Monday, June 22, 2009

E74 and other tales

Well, after finally finishing my Leisure Suit Larry speed run and then polishing off my Bionic Commando collectables/challenges run through my xbox decided to give up the ghost. As warned by both Apple and Fro, the playing of Larry would make me stop enjoying games or, to be more accurate, make me stop playing games at all (thanks for that Apple, ya bastard).

So after my completion of Larry my beloved Elite had a few hours of retrospective thought while I romped through to the end of Bionic Commando. Then, after realising just how awful Larry was and possibly feeling violated by being forced to play it, it said a big "screw you" and flashed up the delightful E74 message.

This was especially annoying as I was already a third of the way through my Bionic Commando runthrough on the highest difficulty. The first sign was a big black line in the middle of my screen. I assumed the game had glitched or the disc was damaged, but the problem went away when I paused the game or went back to the dashboard. How curious.

So after turning the console off, I had a clever idea to install the game to see if that would remove the problem. No joy. In fact even less than no joy as I only got the dread message instead. Gutted. This does rather put a spanner in the works of my upcoming reviews, which would have included Overloard 2 and Transformers. A fact I am less than happy about.

So I now have to wait 3-5 days for someone to collect my machine and then 2-3 weeks for it to be fixed and sent back to me. My compensation for this? A months Xbox Live. Wow..........

Hardly seems fair when I'll be losing basically a month to get it fixed anyway so they are basically just giving me back online time that I had already paid for. How generous. I suppose I am luckier than most as this is only the second time my console has gone tits up which, considering the amount of time I spend on it, seems like a fairly decent return. Though I have to measure that against the fact that NO other console I have ever owned has needed fixing even once.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Another one (nearly) bites the dust

Well, Leisure Suit Larry is pretty much done with now. I only need to finish off my speed run for the final achievement and then I can send the game back and hopefully get something equally God awful (and easy) to replace it with. I've dashed through the game and have reached the last dreamscape sequence with less than three and a half hours played, considering I have an eight hour time limit to play with and only a couple more missions to do it is safe to say that it should be plain sailing from here.

This will be retail completion 135 (or maybe 136?) so I'm clawing my way up to 150 which is my target for the year. I doubt there are many systems that I can claim to have completed so many games on, except maybe the Spectrum 128k, so it will be a great milestone.

I've also spent a bad part of the week with Damnation which is a fairly shocking game all round to be honest, so many sloppy issues and out right glitches that I have to wonder who exactly was testing the game in the first place. The review should be up on x360a soon, but I doubt people will be waiting for it with bated breath. My only problem now is that I'm going to be playing through the whole thing again (on my main account this time) with Cru, ha ha! Well she is a glutton for punishment as the game sucks, but she did go out and pick up a copy especially for me so let the good times roll.

Now that I've finished with yet another bad game and an equally duff review I think I'll go back to Bionic Commando and finish that bad boy off. I really like the game so at least it won't be a chore. Then it's gonna be NBA Ballers - ugh!

I think in the interim I will have to endeavour to write one of those articles that I promised a few weeks ago. Let us see what takes my fancy and then go from there. Boo yah!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Glitches and completions

First of all let me revoke some of the nice things I said about Virtua Tennis 09. It's still a good game, don't get me wrong, but the number of glitches that have turned up since I did the review seems to be ridiculous.

I played over 100 matches (online and off) when it came to doing the review and never really came across any issues at all. Since then a number of problems have cropped up, the entire court disappeared during one match, during another everything went black barring the players (it was like playing in space), further to that there have been reported glitches with people getting stuck at a certain rank on the Pro tour and not being allowed to advance further, or reaching number one and the achievement not unlocking. Also, while playing I would inexplicably skip two weeks of the tour for no apparent reason, meaning I missed events that I wanted to play in, other events like the advanced sponsorship ones have a habit of not turning up at all. Clearly these are some potentially game breaking flaws and, while SEGA have promised a patch, it really is not good enough to let a game like this ship with such amazing issues.

I can only hope that the patch arrives fairly soon and sorts out these problems. If I get screwed over in the Pro tour and lose 30 odd hours of gameplay then I'm gonna be pissed.

