Play Together Stay Together

Lazy days in the UnderGarden

The past few days and nights we’ve found ourselves continuing to return to The UnderGarden. A delightful download game from  Vitamin G Studios available on both XBLA and the PSN. We purchased for a measly 400MSP on Saturday afternoon, Linda took control and played through the first zone before we realised there was local co-op play. Immediately I jumped on the second controller and so began the first of many hours of wonderfully engaging gameplay taken at a relaxed pace. At first play we immediately felt this was not unlike Flower, the aclaimed PSN game, with the pollination game mechanic in play, however it soon transpired there was more to be done than just lighting up the landscape with organic life. Crystals need to be found, and some rather funky musicians need to be picked up along the way, with each level requiring you to pollinate all flowers, find the gem and pick up all the musicians at least once before it can be regarded as complete, although to unlock the next level you only need to make it to the end.

Successful completions however unlock cosmetic upgrades for your floating avatars, who are incredibly cute, despite what appears to be rows of very sharp teeth! New skins, which are a real help in co-op, horns and hats can all be unlocked and are accessible in game by floating your way into the costume cave. New mechanics are introduced as you progress, building on what you have already learnt to solve so as to keep you thinking without ever feeling punishing or stressful, it’s a real chill out game and the music and atmospherics only re-enforce this.

We are just past the half way point and enjoying every moment of the game. We can just sit back and relax on the sofa together whilst having some gaming fun and wind down from the day. There are a few annoyances to be found though, if the secondary player drifts off the screen they are popped out of existence only to re-appear next to the main player, which would be fine but any items you are stringing along at the time will be dropped where you were, which is some cases ‘breaks’ them so they are no longer useful. We also have issues when we both try to pick something up and end up seriously intertwined, which again requires you to drop everything, potentially loosing an item in the process. But these are minor things which could easily be tweaked in DLC or the next version. All in all a lovely co-op game that just does what it does just right.

Death by Trials and Limbo

Failing in games has become more of a rarity in recent years. When we started out in the late 70’s you always had a life count, a number of retries before the game called time on your attempts and sent you back to the beginning. Born out of the arcades this was inevitable, however as we progressed and computers and consoles became the home to gaming such methods slowly started to ebb away and we moved to life bars and shields which eventually started to recharge themselves. Death became more of an unlikely scenario replaced by duck and cover techniques, trying an approach then falling back when it did not work to recover before trying again. Some see this as a lessening of games, of making them somehow worse. For me it’s more removing of annoyance. The idea is still the same, trial and error but removing the complete failure to a more unusual outcome and keeping the flow of the narrative going.

However some games still make use of the death mechanic, they stand out by this in the modern age, but the approach taken needs very carefully engineering so as not to become unplayable to the new generation of gamer. Now you could say I’m not the modern gamer, being all of my 37 years, however I’ve grown up with these games, I do not always hearken back to old games in a way to say I wish new games where more like them. I enjoy old games for what they are but my opinions on games have grown with the medium. I could no longer accept some of the gameplay of these old masterpieces in a brand new IP, it would jar and distance me from their enjoyment in no time at all.

So how should a modern game make use of the death mechanic without it distancing the player from the world. Well I’m going to explore this via two of the past few years most popular arcade games. Trials HD and Limbo were both critical successes of the last two years Summer of Arcade schedules on the XBOX 360. I bought them both and played them both, however only one of these games actually entertained me with it’s play, the other frustrated and chastised me into submission and I have not, nor will probably ever complete it.

You see I can take trial and error game play, which both of these titles employ, so long as I can always see why I have failed, and often saw the failure coming and therefore could actually enjoy it. When things occur and I can learn not just that something happens at a point in the level but how my approach was wrong and what I can try to do next time then I will come back again and again to test new ideas and techniques. Trials excelled at this because it’s based in the physics of the real(ish) world. When I launch the bike into the air it does so with a given predictability, I can see from the trajectory and the weight of the bike whether what I have done is going to work, or result in a spectacular crash. When I have got things wrong I’m ready for that failure, my anticipation actually creates joy in that failure. There’s a crash, potentially explosions, then with a deft click of a button I’m back to moments before ready to try again. I only have to watch as much of that failure as I want to before I step in and reset the world.

