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One thing at a time....

Written by Mike Holmes on the 19th of December 2011 at 10:41

This past weekend I had the house to myself. From that you can read that I had the TV to myself, and from that you can safely assume that I invested as much time into my gaming as I possibly could. When I wasn't typing away on the computer, or failing miserably to do the Christmas shopping that I needed to do, I was plugged into my Xbox. And what a jolly time I had.

I spent a good chunk of time playing Modern Warfare 3. The ‘Kill Confirmed' playlist is fast turning into my favourite way to play the game. I also dabbled in some Hardcore Ricochet (that's when friendly fire is returned back on the aggressor), and after the initial beatings my scores stabilised and I found it to be an enjoyable experience.

But this weekend was never supposed to be about Modern Warfare 3. Oh no no no. This weekend was a Skyrim weekend. Everything was set for it; there were no distractions, I had a couple of pizzas in the fridge and, most importantly, I had the time to really involve myself with the story and that's exactly what I did.

I know that some people like to complete a game like Skyrim in one sitting. They can't relax until every single quest and side mission has been finished. Not me, I don't roll that way. I figure that if a game is good enough, and big enough, there is no point souring the experience by trying to cram too much into one play-through: You can always play it again.

Oblivion is a game that I played through twice. The first time I concentrated on the main quest (and a couple of side missions that seemed relevant and/or potentially helpful), all the while savoring the epic plot line and the unique setting provided for me by Bethesda. During the second play-through I completely ignored the main quest, went off and joined the Brotherhood and made a career for myself as a killing machine.

Having the choice to go and do whatever you want in a game world is a great thing, and it takes a brave developer to make a game with this sort of mechanic in mind. But for me, taking on a variety of interesting and diverse side quests when there is a central storyline being told, makes for a distracting experience. It's almost like saying "So, the world is falling apart, there are demons coming through gates dotted across the countryside, they're killing the people and threatening life as we know it, and I am in a unique position to stop it all and make myself a hero, but you know what? Who cares! I'm going to go picking Nirnroots from the banks of rivers and then I'll go looking in the local dungeons for a slightly better sword".

I understand that you shouldn't turn your nose up at good content, it would be criminal to do so, but for me there is a time and a place for the different gaming experiences offered by side quests. I'm going to wander through the world of Skyrim, helping people on my way (or maybe assassinating them - I haven't made my mind up yet) and hoovering up the side missions, but first, there's some dragons to kill and I'm in a unique position to stop them all and make myself a hero. Running errands and looking for plants will just have to wait.

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Searching for game

Written by Mike Holmes on the 13th of December 2011 at 09:00

Searching for game..... Usually they're not words that fill me with dread; it's just the familiar arrangement of letters that precedes my participation in an online warfest. The computer tells me, in simple terms, that it is trying to arrange a match for me against some similarly skilled opponents. Thanks computer.

"You're welcome Dave".

All I've had to do is visit a series of familiar screens, along the way pressing the buttons that have brought me to this point. Then I wait whilst the computer does its thing, talking to other computers on the interweb, trying to agree on the exact conditions that I, and several opponents, will virtually exist in for the next ten minutes or so. Then, when the loading screen ceases to be, I take over and the game starts. It's simple.

Perhaps I take it for granted that most games have more than adequate matchmaking capabilities. It's never something that I've ever had to worry about too much. It's certainly never something that's ruined my enjoyment of a particular game. Until recently.

Let me set the scene.

My online companion and I sat staring at a screen each, conversing through microphones. We were searching for a game. But where was everybody? It was a fairly new title sitting in our respective disc drives, so was it too much to ask that we should have a plentiful supply of opponents to aim at? We agreed that we didn't think it was.

So there we were, sitting, waiting, staring at a screen each.

We both knew that there were other games, that we both owned, that could've quickly and easily found us a contest. Arguably they're better games to boot, but we paid our money at the door and we were determined to get a game. But maybe, just maybe, we wouldn't bother coming back in the future.

