Tug of Warfare – The Games Culture Struggle

The Game Awards 2014 have represented this total weird place we live in right now, with regards to games culture. On the one hand, we have our glorious history behind us with people like Roberta Williams coming out and we have this heartfelt and real celebrations of their work, and we have indie developers come out and show these genuinely astounding and fantastical games that make us excited and seem new and like the next step forward. On the other hand, we have the super constructed world of AAA ‘bro’ culture that somehow still lives on harder than ever, with deep voices proclaiming the next trailer is a ‘WORLD PREMIERE’ and building up this constructed hype around games that look fairly similar to each other and to the last five year’s worth of games, and we have these problematic figures coming out and receiving awards proclaiming them as the voices of our culture while they promote a continuing of our male-dominated and male-oriented ‘prove it’ aspects that we’ve tried to move away from.

It is, to say the least, a bit of a crazy game of cultural tug of war.

It seems to sit between the world of real open inclusive interest and excitement, and constructed and manufactured excitement and interest over products designed to interest the few and indulge them. Take Playstation’s keynote; Sean Murray, from Hello Games, came out to show No Man’s Sky, and here you have this guy who is clearly nervous about the crowd and not a comfortable speaker but he loves his project and is so excited for it that he just has to come out and show it to you, and everyone else then gets infected with the excitement because hell, No Man’s Sky is a game to get goddamn excited about. On the flipside, we have David Jaffe, coming out to discuss a game set in a teenage boy’s notebook and its all hyperviolent, and he cussed on stage because he’s cool and edgy, and the whole experience of him being there and his game just felt like such a constructed attempt to be ‘hip’ and ‘edgy’ and appealing and indulging to what seems to be perceived as the ‘core’ demographic of games that it kinda actually hurt.

There seems to be some contingent of the games industry that still thinks like the teenage boys they were, playing games like Doom and Leisure Suit Larry, and remembering how great they thought all the violence and sexual gratification was and wanting to continue it, and constructing hype around these young male fantasies so people can try to make real buzz out of it. Obviously, these people existed before, to make games like Doom and Leisure Suit Larry, but it seems to be the developers who followed that and came into the industry as teenage boys who hadn’t fully grown up, and still haven’t, and the folk in suits who saw what money they could make from teenage boys and think that’s still the way to go. So the corporate structure and the ‘visionaries’ in charge of studios creates these games to aim at these young males (and at themselves to an extent), and the hype machine revs up for us to have this big reveals and cool dubstep or metal on the trailers and for this false constructed excitement to occur, where you get excited because the publisher wants you to be excited, so you’ll buy, rather than the developers wanting you to be excited because they’re really into their project.

But at the same time, there is a contingent, as there has always been, of developers and folk that want to create games for everyone, or at least don’t want to just play to young males and their fantasies and ideas of what games should be, who really genuinely believe and are excited in the work they do. The indie community is a great example of this; there are so many games creators who are so invested in the work they do and believe so much in their projects, and it creates infectious excitement. It becomes hard not to be excited when you see a Sean Murray or Roberta Williams come out and talk about their projects and see how genuinely invested they are in the work they’re doing or have done. Its this very genuine and very real love of games, rather than just trying to appeal to one group or make money from one group or indulge the fantasies of that one group. It makes games culture this thing that anyone could come into and understand the excitement and joy of.

But of course, how would that natural shareable excitement fit in a games culture where we constantly need to prove our status as ‘gamers’? How could we make things inclusive when its so crucial apparently that everyone prove their knowledge and experience of games all the time so we all know that they do really like games and their opinions are valid? How can we let people into our games culture and make games for them, when we can’t be sure they’re really into this for the games and they’re not just lying about being into games, because being a fake gamer is the most heinous crime? Because a crucial part of our games culture is the machismo nature of needing to prove one’s status obviously, and we could never do without it.

Or wait a second, what if we could just have things be inclusive and open and not try to have people prove themselves all the time? What if we got rid of the overt macho rubbish in games culture with regards to how we act towards each other, and we could make progress towards having inclusivity in games, and excited developers and not having constructed hype pushed towards us? What if our creative industry felt more like creatives were in charge of the process, or had a bigger say, than just men in suits pushing hype to their big new shooting game or male power trip? Because we’re like getting there. The indie revolution has made us have some progress towards making games culture and the industry better, but there’s still some space to go, so like, can we finish the job please world, and just stop this daft tug of war?

 

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The Talk – Sniper Elite 3

Sniper Elite 3 – (PS3, PS4 (Review system), 360, Xbox One, PC; Rebellion; 505 Games)


For saying there are plenty of people into stealth games and stealth games sell alright, there really don’t ever tend to be many of them. Whether its because people can already get their fix on the creme de la creme of Hitman, Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid already, or some other reason, we don’t seem to see too many new or different stealth games come out. But here we are, with Sniper Elite 3 as the first big stealth game for the new consoles. And its actually a total delight to play, and I generally loved my time with the campaign, and I’m going to have a tough time not recommending the game through all of this.