Limbo too has a relatively low price for death. Usually you are only set back maybe 30 seconds of play so it would seem I would have no problem with this either. But I do. My death will most of the time have been unseen, or done in such a way that I’m not sure if what I tried was impossible or I just performed it poorly. Should I jump sooner, or later, or not try at all. I can not say, I have to blindly try all these never knowing if what I am doing is even the right way to go. On top of this when I do hit an unwinable position and I see the death animation kicking off, I must sit and wait like a patient child waiting for father to come home to dish out the punishment. I can have no foresight, I’m not dealing with the known physics of a bike hurtling through the air, even given apparent lower gravity, but with platforms of unseen traps and situations I can not be informed from my real world about.

I realise this is more to do with my own internal desires for what a game should and should not provide, that many will enjoy the platforming of Limbo, yet be left cold by the hard physics of Trials. Perhaps it is my latent scientific background that links me closer to a more real world puzzler than the artistic narrative of Limbo. Not that I don’t love it’s art style and feel, both of which convinced me to spend my money on it, but there will only be one sequel I would look out for.

Back to the Border

Borderlands is a game we really got into on first release, quickly leveling up our Siren (Linda) and Soldier (Steven) in our first playthrough of the story, then starting over to hit Level 50, the original level cap. Then the DLC came out, we lapped up Dr Ned and then waited for the next installment. Along came Mad Moxxi and disaster struck.. the save file for my Level 50 Soldier corrupted. For a while this put us off playing but eventually I started up another Soldier and got him to Level 20 in short order. We then used him as a seed for the Arena events backed up by Linda’s level 50 siren and often joined by Ghost World and Finley666. However that DLC has some serious issues that made the gameplay very frustrating, outside of the lack of XP and second rate weapons drops. If anyone dropped out of the session due to an internet blip, there was no way to get them back in and you had to drop out of what could have been 45 minutes work and start over. That’s just never going to be fun on any level. And so our interest in the game wavered, even though we had bought the next DLC, Secret Armoury, we never actually got to it as we were holding back my soldiers advancement so we could eventually get through the arenas.

Time passed. The game, which had gone from a single copy to two when we got the second Xbox lay unused. We’d dropped the cost of two Discs and two copies of all the DLC into this franchise and had not gotten the most out of it.

And so it was this last weekend we decided it might be time to go all the way, skipping the arena DLC so we both started up new characters. Linda again went Siren (if you are only going to put one female character in your game that really limits things guys #sidenote) and this time I chose Hunter. We had begun right back at the beginning, and struggled to remember how to play for the first few levels. Odd how it seems to take longer to re-learn a game than to originally learn it. And despite the time that’s passed that game is still a whole pile of fun. The art style does just enough to keep it looking good despite coming straight from playing something like the tour de force of LA Noire’s engine. The loot based carrot method of progression is something we are perfectly happy with though we have struggled more this time as without the ammo resupply capabilities of the Soldier we are running low all the time.

On top of this there is also the latest DLC Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution that we don’t own at present which is also meant to be good so it could be this next month will see us finally get the full story of Borderlands and have a great many hours of fun together doing so.

Watch us, we’re dancing!

Pipelines

We’ve not been posting much to this blog for a while, but we’re set to change all that. After this weekend our lives should become far more “back to normal” after a quite busy year in the real world. To that end we’re lining up some new reports on the games we’ve been playing together during this period which are:

 

  • Fable III
  • Lego Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Borderlands (Again)
  • Portal 2

I might even write up our experiences of going to London to see QI which was probably one of the best nights of our lives! So standby for content!

Brick Work with Magic

We’ve always been big fans of the modern Lego games, ever since the original Star Wars adaptations that we played on the Wii, back before we considered ourselves console gamers. In many ways they are the perfect couples games, as I have written in the past such as this article available on The Digital Cowboys website.

