Smell the Plastic

In a recent Guardian interview with Damon Albarn, I was ecstatic to learn some tangible information about Gorillaz’ third album.

The biggest news from this was learning that the album is indeed to be called Plastic Beach – referring to package waste, nature and the world’s relationship with such substances. I was also surprised to hear that artists, Snoop Dog, Lou Reed, Mos Def, Barry Gibb and Bobby Womack could all be appearing on the album in some fashion.

This is close to the best piece of music news I’ve heard all year. I’m not a follower of popular music, but Gorillaz changed my perspective on the ideals and issues that mainstream musicians explore in their art. I’m more pumped then I’ve ever been for an album since I discovered what a B-side actually is.

What do video game characters do in their free time?

When they’re not involved in matters of galactic security, plotting devious schemes to dispose of their nemesis or stuck somewhere in transit, what do video game characters get up to?

This is a question that’s crossed my mind every so often, and particularly when I see video game characters engaging in things we don’t normal see them see them doing, such as eating, relaxing or even sleeping. It’s also quite amusing when they step outside of their demanding schedules to appear in promotional campaigns and advertising for their latest hot release, just as Daxter does here and here.

Here’s what I imagine a few well-known heroes and villains are doing…

Sonic (Sonic the Hedgehog 2) – Fed up with being called back to appear in mediocre platformers. Now doing everything he can to break into the extreme sports scene. Also, owns a controlling stake in the world’s largest chilidog franchise.

Cloud (Final Fantasy VII) – Testing hi-spec motorcycles around the world for Honda, Suzuki and Ducati. Spend an outrageously long time combing his proud hair.

Jin Kazama (Tekken 3) – Regularly visiting the gym to pump up. Hoping to meet that special someone, while ridding himself of the devil within.

Ryo Hazuki (Shenmue) – busying himself in his Japanese kitchen becoming a professional chef. Still ponders why Sega won’t green light Shenmue III.

Daxter (Jak and Daxter: the Precursor Legacy) – displeased with the recent lack of media and public attention, Daxter has been penning scripts for his own full-length action movie debut. So far, no takers.

Ratchet and Clank (Ratchet & Clank) – Having just finished a worldwide press tour for their latest intergalactic production, the starring duo are looking forward to a well earned rest full of sun, sea and sand.

Jade (Beyond Good & Evil) – After a rather controversial investigative journalism story on the French government’s undisclosed spending, Jade has had to lay low for a while. She’s currently somewhere in the Far East, posing as an independent courier and living off of noodles most of the time.

Bonmucho (LocoRoco) – Still has a fetish for Adolf Hitler-like moustaches, hates children, singing, choirs and generally anything to do with happy communities. Still living with his mother, coping with a depression problem and listening to a lot of emo music.

343 Guilty Spark (Halo 3) – Currently auditioning for roles as a midlevel AI in various sci-fi movies, including Star Trek 2 and Transformers 3.

Bowser (Super Mario Galaxy) – Constantly angry at himself and his minions, Bowser spends all day pacing his office, throwing darts at a printout of Mario’s face and plotting his next kidnapping of Princess Peach.

Competitive Coverage: Sony & Microsoft

Recently I read a post on Edge Online about the trials a small indie developer has had to go through to get hold of development units from Sony and Microsoft.

It got me thinking, and I couldn’t help noticing certain similarities between independent games development and independent games coverage.

No matter what business you’re involved in – sports, fashion, raw materials – you always have a certain audience, or client, to satisfy. When it comes to games development for consoles, you have to get friendly with the hardware manufacturers if you want any hope of getting your hands on a devkit. When it comes to games journalism, its predominately public relations you’ll be dealing with.

When you’re in the media, readers are your bread and butter, so timey and high quality coverage cannot be overlooked. And with the speed and efficiency of today’s media organisations reader expectations are higher than ever. You go to any major consumer media site these days and you’ll see product reviews published on the day of release, or maybe even a week before. Even fansites with large readerships are getting a piece of the action these days – and to great effect.

So, if your little slice of the web doesn’t get much traffic it can be tremendously tough to keep up with the Joneses.

When it comes to my own publication, I’ve learnt to value and respect the position PRs are in. They notify you of important events, they regularly send out press releases, they are the verbal gatekeepers for their respective client(s) and, most importantly, they allocate review code.

Years ago I use to think that game companies had an inexhaustible supply of review copies to send to press. Turns out it doesn’t quite work that way. Depending upon the publisher and title, there might be 30 review copies or there may be 300. Then it works on a hierarchy basis: first the specialist websites and print magazines, then the mainstream press, then lifestyle and television and so on. And it’s the same thing when it comes to one-to-one interviews at events.

