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Column: Battle Klaxon

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: Plain Sight, the Deadliest Dance Party

May 18, 2010 12:00 PM |

['Battle Klaxon' is a monthly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This month: robot ballet in PC indie multiplayer game Plain Sight.]

I've only lived with another obsessive gamer once in my life, which was a funny if slightly regrettable experience. We owned a Tefal Toast n Egg machine, for one thing, and while our surround-sound system looked impressive our tiny living room rendered the audio like having your head in a bath while four men shouted at you instead of just one.

Then there was the sofa situation. The bogus machinations of life meant we not only had three sofas in a flat the size of an average American toilet, but also that they weren't ours to throw away. When we first moved in we spent what felt like 48 hours playing a kind of sliding block puzzle before finally giving up and wedging one of them in the hallway like a switch in a circuit diagram. Whenever one of us wanted to get into our respective bedroom we had to shift the couch to barricade the other's door.

And so began the passive-aggressive behaviour that caused us to spend the entire winter looking for something we could play competitively. Problem was, we both wanted something that would let us look cool while we fought. That was all. But if whatever game we tried didn't look dumb to begin with then it certainly lost its cool the moment we watched YouTube videos of high level play. The closest we ever got to Our Game was the obscenely smooth and cinematic battles of Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm, but that just didn't grip us mechanically.

You'd think that videogames would be better at presenting you with fights that look beautiful or at least affecting, since on bad days it feels like idealised combat is all games ever think about. But what do we get? The furious bunnyhopping of online FPSes. Combos in fighting games lashing out at nothing but air long after the opponent's been knocked down. Men unflinchingly taking bullets like so much bad news. The And, y'know, this stuff.

But we also get the occasional spurt of hope. Recently I've been playing the drop-dead gorgeous Plain Sight by indie devs Beatnik Games, a multiplayer game that answers the question of "How cool can robot combat look?" with "This cool. You might want to stand back a bit. No, further than that."

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: Way of the Samurai 3's Execution of All Things

April 30, 2010 12:00 AM |

['Battle Klaxon' is a monthly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This month: scrappy vagabond simulator Way of the Samurai 3.]

'MISSION FAILED.'

Okay, now hang on--

'YOU LOSE.'

But I--

'GAME OVER.'

Is it?

'YES.'

Alright. Have you ever played any of the Way of the Samurai games?

'...NO.'

They're fascinating. I mean, they're also really bad, just unforgivably amateurish, but people should still be paying attention to what they try and do with narrative.

You spend these games wandering between various roads, villages, towns and castles, killing anybody, working for anybody, failing, ignoring or abandoning any mission, betraying anyone you like, and the game never stops you or tells you what to do. Not to be confused with other "free-form" games like GTA or Fable which in truth offer aimless freedom on the side like a bar might offer peanuts, Way of the Samurai titles are games about being free. There is no story except how you choose to spend your violent life, and I think that's really interesting.

'MMM-HMM.'

I'm serious! Not even the sprawling Morrowinds and Risens of the world shot for the degree of nonlinearity you see in Way of the Samurai. Listen to me!

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: Yes, It Really Is Called VVVVVV

February 25, 2010 12:00 PM |

['Battle Klaxon' is a monthly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This month: cruel-to-be-kind indie platformer VVVVVV.]

This time last year the very hippest of the games industry's hip were trying to keep their cool while getting their asses handed to them by indie platformer Spelunky. Part masterpiece, part disasterpiece, Spelunky was and is a game about things going wrong. It's intricately designed to allow you to screw up in a thousand and one forehead-slapping ways, at which point it dumps you all the way back to the start. This is a game so mean that players discover by themselves that the damsel in distress is a viable projectile for fending off monsters.

Now? Now it's the year of our Lord 2010, and we have a new indie platformer with a retro aesthetic and rockin' chiptunes to enjoy. It's called VVVVVV. Like Spelunky, it's mean as a feverish mother in law and utterly brilliant, but unlike Spelunky VVVVVV isn't about hiding from death. It's about turning and facing it. You're no longer Spelunky's cautious, cute, chibi Indiana Jones, but the bold Captain Viridian.

Spelunky was a tease. It had you jumping at shadows and ducking danger, and it giggled as you fumbled with its fat mass of button-presses and items, it snorted every time you accidentally fumbled your weapon into a snakepit. VVVVVV's more zen than that. In VVVVVV you know you're going to die, as all heroes must, and you know you're going to do it with your head held high and no more than three keys on your keyboard.

Pay attention! This could be the best $15 you spend all month.

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: The Icy Grandeur of Neptune's Pride

February 9, 2010 12:00 PM |

['Battle Klaxon' is a monthly GameSetWatch-first column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This month: Machiavellian web strategy in Neptune's Pride.]

Look alive! Tuck in that shirt! Polish your soul! It's the Battle Klaxon, and I have a COMPUTER GAME for you!

