The Kick Up the Arse That Pokémon Needed
It’s funny what a difference a few tweaks in the right place can make. I wrote back in 2011 about my disappointment in Pokémon White, my first foray into the series since the GBA evidence to me that it was a series in decline. It was a sense of diminishing returns that left my copy of Sapphire abandoned and Blue as my only game with a full Pokédex, and a hardware generation and a couple of instalments in the game series hadn’t done anything to advance things substantially.
As you might have guessed, I’ve recently given it another go with Pokémon X. Fool me once and all that, but my 1998 self would have been so deliriously happy with a fully 3D Pokémon game that I couldn’t resist. And, unsurprisingly, not much has changed between this and Black and White. Nor, indeed, the Game Boy games. Maybe I’m a graphics whore or something, but the little changes here have made all the difference.
Graphics aren’t everything, sure, but they are something, and Pokémon X – or Y, but I’m going to talk about the version I own – doesn’t feel as half-arsed as Black/White did. Seeing those monsters in three dimensions, performing flashy attacks beyond bobbing the sprite up and down, adds dramatically to the personality and appeal. It’s like going from a pen-and-paper RPG to, well, a video game.
Another complaint I had about Black/White was that I found Pokémon to be insultingly formulaic. To illustrate:
- It’s time for you to become a Pokémon trainer! Go and get your starter from the local professor!
- Your rival picked the opposing element, so fight him/her.
- Work your way through the gym leaders.
- Thwart the plot of a criminal gang with a weird uniform, staffed entirely by incompetent henchmen.
- Head to Victory Road and beat the Elite Four.
- Uncover some secret of Pokémon mastery that the world’s scientists couldn’t crack a kid could for some reason.
- Go after a set of one-of-a-kind legendaries.
- If you’re not bored by now, pour months into building a competitive team.
- Oh, and catch ‘em all™.
Which Pokémon game am I talking about? It basically could be any of them.
X is the same, but by not looking just like it did on the Game Boy and delivering the occasional well-placed hit of nostalgia (see screenshot below) it tickles the urge that the last generation failed to. If I’d drifted away from the series and come back to this instalment, I’d have been perfectly happy with how much things had progressed.
It’s still not the 3D adventure that I would have killed for in 1998 – Monster Hunter looks closer to that ideal, so it’s feasible, though perhaps not from a small team on a release schedule like Game Freak’s – but as a much-needed improvement to a stagnated franchise, Pokémon X delivers. Given that delivering on the series’ potential would require Nintendo to release powerful hardware, show some ambition and overhaul a proven cash cow, I’ll take what I can get.
Ever since GTA protagonists became actual characters with motivations, it’s been walking a difficult narrative line. Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti, the first real attempt, was largely successful given that he was a willing criminal sociopath, even if it could be difficult to square his need to keep a low profile for his burgeoning criminal empire with his tendency to steal tanks, slaughter police and FBI, and brandish rocket launchers. Though less of a caricature than his inspiration, Tony Montana, Vercetti was less believable unless players chose to play it straight, taking on the role for themselves.
This only got worse through San Andreas and the extended GTA IV saga, which presented reluctant protagonists. None wanted to be drawn into the criminal world, forced to kill and steal, yet all did and all could be made to commit slaughter on an industrial scale. GTA IV’s Niko Bellic was particularly guilty, both protesting his status as a killer without requiring much persuasion to go out and kill, and bemoaning his status as a poor immigrant while owning Algonquin penthouses and running around with $250,000 cash in his pocket. “Oscar-quality story” indeed.
I believe the somewhat poncey term these days is ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ – the incompatibility between a fixed narrative arc and player freedom. It’s not a problem unique to GTA, but as a series that champions freedom and has put gaming’s ambitions as a serious storytelling medium on its shoulders, the quandary is innate. We could see Rockstar experimenting with a way around it in Red Dead Redemption, which made violence and lawlessness inevitable in a violent, lawless world. John Marston could be played curiously bloodthirsty for a reluctant outlaw, but at least this was a world where running around with a gun didn’t seen incongruous, and a game where the inability to escape one’s past was a major theme. But how can it work in GTA’s modern USA?
