Sorry for the delays, guys — Musical Monday is back! Since I’ve been talking a lot about XCOM: Enemy Unknown lately, for this week’s song I’ve opted to present one of composer Michael McCann’s previous works: “Icarus”, from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. What I love about “Icarus” is the way it blends two very different musical strains. There’s the obligatory cyberpunk techno, but also haunting vocals that hint at the game’s attempt to tell a story about the human soul, the desire to surpass the flesh. (In the end, sadly I don’t think the game lives up to that ambition, but that’s a subject for another day.) Enjoy!
Calling all lovers of good books! Patrick O’Brian’s entire Aubrey & Maturin series (which you might remember from the Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany movie a number of years ago) is now available on Kindle. Now you can carry around an entire Age of Sail magnum opus in the palm of your hand! No more waiting for the next book (and there will be a lot of them; O’Brian completed 20 entries before his death) to arrive!
There are two disclaimers:
1) I’ve only read the hardcopy editions, so I can’t testify as to the quality of the Kindle editions. Anyone who’s read a lot of Kindle books will know there are plenty of shonky e-book conversions out there; hopefully this won’t be one.
2) While the books themselves are excellent, they are so unique that I hesitate to recommend them without a caveat. Despite appearances, they are not nautical adventure novels. Oh, there’s plenty of adventure, and much of it nautical, but at their core these are slice-of-life novels where those lives just happen to be largely spent aboard Royal Navy warships during the Napoleonic Wars. Their core appeal comes from the sensation of being utterly immersed in an unfamiliar world, and to this end O’Brian breaks many of the conventional rules of writing. The prose is dense with both nautical jargon and period language; O’Brian will often skip over explosions in favour of co-protagonist Dr Maturin’s scientific expeditions; the weather is as much a danger as the French navy; the entire plot of the novel may end in a fizzle. It’s testament to O’Brian’s skill as a novelist that he succeeded despite this.
And he did succeed. O’Brian’s books bring the days of wooden ships and iron men alive for me — the only other historical fiction I’ve found equally effective being Bengtsson’s The Long Ships. They’re filled with memorable characters, great worldbuilding, and, yes, exciting set-pieces. They even contain the most erudite double entendre I’ve ever seen! If you like history, and you like books, you have to at least check these out. I started with Book 1, Master and Commander; I’ve also seen it suggested that readers could start with Book 3, HMS Surprise. Wherever you jump in, I hope you have fun, and don’t get caught by a lee shore!
After Part 3’s successful terror mission, the rest of April passes without incident. Dr Vahlen and her scientists finish research on beam weapons, which unlocks laser pistols and laser assault rifles for use by my squad!
Unfortunately, I’m too broke to build more than one of each. Not only do they hoover up cash, they also require precious alien alloys – and my stock of alloys is running dangerously low. Farnsworth gets the laser rifle; LeSquide, our sniper, gets the laser pistol (since he can’t move and fire his sniper rifle in the same turn, he’s the one most in need of a decent sidearm).
At the end of the month, the Council gives us our scorecard and funding cheque:
As feared, the XCOM Project has lost its first two countries: Japan and Mexico have raised the white flag to the aliens. Three more, Argentina, India and China, are teetering. But all is not lost – I have no fewer than three satellites in the pipeline, plus the cash to build more (and their supporting infrastructure). This coming month, May, will be do-or-die. If XCOM can make it through the month in one piece, by its end I should have enough satellites to halt the tide of global panic. More than that, I’ll have so many satellites, and so much funding, that I’ll never have to worry about scrimping and saving again. If, if, if.
Welcome to the third part of my Let’s Play (Classic difficulty, Ironman mode) for XCOM: Enemy Unknown!
When we previously left off, I had two worries. One, whether I could obtain better arms and armour before the game ramped up in difficulty. Two, a rising tide of global panic. And soon, the game does its best to exacerbate (2) by throwing a devil’s choice at me:
Hi everyone! Just a quick note to let you know I’ll be travelling — and hence, unable to work on the site — for about a week, starting this Saturday. However, I’ve scheduled Part 3 of the XCOM Let’s Play to go up over the weekend, so look for it then! Have fun and I’ll see you all soon! :)
Welcome back to my Let’s Play (Classic difficulty, Ironman mode) of XCOM: Enemy Unknown! We finished our last instalment on March 20 (game time), with a successful end to XCOM’s third battle. Following that battle, XCOM earned a new, experienced Heavy named Talorc, and I began construction of the Officer Training School.
But before I can train any officers, not one day after the previous mission, it’s time to sortie again:
March, 2015. We are not alone in the universe. Humanity is under attack from an alien army equipped with technology beyond anything we have seen. The armed forces of the Earth are powerless. All save one – the mysterious international organisation known as XCOM, sponsored by a Council of sixteen nations. It’s up to XCOM’s soldiers, outnumbered, outgunned, but brave and (one hopes) well led, to stop the aliens in the cities and in the fields. It’s up to XCOM’s scientists to unravel the alien technology the soldiers bring home, and up to XCOM’s engineers to adapt it into something the troops can use. And it’s up to me, the player, to give them all direction. Will I succeed, or will humanity be destined to end up as just another course on the alien buffet menu?
One of the cleverest and most memorable games I’ve played this year was Digital: A Love Story, Christine Love’s 2010 visual novel. Its retro, pseudo-8-bit music is a key part of its conceit, that the player is a teenager discovering the Internet of 1988. Below is my favourite piece, the energetic “Space Beacon”. Enjoy!
With the new XCOM game around the corner, it’s time to reflect on the fallen. The First and Second Alien Wars had horrific death tolls. Tens, hundreds, thousands of little pixel-dudes rotated on the spot to face the player, screamed, and fell down to never rise again. Always those brave men and women turned to face the player. We looked them in the tiny pixel-eye as they expired. It was the least we owed them. Heroes, every one.
