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Memories of Minesweeper

Written by Mike Holmes on the 6th of July 2012 at 15:16

I've been thinking about Minesweeper. Not sure why. These things happen I guess. But that train of thought got me remembering a whole variety of other games, titles that I'd almost forgotten entirely. Lost in the back of my mind. I'm talking about the free games that came with your PC, or came installed on your console.

Solitaire, Hearts and Minesweeper dominated so much of my spare time. Solitaire accounts for more wasted hours than either of the other two. This is a game that, over the decades, I've poured hours and hours, maybe days, into. Short, snappy little encounters. Time wasting moments during long-winded phone calls. Avoiding homework, and later paid work.

Mahjong is another time killer. So many hours spent matching frickin' tiles. Infuriatingly addictive. Endlessly playable.

Tetris. I've mentioned my addiction here before. My Gameboy came equipped with the game, or perhaps I should say that Tetris came equipped with a Gameboy.

I remember the Master System (II) very fondly. Sega built Sonic into the machine, significantly broadening the consoles appeal. Though before Sonic, if memory serves, it was Alex the Kidd who came pre-installed. Another quality platformer. Endlessly frustrating, incredibly playable.

Buying games has always been expensive. Especially when you're growing up and you don't have the spending power you develop later. As a youngling, games like Mahjong, Solitaire and Alex the Kidd kept me entertained for hours. They weren't the main attraction, they were, in many ways, often overlooked. But they kept us hooked, and are still played by millions to this day. Here's to you Minesweeper. Thanks for being there.

The Highlight of My E3

Written by Mike Holmes on the 8th of June 2012 at 15:16

Whilst Gillen, Bengt and the rest of the Gamereactor team have been on the ground in L.A., running around a maze of games, interviews and hands-on sessions, I've been watching E3 from afar.

For me the highlights can be narrowed down quite easily.

Watch Dogs looks sweet. Beyond: Twin Souls has intrigued me. Star Wars 1313 looks great. But for my money, nothing has come close to Halo 4.

The recent glut of trailers, screens and information released this week has rekindled a feeling I thought long lost: Genuine excitement about a new Halo game.

Reach was the last time that I ached for a game to be released. Up until this week I was relatively calm at the prospect of Halo4. Now November can't come soon enough. But why the sudden turnaround?

Spartan Ops.

Competitive multiplayer is no doubt going to be main course, but reflecting on the implications of weekly co-op content drops has got me excited about my favourite franchise once again.

My friends and I have a long tradition of co-op gaming, and Halo has always been the focus of our collective energies. We've dabbled elsewhere, but we always return to the Chief soon enough.

Halo 3, Halo: Reach, even ODST, had us working as a team, whilst all the time immersing us further into the sci-fi world first created by Bungie. Our collective adventures have occurred less and less frequently in recent months, the interim release - the remake of Combat Evolved - failing to scratch the itch.

But discussions with friends over the highlights of the week past quickly centered on the return of Master Chief and Cortana, and the feeling of anticipation stirring once again. Spartan Ops, and the chance to participate in an evolving cooperative experience, has inspired promises towards the renewal of old gaming habits.

The team are going to reform, and over the next few months we're going to meet up once a week and co-op our way through the entire Halo saga (we haven't decided whether to go with the cannon chronology or with release dates), finishing up just in time for Halo 4 to arrive in November.

Surprisingly awful.

Written by Mike Holmes on the 26th of April 2012 at 17:29

So it turns out I suck at FIFA 12.

I thought I was alright at it, not brilliant, but alright. Wrong; I suck.

On the pre-Tactical Defending FIFAs I was a dab hand. I'd win many more games than I lost, and my pass and move game was unplayable at times.

FIFA 12 is a different story, as I found out to my dismay last week. Thanks to GRTV's Nick Holmberg my confidence has been shattered, and if I want to get it back up and running it's going to take some serious practice.

I've been playing quite a bit of FIFA recently. A friend and I are in the fourth season of a managerial campaign. We've played nearly 200 games together, and I figured that this experience would stand me in good stead when I went up against other players at a recent event. I didn't win a single game. The shame!

Scored some bloody good goals, but they were merely consolations.

What made my awfulness more surprising is that on top of the managerial campaign I have, over the last few months, been playing my best friend online in a series of head-to-head matches. So far it's been a close contest, and I thought we were both pretty good at the game.

It turns out that he must be crap at FIFA 12 too.

I'm not one to shirk away from a challenge though. I've invited Nick to join me for a rematch, and whilst I'm reasonably confident he'll win the next encounter, I'm going to make damn sure that this is one trend that is reversed.

Tutorials: Train or drain?

Written by Mike Holmes on the 16th of April 2012 at 15:33

I'm getting fed up with overly complicated tutorials.

Finicky controls, vague instructions, boring text, uninspiring presentation. It seems like many tutorials are an afterthought nowadays; sewn on at the last minute with little consideration for the poor gamer who must endure the repetitive, mind-numbing process of being spoon-fed simple instructions as if they were a dribbling idiot.

