Saturday, 15 December 2012

Note On 1990 Era Performance Cars

This is a third generation Nissan Skyline GT-R, and I am about to rap to you about why it should make your little dick hard like frozen diamond. What, it look like a respectable saloon? That’s its fucking secret. This is a straight up fucking weapon with the perfect disguise, like a six year old girl packed with dynamite and Soviet ideologies. How does a 2.3 litre inline-six cylinder engine sound? Awesome is the answer, it’s all snarly and sharp like a 150lb wasp. Also, there are two turbochargers. Two, you punk, because forcibly cramming  fuel and air in the combustion chamber for the wildest possible explosion once is simply insufficient when your goal is to make Sonic the Goddamned Hedgehog weep at his relative lack of speed. Nissan claimed about 280 brake horsepower, but this was modesty, and really it was over 300 when the car was running good. It was the late eighties when the car they would call Godzilla was conceived. Some Nissan engineer was all like, “shit, let’s make a car that will make every race series in Japan look stupid as hell by walking over the top of them” and his boss was like “haha yeah ok bro do it” and then it actually happened.  We got this fucking magic all-wheel drive system, I don’t know how the fuck it works, that lets the car cling to the track like Spiderman to a naked tit but still corner like the magic bullet that killed JFK. The whole car is overengineered as shit, too, so the fast and furious tuner boys can’t get enough of it. You can, in theory, tune this engine to produce a power output approximately equivalent to that of twenty-one supernovae, and thanks to the torque-splitting-centre-differential traction sorcery all that power will just be delivered with no fuss, and uproot the nation’s entire fucking road system, spooling it out the back like in a Looney Tune, as you rocket off, pulling 0-60 figures that cannot be measured by modern science en route to a top speed comparable to that of light. For real- can you imagine some smarmy shit of an investment banker’s face when his brand new Porsche convertible is smoked away from the lights by a fucking NISSAN!? Nissan, like who made the Sunny! That’s the kind of range they have as an engineering company- like Bryan Cranston is equally convincing as goofy dad and as crank kingpin, Nissan are equally skilled at making boring hatchbacks for boring people to cart their ugly kids around, and howling performance icons like this beauty. It’s not that beautiful, actually. The later models looked a lot better. And went faster. Shit.  Whatever- the GT-R was a Goddamned revolution.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Vive la Différence: How GT5 and Forza 4 Prove the Industry Wrong

We gamers, and this site not least, often lament how modern games have ever less variety- how modern action games are clones of one of Call of Duty, Uncharted or Gears of War. We often complain that seeing something different is far more unusual than it should be, and we get perhaps over-excited when we see something that is- see Watch_Dogs. On the face of it, one might think that racing games would be the most guilty of this- the premise of driving a car around a track is identical for damn near every one of them, right?

Well, maybe. As a car fan without money for cars, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the two biggest names in console race sims- Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo 5 and Turn 10’s Forza Motorsport 4, and it turns out that the variation between two outwardly similar games is greater than it appears; it seems to me that there is a fundamental difference in design philosophy, pervading every aspect of the games, that sets them apart from one another to attentive eyes.

GT5 presents a simulation experience, pure almost to the point of harshness, but deep too, with multiple disciplines, a huge range of cars and meticulous attention to detail. Over a thousand painstakingly recreated vehicles make up the roster, and each one drives differently. Real world and virtual tracks are included, all with their own subtle nuances, and the player can race at night, in the rain, or on snow or dirt tracks to their heart’s content. Career progression and menus, however, can be very clunky at times, and AI opponents often seem oblivious to the player’s car- it’s clear that this is a game that is all about the driving simulation, with no room for compromise.

Forza, on the other hand, is a far more player-focused experience, offering a more structured campaign and the polish for the smoothest possible player experience. The career mode is smooth and well-designed, menus slick and car customisation intuitive. The online suite offers the ready usability of a Call of Duty game, and carefully planned DLC offers new cars and tracks that add to an already complete experience. For all its polish, though, it lacks GT’s range and depth of cars and experience, not to mention a little of its character.

