The week that was

It’s been a pretty busy week despite it being a short week here (due to a public holiday on Monday) and my return from New York on Monday. Let’s start with the games I’ve been playing, eh?

Or perhaps that should be “game” that I’ve played this week: Batman Arkham City. That’s all I’ve played for the bulk of this week – at least till this afternoon when I played some Kinect 2 with my son and some of the inFamous 2 DLC, Festival of Blood.

I finished the campaign yesterday morning and without a doubt it is the best super hero game I’ve played in all my years of gaming – and a fitting sequel to Batman Arkham Asylum.  Ever play a game and once you’ve finished it you just sit back and soak it all in and say “Wow”? For me this year, Batman Arkham City is that game. It’s just made my Game of the Year list even longer!

I’m now working my way through all the side missions that I didn’t complete before completing the game and trying to get the achievements I didn’t get.

I’ve already talked about Arkham City here so I won’t tread over old ground but everything just seemed to work with the game: the story made more sense that Arkham Asylum, it’s one of the most beautifully realised game worlds I’ve played in some time (if a grimy, gritty and depressive city can be made to be beautiful) and the combat is some of the best I’ve ever played. It flows and you can almost feel every punch to the sternum when Batman delivers the final blow.

In today’s recording of the Well Played podcast a topic that came up was whether the game is courting controversy with its language toward the female characters in the game, namely Selina Kyle aka Catwoman. In the game banter between inmates of Arkham City (parts of which are now a prison closed off from the rest of the city) as you wonder the game world, you often hear the prisoners referring to Catwoman (and other women) as “bitches”.

Personally, the language didn’t offend me – and actually, I didn’t notice it until an email from someone on the Well Played crew telling me were going to discuss it.

Why didn’t it offend me? Because it fitted in with the story and fitted into the context of the narrative: these are hardened criminals who aren’t going to have tea with their grandmother on a Sunday after and chew on cucumber sandwiches. They’re psychopathic killers who no doubt call women “bitches”, so the language doesn’t cause me any concern.

Perhaps one part of the game that was little more contentious was the sexualised nature of  the outfits worn by Catwoman and the other female characters in the game. The black catsuit is skintight, revealing and doesn’t leave much to the imagination – neither do the outfits of Poison Ivy or Harley Quinn.

I know that since the dawn of time,  female comic characters women superheroes have worn provocative costumes (Wonder Woman for example. Sorry, I can’t think of any other female comic book characters) but is it really necessary? Ok, I realise that catwoman can’t pounce across the rooftops of Gotham City wearing a trenchcoat and a loose fitting blouse but does her outfit have to show off an ample amount of cleavage that it does? As Aylon Herbet on the Well Played podcast said today: he was surprised Catwoman didn’t have a wardrobe malfunction like Janet Jackson during the game. I agree with him on that, actually.

This week I also had the pleasure of chatting with Naughty Dog’s Keith Guerrette, who lead all the special FX work in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. I’ve yet to transcribe the interview – I’ll get onto that in the next day or two – but he was the most obliging and pleasant to talk to developer that I’ve talked to in a long time. He was here to present a talk on Uncharted 3 at the weekend’s Armageddon event in Auckland.

On the hardware front, I’m looking at Kaiser Baas’ Series 8 Game Recorder software and it’s pretty darn good. It’s a USB dongle that connects to your PC and console of choice then records the footage of your favourite game to your PC or laptop. You can then edit it using CyberLink’s PowerDirector 8 editing software.

OK, that’s about me for the past week.  This week I want to play the Festival of Blood DLC for inFamous 2 as well as get an Assassin’s Creed Revelations interview written up. I’ll post that one when it’s done.

Nightwing to make an appearance in Batman Arkham City

As much as I love Batman (greatest super hero ever, don’t you know?) my knowledge about Dick Grayson and Nightwing is pretty abysmall. In fact, it’s pretty much nonexistent.

From what I understand (comic afficionadoes correct me if I’m wrong), Dick Grayson becomes crime fighter Nightwing sometime in his early 20s.

Incidentally,  an episode of The Big Bang Theory that ran here on Wednesday night (a repeat, of course) saw Sheldon and Howard playing tug-of-war over a Batman comic book that mentioned Nightwing. I can’t remember much more about the episode but as soon as I saw this trailer for the Nightwing DLC for Arkham City I remembered the show.