The games took a good step forward in playability with the relatively recent Indy Jones 2 introducing some key aspects to improve the co-op game play such at the attach/detach split screen. And now the Harry Potter (Years 1-4) game has gone even further keeping the fun level high and being faithful to the source material, whilst still injecting the essential Lego charm that keeps the games feeling fresh. It is perhaps the perfect example of the power of restrictions on developers. They have their story given to them, their characters can’t articulate past the odd grunt, laugh or mumbled “I don’t know”, and yet they feel more alive than most of the characters the Unreal Engine powered games have had to inspire us with over the years.

These days we play on the 360, and this has the added fun of earning achievements as we go, as well as having some fun ones to drop back into a completed game save to pick up. Almost always fun, and with some excellent naming such as this titles ‘Solid Snape’ which you get to sneaking around in a barrel as Professor Snape. However there is a two edges sword aspect to the achievements when it comes to playing as a couple. There is a large proportion on the achievements tagged as “(Single Player Only)” which basically means whoevers save game it is gets all the achievements, whilst the second player only gets achievements that occur during any given gaming session. This is a real drawback, and requires the other person to then have to play through the whole game again on their own save file to obtain the missing ones. And as fun as we find the Lego games, playing them through once on Story mode and once in Free Play is enough for us. We really could do with an option to start a co-op only save, which can only be loaded when both players are signed into the XBOX but would allow both players to obtain all achievements.

With more Lego games on the way, Pirates of the Caribbean sounding like another good source for a Lego game, we’ll definitely be ploughing more hours into these titles, so with any luck things will become slightly more co-op friendly for the series which is probably at the forefront of co-op couples gameplay.

Monday Night Catchup – Assassin’s Creed Complete

So this was more of a day catchup than a night, but hey 🙂

I have every Monday until Christmas booked off work due to having several more holidays free this year than Linda so I spent this last Monday putting some hours into a few games. I started out on Dance Central, grappling to the top of a couple of the leaderboards amongst my friends followed by some career progression in Forza 3 once my legs gave out, which let’s face it, wasn’t long.

However come the afternoon and I decided to return Assassin’s Creed to the disc drive and to push through the story, using the bare minimum of missions to get to each assignment. I must have had a good four or so of the achievements at the tipping point as they all popped for me during my standard play, things like killing so many with throwing knives, and so on which was a nice bonus.

One of the most fascinating things for my upon completion was reading through all of the emails on the laptops in the lab.Iin particular, and I don’t think this is really spoiling anything about the game, there were a couple of entries that got me thinking. One was that Africa seems to have become a wasteland, with only a few thousand of inhabitants left, though it was somewhat unclear why this was so. The second was that the US was clearly a third world power in this universe, with ‘American refugees risking crossing the strict border controls to escape in to Mexico’ Now maybe that was just a fun thing to say to mix it up, but what wasn’t too clear, perhaps deliberately, was whether that was the setting for the game or if my actions in the past had made the world that way. It was also at odds with another mail which talked about ‘Friends in DC’ which one would assume was Washington, however if the US is in such a state I was unsure what power people there would have. Perhaps it indicated another ‘DC’ that will be revealed in a future game?

There are still several achievements I would still like to pick up in the game, excluding the flag hunts which I have already ruled out. I’ve added them all to my ToDo list on True Achievements however like those in Red Dead and Fable II both of which I have completed in recent months I’ll pick them up when I’m in the mood. Or more likely on a points push. Which means I need a new game for my Monday Night Catchup as I’m considering Assassin’s Creed 2 to still be a current game so not yet part of my pile of shame and therefore ineligible for a catchup target.

The short list I have in my head is: Overlord; Batman AA; Dragon Age;

I’m currently favouring Batman as that really grabbed me at the time, but events transpired to pull me away from it having only just begun.

Play Outside

Unusual Activity

Now most of the time we conform to the stereotypical gamer persona of staying indoors, lounging around on the sofa and playing games, watching TV and films all the time. And we don’t have a real problem with that, it’s what we enjoying doing and we get to share all that time together. However with that comes a general level of unfitness and so from time to time we find ourselves needing to do something slightly more energetic, and no I’m not talking about popping in a Wii/Move/Kinect game!

