How PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS Made me Love a Big Blue Force Field

12179115_10156210941435574_2099895120_n

Chris

There’s many ways to die in PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds. There’s the brutal comedy of launching a jeep off the side of a cliff, the out-of-the-blue bafflement of a hidden sniper’s bullet, and the ever-present threat of being crushed under the weight of your own incompetence like a remarkably stupid crêpe.

Lately, though, a more insidious kind of Battlegrounds death has stolen my heart. It’s a slow, creeping kind of death that goes at its own pace because it knows It’s totally in control. You can’t tuck yourself in a bathroom and hide from it, nor can you blast at it with a shotgun when it curiously opens the door. The only way to beat it is to be the last one standing. The safe zone is a cruel and twisted god, after all, only the most efficient chicken chasers can ever hope to please it.

At the start of a PUBG match, a hundred-ish contestants are herded into a military plane and flown over a small recreation of what the Isle of Wight might look like if was ever a satellite state for the Soviet Union. From there you scope out a dropzone, skydive into battle, and pray you’ve marked the home of a well-armed doomsday-prepper and not one stuffed with tank tops and frying pans. Again.

20170826235707_1

At this point PUBG’s hallmark sense of creeping dread hasn’t quite set in. There’s still a fair amount of room to breathe and you haven’t invested enough time in the match to truly feel the sweat start beading on your neck. You might pick up some good gear or skirmish with another player but things haven’t quite become real. A hint of uncaring nonchalance still clings to you like a nasty smell but don’t worry buddy it’ll soon be blown away.

A short while after landing, players are told that they have five minutes to move to the hilariously named ‘safe’ zone – a large white circle placed randomly on the map. When the timer expires a crackling blue forcefield begins its uncaring march inwards, forcing players towards the safe zone on the promise of a microwaved brain if they can’t keep ahead. Fall behind and your health starts gradually ticking away, so either you power through or drop like a sack of well-baked potatoes in a lightly-charred heap.

Then, just as you’re puckering your lips in anticipation of safety’s sweet kiss, a smaller circle appears in the Safe Zone and the whole process repeats itself. It forces players into smaller and smaller circles until the playspace is no bigger than a standard online deathmatch map and it’s not long before a winner winner earns their chicken dinner.

20170826201055_1

The safe zone isn’t just a ruthless killer of players, though, it also slays boredom like an assassin doing magic tricks. Without it, Battlegrounds would be a fundamentally different game and an infinitely duller one. It makes action a requirement of play. Hiding is a viable strategy but it’s always fleeting. You can never truly get comfortable in any of your hidey-holes as it’s bound to eventually flush you out. It lights a fire under every game, ensuring a perfect ratio of pleasant countryside rambles to cramped urban gunfights.

One of its true joys is that when you hurl yourself out of that plane you never quite know which part of the map is going to end up  ‘safe’. You might be licking your lips at high-level loot as you plunge towards the southern military base only for the Circle to brashly inform you that the North is in vogue this season and you better get over there if you have any hopes of living out the match. It keeps every game fresh and gives Battlegrounds the chance to showcase each of its paintball-esque locales. I’ve had games that draw me towards flooded towns, to bridge crossings, to hillside radio towers and to open fields bereft of cover. All of these games felt markedly different and that variety makes sure that the constant return trips to PUBG’s single map don’t start feeling overly repetitive.

The Safe Zone’s random nature might sound frustrating but it generates impromptu road-trips that deal in tension that other shooters can only dream of. Do you take a shortcut through the open fields or the long way concealed in the trees? Do you risk hanging around to find a vehicle or plow  ahead and hope that a committed sprint will do just fine? Do you fight that player you’ve got the drop on or do you live-and-let-live and focus on the big blue enemy nipping at both your heels?

20170827000803_1

These constant choices ensure that Battlegrounds doesn’t have to rely solely on gunfights to be engaging. The elation of zooming through the deserted countryside on a motorbike with the sun setting at your back and the forcefield shrinking off behind you is intoxicating, but there’s always the knowledge that one duff decision on that long road to safety might just call a sudden halt to all your fun.

Push your luck even a little and the forcefield will overtake you with cold indifference, leaving you hobbling around like a wounded animal desperately searching for a comfortable spot to die.

Occasionally the worst will happen. The forcefield will race off ahead and leave you with little chance of catching up. All that’s left is you, the sorry state you’ve found yourself in, and the reassuring thought that you won’t be so silly next time. With that pressure to continue removed your final moments hark back to the game’s happy-go-lucky opening minutes. You don’t care about other players, about hiding, about anything anymore. You feel like a sightseer at the end of the world, taking in the scenery one last time before it all fades away.

