Archive for the ‘Games Consoles’ Category

The Last of Us – review – Console news

PS3; £40; Naughty Dog; 18+

Zombie game pop quiz: You’ve finally found the exit to the abandoned warehouse you’d been scavenging supplies from, but between you and freedom are four shambling infected monstrosities, all eager for tasty man-shaped snacks. How are you going to make it past without ending up as human tartare?

If this was pretty much any other recent survival horror title, the answer would be simple – reach for the trusty military grade shotgun, grenade launcher or plasma cutter as appropriate, paint the walls with rotted brains and waltz across the room, scooping up an assortment of high-powered ammunition along the way. This isn’t one of those games though, this is The Last of Us, and your arsenal right now consists of a brick and a length of drainpipe with some scissors taped to the end. Good luck, you’re going to need it.

Keeping your resources limited is just one of the many things Naughty Dog’s latest action adventure gets right – forcing you to think through your approach to every encounter while keeping the tension ratcheted up to 11 generates a level of unease that the genre feels like it’s been missing since the early Silent Hill games. It seems an obvious point that a zombie-themed game should be scary, but it’s a rare enough occurrence that here it feels fresh.

Then again, it’s an injustice to call The Last of Us a zombie game anyway. As in 28 Days Later, these creatures are infected rather than undead, and although they remain consistent antagonists throughout, this game is clearly more interested in telling a story of post-apocalyptic survival than smashing rotten heads, and it’s all the better for it.

Infectious enjoyment

That’s not to say the story spares us the usual tropes – a virulent infection has decimated the population, degenerating it’s victims into mindless ravening lunatics and bringing civilisation to its knees, pretty much exactly as it has a thousand times before across every possible media.

Significantly though, the game keeps the details of the outbreak and the disease itself deliberately vague, recognising that any attempt to explain something that’s basically pretty ridiculous is doomed to failure (Resident Evil and it’s ever expanding psuedo-scientific virus nonsense says hi). Instead, The Last of Us makes a conscious effort to focus the story on the surviving human characters and how they go about coping with the aftermath.

It’s a good call, and coupled with the high-quality production, both visually and from the voice cast, makes for a compelling tale.

Starting with a brief prologue which introduces protagonist Joel during the first panicked moments of the outbreak, the game then flashes forward 20 years to a devastated America where the remnants of the population eke out a living in oppressive militarised quarantine zones. For reasons I don’t want to spoil here, the now bitter and grizzled Joel grudgingly takes on a mission to escort the fourteen year old Ellie across the bandit and monster riddled country, and the rest of the game chronicles their journey.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it wouldn’t be right to go into too much detail, as the story is definitely something you’ll to want to experience for yourself – The growing relationship between the two main characters as they travel from one dangerous situation to the next is a pleasure to follow, and the interplay of Joel’s tired cynicism against Ellie’s naïve enthusiasm and determination makes for a solid narrative device. Add in a well fleshed out supporting cast, from fellow struggling survivors to some deeply unpleasant and unsettling villains, and you’ll soon start to care when bad things happen to these people.

And bad things will happen. The Last of Us doesn’t pull any punches letting you know just how bleak its world really is, in both story and gameplay. Quite aside from the bloodthirsty infected tearing people to pieces, Joel and Ellie are prepared to go to extreme lengths to stay alive, and even though the game manages to make caving in a bandits face with a brick feel desperate and necessary rather than voyeuristic, some of the later set-pieces are likely to garner at least a raised eyebrow from even the most jaded gorehounds. It’s definitely not one for the kids, unless you’ve a particular desire to see them spend the rest of their lives in therapy.

Underneath the darkness and grime though, the roots of Naughty Dog’s previous Uncharted series are clearly present, not that that should be considered a bad thing. The Last of Us carries over the super-high production values established in Nathan Drake’s adventures – the environments are varied and lushly rendered, with large portions of the game taking place in open countryside and forests – a nice change from the usual sewers and abandoned labs (though they’re in here too) while character models are equally highly detailed and excellently animated.

The one downside is that, due mainly to the slower pace, the basic linear cycle of explorefight-cutscene that underpins these games feels a little more forced here. The Last of Us still flows well, with cutscenes seamlessly integrated and virtually no load times between areas, but Uncharted was able to distract attention from its illusion of an open world by racing along at a hundred miles an hour, and that doesn’t always happen here – there’s plenty of times when you’ll wonder why you had to open this door and not the other identical one you just passed, or when an area opens out into a large room full of conveniently cover height crates that instantly telegraphs the upcoming fight. It’s not a massive issue, but given the lengths the game goes to to maintain suspension of disbelief it can be slightly immersion breaking.