We do also enjoy a good walk out in the country. It’s something I always did with my family whilst growing up, and for Linda who spent her teenage years in Norway, anything with a gradient of less than 45 degrees is ‘just a stroll’

Boots of +5 Walking

To this end, and knowing that we do enjoy a good walk, we had invested earlier in the year in some Solomon walking boots. We’d seen some reviewed on The Gadget Show by Brian Blessed a while back, and although our local stockists in Liverpool (somewhere on Bold Street, I forget the store name) didn’t have the exact model recommended we figured they must make good boots in general and so opted for the best they had in stock that fitted out budget. Those being the Solomon Exit Peak Mid GTX which we found to be very comfortable to wear, in our in shop trial at least, and also remarkably lightweight, both of us not having bought walking boots in about a decade we still recalled the immensely heavy walking boots of old. We did then spectacularly fail to actually take them for a good walk, though plans where made for various forays into Northern Wales just after the purchase. We are really quite well catered for from our home base of Liverpool, having the aforementioned North Wales and also the Lakes, Lancashire and West Yorkshire all within reasonable driving distance.

Location Selection

So with equipment all in place it came down to where to travel out to for our first proper walk in a number of years, having only participated in some post meal wanders whilst on holiday in Denmark and Norway in recent memory. Linda had heard a few people mention Ingleton Falls in work and how pretty a walk it was. I recalled the name from my dim and distant childhood and it seemed to bring back some favourable memories of having walked it once before, and so we quickly focused in and reviewed the website. Just over an hours drive; 8+ kilometres of trail; parking; eateries.. it all sounded like a good a place as any to rekindle our walking habits. It had also been quite a long time since we had gone out and taken some none candid photos having only really made use of our phone based cameras and the compact Casio in all of 2010, so we saw a chance to dust off the now quite long in the tooth Canon EOS300D, the original Rebel that started the DSLR craze back in about 2004.

The Walk

As it turned out the walk was really quite excellent. There was an entrance fee which seemed a little odd at first, but after we had seen the great condition in which the trail was maintained it seemed wholly justified with guard rails over some of the more precarious points and solid pathways. Perhaps this was a little over commercial for many, but for us on our return to walking it was a real boon. As you can see from some of the photographs which should be flipping away above there are some really beautiful spots along the route, and almost every time we turned around we saw another chance to try out a new shot. If I may break away into some camera talk for a moment, the lighting proved to be quite tricky on the day. With most of the trees still heavy with foliage, albeit of orange and gold in places, quite a lot of the shots where coming out dark when I used speeds short enough for hand held work. I did up the ISO for a few of them, however here I think the age of the 300D played against us and I had to trash most of them in the edit as the colour noise was unacceptable. Seems I will have to stick to ISO 400 and below with the Canon from now on, and then hope to lighten more in post production in Photoshop. I took them all in RAW format to allow as much manipulation as possible as usual thankfully, so I was able to rescue some that were borderline on the quality. Thankfully we had remembered to pack the ever handy Gorillapod so I was able to use that in a few places, making good use of the safety railings, to allow a much longer exposure and get a lot more light into the lens. I even had a go at the classic waterfall time delay shot, and it came out rather well for a first ever attempt I think.

The was a nice little cafe about two thirds of the way around the walk, in the direction we chose to take at least, which provided a timely stopping point. Some home made flapjacks and a couple of more commercially produced smoothies set us up for the final third, which proved to be a little less scenic with parts being back on roads, though we did pass an unmarked ruin of some kind which I have still to look up what it actually was.

The 8.8km passed quicker than we expected and we returned to the car just as the light was starting to fall away. We felt surprisingly unsore and actually quite energised by the walk, a great reminder of why getting out into the country is such good fun.

Next Time

Where we will venture too next is not yet known, and with the weather rapidly turning to winter in the UK this year, it’s possible we will wait until the new year to venture out again. If anyone has any suggestions for locations we’d love to hear them, just send an email using the contact form on the site.

