Thimbleweed Park is the game I’ve been waiting years for

Two years ago, I backed Ron Gilbert & Gary Winick’s Kickstarter fund the princely sum of $US20 for the point-and-click adventure game they wanted to make.

It was a no brainer for me, to be honest. I loved played the classic Lucasarts point-and-click games like Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle. Games that both Gilbert and Winnick were involved it. Those readers that have been reading my blog for a while will know that I’ve already waxed lyrically about Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, games that I still own today on disc.

I paid the money, the game got funded and I sort of forgot about it and let Winick and Gilbert get on with it. There were updates during the two years from the duo about how things were going and late last week, an email arrived that lifted my heart: Thimbleweed Park was finished and ready to play. My heart jumped for joy.

“Thimbleweed Park has been set free. Thimbleweed Park has been released into the wild. Thimbleweed Park has been kicked out of the house, told to get a job,” the email opened. It was the news I’d been waiting for. It was time to be transported back to my gaming heydays …

My teenage son, who is 17, can’t understand why I like games like Thimbleweed Park and the whole point-and-click adventure series. I told him it’s because I just love games that make me think rather than just move from point A to B shooting everything that moves. He doesn’t get it but it’s not his fault: He’s a gamer of the 2000s, a decade when point-and-click adventure games are all but forgotten by most gamers apart from those my age probably.

Thimbleweed Park follows the conventions of the classic games that went before it: Solve  mysteries using the items you find in the game world, combining objects to complete tasks. In the game you eventually get to control five actors (FBI agents Reyes and Ray, wannabe video game programmer Delores, Ransome the Insult Clown, and Franklin Edmund, Delores’ father), swapping between them at the click of a button. It looks like a game from 1987, which it’s pixellated graphics and cheesy music, but I love it.

I’m about six and a half hours in so far and playing it on PC with mouse and keyboard (point-and-click adventure games don’t feel right to me using a controller) and none of the puzzles have stumped me greatly, although some will really make you think about what you have to combine to create the end product. I haven’t come across as anything as mind-bendingly hard as some of those in Monkey Island but there’s still time and some items that you’ll need are hard to find (particularly a chainsaw that I needed later in the game …)

With games like this, if you pay attention to what characters say and think logically, you’ll solve most puzzles easily enough. The story is engaging and the dialogue is snappy, and I haven’t come across any game-breaking bugs yet. If I had any criticism, it’s that I think at times the game mentions past adventure games a little too much. It kind of breaks the fourth wall a little too much for my liking at times.

I’ve got other games to play at the moment – Zelda Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch) and Mass Effect Andromeda (PlayStation 4) – but I’m gravitating to Thimbleweed Park right now. It’s the game I want to play until the end (unlike the other point-and-click adventure game I Kickstarted, Tim Schafer’s Broken Age: I gave up on that one after playing just the first part. I just didn’t like it that much, plus the development process was disjointed).

I’m enjoying the hell out of Thimbleweed Park and I’m glad I backed it. It’s taken me back to an age when games were clever and made you think and gameplay was more important that realistic graphics.

Thank you Ron Gilbert and Gary Winick. Thank you for making Thimbleweed Park. It’s been the best $US20 I’ve even spent.

 

 

Book review: The Art of Deus Ex Universe

The Art of Deus Ex Universe (Jonathan Jacques-Belletete and Martin Dubeau with Paul Davies. Titan books)

As a teenager, I loved sketching characters like Judge Dredd, Boba Fett and stormtroopers (not together in the  same scene, obviously). I particularly loved drawing Judge Dredd. I guess it was his hard-edge face with what seemed like a permanent scowl that was the attraction.

I always started with the helmet before I added in the respirator and the nose piece – and then it was pretty much just a solid chin with that scowl. Judge Dredd was such an interesting character to draw and it was only natural that my love of drawing pop culture characters (and studying art at high school)  would lead to me being intrigued by the design processes of video games.

I’m incredibly fascinated by how game makers start with a spark, an idea, and flesh it out into a full realised character as we see in a finished video game.

