Game Over–Fighting Games

Back in the 16 bit era, I was quite fond of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter 2. I wasn’t any good at them, mind. Nearly 20 years on, I’m still no good at fighting games. Yet, every now and then I get caught up in the hype – usually of watching really good players having at it – and spontaneously buy one, promising myself I’ll put in the time to master it and eventually RULE THE LEADERBOARDS.

The last fighting game I enjoyed was Dead or Alive 4. That’s mainly because it’s pretty easy to string moves together and occasionally beat someone online who has probably never played it before. Mostly, it resulted in me losing tragically to an unknown opponent and me subsequently vowing never to play a fighting game again.

I recently bought the reboot of Mortal Kombat, and that was quite fun for a time. I played through and finished the single player campaign, and – with a false sense of ability – decided to take it online. I played around 30 matches. I won 2. That game was traded in promptly, and bitterly.

During a bored spell, I succumbed to buying Tekken 6 from the XBL marketplace (a frequent sin, I really should remove my card details so it’s not so easy). I played through it, and finished it, even though I didn’t enjoy a second of it.

I’m writing this as I’m fighting off the urge to buy Soul Calibur 4. A game I owned once before, and seem to remember enjoying, but it was traded in for reasons forgotten. I know in my heart that I won’t have the patience to learn the moves. I know that when I get beaten ten times in a row online, I’ll never play it again. But the urge remains. Why?

I swear it’s because there are no side-scrolling beat ‘em ups any more. Streets of Rage 2 is one of my all-time favourite games, and even though I don’t have the willpower to play through it until the end any more, it will always have a special place in my heart for all those summer holidays I spent with my best friend, playing it over and over again.

Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry are the closest things there are to this, and even though I actually enjoy those games, I’m crap at them too. I was literally in tears of anguish trying to defeat the end boss of Ninja Gaiden 2. I never did finish it. I still look at it occasionally, gathering dust on my shelf. It cries out to me “but I was fun! You’ll never finish me, but you can play me up until the end boss that you can’t beat.”

I do long for those short, violent bouts sometimes. However, writing this has quelled my urges for the time being. Until Dead or Alive 5, which I will master and eventually RULE THE LEADERBOARDS…

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SSX Review (Sort of. More of a witter, really.)

When I first played the demo of SSX last month, I knew that I’d be adding it to my personal library of games come pay day. The incredible speed, style and luscious graphics were very difficult to ignore. So, after playing the game for around five hours, do I regret buying it?

I was quite daunted at first, once I’d cleared the tutorial ‘drop’. (Note: Drop is the term used for a section of mountain a player will play on. The SSX equivalent of a racetrack.) As it quickly became apparent that I’d need to develop quicker reflexes in order to be any good at the game. The obstacles in your way, even in the early drops can be pretty frustrating if you haven’t worked out the controls. Once you’ve mastered them, the game becomes a lot more satisfying to play as opposed to clunking through levels, smashing into trees and the occasional downed airplane.

It’s very easy to keep your finger perpetually pulling back on the boost trigger, which isn’t a clever idea at all. For starters, you can’t turn as effectively while boosting, and you’re going to need to be able to manoeuvre through the drops before even considering tricks or boosts.  Another thing is that unless you are continually tricking down a slope, you don’t get an awful lot of boost. So you need to use it wisely. Like a racing game, it’s going to do no good boosting as you’re about to take a corner, because you’ll, like, totally wipe out. Dude.

You also need to get out of the habit of holding down the jump button for ages to prepare for massive spins. You can’t turn very well while crouched, as holding down the jump button and turning will prepare your character for a very quick spin, instead of turning the board.

The problem is, with the breakneck speed of the game and how many obstacles there are to overcome, it can be difficult to get to grips with initially. I’ve been playing for five hours and my fingers still want to boost through a level, jumping at any given opportunity. Resisting that urge and planning your route through a level is rewarding and satisfying. SSX gives you the potential to pull off some really crazy tricks, and charge through a level without breaking a sweat. Providing you can put the time in to get comfortable with the setup.

