic mayhem to fruition.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC)

I can't say that The Witcher 2 has made the same impression on me as the first game (although that one took me four years to finally complete!) but so far I'm mightily impressed. The opening to this game features more political machinations and straightforward action thrills than the relatively slow-building, overtly supernatural edge to the first hours of The Witcher. Not a bad thing; being thrown in media res in a political crisis, civil war to the left, regicide to the right does work to get things kicked off with a bang and does more to help the setting come alive than a distant, dry backstory ever could. Aside from the (so far) good storytelling, the visuals and atmosphere are simply stunning. Dank forests, mist-swathed swamps, muddy peasant hovels, thick morning fog over quietly-rippling waters. It's all so finely detailed and looks so damn right that every environment encountered, however 'otherworldly' it might be, becomes so much more alive than any other game world I can remember. Much like the first Witcher game, the land represented in The Witcher 2 feels like a real world, lived in and well-worn, like it could actually exist somewhere, rather than something hastily cobbled together for the purposes of a fantasy game. I've only just started Act II right now, so my final judgement is some way off, but I'm optimistic. Still, negative points for all the activation kerfuffle (I'm still a touch bitter).

In Conclusion...

With being away on a well-deserved holiday for ten days and an anticipated heavy workload upon my return, I doubt next month will be quite as packed. I've packed my DS though and a couple of games though... the ideal opportunity to play a system I have sadly neglected lately.

June 2011 Part One

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Month in Review: June 2011

Posted in the nick of time, June's monthly review. Due to the size I've had to break it into two parts again, which will be posted in relatively quick succession as I'm going away tomorrow. Ten days in lovely Austria, a 'lakes and mountains' break in my favourite part of Europe. I can't wait!

New Acquisitions

Two brand new DS games, ready for my jolly hols. Both under £20 and I'm especially looking forward to the lasted Professor Layton game. Somewhat surprisingly, this series has grabbed me.

A small haul from the local Cash Generator, two Game Boy Color games and Dead Space Extraction for the Wii. I loved Dead Space on 360 and since the Wii has proved surprisingly effective for horror games, I'm very much looking forward to a new take on the game. Need for Speed was rescued from the audit mismatched stock at work and cost me one whole English pound for disc and manual.

The internet has born fruit again, with a few PC games picked up for old times sake. I actually used to own both Call of Cthulhu and Klingon Honor Guard back in the day but sold them like the idiot I was. Cthulhu especially caused me no end of regret as I watched it rapidly rise in value and collectability until one day a lucky catch presented itself: a cheap Buy It Now! Yay! Arcanum was one of those games I read about in PC Gamer when it was released and always meant to pick up but never did... now I finally have it. A similar story with The Typing of the Dead, although my desire for that was more to do with my need to destroy foul undead by any and all means necessary than a desire for a deep and fulfilling story-driven RPG experience.

I traded in a bunch of crappy DVDs at CeX and walked away with £65 in vouchers. Here are the first of the spoils so far, and I still had £53 left afterwards! Wizardry is the pick of the bunch here.

I seem to be accidently collecting strategy guides. The guide for Myst (conveniently purchased after I already muddled my way through hint-free) was picked up in a charity shop for pennies. The other two were brand new pickups from the HMV sale, £3 each. Ignore the 11.99 sticker on SSBB, it's sadly irremovable.

New games! Gray Matter and Mindjack were bought from Game at bargain-basement prices. Although everybody gave Mindjack a bad rap, for a fiver I don't think I could be too disappointed. I got 1000 bonus Game Reward points on each too. Divinity II was bought online and is the revamped Dragon Knight Saga edition with the extra content - I'll be playing that once I've got round to beating Divine Divinity and Beyond Divinity. Finally, Portal 2 was a £15 purchase from Amazon and is next on my PC 'To Play' list.

After reminiscing with some mates about the original breeze block Game Boy, I got a little nostalgic for my own favourite Game Boy model, the slinky Pocket! I used to have a red one that bit the dust around five or six years back and although I couldn't find a nice enough bargain in that particular shade, this Japanese edition green beauty will do the trick. I never really got the hang of playing original GB carts on my GBA SP, they just stick out the front and annoy me. Problem solved!

More Japanese goodies, this time four complete Famicom carts in great condition. I've got a small but steadily increasing Famicom collection which I can play via a NES adaptor, but a particular dream of mine is to own the original hardware. Unfortunately, good examples are hard to find in the UK and the shipping from Japan is laughable.

More stuff bought using my CeX voucher, leaving me with around £38. Rez is a game I've always wanted to... ahem... experience, Xenosaga II piqued my interest despite (irritatingly) being the only game in the series to be released in PAL-land. Pandora Directive is the fourth Tex Murphy game, which means I just need to track down the first two ye olde adventures before I can make a run through the series. If I can't find hard copies, GOG might be my final port of call.

Steam deals this month were Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentlemen, Please! (two tiny comedic adventures) totalling 75p, Frontlines: Fuel of War for £2.50 and Hydrophobia: Prophecy (an upgraded version of the XBLA game) for £2.25.

I also picked up the Rockstar Pass for L.A. Noire while it was on sale, although I already had one of the DLC cases the Pass worked out much much cheaper than the combined price of the other three cases.

Part Two up shortly...