20170811222749_1

In a game where every bathroom might be hiding a stranger out to gut you, there’s something oddly comforting about the Safe Zone’s predictable trudge. Its initial placement might be random but you soon get a sense for it’s speed and make decisions accordingly. It gives you a feeling of mastery outside of gunplay that guarantees a fun time every match, even if, like me, you’d struggle to shoot a barn door from the inside of a post-apocalyptic shanty town built from the ruins of a crumbling barn door factory.

It’s an exquisite, easy to grasp piece of design that’s no small part of Battleground’s genius. Even though the game (in its current state of Early Access) only sports one map, the Circle helps to keep every trip to that island feeling unique. You’ll come back to be shot in the head, you’ll come back to be run over by surplus army jeeps, and you’ll even come back to be clobbered by frying pans. But even though there’s many ways to die in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, none of them quite compare to the brilliance of the safe zone.   

 

Advertisements

Precision punch party – A review of ARMs

“Spring-a-LING!” is such a stupid catchphrase, and Spring Man is such a stupid character. He’s got this stupid, infuriating bubble-gum blue twist of hair plonked on top of his perpetually grinning face – it makes him look like someone dumped a gigantic coil of toothpaste over his skull. Spring Man. “Man of springs.” He sounds like a Q-tier hero from the ass end of the X-Men cannon.

Spring Man isn’t at all like Helix, my fighter of choice. Helix is a magnificent goo monster. Instead of eyes he’s got some pixelated lights on a pair of blocky goggles inexplicably strapped onto a gelatinous face. Sometimes Helix’s victory screen is him waddling frantically past the camera. As he passes, he turns to the audience and gives a semi-erotic smack of his weird fish lips. This guy oozes charisma, as well as ooze.

Arms for the Nintendo Switch - Screenshots - Ribbon Girl Side Stepping Attack

Spring Man, Helix, and every other character in ARMs all have their own methods of engaging in the games custom brand of extendable fisticuffs, whether that be curls of bandages, coils of ribbons, or in Helix’ case, looping strands of DNA. The method of fighting here is to use those balmy extendo arms to throw punches soaring and retracting across the arena, twisting and curving them as needed. Placing punches is a precise, calculated game, and with the characters bouncing and dashing nimbly players have to pick their strikes carefully.
Helix and Spring Man might occupy vastly different spaces on the visual spectrum (with Spring Man clearly at the boring end, and Helix firmly occupying the space labelled ‘awesome goo monster’) but they -and most of ARMs cast of bright, fun, caricatures – actually play reasonably similarly. The lineup are more separated by small, complimentary abilities, and incidental tweaks to dash speed than they are by anything to do with move sets. Here, it’s often less about the character you’re using, and more about what fisher price monstrosity is bolted onto the end of your whacky extendable appendage. It’s here, in this glorious mismatched smorgasbord of ice-dragon heads, exploding boxing gloves, whack-a-mole hammers, and fiery party crackers, where the variety in the fighting lies, as players figure out what unholy combo they like best on which character.

DIa_qFfUEAANcKH

Left punch, right punch, grab, block, jump, and dash are the only controls available in ARMs, and it’s this small pool of options that gives birth to the kind of competitive depth that Nintendo manage to find time and time again. ARMs at its higher levels demands a particular focus on spacing, movement, and timing. As Helix, a dash will cause me to collapse into a delicious puddle of slime for a moment – enough for a well-timed splash to move me under an incoming strike and give me an opening on the enemy. Deftly predicting a floundering Spring Man’s punch, and then cracking him square in the jaw with a flaming boomerang, is the kind of triumphant moment that the game is built from.

ARMs is notable then for being another Nintendo game that junks so much of the genres fluff– intimidating combo strings that demand you live in the practice mode for weeks are shorn away, and the fighting game is boiled back to the bare bones of its fundamentals. It makes ARMs as appreciable to the newcomer as it is to anyone looking to climb the ranked ladder on a pile of Spring Man corpses.

large

ARMs also happens to be the best motion controlled game I’ve ever played. Those punches aren’t going to aim themselves, after all. With two slim Joy conns held in each hand, the player is invited to hold them in ARMs’ ‘thumbs up’ grip. With each hand bunched into a half-fist, and thumbs curled over the shoulder buttons, each controller can rest easily in the player’s hands, perfect for the simulation of throwing punches.
This is far from the exaggerated, wild gesticulating of Wii Boxing. Control here is implemented with finesse, so that ARMs’ suite of movement triggered commands are all accessible with a leisurely bob and weave of the hands. Character movement, direction of dash, guard, and punching are all handled with slight and subtle movement of the twin joyconns, while shoulder buttons handle jump and dash. It does take some getting used to, but it’s not long before the flow of movement becomes as second nature as the tapping of a dozen face buttons does in any other game.
Switch_ARMS_Testpunch_screen_05_Mecha_vs_Spring_02

If there is something that could leave you wanting in ARMs, then it’s the slim package that surrounds it. A routine arcade/grand prix ‘story’ mode joins a handful of additional kinds of play that are fairgrounds sideshows compared to the purity and excellence of the one on one fight to be found on the ranked ladder. Despite that, all it takes to enjoy ARMs is an appreciation of its competitive nuance, or to enjoy the first game to successfully make motion control more than just an inoffensive curiosity.

