Summer holidays, here we come!

It’s time to pack away the controllers, turn off the game consoles and get the sunscreen out: it’s time for the annual Game Junkie family Christmas  holiday.

We’re taking the new boat up to the Marlborough Sounds this year (it’ll be nice to get away from the earthquakes that seem to be keen to hang around: there was a string of large ones on Friday), so will be boating, skiing and generally relaxing for a couple of weeks with friends, which will be nice after a busy year.

There will be minimal gaming, though, but there will be some gaming: I’m taking my Nintendo 3DS so I can play a bit of Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land at night, plus I’ ve got my tablet so I can play some games on that (GTA3: Anniversary edition, World of Goo). It won’t be completely game free but it’s won’t be gaming every night for a few hours.

The blog will be back sometime late January. Have a great and safe New Year and let’s do it again in 2012!

Video Game Junkie: video review of Skyward Sword

It’s almost Christmas, which is supposed to be a period of relaxing with a big glass of something,  and we’ve just been hit by two massive earthquakes again today, which is not what we need two nights before Christmas. There might not be much sleep done tonight.

Anyway, over the past few weeks the digital editor at work and I have been working on doing regular video interviews: it’s been something we’ve been talking about for a while but never really did anything about it. The first video we did two weeks ago was a video of Batman Arkham City, my Game of the Year, and it was purely game footage. All good so far.

The following week the digital editor told me we should do a video review but with me talking camera, which I was a little hesitant about. I’m fine when it comes to writing stories and stuff but I don’t really do “to-camera” stuff. I don’t think I have the face for it. Eventually he persuaded me to do and we decided on Nintendo Wii game Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

While I don’t think it’s a bad first effort there are definite areas I can improve on: shifting my eyes every time someone came into the room where we were filming is one of them. Secondly, I could just be a bit more relaxed and not try so hard. I just look nervous (and a fair bit was cut out as it was too bad to use).

Anyway, here’s the link for the video. If you like looking at comedy, have a gander. Leave a comment, too, if you like.

You’ll also find our other video there as well (Batman Arkham City).

Let’s hope tonight is a quite night and the ground decides to stay calm. Stay strong, Christchurch.

The getting ready for the holidays edition

I often tell people that for me as a journalist the week before Christmas is like the final 10 metres of a 100 metre sprint: the finish is almost in sight but it’s the point in the race where you really have to dig deep and give it all you’ve got.

I mention this because a few days after Christmas is when I tend to pack up the family (not literally) and we head out of Christchurch for a family holiday – but in the week leading up to that glorious day I have to write up enough gaming and technology stories and other stories for the sections of the newspaper I write for to cover my absence. So it often means late nights and early mornings, scrabbling together reviews for not-so crucial games that can run over that holiday season.

While a family holiday means time away from game consoles and big budget games (which, just between you and me, will be something of a blessing as I’m pretty burned out after a rather packed gaming year) it does, however, mean more time with mobile gaming platforms: read Nintendo 3DS and my Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet. I’m sure I can get away with taking those platforms away with me this year, besides I need the tablet to check those all-important emails.

So this week is also about loading up my tablet with games that will keep me busy during the quiet time: I’ve just bought GTA3 Anniversary edition and recently added Sprinkle and World of Goo to my collection. I’m gutted, though, that I missed some good games in the Android Marketplace’s 10c sale. Apparently GameDevStory was on offer for the princely sum of 10c. How could I have missed that?

The holiday period is also when, obviously, the blog goes into summer hiatus – at least for a couple of weeks: but it’ll come back in the new year refreshed and revitalised, ready to go.

Right, time to start pre-loading some games onto my tablet and start looking for the 3DS titles that are worthy of my time. My two favourites on 3DS at the moment are Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7. Feel free to recommend some others.

The numbers game: why I’m thinking of dropping scores from my game reviews

For as long as I’ve been involved in game writing in some form or another – 10 years maybe – I’ve always used some sort of numerical scoring for game reviews: be it out of five stars or out of 10. That’s how I’ve always done it – but I’m starting to questions that style now, to the point of actually seeing if I can do away with “number” scores all together in my reviews.

What has bought about this contemplative reassessment of scores in my review? My Assassin’s Creed Revelations review, that’s what. The review ran in The Press’ hardcopy technology/TV tabloid last month but I laboured over the score right up until deadline.

I liked the game but didn’t think it was the best in the series, yet I to and fro-ed about the score right up until before the pages were ready to go to print. “Do I give it 3.5 out of 5 or 4 out of 5 stars?,” I continually asked myself as the deadline for the pages loomed. I ended up giving it four out of five – right at the last minute – but already I’m not sure I did the right thing. Revelations certainly wasn’t a five but it felt better than a three – and that’s the problem that out of five scores presents for a game that doesn’t suck but isn’t the greatest around (I wish I could take  back the four out of five I gave Assassin’s Creed Revelations but I can’t).