On to the topic of completions and I seem to be in something of a lull right now. In April I managed to finish off an impressive six games, another seven fell in May as well (some of these were already partially complete mind you). Yet here I am, halfway through June without a single game done. It's pretty piss poor.

Hopefully I can change that be polishing off Leisure Suit Larry, and Wallace and Gromit will be easy enough too. After that I really don't know. Bionic Commando is doable but I haven't played it in ages and Virtua Tennis is likely to take me months to finish off. My best hope really is that I get sent something nice and easy when I finally get Larry done - as I have Night at the Museum, Terminator Salvation, Fable 2 (DLC needed) and Wolverine at the top of my list. A couple of those could really kick start me. I really want to get up to 160k by the end of July/August so something needs to be done.

There is always Damnation as well, plus maybe some online Splinter Cell. So hopefully I can sort myself out and get shit done. Fingers crossed.

Plus, I need to catch up with Apple in the 200k quest so that Fro buys me a game. It's not gonna happen but a guy can dream can't he?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ongoing quest.

Well I started playing Damnation and the game is decidedly average, at times you can see exactly what they were trying to do but then you'll hit something annoying and any good work will be lost in an instant. I wasn't planning on putting it on my tag, despite forking out £25 for a copy so I could review it, but I may well change my mind.

Cru has said she might do the co-op with me, and if I can get that hurdle out of the way it wouldn't be too bad. As even mediocre games can be entertaining in co-op. Plus, the multiplayer achievements aren't too bad either - though they do need 4 players. So we shall see whether I can be tempted into getting the 1k.

Back to the list of games I have chosen to play and, worryingly, Leisure Suit Larry is top of the list. Normally I'd steer clear of this crap but it got shipped to me from my rental company so I feel compelled to complete it. My progress was halted when the original copy stopped working but the replacement seems just fine. So I plunged back into the game and made some progress. I'm up to 72/100 collectables and am about half way through the quests such as they are. Once I'm done and dusted with the game I'll then need a second speed run but the main story is actual pretty short once you skip the cut-scenes.

I've also made more progress on my Virtua Tennis 09 career. I am now the #1 ranked Amateur and am just endeavoring to unlock all the courts I can at this point. I've pretty much done all of the specific shot (volleys, lobs etc) achievements too. So now I can focus on the Pro tour and Davis Cup. Plus, unlocking the rest of the play styles, buying clothes, doing academy missions and the ranked online stuff. It's a long road ahead.

I have finally determined that I will need to score 6k out of my outstanding 22k worth of points (for games already on my tag) in order to break the 90% complete mark. It's a lot more than I was actually expecting, but I can get 1.4k from finishing Larry and Bionic Commando, another 640 from NBA Ballers, 940 (hopefully) from Project Sylpheed, 450 (for one run through) on Lost Planet, 100 from Wallace and Gromit, 530 from Hellboy, 600 (or so) from Spiderman 3, 200 more from Virtua Tennis 09, 500 from GOW 2 - then the remaining 600 or so points from a mix of NHL 09, You're in the Movies, C&C Kanes Wrath, Bladestorm, PDZ or whatever.

I have more than enough easy points to get the job done to be honest so it will just come down to actually sitting down and getting this stuff done. All of these points will also only net me about five or six more completions too. Not to mention my quest is dependant upon steering clear of too many other new games, unless I know I can get them done fairly easily.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Latest reviews.

Red Faction Guerrilla and Virtua Tennis 2009 have both been posted up now on x360a, so feel free to click on the links to your right to read them (unless you are viewing the screen upside down in which case WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?).

They are both titles that I enjoyed but for different reasons. I've always been a sucker for tennis games, even as far back on the Spectrum (remember those?) so I did enjoy playing Virtua again even though it is basically the same game as it ever was. Red Faction finally provides the game that was promised back on the PS2, with oodles of destruction and plenty of fun to be had. Sadly the lengthy online achievements and monotonous single player collectibles kind of put me off going for the 1k.

Next up is Damnation (which is kind of late as it came out a couple of weeks ago) and I'm not too over excited at the moment as it has kind of slipped under the radar. Hopefully it will put in a good showing and it can be played in co-op which should help to ease the boredom. Time will tell whether or not I should have missed it completely though.

