Overwatch IS NOT free-to-play

If Blizzard aren’t the current king of free-to-play, it’s only because Valve exist. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are two highly successful, fully fledged F2P games, while World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo all have their own free starter editions which arguably fall into the “free-to-play” category.

That’s why it’s so surprising to hear that Overwatch – the upcoming Dota-clone-FPS-thing from Blizzard – isn’t going to be launched on a free-to-play model.

I remember that there was some previous discussion about how Blizzard were going to monetise Overwatch. The gameplay is based on each character having a hard counter, and much is made of changing characters in order to adapt to your enemies composition – and that element of the game would have been severely limited if the heroes were bought, or available on a free rotation. A team with 20 available heroes versus a team with only five could conceivably create a composition that the opposition could not answer, making the game fundamentally pay to win. But paying for skins probably wouldn’t have been enough of a money-spinner to support a game of this size.

Continue reading “Overwatch IS NOT free-to-play”

Frostfall – The Joys of Modding – Skyrim

As you might be able to tell from the video I posted, I’ve been playing rather a lot of modded Skyrim recently. As you can probably tell from the video- you did watch the video right? You should, because it’s pretty ace. I talk about mods, climb a mountain, and fight trolls. I even die once, it’s an emotional rollercoaster. It won three Academy Awards, you know. From the director who brought you Dead Leg Bar Sex – Deus Ex: The Fall – Part 7, comes the blockbuster hit of the summer – starring Mark “Madness” Ja– have I pushed that joke far enough? Probably.

Modded Skyrim has become a real blast for me. I’ve installed completely rehauled texture packs, extra maps, follower tweaks, a shortcut through the mountains… it’s basically an entirely different game from the one I started back in 2011. But aside from the texture mods, I haven’t really had chance to experience most of the mods – much of the content is for later in the game, and I restarted to try and get the full experience.

But one mod has an impact right from the beginning. Frostfall. Frostfall turns a land that was no different from the temperate climate of Cyrodiil into a hellish wasteland where death is always waiting to catch out the unaware. Skyrim’s meant to be cold, and Frostfall’s hypothermia system feels like something the base game was really lacking.

Continue reading “Frostfall – The Joys of Modding – Skyrim”

The Week That Was: Hearthstone

For a free game, Blizzard seem to really put out a lot for Hearthstone. It really doesn’t seem as if it’s been that long since the release of the last Hearthstone expansion, and yet here we are – The Grand Tournament is here.

It was a weird week. Blizzard gave us early access to a bunch of the upcoming cards in the Tavern Brawl, pitting Medivh vs. Alleria in a competition to boost the sales of the alternate hero skins. Thankfully, no-one took the bait, and instead we all got an introduction to the new mechanics of the expansion: Joust and Inspire.
Check the video for my extended thoughts on both of these – long story short; Inspire activates off your Hero Power, whilst Joust compares two random cards from both decks, with the effect going off if your card has a higher mana cost.
That’s actually quite a difficult one to explain briefly. Hm. Just watch the damn video already. 
Watched it? Good. Where were we?
Oh. Yeah. So Inspire seems to be the stronger mechanic in this Tavern Brawl. It’s an effect not dissimilar to the way Nefarian dominated Ragnaros in the first Tavern Brawl, and frankly, I can see why. Joust is just such a lackluster mechanic. It’s unreliable and oh so very unbalanced. Some creatures work well with it – King’s Elekk is a fine card even without the Joust effect, and the extra draw can be seen as a handy perk, rather than being an effect that makes the card worthwhile. Master Jouster works on the other end of the scale – with the Joust effect, it gains Divine Shield and Taunt, which on a 5/6 body makes it a better Sunwalker. If you lose the Joust, you get a 5/6 for 6 Mana, which is rather less useful than a Boulderfist Ogre 6/7. Unfortunately, far too many of the Joust cards need their effect to be useful in any way. 90% of the time you play the Master Jouster, it’ll be because you want a Taunt. And sometimes you won’t get it. And that’ll probably lose you the game.
But enough of that – glorious pack opening video ahoy!
Frankly, I felt this video was expected of me. As a YouTuber who spends a decent amount of time playing Hearthstone, a card opening video is something of a must. Next on the checklist – a Minecraft video!

Only joking.