Everything from menus (slick in Forza and intimidating in GT) to race physics (with GT’s lending each car more personality but Forza’s superior feedback) to my mind illustrates that these games, supposedly interchangeable, are in fact two very different creations born of very different but equally worthy visions. Which is better? I couldn’t possibly say; Forza seems to represent the console ideal of challenging gameplay accessible to all, while Gran Turismo’s unwavering focus and clear passion are admirable. As a car fan and a game fan, I like both very much; both sold well and received praise from critics, despite taking very different approaches to the same basic formula. Neither game releases annually, either, and both are receiving impressive post release support in the form of patches, DLC and community events.

Why, then, do so many developers seek to follow trends and copy the competition? Here, surely, is proof positive that visionary and talented game creation yields a truly worthwhile (not to mention marketable) product, distinct from the competition. Forza and GT are franchises with unique identity and vision; trends come and trends go, but I believe that a game with that identity can stick around for a very long time.

This article was originally posted on www.invalidopinions.com - check it out- it's great and actually gets updates unlike my stupid goddamn blog.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

More Cars I Could Never Afford: Mclaren Reveal MP4-12C Spider

Mclaren last week announced and showed off a new model of their slickly named MP4-12C supercar, this time with up to 100% less roof. Presumably in a bid to silence those claiming the car looked a little tame for a £170,000 all-carbon twin-turbo supercar, the spider looks fucking amazing. Mclaren claim the coupe’s blistering performance is largely intact, thanks to design wizardry and carbon fibre- most cars converted to convertibles as an afterthought end up heavy and lame thanks to the compromised structure and necessary reinforcement, but the MP4-12C’s carbon tub chassis neatly sidesteps these issues, and there’s only a relatively minor 40kg weight increase from the folding hardtop. With the twin-turbo 3.8 litre V8 kicking out 631 horsepower, I suspect you won’t notice. I recall reading that some TT-veteran bike racer reckoned the hardtop McLaren would give a superbike a run for its money- with the roof gone, it might also match the sensory bombardment terror. The spider comes with all the same performance sorcery of the hardtop and will retail for a cool £195,500; pricier than the coupe, but if you’re in the market for one you can probably afford it. 

Though I’m not entirely sure why I’m qualified as a supercar pundit, I think the Spider is a welcome addition to the McLaren stable. Obviously, no one was questioning the MP4-12C’s pedigree- between the legendary F1 and decades of motorsport excellence, McLaren are assuredly top-flight when it comes to fast cars- but for such an exotic machine, it did seem a little bland (especially when the alternative is the outrageous Ferrari 458). The beautiful new Spider ought to reassert McLaren as a maker of cars that are not only technically marvellous, but impassioned and desirable; they’re going to need that if they hope to give Ferrari serious competition on the road as well as the track. I may have a little trouble securing a test drive, but when I do I’ll be sure to report on it. If any rockstars or CEOs are reading this and fancy picking one up, the first cars are expected to reach customers around the end of the year.

Monday, 4 June 2012

On Motorcycles and Middle-Earth

I can’t stop fucking thinking about motorcycles. Not just any motorcycles, either- 1000cc supersport motorcycles. I find myself obsessing over the engineering balance of the Honda Fireblade, the digital supremacy of the Aprilia RSV4 and the savage purity of the MV Augusta F4R. My father has a Ducati 916, widely regarded as a classic of the class, and took it out yesterday. It took twenty minutes to start and when it did it deafened me and woke the neighbours. But what a fucking thing it is! That styling, that ferocity, that v-twin rumble. This is dangerous; a fat fuck like me, who has never ridden so much as a moped, shouldn’t get any ideas about fast bikes. Cocaine is a healthier vice, and more socially acceptable, too. Fuck it. The heart wants what the heart wants, and my heart wants to race. All that remains is to find some money and negotiate the ever tightening maze of UK bike licensing laws, and I can get myself a cheap shit 125cc commuter bike- a start.