Many thanks if you read my post on reviewing. I realise that it kind of went on a touch longer than I expected it to so............tough, ha ha! I mean, apologies. Still it pretty much covered all of the bases even though I expect it to be quite far removed from a professional set up.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Fluctuating performance

Every time I edge closer to 90% completion I seem to throw another couple of games onto my card and ruin it. This time out I've put Virtua Tennis and Leisure Suit Larry (the shame) onto my profile and they have dragged me back under 88% again.

Virtua will be something of a long term project as the number of games required just to finish off the single player is a ludicrous amount. Whereas I was hoping to finish Larry off over the weekend but the disc proved to be unreadable once I hit a certain point of the game so had to be shipped back to the rental company. A replacement is on the way as I type this so hopefully that one can be done and dusted in a couple of weeks tops.

I really want to go back to Bionic Commando fairly soon too, as I'm amazingly close to getting that one polished off (regardless of the fact I only have half of the points). It is pretty much stacked towards the end game - with three completion achievements (for difficulty), one for the last boss and a couple for all collectables/challenges done. So I've actually got all the smaller stuff out of the way which is nice.

Even getting these three games complete, or near enough, will probably not be enough so then I'll go back and start playing the two biggest culprits in my tag: Project Sylpheed (60 points) and Spiderman 3 (10 points). As getting them up to about 700 points each should be worth 1% on its own.

Bring the pain.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

How to Review (for Dummies)

I'm sure there are more than enough self help books out there already but I always had a soft spot for the Dummies series (hence the title) and figured I would give everyone the down low on my thought process when it comes to playing, scoring and submitting a game review. It might also help some people get to know the x360a review team a bit better. After all I will be revealing their deepest darkest secrets..............or not.

First of all, I am by no means a professional writer. So please don't take my advice as any kind of gospel truth. My writing style has been honed over a couple of years and is based around making reviews as informative, yet fun, as possible. If you are shelling out £40 ($60?) on a brand new title then I want you to know everything you might love/hate about it before you make the plunge. Nothing used to piss me off more than reading rave reviews about a game and then getting it home only to be massively disappointed. The most famous scandal was obviously with Kane and Lynch on a certain site - and someone got the boot for their review on that. So the key is to be as unbiased as possible. I will say that I have dabbled in writing before, I have a 100k word novel sat around and have written and submitted a couple of short stories down the years. Not much success there but at least it kept me busy.

Let me dispel some myths that seem to float around x360a from time to time:

1) None of the review team get paid.
2) We don't get a review copy for EVERY game. 70% of the games I've reviewed I've actually gone out and bought (and no, the site don't reimburse me).
3) Games companies have NO say in our final score.
4) Every review is edited and checked by the rest of the team before it goes on the site. If someone thinks it is bad/biased/the score is wrong etc then it doesn't go up. Simple as.

The biggest accusation I get is usually to do with bias. I have no affiliation with any games company, I don't get paid and I play games for fun. If I play a game and it has faults then they are going to get mentioned. I don't care if someone out there thinks a game is the next messiah - if that game glitches like hell, has a crippling frame rate and takes three hours to complete then it's going to get marked down. So the bias thing is usually down to someone not agreeing with a score and deciding that I have been swayed by some kind of evil conspiracy. If you disagree with my review that is fine, but at least have a reasonable argument to back yourself up - don't just shout BIAS and expect me to be tolerant. I would also say you should actually read the main body of the review rather than looking at the final score and jumping down my throat. A few people have slagged me off, gone back to read the review and then come back to say they agreed with me.

So onto the reviews themselves.

I'm often asked how we decide who does a certain game, which is not really an exact science. The team is split into two already, with some of us based in the UK and the rest over in the US. Before a deluge of folks say they want to review from Australia, Japan and Italy - the reason for this split is simple: cost. Review copies tend to come through the news/PR team on the site and these guys are based in the UK for PAL games and the US for NTSC. So the cost of shipping out a PAL game to an Australian reviewer would just be too prohibitive and lengthy.