So I only managed two legendaries, which was a bit of a let down. The average for fifty card packs is three, so to only get two… I guess I felt shortchanged. Which is a pure #FirstWorldProblem if I ever heard one. Still, Paletress can effectively summon any other legendary card, so maybe that counts for more. And Saraad is just a straight-up G. I don’t really think I could have gotten better legendaries.
A lot of pundits were predicting that TGT would slow the game down, and whilst the meta hasn’t settled enough to make a call yet, based on what I’ve seen recently that may be true. Slower plays with bigger swings in momentum have been what I’ve seen a lot of this past week in the little Hearthstone I’ve played. I only had a matter of hours to hit Rank 20 this month, so my Inspire Priest hasn’t had as much love as it maybe should have, but I’m enjoying playing it nonetheless. My Randuin Wrynn deck has also had a bit more flair added to it with Paletress and Saraad, so that too is a whole bunch of fun. 
Hearthstone‘s still looking plenty healthy. The barrier to entry is still as high as ever, and while the new feature of handing out chests at the end of every month has helped, it’s still pretty hard to get cards as a new player. But hey, free games are always worth a go, and opening card packs is always fun, digital or real.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is available over at Battle.net and if you’ve not tried it, you probably should. There are tablet and phone versions now, for both Apple and Android. You’ll have to find those on your own though, ‘cos my lunch break is almost over. Happy playing!

Earthcore: Shattered Elements

So, it’s been a month.

Alright, so it wasn’t my fault. Every weekend this month, I’ve been out of my house. This just so happens to be the first weekend I’ve had in my house for ages. So we’ll have less of that judging, alright? I haven’t had time.

And it just so happens that time is the theme of this post. Turns out that with a full time job, space for gaming is pretty scarce. I’ve squeezed it in where I could, but its nowhere near as much as I wanted. So this is largely a digest of mobile games I’ve played in the last month, and the occasional bit of actual PC gaming. Because mobile games aren’t real games, everyone knows tha– OH GOD I’VE BECOME WHAT I HATED!

The fate of elitists

In penance, I’ll tell you about a mobile game I played this last month. Earthcore: Shattered Elements. I heard about this on the Co-optional Podcast, and it sounded interesting enough to keep me entertained on the loo while at work; the effective gold standard of mobile games.

Earthcore has an interesting mechanic. The game is played out on a 3×2 board where you and your opponent take turns laying out cards, and the battles are resolved after the board is full. The twist? Each card has an inherent element which interacts with other elements, rock-paper-scissors style. Fire beats grass, grass beats eater, water beats fire. Each card fights the card directly opposite it, and the dominant element wins the duel. Stalemates result in both cards getting flipped over onto the board. The loser takes damage equal to the “risk factor” of the losing card, represented by a number on the card. Stalemates mean that risk stacks, and whoever loses a matchup on that stack, takes all the accumulated risk on your side. The general idea is that higher risk cards have more influential abilities, but also pose more of a risk if played badly.

A fourth element also exists, known as dust. This element loses to any other element, except other dust cards, and a handful of card abilities can turn cards into the dust element, in exchange for changing another card’s element in another row, or some other advantage. Very few cards have dust as their inherent element, and those that do usually have an ability that makes up for it, like element mimicry. You’ll most often come across dust cards via card abilities, which can change your cards, or your opponents, into the dust element.


 There are three classes: Mage, Rogue, and Warrior. Playing Mage involves using a lot of cards that change the elements of your own cards, Rogue cards move around the board at will, and Warrior deals in direct damage to the opposing player. There are no class specific cards, but if your cards are aligned to your element then those cards have a discount on their risk.

There’s also a hero card system, which involves creating unique hero cards by sacrificing other cards to gain their abilities. But I didn’t really delve into that. Why didn’t I?

Earthcore: Shattered Elements board
It looks simple. So simple. That’s how it gets you.

Because it turns out that Earthcore makes me angry. Very, very angry.

The game has a single player mode, which follows a storyline. Something about coming back to your city and finding it overrun with goblins or something. I didn’t spend a lot of time reading, because of the rage.

This game is fucking hard. Like, really hard.

I got my arse handed to me on several different occasions by the first enemy. First AI enemy, mind you.

Playing Earthcore well is about balancing several different factors. Firstly, you have your own cards. You’ll want a generally even split amongst the elements in your deck, to give you a good reaction against any element your opponent might play – so being able to build a good deck is a must. Next, balance the risk factor of the cards you have against what your opponent is playing, whilst keeping in mind your cards abilities and the abilities of your opponent. A well-timed ability can turn the entire board against you. Irreversibly, usually.

And at the end of every round, victorious cards return to the hand, so make sure you remember what cards you saw from your opponent’s four card hand.

And it turns out that I can’t do any of these things. I’m a terrible strategic gamer, and a poor loser. It wasn’t unknown to play a few games on the bus and arrive home in a foul mood, simply because it felt like the card draw screwed me over. It hadn’t, but god damn it felt like it.

So I uninstalled it for the sake of everyone around me. I’m a much nicer person without Earthcore.

But if you’re the type of person who enjoys really deep strategic gameplay, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. The free-to-play model is well balanced, and it’s easy to get a good collection of cards just through the single player.

Well, I say easy. “Possible” is probably a better word.

