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We like… sound design November 13, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, gaming, Miscellaneous.
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There’s little doubt that the often overlooked area of sound design has come of age in this console generation, with the current poster child being EA’s fantastic Dead Space.

Turn off the lights and crank up that surround, as immersion is the game’s trump card. Stop dead in the middle of a corridor and take it all in: the creaks of the USG Ishimura’s walls, the low drone of engines and air purifiers, the far-off wails of… something. Take a step forward… just one… then one more… BAM! A discordant orchestral stab blasts the speakers around you, making you jump, as a hideously deformed monstrosity bursts out of a vent in front of you, screaming. You cry out in terror, moving backwards, firing wildly in panic, hoping to kill the thing before it leaps on top of you and rips you to a bloody pulp. One of its arms blows off under your fire… then a leg… finally it falls to the floor, your shots echoing loudly as the creature gurgles its last. You breathe again, your heart rate slowly returning to something approaching normality. But never normal. Not while playing this game.

This is what good sound design can do. In Dead Space it adds a new level to survival horror, working in tandem with the horribly beautiful visuals and lighting to make you feel like you really are on that doomed spaceship. Alone. Knowing that every step could be your last. All the tiny details convincing you that the moment is about to come.

Worthy sequels September 11, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, Miscellaneous.
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Amazingly for the ordinarily bean-counting videogames industry, a mediocre sales performance for a particular game no longer automatically means that it won’t get a sequel. A game’s Metacritic rating – its average review score across selected online and print sources, as collated by Metacritic.com – is increasingly being worn as a badge of honour by publishers, and finally it seems that being seen to have a roster of compelling titles, rather than just a money-train of financial success no matter what, is fast becoming a key consideration.

The likes of Electronic Arts’ CEO John Riccitiello have openly stated that quality is now king, and the welcome by-product is that critically revered but commercially unsuccessful games that would formerly have died a quiet death, only being mourned by a small band of devoted followers, have been given another chance to show their worth.

The Rare-developed Viva Pinata, for example, was Microsoft’s initial tentative dip into the ocean of casual gaming back in the autumn of 2006. An unfortunate flop on initial release due in part to the so-called “Gears of War demographic” of the Xbox 360’s userbase at that time, this well-regarded gardening game eventually limped via a combination of aggressive discounting and hardware bundling to sell just over a million copies. For a big first-party release, this was hardly a stellar performance. Earlier this year, however, the enhanced sequel Viva Pinata 2: Trouble in Paradise was announced, and found its way into shops last week, once again the recipient of a positive critical reception. Initial sales figures suggest that it may once again fail to trouble the upper echelons of the charts – and the lack of discernible marketing has been disappointing – but the fact it was made at all is a promising development.

An even more surprising forthcoming sequel is Beyond Good and Evil 2 from Ubisoft. The original game was the brainchild of Michel Ancel, one of the few individual developers with a public profile among the gaming community. (Other star names include the likes of Peter Molyneux, Shinji Mikami, Hideo Kojima, and Shigeru Miyamoto, but it is still a relatively unique phenomenon.) Released in 2003 into the packed Christmas market on Playstation 2 as a timed exclusive, and subsequently sneaking out on Xbox and Gamecube early the following year, it was clear that Ubisoft had no idea how to promote the game. It’s hard not to be mildly sympathetic about the company’s plight, however, since BGAE followed the adventures of a green-skinned photo journalist named Jade, and her pig-like uncle Pey’j, through a variety packed mix of stealth, photography, vehicle sections and limited combat – a recipe for high valium expenditure from the Ubi marketing department if ever I saw one.

Widely regarded as a severe commercial flop, with the game’s fans bemoaning both the advertising and the general public’s unwillingness to try something different, a return seemed about as likely as a certain better known Jade going on Celebrity Big Brother again. With that in mind, when the sequel was announced in May this year, it was a bolt from the blue cheered by the videogames community. It remains to be seen whether the title is simply Ubisoft reluctantly indulging the whims of its star developer, or whether it will genuinely try to make the series as successful as it deserves to be. Here’s hoping it’s the latter.