Been reading Lord of the Rings again. I’ve heard people complain and disparage about the books, claiming they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. While I can see where these people are coming from, I have to disagree. The Lord of the Rings is an unparalleled masterpiece- what it isn’t is readily accessible to the modern reader. Tolkien created not so much a story as a world, one that is fit to burst with depth, richness and melancholy. This, I think, is why we get songs that last four pages about some plot-irrelevant elf-maiden’s favourite tree while the deaths of major characters are done with in a few sentences. I mentioned in my post about the GTAV trailer how the GTA games give the player a beautiful world to lose himself in. Tolkien did the same shit with just text.

It’s also E3 season, with the Microsoft conference starting in about 45 minutes at the time of this writing- I’ll be posting about this one afterwards over at www.invalidopinions.com (HA HA PLUGGING). Hopefully, it won’t be a repeat of the casual gaming Kinect shitfest we saw last year. I’m hoping for some more GTAV content, maybe a new Playstation console, and for the Wii-U not to be completely horrible. As ever, you can bet that lots of stupid shit will be shown and that Half Life 3 won’t.

Friday, 1 June 2012

My Work for Invalid Opinions

I haven't posted here in three weeks; considering past form, that's a miraculously short interval, but I'm still unhappy with myself for it. There is a reason, though- I'm now on board with an independent games journalism site. Invalid Opinions seeks to provide articles and reviews with the unbiased and honest opinions of real video game enthusiasts, disillusioned with the current state of video game journalism and the industry as a whole. We've been picking up momentum pretty nicely, but it has occupied me away from this blog- much of my gaming content will be heading there for the time being, though it should work its way over here after a while. So! Check out Invalid Opinions, but don't stop checking here. I'm sure I'll find some aspect of my incredibly adventurous lifestyle to report on. You can see a couple articles I originally did for Invalid Opinions below.

Starhawk Review

Since the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare way back in 2007, there hasn't really been a lot of room for innovation in the console shooter. Developers have sought to replicate COD as closely as they could to attract the brain-dead masses. For the discerning gamer, like you, dear reader, this is not good. As such, it gives me pleasure to report that Lightbox Interactive's Ps3 exclusive Starhawk breathes some much-needed new life into the sector.

Set in a space-faring sci-fi western universe that owes a lot to Firefly, Starhawk is a third-person team-based shooter  with open maps and vehicle gameplay in the vein of Battlefield, outwardly similar to its spiritual predecessor Warhawk, a decent third-person shooter that was sadly completely overshadowed by being released about 3 weeks before the original Modern Warfare. Two teams square off across a wide, open battlefield in objective based-gameplay, as you might expect, but there's a twist- players can summon structures to be dropped into play from orbit, changing the face of the arena in real time.

Turrets, vehicle spawners and fortifications are all available from this so called "Build & Battle" mechanic, and this is what sets Starhawk apart from the crowd. It demands more thought from players than the average shooter- correct use of it is vital for both team and individual success. You spawn with an assault rifle and a handful of grenades. This is fine for fighting some other punk that just spawned, but to mount a serious assault on the enemy base, or a concerted defense of your own? No chance. Call in a a siege tank depot or a supply bunker, though, and maybe you can have a go at it. Building is done with a straightforward radial menu, usable enough that it doesn't get in the way, and can be done by anyone- there's no commander or support role in charge of it. And it works, even in an uncoordinated public server team- walls go up, turrets placed strategically and vehicle structures placed where they can be readily accessed. I'm impressed that a mechanic like this has ben made to work as well as it does in the notoriously anarchic console shooter environment, probably down to the design devotion of the developers- improvements have been made from beta, and more are promised.
The broader gameplay is pretty good- while unmodified infantry combat can be a little flat, things get much more interesting when structures and vehicles are involved. Genuine excitement comes from the constant shifting of a match's dynamics as buildings are alternately erected and obliterated- you gotta keep on your toes. Infantry weapons are pretty standard- general purpose assault rifle, close range shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher- but all have their uses. Vehicles play a big part- the firepower of tanks and aircraft is needed to break a siege and the speed of jeeps and jetbikes to whisk the flag away- and handle well.

