The State of Play – The End of Nintendo?

I write this article with the realisation of a man who can no longer ignore the inevitable. Like a doomed passenger onboard a slowly sinking ship, I can do what only one can do in times like these: embrace the end, remember better times and try to fathom where it all went wrong.

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I, like many gamers, began my journey into video games with Nintendo. I’ll never forget unboxing my first console – the Super Nintendo Entertainment System – back on a Christmas morning at the beginning of the 90’s. My young mind could never comprehend the path my life would take as video games would become my favourite way to spend my free time. The console itself is my most treasured, and some of the games released on the platform I count amongst the greatest I have ever played. I have many things to say about the SNES and its accompanying sublime titles, but that is for another day.

Long before the powerhouses of Sony and Microsoft arrived on the console scene, the video game world was dominated by two console manufacturers – Nintendo and Sega. The legendary rivalry between these two titans of gaming needs no introduction, anybody growing up in the 90’s knows all too well the history of this classic feud. As a gamer you picked a side. And you stuck with them, to the end.

Last week details emerged about Nintendo’s newest offering into the console market – the Nintendo NX. News like this to my 90’s self would no doubt have sent me babbling to my parents and informing them that I know what I want to be on my Christmas list in a year’s time. But reading the news today I was left feeling a little empty and for the first time I felt sorry for Nintendo. The general feeling from the gaming press and fans alike is one of disappointment.

The news that the NX won’t be as powerful as this generation of consoles was the first nail in the coffin. Nintendo say that they won’t compete with Sony and Microsoft in the power department. Not since the N64 (for me, the Japanese company’s last great offering) has Nintendo lead in the power department – that was 20 years ago. The design of the system seems to be causing a certain amount of confusion too, much like it’s dog turd of a predecessor – the Wii U. The general consensus is that the system will be some kind of a vague “hybrid” between a home console which is can also be used as a portable. What this means for the 3DS is anyones’ guess. Seeing as the 3DS is Nintendo’s most lucrative product within the market, it would seem like suicide to take the focus away from it.

Then there is the release of the worldwide phenomenon that is Pokemon Go. Nintendo’s stock rose through the roof as opportunistic investors jumped onboard the Pokemon train. Stock prices shortly plummeted to a 20 year low as those same investors suddenly realised that Nintendo had actually very little to do with the record breaking app. A fact anybody who actually had played the game could have told you.

The sense of shameless opportunism hit a new low when I was perusing the Nintendo Store on my 3DS to see what “new” Virtual Console titles were available (telling that isn’t it? Searching for 20 year old games to play). There in the catalogue were all of Nintendo’s available Pokemon releases – on sale. The blatant cashing in on Niantic’s worldwide phenomenon caused me to cringe as I added Contra 3: Alien Wars to my download list.

So; a falling share price, an extremely tepid response to their new console and a general feeling of pity towards the once glorious console manufacturer. The question is: how can Nintendo be successful once again? For that, we have to turn to their oldest adversary. We have to talk about Sega.

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After the Mega Drive (Genesis), Sega decided to teach the new kid on the block – the Sony Playstation – a lesson, with the release of the Sega Saturn. Unfortunately for Sega, the Playstation was an astonishing success – selling over 100 million units and establishing Sony as the one to beat. The Saturn sold less than 10 million units and was widely regarded as a very expensive disaster for Sega. Meanwhile, Nintendo had decided to sidestep a 32bit disc based console altogether, opting for the aforementioned N64.

The bosses at Sega could see the writing on the wall and decided to go for broke with the release of the Sega Dreamcast before the turn of the millennium. The Dreamcast is the only Sega console I have ever owned and I can honestly say it was fantastic. The system itself sold just over 9 million units but ask any owner of a Dreamcast what they thought of it and they will regale you with mythical tales of VMU’s, Shenmue and ChuChu Rocket! whilst giving off a feeling that you “really had to own one” to know what was so special about it. Looking back you can clearly see it was well ahead of its time. It’s a cult classic of a console. It was also the last system released from Sega.