Gears of War 2 – the hunt for level 100

When we picked up the XBOX 360 via my cousin Billy back in 2008 I chose to pick up a couple of games whilst it was away being de-RRoDed. Those were the racer GRID and the recently released Gears of War 2. Neither of us had ever played the original, but it was getting a lot of hype so we went in on faith. This was long before we had any support community on consoles to advise, but the bet paid off as it soon became clear there was a lot of fun to be had here. First and foremost was the co-op which allowed us to play the whole game together, always a plus point and quite possibly one of the main reasons we took to this new console so much. Linda has never really been one for shooters, although she did love playing in a sniper role in one of the old Time-Splitters games. But with the co-op option she felt safe enough to venture in as my back up. Of course being the gamer she is it wasn’t long before she clicked with the game and the whole world of FPS opened up to her. As Linda puts it:

Gears of War 2 was the first first-person-shooter Steven introduced me to that he actually managed to get me to play and it has been a favourite ever since. I like all the different aspects of the game – the story (and the collection of tags woohoo!) and also the horde modes. Many hours have been spent shooting waves of horde with our good friend Woodoggies with a lot of achievements being collected along the way. I think a lot of gamers are looking forward to Gears of War 3 being released next year. I know I am looking forward to finally having a female character to play – and yes I am one of those girls that prefer to play a female character.

The game has remained a staple of our online time since then, in particular as Linda mentions the Horde mode which we play almost exclusively with our good friend @woodoggies and occasionally with his Live buddy Darkl1ng. We’ve taken on a fair few of the challenges in the game, however the achievements, that Linda loves so much, have remained locked away behind the door of XP level, something which takes a fair while to rack up even with the hours we’ve put into the game. However Linda then came across some information…

I saw a post the other day on Twitter that mentioned that XP was times 4 at the moment with a massive times 31 for the Halloween weekend(!) so we decided to play some more horde modes and move a step closer to unlocking some more achievements.

As we were already planning on heading up to stay with Woodoggies for that weekend a plot emerged to try and at least obtain a few more achievements and potentially head towards that elusive XP level 100 during October with a hopefully triumphant weekend to finish things off!

The latest gaming session, pictures from which you will see above, included one of our all time greatest feelings. Having gotten up to wave 50 (Casual) on Nowhere we had failed to clear the round and so lost all our shields, vital in maintaining the line against the mounted Horde. However not wanting to jump out of the game to drop back down to 49 or 48 and pick some up we tried our hand at just hitting it head on. A few rounds of near instant wipes had us on the back foot. But then something just clicked, we blasted our way through the initial rush with some aggressive shotgun fire, found our positions and picked off some of the Therons that normally are the thorn in our side, then took down the remaining Bloodmounts before cleaning up the level. The feeling of real achievement amongst out little party of three thatwent with that was tremendous. Sure it was only casual, but neither myself or Linda are particularity competent at Gears2 despite all the play, and the teamwork required was of a high level. These are the days in which Live earns it’s cost!

Monday Night Catchup – Assassins Creed

In order that my back log of games, that thing we all have whether we admit to it or not, doesn’t continue it’s alarming rate of growth I’ve decided to dedicate one night a week to ensuring I make at least some progress in a classic title from our collection. My first target is the original Assassins Creed, which I tried to play originally with all the HUD elements turned off. Apparently this created an experience closer to what was originally intended and indeed ones experience of the game world is far different when you aren’t just following the GPS to the next critical point, instead finding your way about the streets and roof tops of Jerusalem or Acre. However it is much slower going, and for this reason I fell behind in my playthrough, whilst Linda went right past me and completed the game some time ago.

So I’ve readjusted and re-enabled all the gizmos and instead am just planning on getting myself through the story and ready to take on the sequel which we’ve owned pretty much since release but lies unused in the game drawer. It’s still a great looking game, which given how early a 360 title it was and just how good some of the recent releases have been is quite remarkable. Clearly Assassin’s Creed laid the way for what was going to be possible on this current generation and whilst the finesse with which this can be pulled off now has increased the vision is clear to see when traversing the cities and landscape of the game world here.

I’m not 100% sure where I am in the story as it has been quite a while since my initial play, however things do seem to be falling into place for the end game to begin so I would guess a few more Monday night sessions and I will be able to mark another title off the pile of shame.. I should plan out which game will be next on the list, or maybe a selection so I have some choice.. will look into that.