Anyway, the Nightwing Bundle will set you back 560 Microsoft points or $AU11.45 off the PlayStation network (why on earth a press release to New Zealand gaming media didn’t have an Australian to New Zealand conversion is beyond me but I’d say it’s close to $15, depending on the current exchange rate.)

Nightwing will be playable in all Arkham City’s challenge maps, and the DLC adds two new challenge maps – Wayne Manor and Main Hall – and offers a Nightwing character skin based on the animated series. The DLC will be available on November 2.

Talking of Arkham City, I’m still working my way through the main game – I’m pretty sure I’m just about finished – and am about to take on Joker and his thugs once again. This time in the steel mill and there’s him, his thugs, one of those one armed dudes that swings a hammer – oh, and a bloody titan to make things interesting. I smell the finale very close but time will be short this weekend (and I’ve got several stories, interviews and reviews to write up).

I’ve deviated from the main story a little, just to complete more side missions (blowing up the titan silos for Bane, trying to track down Oneshot) and perhaps the best boss fight so far has been the one against Victor Fries (Mr Freeze). It required quite a bit of creativity to bring him down.

So what did exactly did I do in New York?

Well, I walked a lot, ate quite a bit, bought a few things, saw some amazing sights and – the main reason for my visit – attended the Kinect for Kids event, held in a building in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen district. Today I spoke to Glenn “Wammo” Williams about it today.

You can hear about it here, whether you’re a fan of Microsoft’s Kinect hands-free controller or not.

Go listen. You know you want to.

Batman Arkham City: my impressions

I was planning to post this last week – while I was in New York – to coincide with the lifting of the New Zealand embargo on reviews for Batman Arkham City – but for some reason this blog and my Samsung tablet didn’t want to play nicely so I was forced to waiting until I got home (today) and post it.

Batman Arkham Asylum was so close to becoming my Game of the Year when it came out  – it was by far the best superhero game ever, with the best superhero ever,  and the way the combat flowed just made for a superb game. It was atmospheric to the max and if there was any fault, the Dark Knight’s detective vision made the game too easy.

I didn’t think developer Rocksteady could make a better Batman game. Well, they have, and that game is Batman Arkham City. I got my copy mid-last week and have been playing it solidly and I love it. In fact, I’ve been neglecting other games because I’ve been playing Batman Arkham City.

Before I left for New York I’d played about 15% 49% of the game, including a handful of Cat woman missions (retail copies of the game come with a one-time use code for Cat woman DLC) so these are my impressions so far. Short version: I’m loving it a lot.

This time much of Gotham City is a prison for the depraved and dastardly, a quarantined portion of the city fenced by high barbed wire-topped fences and searing search lights. Areas have their own feel, too, depending on who they are ruled by (ie either Joker or the Riddler). Batman’s foes are roaming the streets of the giant prison set up in a rundown quarter of Gotham, prowling every corner in this “facility” run by Professor Hugo Strange, who has a personal vendetta against Bruce Wayne. The Joker makes a return, too, this time a little worse for wear after injecting the titan formula in the first game and the Riddler’s influence is never too far away. You’ll also be reunited with Harvey “Two Face” Dent, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy and others.

Where do I start with Arkham City? Perhaps one of the most notable improvements is the batclaw, which in the first game was a tool used to scale buildings and towers. Now, it’s a super tool that can not only be used to scale heights but can be used to slingshot the Caped Crusader upwards, used in tandem with his glide ability. Batman can now also dive-bomb enemies, knocking them down the blast such a high-speed landing makes, as well as use the dive-bomb to game momentum for upward gliding.

Arkham City is a sprawling, atmospheric place highly detailed with the chaos of a society in turmoil, with thugs on every corner and plenty of gargoyles for the Dark Knight to do inverted take downs and hide from foes – many of which are much smarter this time. The combat flows perfectly, with Batman able to move from foe to foe with such fluidity that you almost feel  l part of the action. The cryptographic sequencer, the device that Batman uses to crack door codes, is now much, much improved on the original, too: instead of having to move the analogue sticks until you’ve got the right frequency often all you have to do is rotate the sticks until letters spell out the correct word.

The scale of Arkham City is much broader than Arkham Asylum, too, with a huge number of side quests that can be completed either while you’re completing the single player missions or once you’ve done with the campaign.