A decision was needed. Decisive action was to be taken in order to prevent this historic icon of gaming from heading into the abyss. Sega would no longer make consoles and would focus on producing and developing games. By doing this they could remain part of the industry as a whole, with their reputation in tact, and still contribute to making titles for old and new gamers alike.

This is what Nintendo need to do.

They have an arsenal of first party titles that they can focus on to bring in revenue whilst at the same time showcasing them on the most powerful consoles on the planet; Mario, Zelda, Metroid etc. all could be brought to a wider audience who would never touch a Nintendo console as it’s “for kids”.

It has to be done. I have a feeling that the Nintendo NX will be the final system Nintendo make. I just don’t want it to financially cripple them. I don’t want to live in a world where new gamers look at you with the mystified gaze of a time traveller when you mention the names Nintendo and Sega.

The next few years will be pivotal for Nintendo’s future, yet they have to look at their past and identify their strengths and focus on them in order to survive and become great again.

Over 20 years ago I picked my side and I’ve stuck with them ever since. And I will to the very end.

 

 

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The State of Play – No Man’s Sky

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In a month’s time Playstation 4 owners will be able to get their sweaty summer mitts on one of the most hyped games of this generation, Hello Games’ – “No Man’s Sky”. The excitement within the gaming community is palpable, but I’m wary.

“18 quintillion planets” are theoretically possible for you to visit according to the most recent trailer. I say theoretically, as somebody did the maths and it turned out it would take you billions of years to explore every single one of them. You may have gone slightly overboard there lads, 2 quintillion would have sufficed.

Since its first appearance, Hello Games have bamboozled gamers with incomprehensible facts and figures about the size of the explorable universe within No Man’s Sky. It gets to the point though where the eyes begin to glaze over as it all starts to become a little meaningless.

Gamers always want bigger and better worlds to explore, I think it’s a natural progression as we have journeyed through each generation of console. Yet it can get to the point where worlds are too big and too empty as to be interesting. This is the core of the problem with No Man’s Sky, I believe.

If there is nothing to fill the world then why does it need to be that big? Take Red Dead Redemption, for example. The game world is vast, and yet it is filled with amazing characters and details that you often stumble upon sometimes entirely by accident. The Witcher 3 is another prime example. These are massive worlds but filled to the brim with interesting NPC’s and quests.

It seems that there is none of that quality and gameplay in No Man’s Sky. Apparently there is little to no story and our aim is to explore, mine materials and catalogue what we find. There is little to no interaction between characters – as I don’t believe there are any. Have your socks been blown off yet?

And I swear that if I hear the term “procedurally generated” one more time then I’m going to put my head through my PS4 and send Sean Murray the bill. Most of No Man’s Sky *sigh* is generated procedurally; the planets, the life forms, the sound effects, the terrain etc. But how long is it going to be remain interesting to land on yet another planet which is slightly hillier than the last one and a slightly different shade of red? Or to see a tree with square branches rather than round? Or to “scan” and catalogue an animal with two dicks rather than one? You get the idea.

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The very best worlds in video games are meticulously thought out and filled to the brim with lore and legend, with characters that ooze story and dripping with gorgeous dialogue that has been painstakingly crafted by a writer or writing team over countless hours.

We will be getting none of this with No Man’s Sky. Yet maybe that’s the point. Maybe the handful of people who have worked on this intend for the universe to be sparse – much like our own.

I really want to be wrong, I honestly do. I pray to the gaming Gods that in a few weeks I’ll be eating humble pie because I respect Hello Games and admire their ambition. But unfortunately, I have a feeling that the resounding lesson that Hello Games will take from No Man’s Sky is that sometimes, less is more.

 

The State of Play – Average Ubisoft?

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Do you know how much Ubisoft’s operating revenue for the last reported financial year (2014) was? I do – $1.5 billion.