To my surprise, there is a singleplayer, and even more surprisingly it doesn't feel completely divorced from the multiplayer. Story hinges around the precious so-called "Rift Energy"- space-crude-oil, essentially. Out in the space frontier, there's a constant battle between Rifters (roughneck space cowboys) and Outcasts (once-men mutated and consumed by the energy). Our player-character is somewhere in between; a rifter with just a hint of outcast glow. It's a pretty decent space western, with colourful characters and animation cutscenes, but nothing earth-shaking. Starhawk does, however, buck the shooter trend once more by using largely the same mechanics in singleplayer as multiplayer- success rides on the use ofbuildings and vehicles just as much in both  cases. This lends a good chunk of player choice to what might otherwise be a fairly dreary campaign. The setting is really cool, though, with a real frontier vibe and great artstyle.

One thing that does strike me about Starhawk is the amount of really neat design features incorporated; I get a feeling that a lot of love went in from the designers, who were dedicated to do the shooter thing a little differently. Instead of just popping on to the map as if by magic, players drop in from above in a pod, able to make subtle flight adjustment to land exactly where they please. It's not just show, either- land your pod on an enemy player or vehicle for an instant (and hilarious) kill. Bunkers have team-exclusive doors and one-way shields on the firing ports to allow occupants to fire out safely- to take them out requires serious firepower or a daring dash up the external ladder to drop in and butcher those within. The "Hawk" aircraft is suited not only to dogfighting as is so often the case with air vehicles in shooters, but bombing as well, and can transform to a walker form to really take part in the ground fight. These things and more are real sparks of creativity and are very welcome indeed in the stale shooter market.

It's so easy to make an average shooter in today's market- just copy Call of Duty. Starhawk shies well away from this approach and does its very best to do something very different from the norm, and manages it, providing a unique action experience with its unconventional design approach. I like it quite a lot, but there are a couple issues I must mention; were it not for the dynamicism offered by the building mechanic, I don't think the shooter gameplay would work- it doesn'y play as well as a conventional shooter as a good conventional shooter does. Additionally, there are a few balance issues lingering still, particularly with vehicle spam- every player on a team can build himself a heavy tank, and if they all do it stops being much fun for the enemy. Nonetheless, Starhawk is living proof that different things can be successfully done with console shooters- take note, developers.

This article was originally posted on www.invalidopinions.com - check it out, it's totally awesome. 

The Perils of Kickstarter

Kickstarter funded game development is happening more and more. After the “Double Fine Adventure” project received over three million dollars of a relatively modest $400,000 goal, a great many people have been trying to get in on that sweet croudsourced funding. Projects that might never otherwise have seen the light of day, like Wasteland 2, are suddenly becoming viable by reaching out to the gaming community for support. Great, right? Yes, obviously. But I’m a little wary of this trend- what are the consequences of doing without publisher support?
Kickstarter- is it all really free funding and creative freedom?

Game development is a pain in the ass. It’s a complicated, challenging and costly process, and always has been. It’s not at all uncommon for games to be delayed, undergo radical changes or to be cancelled outright during development. Big projects from big developers aren’t immune- where is Rockstar’s Agent, for example? Even if a game does manage to come out on schedule and within budget, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that it’ll actually be any good. This isn’t really a problem; it’s merely the nature of the beast.

Nominally, the job of the publisher is to tame that same beast. They’re supposed to bankroll multiple projects from multiple developers, providing support and resources as required, and using business know-how to turn raw creative output from the developers into a marketable product, thus making money for everyone involved. Ideally, the developer-publisher relationship is one of mutual service and benefit, and while today’s publishers may be primarily concerned with shoving DLC down our throats, they have to at least try to do it right to stay afloat.

