Thursday 22 March 2018

Thimbleweed Park - a review

What's this? A review!? We'll be getting into the weeds on this one...

For gamers of a certain age, point-and-click adventure games – the LucasArts classics from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, in particular – elicit a special kind of nostalgia. Personal computing began to hit the mainstream at that time and, for many, it was these games that occupied their first formative hours in front of a computer screen. Ron Gilbert’s SCUMM engine, first used on his and Gary Winnick’s Maniac Mansion, replaced the command line text input from earlier adventure games with a more intuitive user interface. An onscreen menu of verbs and items would allow the player to, for example, USE the CROWBAR on the DOOR simply by clicking the respective elements.

It’s still an elegant system, although after three decades of breadcrumb trails, glowing objects and handholding, it can feel a little archaic to a newcomer. However, Gilbert and Winnick’s mandate for the crowdfunded Thimbleweed Park wasn’t to reinvent or modernise the genre; they promised to take all the lessons learned from those historic titles and create an ‘undiscovered’ SCUMM game of that era, with only a smattering of modern conveniences. It was a pitch that translated into Kickstarter success, but does the end result hold up in the harsh light of 2018? And how does the experience translate to Switch?

The investigation begins in 1987 as FBI agents Reyes and Rey (Thimbleweed’s very own Mulder and Scully) arrive in the eponymous town to solve a murder. Along the way you’ll encounter further characters including Ransome, a washed-up celebrity clown, and Dolores Edmund, a young adventure game programmer. Working in tandem, each puzzle you solve will reveal that all is even stranger than it initially seems, which is fitting given the overt Twin Peaks and X-Files influences. The story threads wry nods to nerd culture throughout and even a passing knowledge of the LucasArts catalogue will have you grinning as you explore the various locales, from diner to sewer, post office to mansion, hotel to pillow factory.

Difficulty-wise, you are given complete control to tailor the game to your liking. The verb-noun interface may take some getting used to if you are unfamiliar with the system but anyone who has tinkered with the SCUMM engine will feel at home immediately. Casual mode reduces the number of puzzles for a breezier experience but, for those who want the full-fat game, the developers have also included a comprehensive ‘Tips Helpline’ accessed by dialling ‘HINT’ (4468) into any in-world telephone (and yes, one character does carry a pleasingly brick-like mobile phone.) This system is a godsend to those of us with brains averse to adventure game logic. Hints depend entirely on your progress and are cleverly oblique, nudging you in the right direction until, should your patience wear thin, they will state explicitly where you need to go, what you need to do and with who. Thankfully, no puzzle in Thimbleweed is as inscrutable as some of the LucasArts adventures, but the hint helpline prevents the kind of frustration that had this scribe quitting Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis twenty-five years ago. It’s also totally optional so hardcore gamers needn’t worry about their game being sullied in the name of convenience.

While your mileage may vary regarding the legacy interface, the quality of the writing is right up there with the original games. It would have been easy for Thimbleweed to buckle under the weight of references and knowing winks, but Gilbert takes the cheeky spirit of the classics and weaves nostalgia in without getting bogged down and alienating players who don’t have those reference points. Most of the references sit in the background and there is even an option to remove the in-jokes if you are easily confused and/or humourless. One imagines most players coming to this game will be acquainted with the lineage, but the story doesn’t assume knowledge.

Another area where Thimbleweed Park manages to match the classics is the visual presentation. Winnick’s pixel art beautifully captures the spirit of the old games and it looks great on the Switch’s 720p screen. Touch controls work as expected, although you will never achieve the precision of a pointer using your finger. Holding a digit on the screen for a moment will handily highlight all interactive elements. Although never a huge problem, your hand will necessarily obscure the screen as you tap and there is a little trial and error involved in selecting the smaller items. When docked, Joy-Con controls work well, too. Both sticks operate the cursor, with the right offering slower, finer movement. It is the best you will get on a conventional pad, although it is a shame pointer controls are not present to replicate the precision of a mouse. We will keep our fingers crossed for a patch.