The combat system is also more-or-less imported wholesale from Uncharted, but thanks to the grittier theme actually feels like a much better fit here. Drake’s brand of rough and tumble fisticuffs were always cinematic, if a little clunky, and it’s a style that fits well with the desperate and brutal hand-to-hand situations Joel often finds himself in. There’s plenty of gunplay too, but the combination of limited ammo and tricky aiming makes it always feel risky. The aggressive AI contributes to this too – Disturb a group of infected and they will all rush to overwhelm you, while bandits and soldiers are quick to try and outflank you or flush you out with molotovs and smoke bombs. This means that stealth is most often the way to go, which serves to balance every fight on a tense knife-edge and means the game is ultimately successful at keeping you on the edge of your seat all the way through.

Given the plethora of ‘zombie’-based games released in recent years, it would have been easy to see this as Naughty Dog just jumping on the bandwagon and making Uncharted: The Walking Dead. Instead the designers have taken influence from the best writing the genre has to offer (The Road, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later) and elements of some of the best games of recent times (Arkham Asylum, Fallout, Uncharted itself) and melded them into a whole that, despite feeling familiar, ends up as more than the sum of its parts.

The Last of Us is visually arresting, mechanically solid, maturely written and by turns heart-rending, tense, unnerving and brutal. Check your ammo. Grab your shiv. Just try your best to stay alive.

Rating: 5/5

Games

PS3

Keith Stuart

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Posted on June 5th, 2013 by  |  No Comments »

Sony kills the PS2 in Japan, but keeps making games for it

Sony has stopped making the PlayStation 2 in Japan, almost 13 years after the console was launched. Could it come to the end of its long life here in the UK too?


Just because the console is no longer being manufactured doesn’t mean there’ll be no more games for it though. Sony will continue developing and selling games for the PS2 according to Famitsu, via CNET. Seriously, I didn’t know games were still being released for it.


But then I suppose it makes sense, seeing as it’s the best-selling console of all time. More than 155 million of the blighters have been sold around the world, and more than 1.52 billion games. That’s quite some user base. No wonder it’s got a back catalogue of almost 11,000 titles.


It’s also big in countries that have missed out on newer consoles, like Brazil, Russia, India and China. And those countries aren’t exactly sparsely populated.


The PS2 went on sale in the UK in November 2000. I still remember the first time I saw Grand Theft Auto 3 in action. I’m sure I’m not alone in buying a PS2 purely for that game. Or for losing hours of “study time” at university to its charms. And Vice City, that came out in my final year. That game’s got a lot to answer for.


A slimmer version of the console launched in 2004 which was smaller, thinner, and quieter than the original. Sony started this trend with the PSOne, and continued it with the slimmer PS3 just recently. Which is great, though a bit annoying if you bought the original. My first generation PS3 looks a right hulking beast next to the newer one.


What are your memories of the PS2? What were your favourite games? Do you still play them? Let me know in the comments, or on our Facebook page.




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Posted on January 1st, 2013 by  |  No Comments »

Ouya console gets unboxed, is see-through – Console news

Recent news:

Ouya — the Android-powered games console — is now shipping to developers, so they can start tinkering with it and making games for us to enjoy. And to celebrate, the company behind it has posted a video unboxing of the console, Engadget reports.


You can see it after the break. The unit being sent out to developers is see-through, with all its innards on display, though this will change for the version us average punters get our hands on.


It’s a pretty compact piece of kit, about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, in a container not much bigger than a shoebox. It’s an early version of the full console, which will ship in March, so it may well still have bugs.


The controllers are transparent as well, but they’ll be customisable on the final version. There’s a new micro USB port on the console, so you can connect it straight to your PC, and a fan inside prevents overheating.


It’s made to be opened, too, so you can get tinkering with its innards.


Ouya’s Kickstarter tenure has finished, but you can still order a console from the company’s website. Us Brits will have to shell out about £76 for one, or £134 if you want four controllers. Ouya is compatible with OnLive, so should be a very handy and affordable alternative to the likes of the big boys’ consoles.


It could even be built into TVs at some point, Ouya boss Julie Uhrman suggested in an interview. It’s certainly small enough.


The only issue I can see is it could fall between two stools — much more expensive than games on your mobile, nowhere near as powerful as the likes of the PS3 and Xbox 360. But let’s hope it’s a success. And with OnLive on board, it should be able to spin high-end games without any slowdown, as all the processing is done elsewhere.


Would you buy one? Let me know in the comments, or on our Facebook page.





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Posted on January 1st, 2013 by  |  No Comments »

Saints Row-maker THQ goes bankrupt, sells upcoming games

The latest news:

Videogame giant THQ has filed for bankruptcy, agreeing to flog all of its upcoming games and development studios to an investment firm.

