Saturday, 26 October 2019

Maybe it's better left to the imagination...

Elite (C64) Doesn't look so hot these days, but I really got into it.
Games have fantastic graphics and sound these days, but I find it a lot harder to put myself into the world of a game I'm playing than I used to.

Take Elite for example. I played Elite a long time ago on the C64, and Frontier Elite 2 on the Amiga, and I thought it was amazing. I was an interstellar space trader with a Cobra Mk III and a desire to make it rich. It didn't matter that the graphics were wireframe on the C64 or that it ran at around 4 frames per second when anywhere but deep space on the Amiga. I was in space!

Elite Dangerous (PC) looks great but can feel a bit dull and empty.
These days I play Elite Dangerous. In principal it's pretty much the same game as the other two, but with greatly improved graphics. You start out with a pretty rubbish little ship, travelling from station to station to buy and sell things or complete missions. When you've got enough money, you can spend it on upgrading your existing ship or buying a new one. I loved the older games, so you'd think I'd love this one, right? Well... No, not really.

You see, as I said above, back when I played Elite and Frontier it was a lot easier for me to play make believe and put myself in the game, but I have a really hard time maintaining that illusion these days. Back in my younger days, even though I knew I was just someone sitting in front of a screen, it was a lot easier to use my imagination. When I was playing Elite, I was in space running the gauntlet of space pirates. When I played B-17 Flying Fortress, I was on a bombing run over WWII Europe with the Luftwaffe on my tail. When I played Grand Prix, I was driving for Williams and fighting for the world championship in a heated battle with Ayrton Senna. These days, though, I'm just a bloke holding a controller sitting in front of a screen.

It's not even like I don't try to imagine myself in the game world. When playing Elite Dangerous, I can usually roleplay and maintain the illusion for about ten to fifteen minutes before I start getting bored. I suppose if the game was a bit more engaging the world might grab me a bit better, but I don't think Elite Dangerous is quite as good as the previous versions. That being said, maybe I'd find the older games to be just as dull now. I've not played either of them for around 25 years.

Compared to the earlier games, Elite Dangerous seems to have a very hands off approach to space combat. In the older Elite, you only had to get a sniff of an anarchy or low security system and you'd have a horde of space pirates on your tail baying for blood. In Elite Dangerous, however, you can pretty much go from system to system for weeks without any pirate encounters. This has the effect of turning the game into a dock > fly to station > dock > repeat loop, with not very much else happening. Sort of like European Truck Simulator 2, but you only ever drive down straight roads with no scenery and all the other traffic is tiny dots in the distance.

You can find combat in Elite Dangerous if you really go looking for it, for example if you take assassination missions or if you hang around in resource extraction sites or near navigation beacons. It is, however, very rare that the AI space pirates will come to find you. Even anarchy or low security systems, which in the previous games were something you entered at your peril, often just end up being a milk run.

I think it's too late now for the developers of Elite Dangerous to change the gameplay to be a bit more like the original, where enemy attacks were more prevalent and you'd often get a sense of trepidation every time you became mass locked by another object, having a moment of tension where you really weren't sure if that thing was going to be a pirate, a trader or just another space rock. I think, though, if they did do something to make the AI pirates more of a threat, the game would certainly be less dull - and maybe people would stop coming on the games forums complaining about how shallow the game is at times.

Now, I don't want you to think I'm just picking on Elite Dangerous here, because it's quite possible that my problems with the game are caused by my own lack of imagination when gaming. If I could stay in character maybe I'd enjoy it more. I was playing Batman Arkham Asylum recently, and it's a really good game, but at no point did I ever play the game as Batman. Instead, through the whole thing I was just Pete the gamer sitting in front of his PC holding his controller and moving his thumbs, but when I played Batman The Movie on my Commodore 64, it was a lot easier for me to imagine that I was really in the game.