As someone who loves the design concepts and processes that go into video games, and a longtime fan of the Deus Ex series, The Art of Deus Ex is a fascinating 210-page book that delves deeply into the thought processes of the artists, designers and conceptual artists as to  how they settled on the final designs of characters and locations used in Deus Ex Mankind Divided and Deus Ex Human Revolution.

I bought the book from Amazon for about $NZ50 (including delivery) after playing through Deus Ex Mankind Divided, a game that had such a visually impressive art style that just had to have an art book that detailed the design process. I loved the game but I think I love the art book even more than the game.

The game opens with a section on Adam Jensen, the lead character in Mankind Divided and Human Revolution and a character that I actually liked despite many thinking he was a douchebag and it’s interesting that reaching the final visual look was a two-year process, says the book.

In it, Jacques-Belletete says Jensen had to represent “what it meant to have your body augmented way beyond its natural and biological capabilities”. The book shows how Jensen’s character evolved and changed over the design process, eventually settling on the cyberpunk look we see in the final game.

For gamers who want to see the process from ideas to finished project, a book like The Art of Deus Ex Universe is well worth the money. I just love seeing the sketches and concept art of the vision for what they want the game to look like. It’s fascinating seeing the transformations of characters from rough sketches to fleshed out as they look in-game.

The book covers everything from cybernetic implants and augmentations and characters like Frank Pritchard, Jaron Namir (from Human Revolution) and Elias Chikane to locations like Detroit, Prague, Sarif Industries and Hengsha. Fans of Human Revolution and Mankind Divided will be in heaven, as I was.

The Art of Deus Ex Universe is stunning from start to finish chokka block with highly detailled images – hopefully the images accompanying this post will do it justice – for gamers who love the process behind the games they play to pore over.

I’ve got several video game art books and I have to say that this one takes pride of place in my collection.

 

 

E3: The big guns come out to play

Day two of the E3 press conferences before the show proper and Microsoft and PlayStation held their press events. I woke up at 4.25am to watch the Microsoft one and I liked some of the announcements, especially the Project Scorpio console (although I’m tossing up now whether to save for a Project Scorpio console or save for one of the soon-to-be released AMD RX480 graphics cards (and probably a new motherboard to put it in).

Microsoft’s biggest cheers definitely came for the two consoles that had been rumoured but no-one really knew much about. There’s the Xbox One S, which is 40 per cent smaller than the launch Xbox One, has an internal power supply and it supports 4K Ultra HD, there’s the new console called at the moment Project Scorpio which promises “6 Teraflops”of GPU power. There’s a new Elite controller and you can customise your own one-of a kind Xbox One wireless controller but as far as Microsoft’s games went: I thought they were OK but not outstanding. I do like the cross play feature where someone with a game on Xbox One can play someone who is playing the same game on a Windows 10 laptop/PC.

Microsoft had Halo Wars 2 (I loved the first game), Dead Rising 4, Gears of War 4, Rare’s Seas of Thieves (which looks great), Forza Horizon 3 (which is set in Australia!), Recore,  Final Fantasy XV, Minecraft Realms (it was good to see famed developer John Carmack wearing a Samsung GearVR headset for this demo) and The Division Underground. All solid games but nothing really earth-shattering, in my view. That said, indie title We Happy Few looks genuinely interesting as did PlayDead’s Inside (the same developers that created Limbo).

Update: Thinking about things overnight, Xbox has scored a major win in hardware side of things by announcing Project Scorpio.  Yes, it’s 18 months or so until the console will be released (I suspect it’ll be revealed middle of next year sometime) but I’d say announcing Scorpio will really put the heat on Sony and it’s PlayStation Neo console which, I think, is due for release late this year. Microsoft are really gunning to win the console wars and build the “most powerful console ever” and looking at its speaks, it is indeed a powerful machine. It’ll be interesting to see whether Microsoft’s announcement yesterday has PlayStation worried about its Neo.

