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.

My most loved games of 2015

When I wrote for a metropolitan newspaper, I did the obligatory “Games of the Year” write-up, which culminated in my best pick as Game of the Year.

I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m not going to decide from the games I’ve played this year (which hasn’t been as many in past years) which one is the best of the lot. What I’m going to do is tell you which games were my highlight of the year, in no particular order.

Let’s start, shall we?

The cast of Until Dawn: They quite like what I've written about the game they star in, too.

The cast of Until Dawn: They quite like what I’ve written about the game they star in, too.

Until Dawn: Something of a surprise hit to everyone, which is even more surprising as I can’t recall it getting a lot of marketing love from PlayStaiton. It’s also a game that I didn’t actually play until after watching a YouTube walkthrough. Yep, that’s right: I played it after watching a video playthrough. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of horror games and Until Dawn is a horror game, through and through, so I wanted to see how scary it was going to be. It has jump scares but it’s almost like a pick-your-own adventure where you determine the path that the characters take then they do it. Yes, it’s cliche-ridden and holds your hand at times but it’s horror done right.

BatmanBatman Arkham Knight: Probably one of the only AA titles that I really, really enjoyed this year. I’ve always liked Rocksteady’s take on Batman and Arkham Knight was no different, even if the Batmobile might have been overused too much and there were too many of those damn tank battles (those who have played it will know what I mean). What I’ve always liked about Rocksteady’s Batman series is the grittiness and the ever presence darkness that Batman is all about. Arkham Knight might not be the best in the trilogy but it’s damn good. [I’m sure someone will exclaim “But you can’t say Arkham Knight was a good game because it was broken on PC!”. Actually, I can say it was a good game because a) I played it on PS4 and had no problems  and b) it’s my list and I can have whatever games on it I like.]

life-is-strange-episode-1-0016Life is Strange: Dontnod’s episodic coming of age story about Arcadia Bay teenager Max Caulfield (with a little bit of super powers thrown in) was a bit of a slow burner for me. I played the first episode months ago, and liked it, but it didn’t capture me right away. May it was the at times cringe-worthy dialogue, but I could see it had promise and Max’s ability to rewind time to change events held all sorts of interesting propositions. For some reason or another, I didn’t start playing the second episode until few weeks ago. I finished it a couple of nights ago and I’m interested again. It was if the writers stepped things up a notch at episode two and it’s not captured my attention. Hopefully, I’ll finish the other episodes before the end of the year.

screenshot0607Everybody’s Going to the Rapture: Yes, The Chinese Room’s latest game could be described as a walking simulator because that’s what you do most of the time but I loved it for the story that it told and the emotional narrative. Set in a quaint English village after an apocalyptic event, the player has to unravel and piece together what has happened to the villagers by tracing the paths left by, I guess, their spirits that are still around the village. The story telling and emotional voice acting is what gripped me from start to finish. I didn’t care that it was slow-paced and measured. It was quite nice not having to shoot anything, either.

rise-of-the-tomb-raider08Rise of the Tomb Raider: The latest game featuring long-time video game adventurer Lara Croft is perhaps one of the best as she once again tries to find a precious artifact that will destroy the world if it falls into the wrong hands. While being an Xbox One exclusive for the time being may harm the sales of the game, Rise of the Tomb Raider is better than Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider reboot because, pure and simple, it features more tombs to explore, and that, for the most part, is why people started playing Tomb Raider games. Rise is a return to form for the series.

What are your favourites for the year?

And now, a case of shameless self-promotion …

As a trained writer by profession (I was a newspaper/online journalist for 22 years), I love writing so I’ll take any opportunity I can to hone my craft and inflict my prose on the ever-suffering world, whether they want to read it or not.

So in this, a case of shameless self-promotion of my own writing, I’d like you to point your browsers to Cake Oven, a great New Zealand-based pop culture/Geek website run by awesome people and has amazingly talented writers that I’m just happy to be associated with and has the balls to run my writing. What were they thinking???

The cast of Until Dawn: They quite like what I've written about the game they star in, too.

The cast of Until Dawn: They quite like what I’ve written about the game they star in, too.

In my first piece for Cake Oven, I’ve written about PS4-exclusive Until Dawn, which I like to think is a horror video game for gamers who don’t like horror video games. Gamers like me, actually.

I’d love you to check it out and let me know what you think. Also, I cannot guaranteed this will be the last time I self-promote my writing on another site. Oh, you’re good with that? Excellent.