Making a good pitch for a game is easy; making a good game is hard. Imagine that instead of an angry unemployed asshole, I’m a new studio with a vision for a game of massively multiplayer vehicle combat and racing in a persistent online wasteland, with high emphasis on loot, customisation and the unique specification of your personal ride. Sounds great, right? Trouble is, I don’t know how the hell to actually put such a thing together- I’m an ideas guy.  Ordinarily, this is where a publisher comes in. They look at my pitch, ask me some questions, and, if they think I can deliver the goods, they give me resources and a schedule to bring my vision to reality. However! If I decide instead to fund myself with a Kickstarter, I’m losing out on the publisher assistance, which (should) go beyond the financial.

While it is by no means impossible to find success in independent game development, it does place the burden of financial and business stuff necessary to make a game not on the guys in grey suits at a publishing company, but on the creative types actually making the game, who could easily be woefully ill-equipped to deal with such things. Like I said, making games is hard, and there are often complications. What if a key designer falls ill? What if there’s a fire or an earthquake or a Godzilla attack and vital code is lost? What if the project runs over budget, and the Kickstarter cash is all gone? These are the sort of things the publisher is supposed to handle.

When a conventionally-published project goes down the pipe, it’s only really the publisher that loses out. When one funded by a Kickstarter does the same, it’s you and me- the real life gamers who put up the cash for its development, who are taking the hit.

Don’t get me wrong- I do like the Kickstarter funding thing, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting it stopped. What I will suggest is that when you look at a Kickstarter page, you bear in mind the unique perils of this approach to development.

This article was originally posted on www.invalidopinions.com - check it out, it's totally awesome. 

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Short Thought on Fixing Things

Nobody fixes their own shit any more. Your car ain’t running right? You take it to the dealer and he fixes it. Your iPod won’t turn on? Fuck it, buy a new one. There’s no room for stuff that doesn’t work right in today’s world, and if something breaks down, chances are it’ll be discarded and replaced rather than nursed back to health. I’ve been trying to fix up my old bike the last couple weeks, and I’m starting to see why this is. Every fucking effort I make is resisted at every turn by the infernal machine- nuts are seized, cables jammed, bearings are fucked up beyond belief. I don’t have any money, though, so replacement or professional repair is out of the question, and I toil on. The whole thing raised some questions, however- why has the modern human so little tolerance for wear and tear on his things?

I read a book recently that addresses this. In ‘The Case for Working with your Hands’, Matthew Crawford explores the effect of office work in an information economy on peoples’ aptitude for and interest in manual work, and asks repeatedly why his work as a motorcycle mechanic is so much more satisfying than his work leading a university think-tank. It’s a real interesting read, and one issue raised really connected with me- the author notes that fixing a machine not of your own design serves as a lesson in interacting with the wider world. The universe does not exist for your convenience, as it turns out, and it has patterns and machinations of its own. To get what you want from it, you must consider not only your self and your wishes, but how these figure in the world at large. 

Mankind did not make it to the very top of the food chain by having a world that meekly submitted to its will straight off the bat. Man had to learn how to rub sticks to make fire, how to build shelters that would resist the weather, where to stab tigers to stop them from eating him. We are manipulators, and over the course of human history we have manipulated our environment to suit us as best we can. We’ve got so good at it that an illusion of control has developed whereby we start to think that the world around us does exist solely for our own bullshit and conforms to our every whim- the bike breaks, you can summon a new one within the hour. But you can’t magic away that sabre-tooth. When you sit down to fix your bike, think of it as jamming your spear between the bastard’s ribs; it’s nasty and messy, but that’s how the fucking world works. If I get down to it, my bike should be ready to ride by next weekend.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Avengers Assemble Review

Yesterday, I saw Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, in a cinema, twice. I’ll admit that my own terrible scheduling was primarily responsible, but I loved it both times. That’s the kind of movie we’re talking about. It’s a big deal, too- the long awaited super-hero super-movie, titled simply Avengers in several places I don't live in, has a giant budget, a big-name director and an all star cast- can it possibly meet the hype?
Without giving too much away, the plot is exactly what you’re expecting. Loki, god-like alien from the other end of space, decides he’s the boss of earth now, and has a deadly robot army to back him up. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), director of world-defense agency SHIELD does not want this, and seeks to assemble a team of superheroes to stick it to Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Despite some initial quarrelling, the heroes are brought together by the peril facing humanity, and a titanic showdown ensues between the newly-formed Avengers and Loki’s otherworldly minions. It took a little while to get going, but the opening and early scenes, which I initially thought were kinda dull, do really contribute to the overall arc of the film. 