Maybe it's the price we have to pay for getting older as gamers. Back when we're younger it's a lot easier for us to plug in to the atmosphere of a game and imagine that we're really in space, or chasing after The Joker dressed as a bat. Maybe we just become too cynical about things once we get older, and maybe this is why we see so many videos of 40-something, bearded nerds on YouTube crying about how the changes to things like Doctor Who, Star Wars and Star Trek are "ruining their childhood." 

I mean, I actually quite like Star Trek Discovery and the newer Star Wars movies, because I just take them for what they are, and enjoy the ride. Like the Marvel movies, I just approach them as if I was watching a 2 hour Saturday morning cartoon, and don't expect much more. I know that 8-year-old me would have found them amazing, and maybe this is the approach I need to adopt with games. Instead of sitting there nitpicking the whole thing comparing it to other stuff, just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Getting your own opinion may be a dangerous thing.

Zzap!64 was always a trusted source for games reviews.
Ignorance is bliss, or so they say.

In my early days of gaming, back when I had my Sinclair ZX81 and Atari 2600, I didn't have much idea of what was or wasn't a good game. I didn't have many games for either machine, so I usually borrowed Atari 2600 games from my cousin or typed in games for my Sinclair ZX81 from magazines and books. My cousin had more games than me, so I trusted his opinion on what was or wasn't considered good.

When I eventually got my Commodore 64 - and I think my cousin had a ZX Spectrum by this time - it came with ten copies of Zzap! 64 magazine that had been collected together by the previous owner, and I enjoyed reading them so much that I decided it was worth ordering from the local newsagent.

Zzap! was full of great stuff. It was funny, informative and entertaining. And, above all, I felt that the writers could be trusted to give me an honest opinion on what was or wasn't a good game. I used to read all of the reviews every month, and any game that scored above 70% was definitely on my radar.

As I got older, and my games machines changed from C64, Mega Drive, Amiga, PC and Playstation, the magazines changed with them. My strategy for buying games, however, didn't. I still felt that I could trust reviewers, and even though Zzap! 64 had long since gone out of print, I felt that the likes of Sega Power, Amiga Format and PC Zone weren't going to steer me wrong. That was until I encountered Wipeout in 1995.

The Playstation was the new big thing! Everyone was raving about Wipeout at the time, and I remember that I bought it for my PC expecting it to blow me away. It didn't. I felt that the game was okay, but certainly nothing exceptional. I'd played better racing games on my Amiga, Mega Drive and C64 before. Not better in terms of technology, but certainly more entertaining to play. I really didn't get what all the fuss was about, and I started, for the first time, to think that reviewers and myself had started to go a bit wrong somewhere.

This happened more and more with different games as the 90's wore on, and I started to wonder how the reviewers were getting it so wrong. In the past I'd pretty much always agreed with a reviewers opinion of a game when I'd bought it based on their recommendation, but here I was playing games that were scoring highly and I was wondering how they were considered to be good. A lot of stuff was just leaving me cold.

This was definitely more of a problem for me on Playstation than it was on PC. With the PC, I could still buy many games that were rated highly and enjoy them. Civilization, Grand Prix, B17 Flying Fortress, Lemmings and The Sims were all games that I bought based on the review score, and I thought they were great. There were a few that didn't work out, but many did. The console reviews, though, were turning up quite a few more lame ducks. Sure, there was still a lot of stuff that I liked, but there was also a heck of a lot that I didn't like as well.

It could simply be that I was no longer so easily captured by the review scores, with 9 out of 10 no longer having the magical hold on me that it used to have, meaning I couldn't overlook the flaws in a game, thinking "Well, it got  high review scores. So the problem can't be the game!" when I encountered an issue. Whatever it was, there was definitely an ongoing difference of opinion between the reviewers and myself with many games.

Maybe I've just become too fussy, or too jaded, over the years. Or perhaps I simply thought I knew more than the reviewers, which I'm probably completely wrong about, but in my defence virtually every gamer thinks they're an expert on games, so I'm probably not alone in this train of thought. It could also be that I'm no longer impressed by flashy graphics. I know that in the past I'd often play something and marvel at how good it looked, but these days I don't really tend to do that.