It’s bleak news for the Saint Row publisher, which is entering bankruptcy with a host of anticipated titles unfinished, including Homefront 2, Metro: Last Light, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Saints Row 4 and Company of Heroes 2.

Currently it looks like those games will see the light of day however, as THQ insists that its day-to-day operation won’t be hampered by the sale of almost everything it owns. Buyer Clearlake reckons the ailing publisher’s collective worth totals $60m (about £37m), GameSpot reports.

The good news is that no additional job losses are expected as a result of the bankruptcy filing, with employees usual schedules and benefits remaining intact. While it may be business as usual, moving for bankruptcy is a sign that it’s tough times for the publisher, which has been churning out games since the early nineties.

THQ’s decline was predicted earlier this year, when Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two’s CEO said, “THQ won’t be around in six months”.

GameSpot UK Editor Guy Cocker told me, “It’s been a terrible year for games publisher THQ.”

“After exiting the kids games business in January, and therefore losing successful Disney franchises such as Cars, the company has laid off hundreds of staff, closed studios, cancelled games and continued to make losses,” Guy said.

“This month, the release of THQ’s Humble Bundle, whereby people could pay what they like to download some of the publisher’s big-name games, was a reasonable success, making the company $5m. However, it wasn’t enough and this week THQ was left with no choice but to file for bankruptcy, as it was the only way the company could carry on into 2013 in any reasonable state.”

THQ boss Brian Farrell is quoted as saying, “The sale and filing are necessary next steps to complete THQ’s transformation and position the company for the future.”

He goes on to say, “We remain confident in our existing pipeline of games, the strength of our studios, and THQ’s deep bench of talent.”

Were you a fan of THQ’s games? Or does the ailing publisher need to do something different in order to survive in the future? Let me know in the comments, or on our Facebook wall.


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Posted on December 23rd, 2012 by  |  No Comments »

Games Workshop’s Space Hulk coming to iPhone, not Android

Latest games console news:

A nail-biting game of survival horror set in the rotting spaceships of the grim far future, Space Hulk scared my pants off when Games Workshop released the board game in 1989. Now it’s licensed the game to Danish app developer Full Control, which is bringing it to PC, Mac and iOS next year.


You’ll control a squad of implausibly armoured space marines trying to escape one of the titular wrecks as you’re hunted down by the merciless Genestealers — multi-armed horrors that bear more than a passing resemblance to HR Giger’s alien.


Unlike previous PC treatments of the property, new Space Hulk won’t be a first-person shooter — it’s a 3D turn-based strategy game, in the vein of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You’ll be able to play co-operatively or against each other with friends on different platforms, and even make your own maps. I’m absolutely delighted by this approach, because it stands the best chance of capturing what was so tense and thoughtful about the original.


Copenhagen-based Full Control have mainly released strategy games for the PC, Mac, iPhone and iPad previously. I asked CEO Thomas Hentschel Lund why Android wasn’t in the mix.


“We had to pick launch platforms, and we decided to go with the ones that had the right balance of ROI [return on investment], most team experience, least QA challenges and most users that are willing to pay for premium games,” Lund told me in an email.


“So while Android (and consoles and Windows RT) are not in the launch list, [that] doesn’t mean we do not want to do them in the future. But no promises. Let’s make Space Hulk first — then spread it out on a variety of platforms.


“We are not hating Android or Android users,” he says. “But it’s simply a more risky platform to launch on. Much less risky to go with solid platforms, get the game profitable and then port to more risky platforms once you see the performance of the given game.”


We’ve heard recently from the likes of the BBC and Sky that Android is harder to develop for than Apple’s iOS because of the different versions of the software and the many devices you need to support to make it worthwhile.


But Android is beginning to represent a better investment for app makers. A survey in August by app maker SwiftKey found Android users were narrowing the gap on iOS users in terms of the number of apps they had paid for. Meanwhile the number of Android users continues to skyrocket, with IDC estimating it took 68 per cent of the smart phone market in the second quarter of the year.


As Lund mentioned, however, the experience of developers is a key factor in deciding which platforms to launch on. As Apple has dominated apps for the last four years, it’ll be some time before dev teams build up sufficient experience to be confident of launching successfully on Android.


Space Hulk is due for launch sometime next year — check out the teaser trailer below, and you can find more details on the website. Do you remember the board game fondly? Are you annoyed it’s not launching on Android? Unload your comments below, or over on our hard as space-nails Facebook page.




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Posted on December 20th, 2012 by  |  No Comments »

Windows 8 will get grown-up games as Microsoft backtracks

Latest gaming news:



Shield your eyes! Microsoft has decided to allow mature games into the Windows Store after all.