It’s plainly obvious that the film was a Joss Whedon effort- Whedon’s trademark wit and humour courses through the film’s bloodstream. I was struck by how genuinely funny the film was; this isn’t a comedy, but the dialogue is razor sharp at all points. At both showings I saw, the audience was laughing hugely throughout. This is great, but in places it was almost too funny for its own good- several jokes seemed to be missed either due to their subtlety or that the audience was literally laughing too hard at the last crack to hear the next. 

Characters are similarly master-crafted. All the Avengers feel very natural and well cast, and their personalities are clear and distinct; Captain America (Chris Evans) is straight laced but sometimes puzzled by modernity, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the brilliant eccentric and Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)  has a very strained and deliberate calm. I had suspected Downey Junior’s Stark might outshine the other characters before seeing the movie, even joking about going to see Iron Man 3: Now With Pals; Tony Stark, the brilliant rogue with drink issues seems to come very naturally to Mr Downey Jr, for some reason. My fears were unfounded, however. All the Avengers are played well, and have big parts to the narrative- even Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), lesser in power and reputation to their comrades, worked great. Hulk in particular was on smashing form, though seemed to have lost some of his unpredictability. Hulk isn’t supposed to be a force for good or for evil, but a force for force; unstoppable, uncontrollable and totally destructive. Here, though, Banner managed to exert some sort of control over ‘the other guy’, but I’m prepared to chalk it up to artistic license. This diversity and quality of characters made their eventual union all the sweeter- despite their different circumstances and agendas, they came together when it really counted- heroism of the truest kind. Special mention has to go to Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki. He really made the character his own, putting across an air of genuine menace and haughty egoism. His wounded pride was very clear, and his evil grin genuinely unnerving. 

One thing a superhero film can be relied upon for is action, and Avengers does not disappoint. Some real kick ass set piece battles give excuse for sequences of large and expensive things, like secret laboratories, experimental aircraft carriers and the entirety of Manhattan, to be destroyed. The usual pitfall of mindless explosion is sidestepped for the most part; almost every explosion occurs with good reason, and action sequences have some proper charm- Iron Man's hijacking of a PA system to blast out AC-DC as he blazed in to battle Loki was a brilliant addition to an already intense fight scene. The CGI was used well and sparingly, mostly to lend the alien creatures and locales that extraterrestrial shine.

I really, really liked this movie. At a sizable 140 minutes, it was big on experience without dragging out or feeling flabby. The intelligence and humour of the dialogue had me genuinely grinning start to finish, and the characters all worked beautifully. I’m the wrong kind of nerd for comic books, alas, but my comic consultant was very satisfied. Whedon clearly knows both comics and filmmaking, so we’ve got a movie with both fan and mass appeal. I would note that between the 12A certificate and the general light-hearted tone the movie felt kind of edgeless, especially compared to films like The Dark Knight, though for about eight seconds I genuinely thought that Iron Man might be killed off. That’s personal preference, though- Avengers Assemble was a riotously good time. See it twice or more, but preferably not by mistake like me.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

First Look: Pokémon Black and White 2

Like every rational creature, I love Pokémon. And why wouldn’t you? Entertaining adventures, ruthlessly addictive monster collecting and accessible but deep battling make for a fantastic handheld game. That the franchise has grown pretty formulaic doesn’t bother me- it’s a nice formula, it works. Nonetheless, it’s pretty exciting when there’s a substantial change to that formula, and so there has been! The next Pokémon release, following last year’s Pokémon Black and White, won’t be a Grey version, or even an enhanced remake of Ruby and Sapphire, as previous form suggests. Instead, we’re getting Pokémon Black 2 and White 2. But what exactly does that mean?