That’s a lot of money. It’s the kind of money that rockets the French colossus into the top video game publishers on the planet. Top by income that is, not necessarily quality.

For all their power, vast resources and massive budgets I can’t help but feel that Ubisoft put out very average releases and tend to play it safe.

They have their hugely profitable franchises; Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and the seemingly endless Tom Clancy releases to name a few. These titles are guaranteed, bankable games. They are Ubisoft’s bread and butter. Yet they lack substance and they whiff of recycled ideas and concepts.

I often enjoy talking to people about their favourite games of all time and not once has somebody named an Ubisoft title. As a company I believe they lack the balls, the ambition and drive of a From Software, say, or a Naughty Dog. The story telling in a game such as Assassin’s Creed feels convoluted and hokey compared to The Last of Us for example, with stiff dialogue that doesn’t ring true.

Playing an Ubisoft game is like eating a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet; it’s tasty, quick and you believe yourself to be contented. A short while later however, you realise the contented feeling you have was actually trapped wind and once this has been remedied you are left feeling empty and hungry once again. The lingering smell of stale egg fried rice serving as the only memory of the entire experience.

I don’t intend to come across as bashing Ubisoft unashamedly without recognising some of their better efforts. The first Splinter Cell game I enjoyed very much. The stealth gameplay, lighting and level design was all fantastic. I played it to death on the XBox twice (the first time I encountered a game breaking bug later on and had to restart, which was nice). For me, it’s their best game I have ever played. The original Rayman was also not bad, for the time.

In recent years their releases have been met with average reviews where a simple “meh” will normally suffice in summing up. Take the upcoming Tom Clancy’s The Division or Far Cry Primal for example. On the surface they are highly glossy from a well established line of franchises and yet I would put a wager on neither of them being hailed as a masterpiece after release. They are destined to be awarded an “8 out of 10”, a “3 out of 5 stars”, “75 – 80%” – you get the idea.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. Nothing grinds my gears more than seeing video game companies playing it safe, not when they have such talent and resources at their disposal. Do we really need another Assassin’s Creed? Are we salivating for yet another generic Tom Clancy title?

Maybe the bean counters and share holders at Ubisoft think we do – they want to invite us back to the Chinese buffet – but not me thanks, I’ve had my fill.

Top 5 Video Games of 2015

Well here we are, 2015 is about to come to a close and with it we wave goodbye to what has been a fantastic year for gamers. I’ve played many games on my trusty Playstation 4 over the course of the last 365 days and I have decided to whittle them down to the 5 best and bang them into a lovely little list. Here we go.

5 – COD Black Ops 3

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The Call of Duty juggernaut is renowned for being the reliable King of online first-person shooters, but this year’s instalment from Treyarch takes things to a whole new level. It is honestly one of the most addictive games I’ve played in years.

Intense battles that flow gracefully through well mapped-out levels and the addition of new “specialist” characters ensure that the game has it’s own distinctive feel. Wall running and underwater sections can at first seem strange, but soon become more fluid and pivotal to your playing style.

The campaign is decent – it’s not going to last long in the memory – but it’s not the campaign thousands of fans buy this game for. It’s the sublime, aforementioned, multiplayer.

Top it off with the return of the excellent “Zombies” mode and you have the best Call of Duty in years.

4 – Limbo

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I used to cast envious scowls at Xbox users when they would harp on about Xbox “exclusives” such as Super Meat Boy and Limbo. However, this year my patience was rewarded with the release of both these titles on Playstation 4. Super Meat Boy is fantastic in its own right, but it’s Limbo that made me realise that I can still be stunned by such an original idea even after all these years.

Limbo is a visually arresting piece of work. The blacks and greys that blanket the screen give you a deep sense of dread and foreboding. The story is deliberately ambiguous, a point that annoyed some critics upon its release. For me however, there were just enough scraps of suggestion here and there for me to fill in the gaps and hypothesise as to what I believe was going on. It feels like a nightmare that you are trying to recall in fleeting moments.