ARMs finds itself as the Switch’s first great fighting game, and the greatest demonstration of its motion credentials. Thanks to the initial simplicity of its systems, it’s really not hard to get sucked into its thrilling moment to moment bouts, frantic and desperate close up trades, and its unparalleled ability to allow you to punch Spring Man in the face with a giant spikey purple orb.

DIbAa4dUIAAzdF_

Nier: Automata and the Joy of Robot Fishers Fishing for Robot Fish

12179115_10156210941435574_2099895120_n

Chris

It’s been a pretty great year for open worlds. 

We had Horizon Zero Dawn arranging the genres tried and tested hallmarks into a beautiful greatest hits collection, while Breath of the Wild threw a lot of its old tropes in the bin and tried out a fresh sound to thunderous applause.

With Nier: Automata things got a bit weirder. Automata is the alternative artist straddling the line between niche and mainstream. It’ll blow your mind with high-concept, multi-part ballads and then bring a few tropical birds on towards the end of the set and snort lines of coke off their beaks, you know, just to make sure you’re definitely paying attention.

Now if you’d asked the me of late-2016 to guess which of these brilliant open worlds came with a fishing minigame I doubt I would have backed the one where Earth is overthrown by tinker-toy robots quoting Nietzsche and trying to figure out how to properly suck each other off.

20170510091642_1

But despite the weirdness of its inclusion,  Automata’s fishing has grabbed me. I’m just struggling to figure out why.

It’s not even a particularly great mini-game. You press a button to cast out your line, hang around for a catch and then press a button to pull out the fish – job done.

On paper it sounds like the dry white toast of fishing minigames but then your line isn’t a line it’s a floating robot…and it’s thrown in the water by an android in a mini-skirt…to catch fish that can also sometimes be robots…and yes, the whole game is kind of like this.

I think one of the joys of the fishing is that it’s just so thematically consistent. Automata revels in the idea of machine lifeforms struggling to wrap their metal heads around humanity’s fleshy quirks. They muddle their way through love, loyalty, fun and family but do so in a very mechanical way and the same is true of the fishing.

There’s really no reason for your android protagonists to do it and judging by their bored poses they seem to know it. Yes, you can make a bit of money as a freelance fishmonger but it’s an odd sideline for someone making both literal and figurative killings on the battlefield. It feels like a deliberate contrast to the fast pace of the action, a calm break that slows down the pace and lets you soak up the ruined scenery.

20170524220845_1

But your quiet time can’t last forever.

You’ll inevitably be interrupted by a passing enemy or toddle off to finish some sidequests and suddenly you’ve thrown a spotlight on the problem of Androids trying to escape their intended purpose by aping human behavior. They’re manufactured weapons of war. No matter how hard they try to step away from violence it always tracks them down.     

In truth, I’m a little concerned that my enjoyment might be wrapped up some poorly-suppressed completionist urges.

The Fishing Encyclopedia – a codex that holds information on the all fish you’ve caught – tracks the percentage of everything you’ve pulled out the water and seeing that number rise by even a fraction becomes its own kind of depressing thrill. It’s as if each nudge closer to that sweet 100% climax will somehow make the hours of waiting for a bite seem like a sensible use of my finite time being alive.

I’m no dogmatic completionist but there’s a certain romanticism around finishing something completely that I find it difficult not to flirt with. I know full well that progress for the sake of progress is a winding road to nowhere and yet I can’t help myself. It’s like chewing a stick of gum long after the flavor has melted away. You don’t get much out of it other than a sore jaw and a rubbery blob slowly turning to ashes in your mouth.

20170511153854_1

Thankfully, there is a compelling reason to finish the Fishing Encyclopedia outside of just checking off another completionist box.

Whenever you catch a new fish, the encyclopedia is updated with a small text entry. Usually these are just slivers of information on whatever you’ve caught but occasionally they’ll weave in a little intricate world building.

Allusions are cast of a war between mechanical fish and the indigenous wildlife that mirrors the android/machine conflict holding up the story. It brings to mind the famous item descriptions of Dark Souls and its imitators albeit with a lighter tone. Instead of gleaning information from a cursed piece of finger-bling it’s coming from a robotic manta ray that you’ve yanked out of some scummy amusement park pond. With Automata’s world being one of its one greatest assets, discovering more of it is always a joyful prize.