The levels themselves are mostly cleverly designed, and offer multiple routes down. And when I say multiple routes, I mean loads. On one mountain, you can grind a pipe that takes you past a thick tangle of trees and posts, but doing this will set back what tricks you can perform. The other route would be to hit all the ramps and risk wiping out on the scenery. Or you could just flip over that part of the course and hurtle down a vertical drop to get to the finish. Your strategy will vary depending on what kind of event you’re playing. There are some really difficult courses as well, with lots of hazards and death drops as opposed to the clean lines and ramps older SSX gamers might be used to. This can be frustrating and I wish that there were more accessible drops for a nice, fun ride.

There are three events to choose from; race, survival and tricks. Race and tricks are self explanatory, but survival is something entirely new in the SSX franchise, and isn’t always to its benefit. Pitting you against natural obstacles and dangers, each survival drop has a characteristic of either ice, avalanche, trees, oxygen or whiteout. To combat these levels, you will need to spend the points accrued in previous races on new gear. Disappointingly, this doesn’t include the level of customisation offered in SSX 3. Clothes models stay the same but have different skins, which seems lazy considering customising your character almost a staple of modern gaming now, and it was a very cool feature of SSX 3.

The gear available to buy is split into armour – when you’re expecting to bounce off trees for most of the level, ice axes – for effective turning on ice, pulse goggles – for vision where there is whiteout and an oxygen tank for really high drops like Everest. There are additional items like wingsuits (there are some levels with bottomless pits to cross) and headlamps (there are some levels with pitch-black tunnels).

The problem is, aside from the wingsuit, these new options aren’t much fun to play. I didn’t like having to press a button to take a breath from my oxygen tank in the middle of a tricky few jumps. I liked the idea of the reverse camera and escaping from an avalanche, but it’s difficult to tell exactly what’s coming ahead and how high your jumps need to be to avoid obstacles.

The graphics aren’t anything special, they’re not ugly by any means, but nothing really stands out. I’d probably appreciate the engine more if there were replays that I could take time in appreciating. As you’ll be moving so fast and trying to pay attention to lots of things at once, the graphics are easily missed.

The soundtrack is probably the weirdest selection of songs I’ve (never) heard. There are a couple of fast paced drum and bass tracks that work well with the game, but a lot of them are ambient or just irritating modern ‘grime’ tracks. Thankfully, SSX gives you the option to use your own music mixed into the game instead of playing it through the media blade. This is quite an impressive feature, with the music fading out as you get huge air and slamming back in as you land. It also gets mixed in with the remixed Run DMC track ‘It’s Tricky’ when you activate tricky mode.

A lot has been made of the absence of any ‘real’ multiplayer mode. SSX tries to innovate with a system that allows you to play against your friends even if they’re offline. I think it works well. I like being able to compete in global events without having to listen to smack talk from people who are a lot better than me at the game. You vie to get the highest trick score or clear time possible, and the game puts you in a bracket depending on the scores of other participants. Anyone within that bracket gets a share of the SSX gold, which you can use to buy more gear or unlock new characters or drops. This is all upated via the RiderNet system, an information hub that you can bring up at any time. It’s inspired by the awesome Autolog system from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, so you challenge your friends at any event, any time.

Closing Comments

I like this game a lot, and even though I’d like split-screen like the older titles in the series, I’m not sure I’d be missing a whole lot. Download the demo, if you’re not interested by the end of it, then this game isn’t for you.

I don’t know how to rate games accurately, so I’ll just say:

Awesome, and well worthy of your time.

Treatment for Skin Cancer vs. Football

I was just listening to the radio, and there was a quick news round-up. The presenter flatly announced that a new drug to treat skin cancer has passed clinical trials, and it can extend lives in cases that were deemed inoperable. He provided no further details than that. I kind of thought that would be big news. Anyway, he quickly moved on to spend five minutes talking about who scored against who in the football. He went into the details of player transfers and an interview with a coach of some team or another.

I wish this country would get its priorities right!

Should we ever find the secret of eternal life, the report would probably go something like this:

“Scientists have found the secret of eternal life, a study found today. The new drug called Ultralife is almost 100% effective in providing immortality. In other news, Manchester United have a new mascot after the controversial change of nickname from the Red Devils to the Red Monkeys. We go live to the stadium for an exclusive interview with Bucky, the red monkey. Then, after the break we’ll have a debate about whether the mascot change will benefit the club, and what fans have to say about it.”