Obviously if we get an NTSC promo game then one of the US guys would handle it and likewise with PAL games. So the choice of reviewer can rely on who sends us a copy, or on release dates. Most games come out in the US sooner so it makes sense to get them done and on the site ASAP. Obviously the guys have other commitments too so if the difference is only a week or so then it may be picked up by the UK team to help spread the workload. If we don't get a review copy then it comes down to the team to cover it. With big games like Resident Evil 5 or GOW 2 it is not so much of an issue, as most people are more than happy to buy a copy on launch day and get the review done. Niche games and less alluring titles, can be more of an issue but (as anyone who has browsed my list can see) I will play pretty much anything, so in a worst case scenario I'll just buy a game so we can get the review done. The same for the other guys.

I would also like to point out that Pants has a pretty much exclusive hold on RPG games because he is pure evil and doesn't want the rest of us to have any fun. Of course it could just be that he really enjoys them but I like my original theory, ha ha!

Even if we get a promo game it usually only arrives in the week prior to release and then has to be sent onto the individual reviewer. So if a game isn't up on the day of release then it's because we haven't finished playing it yet. The reason behind this is that we like to have completed (or as near as damn it) every game before we review them so we can get the best possible opinion. The best example of this would be Pants pouring 60+ hours into his first playthrough of Tales of Vesperia before he started writing - now that is commitment.

Regardless of how/when a game arrives it then becomes my number one priority in terms of gaming. I may well play another game alongside it but I will try to play the review title for a couple of hours everyday (don't forget I work full time, ha ha) until it is done.

My first order of business is to look at the achievement list for the game. If I think it is a doable 1k then I'll play it on my main tag, if I think it will take a hundred hours or so to finish off then I put it on my back up account instead. A recent case in point would be Red Faction - I loved the single player but the online achievements were long winded and numerous and I really couldn't see myself going back to it.

Before anyone accuses me of cherry picking to improve my completion %, this theory only applies to review games that I might not otherwise have picked up. I'm happy to put games like GOW 2 on my tag, even knowing that I'll never complete them, as it is a game I want to play. Likewise there have been certain review games, like HAWX and Virtua Tennis, that I enjoyed enough to put on my tag with the knowledge that I MIGHT one day get the full 1k.

Once I know which tag I'm playing on I will dive right in. I'll usually pick the easiest difficulty if the option presents itself as that way I can play through the whole game in a shorter space of time and experience everything it has to offer. This is even true if I want to 1k the game - as it is more important for me to get a good and thorough review than the pick up maximum points (it hurts me just to say that, ha ha). As I play the game I will usually make a mental note of any issues that arise in terms of graphics or glitches (I do have a good memory so tend not to write anything down at this point) I'll also keep an eye out for any innovative features, or just things that stand out in general. I like to play games having seen as little other information as possible, as Webb will tell you, I don't play demos beforehand or read other reviews/previews. I like the game itself to impress me rather than its PR campaign.

Depending on the title I will always try to play the game to completion or, if it's a sports game, try and get through at least one season or similar. Once I've finished with the single player I then move onto multiplayer. I try and play every available game type, possibly a few times each to get a feel for it. The only issue here can be a pretty dead online community at launch, as I struggled to get a game going on HAWX and Stormrise for example - so had to actually seek out someone to play with via the forums. HAWX has picked up considerably since then, but it was a real pain to find a match a few days before it was officially released.

Once I'm happy that I have sampled everything a game has to offer then I will sit down and start my review. The usual boundaries are as follows: 1200-1500 words, three/four images with captions, coding for paragraphs/images/final score boxes. The content boils down to the following (though not necessarily in this order):


I may well add in some comments about previous titles (if it is a series), talk about the developer or publisher, plus any other unique issues that may be worth a mention. I try and stay clear of controls as such, unless it is something innovative like the whip system in Stormrise or the timed shot release in Top Spin 3, as anyone can read a manual.

When I first started out I would write a review from beginning to end in a very specific order, but now I like to mix things up and chop and change paragraphs to get the best flow. I usually start reviews now by completing the final score boxes, so I'll give my individual marks for the various sections as well as an overall mark for the game. In this sense I can get my final opinion down as soon as I've finished with the game, so it is fresh in my mind. Then I can flesh out the review from the bare bones of this section.