It’s a good game, if you’re any good at this sort of thing. I’m not, so I utterly despised it. Still, like any free game, it’s worth a punt, and it’ll burn a few of those paid loo breaks away.

(Just a note: if you happen to employ me, I totally don’t spend ages on the loo playing games. That would be very unprofessional.)

(Please don’t fire me.)

How Blizzard Broke World of Warcraft

Cataclysm was a great World of Warcraft expansion. Under the pretense of the return of the mad Dragon Aspect, Deathwing, Blizzard gave themselves a chance to update an old game.

Cataclysm was released in late 2010, making WoW six years oldat that time. And that made it a very old game indeed. The MMO genre was moving on. Grind-heavy MMORPGs like EverQuest were out of fashion, replaced with games that were becoming ever more story-driven. Star Wars: The Old Republic was just around the corner, and it promised to make questing a fun experience, driven by your story, not y the whims on some guy who wanted some rabbit’s feet. It was about you now.

And WoW, with it’s reliance on old-style quests and gathering, was looking dated.

So Blizzard did want any sensible person would do. They threw a big-ass dragon at the world and started again.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Cataclysm. It was one of my favourite expansions for WoW, and it marked the first time I was able to reach the level cap (don’t judge me). I joined the PC Gamer guild and I took part in various raids – my first ever raids! I loved my time there. And as was usual for my cycle of sub – get bored – resub – repeat, I left WoW with the full intention of coming back some day.

About six months after I left, I wanted to go back to Azeroth. But I didn’t want to return for the new content, I wanted to return for the old.

I had spent a lot of time in Old Azeroth. I once spent the Easter holiday break sat at the computer, in a conservatory, in direct sunlight, with a sheet over my head so I could see the screen. I spent that entire holiday, sweat dripping down my face, leveling a Tauren Warrior.

I could barely keep the women away from me.

But the Charred Vale as I knew it didn’t exist any more.

And that, as you may have guessed, was the root of the problem. I realised I didn’t usually resub for new content, I resubbed to revisit the places I remembered from my childhood. I had spent a lot of time in Azeroth, and they were fond memories of mine.

And it was all… gone. In remaking the world, Blizzard had destroyed everything I held dear. And it was gone for good. I could never go back and visit it in the same way.

The current Warcraft storylines look incredible. Utterly amazing. Blizzard have gone from strength to strength, taking the storyline through Pandaria and back into Azeroth’s original lore. They’ve made an engaged and thoroughly engrossing world.

But Azeroth holds nothing for me any more.

Blizzard had done what I had never managed to do. They had made it so I would never resubscribe to World of Warcraft ever again.

If you fancy playing World of Warcraft for whatever reason, you can find it over at the Battle.net website. Otherwise, download something like Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm. They’s free!

World of Warcraft and free-to-play

The state of World of Warcraft is a constant discussion on gaming websites and blogs, and it’s obvious to see why this is the case. It’s the largest MMORPG to ever have existed and it still dominates the market despite losing large chunks of its subscriber base in the last twelve months. The numbers peaked at twelve million, but have only fallen since then, prompting the usual questions of whether WoW should convert to F2P, B2P, or whatever acronym is favoured this month.

But I’ve always wondered why monthly subscriptions are so reviled among certain gamers. On the surface, not wanting to pay per month is a common sense; I’ve already paid for this game, now why should I pay per month in order to keep playing? I already pay for my internet connection, electricity and everything else that other games need in order to keep going past a single month of gaming, so why is this so special? Hell, even multiplayer games don’t charge for the use of the multiplayer. Microsoft may well do, but the games makers themselves don’t do, usually. So why should an MMO be any different?

Subscription fees on Elder Scrolls Online? NOOOOOOOO!

And that’s the answer, really. It’s an MMO. It’s not a normal multiplayer. Everything is bigger and better, and the costs of running the game go up along with it. The worlds require more space to run, and that means a larger overhead. And those servers need regular maintenance, and a team constantly available to fix those servers when they occasionally go kaput.

Not only that, but the money goes towards a constant and consistent development team, who balance the game, nerf and buff, add new areas, and fix bugs. Patches are a sign that the game is being constantly worked on, and those people need to be paid for the work that they’re doing. And they are doing work.

And how much is that monthly subscription that people so dread? WoW is currently priced at £8.99 (€12.99/$14.99) per month at the most expensive option. That’s roughly £2.24 (€3.24/$3.74) per week, or 32p (46c/53c) per day. Can you play enough WoW per day to justify that expense? Depends on how you justify your time of course, but 32p’s worth of play is a pretty large bargain in my book. If I get an hour of gameplay out of that, I could end up doing anything. I could be fighting over strategic locations in a PvP struggle. I could be tagging along with thirty-nine other people to take on raid bosses. I could be infiltrating capital cities as a rogue, cheekily sapping people. I could just take an hour out to chat to some friends I met online. For 32p a day. I struggle to think of any other activity I could be paying for that would give me the same value for money.

