Alan Wake – Returning to Bright Falls

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Every six months this happens to me. Pretty much like clockwork in fact. Everyone has their go-to game that they pick up and play again; in fact everyone probably has several. I myself have several but this one game in particular keeps surging itself back in to my psyche like the darkness in it is making me one of the Taken.

Maybe its because I am a writer by occupation and am often enthralled by Stephen King. His book “On Writing” is possibly one of the greatest self-help/autobiography/training manuals on writing out there and I implore anyone to read it, writer, fan or otherwise. Alan Wake somehow finds that element in me that King and others evoke to pure enjoyment and amazement at their craft.

There is something very multi faceted about Wake as a character that draws me to him, although you could be forgiven for missing it. Sam Lake’s character creation is a good lesson of how to embrace the cliché and go running with it. Max Payne is a very obvious one, the self-destructive cop/former cop, driven by remorse, self-loathing, painkillers and booze. His inner monologue reads like some of the most prevalent pulp characters. Wake is different in how he is driven by anger, frustration, impatience and hubris, which ultimately disguises his own self-loathing, his fears and his nightmares, especially so early in his inability to protect Alice because of his temperament.

alan wake 1In literature terms, we would call Alan Wake a product of intertextuality, something you could also say of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and even Max Payne. It is a piece of work that takes elements from other previous works and is directly inspired by them. Not copying at all but certainly Alan Wake feels like an homage.

The tropes of things seen to be evil but aren’t, messages hidden in plain sight, memory loss, fear of the dark, clinics, backwater towns… Twin Peaks and its surreal setting and happenings play a big part in the inspiration of the game. As big a part as Scarface and Miami Vice does for Vice City and it’s so enjoyable because of it. But not overbearingly in to a complete copy or pastiche of it, like Vice City effectively is. The setting especially brings more to Alan Wake than a setting does to most games.

Mainly because even four years on, using the Xbox 360, it still feels beautifully atmospheric and seeing the visuals in the PC version it is even better. Sure there’s a few niggles with the characters face animations but given you spend 90% of your time in a third person over the shoulder view, it’s very excusable.

Bright Falls has that magical sense about it that keeps you returning to a game environment. It is beautiful and scary. The decision to scale back from the original open-world intention is one to be lauded as you could see how the element of limited exploration heightens the suspense.

Being a regular consumer of boxsets, Netflix or otherwise, the game’s episodic format is especially refreshing and definitely one that works for the type of game it is. The cliffhanging suspense, the cinematic moments and the beautifully soundtrack and original score lifts this game above the more resource gather shoot and run style horror games that occupy most of the genre. You feel like you’re taking it at the right pace, whether or not you actually are. You get that feeling that it’s ok to put it down, go make a coffee and do some actual work. You’ve reached a natural point to stop and resume another time… You don’t actually do that but you get that feeling.

So why am I writing about my love for a four year old game? Well, and let’s excuse American Nightmare from this equation for a moment (it was a nice enough game which embellished the story of Wake’s inner battle, if not a bit repetitive), it really deserves a sequel. A sequel it is sadly not going to get. As Sam Lake himself said in a recent interview with Polygon, Alan Wake was not profitable enough to justify making a second, especially with it being next-gen and with Quantum Break being Remedy’s primary focus.

However I could see a time, given that the Microsoft exclusivity deal on it has surely or will surely run out rather soon, that a sequel could be touted and crowdfunded. There is enough die hard Wake fans that it could happen and we definitely want to explore the ocean that Wake is trapped in a little more. We’ve read the novelisation (and by the way, kudos on the strategy guide that reads like a book. It really reminds me of good old school game manuals that had care and artistic impression in them), and we are hungry for more.

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Sadly that doesn’t look like it will happen and whilst Max Payne 3, despite the lack of Remedy’s involvement, satiated our appetite for their archetypical droll characters it didn’t relieve the fear of the dark for us Wake fans.

The scary dark nightmare we played through that makes up Alan Wake’s novel ‘Departure’ got us to sit up, get excited and take note of how horror and thriller genres aren’t just the realm of indie games or Japanese franchises. I hope sometime soon we get to play through its sequel ‘Return.’ Until then, back in to Bright Falls I will go.

Do you have fond memories of Alan Wake? Why don’t you discuss them here, on Facebook or via Twitter.

[author]

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Celebrate 5 Years Of Minecraft

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What can you say about the progression of Minecraft and the impact it has had on the video game industry over the past five years?