XONZ 2015 in pictures: A mini, mini E3, of sorts

Last Thursday, I was kindly flown to Auckland (a city in New Zealand in the North Island) by Xbox NZ to check out XONZ, an Xbox One-dedicated showcase of upcoming games and some hardware for the Xbox One console.

The event was open to invitees today but I attended the media day on Thursday.

While there weren’t a huge number of games on display, it was a nice, intimate event where I got to show how badly I suck at Halo MP (there were a couple of rounds of one of Halo 5 Guardian’s 24-player MP modes), I got to play through a level of the soon-to-be released Rise of the Tomb Raider, ate some popcorn chicken and some Mac ‘n cheese balls and then chat with Chris Bishop (Forza 6), Kevin Franklin (Halo 5 MP) and Mike Brinker (Crystal Dynamics/Rise of the Tomb Raider).

My interviews will be up when I’ve transcribed my interviews (I’m still yet to decide whether I just publish the audio of the interviews as is, with all the noise and stuff, or transcribe them and write a story from each one. If you have a preference, let me know in the comments)

I thought, though, to tide you over until I get the interviews posted/written up, I’d post some photos I took from the event. Caveat: The photos were taken with my smartphone (an HTC One M8) and it the venue was mood-lit (translation: It was dark with lots of Xbox green) so they’re not that great but I hope they capture the event nicely.

Disclaimer: A big thanks to Xbox NZ, which flew me from Christchurch to Auckland to attend the event. I paid for my bus fare from the Airport to the city and back again, though.  I was too cheap to pay for a taxi to get me there. 

Sharp looking: The hands belong to Xbox NZ chief Steve Blackburn and he's holding the new Elite controller. It's highly customisable and in high demand, even before it's launched.

Sharp looking: The hands belong to Xbox NZ chief Steve Blackburn and he’s holding the new Elite controller. It’s highly customisable and in high demand, even before it’s launched.

Lego Dimensions

Lego Dimensions

Vault Boy: This fine chap was guarding a presentation from Bethsda for Fallout 4.

Vault Boy: This fine chap was guarding a presentation from Bethsda for Fallout 4.

Bird's eye view: The main area at XONZ was where the Halo 5 Guardian's MP matches took place.

Bird’s eye view: The main area at XONZ was where the Halo 5 Guardian’s MP matches took place.

XONZ: Bathed in Xbox green, XONZ showcased upcoming Xbox One games.

XONZ: Bathed in Xbox green, XONZ showcased upcoming Xbox One games.

Grapple, grapple, grapple in the latest Tomb Raider trailer

 

Lara Croft’s grapple hook gets a work out in the latest trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider, the Xbox One-bound game that’s due to hit gamers’ wallets on November 10.

Titled Descent Into Legend, the trailer  sees Lara exploring ancient tombs filled with traps and puzzles, and battles the harsh elements and landscapes in her search for the Lost City of Kitezh.

Speaking of Rise of the Tomb Raider, I’m heading to the media day for XONZ, an Xbox One showcase and will be speaking to Mike Brinker, whose lead designer on Rise of the Tomb Raider. Any burning questions you’d like me ask?

Metal Gear Solid V: Did I make a mistake buying this game?

MGS5Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the game of the moment, it seems, getting rave reviews from critics and fans of the series alike, but here’s a confession: In the two hours or so I’ve played it of it, I can’t get into it, and I’m actually starting to regret buying it. I kind of wish I’d bought Avalanche’s Mad Max instead.

Maybe it’s because I don’t have a strong history of playing the MGS series that is taking over here. The only MGS game I’ve played was MGSIV, and I didn’t like that much either. The Phantom Pain just isn’t capturing my attention. I don’t think about it every waking moment. In fact, I’ve played Tearaway Unfolded, a PS4-exclusive, than MGSV: The Phantom Pain.

I don’t know why the game’s not impacting on me. Maybe I was swept away with the hype surrounding the game, convincing me to buy it and be Big Boss. Maybe I was captivated game play I’d seen that made it look really, really great and I just had to have it. I don’t know what it is but at the moment, I almost have to force myself to play it, to justify the money that I paid for it.

I’ve heard that the first two to three hours will be make or break as to whether you’ll like it – is that right? – so maybe I have to grit my teeth and persevere until I get access to Mother Base and the ability to fulton things. I guess in a game that can give you 40+ hours of game play it’s going to have a slow start, right?

The first hour was totally confusing (Hideo Kojima has a wild imagination, that’s for sure), and to be honest, half the time I had no idea what was going on (I’ve just come across some zombie-like soldiers called the Skulls – this is also confusing the hell out of me). When I’d finished the prologue I was still none the wiser as to what had just happened.