Of course, if you’re really not interested than this isn’t going to sway you. And nor should it. This isn’t meant for you. This is for those who view subscriptions as only being better than the devil because Satan stole their shoes. This is for those who’re put off games by the need to pay per month to play. For those who use that as a reason to argue against the game, as if willingness to pay places people in the wrong. Take a step back, run the numbers, and think about it. If you feel you can’t afford it, or just don’t want to, then fair play. If you really do want to play the game, don’t let 32p a day put you off. By signing up, you’re not signing your life away, and you can unsub at any time you feel you’re not getting your worth out of it.

This may still be a little far to go though.

World of Warcraft is unlikely to go free-to-play or buy-to-play any time soon. A move to full F2P is generally a desperation move on the part of the company, and whilst WoW may be losing players, it’s still sat on more people than the rest of the market combined.

WoW, free-to-play? Maybe at some point in the future, but certainly not yet. Now go get your shoes back; I have a fiddle you can borrow.

E-sports – wait, they’re good now?

It’s been over an hour in the making. The crowd roars, the commentators scream and the final explosion signals the end of the match.

What? Explosion? What sort of sport is this? The competitors are routinely butchered, sometimes multiple times in a match-up, and only the strongest is allowed to continue onwards. What sort of barbarity is this? Oh the huge manatee! Won’t somebody think of the children? Why isn’t anyone thinking of the children?!

Put your writing tools away, newspaper readers and middle-class sentiments in us all, it’s only an e-sport. More specifically, it’s the DOTA 2 International competition, and I’ve just watched the previously invincible Alliance team come undone at the hands of the Asian superteam DK.

Plus it’s a rather pretty game. And you can eat trees.

This is my first time really watching e-sports, and I’m finding it to be a very enjoyable experience. If you’ve ever watched a sport for the first time, the process to enjoyment is much the same; settle down, learn the basic rules, and pick a side. I have some experience with other MOBA games, such as League of Legends, but the rules are easy enough to understand; two teams begin on opposite sides of the map. Each one attempts to push through to their opponents’ side and destroy their HQ. The map consists of three lanes, half initially controlled by each side.

It’s a simple set-up, but it leads to some masterful strategy. Rather than relying on brute force to push through the opponents’ towers and minions, most teams play a vicious game of cat and mouse, where either side is loath to engage on weaker terms. Heroes heal slowly, and if dead, they face a hefty respawn timer, so it’s common for a fight to end on seemingly empty terms, as the aggressor runs back to their side of the map, leaving their foe alive. But often there’s a deeper strategy at play, and forcing an opponent to use their ultimate ability can be as rewarding for the team as outright killing them. It’s a game in itself to try and out figure out the strategies being played, a game that always only be improved with alcohol.

An aid to the confused are the excellent commentators available on the DOTA 2 stream. Whilst they succumb to over-excitement during the team-fights, devolving into a fast stream of technobabble somewhat reminiscent of horse racing, their explanations of the deeper strategy at play and the next steps for the team is very welcome for those who’re new. It also gives you the ability to sagely nod and agree loudly, just to make you feel better, you poser.

I mentioned that this was my first time watching e-sports, and the largest surprise for me was the capabilities of the platform for presenting it. Rather than watching through a video stream, I’m able to watch the match through the DOTA 2 client itself, and watching the game in this way means that lag is essentially non-existent and gives the viewer the ability to survey the battlefield for themselves, moving the camera as they see fit, or choosing to follow a specific character. Or you can hand the reins over to the aforementioned commentators, who can then talk you through the game as they show you exactly what they’re referring to. For me, this was a massive boon since I had no idea what to look for and when, plus my Easily Distracted nature.

Though this match was terrible.

This has surprised me. Even in this age, and with the backing of the mighty Valve itself, I was surprised by the smooth nature of my viewing. I’ve viewed several matches now, and enjoyed all of them, and it’s been the easiest thing in the world to start watching. DOTA 2 is free-to-play on Steam, so if you enjoy the MOBA genre, give watching it a go.

If you don’t, give it a go anyway. A five GB download isn’t that much in this day and age and if you really can’t be bothered with the download you can still watch it over at the DOTA 2 website. Grab a friend, re-read my explanation of the rules, pick a team and settle down. Once the commentators get screaming, and the towers start falling, you’ll start screaming.

E-sports are as viable to watch as real sports. And I don’t know what I’m more surprised by; the fact that this is the case, or that after DK’s awful second match they managed to pull off an amazing win against Alliance. Like, seriously?

I’m off to watch the third and final match between Alliance and DK. I hope to see you watching too.

Gunpoint – from reviewer to developer.

