Tag Archives: xbla

Stacking Review

3 Mar

Did I just ‘sip tea’ as an attack? I think I did. Wonderful, what next? Ah, obviously I’ll tell these people to get out of my way. Bulletstorm appears to be gaining acclaim for inventive gameplay, but it’s archaic when compared with Tim Schafer’s latest release, Stacking. After the excellent Psychonauts and the underrated Brutal Legend, Double Fine (Schafer’s development company) turned to download-only releases and it’s been a resounding success so far. As the mainstream stagnates and physical releases become ever more bland, Double Fine have carved out a niche for intelligent and unique titles. Costume Quest was the first and Stacking the glorious follow-up.

A combination of adventure and puzzle game, Stacking has a gameplay mechanic that other developers have failed utterly to implement. Remember the altogether disappointing ‘Messiah’ from 2000? You could be forgiven for being unable to, but if you do, you’ll remember it offered the ability to possess other characters and use their abilities. The problems this presented were that firstly, most human characters are essentially the same and second, it takes an imaginative mind to make this in any way useful in terms of gameplay. Schafer is one such creative mind and thankfully Stacking fails to suffer from use of something so complex. Rather, the game makes the whole concept seem remarkably simple, and therein lies the brilliance of Double Fine’s latest creation.

The locations all look fantastic

Using Russian Stacking Dolls as characters allows the player to inhabit the body of larger dolls and use their ability, so you can go from a small child to a tea-sipping lady, to an elderly gent struggling with his hearing. If that sounds utterly ridiculous, that’s because it is. Stacking is a game with its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek and each and every doll has a charm all its own. Gameplay is simple, with left stick moving, right stick controlling the camera and the four main buttons controlling entering and exiting dolls, talking and using a unique ability, each doll has one. These abilities are used to solve the puzzles presented, in a similar manner to the classic adventure games which made Schafer’s name. Each doll is akin to an item, some can open doors, others can distract guards and so on. It’s all extremely easy to play, though the puzzles are satisfyingly tough.

Each obstacle presented by the game can be overcome in several ways, using different dolls and their abilities, which avoids the major pitfall of the adventure game – a lack of creative freedom. Stacking asks players to be intelligent, rather than just lucky, and there are no absurd item combinations or illogical answers. Each problem has a common sense solution or two and gameplay is a simple matter of finding the right doll for the job, then having the imagination to use it. An early example is distracting a guard with a ‘sexy’ doll who can seduce him from his post. Later puzzles involve quite silly abilities and often elicit a laugh, such is their absurdity. Stacking amuses and delights in equal measure, and a large amount of effort has clearly gone into creating an experience that feels a world away from the average game.

Each doll is unique and has bags of personality

Further setting Stacking apart is the setting. Opening with a silent movie style introduction, with a family of dolls gyrating, followed by cards showing what they have said. An evil Baron has kidnapped children, and the youngest child must rescue them. Nothing too complex, but the presentation is exquisite. Cut-scenes move between location theatre style, sets fall away and are replaced, rather than characters moving. The locales reflect the Russian doll styling and look like ‘The Last Express’ re-imagined by Pixar. This aesthetic style is a visual treat, with the dolls looking like painted wood, reflective and smooth, and backgrounds having a period style reminiscent of a drama set in 19th century Europe. Even the occasional tutorial is expertly presented, with a film-reel appearing on the edge of the screen as the game quickly introduces its controls and puzzles. The music also, is perfectly fitting, and creates an atmosphere of joviality without sacrificing the slow melancholic sound of the style it draws upon.

This sumptuous design is a rare treat in gaming. While many games have incredible graphics, few have this level of art design and ultimately that is far more impressive. Even the simplest of elements, the way the dolls move, is brilliantly realised. They all move by gently rocking from left to right, but some are more or less pronounced depending on personality. The aforementioned ‘sexy’ doll rocks the top part of her body as if rocking her hips, while other dolls move in a manner which reveals the smaller doll beneath. Attention to detail like this makes Stacking constantly interesting and appealing, as each new doll is more than just a new ability in a pretty shell, but a character all its own. You will likely spend a few moments just walking around looking at the dolls in each new location, wondering which to control first.

I'm a bit lost for words on this one.

Stacking is a genuinely new experience, feeling like little else, and looking more like a CGI cartoon than a game. It’s full of the kind of humour and personality Schafer’s games have become known for while addressing the problems adventure games often fall victim to. This is the evolution of the point and click into something far more intuitive. It’s clever in so many little ways that it shames the average mainstream release. In times past this would have been one of the biggest releases of the year, rather than an afterthought to the likes of ‘Worst Game Title Ever Award Winner’ Killzone 3 or Bulletstorm. It’s a pity many will miss out on this due to its non-physical release and the relative obscurity that brings, as not only is it the best game of the year so far, but will be a definite contender for game of the year when December comes. On the other hand, sometimes finding and appreciating a game like Stacking makes it that much more special.