While previous Sniper Elite games seemingly put far more of a focus on linear sniping sections within urban environments, Sniper Elite 3 is set in large open non-linear environments off into the North African desert. And I feel that change does the game a great service. I couldn’t hugely get into Sniper Elite V2 because it felt very controlled and linear, and that often had an impact on how much it felt like I could experiment with my tactics, which is, to me, a huge part of a stealth game. No such problems with Sniper Elite 3 though. The open spaces allow for a lot more gameplay experimentation, and make the stealth feel so much better as you have an ability to evade and navigate around your prey as a desert predator. It also means that spots like the sniper nests become more of an optional bonus than a set piece, and that you can find your own neat little spots for more organic and less rigid sniper nests. It just really fits for a sniper-focussed stealth game to let you have that space and mobility.

The stealth gameplay is also really good in the game for pacing and such. While games like Splinter Cell can feel quite quick because its not that hard to maintain a ghostly presence, Sniper Elite really makes you work for those brief moments of pay-off and forces you to be patient. There is only one gun you can use that doesn’t make a noise, and you only have two clips for it when you enter an area, and its not a particularly long range gun. That means you’re either going to have to get up close and personal, which is very risky, or you’re going to have to play the sound-masking game, which can be very hard. By that, I mean, you have to wait until the right few seconds where a noise is happening that can cover up your sniper shot, so you can pop off a shot and watch a slow mo bullet fly through a man’s skeleton. And those seconds don’t come around often, which makes the brief moments of POW BANG WHIZZ in all the ambience and quiet all the more piercing and satisfying. Basically, the pacing on the game just feels spot on for a stealth game about being a sniper in the war; plenty of waiting but plenty of satisfaction in the brief payoffs.

That’s not to say the pacing of the stealth gameplay and being a sniper is constantly well-handled; for some reason, I assume to try and have some set-pieces or to give you satisfying and difficult endings to the campaign levels, they bring out armoured cars and tanks regularly at the end of levels for you to fight off. And obviously, as any military strategist will tell you, snipers are not equipped or meant to take out tanks, and tanks are not all that equipped or designed to take out snipers. Sure it’s cool popping the grates off a tank once or twice and blowing up their engine, but its a bit excessive if I’m killing more tanks as a sniper than most anti-tank soldiers would have been doing. Especially the mission where my compatriots with guns and a truck leave a base as 2 tanks and 2 armoured cars arrived, leaving me to fight all 4 off casually with my sniper rifle and some rockets left around the environment (the rockets are about as effective as normal, non armour-piercing bullets, which is another odd level of rubbish).

The pacing also suffers when you go outside the campaign; while games like Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Hitman: Absolution managed to maintain a somewhat diluted version of what made the main levels so good in their challenges and/or multiplayer modes, Sniper Elite 3 doesn’t quite achieve the same. The survival mode on Sniper Elite 3 feels more akin to a horde mode, which feels totally out of place in a stealth-oriented game where you’re going to have a hard time fighting off a regiment of soldiers, and the multiplayer feels more unfair than well-paced as you are simply looking for other people and if they spot you first, you’re basically dead. It kind of doesn’t really work as a balanced multiplayer game, and it certainly isn’t satisfying. So basically, when buying Sniper Elite 3, you’re paying for a fantastic singleplayer campaign and maybe some co-op fun that could be good in a totally different way.

Something I totally have to give kudos to the developers for though is how good the presentation of the whole game is. The game itself looks gorgeous, and as I was saying, I’m so very glad the developers have chosen to place the game in the North African desert as opposed to the ruins of urban Germany; the environments look fantastic, with the vibrant colours and beautiful views of desert towns and huge canyons, and it makes a fantastic change from grey dilapidated buildings. The whole graphical package, both because the environment design is better and because of the hardware jump, is just so sharp now, and this is probably one of the best looking games I’ve played this year. Also, its cool to see soldiers in short sleeves and shorts and fun explorer hats for once.

The sound design also helps contribute to the package; for once, the sound design in a game has ended up really standing out to me as noteworthy just because of how well it tied to the pace and feel of the game. Generally, the ambient sound effects are quite disparate and soft, there’s no music throughout the environment, the soldiers speak German or Italian and you don’t understand it (which is good because the thing where all enemies speak English in games is silly) and when there are active sound effects from cars or guns or feet on the floor, it pierces the quiet in this way that sits so perfectly for a stealthy sniper game. The whole thing is just immersive and satisfying in such a fundamental way because the sound design is just so damn good.

The campaign isn’t totally flawless though. As much as I may give the game a free ride for this because World War 2 is kind of a major conflict and soldiers can just be soldiers without needing huge amounts of justification and exposition to go and do missions because its their job, the story is basically non-existent around some German project about a super tank, and a sub-plot with a guy you rescue and how he dies very quickly afterwards and you take a bullet off his person and kill the big bad guy with it. I considered not ‘spoiling’ that, but I doubt the storyline is the thing that would make you keep playing the game, and its so very much of a bare-bones plot that there was not all that much way for me to dance around spoiling for anyone that hasn’t played it yet.