For the most part, Thimbleweed Park succeeds marvellously in its goal to present an ‘unearthed’ treasure from the heyday of point-and-click, and the Switch version’s touchscreen controls and portability make it as accessible as possible. It’s not for everyone - if adventure games don’t set your pulse racing, there is nothing here that is going to convert you. But Thimbleweed Park proves to be more than a simple homage – it earns its place with The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle in the pantheon of great adventure games. For anybody curious about the genre, there’s no better place to start.

Wednesday 7 March 2018

The Rule of 4 or 5: Xbox 360 - PLUS! The 7th Gen Multiplatform 4 or 5

Ah, the 360. The Xbox 360. What a machine! It laid the blueprint for a 21st century console and presented online gaming to the masses. However, unusually for such successful hardware, it boasted few essential exclusives. While Nintendo rowed out into the blue ocean with the Wii, Sony’s PlayStation 3 quickly gained a reputation for being hard to program for. With their main competitor at the height of their hubris ("$599!"), Microsoft sunset the original Xbox early and rushed the 360 out the door to gain a head start on the seventh generation. And it worked. That lead time, plus its robust, hassle-free online experience saw 360 eclipse its predecessor. Sony could bang on about the Cell processor all day long, but it would take years for developers to figure the damn thing out and third parties just didn’t have the time. Subsequently, multiplatform titles routinely looked and played better on 360, with its familiar PC-like architecture. In fact, it was so great that not even the costliest design fault in console history could kill it. The rush to market meant cutting QA corners which resulted in dashboard updates bricking consoles, drives scratching game discs and the infamous Red Ring of Death. This catastrophic own goal would have ended any other company but Microsoft had a reputation to uphold and the billion dollars required to do so. I only went through one console myself – many had several die on them. It’s a testament to Microsoft’s handling of these issues and the sheer awesomeness of the games that the 360 is still so well regarded.

And what games they are! Pulling up the All-Time list on Metacritic, you see a deluge of remarkable titles. Again, there are some big name exclusives like Halo and Gears of War, but the majority of the roster is third-party titles. It was the wealth and variety of third-party games that made the 360 great, plus the birth of the quality indie scene which Xbox Live Arcade helped usher in. With Sony disappearing up its own arse with PS3, the Xbox 360 was a simple, competent and confident console. Roles would reverse for the following generation, but the Xbox 360 was king of the seventh gen (... okay, that's not statistically true – it was more of a hearts-and-minds thing. Nintendo actually sold over 20 million more Wiis, and the PS3 would eventually crawl up to sales parity with 360, give or take a million.)

But is the console itself worth owning today? From an aesthetic standpoint… probably not. Even the final SKU, the smaller 360 E, was a nondescript slab of glossy plastic, and those faceplates from the original model couldn’t disguise its ugliness. The S variant is probably the best looking of the bunch. However, considering the incredible software library, surely tracking down a late production model is a no-brainer, right? Well, actually no. Ironically, thanks to Microsoft’s new-found commitment to backwards compatibility with the Xbox One S and X, reasons to own a 360 Core, Pro, Elite, Arcade, S or E are fast disappearing. According to Wikipedia, at the time of writing Xbox One boasts compatibility with 465 of the 1232 released games. Some even play smoother and higher-res thanks to some clever engineering. Why bother with a dodgy second-hand red ringer when you can get those games on a nice, quiet, current gen console with all the mod-cons? Backwards compatibility is a prime reason why I’ll be eyeing a cheap One S when I upgrade to a 4K TV.

So then, the games! An issue arises here because many of my favourites on the system were multiplatform titles and, of course, The Rule of Four or Five only applies to exclusive experiences. With this in mind, I’m going to tag on an extra special 7th Gen Multiplat' 4 or 5.

Quick note – yes, I played Halo and Gears. Yes, they were fine. Onwards.

Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts – Rare
So, it was this and Bioshock that made me buy a 360. The core systems here were incredibly well designed, with a vehicle editor that’s intuitive and simple but allows for some wonderfully complex creations. Indeed, building and testing your contraptions is a joy. And it all looks and sounds beautiful. The writing was still great, and Lego-loving, Banjo-banging tinkerers like me were content to fiddle in the editor, build the USS Enterprise and test it out over Nutty Acres. The problem, then, is that Rare failed to make the ‘game’ part fun. The worlds are populated with monotonous races and fetch quests that fail to make use of the incredible toybox. I’d have brought in more structural puzzles that asked players to build makeshift towers and bridges and knock them over and things, in addition to the vehicle aspect. Oh, it had so much potential! But I forgive ‘em. Not for Trophy Thomas, mind. He can rot.
Also available on: Xbox One (included on the Rare Replay compilation)

Forza Motorsport 2 – Turn 10
For some reason, Forza struck the sweet spot for me between dry simulation and shiny arcade racer. Early on I did something I’d never done in a racer before – I switched from Auto to Manual, mapping the shift to the right stick, flicking up and down to go through the gears. It transformed the experience and it began to feel like driving for the first time ever. I started with braking and turning assists and gradually switched them off one by one. I even bought the excellent 360 Steering Wheel with force feedback. I wish the rewind feature from subsequent entries had been present, but this is still the only simulation-esque racer that I’ve ever got on with. Great soundtrack, too.

Fable II – Lionhead
I only played this once though but it was a fantastic surprise. I remember a colourful, beautiful game, and I remember loving my dog. I remember running around Bowerstone as a child with the soundtrack full of picking strings. I remember the stupid haircuts and the chickens. I remember the cliffside trails and the seasons of Oakfield and the sunsets. And I remember the joy of resurrecting my dog in the DLC. A wonderful game.

Project Gotham Racing 4 – Bizarre Creations
What’s this? Another ‘realistic’ racing game?! This was a slick game. I have great memories of winding around the streets of London on a Ducati in the pissing rain with The Shins’ Australia on repeat. It looked incredible at the time, with detailed cockpit views and weather effects. The kudos system encouraged lairy driving, and I did. A hell of a feeling when you nailed a perfect slide around a corner. And it also had a Geometry Wars game tucked in there!

The One(s) That Got Away:

CrackdownIt was supposed to be great. Never played it. Shoulda.

While compiling this list I kept hitting a wall with multiplatform games. As good as the above list is, I’m not sure any of them would be on there if the following games were platform exclusives. All of the following titles are available in loads of places - often across generations - but they all originated in this console cycle. So, as a bonus, let’s look at my seventh generation multiplatform top 5. So much to choose from! And yes, I did play GTA and Red Dead Redemption.

Bioshock – 2K
As previously mentioned, this, along with Nuts and Bolts, made me get an Xbox. The imagery and music of Rapture drew me in from the first trailer and it started a new wave of narrative shooters that pilfered its storytelling tricks. Those tricks soon palled from overuse, but those conveniently left audio diaries were very effective the first time round.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – Infinity Ward
Captain Price, baby! I’d jump off a building for that dude. This game put down the blueprint for military shooter narratives and multiplayers for the next decade. The sequels were sullied with outrageous and outlandish near-future baloney, but Soap, Gaz, Price and Co. formed a perfect squad in this original outing and it’s still the high watermark for any spectacle FPS.

The Orange Box - Valve
Hang on - you get Portal and the Half-Lives 2 AND Team Fortress 2? This ain’t cheating, guv' – this is an amazing package. I barely even played TF2 and this thing still represents the best 40 quid I ever spent. Portal alone would get this on the list.

Left4Dead – Valve
Valve get a second entry on the list here. The AI Director is the star of the show here, tailoring each session to ensure your nails get ripped down to sore, bloody stubs. This represents some of the very best online multiplayer I ever played.

Braid – Number None
Here to buck the FPS trend and represent the birth of the mainstream indie revolution, Braid tells a complex story that’s baked into the systems of the game, one of obsession and regret, and uses the medium and the players’ expectations to make it relatable and affecting. The way the mechanics convey the narrative and implicate the player is the reason it makes this list over many other candidates.

Honourable Mentions:
Dark Souls II
Need For Speed Most Wanted (2012)

The Multiplatform One(s) That Got Away:
Burnout Paradise