What were the main causes of death in these brutal, bloody conflicts? Read on…
The First Alien War is UFO: Enemy Unknown, aka X-COM: UFO Defence for the non-Europeans. The Second War is known by the codename Terror from the Deep. The Third Alien War, dubbed Apocalypse, will not feature here as I sat that one out.
For the last three days the Sydney Showground has played host to the EB Games Expo, and that was where I spent yesterday. There I met some folks from the industry, both publishers and indie developers; watched trailers and gameplay videos; observed live play; and last but not least, tried out a few titles for myself! Here are the highlights of what I saw (grouped by publisher):
Banner Saga, a Norse-themed tactical RPG trilogy from indie studio Stoic Games, was one of the early titles to ride to prominence on Kickstarter this year. Now Nathan Grayson of Rock, Paper, Shotgun has posted a monster three-part interview/preview, and it’s fascinating stuff — especially the third part, in which the developers explain how the single-player campaign will work (in summary, “it’s a bit like of King of Dragon Pass meets Oregon Trail. It’s King of Dragon Pass on the road.”) While not quite a full branching campaign a la The Witcher 2, the player’s choices will matter, both from a gameplay and a story perspective. Characters will join or leave the party based on their satisfaction with the player; the player will have to juggle the party’s endurance and morale against the need to stay ahead of an all-consuming wall of darkness (this actually put me in mind of FTL), and there will be multiple endings. If that sounds interesting, it’s well worth heading over to check out the full article.
Meanwhile, we’ll get our chance to evaluate the core gameplay next month when a spin-off F2P multiplayer game based around the battle system, Banner Saga: Factions, is due out. This is one project that I’ll keep an eye on.
Sorry for the delay, folks. This week, I have not one, not two, but FOUR songs for you — all are from Sleeping Dogs, since I just praised its soundtrack in my review. Three sound more traditional to my novice ears: “Butterfly Garden” (Ritchie Lo, M. P. Mabel Ki, and Charles Chan), which I linked in the review, is a lovely, relaxing vocal piece, while “Lhasa Groove” and “On Buddha’s Land” (Ritchie Lo) offer something more energetic. The fourth, pop number “Yellow Fever” (note: Vivienne Lu, the artist usually credited, is a character in thegame; the actual composer is Nathan Wang) might not be the best song in the game, but good lord was it hard to get out of my head. Enjoy!
I must be one of the few gamers out there not to have played Grand Theft Auto, or any of the other modern-day, open-world, crime-themed games that it spawned. None had premises that appealed to me – until now. Enter Sleeping Dogs, United Front Games’ open-world extravaganza, which casts the player as undercover cop Wei Shen, tasked to infiltrate the most powerful crime syndicate in Hong Kong. This premise has been mined many times before for its dramatic potential, with the most obvious parallel being 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. However, the key to Sleeping Dogs is that it’s not a homage to thrillers – it’s a homage to action flicks.
Specifically, Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay revolves around two activities: chasing rival mobsters, and pulverising them once you catch up. You chase them on foot (think the opening parkour sequence of Casino Royale) and in cars; you fight with fists, feet, and occasionally, firearms. The typical mission will involve pretty much every variation on these themes: Wei might drive to a target’s lair, disembark to beat up a first wave of guards, grab a gun to deal with a second wave of guards, jump into a car to pursue his escaping quarry, and finally jump from car to car in mid-chase to reach his foe. In between missions, there are other diversions available – special mention goes to a hilarious karaoke minigame (watch Wei during guitar solos, but make sure you don’t have anything in your mouth) – but speed and violence generally dominate the side quests, too.
This is not a flaw.
What Sleeping Dogs does best is recreate the excitement – and yes, over-the-top destruction – of good action movies. There are deeper dedicated brawlers out there – tapping or holding one button will run Wei through predefined combo moves; tapping a second button will counter enemy attacks; a third will allow Wei to grapple enemies and, often, finish them off with a spectacular use of the environment, such as throwing them into the water, slamming them into fuse boxes, or even impaling them on swordfish. There are deeper shooters out there: Wei’s options largely comprise hiding behind cover, popping up to shoot, or vaulting over an obstacle in order to enter bullet time. And while I’m no expert on racing games, I would be very surprised if there weren’t games with deeper driving models. But while each component is straightforward, the game (and the individual missions) string them together into an overall experience greater than the sum of its parts.
The same holds true for the game’s story. Some sequences are laugh-out-loud funny, though they tend to be merely the comic relief between far darker events. On a deeper level, while the game is a long way from Shakespeare, it understands the importance of theme and character arc. Without them, I doubt I would have seen Sleeping Dogs through to the end – after 28 hours, I was getting a little bored of beating up gangsters and detonating their cars. With them, Wei’s adventures became a coherent, satisfying narrative filled with characters I cared about – characters who acquired depth through their different responses to one of the game’s central ideas, the lure of crime. I wanted to see how their stories would end, and that desire propelled me through an increasingly explosive (in every sense of the word) plot all the way to the credits. Far more ambitious games have done far worse.
Lastly, I should give a shout-out to the game’s soundtrack, which did so much to convey a sense of place. There are quite a few songs available, but my favourites by far were the (often instrumental) Chinese tracks. Motoring around the game’s version of Hong Kong, with the rain pouring and the car radio pumping this into my ears, wasn’t just atmospheric and relaxing. In its own small way, it was an experience I could not have gotten from another game.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction than this to the modern-day open-world genre. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, often exciting, and always entertaining, Sleeping Dogs is a very good game, well worth my money. I look forward to seeing what UFG does next.
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