All in all, Sniper Elite 3 is an odd package for what you get; you get this near-perfectly done third person stealth & sniping game for like 6-9 hours, and it feels generally amazing for that time, and then if you don’t want to go back and play that on a higher difficulty for more realistic gameplay, then there’s not much more worth doing. Co-op might be cool if you get people to play it with though I think it’d ruin some of the immersion and pacing, but survival and multiplayer just aren’t at that same standard as the campaign. But if you want a great stealth game outside the old tried-and-true series, I highly recommend Sniper Elite 3.


 

Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.

Why Haven’t You Played – Alpha Protocol

Alpha Protocol (PS3, Xbox 360, PC; Obsidian; Sega; 2010)


Alpha Protocol is a game that I think most people probably know about but they just haven’t really had a good play of. Which is fair. I know I waited a solid while before I even gave the game its first go, and that first time, I did what I always do when games ask me what kind of gameplay I want to have and picked wrong. And so I got pissed with the game very quickly for my own failings. But last year, when I was first starting out as a streamer (feels a lot longer back than that), I decided to give Alpha Protocol another go because it was there in my Steam library and hey, its not a game you see much of. And I fell in love with the game during that time. Absolutely fell in love with it.

Y’see, the whole reason Alpha Protocol sits with me so well is that it fills the gap that Bioware have left with their new-found approach to the Western RPG. With Dragon Age, they have ye olde fantasy setting, and with Mass Effect, they have yonder futuristic sci-fi setting; what that leaves out is the modern realist setting, and that’s where Alpha Protocol comes in. Here you have a globe-trotting Western RPG set in the world of modern espionage and political trickery, with a fantastic conversational system, but also taking from cover shooters and stealth games when you have to pull out your gun. A game that is to James Bond and Jason Bourne, as Dragon Age is to Conan and Mass Effect is to Star Trek; your gaming interpretation of what you’ve loved in the media. And trust me, as a kid who loved espionage fiction who grew up into a teenager and an adult who still loves espionage fiction, the game fits like a glove.

A big boon to the game is how well the conversation system fits being a spy. Unlike Mass Effect, with the good and evil bits on the circle being the leading split, Alpha Protocol works on a very different system where you simply choose the tone of what you’re going to say between 4 different choices. The choices are suave a la James Bond, professional a la James Bourne, aggressive a la Jack Bauer, and sometimes a fourth option in the situation; what this means is that you get a more ‘shades of grey’ system as opposed to the garish and obtuse ‘good and evil’ system most modern dialogue mechanics use, so its a far more optimal system for letting someone choose how to behave. It also means that your status in the world is far more defined by your interactions and relationships with all the characters and how they respond to everything you say, rather than just a few tickboxes every conversation. You have to be able to read what people will and will not respond well to, and you’re not even always trying to get someone to be your friend. Sometimes the point is that you want to infuriate someone so they slip up or something. Sometimes the point is you’re going for a romance and play it up as such. To me, its far better than “I’m the good guy, here is what a good guy would say” or “I’m the anti-hero, here is what the anti-hero would say”.

The story also does a pretty good job of fitting the game into the espionage world, and not really being all that bad. Its fairly tropey in that its a fairly normal story of your organisation being betrayed and double-crossed and you’re forced into being a rogue agent, but it does a nice job fitting into modern geopolitics, which is a lot more than can be said for a lot of games set in ‘modern times’. The game also does a nice job of avoiding falling onto the defaults of Russian or middle Eastern antagonists, unlike other games like that one with the 4 in its title that is about warfare in modern times. And the characters fill their roles quite neatly, and are all a varied bunch of individuals, wich is quite nice. My personal highlight is probably the security chief guy in Italy, as I like his gruff professional attitude as an old man, and the way that he don’t take no shit even as a boss.

Final bit to talk about the majesty of is the combat, I guess. Generally, the combat is pretty on point throughout and is quite satisfying; stealth is no Splinter Cell but its still pretty fun, third person cover-to-cover shooting isn’t exactly Gears of War but it still feels damn good. The combat holds up generally though no matter the approach you take, which is good though; the issue with a lot of these first entries into the world of combat-heavy Western RPGs normally is that combat balancing can be a bit poorly done. Mass Effect 1 certainly had issues in that certain skill sets were useless compared to others, and there’s always the infamous case of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the bosses being undefeatable if you picked a certain set of skills. Now I’m not going to say that Alpha Protocol gets away from all of that, because it certainly doesn’t; the boss fights are often these very bizarre difficulty spikes for no apparent reason and I probably actually spend far more of my time with that game than I should have on those damn things. But, probably by virtue of the fact that its not a game based around lots of personal skills as well as weapon skills, you generally are fine in the boss fights, its just ensuring you have enough ammo and get used to their crazy difficulty. Unless you’re a melee / stealth scrub, then you’re just leaving yourself open to a coke-snorting Russian mobster obsessed with the 80s stabbing you to death. And its your own fault.