Details are currently pretty sparse, but have been slowly filtering out since the announcement. These, as the name suggests, are direct sequels to Black and White- a couple of years have passed since the events of those games, and while we are revisiting the same region, some changes have occurred in the interim. We’re gonna have new player characters, new gym leaders and a new rival. Additionally, it seems that Black and White’s all-new Pokémon approach has been dropped, and the old school mons will be more readily available. Legendary Ice Pokémon Kyurem has apparently been wrecking shit, as legendary Pokémon inevitably do, and seemingly has multiple forms echoing the Reshiram and Zekrom legendary monsters from Black and White. 

At this point, that’s about all we know. What is interesting is that almost all of these are different from the very formulaic approach the main series Pokémon games have taken to date. Instead of a slightly enhanced third version as was the case with all previous generations, these seem to be pretty decent approximations to new games. They’re also direct sequels- while Gold and Silver took this route, there’s been nothing of the sort in the series since then. Perhaps most puzzling of all is that these are going to be released on the old DS, and not new-hotness 3DS. I never got a 3DS, so it suits me, but it seems very strange- Black and White 1, in the eyes of many, should have been 3DS games, and I would have thought Nintendo would mandate a 3DS exclusive release to drive sales and secure the console’s very slightly shaky market. 

Perhaps I’m just gushing over trivial crap, but what little we know about these new games all seems unusual, especially for a franchise as notoriously static as Pokémon. Personally, I hope these games deliver some of the polish and singleplayer quality that went AWOL between the brilliant Heartgold and Soulsilver remakes and Black and White- I and others sorely missed features like the enhanced interface and walking Pokémon that HG/SS brought to the table. Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 are scheduled for release this summer in Japan, this fall in America, and presumably at some point in Europe. I’ll be sure to keep my readers posted with the latest news on these titles, provided I remember and can be arsed.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Toyota GT-86 and Subaru BRZ Impressions

Japan hasn’t been putting out many sports cars lately- great cars like the Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7 and Honda NSX have been out of production for years now. Even recent editions of Mitsubishi Evolutions and Subaru Imprezas have been a little tame. While Nissan have been holding the fort with the 370Z and GT-R, that’s pretty much it. It’s a damn shame if you ask me, but fortunately, Toyota and Subaru have been working together on a new sports coupe. The Subaru BRZ and Toyota GT86 are going on sale in the UK later this year.

The car has a two-litre flat-four powerplant provided by Subaru, driving the rear wheels through a six-speed manual or automatic gearbox. It’s a compact, lightweight, 2+2 coupe, with a super-rigid chassis and aerodynamic stability from all angles. It is designed for sporting purity and driving experience. And it looks nice. Look at it, shit!

This isn’t a continuation of the Japanese GT car tradition, as I had initially thought. It is instead a car from the MX-5 school of design- not so much a performance car, but a sports car in the purest sense. We’re talking about a car that’s about driving purity as distinct from track-day performance, and reports say that it achieves these goals marvellously. It’s unashamedly old school, and I do approve. Nonetheless, to me that styling writes cheques that a naturally aspirated two-litre engine can’t possibly cash- those lights and the overall profile of the car are real aggressive. I’m not alone in this; in Japan, where sales have already blitzkrieged estimates, customers are saying that they want more power. Word is that Subaru are listening- so it seems pretty likely that we’ll see a jacked up STI version, probably turbocharged and slimmed down, within a year or so. Hard to say whether or not the Toyota will get the same treatment- I don’t know what kind of deal the two companies have on the project (what do I look like, a fucking motoring journalist?).
If I had the £25,000 that the car is speculated to cost (and a driver’s license) I would definitely be looking into this machine. I really like the way it looks, and the purist philosophy is very appealing indeed. As for which to go for, I’m not quite sure. Only nuanced differences are present in the styling, but I think those nuances are nicer on the Toyota. Apparently the BRZ has sportier suspension, and it’s likely to be a little more exclusive, with noticeably lower sales estimates than the GT86. Fact is, though, that it looks like either would be a great car. Not one that my punk ass can afford, alas. Maybe once that book deal comes through, eh?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Gran Turismo 5 review

Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo 5 is the latest in the very long running series of Playstation driving-sims. After a protracted development with repeatedly delayed release, the game finally came out in November, 2010. Why am I writing about it in April 2012? I don’t know, whatever, shut up. I’ve been playing it a bunch recently, and maybe you want to hear my thoughts on it? Well you’re in luck! Here they are. 