I didn’t have high hopes for this game.

It wasn’t a lack of faith in the abilities of the writer – Tom Francis was a long-time contributor to PC Gamer, and I’ve been a follower of his blog for years now. So his skills and credentials as a writer weren’t in question. Perhaps it was the fact that this was his first game, and despite the coverage from his blog, I found it difficult to trust that his first attempt at a game would be any good. Plus, my interest in indie games of that type had seriously begun to wane. I enjoy stealth gameplay to some degree, but my preferred method of stealth has always been circumnavigating, rather than evading. Games like Dishonored allowed me to do that; skirting across the rooftops rather than evading based on a pre-established patrol route, such as that found in the Metal Gear Solid games. Gunpoint was looking an awful lot like one of the latter.

It was largely out of fan-loyalty that I bought it, and considering that I waited for it to pop up in the Steam Summer Sales, that speaks volumes for the effects of that. And my initial fears were confirmed; the main character can be placed flat on his back by a single bullet, sometimes whilst in mid-air. Death came swiftly and often, Conway all too often being sniped by the supernatural aim of the guards.

But I missed a factor during my hasty assumption of the game. Tom Francis worked as a reviewer of video games. He knows the usual gripes and bugbears of the community from experience, and he knows not only what it is that makes a video game good, but most importantly what makes them bad. And nothing kills the fun of a video game quite like having to repeat the entirity of a level based on a single mistake. There is a market for such a thrill – Dark Souls has proved that very well. But Gunpoint‘s autosave function lets you return to an instant before your death. Two seconds earlier, up to eleven. Whilst this seems like too short a period of time, the fast-paced nature of Gunpoint means that this is more than enough time to correct your mistakes and despite my many, many deaths, an autosave never meant that I was irrevocably stuck – rather, it always led to my salvation.

In one instance, I found myself stuck in a room with three patrolling guards. There was no way to turn the light off, and even if I could, my opponents were professionals, able to see in the dark and even faster on the draw than the standard guards. I had already died attempting to ambush one from behind: flinging myself from the roof, I landed atop my target, but before I had chance to politely relieve him of his conciousness, his partner had turned around and shot me in the head. The turning point had happened mere seconds before – a revert to two seconds earlier saved my life, I evaded the guards and completed my Wirejack.

It’s here that Gunpoint truly shows a brilliance; in engineering scenarios that feel like a spy movie. And the best kind of spy movie at that. The technological brilliance of Q mixed in with the absurdity of Inspector Gadget. The Crosslink device, the game’s unique point, allows the player to rewire devices on a colour-coded system. Reconnect a light switch to a door, and pressing the button causes the door to swing open. Rewire a light on the floor above to your light switch and watch as the guard suddenly can’t turn the light back on and is forced to go about his patrol in a suddenly dark room. And as we all know, the night is dark and full of trenchcoats. His switch could have been wired to something else entirely – if I had been feeling particularly psychotic I could have wired his light switch to a power socket, which would electrocute anyone silly enough to be nearby. It can get even more complex, depending on the situation; I set a switch on my level to call an elevator to a floor three levels above. The ‘ding’ of the lift arriving set off a sound detector that opened a hatch that I could then jump through. I planned and executed all of this myself, and the game facilitated every crazy idea.

In one example, I had only seconds before the guard patrolling on the balcony above would walk forwards and spot me. I was waiting for a guard two floors down to trigger a motion detector that would open the roof hatch. I tensely waited, either for the bullet that would end my sneaky life, or for the open hatch that would mean escape. Seconds before I was spotted the hatch popped open and I soared out into the night sky, a leaf on the wind.

A few moments later and it could so easily have been me that was gunned down. A single moment earlier, I might have been shot as I jumped through the hatch. I’ll never know. But I knew that if I had failed, I was going to be able to try again, instantly, without worry of having to play through the whole level again. And that’s what kept me going through the pain, the plans, and the bullets. It was fun in the purest sense of the word.

That fun extends over to the narrative. Tom’s writing is beautiful – Conway can be played as a straight-up professional, a snarky wiseass, or someone who just doesn’t care. Throw in a couple of references that the audience will ‘Shirley’ get, and you’ve got yourself a game that’s a helluva lot of fun to play.

Problems? Well, it’s a tad short, but for one man working in his part time, that’s to be expected. The storyline took me an afternoon to blow through, and whilst the option to replay older missions is present, there really isn’t much reason to do so. The writing I mentioned earlier gives some replayability with multiple choices giving multiple paths through the story line, but ultimately, it’s been a week since I finished the game and I haven’t felt much of a reason to dip back in.

The addition of community-made missions and challenges and would change that entirely. What about trying to complete a level whilst restricted to only touching the floor for a maximum of five seconds? Or without alerting a single person to your presence – a true ghost run. The achievements give a little of this, but a dedicated challenge mode would be a great addition.