As far as games go (and let’s face it, that’s why people buy consoles/play PCs), though, for me, Sony won the battle, if there is such a thing. I love both consoles but personally, I felt that PlayStation’s games seemed a little fresher, a little more exciting.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a much older (but a bit of a dick towards his son) Kratos in the God of War reboot, The Last Guardian which seems to have been in development for decades finally got a release date, Horizon Zero Dawn looks incredible, Hideo Kojima’s new game Death Stranding which featured a naked Norman Reedus (from Walking Dead fame) wondering why he’s on a beach,  there was a very Last of Us-esque game called Days Gone which features zombies in an apocalyptic setting, Detroit Become Human (the next game from David Cage) and then there was the PS VR stuff which, frankly, made my eyes pop. I was even enthralled with the Call of Duty VR stuff that I didn’t know was actually Call of Duty until near the end (oh, and I’d easily buy a copy of Infinite Warfare just for the remastered version of Modern Warfare which has, without a doubt, the best COD mission ever in All Ghillied Up). Oh, and there’s a Batman Arkham VR game [breathe, breathe]

PlayStation has a new PS4 coming out called the Neo but nothing was show at its press event. I wonder whether PlayStation will reveal more at the Tokyo Games Show?

Looks, there’s something for fans of both consoles but for me, if I had to pick a console which had the strongest line up of games coming out, I’d put my money on PlayStation. I also liked how most of PlayStation’s press event was game footage and trailers rather than people standing on stage talking.

This is not an exhaustive list of every game announced but just those that caught my attention. Anyway, enough words. Here’s some moving pictures. Enjoy.

 

God of War (PS4):

Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4):

Infinite Warfare (ship assault):

Days Gone (PS4):

Halo Wars 2 (Xbox One):

We Happy Few (Xbox One):

Gears of War 4 (Xbox One):

 

Thoughts on what PlayStation and Xbox showed today?

E3 Day Zero: The day before

E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in Los Angeles has sort of started, with EA and Bethesda holding press conferences today, a day before the big hardware players hold theirs tomorrow.

PlayStation sent through a link for tomorrow’s presser, which starts about 1pm NZ time. You can watch it here (I’d really like it if you did). I’m hoping I can get up for for Microsoft conference but it’s at 4.30am so we’ll see how things go!

I didn’t watch the EA press event (but did watch the Mass Effect Andromeda trailer tonight: I’m impressed and will keep an eye on things) one but did watch some of the Bethesda one (including the cringeworthy opening sequence until the event proper started), and was impressed by what I saw of Dishonoured 2, a game that I’m keeping an eye on.

Here are some trailers of what happened today:

Dishonoured 2:

A reboot of Prey:

EA’s Mass Effect Andromeda:

Titanfall 2:

What are you hyped for from this year’s E3?

Shawn Ashmore interview: Bending time and having fun doing it

Canadian actor Shawn Ashmore is a man playing with time.

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The digital Shawn Ashmore as Jack Joyce.

OK, Ashmore can’t actually manipulate time in real life but thanks to his starring role as Jack Joyce in the Xbox One game Quantum Break, he’s able to bend time to his will – and he couldn’t be happier about it.

The Canadian actor, who is probably more well-know for playing Iceman in the X-Men movies and appearing in TV show The Following, was brought into Quantum Break a fair way into its development cycle (a game play trailer from E3 2014 shows a different actor playing Joyce) and he said as soon as he heard that Remedy was making the game he jumped at the chance to be involved.

“I got a phone call from my agent who told me that Microsoft Game Studios was developing a new IP. When he pitched the story I thought ‘Wow, this is bold. I’m interested” but when he told me Remedy were making the game, I instantly said: “I’m in”. I felt that the narrative was well suited to my acting style.”

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The real Shawn Ashmore.

Ashmore said doing motion capture for his character in Quantum Break was a challenging but a “magical” experience but he said realised early on that Remedy were doing something special with the game. He divided his performance between motion capture work in Los Angeles with co-stars The Wire and Game of Thrones Aidan Gillen (who plays Quantum Break’s villain Paul Serene and The Wire’s Lance Reddick) and facial capture work at Remedy’s headquarters in Helsinki, Finland. He said Quantum Break was double the workload for working on a movie or TV show.