It’s spawned its own clothing lines, merchandise, been ported to every device under the sun, made stars out of YouTube gamers and has turned the industry upside down.

The procedurally generated sandbox survival game created by Notch has grown and grown and, as far as the game is concerned, shows no signs of stopping. New mini-game servers are launched all the time, people are still lapping up the content created by it and as an experience, it’s now a comfortable yet challenging old friend.

Normally with these kind of articles, we recount our experiences with the game, our favourite things that worked well and bits that didn’t. Except Minecraft isn’t a finite entity. It’s still going and new things are continually happening.

For me personally, and you can read many things that designers and industry folk have said about Minecraft, it is all about what the game does for you. There are people that use it for education, for PvP gaming, for a benchmark in their own games and even just laud it for inspiration (see Peter Molyneux).

But for me, it’s the ability to have your own deeply personal adventure. The world is your own randomly generated world. You do what you want in terms of building things, choosing your own path and your own story. You set how challenging its going to be for you and this kind of ‘create your own’ narrative is exactly what keeps me coming back to it. And whatever new things come or mad inventions are created, it always feels like a new experience.

You may have your own thoughts and memories on Minecraft, but as it’s five years old, I’m going to take you through five of my favourite things that Minecraft has done or created in that time:

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minecraft birthday 1Creepers

A completely accidental creation. During the original programming for the game Notch had accidentally created an exploding pig. He didn’t know this until said pig walked up to him and exploded. Then, the Creeper was born. It is the most wonderful and hilariously frightening creature to have graced video gaming and makes some damn fine records, if you know how.

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minecraft birthday 2The Far Lands (Or Bust?)

Back in its beta days, the game had an area known as the far lands. These are the furthest point from where you spawn. The game procedurally generates based on coding and mathematical formula, but it gets to such a point where the code breaks down. Like a signal degradation if you will. This creates the far lands, an area of crazy and random landscapes, completely strange block placement and a place where the rules of Minecraft no longer apply.

If you happen to go YouTube, you may have heard of a content producer called Kurt J Mac. Since 2011, this crazy guy has decided to walk to the far lands with his canine companion Wolfie, and has been producing steady episodes of this since all in the name of charity. Even when he accidentally lost Wolfie and certain Gallifreyan-esque mechanics were used to retrieve him, the show carried on. So far, just over $269,000 has been raised for the Childs Play Charity by this endeavour alone, including donations from Notch. That is good (to quote Kurt J Mac) ‘INDEED!’

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minecraft birthday 4Ultra Hardcore Mode

Sticking with the YouTube thing, this is a custom modded game mode that was so popular, Mojang built the ability to do it in to the game. Popularised and I dare say invented by the MindCrack gaming network, UHC is the ultimate in survival PvP multiplayer. Either solo, or in teams, you start at random points at the map with the aim of being the sole survivor. You play the game like survival but with rules in place such as no strip mining. The key thing here is that health regeneration is turned off so if you take damage, that damage will stick.

In the MindCrack rules, regeneration potions are banned too so that the only way you’re getting that health back is by a golden apple. Everything else is a scary free-for-all – you can put whatever modifiers to the rules that you like. The Hermitcraft’s UHC is currently making use of the newly implemented world border function to force people towards the middle or else face death. It makes for excellent viewing (MindCrack recently finished their 15th season of it) and if you can round up enough friends, it is definitely worth trying.

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minecraft birthday 3Mods

Well mods are going to come for any game aren’t they? Hell, I’ve had or seen mods for pretty much every PC game I’ve ever owned. But the Minecraft mods are so inventive, complex, easy, crazy, and impressive that they are at times new games in themselves. Not even counting the thousands of custom maps that have been created. The most well known modded pack is probably Feed The Beast, which is a collection of many mods thrown together. My personal favourite is the recent Attack of the B-Team mod pack. But there’s so many things like TerrafirmaCraft, Hexit, Skyblock, Agrarian Skies, CrackPack, Magic Farm, Life in the Woods… Too many to mention. These all contain mods with new biomes, new and better storage, more blocks and construction options and even technology.

The most impressive thing is, and anyone who’s massivly modded a game will know this, how well the base game actually copes. Yes there some glitches but for the level of modding that goes on, Minecraft is an excellent platform. And seeing as Mojang love this (they’ve even emplyed people from the mod community to work on the game) it makes for an excellent marriage.