The puzzles are some of the most ingenious I have ever played, with the physics system as perfect as you could possibly dream. Blocks slide and glide along levels as you push buttons and pull pulleys to get them to where you want. It’s wonderfully, head-smashing-against-the-TV frustratingly superb.

The game ends as abruptly as it started, 6 hours later. I felt a pang of sadness at it being over. Limbo is one of the finest, most hauntingly original games I’ve ever played and I’m sure it will stay with me for years to come.

3 – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

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Nothing much more needs to be said about CD Projekt RED’s release earlier this year that hasn’t already been said. It is, without doubt, a masterpiece.

It is an absorbing, detailed, beautifully stunning RPG that can consider itself as one of the best ever made. It is arguably one of the standout games of this generation of consoles.

The Polish studio have created such a detailed world that it beggars belief. The story intertwines with local myths and legends whilst characters involve you in normal, human problems as you go about your quest and there are laugh out loud moments interspersed with fast moving, brutal combat that flows beautifully with every sword stroke.

The release of Fallout 4 has only cemented what a great piece of work this is. Fallout 4 looks bland and it’s world empty compared to The Witcher.

The game is so vast that even after days upon days of cumulative play, I didn’t even fully finish it.

CD Projekt RED are now focussing on their next title – Cyberpunk 2077. A futuristic RPG set in the future. The Witcher crossed with Blade Runner anyone?

I’m so excited I could cry.

2 – Shovel Knight

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I play a lot of retro games. My SNES is played as much now as it was over 22 years ago when I first unwrapped it one Christmas morning. The games of that era sparked a life long passion for the medium that is evident as I type!

I think that’s why I love Shovel Knight so much.

Yacht Club Games’ release took me back to my childhood in an instant as wave upon wave of nostalgia slapped me across the face like a 90’s dance track.

Platforming rules and patterns that had been burned into my subconscious through hours upon hours of gaming in the early 90’s suddenly burst back into my mind like they had never been away.

I wrote an entire article on Shovel Knight which you can go check out for a more in-depth look at the game. I don’t need to say much more, other than not only is Shovel Knight one of the best indie releases in recent years, it is also one of the best platform games ever made in the history of video games.

1 – Bloodborne

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Without doubt the best game I have played all year (and quite possibly working its way into my top games of all time) is Bloodborne.

The gothic, blood soaked action/survival horror/RPG nightmare from Hidetaka Miyazaki is an original masterpiece that has to be played to be believed.

Very little explanation is given to what is going on with regards story – I know about as much now as I did when I first started playing many months ago – but it’s deliberate and refreshing so that the gameplay can take centre stage and the story can be patched together as you go along.

The city of Yharnam that you wander around is a gothic nightmare; dark cobbled streets, towering cathedrals and looming gargoyles cast their menacing gaze from above. A varied army of enemies patrol the city and wait to be dispensed in a shower of blood by you and your arsenal of weaponry. Combat is satisfying and fluid, the action intense and controlled.

It is also a brutally difficult game, the casual gamer might not be able to hack the challenge. But for those who dare take it on, they will be rewarded with a gaming experience like no other. It is absolutely fantastic.

So there we go, my top 5 games of 2015. Do you agree or disagree? What did I miss? Let me know below. Cheers

 

 

 

The State of Play – Is it a case of quantity over quality in Fallout 4?

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Is it me or does Fallout 4 look a bit shit?

Now, before I get inundated with virtual dog turds being sent to the comment section, I would just like to say that I think Fallout 4 is superb. I, like hundreds of gamers around the world, have being playing feverishly since yesterday’s release.

I’ve already invested many hours in making no meaningful progress whatsoever and instead spent the time trying to figure out how to get my generator to power my ceiling fan that I have in my new prefabricated house (I also spent a good hour trying to pick the right pictures to go alongside my dining table – but that’s a story for another day).