Grown-ups now get to decide for themselves whether they want to pollute their eyes, brains and other squidgy bits with whatever manner of smut and filth they desire from their Windows PC. Previously Microsoft announced it wouldn’t sell any game with a 16+ PEGI rating in Europe or a Mature rating in the United States.

Games that are rated PEGI 18 for violence or other content unsuitable for delicate sensibilities will be sold on the Windows Store, the app store for Windows 8 computers and tablets.

Adult games on their way to the Windows 8 store include The Witcher and Grand Theft Auto IV, pictured above. 

Microsoft will prevent nippers from getting hold of games that could warp their tiny minds using Microsoft Family Safety, a feature that allows parents to monitor their younglings user account on your Windows 8 computer or tablet. Family Safety sends you a weekly review of your kid’s PC use, allowing you to monitor them first rather than restricting their use right from the off. You can then set extra options for limiting what your little’uns can or can’t do or how long they can do it for.

In the Windows Store, you can set a game rating level to make sure nippers can only download and play games that are appropriate to their age. Games rated higher can’t be downloaded, so they’ll have to borrow them off their mates in the playground on a floppy disk like we had to. 




Do you think Microsoft should protect our delicate sensibilities? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or on our Facebook page.






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Posted on December 19th, 2012 by  |  No Comments »

Far Cry 3 lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem: ‘The story is the game’

The writer talks about storytelling, hallucinogenic sequences and how next-gen consoles will take game-writing to new heights

Videogames are routinely accused of manifesting all sorts of failings, principally by those who would never dream of playing any of them. But one oft-heard criticism that even the most passionate gamer would concede is broadly valid is that they suffer from shallow, facile writing. Which is one of the reasons why Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3] made such an impression and generated such widespread plaudits. Its storyline was simply magnificent, displaying deep complexity, memorable characterisation and a willingness to tackle all manner of specifically 21st-century issues. So we tracked down its lead writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, who cut his teeth on Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood, and has even worked on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

The gamer as actor

Unsurprisingly, Yohalem’s thoughtful, even intellectual, approach to his craft shines through. We began by asking him whether reconciling an open-world FPS with a rich storyline was a challenge: “It was at the beginning, and that’s the reason I got into videogames. It’s all about interactivity, so defining how you tell a story through interactivity has always been my goal, and I hope that with Far Cry 3 I’ve done that. For me, the answer was about the way that the player needed to interact with the game, through shooting. That’s how the player acts. For an actor on stage, it’s all about the lines, how they say them – how the actor plays Desdemona, say. But in a game, your ability to perform comes from whatever gameplay mechanic exists, and you can move around freely. The gameplay you use to perform is shooting, collecting and operating the character.”

The gamer as actor is an attractive concept, but it has only recently come into play, as games have evolved. Indeed, 2012 was a breakthrough year for that, with a number of games arriving which let you play them in whatever style you fancied – notably Far Cry 3, of course, Dishonored and Hitman: Absolution, and we shouldn’t forget last year’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Nuanced characters

Of course, if you’re acting in your game-universe, it won’t be much fun if the characters you interact with are two-dimensional and wooden. Far Cry 3’s are highly memorable, especially the psychotic Vaas and the brain-fried Dr Earnhardt. Yohalem explains where they came from: “For me, with a story in a game, the story is the game. It’s like a puzzle. You have a house, let’s say, that hides all these secret passages that you don’t see at first glance. For me, the best stories are where, at first, you think things are a certain way, and everything makes sense on the surface, and then things start changing and transforming, so the player suffers all of these things, not the characters. So, each of these characters have secrets, and those secrets all relate to different aspects of the meaning of the game. The player gradually discovers the secret behind that character – or doesn’t discover it. But either way, you have a person who is alive, and has motivations that involve the player, and that makes it interesting.”

He continues: “Because there’s full face and body motion-capture in this game, I always write so that the words the actors are saying don’t matter – it’s the secrets that actors know about the characters. Each character has something in their past, and the words are a mask for that. So you have characters who have been through torment, like Blanche, in A Streetcar Named Desire, who is hiding dark truths behind these words and lies she comes up with. In Far Cry 3, each character is hiding something, and the actors knew that. So we worked with them, and you can see in their faces that when a character tells you one thing, in reality, behind what he’s telling you is something else.”