When it comes down to the main body of the review I usually do the achievements section first as this can be pretty much done and dusted by looking through the list. I pay attention to any fun or unique achievements and any glitchy tasks or non-stackable difficulty achievements mean a bad score. I'm pretty much set against dragged out multiplayer points too - so any game that requires a million kills or whatever is not one that I really want to praise too highly. I think developers really need to focus on making their lists more unique and interesting, regardless of whether they are easy or not. As it is there are far too many titles that reward you for in game progression and then throw a ton of kill X number of enemies with X number of weapons achievements. It's just lazy.

Then I'll move back to the start and introduce a game. Regardless of the game I approach each of them with an open mind. I might be looking at a potential game of the year or something designed just for kids, but you have to give everything a fair chance. The intro is usually a bit of fun and I try to give my first impressions and delve in the background of the series or any other games teh developer may have been involved with.

Moving on, I then try to get a good flow to the review. If the game is heavy on story I'll usually start with that and how well (or not) it ties into the game as a whole. Some games don't need an amazing story to still be a lot of fun to play, but by the same token a bad story can really undermine the experience as a whole. It's a fine line and one that really depends on the game in question.

The key aspect of any review is always going to be the game-play, especially in sports titles, and what I look for here is a game that does something new and interesting. If a game is sticking to tried and tested techniques then it HAS to be as polished as possible. Obviously there is only so much you can do with a footbal game, so you have to make sure it does everything AMAZINGLY in order to succeed. What annoys me is sequels that are pretty much the same as they ever were with no sense of progression, as if you are making a sequel I really think you need to have a reason - a unique selling point that shows you have updated the game for a real reason.

The graphics and sound are fairly straightforward. Either a game looks good or it doesn't, likewise the soundtrack should be impressive when it needs to be and subtle at other times so you aren't overwhelmed. If you are going to have voice acting then it should be of a good quality too, rather than grabbing a few bored actors and providing some dodgy lip synching. Overall though I don't think a game can be defined by graphics, so this section would never impact on the final score too highly. If a game looks bad but is still a lot of fun to play then that is more important. Though if the graphics start to impact on game-play it cna only be a bad thing - clipping, frame rate issues, pop up and lag can cripple an otherwise decnt title.

The multiplayer only has to cover a few key areas: is the game fun to play with friends? does it lag? and is there an online community? Most online games have the same generic options (deathmatch, capture the flag etc) but I wouldn't mark them down for a lack of innovation. The key is how much enjoyment you can have online and just how easy it is to get a match going. If a game lags and is cluttered with numerous exploiable glitches then it is obviously not ideal. If you are struggling to get a game going on launch day then you are probably not looking at a game that will give you much long term enjoyment either. A multiplayer game should by a fluid experience with plenty of regular players. That way you can guarantee a game that you'll be playing long after you've finished off the single player.

Some people like to discuss any cons in one paragraph near the end but I tend to talk about pros and cons as I go along. Then I can give my final verdict in the summary and just mention whether or not I feel the game has more positives or not. A good game should provide a reasonable length solo experience with the addition of a solid multiplayer being a major bonus. Multiplayer orientated games like Halo and Left 4 Dead are obviously a little different. The summary will basically give the story of the whole review in one paragraph, with my opinion on whether or not I think it is worth your cash at the end of the day.

Once I'm done with a review I will pick out some suitable screens for it and do captions for them. The draft is then posted up for the review team to edit/critique. If there are any rewrites needed then I'll go back and make changes. Otherwise it is over to Webb to get it posted up.

Job's a goodun.

It's a fairly lengthy process and, aside from playing the game, it can take me 4-5 hours to get a review done and dusted. Though the time can be less if I sit down with a very good idea of what to write.

It's good fun though and I thoroughly enjoy myself from beginning to end. Any questions then go ahead and ask, but I need to rest my fingers after typing this. Keep on keeping on.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Things to do.

Inspired by Thrawn, I figured I could write a few articles and such like about gaming in general and exactly what I am up to in my role as a reviewer and what not. I don't think my opinion is any more valid than anyone elses (as games can be entirely subjective) but at least it will give me something to keep my mind busy.