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minecraft birthday 5Community

Gaming communities are well known for their supportiveness of a game. But the Minecraft community has become much more than that. It’s become much bigger than the gaming trolls of online FPS play and surpassed the sharing communities of forums past. It is a community that stretches the globe, enjoys and supports the people that make the content they watch. It encourages involvement and maybe that’s because the game isn’t about victory but about working together to create something better. The official MineCon convention has come from this desire to bring the community together, and gaming conventions themselves now hold panels featuring Minecraft personalities to help other with the game from redstone, to YouTube and even to just having a good laugh. It is a community, once you get past the trolls and the haters, that makes you want to get involved and play. Even from the production of content, the MindCrack community has produced some of the best personalities and content from gaming, pranking, building and even role play that not only inspires the community but makes many people come together to share their enjoyment of the game and the content.

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I’ve missed loads of course and we all have such specific personal memories of playing on Minecraft. Why not share yours with us? Tweet us or comment on Facebook. I’d personally love to hear your thoughts and stories!

Happy birthday Minecraft.

[author]

RollerCoaster Tycoon – 15th Birthday

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The point of this piece is to look back on a game that I have incredibly fond memories of. In fact, I have nothing but praise for this game. But I’m actually going to start this with something very recent: Tumblr.

There is a meme somewhere out there about the creative genius that RollerCoaster Tycoon provided, which I think supergeek/actor/writer Wil Wheaton publicised. It is explained as thus:

A scenario in the game, Rollercoaster Tycoon, was to get a higher approval rating than your rival who was based next door. In a feat of insane evil and creative extermination some of the 20th Century’s dictators are known for, this player set up a rollercoaster that led people to their deaths. The catch though is that the angle he had the rollercoaster positioned that flung these poor passengers to their deaths was just so that they flew in to the park of his competitor. The game recorded the deaths in his competitor’s park and his approval ratings dropped like a stone… making the game easier to win. A death coaster, by design for competitive victory.

rollercoaster tycoon 2Sandbox games have done incredible things in recent years. SimCity could allow you to subjugate your population to Beijing-style air pollution. You can execute potential and non-potential rebel dissidents in Tropico and many have manipulated Minecraft with the unnecessary deaths of many different enemy mobs for a player’s own gain. But I find something incredibly enduring about Rollercoaster Tycoon. It’s simple design and isometric view was a bit more simulation than Theme Park, taking its cues from its big sister, Transport Tycoon. All of this was the genius of Chris Sawyer.

Nowadays, Atari has given the licence to Elite and Zoo Tycoon developer Frontier Developments, but the fact the original game still exists is a testament to its fortitude. These were the days where Theme Park was looking a little dated, at that time anyway. It had been ported to every console, which gives you some impression of how little it needed to run. So Rollercoaster Tycoon came along and gave a slightly more adult, graphically superior, smoother and quicker take of the genre for the PC market. I say slightly more adult…

There were still the same kinds of challenges and quirks, like upping the salt and the price of drinks. But the tools that the Tycoon series had for landscaping the many crazy environments and more impressively, completely free design in your main rollercoaster attraction, were a cut above anything on the market at the time.

In fairness, the only things that began to come after this were more 3D based games, so you could argue, apart from maybe a few Command and Conquer or Civilization clones, this was the last truly original isometric strategy/simulation game of its type. Its freedom of creativity, so long as you had the money, is still a draw now as it is one of the best selling games over at GOG.com. An iOS version, with input from Sawyer, is due to come out in April with the spirit of the original games along with a fourth in the franchise.

Which leads me back to the Tumblr post I saw. I remember designing great parks. I loved the log flume style rides and super fast crazy things. I remember really playing a lot with the sandbox mode on the deluxe edition, which has both Alton Towers and Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Even now, looking up online, I saw some things that I completely had no care about.

The game had no speed up option. Well, not like we do now. As a complete clone of Transport Tycoon, there was no super speed. I didn’t care. The game had some issues with rail, building and queue placement due to the isometric system. I didn’t care.

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But I look back now at all my creativity that I had and that I still have in my mind. I look at the vast worlds I’ve created in my brain for fiction and the massive locations I’ve explored as a gamer. I look back at the scope of builds that people have created in Minecraft and that I’ve done myself that I could never have comprehended before…

Yet never had it crossed my mind to design a rollercoaster that purposely flung people to their death into a competitor’s business so you could win out against the competition. Rollercoaster Tycoon has given rise to quite possibly the most creative, ruthless, evil and commercially viable mind in all creation. A game that can do that is surely worth a bit of your time and money.