For Bethesda fans this is what it’s all about; the crafting, the upgrading, the exploration – it’s what makes these games addictive and has the effect of warping time so that when you look at your watch, hours have gone by in the blink of an eye. There is so much to see and do – the shear quantity of content is staggering and will keep gamers busy for many months.

Fallout 4 has delivered in every department, but one: visuals.

As soon as I exited Vault 111 and stepped out blinking into the blinding Sun, I was impressed by the draw distance and detailed horizon. However, it was on closer inspection of the immediate world around me that things got a bit disappointing. Copied and pasted textures are everywhere. In buildings there is a serious lack of lighting/shadow on objects/furniture and when you get up close to an NPC you realise that the character models are found lacking.

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I wouldn’t be sounding dramatic when I say that this could be considered a last generation release. The thing is, I don’t know why it looks this crap. Maybe we could turn a blind eye but this year we all played The Witcher 3, a game just as vast and consuming yet also one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played.

Bethesda is also a larger developer than CD Projekt RED and arguably wields more financial clout than the Polish outfit.

So why does it look so average? Laziness? Lack of focus? Naivety? I honestly don’t know. Bethesda has never made the most visually stunning games, and some would argue that the raw look and buggy nature all adds to their games’ appeal and is part of their character. I disagree, I think if you’re selling a product then it should be near perfect before it is released for retail. Visuals aside, bugs and programming flaws should be rare and should never be considered “part of a game’s character”.

I’m enjoying Fallout 4, it’s all I can think about when I’m doing other things. It’s involving, satisfying and rewarding all at the same time. I love it. It’s just disappointing that they could have made it absolutely perfect had it looked as good as it could have.

Bethesda are going to make a lot of money from Fallout 4, more money than most game developers will make in a lifetime of releases, and I want them to invest it. I want them to make their budget even bigger for their next big release and put more money aside for hiring better artists, QA testers and creating a better engine that can deliver better lighting and a more beautiful world.

There is no excuse for poor looking games anymore, not from developers with huge amounts of wealth and access to the best talent the gaming world has to offer.

Right, back to Fallout and I’ve decided. I’m going to go for the picture of a sailing ship for my dining room. Now I just need a nice rug for the bedroom……

The State of Play – Taboo Releases

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Why do I feel dirty and slightly embarrassed about next week’s release of Black Ops 3? The thing is, I’m genuinely more excited about it than Fallout 4 which releases a few days later.

Treyarch’s latest behemoth in the COD franchise is surely going to be weighing down Santa’s sack this Christmas, yet why do I whisper its name in hushed tones to friends and work colleagues as if it’s taboo? I feel like a teenager quietly telling a friend about a porno mag he’s found in a bush.

Certain gamers and video game journalists have become sniffy at the series, many dismissing it as a money making machine and nothing more. Sure, the two most recent offerings of Ghosts and Advanced Warfare were nothing spectacular, but they were still great fun to play online and provided thousands of gamers with hours of head shot goodness. Most buy COD simply for the multiplayer, the campaign comes second. There is nothing wrong with this as multiplayer is where COD has it nailed. It’s become synonymous with online gaming – the image of a player in a darkened room, headset on, shouting obscenities at his TV as he’s blasted with a noob tube from across the map. Indeed, the decision to sell Black Ops 3 on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 as multiplayer only was met with mild outrage in the more snobbish corners of the gaming press, but the general gaming community as a whole simply muttered a “meh” and realised it wasn’t a big deal, no fewer copies will be sold. It’s the multiplayer people come for, and Activision know this.

For what it’s worth, Black Ops 3 looks like it’s going to be the best in the series for years, but that’s not the point. The point is that people are having fun in a series that is confident in what it is. Activision don’t want Treyarch reinventing the wheel, they are simply asking them to give the fans what they want.