Potential topics right now include the following: Points vs Completion, Tough 1k's: what is the point?, The Review Procedure and Girls in Gaming (why the big deal?). The first two topics have really been done to death and always stir up the controversy but I would like to wax lyrical and let people know where I stand really. I'm sure you don't give a rats ass, but I'm going to do it anyway.

I'd also like to talk a bit about how the x360a review team works (no juicy gossip I'm afraid) and talk about how I approach games that I'm about to review. Not to mention a few choice observations for those people who think I'm in any way a) paid b) bribed by companies c) biased.

The girl gamers thing has also been done to death, but I did read an article a month or so ago that was little more than an attack on women in general (passed off as a gaming article). It surprised me that people still thought that way as I just assumed the gals were part of the group now. Do people still see them as a little niche or what? Certainly there seems to have been less pink peripherals and Barbie games thrust upon us (outside of the DS) so maybe there is hope.

Any questions, comments or input anyone has would be greatly appreciated. I'll be trying to chat to everyone I can who may be relevant to each and every topic and hope to get something interesting to say about them all. For that reason I'll probably start yakking on about reviews first as that requires the least outside input. Bring the noise.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Reviews and such

Should hopefully have my latest musings on Virtua Tennis 2009 and Red Faction: Guerrilla up on x360a either today or tomorrow. I enjoyed both games for different reasons, though Virtua didn't really bring anything new to the table which was a bit of a shame.

Red Faction is something a bit unusual and was plenty of fun to play. The game is just about blowing stuff up really and that is no bad thing. I've refrained from playing it on my own tag though because the online points are just too much of a drag. It upsets me when a good singleplayer experience is dragged down by an over abundance of online achievements. Plus, I'm going for 90% completion at the moment so could do without something as long winded as that 1k. I may well go back to it in the future though, but for now it is languishing on my GF's card - yet another example of why a back up account is handy.

On the plus side, I really would not mind going back through the game again, as blowing up everything in sight will never get old. EVER.

I'll post up the links once they are up on the main site.

Now I can get back to Bionic Commando and try to climb ever higher up the Virtua Tennis rankings, the single player is a real grind though.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The gaming life

The thought occurs that a lot of gamers are turning into minor celebrities. Obviously, Stallion is the most notable example thanks to his massive gamerscore, but it is also true of other people that have now lost that shelter of anonymity thinks to Xbox Live and gamertags.

Records for games have always existed but you'd be hard pressed to name the people responsible. Now we have tags like Major Nelson, TriXie et al being widely recognised by the vast majority. While score whores like Stallion, Rand al Thor and (sadly) stripclubdj have become famous, or infamous, for their exploits. The strange thing here is that even when a player reaches the top of the pile they are very rarely universally acclaimed.

stripclubdj obviously got to the top with less than legitimate means, but he never made any excuses for his actions and was openly honest about his techniques. In fairness, even when he was reset, he didn't bitch and moan about it - at least that I saw, and he still had his supporters.

Whereas Stallion has got to the top through hardwork and the ability to play any old crap. Yet he is constantly called out as a cheater, hacker or someone with no life. It would probably be no great shock to find out that he got as much hate mail as fan mail (in a personal message sense). It seems unfair that gamers feel the need to tear each other down rather than celebrate a great accomplishment.

The thing is that both of these individuals came to the public eye because of online leaderboards, forums and, most obviously, gamerscore. Factors that would have never been in play in the not too distant past. The 360 is the first machine to make checking out other players as easy as typing in their gamertag - from there you can pretty much paw through their friends, games played and score - not to mention post messages at a whim. Obviously players can block these features too, but why should we be forced to? I think players gunning for the top know that they are going to get slated regardless and are happy to live with that, but it still puzzles me why people feel the need to abuse random players that they don't even know.

My position as a reviewer opened me up to a glimpse at the bad side of things. I don't mind people asking me questions about reviews, but I do mind getting mindless insults just because they don't agree with a score or random friend requests just because you saw my name. I can only imagine how often the top players inboxes must fill up - as mine seems to be spammed constantly by people I've never heard of.

Not that I can complain. I'm an active member of a great forum and thoroughly enjoy writing reviews on the side. So if a slight bit of message filtering is the price I have to pay then so be it. My only qualm is just how much protection is offered to those people who truly need it.