I realise that I’m asking a lot of a new, lone developer, and Gunpoint isn’t a game that’ll crumble without these additions. It’s a great game, and one of the best things about it is that it still has time and space to expand. Gunpoint is good fun, and I can’t wait to see what Tom Francis surely has ahead of him in regards to adding to this game.

Go and get this game. It’s great and you’ll have a fun time.

Gunpoint is available on Steam, right now, for the paltry sum of £6.99. Tom Francis’ personal weblog can be found over here, and a free demo is available.

E3 – My hopes for the next generation

E3 is big. Like, really really big. Staggeringly big. Douglas Adams big.

That size has meant that writing a post containing all of my first impressions from E3 has been a toughie. So many great games and new hardware was on show that talking about it all would be nigh-on impossible. My initial idea was to focus purely on the games that I liked. Being a gamer, this seemed like the logical conclusion. But unlike the past few E3 events, games companies actually remembered to bring some damn games with them this year. Hell, even Microsoft brought some games this time, and Microsoft are apparently convinced that all gamers want is a magical box that controls their entire house. Even when cutting myself down to only the games that caught my eye, for good or ill, I’m still left with twenty-two games.

Um, yeah. So it’s time to write a lot, I guess.

Those twenty-two range from the massive, AAA titles that headlined E3 – Titanfall, Destiny, Ryse: Son of Rome – to the smaller projects that might not have been the focus of the main presentations, but nevertheless caught my eye – Doki Doki Universe, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot – and the announcements that were annoyingly brief, but somehow the most exciting parts of the event – Battlefront 3, Kingdom Hearts 3 and Mirror’s Edge 2. And there are thirteen more, somehow. God damn it, E3. You used to be so predictably boring. Why did you have to actually show off games this time?

So, I’ve tried to pare them down to just a few and I’ve failed. But I’ve managed to squeeze two of them into this post, in order to help me make a point about the new hardware and what that means for the gaming industry.

It’s almost as if I’m organised.

With the introduction of a new console generation comes the promise of a new step upwards in hardware across the board. You see, the limitations of consoles tend to hold PC hardware back – there’s no point stepping video cards too far ahead of the current console generation. Game developers won’t use the additional oomph delivered by the card because it’ll involve much more work on their part to scale the action down to the consoles (and will prompt much disillusionment from the console gamers, who’ll see the PC nerds getting such better graphics) and it’ll only mean that the cards themselves will depreciate in value whilst staying essentially worthless.

This isn’t to say that PC gaming is inherently better than console gaming – it’s not. The consoles enjoy their time as the ‘most powerful’ right at the start of their life cycle, where the PC hardware either hasn’t come down in price enough to compete, or simply hasn’t managed to match a system geared up primarily for gaming. What I’m saying is that the PC isn’t restricted by the limitations of the console – PCs can be upgraded more often than once every six years (the average time in the life of a console where the successor is released) and this flexibility means that the hardware for the PC begins to lag behind its actual capabilities. The release of a new console generation means the raising of that invisible barrier and means that PC architecture can again rise.

But this generation may highlight a growing problem within the industry. The Law of Diminishing Returns is starting to drastically take a hold.

Whilst the hardware has taken a step upwards, it’s harder than ever before to make the large steps in graphical fidelity that we’ve seen happen in previous generations. Graphics haven’t reached their physical zenith – I’m not so arrogant as to suggest that – instead, it’s both intellectually harder and more expensive to progress towards the ultimate. It’s more expensive, and it’s much more demanding. But the question is, do we really need it? Computer graphics today are utterly stunning and whilst we may be able to push past them, should we bother? Should we focus more time and effort into making more visually stunning games, or should the gaming industry start to focus elsewhere?

It’s an old argument, and one that I’m not looking to rehash. Gameplay versus visuals is an age-old battle in the gaming industry and we’ve seen the sides clash many times over the years. Games such as Minecraft have only served to fuel the argument, making it’s creator Notch a multi-millionaire, despite the crude, blocky graphics. And again, at this E3, much was made of an increase in graphics. The Xbox One announcement ended with a look at Call of Duty: Ghosts, a look that focused primarily on the increased graphical clout.

But there was something else. An element that was ever-so-tantalisingly revealed through E3’s many games. I’m not even sure if the developers themselves ever saw it as a big thing. It’s not specific to any one game. Rather, it’s something that can be tied into every game. And that’s polish. The details. The smallest parts of every game.

Now, I’m not necessarily talking abut graphical details either. During the Sony conference, for ever so brief a minute, we saw Kingdom Hearts 3. What we actually saw was very little; Sora, on the Destiny Islands, picking up a Keyblade. Stop the presses, Sora has a Keyblade.