Automata loves mashing together different genres to keep things varied. In its first half hour you’ll have played a vertically-scrolling shoot em’ up, a twin stick shooter, a side-scrolling platformer, and a 3D hack and slasher that, against the odds, all end up complimenting each other.

With this in mind, the fishing runs the risk of feeling like filler. But it sets itself apart by stepping away from action in favour of quiet contemplation. After a particularly gut-wrenching plot-point or the introduction of a stranger concept I often found myself taking a fishing break to tackle my thoughts and feelings. With a game as off the wall as Nier: Automata It’s no surprise that I found myself on the edge of that water more often than a paranoid lifeguard…in a miniskirt…that’s also a robot.

How Abzû taps into the Beautifully Alien Nature of Life Beneath the Waves

12179115_10156210941435574_2099895120_n

Chris

No trip to the beach is complete without the stench of seaweed squatting in your nose holes. That mass of slowly dying of plant-life might typify the whole experience but it’s not a particularly beautiful sight, is it? It’s smelly, it’s slimy, and it’s usually littered with flies treating themselves to a stinky feast.

It’s hardly the kind of thing to inspire gushing romantic prose like rambling forests or snow-capped mountains, but then, seaweed isn’t particularly designed to be on the beach. In it’s natural habitat it stands tall and dances in the currents, swaying left to right in a floaty hypnotic jig. Beneath the sea its beauty is obvious but then take it to the surface and it all drains away. It doesn’t belong on the land, just like how we wouldn’t look too great if we spent a few days living beneath the sea.

All forms of entertainment have touched on our incompatibility with the ocean. From classic works of literature like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, to low-budget Hollywood dumpster-fires like 2006’s Adrift, many have drawn inspiration from our immortal struggle against really big bodies of water. Naturally, video games have tried to get in on that action, too, and like everyone else they’ve mostly focused on the ocean’s dangers.

20170114191622_1

In Bioshock, for example, the sea is a constant, looming anxiety, always pressing in and desperately searching for a way to get its icy mitts all over you. In Subnautica the sea is a thing to be conquered, you build and improve until you carve out a small niche for yourself away from all the peril. Abzû (brought to us by Giant Squid) is a little different. Rather than shine a light on the dangers it focuses on the beauty of marine life and revels in the colour and spectacle of it all.

The ocean is a vastly unexplored space. It’s an uncharted alien world that’s right on our doorstep. Abzû channels that idea and delivers a gorgeous sunken ecosystem that’s a delight to explore, whilst constantly reminding you that you probably shouldn’t be there.

The game begins with a mysterious diver floating peacefully on the surface. The pale-blue sky mirrors the calm seas in a serene start that acts as a familiar jumping off point for the player. There’s recognisable clouds and the same old sky we’re used to; it’s the world we know.

It might seem like they start you off here just to force a diving tutorial on the player and, while that’s an important element, I think there’s some interesting narrative implications, too. The surface acts as a barrier. A doorway between our familiar surface world and the alien one beneath the waves. Starting the player above it highlights that contrast. It puts the onus on them to step through that threshold and dive into the adventure.

20170114195003_1

One of the key figures in Abzû’s creation was the former art director of Journey and Flower, Matt Nava. While Abzû shares similarities with Nava’s other work, it sets itself apart in a few important ways. There’s a focus on exploration and engaging with your environment that’s just not as present in his other projects. Despite sharing much of Journey’s DNA it still feels different and expects the player to hang around to do a bit sightseeing rather than forging on to the next story beat. Thankfully, it also shares Journey’s penchant for gorgeous worlds that are lovely to spend time in.

The sheer amount of life swimming around on screen is staggering. The quantity and variety of the fish is almost hypnotic, with schools by the hundreds forming dense clusters that dissolve and reform like flocks of playful sparrows. They range from the tiny anchovies to the looming sperm whales but what they all have in common is the sense of detached apathy with which they regard the player. For the most part, you don’t exist to these creatures. They’re perfectly happy to swim around gobbling each other up to ever bother with a weird, limb-having tourist like you.

You can grab onto the side of the larger fish and ride them about like mighty sea steeds but even then they’re not particularly bothered by your worrisome boundary issues. It turns Abzû into a very lonely game despite all the life swimming around you. It often feels like you’re a ghost, invisibly roaming in the world of the living. It all contributes to a lingering sense of isolation that leaves you feeling removed from everything that’s going on. It heightens the notion that you don’t quite belong in this alien space and tickles your curiosity to delve even further.

20170114200606_1

With such a beautiful and bizarre world to explore, it’s a shame that navigating through it all can be a test of patience. It’s ‘strongly-recommended’ that you play the game with a controller and even then it puts up a determined fight. I haven’t dared to brave it with a mouse and keyboard yet as I can only imagine it’ll feel like operating a particularly heavy submersible that’s been hooked up to a broken grand piano. The camera struggles to follow the rapid twists and turns a player can make which often leaves traversal feeling slow, sluggish, and ultimately frustrating.