So, have I made the right decision with MGSV and should I stick with it? Will it get better?  Or do I cut my losses, try and sell it and pick up something like Mad Max? I’ve also got Tearaway Unfolded, Forza 6 and Until Dawn to play.

I’d appreciate your thoughts in the comments section.

*I’m going to continue playing MGSV and see whether I get hooked. I’ll keep you posted!

The changing face of the New Zealand video game player

 

image-0001

 

Take a look at the graphic. It shows the changing face of the New Zealand interactive entertainment landscape. As a longtime video game player and champion of the medium, I’m liking what I’m seeing.

DNZ16 is the fourth report from the Australian IGEA and Bond University’s Professor Jeffery Brand and Stewart Todhunter on the influence of interactive entertainment in New Zealand, and it shows, among other things, that the face of the New Zealand video game player is changing.

Here is the foreword to the report and I think it sums everything up nicely.

We are witnessing breathtaking changes in the realm of digital interactive entertainment. It is hard to imagine that 15 years ago, we were debating the worth, even potential harms, of simple video games.

Today attention is on the potential of this amazing medium to reinvigorate education, workplace training, consumer engagement and social and political conversation. Interactive entertainment is celebrated for its economic importance. There have been many voices in the call to treat games as a serious medium for the knowledge age.

The three IGEA-Bond University reports preceding this one have contributed to the chorus of voices. These national New Zealand studies of computer game audiences have broken down stereotypes that prevented understanding in the wider community that computer games were not only a popular medium, but a productive medium.

You can download a full copy of the DNZ16 report here and I suggest you read through it as it makes for a really interesting insight, but because I’m a nice guy here are the key findings in an easy to digest graphical format. You’re welcome.

image-0002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to DNZ16, 70% of those that took part believed that video games can improve thinking, 47% believed video games could help fight dementia and 28% of respondents who were aged over 50 played video games to keep their mind active.  Food for thought, right?

It comes as no surprise that the average of a video game player is 34 [I’m much, much older than that. Interestingly, in my demographic: the, ahem, 45 to 54 age bracket, 54% play games], 48% of video game players are women and 13 years is the average years respondents have been playing video games.

DNZ16 found that 88 minutes was the average play time for people [I struggle to get in an hour a day sometimes due to work and other commitments] and 98% of homes with children have some form of video games in them.

The full report itself has much more information for you to digest but I’d be really interested to know why you play video games [interactive entertainment], no matter whether it’s console, PC or mobile, what you think of the findings and where you fit into the interactive entertainment demographic.

 

NZGDA to establish startup programme to foster game development growth

OK, I’m not usually one for just doing press releases verbatim but I thought I’d do it for one from the NZGDA (New Zealand Game Developers Association) as it looks like industry is doing extremely well in this little country of ours.

The  bottom line is 134 new high-tech creative jobs were created in the last financial year and the NZGDA is going to set up its own startup programme, the KiwiGameStarter, and is calling on the government’s screen visual effects schemes to be changed so internal game development production will come here.

You know what would be nice? If the Government recognised the strength of the game development industry here and pumped funding into it to make it even stronger?

Here’s the release accompanied by a nice graphic.

Jobs in NZ Games Industry Grow 30%

New Zealand’s video game studios created 134 new high-tech creative jobs in the last financial year, according to an independent survey by the New Zealand Game Developers Association.  The sector now employs 568 fulltime employees and earned $78.7m in FY2015, up 3% on the previous year.  82% of revenue came from digital exports.

The survey shows that established game studios continue to do well but the overall sector’s growth has slowed due to a lack of new businesses being established by either local startups or international investors.

In response, the NZ Game Developers Association is running its own startup programme, the KiwiGameStarter, and calling for government screen visual effects schemes to be modernised to attract international video game productions.

“We expect a good year ahead for the established games studios, but we’re concerned that our pipeline of up and coming studios has dried up,” says Game Developers Association Chairperson Stephen Knightly.

Employment of game programmers and artists grew significantly to 568 fulltime jobs as studios invested in new product development.  Recent New Zealand-made game launches include Outsmart’s Bloodgate, Ice Age Avalanche by Gameloft Auckland, Monsters Ate My Metropolis by Pikpok and Path of Exile’s The Awakening expansion.

“Tellingly, every local games business with more than 10 employees is at least six years old.  We haven’t seen another local success scale up in recent years,” says Knightly.

