Now Playing: Final Fantasy XI

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While I’ve been scarce for the past couple of months, I’ve reacquainted myself with an old friend, Final Fantasy XI.

I really thought I was done with this game. I mean, I was completely through. I deleted all of my character data, cancelled my subscriptions and said farewell to all of my linkshell friends years ago. I moved on from my first-ever MMO, and so did they.

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We had some good times, but my old guild has moved on.

And then, in mid-September, I got an email from a good, real-life friend back in the States who proposed jumping back in for one last hurrah. The kicker was that it wasn’t just him; it was also a few other of my close friends. Seeing that I’m still stuck in UK visa limbo, I couldn’t resist. I had dropped this game because I had too much going on, and what better time to play than when I have absolutely nothing on my plate?

So, here I am about two months in and still having a blast with the game that changed my life nearly eight years ago. The kicker is that I’m probably having as much fun now as I ever did. Things are different, to be sure, but I’m finding joy in new places. For instance, the game’s difficulty has been curbed considerably, and as a casual player I’m able to experience a whole slew of story content that was previously inaccessible.

After eight years, I finally completed my nation’s story missions.

It’s also great running around with the friends I can’t currently hang out with. It helps keep us close and lets us feel like we’re actually doing something, even if we are just staring at avatars. There’s no obsessing about gear or scheduled events, and it’s more about just exploring, helping each other and having fun–as it should be I think. It’s good to be back.  

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Now Playing: Super Mario Kart

As I write this, I’m listening to my wife plow her way through Mass Effect in the living room. While this is awesome, it also means the big daddy TV is off the table. And instead of lugging the consoles around the house, I’m taking this opportunity to do some retro gaming.

Right now I am playing another of my all time favourites, and that’s Super Mario Kart for the SNES. I have to say, this little gem never loses its lustre. Playing it today, it’s hard to believe it’s now twenty (YES, TWENTY!) years old. I remember waiting in line at the local Toys R Us just to get my five minutes in with this baby, and when I got it for Christmas it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. My parents even played it with me. Good times.

Yoshi’s been hitting that banana for twenty years

Even though I come back to this game every couple of years, it’s a little surprising how well it holds up, even by today’s standards. The Mode 7 graphical scrolling technique that Nintendo used, while very simple, provides a degree of control that was way ahead of its time in 1992. I guess that’s part of what makes it a classic. Without such precision you would be pretty screwed with all of the bananas and shells flying around.

Suck it, Bowser. I’m a deadeye with the red shell.

Anyway, I don’t want to ramble on and on. I just wanted to share what I’m playing this weekend. Anyone else booting up the old stuff, too?  

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Now Playing: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

This week I’m playing one of my favourite games of all time. It is a game I can play again and again, and like a good blockbuster it starts with a bang and doesn’t let up till the credits roll. That game is Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, by Naughty Dog.

Every once in a while I’ll play a game that really makes an impression on me–a landmark title if you will. A game everyone can relate to is Super Mario 64 with its pioneering use of analog controls in a fully realized 3D world. Grand Theft Auto 3 is another big one. Finally a game that let me unleash my inner gangster on the helpless denizens of a virtual city! Now don’t be shocked, but I’m going to lump Uncharted in with these greats, because it was with this game that I first felt like I was an active participant in a in a truly cinematic adventure. What I mean to say is that when I play Uncharted I feel like I’m playing a movie.

One of the gripes I’ve always had with games is that no matter how good the acting or writing is, the characters themselves are usually stiffly animated and nowhere near the quality of something you would find in a film. Even today it’s not unusual to see mouths moving about like ventriloquist dummies instead of real people, and this can really spoil a moment, no matter how good the dialogue is. The folks at Naughty Dog recognized this over five years ago, and because they decided to put in the extra effort, the whole cast of Uncharted comes alive like none other. True, the voice actors do an excellent job, but the characters wouldn’t be nearly as endearing if they weren’t so lovingly animated.

I really care about these guys

Not only does Uncharted’s acting suck you in, but its action does too. It has just about everything I could ask for in an adventure title. There is solid platforming, engaging gunplay, a pulse-pounding car chase, a girl, a treasure and an ancient evil. I will admit that while some of the gameplay mechanics are not perfect (cheap enemy grenade tactics!), Uncharted brings so many things together in such a beautiful package that it’s easy to overlook the small things.

Jet ski + explosions = win!

As I play Uncharted again this week, I realize I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve done it before. There are so many games sitting untouched on my shelves, and I should probably be playing them instead. Yes, I am replaying Uncharted over Arkham City, Red Dead Redemption and others. Maybe I should have my head examined; I don’t know. Or maybe it doesn’t really matter as long as I’m having fun. I’m thinking that’s the right answer. And I am having fun… crazy, ridiculous, maddening fun… on the “crushing” difficulty setting no less. Platinum trophy, here I come!  

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Now Playing: Darksiders

I know I’m a little late to the party with this one, but for the past couple of weeks I’ve been working my way through Darksiders. I’m going to put this right out there and say that the game has really surprised me, and it’s the most fun I’ve had with a new IP in a good while. For anyone out there that doesn’t know, Darksiders is an action/rpg in the vein of Legend of Zelda, and it’s also the freshman effort from developer Vigil Games.

You may have heard, but the thing about Darksiders is that it doesn’t do anything terribly original. It is a very good game though, and unfortunately it’s often slated for the fact that it borrows heavily from other big name franchises like Zelda, God of War and, surprisingly, Portal. I was intrigued when Darksiders was released a couple of years ago, but some negative press dismissing it a shameless rip-off placed it low on my priority list. It was only last month when it became free as part of PlayStation Plus that I finally decided to take a crack at it, and I’m glad I did.