So yeah, here you have this game, taking a wonderful diversion from the Bioware model and creating a really cool espionage game (which you don’t get nearly often enough nowadays) in a solid believable world. Yet, there are some bugs with it and people had some issues with the launch, so it came out the gates with not fantastic review scores in a busy holiday season and everyone forgot about it. But take this as your notice to stop forgetting about it, get your hands on it if you haven’t already, and enjoy the hell out of that game, you dirty son of a guns.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Zero Shades of Grey – Morality & Games

Morality. Its a very complex social idea. How do we know we’re doing the right thing, and how will people view us for doing what we think is right? Very few of us ever take a difficult decision without thinking that its the right thing to do from our perspective and situation. Very few of us actively set out to be the bad guy or an evil person or anything like that, and we all think ourselves as good people for the most part. Its hardly a common thing for humans to look at their actions, then maniacally laugh at the malevolance of their movements; generally, the differences we see in what we do and what other people do are subtle, and certainly, everything is just positions on a grey scale.

So why the hell don’t games understand this, by and large? What is it about morality that loses any sense of subtlety and complexity within games, and turns into black and white systems of “Good guy/bad guy”. When playing games, it feels more like you make a conscious decision to play down the hero route or the villain route, than you stumble down whichever path based on your proactive decisions at any time, which kind of destroys the entire point of having a morality system really.

Consider a game like Fable, or Mass Effect. When you’re confronted with the options of what to do in a particular situation, its generally pretty obvious to any spectator which option is the “good” option and which one is the “bad” one. Often because the two actions will be something like “Save the townspeople, and be a hero” or “Let the townspeople die, because you don’t really care”. Or, one of my favourite examples from the Mass Effect series, “Let this species live in peace now they are passive and pacifist” or “Kill the last queen of the species, and let them be extinct, because they were trouble once according to the lore”. Sure, there’s an element of pragmatism there, but its pretty clear which side each decision lies on, and with these games, its very rarely the player’s pragmatism that makes the decision.

More often than not, the player will have a preconceived idea of where they’re going to lie throughout the whole game. Its very much a followthrough of the Dungeons and Dragons idea of morality; as a DnD player, you define who the protagonist is from the beginning on the lawful/chaotic and good/evil scales, and then make your decisions as part of that. Except most video games remove the lawful/chaotic scale, and just weirdly incorporate that into good/evil. In Mass Effect, the evil choices are often far more chaotic such as pulling a gun on someone to get them to confess; in inFamous, being good often means helping to keep the order while being evil means you cause chaos as you solve issues. But back to the point at hand, the idea of playing to a particular idea instead of playing pragmatically is a hand-me-down from tabletop games, and it informs a lot of the way players play, and also the way systems are designed in these games.

Even ignoring how many games incentivise going fully good or fully evil with trophies, which can be fairly avoidable by not caring, there are still plenty of games that actually lock off your abilities and full strength if you don’t go in knowing exactly which way you’re going to swing for the whole game. inFamous holds back some of the strongest abilities and ability progression behind a ‘morality wall’, meaning you must either choose to go fully good or fully evil, or risk being colossally underpowered towards the end of the game. That means pragmatism is pretty much impossible, unless you’re trying to make it even more difficult for yourself (not recommended).

Another limitation these games self-impose on player choice and morality is the fact that they clearly identify it as “this is the good path” and “this is the bad path”. Even when its hidden behind a thesaurus, like Mass Effect tries to do. If you say to a player “are you going to be good, or bad?”, it is inevitably going to produce a different result to making decisions on a situation by situation basis. It just further lets the player play it with the intention of their character being something by the end, rather than letting them play it in the present and make decisions by feel. I mean, you may be feeling like these townspeople have been idiots and they deserve to die, but you’re trying to play a hero and know the hero path is going to include saving them, so that’s that, your decision is made.

Also, by framing it as good and bad, you inevitably take away any subtlety to the decisions. Obviously, if the situations in these games were real, there would be more agonising and trying to justify it to yourself that you were picking right, but in these games, with the choices so clear and the lack of any shades of grey, you have no reason to consider and justify. Without a sense of scale and without any reason to consider and justify your actions, the decisions lose meaning and weight; sure, you let a species go extinct, but you had to because you needed those renegade points to make sure Shepard was fully evil, and its not like its going to stick with you much. It all becomes very impersonal, which kind of defies the point of having a morality system at all; if your decisions are supposed to mean something, and be a personal choice, having meaningless decisions that aren’t necessarily based on personal choice and may quite possibly mean nothing to the player kind of defies the point surely.