Look, there’s much more I could say about Batman Arkham City but I’m just going to leave it here for now. I want to play more of it, explore a little more and see how it ends. I’ll let you know my final thoughts when I’ve finished it.

I’m off to New York on Sunday – so I’ve been playing lots of games before I go

Yes, you read that right: I’m heading to New York on Sunday (New Zealand time) to attend a Microsoft Kinect event in the Big Apple on Tuesday.

I’m really looking forward to it and have a couple of interviews lined up already, one with Kudo Tsunoda, one of the creative’s behind Kinect, and hands-on time with new Kinect games. It seems that Microsoft are really pushing what children can really do with Kinect and this is the focus of the event.

I’ve never been to New York before either so am really hyped about what the future holds for Kinect (and checking out all the touristy things in the few days that I’m there).

So, over the past few days I’ve been thrashing the hell out of Batman Arkham City – and it’s bloody brilliant – but despite worldwide reviews running left right and centre, it seems New Zealand games writers are still lumbered with an embargo which lifts on Oct 19 – which is Wednesday and I’m away!

I’ve also played a little bit of Rage but I’m not sure what I think of it so far: it looks beautiful – perhaps one of the best looking console games around – but the gameplay is less than stellar – at least from what I’ve played. There are a tad too many fetch quests for my liking (head to this settlement and pick up these parts, head up to a radio tower and realign the dish, etc, etc)

OK, I’ve got to finish getting packed (note pads, dictaphone, Samsung tablet, mobile phone, pens). Have a good week, play games, and I’ll update the blog (hopefully) while I’m in New York.


Listen up: audio interview with Turn 10’s John Wendl about all things Forza 4

Thanks to the mighty helpful Glenn “Wammo” Williams, who kindly offered to record my interview with Turn 10’s John Wendl, content director on Forza Motorsport 4 (I think Glenn was lurking during my conference call but all praise to him and his professional recording equipment), you can now listen to my lovely nasal tones as I ask various questions of Wendl, including utilising Kinect in the game, Forza 4’s darn neat Autovista mode and how they they managed to get Top Gear involved.

I haven’t listened through the whole thing –  I think it goes pretty well, apart from some rather long questions that get a little confusing – just don’t get distracted by my nasal tones.

I also discovered Soundcloud today which lets me upload audio files and embed a lovely looking player, like the one below.

Just press the play button. Go on, you know you want to (it’s 27mins long so make sure you’ve got some time).

Forza Motorsport 4: my impressions

Looking good: a publicity still from Forza Motorsport 4.

I’m just going to come out and say it: Forza Motorsport 4 is the best racing sim that I’ve ever played. It’s that simple.

I’ve only had the game since the end of last week but have thrashed the collection of cars in my garage to death (many other NZ  gaming writers got the code early at a special event in Auckland on the Tuesday that I didn’t attend), especially the poor Toyota Sprinter Trueno, a car introduced to the world by the Japanese car manufacturer in 1983.

Despite the fact that it only has a 1587cc four-cylinder twin-cam engine, I was able to gun the Trueno to within an inch of its life around some of Forza 4’s racing tracks, including the Top Gear test track at the Dunsfold Aerodrome, the Tsukuba circuit in Japan and at Laguna Seca in the United States. I was so impressed with the Trueno that I actually raced it in races that I probably shouldn’t have. Oh, well.

(This is completely irrelevant to this write up but I never owned a Toyota Trueno but I did own a Datsun 180B during my youth. I used to loving call it my Dats-hoon 180B. I don’t think there is a Datsun 180B in Forza 4 but it would be bloody cool if there was. Ah, nostalgic memories …)

Anyway, the first thing I actually did on Forza 4 before launching my career was try out the Kinect enabled features – you know, Microsoft’s motion-sensing device – and I was pleasantly surprised at how good it worked in races. While all you do is steer the car – you have no control over accelerating, braking or gear changes, and it’s never going to replace using a controller or steering wheel if you’re serious about the game – it was far more responsive than previous racing games on Kinect (Kinect Joyride especially) I’ve played. I didn’t actually think the Kinect functionality would be any good, but it actually works well.