Maybe, and this is more my fault than a fault with gaming, I just expect too much from video games these days. Games are technically a lot more advanced than they were when I first started playing them, but the actual gameplay in many cases doesn't seem to have moved on with the fancy graphics. Maybe I need to start exploring VR a bit more to discover something different.

Whatever it is, I feel that I can no longer trust reviews as much to give me a true opinion on a game, and so I spend a lot less time looking at reviews and a lot more time watching videos on YouTube to gauge whether or not a new game will be worth playing. That being said, I recently bought the three newer Tomb Raider games on PS4 based simply on the review scores and I'm having a great time with them, so maybe all hope is not lost.

Anyway, the point of all this is to suggest that maybe to enjoy games properly it might be better to not form an opinion on them right away, as having an opinion might actually end up ruining the experience before I've even played it. Things are so hyped up these days that I find that I usually have a lot of assumptions about what a game will be like before I've even played it, and this means I tend to have a lot of ideas about the game before it's even loaded.

If I see a 9 out of 10 on a game, I often go into it expecting something amazing. Often times, though, it usually doesn't meet my lofty expectations of it and I'll start nitpicking instead of enjoying the ride. Perhaps the real lesson here is to go in with no assumptions at all and see what happens from there. When I knew very little about games I enjoyed them more, so maybe assuming the Buddhist concept of beginners mind is the key to enjoying games now?

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki.

Sometimes,though, I wish I could just go back to a more innocent time, when I didn't know so much about games, could trust reviews, switch off the analytical part of my brain, stop nitpicking and simply live by "Well, it scored a Zzap! Gold Medal, so it must be a good game!"

You knew a game was good when it got one of these!

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Where's the retro gaming content?

Anyone reading this blog will have noticed that it's a bit heavy on the Playstation 4 content for the moment. Well, as heavy as a blog with only a handful of posts can be. This is mainly due to the fact that I've had my PS4 for a few years now, but I've never really gotten on with it very well. So, I thought I'd use that machine as the platform to try and get myself back into modern gaming.

My main gaming focus is really retro gaming. This is why I've spent the last few years making new games with retro-themed ideas, like Hyper-Galactic Spiders from Mars that you can see above. I'm hoping to bring a nice mixture of old and new gaming to the blog, so that I can use it to talk about my love of older games and chronicle my experiences with getting back in touch with newer games at the same time.

As I've mentioned previously, I started to fall out of love with modern AAA titles when I had my Xbox 360. At first I thought it was great, and I can remember how eager I was to get it home and set it up on the day that I bought it. But the novelty and the excitement wore off after around six months of owning it, when I started to realise that I wasn't really enjoying the games that much.

Everything just seemed a bit beige, and I'm not just talking about how most of the colour palettes for the games made everything look really muddy back then. Most games I bought because they got good reviews, but I was getting it home and wondering how people were raving about this stuff. To me it all just felt a bit flat.

Maybe it was age combined with gaming fatigue. I'd been a gamer since around 1979/1980 and I'd kind of read the book, seen the movie and bought the t-shirt... By this point I'd owned a Binatone console, Sinclair ZX81, Atari 2600, 3 Commodore 64's, a Mega Drive, 4 Amiga's, Panasonic 3DO, Atari Jaguar, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, at least 5 Game Boy's, 2 Playstation 1's, 3 Playstation 2's, an Xbox, 2 Xbox 360's, a couple of Nintendo DS's, Nintendo Wii, innumerable PC's and laptops, a Nintendo Switch and my current Playstation 4. Maybe I was suffering from gaming overload? The funny thing is, though, I was still enjoying retro gaming, and not just for the games I'd played previously and enjoyed, but for other games that I'd missed the first time around but was getting to play now.