Should you not manage to get hold of the hot new release or snag that 10 minute interview timeslot, you’ll be in hot water when publishing time comes around and everybody’s reading every other site but yours.

In order to make the gatekeepers sit up and take notice I’ve had to grow a thick skin and be real tenacious about how I approach requesting review code and interviews.

Much like the devs in the blog post, though I may not have realised it, I too have been trying to play Sony and Microsoft off each other. Reviews for Sony and Microsoft titles have appeared in Platform Magazine (often in the same month), I’ve mingled with representatives from both companies trying to drum up contacts, and articles we’ve published have shown support, but also some scepticism, for both companies.

Getting into this business has already begun to change my outlook on the industry. Developers need to eat and journalists do too. There was a time when I would have been happy covering PlayStation titles alone, but things don’t seem so simple any more. Playing the ‘media game’ is tough beans. As long as I’m sensible and it leads to new and up-to-date coverage for readers, I think it’s good to encourage a bit of healthy competition between Sony and Microsoft.

Japan is Disappearing

Well, no, that’s not entirely true. Japan’s fine. However, when it comes to the UK releases of Japanese video games, I can’t shake off this sense that they are steadily becoming more uncommon.

There are plenty of big name Japanese franchises – Super Mario, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil – that are showing no signs of slowing on these shores. But these aren’t the ones I’m concerned about.

Games like Valkyria Chronicles, Everybody’s Golf: World Tour, Gitaroo Man Lives! and Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! – innovative, refreshing, culturally defining games – are being given limited shelf life by their cautious publishers. These games may be outwardly peculiar – thus only appealing to a small niche – but that’s what makes them so great. They’re a world part from the raft of generic shooters and third-person action games we see every day.

These days it feels like quirky Japanese new releases are there one minute and gone the next. Take Eternal Sonata for example. This JRPG, from Namco Bandai, was released on Xbox 360 in 2007 and on PS3 in February this year. When the PS3 version arrived in stores I saw a very small number of copies on display. Eight months later the game has all but disappeared from stores. It’s still out there, but with demand being so low the game remains full price, and I’m positive retailers will have been given a finite number of copies.

Of course, things are much better on the import side these days. Global economy has encouraged game companies in every region to sell their products worldwide. And new releases can be imported from sites like Play-Asia at a relatively low cost price. Plus, PS3, PSP and DS are all region free, meaning you can buy that copy of Ni no Kuni: The Another World and play it without importing a whole new piece of hardware.

Importing games has opened up a new video game paradigm to me. Ingenious genre mash-ups, distinctive characters, art and music, and bewildering menus filled with so much Kenji and Engrish that it would be easier to find your way to the lavatory blindfolded then navigate your way to the options screen. So, if there are no longer any PAL releases in sight for Klonoa (Wii), Me & My Katamari, Zack & Wiki, Yakuza 3, Okamiden: Chiisaki Taiyo and BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger I can try importing them.

What’s more, actually having the opportunity to play import games has encouraged me to seek out even more press coverage of international titles (who’d of thought geriatric monster torment, Demon’s Souls, would be such a hit with critics?).

Unfortunately, foiling EU trade restrictions won’t help me in my quest to attain the ultra rare Space Channel 5: Part 2 for PlayStation 2 – a region locked Japanese copy will refuse to give me the scoop if I play it on an EU console.

If some Japanese new releases are getting pulled from UK shelves early then there’s even more reason for open-minded gamers to snap them up while they still can. I, myself, am still hunting for several Japanese titles I missed over the years – perhaps not by coincidence, a lot of them happen to be from Namco. After all, where else could you witness a gigantic mess-ball rolling up everything in sight?

The Promise of Pre-rendered Video

Have you ever wondered who creates all of those fabulous pre-rendered CG trailers for video games?

Well you might expect some of them to be made internally, just as SCEE’s Creative Services Group do, and you’d be right.

But, in addition to internally developed assets, many of the CG clips that end up in some of our favourite game trailers, TV spots and promotional campaigns are actually created by external companies.

Companies such as Realtime UK, a CG production company based in Lancashire, UK. Just recently, it came to my attention that they were commission by SCEE to produce the original eye-watering announcement trailer for MotorStorm that was shown at Sony’s E3 2005 press conference.

What you may not have seen is the uncut version of that trailer. Take a look at Realtime UK’s portfolio. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. I also recommend the ‘Agrobot’, ‘Split/Second’ and ‘Reel 2008’ videos.

Though they can be misleading – sometimes pre-rendered concepts can be criticised for making games look better than they actually are – these cinematics are still fascinating.