To be honest, I’ve been thinking about dropping scores from my reviews for some time but have never found a reason to do it, after all, the bulk of review sites and reviewers use some form of points system for their reviews, be it numbers, stars, symbols or letters – but the longer I do this job the more I get convinced that I could do a better job of conveying my thoughts on a game without the need for a numerical score at the end. I can give my reasons for liking and disliking a game without the need to pigeon hole it at the end with a numerical score.

Besides, how many times have we read a review then read the score at the bottom and thought “Oh, that read like a 7”. I know I have and I know I’ve written reviews that I’ve read the next day in print and thought “Hell, that didn’t read like a four out of five”. Part of me believes that avoiding giving a game a numerical score will avoid confusion: the words will be enough to let readers know.

I’m hoping to starting writing reviews with no score next year, when I’m back from my summer holiday. Hopefully the editor of the game section at The Press’ Box tabloid agrees with me.

It’s Tuesday so that means I talk games with Glenn “Wammo” Williams during his breakfast show at Kiwi FM. Today, I talked about my favourite games of the year, and there were a few of them.

I’ll let you watch the video in a minute but my Game of the Year is probably different from everyone elses: I gave it to Batman Arkham City, and not Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which is getting a slew of GOTY awards. Queue the gnashing of teeth and wailing by rampant fan boys who will proceed to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about by not giving it to Skyrim.

I think I’ve said before on this blog (and if I haven’t then I’m saying it for the first time): I haven’t played Skyrim so I couldn’t give it GOTY. I didn’t play it because I gave it to another reviewer who had played Oblivion to death so was more experienced in looking at Skyrim.  I’m sure Skyrim’s great – heck, people are saying it’s great, so it must be right? – but I haven’t played it.

Watch the video and let me know whether you agree with me or not?

Raam’s Shadow (DLC) and the new Xbox 360 dashboard

Despite it being the end of the year it’s been an incredibly busy weeks (isn’t that always the way, though?) and I’ve still got a few games to get through before I head away for my Christmas/New Year holidays at the end of December. Just between you and me, I don’t actually think I’ll find time to play all the games I’ve yet to get through before year’s end.

One thing I have played is some new single player DLC (downloadable content) for Gears of War 3 – Raam’s Shadow. It comes out on December 13 and will set you back 1200 Microsoft Points. I think it’s worth it as it’s actually a piece of DLC that adds backstory to the Gears trilogy and introduces a new character to the video game series – Michael Barrick (he will be well known to fans of the Gears comic book series) and lets you play as the feared locust commander, General Raam.

Designed as a prequel to the Gears trilogy, Raam’s Shadow takes place in the hours following Emergence Day, when the locust first revealed themselves to the Seran population.  Joining Barrick is Lt Minh Young Kim, who had a fatal run in with General Raam in the first Gears game, and Tai Kaliso, who met his fate in Gears 2. Worth noting also is the Raam’s Shadow features one character who gets to play a much larger role in a later Gears game – but I won’t spoil that for you.

The overarching story in this DLC is that Zeta squad have to help evacuate survivors from the city of Ilima before a kryll storm engulfs the city. Gears fans will remember that the kryll are a vicious bat-like creatures that had a great section in the original Gears of War where you had to use light to avoid them. They’re vicious little bastards, to be honest.

Raam’s Shadow plays like a Gears game, so fans will be familiar with the controls and play style but it brings a couple of new elements to the table: one is that you get to use the Hammer of Dawn but from a top-down perspective, blasting locusts forces, and secondly, you get to control General Raam as he forges his way through Ilima city against the COG forces.

Raam is a formidable opponent and he’s surrounded by kryll, which not only protect him from arms fire from COG soldiers but can also be used to unleash an attack on foes, engulfing them in a black cloud and devouring them in with a puff of red mist. Raam also has a fairly devastating knife attack on downed COG. He moves slowly on foot and never takes cover (I guess he’s too big to find cover) but it’s enjoyable playing from the perspective of a locust commander.

Something this DLC has hit home for me, too, is just how visually stunning Gears of War 3’s graphics are: the world is minutely detailed and it’s fascinating seeing buildings and a world that was destroyed and decimated in the Gears trilogy is still almost pristine and intact in Raam’s Shadow.

Raam’s Shadow doesn’t bring anything revolutionary to the Gears series but I found it a satisfying way to spend an afternoon. Multiplayer fans will be pleased to know that the DLC brings six new multiplayer characters and a new weapons skin pack.