A few rhythmic taps of a button sends you shooting off in a straight line for a limited amount of time, drawing comparisons to the limited flight of Journey’s scarf-touting protagonist. What precedes this joyous burst of speed is an awkward lining up period, where you hope and prey that you got your calculations right or you’ll be overshooting your target and blasting towards a whale’s backside like some sort of Jonah-seeking missile. Speed in Abzû always seems to come at the cost of manoeuvrability.

While the lethargy of the controls rubs the wrong way it does come with the upside of indirectly feeding into the idea of exploring a world you’re not suited to. It’s not your world you’re exploring, after all. It’s supposed to be difficult to get around, much like how a jellyfish might struggle to strut the aisles of your local Tesco. Whether or not all this was deliberate is up for debate, but regardless of intent, it’s an interesting example of fundamental mechanics being used to build on the themes of the narrative.

20170114202434_1

Thankfully, the areas you muddle through are a riot of exaggerated colour that helps to set the tone of your exploration. Vivid reds, greens and pinks build a bright and charming backdrop to lighter scenes that shift to darker blues and blacks in parallel to the ebbs and flows of the story. Abzû’s use of colour is a master-stroke as it turns a fairly simple aesthetic into one of the most gorgeous games of 2016. A lot of time can drift away just taking it all in, snapping screenshots and soaking up the atmosphere.

There’s even a special feature included to help you do just that, as hidden away in each environment is a special statue for the player to sit and ruminate on their surroundings. During these ‘meditation’ sections the focus is taken off your avatar and placed on one of the of myriad of fishies gliding around them. The player has no direct control over any of these creatures, you’re just an observer, watching it all play out in front of you like an episode of Blue Planet but somebody’s muted David Attenborough’s narration because apparently they’re a sub-human monster. Not only does this slice of quiet-time give you the opportunity to fawn over the beauty, it also strengthens the feeling of the player as an outsider, gazing from the sidelines at a world that’s not their own.

Observation is clearly a key theme as it’s how Abzû does the bulk of its storytelling. Rather than rely on tightly choreographed cutscenes or reams of flavour text it tells its tale through environmental detail. As the player explores further they come across mysterious, ancient-seeming ruins interwoven with futuristic technology; all evidence of an advanced civilisation that once lived beneath the waves.

20170114200335_1

The history and purpose of all this goes mostly unexplained, with a lot of the finer details left up to the player’s interpretation. Hints are dropped in murals daubed on temple walls but they give very little away. Abzû keeps its story cards tightly pressed to its chest and expects the audience to fill in the deliberately wide gaps.

Being a renowned idiot, I struggled to pick up much outside of a vaguely anti-industrial message but I think that’s OK in this case. It feels like a story that’s not meant to be understood straight away. The sense of bewilderment is an important part of the experience. It’s a world you’re not supposed to immediately understand as it’s not a world that you’re meant to be a part of, bolstering the feeling of separation that flows through the experience.

One of gaming’s greatest strengths is the ability to bring the player into a world with a sense of agency over what they do in it. With that in mind, it’s a shame to see so much generic repetition in the worlds on offer. From contemporary cities turned into secluded floating islands, Tolkienesque fantasy realms stuffed with predictable orcs and elves, to the dilapidated urban sprawls riddled with zombies, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve visited a lot these places a million times over.

20170114202137_1

It’s the games that inject their worlds with personality and inventiveness that truly stand out in the crowd. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind’s beautifully barren land of Vvardenfel instantly leaps to mind, as does Dishonored’s grimy city of Dunwall. These are the kind of places that capture your imagination and inspire you to keep playing just to find out more. Abzû (while not quite living up to the likes of Journey) certainly fits into this category.

It’s a slice of marine life that’s a wonder to behold and exploring its gorgeous environments are an utter delight. What’s more impressive, though, is the lonely tone the world fosters. It masterfully captures the conflict of surface and sea and does so without resorting to low-hanging fruit like irritating air timers or gruesome shark attacks. Its a game about beauty, not danger, and even with the occasional gripes it’s well worth diving in.

Perfection, thy name is Downwell

12181931_10156210941470574_296218536_n

Haydn

When I booted up Steam to check my hours logged on Downwell I began verging dangerously close to shame territory – 23 hours spent on, as the website describes it ‘A curious game about a young person falling down a well, battling enemies with gun boots, and collecting treasure, and sometimes visiting shops’. That’s about as long as I’ve spent playing Cities: Skyline. Was this a damning indictment of my inability to exercise self-control, or a hearty endorsement of this sublime shoot ’em up? Honestly, it’s a little of both, but mostly the latter.

