M-M-M-MONSTER KILL! (Unreal Tournament)

My father bought the PS2 version of Unreal Tournament off eBay when I was around eleven years old. It seemed like a bit of a random purchase, considering we didn’t typically buy stuff online, but perhaps he was interested in it; perhaps he thought I’d be interested in it. If he thought the latter, then my goodness did he turn out to be right.

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Unreal Tourmanent on PS2, in an exclusive map.

Unreal Tournament was the first FPS I ever played. To start with, I was somewhat dumbfounded by the controls, but after many agonizing hours of running into walls and falling off elevators, I got the hang of it. I came to like this new breed of game (from my experience), and then I came to love it. After many hours of fragging (always Free For All), I came to believe that I must have been one of the greatest Unreal Tournament players in the world, having become able to dispatch bots on Inhuman difficulty in both normal and Instagib modes with ease. This was, of course, innocent childhood arrogance that was quickly dispelled upon my first treading into online multiplayer waters.

I played the console version of Unreal Tournament for many years before I finally acquired the PC version, and a PC to play it on. I believe I’d already played some FPS games on PC, and had gotten used to the controls there, but that didn’t stop me from having to re-learn how to play Unreal Tournament after losing to average bots. I was also overwhelmed with the new amount of maps and characters and options there were. This, I realised, was the full version of Unreal Tournament, and not that junior version over on the console (although the PS2 did have some unique maps which I still miss to this day). Once I’d re-acquainted myself with the gameplay on PC and made myself at home, I figured I’d venture into the online servers and kick some butt over there.

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Somebody head rolled allll the way down.

Unreal Tournament, at this point, was already almost a decade old. I failed to account for the fact that the only remaining playerbase would therefore be one of hardcore fans who’d played for hundreds, possibly thousands of hours more than I. They were also multiplayer veterans in the sense that they didn’t train themselves on bots; they were used to the unpredictability of players, which rivals that of even the highest level bot. Needless to say, the walls of Deck 16 were painted red with my repeated loss of blood and limb.

And dignity.

I decided to stick to bots, mostly because I didn’t feel like sinking hundreds of hours into getting as good as the hardcore players around me. I’m not a particularly competitive gamer, certainly not enough to warrant such a commitment of time and frustration. If I’m competitive at all, it’s in the sense of single player progression; I’d happily do some sort of achievement race, and often try my hardest to get the rarest achievements in a game. But dying over and over in the hopes of getting better and defeating strangers I’ll never meet again? Not my cup of tea. Not to say that that’s a bad way to play, of course. If you find something fun, do it!

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The one thing I dislike about UT2004 is the design of the pulse rifle.

A few years ago I got my gaming-capable laptop, and bought all the Unreal Tournaments on Steam after having been deprived from the sequels for so long. I remembered looking up videos of Unreal Tournament 2004 and longing to play it, but having an awful PC and no money. UT2004 may be my favourite of the Unreal Tournament games, partially for how it looks; it has an aesthetic which ages incredibly well. There’s also a fair amount of tweaks to the movement, and of course, a different selection of maps. It’s my go-to fragfest, if I want to kill a few hours with a podcast.

I vividly remember reading about “Unreal Tournament 2007” in a gaming magazine on a long road trip and becoming highly excited. This would go on to become Unreal Tournament 3, the estranged cousin of the franchise that nobody’s really certain about. Epic decided that combining the grittiness of Gears of War with the happy-go-fraggy gameplay of the previous games was a good idea. It was not. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, though, as I’ve spent a few hours playing it and whilst it’s not currently installed, I can see myself going back to play it in future. Maybe for the achievements- yes I’m aware that I have a problem.

I’ll quickly mention that they’re making a new Unreal Tournament that’s completely free, and it’s playable now. However, last time I tried to play it, it was very unoptimised and my PC didn’t like it, so I’ll wait for the full release and hope that it gets better. I’m very pleased that the folks at Epic decided to make another Unreal Tournament. It’s awoken a dead community from the slumber of eternal replayability.