It's called Neptune's Pride, and it's a free web browser strategy game from some developers who used to work at Irrational Games. Neptune's Pride is a game of two things:

#1: Intergalactic War
#2: Being a jerk

Or diplomacy, as I believe #2 is referred to in polite society. The way play works is nice and neat. Each player controls one spacefaring species in a galaxy full of star systems, and the game ends when one of you wins by holding more than half the systems in the galaxy. It's a 4X game, stripped way down to its bones and taking place in real time. Fleets can take anything from 4 hours to an entire agonising day to complete a hyperspace jump, and games play out over the course of a few weeks.

But I mentioned being a jerk! Oh, what unforgiveable human beings you all become. It's why I like the game, really. The guys behind Neptune's Pride clearly understand that we're such a slimy, conniving, cunning collection of cu-- creatures that there's incredible mileage in a strategy game which simply presents the framework required to let us screw each other over.

Let me talk you through this war crime of a game they've made.

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: How Solium Infernum Raises Hell

December 7, 2009 12:00 PM |

['Battle Klaxon' is a monthly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This time, he looks at underworld PC strategy game labor of love Solium Infernum.]

Hell - now there's a setting for a video game. Hell lets a game's artists and writers run naked and wild and free, and in just-released indie strategy game Solium Infernum it also happens to tease out some hugely intelligent design ideas. I'm glad for that, because it balances out the damage done to my precious brain every time I see footage from Dante's Inferno. Man, that game. You take not only a nonviolent epic poem but the single most nightmarish and psychedelic setting known to Western civilization and you use it to make... a God of War clone? Are you kidding?

By contrast, Solium Infernum is a turn-based, play-by-email creation, and it's my second favourite game this year. Good year for demons, I guess.

Despite the hex map Solium Infernum isn't quite a wargame. It's all about prestige. The story of any game of Solium goes like this: Satan's missing, and the Infernal Conclave are meeting to appoint a new ruler of Hell in, oh, some 40 turns. It's an unknown number that changes every game. Each player (AI or human) controls an Archfiend of some reknown, and the Archfiend with the most Prestige points when the conclave meets at the end of the game is appointed the new ruler of Hell.

Reputation is everything, making it a game of personality and public relations, back-room deals and threats. So, having to fight a war is useless and to be avoided. But winning a war, or being the Fiend with the balls to start one? Yeah, that might be worth your time.

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: Meeting the Badman

November 11, 2009 12:00 AM |

['Battle Klaxon' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This week, we examine two different versions of panicked, squeaky-clean PSP title Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman!]

There's been an odd glut of tongue-in-cheek Japanese games based on 16bit RPGs recently, games like Half Minute Hero and 3D Dot Heroes. I've already picked my favourite. I like it because it's about PANIC.

I love panic in games. That icy pang of realisation, the blitz of thoughts that follows, the test of keeping your cool. In panic you can find such easy access to that magical realm where the only things in existence are you and the game. And it's such a useful design tool!

Resident Evil 4 was full of boring bits like rooms where nothing happens or having to retrace your steps to stick a stone donkey tail on a carving of a donkey, but nobody noticed because those moments were respite from panic. Inaction became soothing, and a masterful action game became a game of the year.

My favourite of the comedy 16bit reimaginings, then: Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! is a PSP series which gives you the task of digging out a dungeon with the aim of killing the heroes that habitually raid it. The original game isn't great, but the sequel is, and that's getting released in America in Spring 2010 with the majestic title of Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! Time to Tighten Up Security.

The first game (out now in America as Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do To Deserve This?) is so impoverished in terms of content it resembles a prototype, which probably explains why it didn't get a boxed English language release and can currently be found in the shiny blue limbo of the Playstation Store.

And yeah, Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! does panic very, very well. Here's how it works:

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: Life Found in The Void

October 27, 2009 12:00 PM |

VoidTop.jpg['Battle Klaxon' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This week: fascinating Russian PC survival horror game The Void.]

Czech puzzler Machinarium looks to be the PC's solitary darling for October, which is a crime and a sham and a shame and other such nastiness. Let me tell you about The Void, another Eastern European PC game that's out this week in the UK, a game that's stranger, more interesting and more ambitious.

'How strange?'

Well, you play a mute, incorporeal soul trapped between life and death in a land which looks like a nuclear bomb test site redesigned by a feng shui master, and your only means of interacting with the world is the removal and application of colour from a first person perspective.

'Oh... that's... and is it good?'

Yes it's good! I wouldn't be writing about it in this column if it wasn't good! The Void is just as deserving of a fat slice of your time and money as Machinarium, perhaps even more so if you believe a game which tries to realise the potential of our hobby through ideas is more worth supporting than an exquisite construct of familiar, fading genres.

It's easy to use the word 'familiar' as a snub after playing The Void because of just how comfortably The Void sits in the unknown, which is a reference to more than its life-after-death setting. You can almost see the Russian developers [who also created the acclaimed PC title Pathologic] grinning out from the shadows like a whole squadron of Cheshire Cats, delighting in your discovery of all the bleak imagery and weird ideas they've brought to (the after)life.