Enter Trevor Phillips.
He’s a career criminal, so having a lot of cash stashed isn’t a stretch. He’s psychotic and so neither is a murderous rampage. He enjoys crime so getting pulled deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld is in keeping with the character. He’s Canadian, so… well, let’s not go there. He’s also responsible for – spoiler warning – one of the most disturbing scenes in the series. In a game that hit headlines for one scene in particular, I found the aforementioned one far more unsettling.
In other words, he’s the first GTA character who’s reflective of how people play GTA. Even, arguably, better at it than the silent ciphers like GTA III’s Claude, simply because he actually is a character.
GTA V is one of this generation’s great games, and Trevor is one of its great characters. What’s more, it’s the second generation in a row with a loveable psychopath from one of its top adventures at the top of the list. Clearly, it’s a pattern that works.
Is There a Better Book About Games Than Game Over?
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about games, mainly because I haven’t been playing them. My free time has been dominated by reading, an ancient form of entertainment made modern and more ubiquitous by the Kindle I got for my last birthday. An ill-advised Goodreads challenge to get through 40 books in 2013 – a lot when you enjoy 1,500-page fantasy epics – and the pressures of another new job have dominated my free time in recent months.
I’m all about efficiency, though, so why not combine my twin loves by gushing over Game Over, David Sheff’s wonderful book about the rise of Nintendo. It’s both, for my money, the best book ever written about games and surely the greatest free gift to accompany a magazine since that before-they-were-popular pack of Pogs I got with the Beano. Like most who’ve read it these days, I got my copy on the cover of the tragically short-lived Arcade magazine in the late 90s.
The rate at which I burn through books and a surfeit of great literature to read means that I rarely read them more than once. The small list that I still return to occasionally goes like this: Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Flies, and Game Over. Spot the odd one out.
Only I don’t think it is out of place there. We have two greats of speculative fiction with important things to say about human nature, a towering giant of fantasy, and a top-tier non-fiction book about business. It being about games dovetails wonderfully with my tastes, of course, but such an engrossing account of any industry in its heyday would be worthy of praise. It’s a comprehensive account of how Nintendo built up the industry as it exists today, the glorious 8- and 16-bit days, and the inner workings of a notoriously secretive company.
In that respect, it’s at least as good as, say, Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography – a far better-known account of the rise of a technology giant, but one that’s been documented at least as well elsewhere.
Even speaking as someone without much stake in Nintendo these days, a proper follow-up to Game Over would be one of my dream announcements. An account of this quality to take us through Nintendo’s part in the rise of the PlayStation, the commercial decline of the N64 and GameCube years, and the boom-and-bust DS/Wii-Wii U era would make for arguably more fascinating reading than how Nintendo built the modern industry in the first place.
Now, though, GTA V is here. Finally, a game worth talking about…
Fire Emblem Awakening
In a year that’s already showing signs of being a vintage one for gaming, at least compared to the disappointments of 2012, the rush for GOTY titles is going to be fierce. We’ve already had two prime candidates in BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, which are probably going to clean up in December unless GTA V ends up being something special, but now that we’re past 2013′s halfway point, neither is looking like being my number one.
For the first time in years, it’s a Nintendo game that’s foremost in my thoughts. And for the first time ever, it’s a strategy RPG.
Deciding what it is that Fire Emblem Awakening does so much better than other examples of its genre, which have historically failed to excite me, is difficult. It makes great use of the 3DS hardware, for one, making subtle but pretty use of 3D and taking advantage of system features like StreetPass, while ditching the more annoying gimmicks. It seems Intelligent Systems has worked out that gyro controls break the 3DS’s banner feature before Nintendo. It’s also controlled almost entirely with the buttons, using the touchscreen mainly for information. Thank God.
