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Back to (Sniper) School

Written by Mike Holmes on the 23rd of March 2012 at 10:47

Last week I went on a trip. The goal of it was, ultimately, to play Sniper Elite V2 - Rebellion's soon to be released stealth shooter (you can read the hands-on preview elsewhere on the site).

The game is set in Berlin in the final days of the European half of WWII. Players take on the role of Karl Fairburne, an OSS agent sent into Berlin to extract key Nazi scientists before the Russians arrive hoping to find the same thing.

Part of the day involved playing the game, but the rest of it was spent outside at a shooting range (based at an undisclosed location), and trying out some replica WWII sniper rifles.

It provided a welcome distraction from the business of playing games. Not for any negative reason to do with the game itself, far from it, but rather as a complimentary experience that went perfectly with the tone set by V2.

Shooting sniper rifles is a serious business. As you'd expect, there was several strict safety procedures to follow, though in truth, we were never given enough time with the weapons to be considered dangerous in anyway.

The range, hidden away somewhere in deepest, darkest East Anglia, provided us with a unique opportunity. By sniper standards we weren't very far away from our targets (in real-life, the top snipers routinely hit targets hundreds and hundreds of meters away), but we still got the chance to try our hand at two different rifles.

I am pleased to reveal that I made five head-shots out of a possible six. My targets paper head was riddled with bullet holes. Although I had a significant part to play in the act of shooting, I think it's fair to say that most of the work was done by the rifles themselves.

They come equipped with quite a kick, and if wasn't for the fact the we were sitting down to take our shots, I think it's likely that there would have been a couple of embarrassed journalists put on their backsides by the considerable force produced by firing one of these rifles.

The guns were awesome weapons. Their simplicity, coupled with their effectiveness, makes them the specialist weapon that every wannabe soldier covets (you can include me in that bracket).

Although it was great fun playing around with the high-powered rifles, it was also a sobering experience. At the end of the day, these are weapons built to kill other human beings, and that being the case, I'm glad that the only time I've ever got to shoot one was in controlled conditions at an event for Sniper Elite V2.

Back to (Sniper) School

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Throwing Empty Cans

Written by Mike Holmes on the 22nd of March 2012 at 16:53

I remember when the first Splinter Cell landed on the original Xbox all those years ago. It was a happy time for me. I'd played stealth games before, but this was the first that I'd tried and enjoyed that wasn't called Metal Gear Solid.

In a nutshell; I absolutely loved it. The mixture of combat and ‘sneaky sneaky' grabbed me and didn't let go for weeks. I used to go to my friends flat and hog his TV just so I could complete another level with Sam Fisher.

Having revisited Splinter Cell: Conviction, the most recent entry into the series, it got me thinking about something that happened to me many years ago when playing the first chapter of the series.

I was sitting in a darkened room, gripping the monstrous Xbox pad and directing Fisher down a gloomy alleyway. I picked up a bottle from the floor and threw it across the street, catching the attention of the guard and providing me with enough time to sneak past him.

At the same time as I was doing this, something else was happening. My friend returned from his foray into his shared kitchen with some much needed refreshments (I think i'd been sat there for a few hours already and needed nourishment). But instead of greeting me in the time-honoured tradition, my mate had other ideas.

He picked up a crumpled can from the floor (after all, this was a university halls of residence - it wasn't that tidy), and then expertly threw it into the far corner of the room. I looked to see what the commotion was and before I knew it I was being attacked from the opposite direction. My friend had done a Sam Fisher on me and I'd fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

How we laughed. But it also got us thinking. Here was a game that had taken basic principles from real life and integrated them into gameplay, and we had then mimicked that gameplay and used it in real life to humorous effect.

It's a mildly amusing anecdote now, and a great memory of a brilliant game that pushed the boundaries of the stealth-action genre.

It's the taking part that counts.

Written by Mike Holmes on the 12th of March 2012 at 17:18

Recently I've been playing Crusader Kings 2. A lot. The addictive gameplay and amusing storytelling offered up by Paradox's latest strategy title has got me hooked.

My current play-through feels like it is gnawing away at every waking moment of my day. The urge to abandon real life and resume my attempts at dominating Northern Europe, is becoming unmanageable.

It's the little things that make the difference with CK2. Things like finding out you've been having a twenty year affair with a gregarious hunchback without realising it, or having to plan and execute the assassination of your geographical neighbour's eldest child because your son is married to the next in-line to that particular throne. CK2 weaves a rich tapestry of history and intrigue to create a compelling and addictive formula and I can't stop playing.

At the moment I'm at war with Sweden and Denmark. They're not too happy with my expansion across the surrounding territories. It seems that my influence has spread too far, and all the local rulers are after my land and my precious money.

I've been playing as a succession Norwegian kings for some time now. Over 100 years in fact. In previous lives I've been assassinated, I've surrendered to small pox, I've died heroically in battle and I've lived to a ripe old age, surrounded by bickering children and mistresses.