At its (unbeating) heart though, The Void is a game about high tension resource management. So let's talk about that first.

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: The People Power of Valkyria Chronicles.

October 10, 2009 12:00 AM |

['Battle Klaxon' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This week: Over-the-shoulder strategy in Sega's PlayStation 3 title Valkyria Chronicles.]

A few weeks back an acquaintance of mine who used to work for Edge dropped out of games journalism. You can read his exit letter here, where he expresses his frustration that what he calls the most interesting game of last year, Valkyria Chronicles, got scant coverage. I've got a load of problems with Valkyria Chronicles, but I can put them to one side. This one's for you, dude!

A small note for any of you who ignored this game because of what's implied by the anime art direction- Valkyria Chronicles' closest relatives are in fact small-scale strategy games like Jagged Alliance and Freedom Force. You know, that mythical genre that lets everyone have fun asking "Why does nobody make games like that these days?"

The only significant different between Valkyria Chronicles and those classics is that instead of trapping you twenty metres above the action in an isometric camera Valkyria Chronicles prefers to drop you into the thick of things. When you're giving orders to a unit the camera sits behind them in a 3rd person perspective, and you steer them around just like you would in a third person shooter with enemies taking shots at you. When you're done the game zooms back out to a hand-drawn paper map, allowing you to select the next unit. After you've moved all your guys it's then time for the AI to move theirs in the same style, meaning it's time for you to take what's coming to you like a man. Or, you know, time for you to go get a cup of tea while humming loud enough that you can't hear the screams of your troops.

If you're thinking that makes Valkyria Chronicles worth playing because it's a really clever hybrid of real-time and turn-based strategy touched by the immersion and excitement that comes from a third person shooter, well, you'd be right. And you'd probably creep me out a bit too since those are the exact words I'd have used. But there's another side to the design of Valkyria Chronicles that I consider far more important than its experimentation with controls, timing and camera angles.

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: On Red Orchestra, And Flowers

September 30, 2009 12:00 PM |

['Battle Klaxon' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This week: The snap, crackle and pop of Red Orchestra.]

I've been hating on Battlefield 1943 a lot recently. Last week when a fan of the series thrust a calloused finger in my direction and demanded games which did large-scale combat better, I obviously mentioned Warhawk, but was surprised when another name fell out of my mouth. Red Orchestra. The UT2004 mod turned full game that paints a grubby, heart-stopping picture of the Eastern front of WW2.

Red Orchestra solves a problem I've had with almost every shooter I've ever played- that of them steering clear of simulating real guns and real bullets. Game guns are relatively quiet, don't have much recoil, can be shot with accuracy while you walk or run and are always reloaded in a few seconds.

Game bullets have the mysterious ability to fill the clips you're carrying in your pockets so those clips are always full when inserted into guns, and when shot game bullets don't so much as cause anyone pain until enough of them are lodged in a single body that they cause some kind of mysterious stroke.

There are tons of games which act as exceptions to one or two of these rules, but Red Orchestra's the only recent game I can think of to ignore them all. In Red Orchestra you point a gun at someone, there is a BANG and they DIE and you don't RELOAD because it takes AGES and besides in a tight spot you'll never empty a full magazine before getting SHOT yourself anyway.

COLUMN: 'Battle Klaxon': The Game Design 'Heaviness' Of Demon's Souls

September 16, 2009 12:00 PM |

['Battle Klaxon' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This week: Demon's Souls, From Software's stealth sequel to the King's Field games.]

Yeah, this one's important.

Demon's Souls is a hack and slash dungeon crawler for the PS3 and the best game I can remember playing in years. It might seem in the following paragraphs that I'm laying it on a bit thick, but I'm honestly trying not to. Talking about this game is like using a salt shaker that someone's loosened the top of as a gag.

The boxart's a good starting point that gets across From Software's thinking, so take a look at it. Specifically, look at how its purpose isn't to make the game inside seem fun. No sir. Instead it's throwing down a gauntlet, 80's style. The knight on the cover doesn't look dead- it's worse, and better, and more mysterious and intriguing than that. The lack of wounds mean he's just slumped against the wall in exhaustion or misery. The boxart is making the game out to be a rabbit hole, an adventure in the literal sense as opposed to the industry buzzword.

Then you actually play the game, and it backs up this hint with the force of a wrecking ball. Following a very cursory tutorial that closes by pulling the rug out from under you, you find yourself in a world of secrets and surprises that's been built from the ground up to keep you guessing and gripped. You find the game rewards every ounce of effort, time and energy you invest in it, and you realise you've found something scarier than most commercial horror games, more exciting than the big action releases and boasting a more absorbing world than most RPGs could dream of.

(The Asian boxart is not to be confused with the forthcoming US box art, which is trash.)

Enough hyperbaton for now. It's only making me sound like a press release. Let's talk design.