Of course there are some dribbling idiots out there, and for them this handholding is often necessary, but why must the rest of us have to suffer because of that? Why can't they have a Dribbling Idiots Tutorial Mode, so the rest of us can get something better, something all together more satisfying.

Teaching us how to play a game needn't be a chore for developers. Surely our first introduction to an interactive entertainment experience should be exciting and inviting one, not a cumbersome and tiring chore that makes us want to dig our eyeballs out of their sockets with a leaky ballpoint pen. Developers should be engaging us in fresh new ways, letting us experiment with the new tools at our disposal, instead of falling back on tried and tested methods. Don't insult our intelligence.

Beat-em ups have got it right.

Here's two fighters. Here's a list of their moves. Want them to block? That's fine. Want them to fight back? That's fine too. Want them to stand helpless as you smash their faces in with a giant sword? Of course you can. Everything's fine!

Fighters like Soul Calibur V allow gamers to engage with the core content of their games, and in doing so encourage experimentation and exploration. Could this kind of ethos be brought over to different genres of games? Of course it could. It probably wont, but that's because creating interesting and exciting tutorials would cost more money. Call me a cynic.

I feel that there is a real opportunity being missed here. I remember playing Grand Theft Auto 3 for the first time. I didn't learn how to play that game by doing a tutorial. I took control of Claude, marched out into the world and started reaping devastation on the people of Liberty City with a sniper rifle and a cheat code that gave me a rocket launcher and an armoured vehicle to drive. I learned how to play the game by having fun, by exploring the world created by Rockstar, and when I was done farting around, I got on with the story proper.

There are plenty of games out there that do a perfectly good job of showing you the ropes. Tutorials can be non-intrusive introductions to narrative and gameplay. The start of the Gears of War series is an excellent example of this. I also loved the assault course at the beginning of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Adapting appropriate content is a great way of gently introducing a gamer to a foreign time or place.

But there are far too many games out there that don't put the effort in. They just throw boring text boxes at you, and force you to synthesize the experience of playing their game in some kind of alien context. It's disjointing, and it makes picking up the basics for some games a real pain in the donkey.

We've all played our fair share of poor introductions. I doubt I'm alone in thinking that there are far too many games out there that let themselves down by having sloppily conceived tutorials bolted onto them at lastminute.com. Sadly it'll never change, there's very little reason to do so other than to make us happier, and there are some men in black suits out there who couldn't give a crap how happy you are, all they care is that you've bought their game. Making sure you love every minute of it is far from their concern. The bastards.

Mid-table mediocrity.

Written by Mike Holmes on the 3rd of April 2012 at 10:50

FIFA 12 is proper doing my head in.

A while a go I posted an article about the co-op campaign that I was in the early stages of. My friend and I had tasked ourselves with taking Southampton from Championship obscurity to the top table of English football.

We started off on an easy setting, hoping that a nice simple start to the campaign would give us a decent chance of promotion. At the start of the January transfer window (in our first season) we upped the difficulty, as we were sitting pretty at the top of the league. We'd routinely thrash teams better than us, and Premiership football seemed all but inevitable.

But, the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft agley.

Turning up the difficulty setting changed everything. Where once teams would buckle under the relentless pressure of our unnaturally superior players, now they would happily resist, often snatching fortuitous goals and defending resolutely.

We went on a wretched run of form. Our inevitable promotion charge turned into an irreversible slide down the table. We managed to finish in a play-off place, but form and morale wasn't on our side. In the end Dirty Leeds beat us home and away in the semi-final, leaving us staring at another season in the Championship.

We ended that season feeling disappointed, but we dusted ourselves off and went at it again. We consoled ourselves that ‘next season would be better', and with new players and improved play, surely promotion would come.

But, the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft agley.

We strengthened our team by improving our offensive options and upgrading our squad players (affectionately referred to as the ‘shit-heads'), and jumped into our second season in the second tier.

Perhaps we shouldn't have bothered. We were greeted with a run of form so terrible that our season was pretty much over before the tenth game had been played. Sure we improved, but not enough to get near the play-offs. As the season progressed, it became increasingly obvious that another season of mid-table mediocrity beckoned.

Now, with only two games left to go this season, it's looking likely that we're going to finish 14th, which is far from ideal. A terrible start to the campaign and a spate of draws in March and April has consigned us to yet another season in the Championship.

In hindsight, I think it's fair to say that we're probably not good enough to get promoted just yet. We've still got to develop our game, and improve the squad as many of our players just aren't capable of playing the style of football we aspire to; routine set pieces and passages of play are regularly interrupted by poor first-touches and inaccurate passing.

So, another year in the second division looms. Another year of playing against average teams is just around the corner. Another year of making do with uninspiring players as we pursue glory is on the cards. But then again, we've also got another chance to try and snatch glory from the jaws of defeat (something that has eluded us so far), so I guess it's not all bad.

FIFA 12 can be incredibly frustrating, but at the same time a perverse satisfaction is taking hold of me. Sure it sucks to be languishing in the bottom half of the table, but credit should go to EA for creating a realistic football simulation; one that accurately depicts the ups and downs of the sport. It might not be fun all the time, but we've been presented with a realistic challenge, and dammit, we're going to succeed, no matter how long it takes.