The entire reason I’m writing this blog post is because of a series of events which happened yesterday. The website Bundle Stars was selling a Quake bundle which I was tempted by, but ultimately did not end up buying because I’m currently as rich as the quality control in a Ubisoft game. I then remembered Quake Live, the formerly free to play Quake game which I’d dabbled with for about half an hour in the past. I say “formerly free to play” because an interesting turn of events has taken place; the game, which had been free to play with a premium service for the last five years, is now listed as costing £6.99. I’m not sure when this happened, but it was sometime this year. People are furious, because it’s no longer free and it reset everyone’s progress, but I’m in the rare position of being better off for it as the premium service no longer exists and the game is already registered to my account! Having access to all 100+ maps, I decided to give it a proper spin, and learning this alternative (let’s be honest, probably original) arena shooter for the first time caused me to reminisce about my first time playing Unreal Tournament. I do miss the announcer from UT, though.

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The Diversity We’ve Lost (Darksiders and the Gaming Industry)

Yesterday, my friend brought Darksiders 2 over for me to try out, thinking I’d like it. And he has good taste! It’s now on my to-buy list, after I play the first game. For me, the game hearkens back to the PS2 era, where games held more of a unique flare to them.

I only played the first few hours of Darksiders 2, but it was brilliant. That game is an intertextual haven for other genres, and it pulls it off flawlessly, without falling into the trap of trying to be too many things at once. It has the combat of Devil May Cry, the dungeons and lock-on combat of Legend of Zelda, the loot system of games like Dark Souls and Diablo; galloping through open fields and finding gigantic bosses is reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus. It even has a portal gun, if my friend is to be believed. And it does this all without feeling like it’s stealing from other games, or being unoriginal; it’s taking the best of other genres and blending them into the most delicious smoothie you’ve ever tasted. Unless you don’t like smoothies, in which case you’re like me, and we should head for the milkshakes immediately. And if you don’t like milkshake? Well, you’re beyond saving.

This game is more than just a love letter to the gaming universe, however. It has its own unique plot involving the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, multiple realms of existence connected through one world tree, that kind of thing. Similarly to its gameplay, its story takes influences from all kinds of places, whilst still making it unique. They have dwarves who are huge and built like tanks! Like I said, I only played around in the game for a few hours so I can’t exactly do a review on it as such, but even within the first few hours I was able to identify the game’s shining features.

And the art design! That is how you do art design. Not just the weapons you wield, but the very world around you is just delicious. From the vibrant green fields to the luminescent lava pools, this game will make your eyes pop out with happiness. And I was playing this on a PS3!

When I mentioned the PS2 era of gaming earlier, I was talking about how diverse the game library was for that system. Sure, you had your Need for Speeds and FIFAs, and Call of Duty was still making its baby steps towards competitive multiplayer… on console, anyway. But then you had Motor Mayhem. And Ratchet and Clank. You had Jak and Daxter transition into Jak 2 of all things, you had RC Revenge and Fur Fighters and Shadow of the Colossus, you had Wipeout and Smash Cars and you had god damn Road Trip Adventure, a game which I will surely cover in the future; it didn’t know whether to be Penny Racer or an RPG. And, hell, does anyone remember Herdy Gerdy?!

I’m not discounting the games we have today. Borderlands was a brilliant mesh of gaming genres. But it was an FPS. And in my eyes at least, Destiny is a different flavour of Borderlands, with a little bit of Halo mixed in there, asking me to buy ridiculous emotes as opposed to unnecessary character skins. And these games are all first person shooters. When I was a child, I used to read gaming magazines – my favourite was Games Master – and I used to enjoy reading through the many varieties of upcoming games that looked interesting and fun, and new. And I remember buying one of those gaming magazines for the first time since the 360 and PS3 came out, a few years after, and being disappointed that everything had descended into gritty shooters. Although the grittiness, to be fair, is something we seem to finally be leaving behind, as can be seen from the transition between Fallout 3 to Fallout 4, between CoD: World at War to CoD: Advanced Warfare.

Indie titles have been a step back towards this era of gameplay, and it’s something that’s really taken off in the last four or five years. We’ve had Bastion, for example. We’ve had Super Meat Boy, we’ve had The Binding of Isaac, we’ve had Trine. But these games are noticeably smaller in size, which is understandable given the limitations of independent resources and the lack of funding. When are we going to see an influx of unique games on the scale of Okamiden?