“The first few days were quite strange. I was outfitted with a head rig and I felt, at first, a little out of my element but I got used to it. Doing the mo-cap felt very pure, in a sense that you had more time to rehearse scenes, go over scripts. I felt that I was a little freer to work scenes than if shooting on a movie. It wasn’t a constant shoot: Because of the nature of the work, we’d shoot a week in LA doing mo-cap then a month later I’d be in Finland.”

The actor said the biggest challenge with the mo-cap was remaining completely still while capturing his performance. “It was hard, though, as Jack goes through things that are emotional and I had to go through all that emotion while remaining still.”

Ashmore says he loved that Remedy was taking a chance by making Quantum Break,  and that the developer was open to suggestions he had about how to portray Jack Joyce.

Quantum Break_REVIEWS_Screenshot 18“I’ve got a brother [twin brother Aaron Ashmore] so I kind of drew on my relationship with him in how I thought Jack would relate to Will [Jack’s brother, Will, is played by actor Dominic Monaghan]. I tried to bring a part of me into Jack.”

Since finishing the game, Ashmore said he was pleased with the end result. “I’m happy how it played out. It was exactly what I’d wanted.”

His digital likeness in Quantum Break has also had an unexpected effect on his wife, someone who doesn’t normally play video games.

“I played QB with my wife, who’s not a gamer, and I gave her the controller and she wouldn’t give it up. She was so into it. That was a good sign: That someone who wasn’t a hardcore gamer liked it, that the narrative could pull people in.

Ashmore said it was inevitable that a game like Quantum Break, which blurred the lines between video game and TV, was made. “People want to experience things like this. Remedy has taken the best narrative parts of a video game and combined it with the cinematic style of TV. It’s not the type of game that every developer will make, though.”

“I’ve been blown away by the game. I tell people that my inner 10-year-old is jumping up and down! Seeing my likeness in the game was a really emotional experience, especially for my wife, who told me ‘This is something we’re going to be able to show our kids when you’re 60’.”

Quantum Break is out now on Xbox One and PC

** Thanks Xbox’s awesome NZ PR man who, despite me emailing him after business hours on Monday requesting a possible interview with Ashmore if he had time in his schedule, found a time for me to chat to the X-men and Quantum Break star. Big thanks, Gavin!
***  Ashmore also told me that while his QB tour was his first trip to New Zealand he has ties to the Land of the Long White Cloud. “This is only my first visit but my parents lived and worked here before I was born. They still have friends here.”

“The times they are a changing”: How gaming less has made me appreciate it more

gamepad_318-48332.pngI’m sure I’m not alone in this but I’ve found the amount of time I have to game these days seems to be getting less and less – and the times I play those video games has changed, too. I guess, when I look at it, it’s the natural progression of getting older, having more responsibilities (partner/children/work/other interests) and prioritising things –  but, surprisingly, gaming less is not necessarily a bad thing, at least  not for me.

When I was in my early 20s, I was pretty much able to game when I wanted to, apart from while I was at work, of course (although when I picked up a job doing game reviews for a NZ newspaper that shall remain nameless I was able to convince my non-gamer wife that the hours I was spending on video games was legitimate work: It worked most of the time). If I wanted to play a game on a Saturday afternoon, I could but as work became busier and children came along, my priorities changed: Gaming took a back seat for a while, especially when the children were still up.

If I wanted to game while the children were up I had to be selective on what I played, too: I rightly couldn’t play violent first- or third-person shooters in front of them, which was fair enough. There was a silver lining, though, as the children got older I started reviewing more child-friendly games, meaning I could get them to play the game with me: Win-win. Of my two children, my son is the one who games these days. My daughter hasn’t shown an interest in it apart from The Sims from time to time.

As I got older, time to game didn’t become so much of a priority: Other things took precedence. I’m sure many of you have found yourself in a similar position: By the time you get home from work, do the things around the house that need doing, sort dinner, take the dog for a walk (or go for a bike ride) and spent time with the family, it’s almost bedtime! Well, not quite, but it seems I don’t have the energy or time to spent four or five hours gaming in a single session anymore these days. I’m also not usually gaming until after 10pm, which means if I’m too late I’m pretty tired in the morning.

