Buyer’s remorse, broken promises and something else that starts with ‘b’

I’m perennially late to the party when it comes to videogames, despite often buying key titles on the day of release. My shelves are littered with games from yesteryear that I haven’t got around to because I’m too easily swept up by the hype surrounding the ‘next big thing’. Case in point: I eagerly pre-ordered the ‘collector’s edition’ of Lost Planet: Extreme Condition for the Xbox 360 after finding enough in the demo to warrant further investigation. It cost £44.99 and arrived with me in mid-January, 2007. It’s on my shelf, still sealed, more than three years later. It can also be bought new today for less than £7. In short, I’m a dolt.

It’s one thing wasting money on games that I don’t get around to playing for years, but worse than that is my compulsion to plump for the shiny special editions. I’m a little better than I used to be in that respect but I’m still swayed far too often – despite the fact that I don’t remember the last time I actually checked out any of the extra content that comes with such packages. I guess I’m just a magpie; offer me a nice cardboard sleeve or a shiny tin for £5 more than the ‘normal’ edition and I have to fight hard to resist.

I lost that particular battle when I cracked and bought Heavy Rain on release a few weeks back. It’s not so bad on this occasion; I likely would have bought the bundled DLC separately and the soundtrack seems right up my alley, so to speak. In an unusual turn of events I started the game this week – within a month of purchase; look at me, ma! – and it’s currently treading a fine line between beauty and big, hairy ballsacks.

I’ve been fascinated with Quantic Dream’s output ever since I picked up The Nomad Soul/Omikron for the Dreamcast way back when. The involvement of David Bowie was probably more than enough to pique my interest but the main mechanic of the game itself knocked me for six; if your character died it didn’t necessarily mean game over. Instead, you could be reincarnated in a new body and continue the story from where you left off – albeit with all your stats reset.

It was a flawed game, sure. But it had enough exciting ideas to leave me eagerly anticipating follow-up Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy. My expectations for the game shot further through the roof with the release of an outstanding demo that promised untold branching storylines offering the player genuine choice in crafting ‘their’ story. Unfortunately, the scene featured in the demo – the opening scene of the full game – turned out to be by far the best part. From there on in the few highlights were unfortunately counterbalanced by several ill-advised sections and a narrative that completely lost its way halfway through. Even worse, the scale of influence the player could have on proceedings was nowhere near what was promised in the lead-up to the game’s release.

And so while I was naturally interested in checking out the PS3-exclusive Heavy Rain, I was also extremely cautious about Quantic Dream head David Cage’s claims about the ways in which players’ choices could dramatically alter their experience of the game with each runthrough. Nevertheless, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. Having put a good few hours into it now I can offer up a relatively considered opinion.

It’s a buggy mess; numerous sound drop-outs have blighted my play so far along with one total freeze-up. The control configuration is on the wrong side of horrific. The script is frequently poor – “It’s a painkiller… It’ll help reduce the pain.” – and the voice acting, so important in a game that places such an emphasis on drama and storytelling , is mediocre at best and often terrible.

And yet I can honestly say that this is one of the most absorbing games I’ve played in a long time. The broken parts somehow come together to form a hypnotic whole. After a slow start to proceedings I came to scenes in the game that had me literally inching my way to the edge of my seat, filled with tension and genuinely caring about the fate of the character I was controlling.

And, most unexpected of all, the game has thrown up some legitimately tough choices along the way – one of which in particular resulted in a pressured decision I regretted even as I was pressing the relevant button. I knew I was doing the ‘wrong’ thing but felt that I didn’t have a choice at that moment in time. It was an inspired scenario that triggered such an emotional response following the aftermath that I had to turn off the machine and reflect on my actions.

That’s something that’s only ever happened once before to me in around 20 years of videogaming, strangely enough while playing Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, of all games – but I fear that’s a subject for another day.

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Playing catch-up

NB: The most cursory of glances will tell you that this is another rambling post following on from the last entry. It’s a catch-up on my current situation so that I can get on and start updating the blog from my new position as a stranger in far and distant land. If you follow my infrequent and frankly rather banal tweets then you might have read some of this. And let’s face it, it wasn’t overly interesting the first time. So if you decide to skip this post, I won’t blame you. I’ll just hunt you down while you sleep is all.

While ideally I wanted to continue to write in some capacity, I knew I didn’t have the luxury of turning my nose up at anything — and besides, Cornwall isn’t exactly a hotbed of media activity, at least compared to where I had moved from. Hardly anything related to my skill set came up during those first weeks, so I applied for any job I thought I had the remotest chance of landing and still got short shrift.

I had a chat with the owner of a smart little bar in the middle of the small town we’ve moved to about the semi-management vacancy he’d advertised. That appealed to me; it would mean a lot of evening work which would have meant I could spend lots of time with my little boy during the day and then have the perfect opportunity to meet new people in this alien town by night. I have bar experience (albeit from back in my student days) and felt like I got on well with the guy during our back-and-forth. He took me through all the different aspects I’d be taking on, commenting on the fact that he thought I’d be perfect for the role. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

Thankfully I picked up some freelance writing work thanks to previous connections, meaning I could keep a bit of cash coming in during what felt certain to be a long search for permanent employment. Assignments for features on subjects like videogames and poker — and cheese (!) — helped to keep me productive while I trawled the ads for that elusive permanent employment.

Shortly after, I landed an interview for a Marketing Executive role, which I was surprised by. Sure, I covered everything they asked for in the ad, but having been an out-and-out journalist/writer for the previous eight years, I had no marketing experience. My previous role, however, had seen me writing for a number of magazines that were directly relevant to the subject matter I would be covering if I landed the job. I nailed the interview and drove home with a huge smile on my face. Again, I was to be disappointed. (I later found out that I was second choice behind somebody who had more than ten years’ experience in that exact role in a very similar environment, so I’m not quite so upset as I was at the time.)