The other impressive feature using Kinect is the game’s Autovista mode – where you get to look around and inside unlockable vehicles (vehicles are unlocked completing various challenges). Using Kinect you lean left and right to move around the car then hold your hand over various icons which will do things like open the boot or the bonnet or activate a speil from Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson about the vehicle. A neat feature is that when you’ve opened a door and step forward you’re swept into the car’s interior. If you hover over the ignition icon, the car’s engine roars into life – the first vehicle you get is Ferrari’s 458 – and it’s truly impressive to hear that engine start-up. There are plenty of other vehicles to unlock, including the iconic Warthog from the Halo series.

Then you’ve got the visuals. Simply put, Forza 4 looks stunning. My son came up to me the other day when I was looking at my cars and wanted to know if they were real cars: they look that realistic. There aren’t any dynamic weather effects  – it doesn’t suddenly start raining while you’re going around a track  – but you can race in a variety of weather conditions (overcast, early morning, late afternoon) and the interiors are incredibly detailed. For most of us, this is the closest we’re ever going to get to these real-life race cars. My son drove around the Nurburgring today in a Bugatti Veyron: I think I could safely say he’s never going to drive one of those in real life.

The audio, too, is superb: every engine note – from the deep gutteral tones of a Dodge Ram to the whiney, high-pitched sound of a Formula 1 car – it just sounds perfect.

Halo Warthog: the iconic vehicle from Halo makes an appearance in Forza 4's Autovista mode.

You can make Forza 4 as easy or as difficult as you want: if you’re new to the genre you can get all the assists turned on (ABS, traction control, auto-steering, auto-braking, racing line, rewind ability) to they don’t get put off when all they see is exhaust smoke but purists will want as many assists off as possible – to get a more realistic feel. The game suggests that if you play on expert you have real-world driving experience and have a steering wheel. I’d second that: I tried expert and just didn’t stand a chance against the aggressive AI.

While people will say “But all you do is go from race to race, country to country, and complete in events. It’s so repetitive” they’d be right but isn’t that every race game, and many games in general? By its very nature, a racing season is going from event to event, country to country, driving around tarmac in the quest for the fastest time and a place on the podium. I’ve never had so much fun driving around racing tracks in all my life.

I’m not so sure about the “Knock the bowling pins over” challenges on the Top Gear test track (they seemed a little pointless, to be honest)  and the AI drivers seemed to, at times, fall back then rubber-band themselves right up to your rear view mirror, but Forza 4 is a game that contains so much content that the most anal of tweaking purists will keep themselves busy for months just fine tuning their vehicle. Really, they will.

Then there’s the paint shop and the livery editor, the ability to set up or join car clubs where you can share cars, and the photo mode  (sorry, I haven’t used my own captured photos here: I’m still trying to find some I’m happy with) … oh, man, there’s just too much to contain in one article. Oh, forgot to mention the rivals mode which, hands down, is one of the best competitive modes to have. It’s where you try to beat the scores posted by your friends, pure and simple  – and from what I understand it will inform your friends when  you’ve beaten their time. If that’s not going to create a competitive rivalry between Xbox friends, I don’t know what is. XBLA game Trials HD was very good at spurring competition between friends – and Forza 4 is going to do the same thing.

You’ve probably guessed by know that I’m loving Forza Motorsports 4. I’m slowly making way up through the career rankings, race by race, continent by continent, and its great fun. I think, too, the Top Gear partnership is going to help the game appeal to not just hardcore race game purists but anyone. I know lots of people – my wife included – who doesn’t like cars but enjoys watching Top Gear. She sat watching us playing Forza 4 this afternoon.

I’ve no doubt missed other cool stuff in the game – oh, yeah, you can use head tracking with Kinect to look around the interior of cars while you’re racing  – but for Xbox 360 owners who are racing fans, Forza 4 is a no brainer. Go buy it: you won’t be disappointed. For those sitting on the fence, though, take it from me: Forza 4 is a stunning game that will keep you occupied for a very long time. The best racing game I’ve played? Most definitely. The best racing game of this generation? Quite possibly.

The Tuesday usual: Game Junkie chats with Radio Wammo

It’s Tuesday – the day I chat with Glenn “Wammo” Williams on our weekly gaming segment on Kiwi FM’s Radio Wammo breakfast.

Today, we talked a little about the Battlefield 3 beta – which I’ve had no luck joining any games, whatsoever – as well as the  plan for Comcast and Verizon in the United States to provide their services through the Xbox 360, and plans for a role playing game based on George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series.

Have a listen. You might like it.