Tripping for a reason

Another striking aspect of Far Cry 3 is its hallucinogenic sequences. Dr Earnhardt has clearly devoted his life to turning Rook Island’s flora into powerful psychedelic drugs, and there are various junctures in the game when the character, Jason Brody, embarks on hallucinatory trips. Generally, games that have attempted psychedelia in the past have merely plumbed the depths of cringe-worthiness, but in Far Cry 3 the chemically enhanced dream-sequences are believable and deeply enjoyable. However, Yohalem maintains that he didn’t just put them in out of a sense of subversiveness: “The thing about a hallucinogenic sequence is that allows you to learn about who your character is. I don’t know whether you noticed on the island that there are flashbacks that you find and that you can play in? You can take a pill and all of a sudden, you’re back in the past. The goal with these was always, again, that story-as-game thing. So, each of these hallucinations tells the story in a fun way, and everything in them is a metaphor for something else. When there’s meaning in a story, all of the story comes together to create one overarching meaning. There’s a bunch of random weird stuff, but it’s all there for a reason, and I think that’s really powerful.”

Movie influences

Influences-wise, it’s clear that Yohalem is a major-league movie-buff: “A History Of Violence, the Cronenberg film, was a big one. Pulp Fiction, Alice In Wonderland, Animal Farm. And other essays and stuff about technology and modern society. There are a lot of issues going on in the game. The cool thing about having this large metaphor for discussion with the audience, the way that Animal Farm does, is that the characters come easily for the actors.” And he cites more influences for the games intro, a montage showing Brody and his friends engaging in a welter of partying and extreme sports on the island: “Again, with A History Of Violence, things at first are a certain way, and they gradually turn out not to be that way. If you think about the beginning of a film like The Deer Hunter, with the wedding sequence, I was trying to create a sequence at the beginning that has this generation – today’s generation – living in an unbroken fantasy, and then the game is about the breaking of that.”

Story as gameplay

Yohalem also offers an insight into how Far Cry 3’s gameplay and storyline were meshed together so seamlessly: “There were all of these artists and visionaries [working on the game] who were pushing things forwards in their different fields. We knew what Far Cry 3 was going to be – it’s part of the Far Cry universe, and those mechanics were there. On my side, I knew what they were interested in exploring, and I used the story to support that, rather than ignoring it. I think a lot of games ignore it – where they’re not really looking at the emotion that the gameplay on its own frees in the player. Or the sense of freedom that the game is supposed to give the player. I think a lot of well-intentioned stories are failing in videogames, because they are written like a film or a TV show which ignores the viewer – viewers are looking in at this thing, but they can’t grasp it, so I’m afraid those scripts are just about creating a believable world. But in a game, they should be about putting a player in that world.”

Next-gen: breaking the rules

So, with a new generation of consoles, boasting huge amounts of power to render incredibly believable characters and emulate real-life processes, waiting in the wings, what can we look forward to in the future? Will the tired sequence of cut-scene-action-cut-scene-action die a death at last? “Yes. I think we’re on a mountain overlooking a valley, and the valley would be all these things combined seamlessly. My big thing right now is that there are all these rules that are taken for granted in videogames. For example, if you’re in first person at the beginning of the game, you should be in first person for the whole game. If your character doesn’t talk for the first half-hour, he shouldn’t talk for the rest of the game. If a game isn’t in a dream world, then there shouldn’t be hallucinations in it. Or if you have a choice at a juncture in the game, then the whole game should be choices at junctures. And I think all of those are non-rules.”

“Each director should have a system of rules that they like. Just the way Stanley Kubrick films are all about something similar, and Spielberg films are all about something similar. Each time you see a Spielberg movie, you’re resuming a conversation with the same person, and it influences your expectation of what a Spielberg movie is. What I can see is that, in games, you’re going to have directors who are interested in a set of rules, and then each of their games will follow those rules. And there are no overall rules then, when directors just pick those rules that they like. You could have a game with one cut-scene in it and no other ones – and that’s OK, as long as it supports the meaning of the game.”

Games

Computing

PS3

Xbox

Microsoft

Assassin’s Creed

Steve Boxer

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Posted on December 14th, 2012 by  |  No Comments »

Zynga Poker wins big as UK’s top-grossing iPhone app in 2012

Latest games console news:

Social game has been out since mid-2010, but still out-earned all its rivals according to Apple’s App Store chart

Social games publisher Zynga had a difficult 2012, but a bright spot is the news that one of its games was the highest grossing iPhone game for the year on the UK and US App Stores.

Not a new game, though. Poker by Zynga was released in May 2010, but is sitting pretty in top spot in Apple’s Top Grossing iPhone games chart for 2012.

The chart was published today as part of Apple’s traditional end-of-year iTunes recap, which has been renamed from Rewind to simply Best of 2012 this year.

More than half the 99 iPhone apps listed in the Top Grossing chart are freemium games, with Kingdoms of Camelot and Bejeweled Blitz taking second and third places behind Poker by Zynga.

Fellow freemium games The Simpsons: Tapped Out (7), CSR Racing (9) and DragonVale (10) also make it into the top 10, alongside three social apps – Match.com (4), WhatsApp Messenger (5) and Badoo (8) – and navigation app TomTom UK & Ireland (6).