Even EA is getting in on the act these days, with the fantastic (and cruelly underselling) Boom Blox on Wii strongly rumoured to be getting a sequel next year. And, to its credit, EA is even giving critically mauled potential winners more time and another chance – take the karaoke/rhythm action game Boogie, for example, for which a far better looking sequel is out on Wii this autumn and may finally do justice to the concept.

It’s easy to imagine Duncan Bannatyne facing down the trembling executives of Microsoft, Ubisoft and EA in the Dragons’ Den to deliver one of his famous blasts: “Wodja min you dun know the duffrunce between a hut and a muss? This is no’ a biznuss. And for those reasons: a’m ow.” But for those of us who hope to see the videogames industry gain a better balance between its commercial interests and giving developers the time and opportunity to create games worthy of our cash – even if they may not be sure-fire commercial successes – recent events have hinted that a heartening future may well be ahead.

Fuel for the fire: advertising stunts in gaming September 11, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, Miscellaneous.
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The videogames industry in 2008 is a multi-billion dollar behemoth, fighting for the same consumer dollar as Hollywood and the music business in economic times that are becoming harder by the day. Recession-proof the industry may turn out to be, but any means of drawing wider mainstream attention to videogames past the so-called “hardcore” remains the Holy Grail for publishers and developers alike. Nintendo is fortunate enough to be in the position where its Wii console is regularly pictured in lifestyle magazines and newspaper supplements, usually being enjoyed by bowling-obsessed energetic grannies, but for almost everyone else, there’s only one sure-fire way to find their game in the papers: controversy.

Whether it’s the original Resident Evil magazine advertisement back in 1996, which featured a blood-splattered bathtub; or the bizarre US competition for Turok: Evolution in 2002, where parents were invited to name their newborn baby after the titular dinosaur hunter in order to win $10,000; or the headline-chasing, MP-baiting level of violence in Manhunt 2, throughout the years it seems that no stunt is too risky if it stands a good chance of granting game-makers the oxygen of extra publicity and the resulting higher sales potential.

Last Friday morning was no exception, when EA’s promotion for Mercenaries 2: World in Flames encouraged motorists to beat the credit crunch by filling their cars up with £40 of free fuel at a petrol station in Finsbury Park, London. What could possibly go wrong, right? The no-Mystic-Meg-required result was rush-hour traffic chaos, screaming matches between vehicle owners, police intervention, the premature abandonment of the whole thing, and then the point of the exercise: feigned ‘outrage’ from politicians and motoring organisations plastered all over the news media. The whole affair was irresponsible, ill-advised and breathtakingly naïve. At the same time, it was an absolutely brilliant marketing wheeze. A £20,000 fuel giveaway versus the amount of advertising spend it would take to gain the same level of media publicity… economically, it’s a no-brainer.

The EA spokesperson, Donald Parrish, claimed that, “Petrol is expensive at the moment and people are having a hard time so we just wanted to do something for them.” There was also an amusing attempt to link the chaos to the economic situation in Venezuela that the game’s setting supposedly satirises, which was a leap worthy of an Olympic long jump world record. I find it hard to believe that nobody considered the possible consequences of such a fuel giveaway, particularly when you consider the petrol price protests in 2000 and the continuing public ire towards the Government’s treatment of motorists. The responsible thing for EA to do in the circumstances would be an internal review to “learn the lessons” of the debacle (this must sound rather familiar to followers of politics out there), but it’s likely that instead of heads being rolled, the clever fellow who came up with the idea will probably be patted on the back. If I was EA, I’d be doing the same, particularly as the media coverage no doubt played a part in securing Mercenaries 2′s entry straight in at number 1 in this week’s software charts.

