My 360 Endures…Just About

Considering their questionable reliability, I’ve been remarkably fortunate with my 360. I got it on release day and had never had even a hardware crash. I’ve had games crash, of course, but it’s never frozen up so badly that I couldn’t quit to the dashboard. I certainly had a scare last night, though.

After a couple of hours of online Rainbow Six with some friends, we adjourned and I decided to try out Psychonauts, having bought it when it became backwards compatible and never played it. I got most of the way through the intro and then it froze completely, with a red chequered pattern overlayed on the screen. I rebooted it and it froze halfway through the 360 splash with the same pattern, and subsequent reboots only resulted in the dreaded three red lights of death. Uh oh.

I left it for about half an hour, and this time it booted with no problems. I played a couple of rounds of multiplayer Lost Planet to test things and then went back to Psychonauts, which proceeded to freeze in the same way almost immediately. I then got the same rigmarole of restarting and getting red lights, so after leaving it for a few minutes I managed to get it to boot again. At this point I assumed it was Psychonauts, so I tried another Xbox game, Shenmue II, which played without issue until it tried to load a new area when I got those all-too-familiar red squares. Probably best to leave it for now, so I unplugged it completely overnight, intending to try again in the morning and ring Microsoft if necessary.

This morning I fired up Psychonauts and proceeded to play nearly two hours of it (brilliant little game, incidentally) without incident. I then left it downloading the GRAW 2 demo – played a bit of Lost Planet in the middle – and went through the demo, all with no glitches.

So, happy as I am that all seems fine (touch wood), I’m at a loss to explain what happened. I miss those days when consoles could be relied upon to work after being in the cupboard for a decade…

Hotel Dusk: Room 215

Hotel Dusk: Room 215

Looks like we’ve got another sleeper hit for the DS on our hands, in the same vein as Phoenix Wright and Trauma Center. Hotel Dusk: Room 215 has been getting fantastic reviews (one guy gave it a ten in EGM) and some momentum behind it, but by all accounts has had a miniscule print run and is barely being stocked in some places. Buy it while you can.

Think of it like a detective novel, not least because you hold it vertically like Brain Training or, perhaps more traditionally, a book (remember those?). The touch screen is used to interact with people and objects, and to write in your notebook by actually writing, which is a smart little touch (no pun intended). The majority of the game involves conversing with characters that famously look like they’re out of the Take On Me video. It almost looks like a pulp graphic novel, and plays like something akin to Phoenix Wright.

It’s more sophisticated than everyone’s favourite defence attorney – this was built from the ground up for the DS rather than ported from the GBA, after all – but the fundamentals are similar. Only this time you’re in 1979 as a hard-boiled ex-cop (presumably alcoholic; isn’t everyone in noir?) on the trail of his dead (or is he, etc?) partner in a run-down hotel, rather than a lawyer who only seems to hang around with 16 year-old girls. But let’s not go there.

What it really shares with Wright is its reliance on strong writing to carry the story, here enhanced by characters that appear to constantly move and really emote (it uses sporadic colour to convey emotion) rather than cycle through their canned angry face, sad face, and so on as required. I’m hoping that the puzzles won’t be too reliant on dubious leaps of logic that almost seem to be an endemic problem with the genre. Unfortunately it also suffers from an annoyingly common problem in text-based games and a pet peeve of mine since I have a reading age of more than six years old: slow text scrolling speed. How hard is it to let me press a button to jump to the end of the line?

For now I’m going to crack on with it and enjoy it as a classic adventure done in a fashion that would be impossible on anything other than the DS. It’s some great eye candy and the latest in the line of unique and well-made DS games.

Thoughts on Final Fantasy XII

With Zelda finished (still my firm GOTY), I’ve flicked the component switch over to the PS2 in order to put some real time into the other big adventure of 2006, Final Fantasy XII. While I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface of it, I just wanted to put down some thoughts on the drastic new direction in which the game has taken the venerable series, beyond the first impressions that I wrote previously.