The highest grossing iPad app in the UK in 2012 was Apple’s own Pages word processor, followed by The Times, Kingdoms of Camelot, DragonVale, The Telegraph, The Guardian and Observer, QuickOffice Pro HD, Smurfs’ Village, Comics and The Sims FreePlay in the top 10.

Yes, three newspaper apps in the top 10, with The Sun (21), Daily Mail (25) and Sunday Times (38) also making it into the top half of that chart.

In terms of sheer downloads (rather than revenues), WhatsApp Messenger was the top paid app for iPhone in the UK, while Draw Something Free was the top free app. The most popular paid iPad app was Pages, while BBC iPlayer tops the free iPad apps chart.

Apple’s App Store editorial team have also chosen Editors’ Choice apps, choosing private rentals app Airbnb as their App of the Year, and another travel app, Hailo, as runner up. Rayman Jungle Run is Game of the Year, followed by Super Hexagon.

On iPad, productivity app Paper by FiftyThree is App of the Year, with cookery app Green Kitchen the runner up. Puzzle game The Room is iPad Game of the Year, followed by Eufloria HD.

Apple has also compiled themed recommendations of other recommended apps from 2012, which developers will be poring over to see if their own releases have been included, and if not, to gauge which developers and apps are currently favoured by the company.

Why is this news? Because the most lucrative day of the year for app developers is Christmas Day and the second most lucrative is Boxing Day – in both cases, because people have unwrapped new devices and are actively looking for apps to download.

In 2011, mobile analytics firm Flurry estimated that 242m iOS and Android apps were downloaded on 25 December that year, up 125% on the average daily volume earlier in the month.

Apple’s recommendations are likely to mean significant sales spikes for the paid apps chosen, a big boost for in-app purchases in the freemium ones, and increased traffic for those relying on advertising.

Google has yet to launch a similar end-of-year promotion on its Google Play store for Android, although it is also likely to be mulling its store-promotions strategy for the festive period.

With Apple’s list now public, attention on iOS will turn to a week of frenzied price-cutting and big-app releases leading up to 21 December, when Apple will freeze the App Store charts and stop putting new apps live until 28 December.

Apps and games riding high in the charts when they lock for Christmas can expect a bumper festive period.

The Best of 2012 charts are country-specific, so elsewhere in the world the rankings varied, and other apps were spotlighted by the App Store editors. For example, Poker by Zynga was still the top grossing iPhone app in the US, but DragonVale beat Pages to take top spot in the iPad rankings.

Zynga

iPhone

Apple

iPad

Games

Apps

Smartphones

Tablet computers

Stuart Dredge

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Posted on December 13th, 2012 by  |  No Comments »

Hitman Absolution – review – Console news

PC, PS3, Xbox 360; £29.99; 18+; IO Interactive

The Hitman series has always been aimed at the resolutely hardcore. And it’s not just that the game’s starring Agent 47, the most stylishly dressed killer in gaming, boasted finicky controls and punishing difficulty levels.

These titles demanded players give themselves over to its open-ended gaming structure where a combination of stoical patience and creative puzzle-solving were rewarded. Sure, you could blast your way through levels with twin-ballers if you played the games on the easiest difficulty settings. But unless you surrendered to the series’ signature stealth gameplay, the Hitman games would prove an ultimately hollow experience.

This rule of thumb has been almost completely done away with in Absolution, IO’s first Hitman game since 2006. Hints of it remain in the design of a couple of levels and the eye-watering challenge that’s presented by the highest difficulty setting. But IO have made a number of design choices aimed at broadening Absolution’s appeal beyond the core Hitman fanbase, and while there’s still plenty to admire here, unfortunately not all of the changes work in the game’s favour.

Absolution starts off with Agent 47 being sent to kill his former handler Diane Burnwood, who has betrayed the pair’s shadowy employers, The Agency. After a mission that serves as the game’s tutorial, Diane lies in a pool of blood and shower-door glass, begging 47 to protect a child named Victoria she has in her charge. He agrees, stashes Victoria in an orphanage in Chicago, and then sets out to find out why The Agency has put such a premium on acquiring her. Naturally, this investigation presents 47 with a ton of targets upon which to apply his death-dealing talents.

This rather decent plot setup unfortunately descends into a farcical mess rather quickly. Granted, the stories running through all the Hitman games are uniformly rubbish, but Absolution is silly by even their low standards. The main problem is that the game’s outlandish plot developments jar horribly with the way it’s presented as a darkly atmospheric thriller. It can’t decide whether it wants to be Grindhouse or Noir and its attempts at straddling both camps fail miserably.