Make no mistake, that lengthy development wasn’t the sign of struggling design, financial troubles or creative incompetence, á la Duke Nukem Forever; the game took eons to make because it is fucking outrageously enormous. GT5 packs over a thousand faithfully recreated cars, 70 tracks both real and original and chillingly accurate physics. This is the psychotic autism school of game development, but the obsessive attention to detail cuts both ways- it’s abundantly clear to play the game that while it soars close to perfection in some areas, others have been left by the wayside somewhat. Car handling, for example, is basically as good as it is possible to be (and I can’t stress enough just how good the physics and handling feel), but AI drivers are soulless automatons, often seeming oblivious to the player’s car. 

 Race physics are top notch.

The career gameplay is fairly open ended. Basically simple, too- buy cars, race cars, use winnings to buy more cars. Most events have some kind of theme, often emulating a real-world race discipline such as NASCAR or Super GT, but many simply confined to a specific nationality or period of car.  There’s an experience level system that places restrictions on the cars you can buy and the events you can enter- family hatchbacks are level 0, while dedicated race cars can be level 20 or even higher. I guess the idea is to give the gameplay some structure and a sense of progression, but it can feel artificial and forced at times- for me, filling a virtual garage with ever more exotic driving machines is progression enough. There’s also B-spec racing, which trades the hands on approach of A-spec for an indirect driver management experience. It’s a little clumsy, and I’m far too fucking ADD to enjoy handing the wheel to some AI chump, but it’s a pretty neat feature. Licence tests, a series staple, return, though they aren’t quite as vital to advancement as in previous editions, but these coupled with a variety of academy-style special events do provide decent instruction to new drivers.

 There's a Photography mode which lets you dress up and parade your car like a daughter you don't really love.

Where GT5 shines, and where all that development time and funding has gone, is in the technical stuff. Gran Turismo always was a good simulator, and GT5 has the best physics yet. Every car sounds and drives just right. Visuals are a little bipolar, however- only about 200 of the cars on roster are so-called “premium” models, with full detail and interior views. These look fucking amazing. “Standard” cars, which make up the rest of the roster, though notably mostly older and unremarkable cars, take a hit to graphical fidelity (most of them seem to be lifted from earlier games), but are nonetheless accurately modelled in their behaviours. Damage, both visual and mechanical, appears for the first time in the series, and works adequately, though most events don’t have it enabled- cars get scuffed and crumpled from collisions, bits fall off after several hits, and the behaviour of the car reacts to the ruination your shitty driving has brought to steering, drivetrain and aerodynamics. 

 This shot looks exciting, but I'm actually driving the van.

If I’m totally honest, there is a slight out-of-touch-ness here, but in an endearing way; few to zero concessions have been made for accessibility, refreshing in today’s market of brain-dead Call of Duty clones. GT5 is a simulator, in the purest sense, and as such it’s a game for car people rather than for game people. Car geeks will find no end of entertainment in the automotive cornucopia that’s on offer here, between collecting and tuning hundreds of cars and driving them in the games very varied selection of tracks and races. I think even non-petrolheads will be somewhat taken by the meticulous attention to detail on display, and I defy anyone not to crack a grin when they open the throttle on a Plymouth Cuda down the back straight, but like I said, this is really for the car guys. That being said, some added usability would definitely be welcome- the game does feel a little obtuse and awkward in places. Since, by now, prices should have dropped dramatically, I would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in cars- there is so much raw content here that, with a little patience, it becomes the ultimate motoring toybox.