And if those decisions are as obviously affecting as they are in these games, it takes away any sense of surprise or shock you may have. The decisions that make the most notable impacts on the way your character’s ‘morality’ goes are often so narratively signposted that there’s no way you can go in without knowing that its a major decision. In fact, some games even make it patently obvious what’s happening by outright stating or showing it; inFamous had a small icon that appeared to indicate when a decision was going to have an effect on your moral standing, which was just beyond ridiculous. Though I suppose if you’ve already made the decisions meaningless and based on character plans and not player choice, then hey ho, who cares if they can see the decisions coming.

So there’s a lot of games now that use morality systems to try to lend weight to their narrative and to their characterisation, while also giving the player choice in how things go, and that then kind of fail to do any of those things particularly well. Which is probably as much to do with the position of writers in the development of many of these games, as it is to do with morality systems being inherently flawed or their deployment being done wrong. But just to try and bring it back around from all my negative examples, its probably pretty useful to discuss games that actually handle morality systems and ways of judging the player’s decisions a lot better than many do.

Catherine, the bizarre super-Japanese puzzle game from Atlus, has a system based on polar opposites and a scale between the two that gives you one ending or another, and all the progress along that scale one way or the other that you control is clearly done through questions between puzzles. But, despite the fact that those are things I’ve said hugely dampen what effect morality systems can have, its handled very well within the game. First of all, the opposites you’re sliding between are never stated all that clearly in the game; what the scale means is implied more and more the further you get into the game, and it is, on some level, cleared up by whichever ending you get, but its never really stated. The questions also don’t really give it away, as you’re asked hypothetical questions on relationships and your personal life with no true right or wrong, rather than given life-saving and world-changing decisions with obvious implications

Secondly, despite the fact that the narrative so clearly defines who Vincent is as a character, you don’t know Vincent enough to really be able to answer the questions you’re given from his perspective, which means they do require some thought from the player, and have meaning from that. Whatever way you fall on the scale is more down to who you are as a player, than how you’re trying to play Vincent, which makes it actually feel like an informative and meaningful experience. The questions are also relatable; unlike making decisions on whether to save an insect species in space, you’re asked questions on what you’d prefer from a relationship or similar, that you probably actually have some thoughts on anyway. All in all, Catherine’s morality system, if its possible to call it such once you get a feel for what the scale stands for, ends up feeling quite memorable and personal because you’ve considered your answers and the game has done its behind-the-scenes bits to try and sort of line you up with the ending it thinks befits you.

The other game that I think handles the idea of morality well is Alpha Protocol, mostly because it has a morality system without any real morality to it. The way the game handles it is more of a system where you have a reputation going into conversations with people based on the actions you take, though if you consider how any Bioware game handles morality systems, its basically the same, but without the poorly done hero/anti-hero scale to it. And when you take that scale away, it basically frees up the player to choose whatever course of action they feel is most suited to their situation. Because that’s how spies work: pragmatically.

From there, the game just remembers what choices you make, and feeds into it how other characters perceive you; do they see you as cold and calculating but professional, or a suave spy capable of avoiding unnecessary combat and defusing a situation, or a guns blazing crazy person? It makes more sense than having you be judged because you behaved like a good guy or a bad guy in a particular situation. As if someone like Wrex is going to talk to Shepard and be like “Hmm, you’re acting a bit evil, Shepard”. Nah, Wrex, the hardcore old school Krogan mercenary, would be like “Shepard, I understand why you made that choice, I like your professionalism, but I think you need to think a bit less about what your teammates will say” or something like that. The Alpha Protocol system just makes it feel more realistic and well handled, so the way that your actions influence people’s views of you becomes more meaningful and has more impact within the game than just “You are a bad man, how could you be so bad”. Which is dumb. So dumb.

And of course, there are obviously more games out there, I’m sure, that handle morality systems in a way that isn’t just stupidly blunt and heavy-handed. But I just hope that eventually, all games manage to do that, and that it feels less like a nice surprise when I find a game that handles it in a meaningful and reasonable way. Because what’s the point in implementing a morality system, if it doesn’t reflect real human morality at all, huh game developers?


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.

Peggle 2

The Talk – Peggle 2

Peggle 2 – (Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4 (Review system); PopCap; EA)


 

Let’s just start this by saying what we’re all thinking; Peggle is the most perfectly designed game that currently exists and is the absolute peak of game design. Fuck your Dark Souls, and your Quake, and your Counterstrike, and your Minecraft and all that. Peggle is perfection. If it wasn’t perfection, why would it be so perversely and wonderfully addictive for any gamer? From mums and dads to professional FPS players, noone can resist the lure of the bouncing ball and the Ode to Joy it brings. And if they say they can, they probably just haven’t played Peggle yet. Even though there are no excuses for that when there is a free version of Steam, Origin have given it away and Blizzard have a free version too, and the original game is on just about every platform of note over the past few years. But to return to the point, Peggle 1 (and Nights, the expansion to the game) is an incredibly satisfying, incredibly well balanced and addictive game that straddles this perfect line between logical puzzle game and chaos theory. The game’s success can be attributed to the fact that that line straddling leaves it a fantastic place as a high score game; its an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master game, almost the epitome of one, and the colour of the pegs is randomised constantly, either each shot or each try, meaning there’s no way you can truly pick the perfect way to beat each level for the optimum score, helping to at least keep away the appearance of the elite few trouncing the common Pegglers (thats a word now, I’ve used it and everything).