The other big bit of news this week was the update to the Xbox 360 dashboard – which has gone all Metro UI on us (just like Windows Phone 7 and the incoming  new version of Windows) – and the activation of Kinect voice commands for us New Zealand Xbox 360 owners. I’ve posted a video on my testing the voice commands (sorry about the shakiness and abrupt ending: I used my Flip camcorder rather than my capture device – and it shows). That  now means I can navigate my way through the 360’s dashboard environment using gesture and voice – and while I haven’t bothered looking at the gesture commands yet (I’m too lazy) I’ve been using the voice navigation and I’m impressed with how well it works.

I’m finding I’m having to speak a little louder than I would normally but it’s done everything I’ve asked of it: find my games collection, go to the social media apps area, sign me into Xbox Live – I can even turn my console off by saying “Xbox, settings, turn off, yes (to confirm)”. That’s cool but thankfully you can’t turn off the console mid-game or else there would be plenty of angry husbands/boyfriends around the world as their wife/partner/girlfriend had just turned off the console!

One thing that didn’t work for me – and I know several other Kiwis that had trouble getting it to work – was voice commands for Bing Search, Microsoft’s search engine. I asked Xbox NZ”s PR about it and they said that voice commands for Bing Search hadn’t been activated yet for New Zealand but would be rolled out as soon as possible over the next year.

All and all it’s been a busy week on the gaming front.

Game Junkie chats with Radio Wammo: the “do I need my haircut?” edition

It’s Tuesday which means it’s the day I chat gaming with Glenn “Wammo” Williams and today we talked about the imminent dashboard update for the Xbox 360 (it was due to be available for New Zealand Xbox 360 owners sometime tonight)

I’m hoping that the update, which brings the new Metro user interface to the Xbox 360 (the same one used in Windows Phone 7 and coming to Windows 8), will arrive tonight so I can put it through its paces. I saw a list of all the TV content the Americas and Europe are geting then saw what New Zealand was getting and …  it’s a little disappointing, when I think about it. We’re getting YouTube later this month and then something called MLB.TV in 2012 but that’s not much.

Now, I’m assuming that MLB is Major League Baseball. Really? I’m sure the ex-pat Americans now living in New Zealand will be excited about that. Me? Not so much.

The update brings better voice commands so it means I can now say Rid Did Ridimption (a running joke between Wammo and myself is my supposed pronunciation of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption as heard by some Americans during a review of the game.)

Lastly, my daughter reckons that I should have had a haircut before today’s segment with Wammo. Do you agree? (If I’m being honest I’m due to get a pre-Christmas haircut anyway but it’s hard trying to find a free appointment these days). My hair is looking a little messy, to be honest.

First Impressions: Super Mario 3D Land

My 3DS hasn’t seen a lot of action lately: good games for it have been far and few between (in my opinion) but that changed on Tuesday when Super Mario 3D Land arrived.

I like it: a lot and I feel that if this game had been released when the handheld was launched, I’m sure Nintendo wouldn’t have had to drop the price of 3DS because this game is brilliant and would have sold consoles. That said someone asked me the other day whether Super Mario 3D Land should have been rushed to meet the 3DS launch or the 3DS launch postponed for the game: it’s a hard question to answer but perhaps delaying the launch of the 3DS till now wouldn’t have been that bad …

So far I’ve only played up to the final boss fight in world one but I’m just loving it and it really does look stunning: the 3D effect looks wonderful and the game world is vivid and bright. Not surprisingly, the game is in 3D but actually plays like it’s a 2D-platformer. There are some wonderful touches, too, like one sequences where Mario travels the entire level while standing atop a platform with wheels on it and the platform is lifted to upper levels by water geysers.

The objective for each level will be a familiar one to fans of Super Mario: reach the end of the level within a time limit and grab the flagpole. Simple. Mario gets smaller when he takes damage from an enemy and will die if he takes damage while shrunk. New power-ups include one that turns Mario into Tanooki Mario, which adorns him with a racoon suit and lets him float and whack foes with his tail, and the statue leaf which turns him into a statue.

Super Mario 3D Land isn’t doing anything that we haven’t seen before and it feels like the Mario games of old it (and seems a mix of several Mario games into one) and soon-to-be released Mario Kart 7, also on the 3DS, could help increase the 3DS’s fortunes in this crucial Christmas period.

To me, the sign of a good game is one that grabs your attention and won’t let go: I think  Super Mario 3D Land is such a game as I took my 3DS to work today and couldn’t help picking it up every hour or so and playing for a few minutes then getting back to work (rest assured my work for today didn’t suffer but that’s how good I’m finding this game).

I’ll give some more views when I’ve progressed further.

First Impressions is an opinion piece that gives my thoughts on a new game after a few hours play through. It’s often a rambling thing, with ideas just randomly thrown onto the page. Sorry, that’s just the way it is sometimes.