Probably not any time soon. Much as I’m sure we all hate to admit it, the gaming industry is an absolute mess right now. We’ve got DLC and microtransactions being enforced by corporate greed, ruining the integrity of the gameplay; we’ve got an oversaturation of half-baked indie titles burying truly talented games, and early access allowing developers to lose motivation after recieving a released game’s worth of money for an unfinished product; we have publishers rushing out titles before they’re finished, leading to broken and buggy gameplay.  The free-to-play model has leaked off of phones and into our consoles and computers, providing the most expensive, paywall-ridden games to date. We’re in a new age of online discussion and vocal minorities, harassing developers to make changes to their upcoming games which show of overly ambitious, unique changes that we don’t like because we’re already invested in the series. Seriously, never has game development been so public to its consumers, and people now more than ever are falling prey to the trap of judging a game many many months before it has been polished and balanced into its final release. And the developers understand this, but the pure visceral nature of community backlash is what forces them to change things.

But as long as games like Darksiders 2 can exist, there’s hope. And it’s not all bad; there are new indie titles which are brilliant, and early access games which have been a huge success. Hell, once in a blue moon we may even see a triple-A title like Darksiders emerge. It’s just a vastly different gaming world to the one we’ve known before, and whilst modern games shouldn’t be discounted for their progress in furthering entertaining gameplay, I, personally, would certainly welcome some miraculous transformation back into the diversity of the PS2 and previous consoles.

Glorious Gratification (Bejeweled 3 and Achievements)

They told me I had a problem when I entered a room with patterned wallpaper and pressed myself up against the wall, scouring for matches of three. “Look!” I cried, “This butterfly could get us hundreds of points if we swapped it with that ladybird! Think of the points!” And then I began frantically scrabbling at the wall until they took me to a quiet room for a while.

I’ve recently begun trying to get 100% of the achievements in Bejeweled 3. As of this time of writing I’m at 88% completion, or 57/65, and there’s only a few performance related achievements left I’m struggling to get, most of them in Ice Storm mode. I usually pop on an old Rooster Teeth Podcast, boot up the game and match until I can match no more. Since my endeavor began a few days ago, my game time has shot up from 6 hours played to 18, and after whiling away for so long and coming so close to completion, I felt it was time to address my lust for achievements.

The original idea for achievements was to allow for competitive gaming even in single player games, and I suppose that it does that pretty well. They became so much more, however, when given the wider context of profiles. On Playstation, Xbox and Steam, achievements are displayed as a public metric on your profile to measure how much of a game you’ve played and what specific feats you’ve, well, achieved. Playstation shows it in Profile Levels, Xbox in Gamerscore, and Steam in a few ways: the number of achievements, how many you’ve perfected, and that god damn average completion percentage. Mine is at 20% and it’s become a sort of metagame to earn at least over 20% of a game’s achievements before I put it down.

This is why I like achievements. I know nobody is going to sift through my account and look at what I’ve done, or feel impressed by my showcase of my rarest ones. It’s more of a personal endeavor. It gives me a goal to work towards within my games and it’s shareable. People don’t care about individual achievements, but I enjoy being able to tweet a screenshot of a 100% completed game; in the past, I could have done it with a credits screen, sure, but I like having some sort of digital trophy for it. It’s hard to explain. I probably like it for the same reasons I’m attracted to Runescape. The accomplishments may be arbitrary, but they’re sure as hell gratifying.

I also find that achievements keep me playing and enjoying a game for longer than I otherwise would have. Had there been no achievements in Bejeweled 3, I wouldn’t have gone back to play it as much as I have, and whilst some may see it as a pointless grind, I’m actually enjoying my time in the game. And that’s what really matters. They encourage you to play the game in a different way sometimes, for I’d never have begun playing some of my favourite game modes if there were not achievements in them. And some of them even have pretty little pictures in the thumbnails. It may be silly, but if I’m playing a game that doesn’t have an achievement system in it nowadays, I can’t help but think that something is missing. It sways my opinion on if a game is worth buying, although that’s probably taking it a little too far.