Darksiders is free as part of PlayStation Plus in the UK

I should say that as I grow older, the more nostalgic I am becoming. I find myself watching old TV shows, listening to music from my childhood, playing old games, etc. Hell, I even bought some 8-bit pixel art for my house last week. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that there is comfort to be found in the familiar, and I think this is a big part of why I like Darksiders so much. With so many games nowadays trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s nice to have something that’s comfortable. Although I’m playing this game for the first time, I often feel like I’ve played it before, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As grizzly as Darksiders is on the surface, I keep getting these warm, fuzzy feelings when I obtain a classic power-up or extend my life bar.

Dungeons contain small keys, boss keys and power-ups–all of which are needed for progression

Some people have called Darksiders a rip-off, but to me that implies cash-in, and that’s not how I see it. It’s obvious that a lot of effort went into making this game, and coming from a talented new studio, I see Darksiders as more of a loving homage. Truthfully, it feels like the kind of game my friends and I would create if given the opportunity. I can just imagine the team at Vigil brainstorming in the early stages of development: Guy No. 1, “You know, I really like Zelda, but what if it were darker? We could take that formula to a level Nintendo wouldn’t dare.” And Guy No. 2, “We could make it violent and really expand the combat. We all like DMC and GoW, right?” Yes, guys, we do.

Definitely not heralding from Nintendo’s camp, this is our protagonist, War

If you play Darksiders it becomes pretty clear that the team at Vigil have a lot in common with their audience. These guys play games–not just make them–and they have their favourites. What they have done is take the standout elements from many of these and combine them into a very entertaining amalgamation. I love the Zelda formula, and especially what Nintendo have been doing with the franchise recently, but I would be lying if I said there weren’t times when I’d entertained the possibility of a more mature title. It seems like Vigil thought that, too, and that’s what they’ve given us in Darksiders.

Being a horseman of the apocalypse means you do some generally not-nice things

I’ll wrap this up by saying that while I am not preaching an across-the-board “if it ain’t broke” philosophy to games development, I do think it’s fun to experience a new spin on stuff that’s been done before—if that makes any sense. Ultimately, if you like some of the influential games that I’ve mentioned above, then chances are you will like Darksiders, too. It’s familiar and new at the same time, and I’m excited to finish it play future titles from this studio starting with Darksiders II next month.  

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The Gamely Gamer Says Hello

First thing’s first; I should probably introduce myself. My name is Andrew, and for this blog I’ve adopted the moniker of The Gamely Gamer. Let’s hope I don’t get tired of it in a week’s time (/sarcasm!). Anyway, I believe it describes me well as I’m a competitive, generally happy person, and this blog is mainly going to be about gaming and how it relates to my life.

I’ve been gaming for as long as I’ve been able to hold a controller, and my first console experience was with the NES smack in the middle of the ’80s. As a Ninja Turtles pyjama sporting, proton pack wielding badass looking for adventure, the NES was a godsend. Probably the best gift I’ve ever received from my aunt and uncle, I spent hours upon hours blasting ducks at point-blank range and hopping through abstract worlds looking for my princess. So, from an early age I was hooked, and despite various pressures to spend time on “cooler” things, I continued to game through school and college.

Now I’m an adult, and as someone who’s always enjoyed reading about games nearly as much as playing them, I’ve been thinking recently that maybe it’s time I do some writing of my own. So, for this blog, sometimes I may talk about what I’m playing, and other times I may offer my take on industry news. Having just moved to the United Kingdom may also be a talking point as I make various observations about differences in games and culture. I’m one for nostalgia, too, and I may end up doing a fair amount of retrospectives. But wherever this blog goes, it will always be about one thing: the games.

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Oh, and I’m also looking to make some friends, so add or message me if I seem vaguely interesting or if we have common tastes. My favourite genres are action, adventure, platformer and RPG.  

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Most Anticipated Post E3 2010: FFXIV

That’s right. Among all of the announcements from Sony and Microsoft, and even with Nintendo pulling on my heartstrings, FFXIV ends up being my personal most anticipated game of E3 2010.

I realize there are better games out there, but Square’s new MMO has grabbed my full attention and then some. As one of the original FFXI alum, I’ve been fighting the urge to revisit that game for the past couple of years knowing that it wouldn’t be the same going back. Then when I got wind of FFXIV about a year ago, I resolved to hold out for the new installment.

Looking at the footage for XIV, I think I made the right decision. I know a lot of people love to hate XI, but I am someone who really enjoyed it. And to be honest, I would have probably been happy with a few minor tweaks, new areas and some HD graphics. Fortunately, it looks like Square has done a lot more than that with the new classes, combat, factions, etc., but they’ve kept enough so it’s still very familiar. Essentially, it looks like they’re crafting a worthy successor, and I can’t wait to dive into the world of Eorzea later this year.

If any one else is excited about Final Fantasy XIV, I’d like to hear your thoughts too. Did you play XI? Do you think XIV is headed in the right direction, or is it too similar/dissimilar? Stuff like that. And thanks for checking out my blog.

Edit: Oh, and just in case anyone cares, my second most anticipated title is actually the new Twisted Metal.

Yep, as much as I love to gush about Nintendo (and I did a lot of that last time), my two most anticipated games of this year’s show are actually on the PS3. Here’s hoping they’re both winners.

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