This won’t be the last videogames related controversy of the year, you can be assured of that. Like that bathtub in the old Resident Evil ad, the videogames industry is a bloody battleground that takes no prisoners in the pursuit of publicity.

We’re back! August 17, 2008

Posted by Chris in Miscellaneous, News.
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Hurrah! We're back!

Yes, after a rather extended hiatus punctuated by illness, apathy and too much ‘proper’ work, Press Start Online is risen, like a phoenix from the proverbial flames of oblivion - here once again to provide regular gaming related scribblings for your delectation and delight.

We’ll be updating regularly during the week, with the occasional weekend post chucked in for good measure. And that’s a promise this time. We won’t be your typical reviews/previews/gossip blog: instead we’ll be dissecting the news and bringing you our genuine opinion on the current state of the gaming nation. We’ll write thought-provoking features and interesting reviews that aren’t simply seven-page checklists of a game’s features with several paragraphs listing what each button does. And – if one of us can figure out how to set it all up – we may even bring you a PSO podcast in the not-too-distant. That’s the hope, anyway.

We’re currently still decked out in our faintly musty WordPress clobber, but we’re looking into purchasing some brand new duds so we’ll look a little smarter (and smell a little less funky) in the near future.

We hope you enjoy the new site, and feel free to bookmark us and tell your mates if you like what you read. After all, the more of you we see regularly on here, the more we’ll want to impress the hell out of you.

Enjoy!

The Press Start Online editorial team.

Press Start’s Top 20 Games Of The Year (part two) December 26, 2007

Posted by Chris in Articles, Games, Miscellaneous.
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Seven more categories, seven more winners. Well, sort of – you’ll see. This marks the rest of the fifteen (again, sort of) that didn’t quite make our Top Five Of 2007 list. Soon, you’ll see which titles we loved the mostest over the last twelve months, and then you’ll finally get to express disgust at the lack of Uncharted, or The Darkness, or Link’s Crossbow Training. Maybe. (more…)

Press Start’s Top 20 Games Of The Year (part one) December 25, 2007

Posted by Chris in Articles, Games, Miscellaneous.
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Game Of The Year lists. Let’s be honest, despite our carping about the impossibility or unfairness inherent in ranking games in a given order, we can’t get enough of them. Rather than just present a basic Top 20, we’ve decided to do things a little differently. Only a little, mind you. After an argument or three, one threat of fisticuffs, and a ludicrously lengthy discussion of whether we should include God Hand, given that the two of us who love it played it last year (answer: no, but we’ll be running a retrospective piece sometime soon) we came up with twenty games which we feel are worthy of recognition in some way. We’ve finally decided upon a top five which, in our eyes, represent the creme de la creme of this quite amazing year of videogaming – that will be announced at some point between now and the end of the year. And we’ve picked out fifteen awards for the rest, some of which will be revealed tonight, and some tomorrow. For now, read on for our thoughts on eight of the year’s very best – and please let us know in the comments section what you think of our choices. (more…)

Can’t stop (addicted to the shindig…or, rather, Rock Band) December 22, 2007

Posted by Chris in Console, Games, Miscellaneous.
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Today was going to see a brief ‘initial impressions’ piece about Rock Band on the PS3, but unfortunately I’ve spent most of the evening playing the damn thing instead of writing about it. I’m about forty songs into the Career Mode on guitar, and I’ve played a few odd songs on the drums. Basically: it’s amazing. The peripherals are of surprisingly sturdy quality, given the price (the equivalent of around eighty British pounds), with the drumkit being the biggest gaming peripheral I’ve ever had the pleasure of plonking down in the middle of my front room. And with a brilliant selection of songs, far better note placement than Guitar Hero III, and better atmosphere all round – crowd singing equals instant goosebumps - the guitar section alone is better than Activision’s effort.

Expect more detailed info tomorrow night. I’ll just finish by saying that this is easily the best PS3 game of the year. 

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