Dejected, I followed up a lead and called a bank manager in the next town over. He had a couple of entry level jobs going which I would have a superb chance of landing. Banking isn’t really what I had in mind when I moved to Cornwall, and the pay on offer was a how-on-earth-will-I-live-on-that £12k. But I’ve got a kid to support and that’s £12k more than I was earning at that point, so I went along to the interview. Again, it went well — but I was aghast to be told at the end of it all that the new positions weren’t technically confirmed. He’d need to speak to his boss to confirm that he could employ new staff and that I should call him in a couple of weeks if I hadn’t heard anything. That struck me as particularly unprofessional and I was pretty pissed off at what felt like a colossal waste of time. Consequently, I wasn’t at all surprised to find myself a couple of weeks older without having heard from the guy. Thankfully, I never did have to lower myself to chasing him up.

Slight Return

I’ve been away from the internet for what feels like an eternity, and so this site has become sadly neglected. I’d just like to say that I’ve been off persuing more interesting projects, living a life to its fullest, free from the shackles of the World Wide Widget. I’d like to say that, but the truth is that my PC has ‘issues’. They’re almost certainly sorted now, so hopefully regular updates will be back for good.

So, what have I filled my time with since I’ve been ‘away’? Why, a variety of exciting and healthy activities, naturally. But mostly sitting on the sofa playing videogames. I played through King Kong on the 360 and it was… OK. The FPS sections were fine, if a little repetitive in some places and frustrating in others. Playing as Kong himself, however, was FUN. Sadly these sections were rationed quite strictly. Still worth a look, though.

I’ve since moved on to God of War (get me, Mr. Cutting Edge!) which seems great so far. I’m about two hours in and it’s getting harder, but I can take it. Possibly.

However, the most enjoyable games-related event took place when I took delivery of my US copy of Guitar Hero. My word. An evolution of Frequency/Amplitude using a guitar-shaped controller with fret buttons and a strum thingy? Yes please. It’s as outstanding as it looks. Absolutely essential. And it’s coming to Europe, PAL fans. Hooray!

Solid defence

I’ve had the chance to play a little more Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and it’s rocking my world. As I mentioned briefly before, it’s just generally superbly written — an area that videogames often get so wrong, or at least neglect in favour of something entirely less important. In terms of strong characters and a well-rounded, interesting, amusing storyline, this and Psychonauts (Jesus, is that thing ever going to make it out over here? PAL-only gamers are truly missing out. But then I’d have Schafer-babies if I was equipped for it, so maybe I’m biased) stand out as two shining examples in an expansive field of no-hopers.

The Album Club: like Fight Club, but with fewer teeth dropping out

It's here! 

trendthrift received a three month subscription to Rough Trade‘s Album Club for Christmas (amongst many other wonderful gifts, incidentally — we must have been on Santa’s good blog list last year), with today being delivery day for the first batch of CDs. Sure enough, the parcel arrived this morning.

Inside the nicely packaged box were new albums from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (not actually out to buy until the 23rd, so that’s a bonus) and Infadels, plus the new collaboration from Isobel Campbell (previously of Belle and Sebastian) and Mark Lanegan. Also included was an Album Club exclusive bonus disc featuring seven specially-recorded demo tracks from Campbell.

Clap Your Hands

All in all, a nice selection, each accompanied by brief ‘listening notes’ which tell the reader a bit more about the act. I read a post on a forum recently suggesting that this kind of service is “sickening”; that it was some kind of pre-packaged lifestyle choice for hollow shells of human beings who only care about what their CD shelf will look like to visitors. Crazy stuff. I try and search out new music from a variety of sources, and this looks like being another invaluable one. I couldn’t give a toss if nosey guests think my CD collection is indie scenester dross — if I like something, I just like it. What’s more, if it turns out I don’t enjoy any of these albums, I can send it back (or indeed all of them) to be replaced by something of my choosing. Perfect.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to giving these a listen.

Clean bill of stealth

So, trendthrift is a hulking great DS whore. It’s a superb machine blessed with a number of truly outstanding games. Unfortunately, Lost In Blue isn’t one of them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely game for the most part, with some innovative ideas. It’s a shame, then, that the penultimate section lapses into a block puzzle marathon, which is followed by everybody’s favourite extraneous after-thought: super-stealthy stealth mode. Block puzzles I can handle (indeed I enjoy solving them more than is probably natural), even when shoe-horned into a game they don’t belong in, but stealth for stealth’s sake is a real bugbear of mine. I enjoy growing some stubble, adopting a gruff voice and playing as Sam Fisher more than most, but sneaking around in a game like this just feels wrong. It’s the polar opposite of what you’ve been doing for the rest of the game, for a start. Lost In Blue is, up until that point, is all about exploring a large tropical island, snooping wherever you like, whenever you like. Oh well. It’s not as if it’s a bad game. It just could have been better. If you’re a patient gamer, it’s well worth a look purely because it’s different to anything you’re likely to have played before (unless you managed to grab Stranded Kids on the GameBoy Colour). Whatever you do, don’t be one of these people who reads a blog or internet forum and dismisses a game you were previously looking forward to simply because of one person’s opinion. Those idiots are more annoying than Stealthy McStealtherson.

On a more enjoyable note, finishing Lost In Blue means that the trendthrift DS’ cartridge slot is now being amply filled by the utterly charming Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I’ve only had a couple of quick sessions with it, but it’s already looking like being one of the best written games I’ve ever played. And I’m damned if it’s legal to have much more fun than yelling “OBJECTION!” down the microphone at a vital point in a virtual murder trial. Or maybe I’m just living a sheltered life.