Then BAM! Shitload of Heartless, tidal-waving towards Sora. Sora evades the Heartless wave effortlessly; running up a wall before vaulting onto the Heartless themselves, riding them like the perfect surfing wave before jumping off again. The video closes with a gorgeous, fliudly executed attack onto the front of the wave itself.

Fluid little details. That’s what I want from the new generation. A fluidity of movement that we’ve never seen before and those little details around that just make you believe. If graphics won’t go much higher without significant work, then why not focus that time and money into making everything else so much more believable and so much more fluid? Nothing in gaming feels better then when an independent stream of attacks look so perfect and so connected. Fighting games have known this for years. Stringing attacks together into combos just solicits that perfect feeling and fighting games live and die on their combos. Devil May Cry also knew how to make a gamer feel special – everything you did in that game made you feel like the coolest motherfucker who ever lived. It’s high time that the game industry started really getting behind that feeling.

Another game that showcased beautiful and fluid movement was Titanfall. Jetpacks are cool. The jetpacks in Battlefront 2 and Ace of Spades were great fun, but highlighted a pretty huge flaw in rising above cover in a world where everyone has a gun. Jetpacks just aren’t a huge amount of fun when sniper rifles are able to keep a watch on the skyline.

Jetpacks in Titanfall are about maneuverability and speed, not vertical jumps. The first time I saw the jetpack in Titanfall used, I knew this was something special. The jetpack was a part of the overall movement package, and not a seperate movement entirely, the thrust being used to push the player over a gap, maintained over a wallrun, and then back into a thrust that carried them onto the next rooftop. Jetpack thrusts were chained in with acrobatic parkour moves, almost as if the thrust alone isn’t enough to support the player, but can be used to make larger jumps, support the player through insane acrobatics, or dodge inhumanely fast. In a world where every player can call upon a ten foot tall mech, the ground-pounding player needs a pretty bog advantage to stay alive, and Titanfall’s jetpack movement could give that advantage.

This generation will doubtless play host to the glut of unimaginative first-person shooters that we’ve seen dominate the previous generation (with the exception of the Wii), but perhaps there’s hope for it to become something more. Perhaps the difficulties of increasing past the current graphics will cause developers to start to really polish their gameplay, smooth it out and add all those little details that we love.

And then, can we have a Star Wars game with decent lightsaber combat please?

The Goddamn Beauty of Journey

It’s so cold.

I don’t know how cold it is, but I can feel the wind tugging at my cloak. The wind pushes me hard, trying to force me back down the snowy slope. I pull my cloak snugly around my body, holding it close to keep the warmth in and my scarf streams out in the wind, frost clinging to the silky material. I lower my head and push on, leaning into the savage wind, snowflakes buffeting my face.

The steady crunching of feet on my right side slow down and the snow blows into my hood as I turn my head. My partner has stumbled. I slow as I try to speak comforting words, but the noise of the wind and the cold steals my voice away. He finds his feet and pushes onwards. I stop briefly to compensate him, and we continue our slow steady tread to the summit. Together.

This is the impact of Journey, on the PS3.

Journey is one of those games. The type of game that isn’t a game – a member of the artsy-fartsy group. People who wear tight fitting black jumpers, drink espresso and use a Mac would call it an ‘experience’. It’s something you play in order to have played it. It’s the closest thing that the gaming industry has to a hipster movement.

And usually, that means the game is crap. The emphasis on making it an experience tends to mean these games fall flat in actual gameplay.  What starts out as an interactive medium turns into a piece of art, or at best, an interactive movie. Very nice to look at, but not a videogame.

So it’s a massive surprise to find that Journey just works, and I still can’t quite figure out how. It contains everything that would normally mark it out as a crappy art game; a unique, atmospheric world, a starkly beautiful art style, a bold attitude to storytelling, and minimalist gameplay elements. But every part works and it comes together so beautifully  that although it is obviously an experience game, it’s one you want to experience. It never becomes a chore. It’s never boring to play. The world never gets tiresome.

The start is nothing special. You’re not launched into the middle of a warzone, or confronted by a grisly murder scene. You start surrounded by sand dunes. You don’t know where to go, or what to do. So you climb the dune in front of you. At you top, you look around and you see a calm ocean of sand, the sun reflecting off the surface, first blindingly, then warmly. Now you see your goal; a mountain split with iridescent light. It’s the sole landmark in the desert and it’s a visible goal that never goes away. That is the object of your journey and your sole indication of direction. It’s a simple hook that you never realise is a hook. It’s not a scramble to survive in the face of an enemy, or a drive for vengeance against an evil adversary, but it’s just as compelling. You’re given your goal in the most simple and beautiful of manners – it’s just there, and you want to know what’s at the top of it.

It’s so very beautiful.