I guess it’s natural for the time you spent on things to change as your life changes but I’m now finding that now I’m in my mid-40s (I know: Old man, right?) while I don’t have a lot of time to game, I’m finding that I’m enjoying it more because it’s more focused. I’m doing it in bite-sized chunks and that suits my life now. I’ll play a mission then go to bed.

Another thing I’ve noticed, too, is that I’ll often be quite happy sitting watching my avid gamer teenager son him while he plays multiplayer COD or a few rounds of zombies on Black Ops 3. I don’t have to be gaming myself to find enjoyment in it. Watching my son is a fascinating exercise in seeing how a young, agile gamer tackles particular  situations or scenarios (it’s also great in seeing how he handles when things go wrong). Sometimes, I’ll just sit, transfixed as he racks up another kill or jump boosts his way through a map, taking down a horde or zombies with a bow. He’s young so has quick reflexes and reactions, unlike me. I don’t play MP games anymore  these days: My hand-eye co-ordination just isn’t up to the task anymore and my eyesight is starting to get worse (I had to buy a cheap pair of glasses from a chain store the other day just so I could read the fine print on a bottle of something)  and I’m not old (at least I don’t consider that I am) but my reflexes aren’t as quick as they used to be. I’ll stick to my campaign/story-based games, thanks.

That fact that I game less now isn’t a bad thing: I think it’s actually made me appreciate gaming more. I think it has helped that I don’t review as many games as I used to. When you review dozens of games a year I think you start to lose the enjoyment factor and the reason why you started playing games in the first place. As a critic, you’re no longer playing games for fun, you’re playing them to find fault. Now that I’m reviewing fewer games and buying more games myself, I can sit back, take as long as I like to finish it, and enjoy it. I’m liking that.

I’m also not so obsessed with collecting Achievements/Trophies as I was as a younger gamer. Now, I want to experience the game for all it can give me and I’m not wanting to blast through it, missing details in the narrative or all it has to offer. I’ve got no problem taking 10 hours to finish a game that Gamer X took six hours to complete. I have less time to game these days so I want to savour every moment.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is if you’re gaming less now than you used to don’t see it as a negative. Embrace it and enjoy it. You might find,. like me,  you start enjoying games a little more.

 

Unravel review: The journey of a character made from wool

unravel1280jpg-b7ace3_1280wMeet Yarny.

He’s the lead character in Unravel (EA, multi-platform), a side-scrolling, 2.5D platforming game.

He’s made of wool – or yarn – and must use his yarn to help him solve puzzles, traverse the game world and avoid dangers.He’s small, too, so the game world looks massive around him.

To help him traverse the game world, Yarny can make bridges using his yarn – but as he moves around the yarn unravels, meaning if he travels too far he runs out of yarn that can only be replenished by balls of red yarn dotted about the game world. It’s a nice mechanic that makes you think about the right path to take to reach an objective or solve a puzzle.

Another nice touch is that if you find that you’ve travelled the wrong way or to the wrong point, Yarny can pull on the yarn and get back to a previous point.

Unravel_20160130214434

Unravel_20160130214434

Yarny is definitely the star here and he has a cuteness about him that is hard to ignore. Unravel is also a game that attempts to tuck at your heartstrings but falls a little short of the mark as I didn’t emotionally connect with the old woman who appeared at the beginning of the game. As Yarny progresses through the game, the old woman’s memories are revealed through a photo album sitting on a table.

The puzzles aren’t particularly taxing in Unravel – many of them are physics-based or basic logic – so there won’t be any controller throwing or tantrums while you play and Yarny is a cute character that will bring a smile (it seems, though, EA have abandoned the Unravel trademark so there might be a question mark over any potential sequel).

unravelI know the developers tried to create an emotional story about love and memories but I just didn’t form an emotional attachment to the old woman at all or her memories (maybe I’m heartless but unlocking more memories wasn’t a driving factor for playing this).

That said, Yarny is a cute character that can’t but help make you smile and Unravel is a nice diversion that might not always obey the laws of physics but it’s a game that is perfect for when you want something cutesy and won’t tax you too much.