Fox’s Bite

Right. It’s time for another spur-of-the-moment post-screen film review. After a long hiatus of what has indeed been months, I popped off to the pictures to see Jennifer’s Body tonight with a friend. Before you ask, it wasn’t my pick – I’m no fan of Megan Fox. So, before I lose my way and start heading off into uncomfortable innuendo territory, let’s take a bite straight out of this sensual filmic body, shall we?

Going in, I could tell from the title that this film was going to be all about Megan Fox. More specifically, her body – well it couldn’t really be about her acting, could it now? This is another ordinary-glam-girl-become-vampire story, with the added bonus (or torture) of fitting around the social order of a small US high school. It’s told through the eyes of Jennifer’s best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried), who’s you’re typical unpopular, would-prefer-to-study-than-go-to-cheerleader-practice, quiet girl.

Seyfried surprised me by adding a likable softness to the film’s pandering dark edge. That said, Jennifer’s Body, written by Juno writer, Diablo Cody, is a clumsy mix between dark comedy, teen popcorn flick and heroine thriller. I don’t think the filmmakers had any intention of saying anything relevant with this film. Having seen Juno’s refreshing take on teen pregnancy, there were moments where Cody’s knack for showing us relationships from a different feminine perspective than audiences are used to seeing on-screen shone through.

However, most of the time it just felt like “oh look, it’s Megan Fox in hot pants, and she’s eating boys!” From innocent love making juxtaposed with bloody murder and black tar barf ups to lesbian kissing, this film is begging you to take it at face value. It’s just the sort of thing the grudge girls of my high school days would swoon over and then buy all the merchandise they could get their hands on.

Really, I can’t recommend Jennifer’s Body. It’s barely humorous, the plot has very little to it (beyond seeing Megan Fox in yet another low-cut outfit) and the events are nothing original. The film doesn’t try anything new and it becomes such a mishmash of absurdity by the end that you simply laugh its premise. If millimetre skirts were a sign of excellence Megan Fox would be a brain surgeon and Jennifer’s Body would be Box Office gold. This tale of school girl slut turned vampire vixen is attention grabbing, but we’ve seen its charms before.

5 PSN games I couldn’t do without

In the past five years the market for digital game downloads has exploded. Xbox Live got the ball rolling with a number of popular arcade re-releases and PlayStation Network has brought a collection of innovate new titles to gamers worldwide. While not as activate as the other two, the Wii has also played its part in getting people to jump into the online marketplace with Virtual Console and WiiWare.

The big difference with downloadable titles, versus their physical counterparts, is that because they are ready to play at the touch of a button, the impulse to play them whenever you have a spare moment is even greater. Here are some of my PSN favourites that do just that.

1. Calling All Cars! (PS3)
This was the last game David Jaffe, the outspoken, controversial game designer, made while still on the payroll at SCEA. It’s criminal that a game as addictive and charming as Calling All Cars! has been left to dwindle on the digital store shelf like dirty washing in a jail cell. All puns aside, this is a great arcade multiplayer game. It’s easy to get into, balanced to near perfection and it keeps you coming back.

2. PixelJunk Monsters (PS3)
PixelJunk Monsters is tower defence for the working man (or woman). Ballistics, cannon balls, tesla towers and tribal dancing. Strategy and memory are essential here. Cutesy art design and some absolutely hummable tunes (courtesy of Otograph) make this a joy to play whenever your busy schedule gives you a free moment. A deluxe version was recently released for PSP featuring a whole new island to save.

3. Flower (PS3)
The second abstract work from the visionary gamemakers at thatgamecompany. Flower is an experience unlike anything you’ve interacted with before on a home console. You simply tilt the controller, gliding gently on the breeze as petals flow through the scenic environments. A beautiful escape.

4. Super Stardust HD (PS3)
3D Asteroids. That’s what Super Stardust HD is all about. But this isn’t a rip-off of the 1979 classic with a shinier coat. It’s an arcade classic reborn with new ways to deform space debris. Believe me, once you’ve discovered the lifesaving usefulness of the gold melter there’s no going back. You’ll be hooked from dusk till dawn. Still haven’t got that ‘Late Bomber’ trophy though.

5. WipEout HD (PS3)
Eye-blisteringly fast anti-gravity craft, neon circuits filled with more futuristic detail than an Audi concept car and visual effects so bright they paint a kaleidoscope of HD colours across your screen, transfixing you with each arrangement. WipEout HD is special in so many ways – it’s a technical marvel, it plays like a dream and it has the longevity to last as long as any retail release. With its sonic speeds and trace-inducing rhythms this is my number one PSN fix. It’s the epitome of a downloadable deal. So much so, that I’ve even bought the game again on disc.