I Am Alive – Review

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Six years in the making. A troubled development cycle. Is I Am Alive a survivor?

I’m a sucker for post-apocalypse fiction. I love the idea of an exciting and dangerous new world, I guess. Okay, so billions will have to die so I can have my fun, but you can’t make an omelette without cracking some eggs. I Am Alive is a post-apocalypse survival game, where you play a normal man trying to survive in an anything-but-normal world.

So, the end. I Am Alive takes a leaf out of Cormac McCarthy’s book (pardon the pun) and doesn’t explain exactly what ‘The Event’ is. All that we are told is a number of earthquakes shook the planet for weeks, causing buildings to collapse and a thick layer of choking dust to appear on ground level. The Event killed millions, though the game isn’t clear on how much of the planet is affected.

You play the role of an unnamed man trying to get through the skewed and dangerous landscape to his wife and child. The problem is that the dust shaken from the earth is impossible to survive in, so much of the game is spent traversing toppled skyscrapers and climbing around modern day ruins in order to survive. The other big danger is the other survivors who – after a year surviving in the wreckage – have grown to be untrusting of others as society has become survival of the fittest.

i-am-alive-pc-ps3-x360-screenshots-2-580x323The climbing sections of the game are tense to say the least. Rather than being some kind of superhero character like Ezio from Assassins Creed, you have a stamina meter that slowly decreases during your ascent. When it reaches zero, you will fall and die. This is a game changer for the climbing/platform genre as you need to prepare which way you will go first. You have a few helpful items on hand, like pitons that you can shove into the face you are climbing for a life-saving rest, but they are few and far between. The climbing isn’t hard to control, but planning your route up the side of a skyscraper can be difficult when your stamina is diminishing in front of your eyes. When you finally plant your feet on the roof, you and your character will sigh with relief in unison. The only real complaint I have with the climbing is it can occasionally be difficult to see what is climbable, which can cause some frustrating retries of a section.

Another feature to keep the tension up is the lives system. For each checkpoint, you have a base amount of 3 retries. Once those are used up, you go back to the last auto-save, which are also pretty scarce. In the hardest difficulty mode, you have no retries. Once you die, you start again from the beginning of the game. I Am Alive likes tension. And frustration.

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I Am Alive isn’t all climbing. You will come across groups of survivors who may be hostile, cautious or in need of help. While these encounters aren’t all that varied, they do take some thought to beat. For example, you very often have no bullets for your gun. So, you can bluff by pointing your weapon at the enemy. They will back off and raise their hands in the air. You can tell them to move back, giving you time to run, or you can kick them off the edges of buildings. Occasionally, they will drop to their knees and surrender, giving you a chance to knock them out instead of killing them. Other times, they will see your bluff and come at you, machetes in hand.

Sometimes you will need to feign surrender. By default, your character will raise his hands and try to placate the hostiles. They will move in to surround him. During this time, you need to prioritise who is the biggest threat. So, the guy with the gun comes up close, you slash his throat with a surprise attack and collect the ammo from his body. You can then shoot the next closest enemy and force the other one to surrender. Whilst this combat isn’t overly fun, it fits the mood of the game nicely and is another tense addition to the survival.

The graphics engine is a little dated, using the LEAD engine that was used in Splinter Cell: Conviction. But we’re talking about an XBLA game, not a full release. It looks great for an arcade game. The animations are mostly smooth, but the lip-sync during dialogue or cutscenes is terrible.

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The dust layer works well as a mask for the obviously limited draw distance, and is suitably bleak and moody also. There are never more than a couple of colours on screen, as the colours are all but de-saturated. This has been criticised in other reviews, but I think it lends itself well to the atmosphere of the game.

The sound is so-so, and probably the weakest part of the game. It sounds like the directional sounds aren’t working correctly, so when you hear a voice in the distance that sounds like it’s coming from in front of you, it’s actually above and behind you. It takes a while to get used to and is a bit jarring. The voice acting is average, with no real emotion given to any of the characters, but there aren’t any dodgy accents here either.

The game lasts around 6-7 hours and has a strange, out-of-place scoring system that gives you a percentage score that takes into account how often you’ve died, how many survivors you’ve saved and items collected. I’m not sure if this would make me want to play it again, however.