Downwell comes to us courtesy of Tokyo-based indie developer Ojiro Fumoto, who conceived the game as “Spelunky for your phone”. Much to my shame I’ve never really played Spelunky so the comparison is somewhat lost on me. Furthermore, it never even occurred to me that one might play Downwell on their phone. It requires the sort of pin-point precision that seems entirely at odds with touchscreen controls.  I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it would be to decipher the chaotic stream of bullets and bad guys when played on such a tiny screen.

Downwell is nothing if not a busy game. It’s simple, yes, but there is an awful lot going on. If you, like me, aren’t actually very good at videogames, it may take you some time to crack Downwell. Not a single line of text is wasted on explaining the intricacies of the mechanics, opting instead to encourage a “learn by doing” approach. In this context it works perfectly fine, rewarding players who really pay attention and not overly punishing those who don’t. There is a certain satisfaction that comes with pulling back the curtain and revealing the untold secrets of some apparently innocuous detail.

I’m not going waste anyone’s time with the tedium of explaining Downwell’s mechanics and systems in any great detail. Figuring out the game is half of the fun. It’s a randomly generated arcade style shoot ’em up: you have gun boots, you can jump, get upgrades, build combos, blah, blah, blah. When you die, the run is over and you have to start again. It’s simple, but deceitfully deep.

Blissfully ignorant of Downwell’s central conceit, I used a PS4 controller and a massive screen. I played until my thumb was raw from wrestling the D-pad; I could see the hot flashes of red when I closed my eyes; the musical loops played in my brain as though coming from another room, an echo of a happier time – a time when I was actually playing Downwell. 

It’s a frenetic experience with just enough variety to be found in the upgrades and unlocks to keep each run different. These variables can significantly impact the way you play, and it quickly becomes obvious the importance of making small decisions. Do you switch out to an inferior weapon because the pick-up will give you an energy upgrade? Should you clean out the shop now, or hope that the next one will have better items? Is it worth taking some damage to keep this combo going, or end it now for some free HP?

ss_ec8b0acf4fadae7315cfba1a85b0f04832d16576-1920x1080

I think I may have a weird crush on the shopkeeper

Downwell is a game that requires lightning quick reaction as much as it does long term planning and the ability to make split-second  micro-decisions. It’s a game that just begs to be perfected, for you to hone your skills and master it. It’s a game that requires a level of intimacy with its inner workings that, if it were human, the situation would become rather uncomfortable.

I hesitate to call any game addictive, and certainly don’t consider that a selling point. Whenever I see an advert for Age of Beach Storm Fire Clash (or whatever the latest crystal meth iPad game is) with the tag “Most addictive game ever!” I immediately reel back. That’s less than a single step away from the health warnings they put on cigarettes but done with a smile, rather than a picture of some guy with his throat hanging out.

The unfortunate truth is that Downwell is addictive and for people like me, that’s a problem. I was late for appointments and social engagements, sending text messages like “Just need to take a shower, be 15 minutes late” before promptly not taking a shower and playing Downwell until the last possible moment and then a little further still.

ss_9e95c27552152d430797fa2a4c873e3ed8cab2ea-1920x1080

You won’t be surprised to learn that a heart-shaped balloon is rarely the key to success

The key distinction I’d like to make, however, is that Downwell is addictive for all the right reasons. It’s not dangerously addictive like Runescape was for me at the age of 15 and then, much to my shame, again when I was 19. It’s a far cry from the dreaded Skinner Box, where numbers are your only motive. It’s addictive because it’s basically perfect and you keep playing because you know you can do better.

Downwell is such a finely tuned machine that each moment you spend with it is done so with the goal of improving upon you previous attempt. To, as Daft Punk so eloquently put it, “work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger”. The catharsis of descending that mysterious well, with speed and deadly precision, bouncing expertly off the shells of turtles, hovering above a sea of ghosts and spraying them with the latest outlandish upgrade of you gun boots; the momentum of each kill taking you onto the next as your combo number rises… that is bliss in its purest form.

What a Difference a Dog Makes: Some Thoughts on the Dogs of Fallout 4 and Fallout: New Vegas

12179115_10156210941435574_2099895120_n

Chris

When a prospective owner starts looking for a dog they typically make a choice that reflects their personality. An extroverted person might opt for a bouncy, fun-loving bundle of activity where a more mellow home might prefer a dog that fits a slower pace of life. Not owning a dog myself means I speak with zero authority on the subject, but with Brexit looming I’ve been pouring hours into Fallout, recently. You know, just to get a feel for the way things might pan out over the next few years. It turns out it’s not just people that like their dogs to ape their nature, the same is true of the two most recent Fallout games: New Vegas and Fallout 4.