So, you might be wondering why I bought the PS4 after having such a downer on the Xbox 360? Well, the answer is that my PC is a few years old now, and it's not that great for AAA gaming. I mean, it's fine for stuff like Elite Dangerous on medium settings, but I use it mostly to develop 2d arcade action games, and play some indie games, so it doesn't really need to be all that powerful.

When it came to wanting to play the mainstream AAA blockbusters, I thought I'd try the new Playstation. However, it seems that my displeasure with the Xbox 360 and it's games has been projected onto my newer console. I've not been getting on with it too well, and most of the time it's been sitting around collecting dust. This eventually led me to the realisation that it's probably not entirely the console or the games fault, but it's more down to me being a right miserable old git.

I'll admit that I'm not always that great at playing some of the newer games, and I tend to get a bit frustrated with them. I grew up in an era where you had a joystick and one button to play a game, and that's all you needed, but a lot of games these days make you hold down LB while pushing up on the d-pad, right on the right analog stick and stand on your head while farting The Star Spangled Banner just to open a bloody menu... Okay, maybe it's not quite that bad, but that's how it feels sometimes.

To get back into gaming, I got to thinking about what sort of games I used to play on my original Playstation. Mostly it was racing games and sports titles, with stuff like Resident Evil as an occasional addition. So, I decided to buy Fifa 20, Madden 20, MLB The Show 19, The Golf Club 19, F1 2019 and Dirt Rally 2.0.

All these games are fine. Sure, there are people who play them every year and complain that they're just the same thing recycled with a new number added to the title every twelve months, but for someone who's not really played a sports title since 2000, I think they're okay and certainly no worse than their PS1 counterparts. I'm enjoying playing them.

Since I was enjoying the sports games, I started to branch out into games of a different kind, starting with Resident Evil VII - which I didn't enjoy - and going on to Hitman 2, the Resident Evil 2 remake and the newer Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games. I'm enjoying these a lot more. Sure, there's been a couple of times when I've gotten frustrated and switched off the console in annoyance, but overall I've had positive experiences with these games. So, hopefully this means that I'm starting to rediscover my passion for games.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way for me to tell any readers who are looking for the retro gaming content that it's on it's way. I have some ideas for retro gaming posts, it'll just be mixed in with posts about my experiences with some newer stuff. The new direction for the blog is still in it's early stages, so it may be a while before it really gets going.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Modern games that I just can't get on with.

There are quite a lot of modern video games that I just cannot get into. Some are perfectly good games according to other people, but I just have a hard time liking them. Others I liked at first but the developers made changes that put me off them. So here's a trio of current generation games that I can't really connect with.

No Man's Sky Beyond

I loved No Man's Sky upon it's original release. Yes the creatures looked a bit derpy and the planets were pretty much the same aside from a different colour palette, but I thought it was a pretty nice and relaxing game. Sort of a virtual wander through a park if you like.

Other people, though, thought it was a bit naff, and Hello Games worked their collective butts off to flesh out the experience and add new features. This is where the game went a bit wrong for me, because they added base building. This seems to now be an integral part of the game, where you have to build certain base modules or equipment to unlock things to progress, and to get the parts for it you have to collect resources. This makes the whole experience a bit too much of a grind.

I much preferred it when the start of the game was simpler and you could get your ship off the ground and into space without the need to build all this extra rubbish that I'm probably not going to use again. Before the Beyond update, you had the option of following a second mission that skipped all of the base building and concentrated on getting your ship working. All you had to do was find a crashed freighter, some antimatter and a blueprint for some hyperspace fuel, and away you went. I don't want to spend two hours collecting stuff to make a base that I'll probably never return to, I just want to be a space nomad, wandering around planets and looking at the pretty scenery and derpy animals. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy base building in other games, I just don't enjoy base building when it's forced on me at the start of the game and I'd rather spend my time doing something else.