First of all, I really do have to emphasise how huge the changes between this and Final Fantasy X are. Most seem to think of Final Fantasy XI as the black sheep of the family, but XII almost validates it. MMORPGs are a huge deal nowadays, bigger even that conventional RPGs, and I think it’s entirely possible that XI was intended from the start as a big experiment to see what of that genre might work in a traditional offline RPG. XII comes out the other side looking a bit Frankensteinian at first, but with the praise being heaped on it I don’t doubt that XIII will play in a similar fashion. Dragon Quest IX is also supposed to be adopting more real-time combat mechanics, so we may find that that has experienced a similar mutation.

Overall, I like the new combat very much. I thought X did an excellent job of revising the battle system without breaking too much with the formula and would have been quite happy had they stuck with that as a framework. Random encounters are a system that I’m glad to see the back of, and while it would have been perfectly acceptable to use the Chrono series as a model (normal enemies visible on the map with turn-based combat when battle is initiated), the idea of making the map screen and battle screen one and the same is inspired. The game as a whole feels more coherent; less fractured than when you’re constantly switching between exploring and fighting, and even entering the menu to use an item or spell. It’s just all there.

When I started out on XII the combat was the element that I was most unsure about, what with the other changes that are immediately apparent – full 3D environments, mainly – being easily accepted. At first it seems rudimentary since you have only physical attacks and the game essentially does that for you. In fact it’s actually quite boring since there’s little more to it than chivalrously exchanging blows with the enemy. It’s not until a couple of hours in when you get a real party with spells and the Gambit system in full swing that things fall into place. Maybe that’s a serious criticism because I was only convinced to stick with it by the rapturous praise that the game has received, but once it lets you loose on the licence board and Gambits it works really well. Continue reading Thoughts on Final Fantasy XII

Lost Planet Impressions

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

Lost Planet is a game that I’ve been unsure about since the demo way back at E3. I liked it and everything; I just thought that the gameplay seemed a bit basic for a next-gen game. Having taken a gamble and bought it anyway (it’s an early frontrunner for box art of the year), I have to say that what could have been a detriment is actually what I like about it so far. Reminds me of stuff like Contra and especially Bionic Commando, only great looking.

Now that developers are actually developing for next-gen platforms rather than porting games across, hopefully we’ll see more games that look this nice. It can chug during explosions when there are a lot of big enemies on screen, but not enough to harm the effect because it’s very smooth the vast majority of the time. A suspiciously Parisian town in the second level looks extremely impressive.

As I said, the game plays like an old scrolling shooter in 3D. I generally mean that in a good way, but I suppose there’s a small amount of pejorative in there. The enemies are as braindead as their old sprite-based predecessors which detracts from the human foes, even if it’s bearable for bugs. And bosses, while formidable, are a case of avoiding attacks until you can attack the (conveniently glowing) weak point for massive damage. Nothing to break the game and quibbles at most, but they’re little things that will probably keep it from greatness. Multiplayer obviously sidesteps the AI entirely, and ends up being great, raucous fun, and seems like it’ll be played beyond the staid single player.

Capcom forfeited the right to make special editions after the pointless one for Dead Rising, but it’s redeemed itself here. The tin is beautiful, and it comes with art book, exclusive multiplayer map, and a disc containing the soundtrack in MP3 format and a ton of extra artwork, wallpaper, and trailers. It’s well worth the extra £5, which isn’t usually the case with these things.

Lost Planet is definitely worth a look. I’m not entirely sold on the campaign so far, although from what I’ve played the multiplayer could be what gives it the longevity it needs.

I Am Win!

Halo 3

I can’t remember the last time I won anything, but I’m thoroughly chuffed with this (clue: it’s under ‘N’). Saves me spending £40 on Crackdown for a while, at least. Unless it turns out to be good, in which case I’ll buy it anyway and have two beta keys.

I used to win stuff all the time, and now maybe it’s only because I enter competitions for stuff that I can’t really buy without a massive overdraft (Premiership tickets and wall-sized televisions, for example) but as far as I can remember the last time I won anything was an advance copy of Batman Forever on VHS in 1995. Maybe that was why I stopped entering competitions…

Regardless, I don’t have to buy a game that I don’t really want, and I’m guaranteed to be playing lots and lots of Halo 3 multiplayer (surely the only game that will ever prise us away from COD2 multi?) in a couple of months. Right when my dissertation is due…