Peggle 2 Extreme Fever

Imagine that as my censored butt to Peggle haters.

So, on to the topic of this here new Peggle game, that I’m sure everyone remembers the announcement of, when the PopCap CEO came out and was like “YEAH PEGGLE 2 BABY” and jumped on stage and made a new console generation’s giant enemy crabs. But barring that, up until May, it’d been exclusive to a console people didn’t want, and until November, it was Microsoft exclusive. And now its on PS4, so I finally got to get my hands on it. And as someone thats actually paid for Peggle on PC, and played it on DS pretty religiously too, I won’t deny I was hyped for some more Peggle. And this game kicks in pretty nicely by harkening back to some of the most memorable things about Peggle 1 like the use of Ode To Joy on the menu, and starting out with the unicorn Peggle Master guy. However, while the experience and the gameplay may remain its same tight self, the presentation has been hugely stepped up. While I appreciate it may not mean much to some people, its nice to see that PopCap have taken this opportunity with a sequel to really ramp up the presentation and aesthetics and such, as the original is fairly restrained in a style typical of pre-major-success-PopCap.

Now the game has a much more grand atmosphere to it. The graphics are all the more colourful and vibrant, the music and sound design all the more immersive, and most importantly, when you move on the main menu, it plays the intro Ode To Joy snippet note by note, which drove me to obsessively try and play the snippet perfectly in time by scrolling up and down the main menu. Which is truly the sign of addiction to a game. Even if this isn’t even a mini-mini-game, and its just me really wanting to beat a challenge I self-imposed. Also though, the different characters now each have their own classical piece for when you beat the level, meaning that you now get more of a variety of tunes to go with your varied characters and environments and all the rest. All in all, its nice to see PopCap really push the polish like that.

Peggle 2 Bjorn

Bjorn The Red-Horned Reindeer

There are also new characters, to further prove that PopCap weren’t just sitting around on their butts the whole time this game was being made. Barring Mr Unicorn himself, the other 5 base game characters are all new, and their powers are at least slightly different from those of the original game’s cast. Each character now gets 10 levels, rather than 5 as it was in Peggle 1, to strut their stuff and convince you they play well, and from there, there are also 10 challenge levels for each set (though you finish the first one as a kind of interlude in the main 10 levels). All the main levels also have a set of 3 optional objectives to go with the basic “Hit all the oranges within your 10 shots” goal. Its a lot of content and its nice to have more focus put on having challenge levels within the game, as I believe the original game had them but buried them away until you’d slogged through the ‘story’ mode.

However though, there has been some ‘stereotypical internet complaint version of EA’ slipped into this game, as there are now DLC unlocks for bonus characters, who get the same amount of levels and such as the main game’s characters. But honestly, as they’re only £1.69, i.e. less than two single songs on Rock Band, I’m not really going to complain; for the content you get back, and the fact that having more characters is not really a necessary feature of the game, that cost is pretty solid. Especially if you consider something like Peggle Nights was a full price expansion to the original game and only gave you one more character. So as I said, cost is pretty solid, nothing much to complain about on that one for me.


 

So yeah, Peggle 2 is plenty worthy of being the sequel to the original game. Its not a necessary upgrade or anything, as you’d expect with the world of casual puzzle games from PopCap, but it is more than worth it if you’ve played the original to death and want something more from the series (and you have a console that its on). More Peggle is nothing to stick the nose up at. Now if only EA would get on getting this onto the PC, so I’d have more reason to boot up Origin regularly.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.

Castles Made Of Sand – Best Sandbox Games

Now, I want to be very clear from the start of this; I’m not saying the best games that are classed as sandbox games. What I’m talking about here are the best sandbox games, as in the best games for the sandbox they have and how fun they have made it to play in or how well they’ve used the sandbox as part of their game. But without further ado, I suppose I should get straight into kicking the article off. And another note just to be clear; these are totally my opinion, you are free to disagree with me, and these are not listed in any particular order.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2/Xbox/PC)Grand Theft Auto - San Andreas

I think this needed to be the starting point; the granddaddy of my love of sandbox games. Now I get that GTA 3 and Vice City came before this, and they had their crazy sandbox fun too, but I picked San Andreas for a couple of very basic reasons. First of all, the map is huge. It might not be the biggest sandbox map, but consider the fact that this game is nearly 10 years old, and consider how crazy it felt back then to have not just one full-fledged city, but three of them and huge areas between them as well. Yeah, them being ‘full-fledged cities’ may look silly now that GTA V is out and has put the Los Santos of last generation to shame, but nonetheless, it was crazy for the time to think about the sheer size of the map. And as I have fond memories of playing with my friend, trying to drive out and explore the world, in spite of the police kicking up 4 stars when you weren’t where you should be.