Happy Birthday, Rollercoaster Tycoon.

[author]

Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance – 15th Anniversary

It’s been fifteen years since Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance. It’s one of those things that make you feel utterly old. Not as old as a child playing Sonic with fond nostalgia, but of being almost an adult, at the end of adolescence and realising how long ago it was.

For some more perspective, the third Harry Potter book came out at the same time, and both the first Potter movie and Lord of The Rings were released only two years later.

star_wars_x-wing_alliance-frontalBut I digress. X-Wing Alliance was not only a game released by the now defunct LucasArts and Totally Games. It was not only the third single player game in the series following from the critically lauded X-Wing and TIE Fighter, but it was also the last. It was quite possibly the last great licensed dog-fighting game on a PC.

You take the part of Ace Azzameen (or whatever you name him, although you’ll always be called Ace), a young hothead from a family of freighter pilots, who becomes a member of the Rebel Alliance, mostly because the Imperials don’t take kindly to you being sympathetic to the Rebellion.

Your constant companion throughout this is a rather feisty, battle hungry and (after a while) frankly annoying droid called Emkay. You get to fly, pick up missions until battle ensues and get caught up delivering Alliance supplies after the Battle of Hoth. So starts a journey that leads the gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi.

Eventually you get to the obligatory Death Star level, stealing an Imperial Shuttle and collecting all sorts of medals and token souvenirs on the way. Oh, did I mention you spend a lot of time flying a Millennium Falcon class ship? No? That happens. Which is, if I remember rightly, one of the biggest draws of the game.

star wars x-wing alliance 2I mention that because its hard to imagine now, in a world where the Rogue Squadron series came along, how big a thing it was to have that craft as a playable entity. It fulfilled so many dreams that we had been unable to fully satisfy before, and with the newer episodes being released it seemed a bit optimistic to think any games would look back to the original universe.

And as fans, we would have been right. Other than the Rouge Squadron series, there was practically no dog-fighting in the Star Wars games from the original era until Lego Star Wars: The Original Saga. Arguably the ones that followed with the new extension to the universe were never as satisfying as those that came before it.

The game forced a few updates that previous players had to adapt to. Firstly, things became much, much larger. The ships were bigger and more cumbersome, the battles more epic, the detail a lot more intricate and system straining than the previous outings. You couldn’t just zip around and pelt things, you had to properly avoid collisions and look after your craft’s speed and manoeuvrability in flight and combat. Nowadays it does look incredibly dated. Even playing it again recently, I couldn’t find a resolution that would allow the text to display properly or a suitable graphical set up. Suffice to say that up close, it hasn’t aged too well compared to other games of the era that were less graphically dependent.

One of the key improvements though, and one of the great things about the series as a whole, was the enemy AI. It was so good it could fly your ship for you whilst you manned the gunners’ turret in the Falcon-style ship. It certainly made this game challenging and instantly reminded me of the hours I spent furiously throwing my mouse around trying to find a target or violently forcing the joystick to do the same… I realise that’s a very euphemism heavy sentence… You kids and your “joypads” don’t know you’re born.

When we look back at the legacy of the Star Wars games, it was LucasArts who revolutionised gaming using the franchise, and TIE Fighter is still probably the stand out title of the series. There have been a few space dog-fighting games since, including a few Star Trek ones, but none of them, even with their graphical superiority, ever have truly lived up to the standard set by these three games.

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Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance was the technically superior of course and is still very playable, which is probably a good thing as this type of game seemingly disappeared after this time. Flight Sims went out of fashion and world events certainly saw them becoming more of a taboo genre. Even warfare itself had changed significantly enough for military based plane games to evolve and lose mainstream appeal, paving the way for the now dominant FPS market.

The final game of this trilogy, if you don’t count the multiplayer X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter game, is certainly a great legacy to leave. It was a series that was the first to simplify space dog-fighting combat in this particular era of gaming. Not since Elite was combat so easy to pick up and in the PC market, it arguably hasn’t been since. EVE of course has it, as did Star Wars Galaxies and Star Trek Online, but the MMO’s of today really don’t capture that ‘cockpit euphoria’ of tracking down a TIE Fighter, getting her in the sights and letting rip with the lasers, draining the power in the most satisfying way possible.

Maybe the upcoming Kickstarter funded sequel of Elite might invoke some nostalgia and requirement for games such as this, but it is a testament to these games that they still stand as the benchmark of how this genre should be made, played and enjoyed.

[author]