I Am Alive probably isn’t all that it could have been, but it provides an interesting, tense experience that you’re unlikely to forget for a while. Having said that, with the dated engine and limited combat options, I hope Ubisoft will work on a full retail release over the next couple of years.

Electronic Cigarettes – Do they work?

I’ve been a smoker for nearly ten years. Ten years! As I contemplated this fact, I decided I needed to take steps to get myself off this crap. Having zero willpower and having tried nicotine patches and gum before, I wanted to try a new approach. Not to mention that when I stopped smoking previously, I constantly felt like I wanted to injure people if they pissed me off, which was often back then.

Not long after I made my decision to quit, my brother showed me this interesting new device:

ego-w electronic cigarette;It’s called an Ego W Cartomizer. Or, generically, an E – Cigarette. Liquid is dropped into the upper cartridge – or cartomizer – and then the battery heats up coils in the cartridge to create a vapour. What this does is gives the user the sensation of smoking, but providing only nicotine vapour to dull the cravings. The advantage to this is that there is no tar, cyanide or any of the other pretty gross chemicals found in cigarettes and rolling tobacco.

There are all kinds of makes and models of these things, and I’ve found it a little difficult to get started as it seems the technology behind this gadget is evolving at a fast pace.

There are still medical arguments as to the health benefits of using E – Cigarettes instead of smoking normally. I have personally found it to be really useful. Apart from my recent trip to Amsterdam, I haven’t smoked in five weeks.

I’m not sure of whether it’s healthier or not, but it’s nice not smelling of cigarettes. It’s nice not to get nicotine stains on my fingers or teeth. And it’s awesome because I can now smoke inside while I’m blogging instead of having to stand outside in this forbidding, cruel English climate.

So the final verdict from me is this, I haven’t smoked a cigarette in weeks and I don’t feel any worse for it. The plan for me now is to gradually decrease the amount of nicotine concentrate until I reach zero. Then I’ll put it down for good. Until then, I’ll continue to vape as opposed to smoke, because it does feel better not to be smoking.

Returning from Amsterdam

That was an interesting trip. For the first time in four days, I can remember the whole of my postal address.

Truly, though, I am taken aback by how amazing Holland – or maybe just Amsterdam – really is. Not just because it’s pretty much legal to do anything there (as long as you do it in the right place), but because I’ve never been scared of cyclists before. At crossings, cars will stop and allow you to pass. These crazy Dutch cyclists will literally come straight at you, with complete lack of fear or regard. I’ve come to think of them like Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. Turn your back on them at your peril. Sadly, that lesson took a long time to master as I was intermittently filling my brain with narcotics. Thankfully, my broken leg is mending wonderfully, and I only have to wear a patch on one eye.

Smoking weed aside, there was a fair bit to do in Amsterdam. We went to the Sex Museum, which wasn’t so much interesting as it was a little bit unnerving, basically checking out some serious hardcore pornography in public, all niches accounted for. Quite interesting when you have to point out to an elderly couple what was going on in the ‘pissing’ section.

We went outside Anne Frank’s house, for fear that being inside might make our cheerful holiday a little more pessimistic. We went outside it, though, and it looks like any other modern building from behind the gates and glass. I’m guessing they’ve kept in intact indoors, or it might lose its tourism value. I can almost imagine a tour guide saying “…and this is what Anne Frank’s place would look like if she were into designer collections and Twitter.”

A lot of our time was spent buying ridiculous amounts of food, for the nights at the hotel. Eating out in Amsterdam is pretty expensive if you don’t want a hooker serving it to you. What I will say is the food and customer service are fantastic there, almost everyone smiles when spoken to and seem to take a great deal of effort into their jobs. It’s a world away from what the UK is like at the moment. Oh, and EVERYONE speaks English, so for those who don’t enjoy foreign tongues, it’s pretty easy to get by over there. Just don’t try sarcasm, they don’t get it. When someone asked why I was over in Amsterdam, I said “oh, I like the shape of the buildings and being surrounded by homicidal cyclists”. Their response: “oh. Well, Rotterdam also has a lot of cyclists. They also have some buildings”.

Rotterdam next, then!

Although I really enjoyed my time there, I was very happy to get back to my girlie, my bed and my fridge.