This is a story about a contract killer caring for a defenceless girl at the behest of the only person he ever formed a human connection with. It’s also a story in which the protagonist fights a man the size of a brick outhouse while wearing spandex and a Lucha Libre mask in a barn that just happens to be a short walk from a top-secret subterranean science lab. As Agent 47 marches towards his final quarry, the player encounters a stream of increasingly outlandish characters, each one more depraved than the next.

In the past, the main belief players needed to suspend was that no one could see the barcode tattoo on 47’s head when he wandered into their midst in disguise. Now, one of their lesser hurdles is to accept that 47 would rely on information given to him by an ornithological fetishist covered in feathers and bird poo.

Still, as awful as the plot is, it would be acceptable if it could be ignored completely, but unfortunately, the game’s campaign contains several levels that are designed around pushing the narrative forward. This is probably Absolution’s greatest misstep because these levels also strip out the series’ traditional open-ended gameplay.

In these missions, players do have the freedom to subdue victims, swap clothes and engineer entertaining ways to dispatch NPCs. But the levels themselves are wide, linear corridors and to secure the highest rating here, the player’s goal is to make their way to an exit point without being detected. At first, these levels are rather uninteresting, but as Absolution’s checkpoint saves become more erratic, some of them become downright frustrating. At the highest difficulty, where no mid-mission checkpoints exist at all, they can transform into tedious wars of attrition.

This isn’t the rule throughout, however, as Absolution contains a few missions in the traditional vein of the series. You know, where you’re plonked down into a map filled with lethal items, accidents waiting to happen and a target (or some targets) that require Agent 47’s lethal expertise.

A mission early on in the game set in a bustling market in Chinatown is probably the campaign’s high point. Here, players are presented with an odious crime lord and a ton of ways to take him out; the range of options extends from poisoning the target’s food at his favourite noodle bar, to something as simple as pushing him down a manhole.

It’s in missions such as this, where tailing a target, learning their routes and then pulling off an intricately plotted execution is as satisfying as a kill initiated by spur-of-the-moment creativity.

In the instances in the campaign where players are encouraged to observe, plan and execute, Absolution shines brightest. They’re also the most heartbreaking aspects of the game, because they provide hints of what Absolution could have been if IO had just stuck to what made their series great in the first place.

The chocolate box of lethal delights that the open-ended missions present is enticing enough on its own, but coupled to the game’s swoon-worthy score and gorgeous visuals, it provides glimpses of a game that would have been utterly mind-blowing.

Now, before I stand accused of denigrating Absolution for not being Blood Money 2.0, allow me to point out that I think several of its new features improve on 2006’s game significantly. I do not, for example, find Instinct – the much-touted mechanic that allows 47 to see enemies through walls and NPC route paths – to be the bone of contention a lot of purists do.

Indeed, it’s a fantastic new feature offering newcomers the best gateway into the series to date – the mark and kill mechanic even offers newbies an ace in the hole if their best efforts aren’t realised mid-mission. Similarly, the scoring system and unlockables are strokes of sheer genius; with leaderboard bragging rights, new abilities and new weapons up for grabs, each mission positively cries out to be replayed every which way is possible.

Furthermore, Contracts Mode is a great addition to the Hitman package. In it, players are able to create hits based on the campaign levels and then challenge the online community with their creations. It’s true that this is something the Hitman community was doing via internet forums already and it’s slightly tarred with the less-than-brilliant design of some of the levels, but it provide players with opportunities to both create and enjoy levels where puzzle solving and a sense of fun work arm-in-arm with 47’s business of killing. In short, it feels like Hitman in its purest sense.

And that’s ultimately what’s missing from most of Absolution. The game may look better and play better than any Hitman game before it, but one can only marvel at how IO managed to lose sight of their IP’s most appealing aspects so often.

The best thing one can say about Absolution is that it’s impossible to feel ambivalent about it; players will love and loathe aspects of this game in equal measure. In Absolution, terrible ideas rub up against great ones almost on a moment-to-moment basis, and the end result is a title which is impossible to consider with the same clinical detachment that it’s protagonist is known for.

Rating: 3/5

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Nick Cowen

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Posted on December 8th, 2012 by  |  No Comments »

StoryNexus: building your own adventure games

What happens when text adventure games grow up? StoryNexus is an interactive story creation platform that hopes to let lots of people build their own answers

If you’re a veteran gamer you’ll remember the golden era of text-based adventures. The Hobbit, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Zork… titles that conjured whole worlds out of narrative descriptions and two-word player inputs.

That genre never went away, of course – interactive fiction communities still thrive on the web (a good place to look is the huge IF Archive). Often though, creating your own branching stories can be a complex undertaking; which is a where StoryNexus comes in. Billed as an interactive story platform, it allows users to create rich ‘storygames’ through an accessible point-and-click interface. These works can then be shared and even sold online.