“Although we have a proven track record, skills and the ability to reach global markets digitally, the survey highlights a scarcity of startups on track to become the next generation of sustainable studios.  Since games are global and digital in nature, with a good prototype it is possible to attract crowdfunding, publishing deals or private investment. But a gap in investment at the early stage is preventing small independent developers from even getting that far.”

To address this, the Association and sponsors have created the KiwiGameStarter where one promising games business will receive funding, software, and business mentoring support worth over $25,000.  A second studio will also win $5,000 plus software.

The KiwiGameStarter competition aims to help early-stage games businesses develop prototypes ready for investment or crowdfunding. It is supported by Callaghan Innovation, ISP BigPipe, Microsoft, game development tool makers Autodesk and Unity 3D, Pursuit Public Relations and Hudson Gavin Martin lawyers.

Playable prototypes and business plans for the competition are due on 28 August.  Details are available on NZGDA.com.

Despite international interest, New Zealand is also missing out on international game visual effects productions because they are excluded from the relevant visual effects incentive.

The Postproduction, Digital and Visual Effects scheme offers a 20% rebate on visual effects productions completed in New Zealand.  The government recently announced a reduction in the qualifying expenditure threshold from $1 million to $500,000 to stimulate demand for post-production and smaller visual effects companies.

“Existing programmes could simply be modernised to include comparable games visual effects and generate a greater economic benefit for New Zealand.  Instead of chasing more but smaller visual effects projects, we could attract higher margin, multi-million dollar game projects.  Video game and film visual effects work are comparable and only one criteria needs to be revised to make games eligible,” said Knightly.

27 New Zealand video game developers responded to the survey which was independently conducted by Tim Thorpe Consulting. Figures are for the financial year ending 31 March 2015.

NZGDA

Let’s play Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture

OK, so I thought I’d test the waters by doing a series of Let’s Plays of Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, the game that I reviewed here last week.

I haven’t done a tonne of Let’s Plays before because, well, frankly, YouTube is swamped with them and it’s likely that my feeble effort will get overlooked in the masses of more professional looking efforts. It’s a harsh reality but a fact.

My son also thinks that Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture isn’t an ideal game for a Let’s Play video series because it doesn’t have enough action in it to keep the viewer engaged. I guess we’ll see, won’t we?

I captured the footage using the PlayStation 4’s built-in game play capture feature (which is surprisingly easy) then edited it using Windows Movie Maker, which may not be the best choice but it seemed to work OK for a first effort, although the intro is lame and not very exciting. I’ll work on that if people want to see more of the videos.

So, without further ado, here is part one of my [second] playthrough of Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. Comments would be appreciated on a) Whether you’d like to see more of the series, b) Whether you’re interested in Let’s Play videos on the site or not, and c) If you are interested, what other games would you like to see (provided I have them, of course).

As always, I appreciate your viewership/readership. Really, I do.

Xbox at Gamescom 2015

Gamescom started this week in Germany, and early this morning (2am NZ time) Xbox had its press event, touting the “greatest games line-up” in the history of the brand. And it was pretty impressive, actually.

[As an aside, up until this year I always thought Gamescom was called Gamescon – short for Games Conference. Turns out I’ve been wrong all these years]

Here’s the full briefing if you missed ( it but probably the highlight for me was the gameplay footage of Remedy’s Quantum Break (although, do we really need well-known actors in our video games: can’t they just stick to movies?), a game that ups the ante on Remedy’s time-bending/freezing mechanic from previous games like Alan Wake and Max Payne.

I didn’t watch all of the press event – I was, ridiculously working until 3am this morning (yes, 3am) – but Xbox revealed some Crackdown 3 footage: 

Some Scalebound: 

Some Elite Dangerous (which looks very nic): 

Some Dark Souls III: 

Some Forza Motorsports 6 (driving in the rain, no less): 

Some Halo Wars 2: 

Some Worms: 

And … some of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s Thimbleweed Park (a game I’m more than a little interested in because I backed it on Kickstarter so want to see where my money’s going): 

All in all, it looks like Xbox are putting games to the forefront of its focus (and not a Kinect game to be seen: I think Kinect is pretty much dead in the water). There were plenty of other games shown, like the new Lara Croft game from Crystal Dynamics (I’m not sure how I feel about that one)  but I’ve picked those that stood out for me.

PlayStation won’t be having a press event at Gamescom: I suspect it’s saving its ammunition for the Tokyo Games Show which is in October. It makes sense, too, Sony is a Japanese company, after all.

So what are your thoughts? Any gems in there that have you excited?