I'm sure once I get through the beginning part of the game and out into space I'll enjoy it again, but I find the first hour or two to be a bit too much of a grind. Maybe they could fix it by letting the player choose a starting point, so those of us who want to just bum about in space can start with a fully functioning ship and skip all the tedious stuff at the beginning.

Resident Evil VII: Biohazard

I managed to play Resident Evil VII for the first hour, and then I gave up. Not because the game is really scary, but because I thought it was the singular most ridiculously silly thing I've ever played. And I've played some really silly stuff over the years.

It started off great, with a creepy atmosphere and a vibe to it that really set the scene of wandering through this derelict old house in the woods. Then I met Mia, the young woman the protagonist is looking for, and it just went mental.

At first Mia seemed like your normal, average young woman, until she attacked me with a knife, threw me through a wall and was stabbed in the neck with an axe, but was still able to charge at me through an attic window with a chainsaw and cut my hand off.

All of these things wouldn't have been a problem if I was armed and I could defend myself, but for most of it I wasn't and the whole thing played out like an extended cut scene. I was a passive observer throughout the whole thing, which, along with the over the top violence and gore, made the experience seem more like a parody of a Resident Evil game (Resident Evil meets Happy Tree Friends perhaps) than a proper survival horror game.

I couldn't help but think of the Black Knight in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. It was blood and gore to the level where it becomes silly rather than shocking. Maybe that was the whole point and I missed it because I couldn't suspend my belief long enough to stop thinking "This guy's been stabbed and hacked up with a chain saw, and he's still alive... yeah, right!"

I have been told that I quit just at the point where the game does become more like the usual Resident Evil games, but the first hour was so silly that I have no desire to sit through it all again.


My brother bought me Spider-Man for Christmas last year, and at first I thought it was okay. It was a bit like the Batman Arkham games, and I enjoyed them so this should be fine... Except it wasn't.

I'm not sure what it is, but this game makes me feel tense when I play it. It constantly makes me feel like I'm on edge, and swinging between buildings has a really odd feel to it that leaves me stressed out. I feel like I'm rushing my way through the city, and I can't relax and slow down. This means that when I encounter a boss fight, I'm already wound up by the game, so I'm often too tense to complete the challenge, and I end up losing the fight. Then I turn the game off in annoyance.

I could probably adjust to it if I played the game longer, just randomly swinging through the city finding all the backpacks and other collectables, but I find that dull due to the way the game is structured.

This game suffers from a classic case of tower-itis. You know the type of thing, go to a point on a map to unlock a tower which reveals some of the city and things to do. Then you complete them and wander to the next tower to repeat the process all over again, and again, and again and....... ZZZZzzzzzz.... Sorry, I nodded off there for a sec.

Come on, developers! This sort of thing was fun in the original Assassins Creed a decade ago, but it's been done to death now. Come up with something original for your open world games, please.

Final Note

I could probably get into each of these games if I took the time to. They're probably great games in their own right - in fact I know No Man's Sky is, and the jury is still out on Spider-Man because I feel I could like it if it didn't make my teeth itch - but I cannot get very far into any of them for very long before I give up, which is a shame.

Anyway, that brings this rather negative post to an end. I failed my driving test yesterday and needed to moan about something to let off some steam.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

The games development is not dead!

I've been getting a few worried messages asking if I've decided to kick games development altogether in favour of writing about games instead.

The answer to this is no, I've not given up on games development, I've just no urge to spend time working on games at the moment. Since the blog is sitting around not getting much attention, I thought I'd put it to some use by offering my thoughts and opinions on some games or other things in the gaming industry.

It's been around 18 years since I last wrote anything related to games or the games industry. Back around the early 2000's I wrote game reviews for a website called The Student Center. This was before the days of social media, but it was a site where people from different schools, colleges and universities could hang out together on forums, live chat rooms and groups (which were like forums but more exclusive), and there were a collection of articles, games and other activities.