Fallout 4’s ‘Dogmeat’ quickly became the poster-mutt for Fallout’s move to Boston. Standing about like a furry lemon directly outside the starting area means he’s pretty much impossible for the player to miss. He’s a sleek, gorgeous, mysteriously well-groomed German Shepherd that’s immediately obedient and doesn’t poo all over your slippers or shed fur in the wiring of all your energy weapons. But despite the ease of Dogmeat’s companionship you can’t help but feel that there’s something missing, a certain spark lacking behind those big, brown eyes of his.

All we’ve got to go on in regards to his past is the odd mention from non-player characters that don’t really offer anything with any real substance. The optimistic side of me might think his origins are purposely shrouded in mystery but the increasingly dominant cynical side suggests that perhaps not a great deal of thought went into the pooches place in the wider world. But hey, who cares about those finer details when he looks so cute in doggles and munches down bad guy genitals like a consumate professional? Having a dog is cool, right? Surely it’s better that more people are able to find him early and appreciate his company? The less personality and backstory the easier it is for more players to project their ideal onto Dogmeat’s blank canvas. That way everybody’s happy, right?…right?

Fo4_Dogmeat_E3_Outtro

*Beep boop* I am a real dog. Please initiate petting protocol #443 *fzzt*

Fallout: New Vegas’ ‘Rex’ is a totally different kettle of fish, though. You won’t be finding him until you hit Freeside, a run-down district walled-off from the bright lights of New Vegas, hours away from starting the game. He’s tucked away in the back room guarded by a goon squad of well-armed Elvis impersonators and you won’t be getting acquainted until you’ve charmed or blasted your way through the gang’s compound. Finding Rex feels like a discovery. It’s unlikely that you’d miss him but it still feels like you’ve tracked down something that could have been glossed over, and got a wicked, sweet robo-dog as a reward for proper diligence. When you find Dogmeat in Fallout 4 it doesn’t really feel like you’ve earned anything. It’s like beating a toddler at arm wrestling or crushing n under-watered house plant in a round of 3D chess. It’s a curious freebie in a wasteland supposedly so harsh and unforgiving that drags you out of the whole experience.

Much like Fallout: New Vegas, Rex isn’t likely to win a beauty contest any time soon. After two hundred years and rough work as a police dog, a hound of Ceaser’s Legion, and a companion to a gang boss it’s safe to say that time hasn’t been kind to dear ol’ Rex. Years of degeneration have taken their toll and by the time you find him the poor mutt is knocking on death’s door in desperate need of a new brain. The quest this sets up provides a genuine reason for the two of you to team up and form a bond. Progressing his story further leads to a choice that permanently alters Rex’s stats and, no matter your decision, the player has real impact on the cyber-dog’s life, strengthening the relationship between pooch and player. Unlike Dogmeat, Rex feels like a genuine character that fits with the setting, complete with a history, troubles, and personal development that shine through the more time you spend together. Dogmeat feels more like a tool the player uses than a character they get to know. In many ways the full-flesh dog feels more like a robot than the one with stainless steel legs and visible wiring, a telling irony.

Rex_end_slide_01.png

The heart and soul of a faithful friend fused with the metallic legs of an awesome robot.

Both Rex and Dogmeat make fantastic representations of the games they star in. Like New Vegas, Rex is ass-ugly, a bit kooky, and utterly falling apart but despite all this you can’t help but love him. He’s not a dog for everyone but for those who like him they couldn’t imagine anything better. His character outshines all of his faults and he’s nothing if not memorable, even if he is a bit janky sometimes. Like Fallout 4, Dogmeat is pretty and extremely functional. He’s a dog that’s easy for everyone to like but difficult for anyone to truly love. With such broad appeal he feels lacking in any kind of personality, lest he run the risk of turning anyone away. You can tell that an awful lot of time has been spent working on that glossy coat but underneath there’s not a great deal of substance to sink your teeth into. While it’s true that Rex and New Vegas might both piss all over themselves and fall to pieces every now and then, if it’s a choice between that and Fallout 4’s Dogmeat, I wouldn’t hesitate in backing the cyber-pup every single time. 

Pokémon Go vs History – a compromise between reverence and remembrance

12181931_10156210941470574_296218536_n

Haydn

Pokémon Go, as it turns out, is pretty huge. I don’t need to tell you quite how huge because the levels of which Pokémon Go is huge serve as the basis for every opening paragraph ever written on the subject. However, in an attempt to offer you a new barometer for how popular it is, let’s just say that even my parents have heard of it, and they heard about it on the news. The actual news. You know, the one on TV.

I had pretty low expectations for what the app would ultimately be, but the fact that it’s a hit just seemed inevitable. All I really wanted was to see a Scyther clipping through oblivious children in Tesco, or perhaps an Onyx taking a shit on the office doorstep of my local MP.