It's a shame that some games let themselves down so severely in this regard. You rightly expect, as part of the 40 quid you invest, to get a solid multiplayer element when promised one on the back of the box. Is it too much to expect that game developers keep those promises and ensure that we get a solid experience when we take to the online battlefield/racetrack?

I'm not talking numbers here either. Even if there was only a handful of players still frequenting a particular multiplayer waiting room, you should still be able to find a game within a reasonable time frame. All things considered, that should be the bare minimum. Shouldn't it?

I know all this banter is just pissing in the wind. It's never gonna change anything. Game developers and their publishers can be a money-grabbing bunch, and some of them are more interested in you buying their game rather than ensuring that you enjoy it once you've handed over your wonga. It's the companies like Blizzard, Bungie and Infinity Ward that've set the standard; for them it's all about player satisfaction - they want you to love their game. They invest in that enjoyment.

And it works. Blizzard makes games that I enjoy, so I buy more Blizzard games. They make games that I enjoy and then they go on to support those games so that I can keep on enjoying them. It's a similar story for a majority of other companies; they want you to like their games. Pure and simple. However, there are some faceless suits out there who care not for your love of the game, but only on the money you've paid to play it.

That's up to them. Make broken games - that's your prerogative. Every now and then one will get past my defences and I'll buy it, play for a bit, then never go back to it. Then when I'm done with it I'll tell everyone who I know (who cares) just how rubbish that game is, and then I'll never buy one of their games again.

It's just a shame that these lazy, cynical publishers don't pay a little more attention to Blizzard and co. And I don't mean by just cloning their games - something that happens all the time. They should look at how these companies nurture their reputations by taking the care to make sure that we, the paying gamer, is satisfied with our investment. Ultimately it's the companies that take care of their customers that go on to thrive and make healthy profits, but taking the easy way and making the quick buck has always been too tempting for some people. And that's a pity, because when that happens, we all lose. They lose a customer, and I lose £40 on a luxurious drinks coaster.

Not enough time.....

Written by Mike Holmes on the 5th of December 2011 at 15:00

Too many games; not enough time.

Recently I've been dealing with a problem. I'm sure some of you suffer from it too. No, it's not short-sightedness or writer's cramp. Simply put; I've got too many games.

My inbox of games to play far exceeds the time I have available to play them. It's a problem that doesn't show any sign of going away. I picked up Resident Evil 5 over the weekend (a game I borrowed from a friend and started but never finished), but now I'm wondering if and when I'll get to play it through to the end.

The problem isn't limited to just one console either. I've got Mac games, stuff on my iPhone, and even a couple of PS3 games that have yet to make it out of the wrappers.

I find myself prioritising which games to play; often chipping away at two or three campaigns at the same time. I'm currently working at Battlefield 3, Uncharted, a replay of the Marine campaign of AvP, Cut the Rope (on the iPhone), Civilization IV and GoldenEye 007: Reloaded. Phew. And that's not counting the multiplayer gaming I do, which in truth takes up more of my time than playing solo does.

The thing is I'm not complaining. It's a happy dilemma to be in. I love gaming, I love the different stories that unfold in front of my eyes and I revel in exploring strange new worlds. The only trouble is that in three weeks The Old Republic is coming out, and I fear that anything I've yet to finish before then might just remain uncompleted for some time to come.

Red Barrels

Written by Mike Holmes on the 29th of November 2011 at 12:17

This is my love letter to all the unappreciated red barrels out there. Here's me doffing my cap to those explosive little cylinders of joy that have, over the years, enhanced my experience of so many first-person shooters.

If all the explosions I've created over the years were combined together into one enormous wave of destruction, the resulting fireball would be too big to fathom. The explosions I have created with my well aimed bullets have taken out countless henchmen, demons and aliens. Eruptions of flame have surrounded me in combat, making me feel like an immortal action hero.