I was a chatroom and forum moderator on the site, and, due to my experience of games, I also wrote games reviews.  It was a pretty cool place in the days before Facebook and Twitter, but the owners sold it when everyone started to migrate to the social media giants we have these days.

I'd long since left the site before the closure, being one of the more "mature" students in my late 20's when I first joined up. I liked the site very much, but by the time I was hitting my 30's I decided it was time to call it a day, and started writing my own blog on science and astronomy called PeteUplink's Universe.

I've gone back to writing about games to keep this blog nicely ticking over with new content while I'm taking a break from working on my own stuff. I have no huge allusions to becoming a proper games journalist, and I'm quite happy with the current reader figures the blog has, but I had noticed that reader numbers have been dropping off recently because of low content output. So I thought I'd find something to fill in the gaps.

I do feel that I have a few things to say about the current state of games and the industry, and writing my own articles should give me a nice platform to improve my writing a bit after nearly two decades of disuse.

So, no, the games development is not dead, and I still fully intend to finish UFO. I'm just not in the mood for it right now and decided to try something different to keep the blog fresh.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Going in a slightly new direction.

Since I'm not really doing anything games development-wise at the moment, I thought I'd put my blog to a different use and start writing about games. I've been a gamer since the late 70's when my parents bought me a Binatone games console thingy that had 10 different variations of Pong under the names of different ball sports installed into it, and from there I wandered into home computers like the ZX81, C64 and Amiga, and games consoles like the Atari 2600, Sega Mega Drive and Playstation. I now have a PC and a PS4, and I also dabble in games development.

So, as you can see from the above paragraph, I have quite a bit of gaming experience, 40 years of it in fact, but I also have a problem... I've started to get a bit bored with games. It all started last generation when I had my Xbox 360. I was buying games for it, many of which were getting top reviews and other gamers were raving about them, but they were leaving me feeling a bit deflated. Sure, there were a few titles that kept me engaged, but most of them just left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. It was a bit like being at a massive buffet but most of the food tasted like cardboard.

You may now be wondering why, if I've got such a downer on games, I've decided to write a blog about them. Well, 40 years is a long time to be a gamer and I don't really want to just pack it in. I've been buying a lot of games for PC and PS4 recently, and I have a load of older stuff for both machines that I've bought but never played, so I thought I'd play them and then take the time to write up what I thought of them. I used to write reviews for a little place called Student Center back in the early 00's, so I've got some experience. However, I don't want to take this into the usual review format of writing a few lines about something and then giving it a score on some arbitrary scale. Instead, I'm going to forget review scores and just give an honest assessment of the game as I see it. So, they're not really going to be reviews, more of my thoughts on the experiences I had while playing the games. Think of it like a diary of a guy who's having a hard time liking something he once loved and he's writing about his attempts to rekindle his love of it.

Now, I'll just add that my opinions on games tend to be a bit wide of the mark from the majority of people that play them. For example I wrote a review for Half Life 2 back in the day that was less than glowing because I found it a bit bland. I actually still believe that it's not as good as the first game. I don't think it's a bad game, and it's certainly grown on me more over time, but I didn't really get why people were so taken with it back when it was released. This is one of many examples I could give where the mainstream gaming press, and the gamers who follow them, have rated something very highly that I've thought of as merely okay. This isn't me trying to be controversial and get people thinking I'm deliberately being awkward to hype up the blog (afterall it's a piddling little blogger site on the very fringes of nowhere and not likely to have much influence, so hype isn't going to do much good), I generally just have a different view of the majority of games out there than most other people. I guess I'm just wired up differently and not so easily impressed anymore. Maybe I'm just old and grumpy.

I'm aiming to do one blog post a week, maybe more if I can really get into it, but I have to try and fit all this in with some complicated real-life stuff, and I may get back to games development at some point, but if you think a grumpy old gamer complaining about games (or not as the case may be, there are a lot of games out there that I do like) is something you'd like to read, you might find something here to amuse you.