Of course, the reality is much less graphic, but certainly about as buggy as anticipated. To top it all, I’ve had no success getting the AR to work and, as a resident of Bumfuck Nowhere, the lack of solid data coverage is a real problem. I’ve started spending a worrying amount of time hanging around local points of interest waiting for Pokéstops to load, rebooting the app, giving up, and leaving with Pokéblue-balls.

On the other hand, I’ve walked well over 8km a day since the app was released, and I’ve learnt more about my home town in past few days than since I first moved here. I’ll admit that much of my recently acquired knowledge is particularly niche, and certainly not very exciting, but all of a sudden I am privy to odd little details I never knew existed. There are certainly a lot more churches tucked away around the town than I had ever realised, and I even found a secret clock in an alleyway. I feel like my life is the Da Vinci Code,  but written by someone more competent than Dan Brown. Like a toddler, or a UKIP voter.

Despite its flaws, which are numerous, I’ve really fallen head over heels for Pokémon Go. The last year or so has been a peculiar time for me, and getting out and walking was always a good way to keep from drowning in my own brain soup. But, after a particularly bad slump, I stopped going on walks and that quickly led to a vicious cycle of depression. Pokémon Go has given me the impetuous to go on meandering, erratic walks that don’t follow any rhyme or reason, but have a purpose: to be the very best, like no one ever was.

But of course, it’s not all artisanal bread and olives, and as expected, we’ve been treated to the some very on-brand scaremongering, with Pokémon Go being cited in seemingly every mugging, venomous snake encounter, and unfortunate moment of social unrest. Based on selection bias alone, you’d think that Pokémon Go was responsible for all the world’s ills over the last few weeks. I’m surprised the military coup in Turkey wasn’t blamed on some overzealous tank drivers tracking a wild Dragonite.

Capture.PNG

This well intended tweet actually provoked a response from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, asking that players kindly refrain from leaving lures as it creates more problems than it solves.

It didn’t take long for some hack from the Daily Mail to hastily squirt out a few hundred words of half-baked, non-conformist rhetoric about how Pokémon Go is “just one more excuse to gawp at your phone and ignore reality“. The author, Liz Jones, who is clearly more concerned with being snide and contrarian than writing something of worth, suggests ditching the free app and getting a rescue dog if you really want to  more exercise. I can only assume this is because if you’re going to get exercise, you have to do it her way, or not at all. Fuck you, bright-eyed future generations keen to explore the world. Fuck you and you and your newfound love of the outdoors, your sense of adventure and your vibrant community. Get a dog or stay inside like everyone else.

The real crux of the Pokémon Go issue though turned out to be far more surprising than I’d even begun to consider, and unfortunately it’s a complex one. The outrage isn’t born from scores of zombified youngsters breaking into military bases, or whatever ill-advised excursion has consumed the press, but instead it comes from the management teams at memorial sites across the world. Some notable examples are the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Hiroshima Bomb Memorial.

The general feeling is that it’s disrespectful to play Pokémon Go at a holocaust memorial; despite being a reaction I can understand, I feel it’s an unfair one, born from a modest distrust of technology and a blind reverence for the past.

It’s easy to be oblivious to history because, by very definition, it’s not new. History isn’t trending on Twitter and, in this digital age, where apparent moments of significance are forgotten in a flash for the latest hot piece of news, history becomes irrelevant. On top of that, history is depressing. It’s full of horrors we all wish had never happened, and so its hardly surprising that people don’t actively seek it out. Pokémon Go, however, gives people an incentive. The very aim of Pokémon Go is to encourage players to explore the world and, via proxy, engage with it. These memorial sites, which serve as a sombre reminder of how quickly mankind will turn on itself, are perhaps most effective when visited with reverence, but I would argue that awareness of these atrocities is more important than the means by which we pay our respect.

Pokémon Go has a remarkable capacity of drawing hundreds of people to any given location.* To try and close these memorials off from people playing Pokémon Go is to close them off to an entire generation. Yes, perhaps not everyone there is walking around, heads bowed in sullen, mournful silence, but what does that achieve anyway?

As a society, we’ve adopted memorials as a means to enshrine the past in our collective consciousness. We must never forget the horrors of the second world war, because they do not bear repeating. I used to work with someone who didn’t know the first thing about the war, let alone the holocaust; if it takes Pokémon Go for a person like that to accidentally stumble across a site of historical significance, then so be it. Does it really matter how people engage with history, so long as they actually do it?

It may be an unconventional way to explore the world or learn some history, but time moves forward and we move with it. Looking at Pokémon Go as a symptom of a switched-off generation is to look at it all wrong. Whether we like it or not, technology is ever evolving and in 20-years we’ll all look back at this and laugh at how primitive it is. Don’t fear it, don’t fight it, and don’t decry it. Preserve the memory of the past, but don’t put up a barrier.

*Aspiring super villains and despots take note