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Top 100 Games – 97 – Super Meat Boy

18 Feb

Super Meat Boy
Year: 2010
Genre: Platformer

Team Meat’s creation, Super Meat Boy, has been described as the ‘Super Mario Bros.’ of its generation. It’s a platformer in the classic sense, 2D, primary colours (mostly red) and a simple plot. No secret has been made of its inspirations, but because of that SMB is even better, a nostalgia trip with modern twists and some fantastic graphical flourishes. The setting and characters are unique and mildly disturbing, yet somehow distinctly loveable. Villain Dr. Fetus kidnaps Meat Boy’s girlfriend Bandage Girl, and the stage is simply and effectively set for a romp through some bizarre locales.

The art design is brilliantly executed, with each world having a distinct personality. The hospital stood out in particular, with piles of syringes and medical waste on the ground, along with the SMB standard, meat grinder wheels, dotted around the levels. Occasionally breaking the tone for a level entirely in silhouette or a ‘retro’ styled level, the variety is just enough that the environments stay interesting. The detail is the best part though, while it’s hard to drag your eyes from Meat Boy himself thanks to the fast paced gameplay, the levels are wonderfully designed. Looking closely reveals details that you barely notice when charging through stages, and it only serves to make the game more appealing. The characters are cute, even Meat Boy slapping disgustingly against a wall and leaving a slick trail of blood is charming, in fact the game oozes a sort of horrible appeal. The end of level replays are a fantastic addition, and watching each attempt at once is a fine reward, especially when you realise the skill it took to guide Meat Boy to the end while all his clones died horribly.

It's not exactly... subtle

Playing SMB is an absolute treat. This is some of the best gameplay since the heyday of 2D graphics on the SNES and the graphical additions only make it better. It’s smooth to control, and impossibly precise. Jumping between meat grinders while avoiding a giant robot requires that kind of precision, but Team Meat really went above and beyond with their effort. Meat Boy moves with the kind of grace Mario could never muster. With traps and obstacles everywhere, the game looks like it should be taken slowly, but the times offered to be beaten are incredibly low. It’s all about the speedrun, and once the controls click (after the first level or two) there’s a level of artistry in the level design that is rarely seen. They are crafted make speed paramount, yet punish the slightest lapse in concentration. It’s a bit like Sonic mixed with Mario at 100mph. Gripping the controller tightly, staring intently at the screen, it’s almost Zen, until you die and hurl the unfortunate peripheral at the nearest wall. SMB is the best platformer in years, and one of the best ever, difficult, but never cheap. It’s a game for anyone who played Mario constantly in the past, and really, who didn’t?

Games as Art – Part 2

27 Jan

The Discerning Consumer

In explaining why the gaming press fails to separate those games with a more artistic nature, it led me to us, the players, and our role in shaping the industry. With the press doing nothing to tell us which games are really special, it falls to the consumer. Unfortunately, gamers are, as a group, not exactly discerning. We probably buy far too many games, and still the more interesting ones are ignored. The marketing of certain releases is obviously a big influence, yet we don’t generally go out of our way, as a film buff would, to actually learn what is really good. And how are we expected to when the games a vocal minority of gamers cry out for are simply given the same, or worse review scores as those which permeate the consciousness through advertising and media coverage. It is rare that a smaller budget, or more artistic game is previewed extensively, and games thrive on the hype machine, aided by the internet and rabid fanboy-ism. Gamers are, to pigeonhole, ‘nerds’ and as such, cling to certain franchises as horror fans do (Someone kill the man who made ‘Saw’- preferably in an ironically over elaborate trap). The ‘hardcore’ audience simply demands more sequels, or even remakes from their developer or publisher of choice. The smaller community, if it even exists, who want games to transcend these stereotypes are largely ignored, it is far easier to make money from a core consumer base that will support even a substandard product.

It’s usually developers and publishers who suffer the criticism of the vocal minority, but that seems rather reductionist. Gamers need to point the finger in some other directions. I’ve already mentioned the gaming press, but more so – at themselves. The publishers are merely satisfying the incredible demand of the majority of consumers, the same way movie, book and music companies do. In that sense, the gaming press serves a similar function, they are populist, they offer a product which praises across the board, for a variety of reasons, because there are many reasons we play games, as there are many reasons we go to the movies or read a novel. As I said in the previous article, games have not been separated as other media have. There are trashy novels, to be read on holidays or for a light read before bed, and there is literature, which is to be savoured, debated and reflected upon. In gaming terms, we consume and reflect on everything. Call of Duty (I think it’s fair I single this series out, but it’s not alone) is simply a ‘holiday read’ or ‘popcorn movie’ but it is debated ad infinitum, along with Halo, Battlefield and every other major release. The problem is the subject of these debates.