On top of that geography, San Andreas almost lets you completely inhabit the life of CJ to make him whoever you want. It may sound tedious to other people, but there really was something bizarrely fun to just taking 10-15 minutes out of gang banging to just go to one of the fast food restaurants and just bulk CJ up to make him look stupidly fat and then continue onwards. Or to go to the gym on the game’s daily cycle and just beef CJ up with the treadmill and weights and all that. San Andreas seemed like this weird progression towards integrating Sims-level control of all these aspects of the character, and I loved that. It only further expanded the whole “Well, I don’t want to do missions, so let’s go do everything but” mentality that I adore from sandbox games.

And just a little shout out for the fact that San Andreas snuck in local co-op without people necessarily noticing. Because there is nothing better than dicking about in a sandbox doing nothing with friends, as GTA Online has shown.

Crackdown (Xbox 360)Crackdown

Well, that’s two games from the GTA train now then. I love Crackdown as a sandbox game because what it essentially says is “Fuck missions, you want to chase the bad guy, he’s in the city, go do it”. Crackdown represents a game taking on the idea of a sandbox not just in your time outside of missions, but in the actual ‘missions’. There are many MANY times recently when I’ve found myself thinking about Crackdown when playing other games now that sandboxes have become even more popular; for example, while playing Far Cry 3, and that game throttling me to its narrative for progress and such, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking “This game would work far better if they just took a cue from Crackdown, told me where my friends were, and let me try and figure the rest out, like you actually would probably have to as a jungle guerrilla warrior.” I’m not going to say Crackdown had the most fun gameplay when you weren’t pursuing the story, but its difficult to say that because the story was just part of the gameplay, and everything felt so incidental. It could be very much a case of heading off to explore the city, receiving a notification from the Agency that a high-ranking gangster is nearby, maybe getting distracted by some agility orbs or something like that, and just being within the city as this crazy super-powered cop with all the gadgets and vehicles. It is, and was, basically my go-to point for a game I think current developers are ignoring too much when making their sandbox gameplay.

Just Cause 2 (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)Just Cause 2

I think most people that have played this game probably knew I was going to talk about it when they read that opening paragraph. This game is just almost at the epitome of how to give a player the keys to the world and let them run wild with it. In fact, the game’s basic progress mechanics are very much tied to the fact that the player needs to go and run wild and destroy things and kick butt and screw over the Panaun military. Destruction is almost like experience points. Considering most gamers end up descending into havoc, anarchy and chaos when they’re playing a sandbox game and get bored of story, its almost perfect design. Especially when you give them so many tools and vehicles and methods to destroy the hell out of any base that stands in their way.

And there is SO much to destroy, oh so much. The game is HUGE. And not only is the game huge but they made exploring it so fun. The exploring is so fun thanks to the crazy range of vehicles and the fact that it almost feels like a journey to start another journey. There were plenty of times that I’d need to get somewhere to grab a car, to take that car to an air base, to fight my way through the air base to get a plane, to fly that plane across Panau to get where I wanted and then just nosedive the plane and parachute out and enjoy the explosions. And it never gets old, to the credit of the game. It never stops feeling fun to go through that ridiculous process. Which is probably helped by the fact that the map never feels boring. Not only is there wonderful distinction between each area of the nation across the various islands, with the desert land and the snowy mountains and the jungles and the city, but also there are these wonderful little spots of craziness that most people will probably remember. My personal favourite was always the Mile High Club, which was kind of like a yacht held up by two giant blimp-style balloons, and the yacht was basically this huge nightclub, and it was this huge adventure to get up there and then slaughter all the guards up there and jump off or steal a plane to get away after wrecking all the destroyable stuff there.

Basically, just go play this game if you haven’t already. GO DO IT RIGHT NOW. Especially if you’re going to get it on PC, as dedicated modders created a multiplayer mode with huge ~100 player servers. And you need that in your life.

LEGO Marvel Super Heroes (PS3/Xbox 360/PC/PS4/Xbox One/3DS/Vita/Probably other stuff too/Not on ZX Spectrum though)LEGO Marvel Super Heroes

This is when everyone tells me I’m crazy and this list has now jumped the shark and I need to get my Marvel fanboying in tow, isn’t it? Nonetheless, the final game on my list is LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. In LEGO Marvel, the sandbox you play in is literally Manhattan. I can understand why that might sound a bit small, or it might not sound very fun. But the place is literally packed with things to do. LEGO Marvel is basically the mentality of the old ‘collect them all’ platforming games of the 90s (that many of the linear LEGO games take their formula from anyway) but put into a sandbox. Most street corners have got someone on them, asking for help. And if you help them, you get a gold brick, and you’ll need gold bricks to unlock the bonus areas, which will help you to unlock more gold bricks and more characters. Also, there are LOTS of characters and vehicles around the world for you to unlock through doing little puzzles or races or whatever else. I mean, even if you don’t love the game for the Marvel-ness of it and for the brilliant fun of the story and for the fact that the characters have a lot of variety in their powers and such, the sandbox itself is a fantastic little world to just spend a lot of time in. On Steam, I have 26 hours in the game, and I would probably figure somewhere between 15 to 20 hours of that are just time I spent in the sandbox doing things there, never mind what time I’ve put in on the PS3 version playing co-op.