For me, after a busy year that has seen me play some seriously heavy games; The Witcher, MGS V, Bloodborne etc. I can honestly say that the last thing I want to do right now is dive head first into Fallout 4.

I want something fast, dirty and satisfying. And Black Ops 3 looks just the ticket.

Review – Star Wars Battlefront Beta

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Oh dear, the Force isn’t too strong with this one.

The Star Wars Battlefront Beta has been out for two days now and unfortunately it’s failed to blow my Chewbacca patterned socks off.

Let’s start with the positives – this game looks fantastic. From the moment I jumped into the first of the beta’s two game modes – Drop Zone – I was taken aback by the gorgeous graphics, textures and landscape. There were burning X-Wings scattered around along with smoking Tie Fighters and I spent minutes staring above and beyond at the beautifully detailed backgrounds. Couple this with the wonderful music and you honestly feel like you’ve walked into one of the films themselves. It really is a faithful homage to the series.

Then it’s down to business. Drop Zone has you and your team (either Rebels or Imperials) taking control of pods that are dropped around the map whilst fending off your opposite number. Highest number of pods at the end of the round wins. Bing bang bosh, nice and simple.

When you first spot an enemy however, the problems with the gunplay soon become apparent. There is no function to aim down sights in this game. The developer explained that this was due to wanting to make the game as authentic as possible so shooting from the hip is what we have to put up with. It’s an old school mechanic that I don’t like as it feels disconnected, unrealistic and inaccurate. Some of the weapons have sights on so you can zoom in for the kill, however it leaves you feeling exposed and blinkered. The weapons themselves are the biggest problem I found. The blasters are shit. I’m sure there will be plenty of better weapons to unlock on the way but I wish they’d included them in the beta as it’s the biggest turn off for me. It takes a good 5 shots to kill an enemy and the fire rate is horrendous on these things. If you are firing at a sprinting enemy and are zoomed in, forget about it, you ain’t getting a kill. By the time he’s been hit 3 times he will be behind cover where his shield will regenerate within seconds. I found myself using the Cycler Rifle (an unlock-able perk, or “card” weapon) and just waiting for it to become usable again after each shot instead of the blasters. That’s how badly I wanted a normal, decent weapon. The hit detection is also poor and the weapons as a whole feel like they lack “weight”.

The other online mode is Walker Assault where you are freezing your knackers off on Hoth and are either destroying the Rebel scum as Imperials, or stopping the Imperial attack as the Rebels. On first play this mode is quite confusing as to what is going on, especially if you are playing as the Rebels. There’s a lot to do and it relies heavily on teamwork and cohesion, this was absent in the beta as everyone was running around like headless chickens and blasting anything in sight. If you’re lucky enough to be spawned on the the Imperial team then happy days, you can relax as the mode is so unbalanced that you WILL be winning the round.

Walker Assault gives you the opportunity to pilot vehicles though, which is one of the things I was most looking forward to. Yet soon after picking up the Tie Fighter icon on the map to take control, my excitement soon turned to despair. I can’t believe how clunky the vehicles feel to pilot. Forget trying to shoot anything, your main preoccupation is trying to keep the aircraft in the air without it lurching into the ground or nearby mountainside.

Playing as Luke Skywalker or Vader is a cool touch, but the novelty soon wears off after a few matches. Don’t forget that there is no campaign with the full version of the game – this is pretty much it. Of course there are other modes but I can’t help but feel like a well made campaign would have added so much and complimented the package as a whole.

The entire purpose of the developer making the beta available is to gather feedback and make adjustments here and there before next month’s release. Unfortunately, I think the problems with the game are at an extent that it would need quite a large overhaul in order to make it anywhere near the level fans expect it to be. To drop £50 on what is essentially an average shooter with no campaign seems like a bit of a rip-off if I’m honest. Especially when you consider that Treyarch are releasing the latest in their Black Ops juggernaut of a series days before.

Disappointing.