Gamers don’t look at their hobby the way a film buff does. They pore over technical details, differences between consoles, graphics, frames per second and every other aspect of the coding. Content is last on the list of priorities and story has only recently become a strong focus, but only as far as looking to generic Hollywood action movies for inspiration. I’m sorry, but Uncharted 2 is just not that good, it’s another generic cover shooter with a slightly more interesting exploding background. It’s not that there’s no place for that kind of thing, I enjoy a simple distraction from the existential dilemma of modern life as much as the next man, but I often want more from my entertainment, I want to think and be challenged. Games very, very rarely do that. What young game designer, who has creative and intelligent ideas, has a chance to use them in an industry so dominated by large publishers, huge budgets and worst of all, an audience that rewards mediocrity and repetition. Did we really need another Assassin’s Creed game this year? Yes, the sequel was an improvement on the original, but maybe the developers would have been better off spending far more time crafting a third instalment which was a huge improvement over the second, which told a new story in a new way. The critical praise and consumer reaction to Assassin’s Creed 2 however, meant that the publishers wanted to strike while the iron was hot, and build a franchise. There’s more profit to be made now, and into the future as things stand in gaming, from franchise-building, which has become the goal for publishers.

Gamers should celebrate the original, the new IP, but we stick with the brand we trust. Magazines don’t drop review scores even if the sequel is almost identical, and we continue to give money away for a few more tries at something we enjoyed, in absence of guaranteed fun from a brand we don’t know. This incredible lack of trust in a new commodity has led to countless iterations of the most tired of formulas. Final Fantasy may change its story and characters in each new game, but the brand remains, despite the game being unrecognisable to those who remember its heyday. The franchise has changed, but utterly failed to innovate, and that remains true for most of the industry. Mediocre games which achieve even moderate success garner sequels. Was it really necessary to give us another ‘Kane and Lynch’? Well, yes, of course it was, the gaming public never tires of shooting people. Even Rockstar, when attempting to create a game set in the Old American West, an entirely admirable change from the greys and browns of urban grime or warfare, chose to resurrect an IP most had no knowledge of. Pointless, but they surely had their reasons to do so, and it boils down to the importance of brand recognition in generating interest. Even an obscure brand is more valuable than an entirely new entity.

If we want to see games challenge other art forms and establish themselves as worthy, then we need to change the way we approach the industry. Firstly, buying every major release, or most of them, is an exercise in futility, they’re mostly the same as each other, and most of those which offer something different end up being clones of other games. How many versions of God of War have appeared since Kratos first ripped the head off a mythical beast? And God of War is derivative itself, it’s just a more polished scrolling fighter. If sequels, imitations and remakes stopped selling as well as they do, then developers would be forced to push the envelope and create something more unique. This in turn would increase competition to provide the most originality and creativity, to offer something different, be it story or gameplay, and to innovate rather than imitate. It is through this that we might see more artistic games. We also need to stop clinging to our precious franchises. Yes, the characters might be ones we like, but seeing them in their seventh game is simply absurd. I’m not quite as critical of Nintendo for this however, they do attempt to create a new Mario or Metroid experience somewhat regularly, and while say, Mario 64, Sunshine and Galaxy share similar core mechanics, they are vastly different games. There is a good reason why Nintendo continue to compel a new audience, and it is quality and imagination, not the same game over and over.

The backlash over Metroid: Other M is an interesting example of the problems with how we approach our hobby. Metroid Prime had three games in its series, it had run its course after adding the innovation of Wii controls. Nintendo wisely moved the franchise, which they know makes them more money than a new IP, that’s the market reality, to a new developer. (As much as I’d like to see a whole new game, setting and character, Nintendo do have to make money.)This was a disappointment for many fans, but do we need a fourth Metroid Prime game? Yes, Team Ninja changed some of the main character’s traits and personality, but they also made something different, and that should be commended, and Nintendo praised for taking a risk when every other company is content to offer the same thing in a different box. We, as consumers, even those of us who consider ourselves informed, are failing to reward intelligence and innovation, and the backlash against us has begun as the games we play have become more bland than ever. Thank goodness for the downloadable games of XBLA and PSN, where some wonderfully original titles like the beautiful and poignant ‘Flower’ or the unsettling ‘Limbo’ can be found. The problem however, is that without marketing from the companies, without reviews and press reflecting it, and without gamers making the effort to seek it out, imagination will always be trumped by the safety of the familiar, and this will inevitably lead to the continued lack of respect games receive in the artistic pantheon.