Playing Crusader Kings 2 requires a certain investment of time. These are games that span hours, days, sometimes even weeks of your life. And because there isn't a clear ‘winning' scenario, success isn't measured in trophies, achievements, or by beating the computer. With CK2 success can be measured two different ways; by the prestige accumulated by the end of the game, and by the satisfaction and enjoyment of simply playing.

Racking up prestige is fun, sure, but it's not the reason that I come back to CK2 time and time again. I return to the game because it amuses me, it challenges me, it makes me think and it doesn't treat me like the court jester. Crusader Kings 2 is a game that proves that sometimes winning isn't everything, and it's the taking part that counts.

Back to the start (of the middle)

Written by Mike Holmes on the 29th of February 2012 at 16:46

I just did something foolish. As if I didn't have enough on my plate already, I've just restarted Mass Effect 2.

There was no need for me to go all the way back to ME1, I played that game to death. But its sequel only got one play-through last time around, and there are some serious gaps in my ME2 experience that need filling.

For a start, my last journey through 2 didn't have any alien love in it. I'll have to rectify that. I also left a bit of DLC untouched and a variety of side-quests are left to tackle.

There's also the question of Paragon vs Renegade. Last time around I was nice Shepard, this time around I'm going to be an evil bastard at every available opportunity.

Whilst there is going to be a fair amount of recycled adventuring in my second run at the campaign, I still think it's incredible that nowadays we get to play games where we can play through the same story multiple times, and each adventure yields unique and exciting experiences.

The first game I ever played through more than once was Knights of the Old Republic, also made by Bioware. The light and dark pathways offered substantially different experience depending on which way you played, and so it is with Mass Effect 2.

With Mass Effect 3 going on sale next week, I've got very little time to waste if I want to be ready with both my saved characters in time to start the final chapter of Bioware's epic trilogy. The only thing left for me to decide will be which way to play. The fact that I have that choice makes me very happy indeed.

Searching for cabbages

Written by Mike Holmes on the 22nd of February 2012 at 15:40

The other night I was watching the Mrs drunkenly stagger around Skyrim (I know, I know - how rock and roll are we!). Her character's a battle-mage of sorts; powerful spells on one hand, a big [email protected] off sword in the other. More interested in the experience and the story telling, this game is being played on easy. Skeletons scatter and bandits are impaled; there is very little that can stand up to the potent combination of magic and a good sword arm.

You'd think that watching a character like that progress in a world as brilliant and immersive as Skyrim would be, at the very least, exciting. Wrong. My wife has a problem, and it's something that a lot of people suffer from: The obsessive compulsive desire to pick up absolutely everything that comes across her path. From apples to cabbages, shovels to mineral ores, anything that is laying on the ground or in a chest/sack/drawer/desk/cupboard/barrel is fair game for her ever-full inventory.

A normal jaunt through a castle or dungeon is elongated beyond hope by the constant pursuit of the random stuff found in any of the many containers that adorn nearly every room and environment in the game. The temptation to pick up any old junk, just because you might be able to sell it in when you get to the next town, is too much for some people to resist. Add in a variety of skills that allow you to use the junk that you've picked up in various combinations to create new and improved stuff, and soon enough you'll find that you're fully immersed in the trade and item-creation systems that underpin the game that you are actually playing (it was about killing dragons, wasn't it?). At its core this sub-game is all about trade and stock management, but despite this apparent mundanity it keeps some people unnaturally absorbed.

We all do it to some extent. Picking up artifacts and valuable loot and selling it on is an important part of RPGs like Skyrim. It's what allows you to buy the equipment that helps define your experience in the game. I just find it interesting that so many people take so much pleasure in picking up so much junk, perhaps because it is so far from the way that I play the game, where only the most valuable items get scavenged.

Each to their own, at the end of the day. We've all got our preference of genres and game-types, and within that we all have our own methods and styles of play. Each of these is as valid as the next. Watching someone else play a game as interpretive and flexible as Skyrim often reveals things you wouldn't expect, and methods that previously will have never even occurred to you. The other day I watched on impressed as my friend used one of his shouts to send someone tumbling off of the top of some battlements, before swiftly and expertly dispatching the falling bandit's brother-in-arms. It's a trick I've borrowed; I find it is most useful for getting rid of Ice Trolls in high-altitude battles.

Skyrim, Fallout and Oblivion all offer players a vast array of different ways of experiencing the same source material. Watching other gamers go about their everyday business in a game as variable as any of those just mentioned, often reveals just how flexible and individual an in-game experience can be. It doesn't matter if you're collecting Nirnroots or Nuka Cola, the variety and detail offered by Bethesda's RPGs allows gamers to express themselves how they see fit, and to impose themselves on a world so deep that it bends to their style of play. Perhaps that's why we love them so much.