The whole game continues in this way; you never find yourself being forced in a direction, and the only way to reach the edges tends to be through sheer bloody-mindedness. The way ahead is always obvious and always easy to find, clearly marked by being where the most interesting looking stuff is. If there’s a puzzle, it’s easily found by simple exploration; exploration that never gets tiresome because each area is new and exciting. You want to explore and sample each area. You want to dig up the hidden nuggets of information that tantalisingly reveals the history of this mysterious land that you’ve been placed into.

And this lack of context isn’t frustrating, it’s brilliant. What you know of the storyline you piece together yourself because of the absence of any dialogue. Journey supplies you with ideas. It shows you the timeline in simple pictures: the origin, the disaster, the genesis, but it never preaches. It never tells you what happens, it only supplies the clues and lets you piece the rest together for yourself. You never learn the true name of your race or silky red material is either. You’re encouraged to name everything for yourself, and to interpret the history of this stunning world for yourself. And this will ultimately shape how you interpret the game, potentially making your experience completely different from that of someone else. It feels like scholars reading the same piece of historical material and coming away with entirely different interpretations of the same thing. It becomes a living and breathing world through this lack of information, allowing it to grow organically in your own mind. D’you think the race that came before enslaved the red material, leading to their downfall? Or do you think that the benevolent masters fell through a folly not of their own making? Both are valid interpretations of the same materials, but it dramatically changes how you view the game in the end.

These different interpretations in the same world is especially poignant when that person is physically sharing your world. This is a co-op game; be signed into the Playstation Network, accept the T&Cs and another player will join your game and share your experiences. Interaction is entirely optional and you can easily play through the game without even glimpsing another player. At no point are you needed to travel with a partner. But if you stay with them and travel together, you’ll create an emotional attachment utterly unique to this game. Despite their physical presence in your game, communication between players, like the storyline, is wordless and entirely without context, but the single notes you sing and chirrup have another use when accompanied by another human.

At the start of the game, you gain the ability to jump and glide, the duration dependant on the length of the shining glyph-like letters on your scarf. Pick up another glowing glyph and your scarf extends, increasing the amount of time that you can rise and continue gliding. These glyphs are refilled on contact with the red silk, or by having another player sing to you. The more they sing and the closer they stand the more your scarf is refilled. Jumping is purely an extra tool; no part of the game requires you to jump, or doesn’t supply you with a way of solo’ing your way there, but having another player sing to you to refill your scarf adds a feeling of friendly support. That player isn’t just sharing your world, he’s supporting you, and you can return that support. The trials you face are lessened by the presence of your chum, and your bond is strengthened by these very trials that you share.

No, really beautiful.

On my first playthrough, I swapped many partners throughout the game. From area-to-area, they changed. I can’t say I noticed though and every single one of them wanted to help me as much as I wanted to help them. The nature of the journey itself made complete strangers, unable to share any words at all, bond together and support each other in order to complete the journey together.

In one area I was caught off-guard by a gust of wind which blew me back towards the start of the corridor. There was no harm done, but as I was caught by the wind, I saw my partner’s avatar twitch  towards me from his safe area, as if he was attempting to catch me. He couldn’t, and there was nothing he could do even if he had reached me save be blown back with me, but the emotional bond was there. He had seen me in trouble and he had attempted to save me. This nameless person, who I will never meet and have never shared any other form of communication with, still attempted to save me on instinct.

In a game.

And that was incredible.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the game, especially the sublime storyline, but I do want to impress on you just how good of a game Journey is. How much of an experience it is.

My friend at the start? The one who stumbled in the snow? That was real emotion. I slowed to stay with him because I wanted to do that. At this point, the bonus from singing and staying together was worth nothing, since the cold was too intense to sing and any energy we gained was instantly stolen away. But we had been together through so much and had been through so many trials together that I wasn’t not going to leave his side. Not for anything. As far as I was concerned, we were together on this journey and we were going to complete it together. And the most amazing thing is that I felt that feeling returned, through a games console, over what were likely hundreds of miles of land, from someone who I had only connected with for ten minutes at most. We were in this together, and no force in the game would part us. The same minimalist approach to storytelling that had made the world so real had made my relationship with a stranger so incredibly strong over such a short time.

The final sequence will rank as one of my favourite game experiences of all time, and at the end I watched the credits roll, emotionally exhausted, but elated. And isn’t that exactly what you want from a gaming experience? I know I do. I played it again, not expecting the same experience. But I got it again, pushing onwards to the end, a stranger by my side, forcing our way through the snow together.

And this is something that only people who have experienced this game can really understand. The destination is there in order to give you something to go towards. The sight of it pushes you onwards, drives you through adversity, sand, and snow. But when you finally reach it, you realise that it really wasn’t about the destination. It truly was all about the Journey.

I’m going to go buy a tight black jumper and some espresso now.

Sod the Mac though.