Achievements can also be done wrong. Achievements such as “play the game for 8,000 hours” or “get 1,337 kills with this particular weapon in multiplayer” in a game that nobody plays. Games which require you to start a new save file if you fail to collect or trigger one thing for an achievement. Nobody wants to be dealing with that. Difficulty tune your achievements, make them fun for us to get, not some metric for measuring the average user’s playing time. I’m looking at you, Garry’s Mod!

But anyway, if you’ll excuse me, the gems are calling me… as is the life of overwhelming emptiness when I finally attain 100% achievement status.

Music To My Thumbs

When I was younger, I scoffed at the notion of soundtracks and sound design being an important aspect of video game development. I’d never taken the time to appreciate what it adds to the atmosphere, to the aesthetic, and therefore dismissed it as a minor piece of the puzzle. But growing older, as I came to learn more about what’s behind the screens (sorry) of video games, I finally realised why playing a game on mute makes it less enjoyable.

I can actually remember the first time I sat up and took notice of soundtracks. I was watching Youtube Let’s Player Chuggaaconroy making note of the soundtrack in the game he was playing, and it occurred to me for the first time to pay attention. (I think it was in his Super Mario 64 Let’s Play, but this was a very, very long time ago, so I may be wrong.) I must have been about thirteen or fourteen. I don’t know why, but it acted as some sort of switch, because every game I’ve played since then, I’ve picked up on whether the soundtrack is good, or even good enough to listen to independently of the game. I’ve even bought a few soundtracks; Robot Roller Derby Disco Dodgeball’s soundtrack isn’t my typical choice of music, but it’s very nevertheless much enjoyed.

One of the great things about a good soundtrack is the way it stays with you, eventually drawing you back to the game. I’m sure most of us will be able to hum Sonic’s Green Hill Zone under our breaths with hardly a moment’s hesitation, revisit Pokemon’s Lavender Town or evoke the Legend of Zelda with a good ol’ rendition (see: butchering) of the Song of Storms. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been dragged back, kicking and screaming after being hit by waves of nostalgia or that creeping realisation that you never truly 100% completed that game.

And then there’s those soundtracks that stand on their own. I’ve not played any Final Fantasy games, but one dosage of One Winged Angel was all I needed to become interested in the character and story of Sephiroth, a character whose demonic tendencies were introduced to me immediately through the frankly outstanding soundtrack. It led me to find the somewhat more metal version of the song, found amidst the Advent Children animation of Cloud vs Sephiroth. (I’d go ahead and listen to the original game soundtrack first. It’s excellent by itself, but the metal version adds a whole new layer of sound that will make the original feel lacking if you listen to them back to back.) In fact, in writing this, I’ve now become addicted to the damn song again! It’ll take an absurd amount of time to break out of this.

Right, well, if you survived that sea of hyperlinks and still have the remaining attention span to finish reading this blog post, then I have the ability to finish writing it.

Whilst I have my issues with narrative-driven game Life Is Strange (some of which are born from the fact I’m not exactly the target audience), I also have many commendations for it, one of which is the soundtrack. Without it, I’m not sure I would have been interested in the story so much; the songs chosen to portray emotion in the game are sometimes whimsical, sometimes deeply resonating and usually a combination of both. Whilst I may not have liked Chloe and didn’t identify with colloquially-defunct Max, something about the setting and plot of going through life challenging issues during teenage education reached out to me, and the soundtrack was the rope that tied me to it. And for all of its flaws, both critically and personally founded, I’m glad I was able to experience it. Again, the soundtrack to this game isn’t the kind of music I’d usually listen to, but I highly value it and regularly go out of my way to listen to it outside of the context of the game.

Well, anyway, I believe I’ve left you with enough music to listen to should you be so inclined. If you’d like to hear more about my typical choice of music and thoughts considering the matter, click here. Or, if you’d like to read up on my thoughts considering narrative driven games such as Life Is Strange and its contemporary counterparts, click here. Or do none of those things. It’s up to you, honestly. You’re probably all hyperlinked out by now.