They've come along way over the years have red barrels. My first memory of them is of demons disintegrating into flesh and blood as I poured bullets into the conveniently placed deathtraps dotted all over the complex maps in Doom. Blowing up the barrels was always a satisfactory experience, bringing an additional level of complexity to the shooting; creating a cause and effect relationship that went beyond my gun and it's victim.

Quake brought the barrels into the realm of 3D. GoldenEye took it one stage further, allowing players to place mines on scenery and create their own special brand of destruction. They both used 3D to great effect, improving on the physics of the explosions and in doing so, amplifying the sense of style and finesse felt when the I pulled off a tactical masterstroke involving a well aimed grenade and an explosive crate.

Everybody is at it now. I can't think of many contemporary shooters that don't include some form of explosive scenery. It's the norm. Now it's all sorts of things; cars, walls, fire extinguishers. I want you just for a moment to think of what your favourite shooting game would be like without a bit of destructible scenery in there. It wouldn't feel right would it?

It goes to show what an important innovation it was all those years ago. Exploding barrels/crates add something unique to a FPS adventure; it bulks up the gameplay, gives it something extra and turns it into a much more cinematic experience.

So here's to you red barrels. Here's to everything you've done to liven up the games I've played over the years. Thanks for all the death and destruction you've helped me create. Thanks for all the deeply average shooters that you've made bearable, and for all those classic games that you've made that little bit more enjoyable.

You might not get the appreciation you deserve from some people, but next time i'm playing Call of Duty and I roll a grenade under a car and it explodes killing the sniper who has been camping on the other side, know that I'll be thinking of you and I wont forget for a moment what a glorious little game mechanic you are.

Bigger. Louder. Better?

Written by Mike Holmes on the 21st of November 2011 at 17:42

Modern Warfare 3 has just knocked my socks off. Last week I started off my little globe-trotting adventure and was very impressed with the opening salvo. I sat down over the weekend determined to finish the fight and save the world, and that's exactly what I did.

What an incredible campaign! The multiplayer seemed up to scratch as well. I haven't even looked at the Special Ops side of things (though if it's similar to the MW2 version, which I suspect it is, then I have a pretty solid idea of what to expect). Overall, it's fair to say, I was very impressed with the feast laid out for me Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer. You could also say that I was pleasantly surprised.

Like many people, I wasn't sure that the developers could keep up the extremely high standards that we gamers have come to expect from the series. I was expecting something smaller than before, something less accomplished. Boy was I wrong. This is a worthy addition to the series.

After witnessing the scale of the set pieces in the first two Modern Warfare games, I don't think I was alone in thinking that Infinity Ward had taken the games ridiculousness to its logical conclusion. Wrong again. MW3 is bigger, more ludicrous, more explosive and more fun than any of its predecessors.

But superlatives aside, this isn't a review.

Playing the campaign through was, at times, a breathless affair. (Spoiler alert) Whether I was having gun fights on airplanes, rescuing presidents or blowing up historical French landmarks, I was constantly aware at how exaggerated the whole thing was. It was completely ridiculous and unbelievable. That sounds like an insult; it's not. One of the things I enjoyed most about the game was the preposterous storyline.

It got me thinking about other games I've played recently. Battlefield 3 opens with you jumping off a bridge and onto a moving train. You go charging in, clutching nothing but a gun and blissful ignorance, and start shooting the hell out of ‘baddies'. It is a brutal, frantic and, at times, confusing opening to a game. However, it is another example of a developer ‘turning it up to 11' in a bid to grab our attention.

There is some serious posturing going on at the moment, with EA and Activision facing each other off to see who has the biggest (ahem) game engine. And let's not forget that Battlefield and Call of Duty are supposed to be the more realistic of shooters released this Winter. If you throw Gears of War to the mix then I think it's fair to say that this years heavy hitters are all aiming for bigger, louder and, hopefully, better in almost every single department.

What's clear to me is that we, as consumers, love it when we get given ridiculous gameplay features to mess about with and outrageous set pieces to immerse ourselves in. And long may that trend continue.