It’s clearly been put together with great thought. The translation work from 8-4 is witty and full of character, from the support conversations to the quips that accompany critical hits – Frederick’s badass “Pick a god and pray!” is my favourite. The Japanese voices are there for those who prefer their European fantasy setting to have an Asian language and not match up with the translated text. There’s depth to be found in every aspect, from which characters you pair up to how you move them up and down through the classes in an attempt to create an army of supermen.
I came late to this one thanks to my 3DS packing in when I was barely 40 minutes into the campaign, but since my system returns – eight weeks later, but that’s another story – I’ve been hammering this like nothing else. It’s kept me off the new Mario & Luigi and Animal Crossing, and it’s meant my ongoing playthrough of the 50-hour Grandia has taken not the expected couple of weeks but rather two months and counting. It makes a mockery of the RPG collection that I deliberately expanded to cover the lean summer until the next generation begins that my gaming time has been monopolised so willingly by a strategy game in a series that I haven’t afforded much attention until now.
Of course, the people don’t have feet, but we can forgive it that.
Sorry, Microsoft. Damage Done
I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that yesterday’s reversal was unprecedented. Games companies have gone back on unpopular policies before, of course, but for a hardware company to withdraw its plans for new DRM features that until yesterday had been trumpeted as essential to the new system, that had only been codified less than a fortnight ago, and all only a week after E3 – by far the biggest opportunity they’ll get to set out their stall before the consoles actually arrive
Now I don’t necessarily hold such a reversal as a mistake in itself. I see many, particularly in the States, where the suggestion of ‘flip-flopping’ can torpedo a politician, saying that this makes Microsoft look weak. There’s value in admitting one’s mistakes and rectifying them, and it’s far better than a dogmatic refusal to change course.
But this DRM snafu is only the latest in a line of missteps that have shaken my faith in Microsoft and the Xbox platform. Although this makes the Xbox One a far more attractive – and, once the price drops and Halo comes out, far more likely – purchase for me, I’m still jumping on the PS4 train for my primary console this generation.
As superb as the first few years of the 360 – and, indeed, the original Xbox – were, Microsoft hasn’t represented my interests for some time now. There’s the complete dearth of interesting first-party titles, even compared to Nintendo’s increasingly token efforts and especially so next to Sony’s adventurous, technically world-class internal studios; the relentless focus on Kinect, once an avoidable annoyance and now “an essential and integrated part of the platform”; the backwards inability for indie developers to work outside the traditional publisher-developer relationship when it’s a dinosaur in these days of digital distribution; the twice-exhibited inability to close out a console with software support up to its successor’s release.
Mainly, though, it’s the inability to see me, as a consumer who has spent hundreds on Xbox games every year since 2002, as anything other than a walking wallet.
I actually didn’t mind paying for Xbox Live Gold and have done since the beta in 2002, as it provided by far the best online gaming experience around. Even today, after innumerable updates over years of development, PSN can’t compete in terms of the integration of the whole system. But PSN is now good enough, and its premium service offers far better value for less money. I don’t care that the PS4 locks online play behind the paywall now because I stocked up on PS Plus membership when it was £20 for a year in Game.
Microsoft, meanwhile, arbitrarily locks features behind the paywall to justify the cost, when most of them – Netflix, Sky Go, et al – require separate subscriptions and are free elsewhere. Why would I pay to use Netflix on my Xbox when my PS3, Blu-ray player, laptop, iPad, phone and DVR all have it integrated at no extra cost. Hell, why should I? This inflexibility famously kept the BBC iPlayer off the 360 because Microsoft didn’t want to give away access and the BBC wasn’t allowed to charge for the same thing.
The attempt at matching PS Plus’s Instant Game Collection gave us free Assassin’s Creed II and Halo 3, from 2009 and 2007 respectively, while Sony has recently given us top-class games from 2012 like Uncharted 3 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Rumour has it August will bring DmC: Devil May Cry, which is less than six months old, to PS Plus.
Even as I’ve dropped money on Xbox Live, year after year, Microsoft pushes out dashboard updates that seemingly do little but create more advertising space. It’s a company whose idea of generosity ends up looking insultingly miserly. That Mojang had to fight to allow the free content updates to Minecraft that have come to every other platform without issue. That simply doesn’t give most publishers the option of offering free DLC, even if they want to.