FailBetter Games, creator of the intriguing toolkit, started out by making its own adventure, Fallen London earlier this year. Operating entirely in browser, the game presents the player with a series of storylines to follow, written out in text and explored through a randomised card system. The game uses four main stats to determine success, and opens storylines to the player based on their stats, their story choices, and the various qualities and items they collect along the way.

Alexis Kennedy, chief narrative officer at FailBetter, says: “With Fallen London, the idea was that it was both research and funding project for the StoryNexus tools. We set out to build a tool and found straight away that building an abstract perfect system set us up to fail. Fallen London gave us a place to test things and work out what we needed to build. It garnered revenue, and gathered an audience which meant we could kick off StoryNexus with 10,000 users already in the system. It also meant we ran up against the limitations of the system and could see where we needed to extend and alter our plans.”

The game launched in beta in October 2009 and final in December the same year, but since then FailBetter has been writing content for it and extending it consistently and writing hundreds of thousands of words to populate its world and satisfy its avid fans. “We have a team of three writers,” says Alexis. “That’s half the company, and myself and my co-founder both write too. But players will consume everything we can throw at them with both hands.” With that active, hungry player base, the company has spent three years refining Fallen London’s system – about 18 months longer than they’d expected, because of illness problems with their technology partner on Varytale, an earlier version of the StoryNexus tools.

Now, though, StoryNexus is starting to power ahead. Last month, StoryNexus had 180,000 registered users, mostly inactive, with a core of 20,000 active in a month. Two weeks into open beta, it had 800 words with at least a few story elements, and 40 of a playable size. The beta is likely to be a long one but a limited one, lasting until sometime in 2013, but monetisation is already turned on, and creators who make successful worlds can use FailBetter’s system to charge for certain stories within them.

Kennedy is keen to open the platform up to as many people as possible, to get people experimenting. StoryNexus requires no programming experience, though it does help to have a basic understanding of the principles, particularly how variables work, and the games it creates persist across sessions and can be dipped in and out of at will. “There is lots of really good interactive fiction that you need to download specialist tools to experience, or that takes lots of time to explore,” says Kennedy. “I wanted something where you could dive in, something browser based that could be played in chunks over the course of the day. And I want people creating and experimenting with these possibilities, collaborating sensibly with friends.

“StoryNexus is good at the things that traditional approaches aren’t so good at, but not so good at the things they are. Something that’s about the detail of navigating a complex space, or that’s about combat or detailed timings or managing very specific resources – all of those things it’s bad at. It’s good at bringing together intuitive elements that coalesce easily into story. It’s good at almost any kind of storytelling that wouldn’t fit easily into graphic systems. It’s also quite good at games where you want to be a bit ambiguous about the space you are in, or experiment with players’ relationship with the environment or with characters. There’s no direct control over an avatar.

“Relationships are the best thing – it’s really difficult to represent a relationship with a character graphically, but the writers tools in StoryNexus let you respond differently. It’s a natural fit for some games. I call these types of games story games. They are a hybrid – they are much less like games and much more like stories than most free-to-play titles.”

The StoryNexus system is primarily text based, with images to give a flavour of the events, elements and locations described, but it differs from the standard choose-your-own-adventure style branching narrative in a few ways. Small events and decisions – called storylets – are contained within a virtual playing card, and many cards are combined to form a randomised deck of options that can be dealt into the player’s hand. Rather than a branching narrative with options that lead you off on different story paths, the card system lets you build a coherent story with many different ways to explore or experience events. It’s a more ambient, more emergent, less directed storytelling system – something that has both advantages and disadvantages for creators.

Last month, FailBetter ran their first World of the Season awards, aimed at bringing attention to particularly good and interesting games created within their platform that are at least partially complete. The winners were an eclectic mix: Samsara, a tale of dreamwalking set in India in 1757; Zero Summer, a post-apocalyptic American western; and Evolve, an educational game about biology.

As with any open platform, quality will no doubt be mixed, and the appeal rather specialist – especially in this niche market of narrative, text-led games. But with awards like World of the Season, and commissioned work such as Machine Cares coming in, the community is starting to flourish.

“The majority of the games created with StoryNexus will be unfinished, dreadful, extremely specialist interest, or all three,” says Kennedy. “But if we promote the good stuff, players will make their way to it. If some monetise, and we can take a cut, then I hope everyone wins. Creators retain copyright and get revenue and we recoup the costs of building and retaining the platform, and we can cross-promote between games on the platform. Everyone benefits.”

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Mary Hamilton

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Posted on December 7th, 2012 by  |  No Comments »