In essence, you kind of need to play it to see how fantastic the LEGO game formula works in a sandbox. The alternative may be LEGO City Undercover (exclusive to Wii U), which they advertised as far more like LEGO GTA, but as I haven’t played it, I can’t really say.


Anyway, folks, thank you for checking out the list, and remember that these are totally my opinions. Also, remember to go play all of these games that you can. Because I said so.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.


 

Marvel

Ye Olden Golden Days – Marvel and Superhero/Movie Tie-In Games

San Diego Comic Con 2014 has now passed us by, and we’ve had lots of news and announcements and seen all the new radical and crazy stuff companies are doing. But, here, I want to talk about one particular thing it made me think about; what the hell happened to superhero games and movie tie-in games? Marvel had one of their many panels at SDCC talk about their Games division. I was following all the news and announcements and the games they were discussing, and here’s some statistics; only 2 of the games weren’t F2P, only 1 of the games is on home consoles, only 1 of the games is an actual proper PC game. And if you want an example of the kind of odd thinking that really drove me to talk about this; Marvel announced a new fighting game, with just their characters in, and then said that it was purely a mobile/tablet game. Because of course, as we ALL know, fighting games are known for their suitability to mobile and tablet formats, and have a huge audience there.

And all that got me thinking, what the hell happened to the days when I was younger and there were all these awesome games with Marvel heroes coming out and being pretty good? There was Spiderman 2, the X-Men Legends games, the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, the couple of Hulk games that let you free-roam and destroy stuff freely. And even when the games weren’t great, they still at least showed some potential to be great; I’ve played the Iron Man movie game, and while the actual game leaves a lot to be desired, you can tell the ideas were in the right place and it was still kind of satisfying to fly around as Tony Stark, and use repulsors and unibeams and rockets and all that stuff to shoot tanks and planes and the rest.

Beyond all those older things though, a lot of the games were starting to get better anyway; both X-Men Origins Wolverine and Captain America: Super Soldier were/are pretty good games. Wolverine had some pretty cool ideas for what to do with a Wolverine game, and Captain America was Arkham Asylum with a shield and Nazis so pretty cool all around. Plus there’s the prototype footage of the Avengers video game that THQ (I believe) had in development; yeah, it’s kind of bizarre that it was in first person, but also it just looked really cool on all accounts. Spiderman has been doing alright with the Amazing Spiderman games as well, as they both seem pretty good.

Yet here we are, stuck in a world where Marvel have been primarily making free-to-play mobile games for each of their films and generally. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played (and paid) quite a few of the non-film games; they’re not _bad_ games by any means, but it also feels like I was playing them to fill a bit of a void. And funnily enough, every time I find myself getting into LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, I lose interest in those free-to-play games. Because I realise that the free-to-play games really are my stop-gap for not getting enough Marvel superheroes in my gaming diet. So I find myself very glad that the Guardians of the Galaxy movie game isn’t a free-to-play game where it feels like I’m going to be nickel and dimed slowly but surely because I enjoy Marvel.

We’re not past the mobile thing though. Yes, the Guardians of the Galaxy movie game (subtitled The Ultimate Weapon) isn’t free-to-play, but its still a mobile game. Yes, the Guardians of the Galaxy will be getting put into Disney Infinity 2.0 (don’t get me wrong, I am very excited to have Marvel in that game, the original is pretty cool in my book), but its still only being an extra in a larger game which isn’t even just about Marvel. So we return to my problem, which is basically summarised as “Where the hell are my console or PC games that I can buy and play without microtransactions, Marvel?”.

In fact, I’d just be happy to get more LEGO Marvel Super Heroes with even more characters and even more area to play in and even more of everything basically. Or if you could give me more games to go with the movies, if that’d help you financially, because I know that’s always important. I literally don’t care, Marvel, just give me things that I don’t have to play on my mobile. My mobile is basically just for Marvel Unlimited, Twitter and texting by now anyway, so I’m not playing games on it. JUST LET ME PLAY SOME GAMES ON MY CONSOLE SO I CAN ENJOY YOUR GAMES AS WELL AS YOUR MOVIES AND COMICS AND KIDS CARTOONS AND ACTION FIGURES AND EVERYTHING ELSE. PLEASE, MARVEL, PLEASE.

Okay, calming down now. Thanks for reading folks.


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.