Well, a week from now on the 27th, my ten-year-old Xbox Live subscription will lapse and won’t be renewed. The Xbox One will be the first Xbox that I’m not picking up on day one. While I applaud Microsoft for reversing this disastrous policy, what it has lost over the last few years has been the benefit of the doubt. I should buy an Xbox One? Prove it, because you’re getting as little for nothing from me as I get from you.
E3 2013 Conference Review
Because you can’t have an E3 conference review without Nintendo, I’m putting today’s Nintendo Direct up against Sony and Microsoft’s conferences. I don’t see it as a disadvantage since a load of games shorn (mostly) of awkward executive banter can only be a good thing.
Without further ado, in the order in which they were shown…
The Xbox One had the most to prove after the disastrous reveal and preemptive clarification of the awful DRM policies, and while this showing won’t make that shadow go away, Microsoft did allay some fears. Not all, but some. Presentationally, Microsoft needs someone with charisma, who you could imagine successfully selling a used car; J Allard and Peter Moore are sorely missed when you’re forced to watch the automatons up there now.
But apart from that, Microsoft’s comfortably topped the other two for games, which is the important thing at these shows. New games from Swery and the Panzer Dragoon chap bring credibility; Insomniac is a nice coup, albeit not up there with Bungie in my book; Quantum Break, which looks like a serious Ghost Trick, intrigues; and, of course, there’s a new Halo, which gets bonus points for referencing Journey; Battlefield 4 looks like matching its superb predecessor; Metal Gear Solid V looked amazing, albeit multiplatform. Those are just the ones that tickled me; there were plenty more.
It’s just sad that Microsoft had to end on a sour note by saddling the hardware with a £429 price tag. That’s £4 more than I balked at paying for a PS3 back in 2007 – and I won’t be paying it for an Xbox One either. So once it has the DRM patched out, a substantially smaller second model released, and gets a couple of price drops, I’m right on board.
Sony’s a weird one, as it was the conference that left me with the most positive impression, but one that doesn’t last when you really look at what was shown. Its success was down to the messaging, the flawless capitalisation on Microsoft’s missteps. Does the fact that it’s maintained the status quo by not setting out to control what we can do with our games really deserve to be the factor that ‘wins’ E3? I think it shows how low our expectations have become if it does.
(I must say, however, that I haven’t seen a crowd reaction in a press conference like the one to the announcement of no used game DRM. I hope Microsoft was watching.)
Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III are nice, but Square Enix has forfeited the presumption of quality. We need a couple of releases of PS1/PS2 Squaresoft calibre before I’ll be buying its games regardless of reviews. And as I said, Bungie is a coup and Destiny looks great.
But where was Naughty Dog? Where were all those other great first-party studios? Where was The Last Guardian? Where was anything for the Vita? See what I mean about some notable omissions? I felt like I saw more games at the PS4 reveal back in February, and I pretty much did see as many Vita games.
A solid showing, then, but mainly on the PR front. Thankfully for Sony, that message was good enough to secure my day one preorder.
In shunning the E3 dog and pony show – an approach that has served the company well at the Tokyo Game Show for years now – Nintendo may have set out to lower expections, and I can see why. Mario Kart, Mario, Pokémon, Smash Bros, Donkey Kong Country, The Wind Waker. Notice a pattern? As much as I love Nintendo’s characters, the line-up is depressingly conservative, lacking even the creativity of the GameCube days, where Nintendo published interesting takes on new or forgotten franchises rather than wearing out ideas within a couple of years of their debut.
Nintendo is seemingly a shadow of its former self. Wii U is a sales disaster, third-party support is non-existent, and unlike equivocal successes like the N64 where Nintendo could be counted on to provide classics to make the purchase worthwhile, that’s not happening here. I can see why Nintendo didn’t want to shine the spotlight on this line-up, because it’s worryingly thin.
I’m excited about Bayonetta 2, though, so that’s something.