Rock Band: Now with added drumsticks

September 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

The best thing about playing drums in Rock Band by Harmonix is just how much the drums manage to replicate their real-life counterparts. Rather than trying to emulate the 15 frets and 6 strings of your standard electric guitar with a measly 5 buttons (4 on medium, not counting additional soloing keys) the drum kit comes much closer with 5 drums, which could quite easily make up a real drum kit.

However this tight bond with real drums also extends to difficulty and in this respect the drumming side of Rock Band has a steep learning curve, forcing you to quickly get your head around the initially quite complex coordination required to drum. Fortunately though once you meander up this minor hill you’ll find yourself with an instrument that’s going to be funner to play than any plastic guitar.

My first reservations about the drum notation onscreen were instantly blown away as soon as our first song (Say it Ain’t So by Weezer if you must know) loaded up on the screen in a cacophony of feedback and cheering. Each of the four drum pads has a corresponding column on screen – much like the guitar notes – with the bass drum (the pedal) coming in the form of lines spread across the entire display (not the entire screen mind, just the drums portion of it). This interface makes everything incredibly easy to use and understand, something which is essential when later songs require you to concentrate more on coordination rather than note-reading.

Just like in real life however the drums do have a tendency to drown out the rest of the band by virtue that they’re the only instrument where you’re forced to actively hit a part of it. When playing with the television set to full volume this doesn’t pose a problem, but playing in the front room of a house in the middle of suburbia I found at times I had to soften the impact of stick on pad to keep from losing my place in the ensemble. Still though, the mere fact that I was indeed going to town on a plastic drum kit should be indication enough of just how much of a badass this game makes you feel.

If you’ve never picked up a pair of your drumsticks in your life before Rock Band it will initially be difficult to get to grips with. Bear in mind though that this is a consiquence of just how close the game is to a real kit, great rewards will come with with practise and perseverance, and you’ll soon find yourself loving the most hated of all instruments.

“Mummy mummy” a child once said, “when I grow up I want to be a drummer!”

“Nonsense,” his mother replied, “you can’t do both.”

With Rock Band however, I see no need to do the latter.

Peace out


Oh and by the way, if it’s a crazy rumour you’re after, try the rumoured PS4 system specs. Is that crazy enough for you?


Rock Band – Trolleydude and the Guitar

September 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Bleat your misguided opinions at me if you will, but a band is nothing without its guitarists. Take away the bassist, drummer and vocalist and it can still qualify as awesome if the guitarist is good enough; but no amount of drum and bass can compensate for a lack of DANANANANANANA NAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA solos.

This is why I was drawn to the Rock Band guitar when we set up shop in Sparky’s living room. I observed my companions out of the corner of my eye as they grew more and more uncomfortable watching my frenetic rock-seizure that is usually only seen by my cat and the postman when Dragonforce come on the radio, triggering my recessive air-guitar gene and the accompanying spasms of MEGA ROCK.

Having already known the joys of Guitar Hero and willingly embarassing yourself in front of friends, it took me no time at all to get into the swing of things with the smoother display and superior controls of Rock Band, and proceed to freak the fuck out when I discovered how awesome it feels to rescue your inept drummer from failure by swinging your (toy) guitar over your head and shredding (imaginary) licks to the tune of your favourite hard tasty rock.
Gameplay-wise, Rock Band just seems like the next logical step up from Guitar Hero, and so I now see no reason for people to choose the latter over the former except for lack of monies. I understand there is even a single-player option for the lonely youtube “guitar heroes” out there, so even they shouldn’t miss out on the brilliant fun of making their own, talent-free band.
Maybe I’ll even let you have a go on the guitar.
After one more song.

Immersion is just a Soundtrack Away

September 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

video games live

Have you ever just sat and thought about what you need to make a game? Some things are very obvious – graphical artists are needed to shape the visual side of the experience, and programmers to write the engine (or modify an existing one). You’ll need voice actors to breath life into your characters, and animators to set your lumps of polygons moving across the screen. It might not occur to you at first, but you’ve just missed out one of the most essential parts in engaging the gamer, the soundtrack.

In general soundtacks are decidedly mediocre. Most rely on simply techno beats, harking back to the MIDI soundtracks of the 8-bit generation, and a few might go a step further, with some repetitive power-metal. Once in a while though a developers sits up and refuses to let his game’s soundtrack go unnoticed, and then we get some of the most emotional pieces to grace a gamer’s ears.

video games live

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I have in my possession a copy of every single Metal Gear soundtrack. Approach them from an objective standpoint from the perspective of someone who’s never played a Metal Gear game and it’s very how and where they were supposed to be heard – the repetitive techno beats are at best mundane, and at worst boring, but for the good stuff you need to skip to the music which accompanies major cinematic set pieces.

Continuing with the Metal Gear example, at the end of Guns of the Patriots a very emotional event occurs when someone who was previously thought to have been killed returns from the dead in a sense. The actual dialog and acting in this scene is admittedly quite poor, but the presence of quiet wind and string instruments helps to create a far better mood than the pretentious voice-acting.

The point of bringing this up is that soundtracks are far more important then you think they are. The music played during the most emotional moments in gaming is now irrevocably to you as a gamer, and hearing it again out of context will hopefully trigger some sort of emotional flashback if the music is any good at all.

Try focusing on the audio side once or twice whilst gaming and you might be pleasantly surprised at what you hear. If you do (segway time) then you might be interested in checking out Video Games Live, which is an event in London to celebrate the soundtracks of some of the best games around. Even if it’s not that interesting to you, it’s still an excuse to act like a nerd in an auditorium.

for more details click here!

Peace out


Rock Band!

September 17, 2008 § 4 Comments

Buy it! It’s Awesome..

Rock Band is awesome..that is all.

Cutscenes versus In-game Cinematics: Fight!

September 11, 2008 § 3 Comments

I’m almost certain all of you will have heard of Girls Don’t Game by now. It’s a blog about video games, written for video games fans, by video game fans. The only difference is that it’s contributed to entirely by women (or girls, whichever). Earlier this week I got into a discussion concerning in-game cinematics with Suzie, one of their writers, and what ensued was fisticuffs of epic proportions. My initial email can be read below, with Suzie’s response following over at her blog. If you have any views or opinions, please share them in the comments below.

All that remains to be said is:



Aeries falls to her knees, her torso pierced by Sephiroth’s blade. A single bead falls out of her hair and bounces of the alter. The camera follows. The bead falls, hitting alternate pillars, down into a lake of water at the bottom. Slow piano music plays throughout, providing a perfect backdrop for the feeble ting as the bead falls. The camera pans down to watch it disappear into the murky depths, a perfect symbol of the tragedy that has befallen gamers everywhere.

You of all people must remember one of the most emotive narrative sequences in any piece of interactive entertainment. Aeries death, the turning point of Final Fantasy 7’s story, marked a new beginning in gaming’s storytelling. It proved once and for all that games, when done right, could have as much emotional impact as any film. How did it do this? With cutscenes.

How would this scene have been achieved without escaping from the game’s standard gameplay camera? You would have seen the main event yes, Sephiroth’s arrival couldn’t have been ignored by even the most distracted of gamers, but then what of the more subtle actions in the scene: Sephiroth’s victorious smirk, or the aforementioned drop of a simple piece of jewellery. Only with cutscenes does the director have complete control over our experience, and in this way they can manipulate our emotions directly, and not simply rely on us having the foresight to swing the camera around in time.

The Metal Gear Solid series – one renowned world-over for it’s engrossing story and characters – wouldn’t be half the narrative masterpiece it is today without cutscenes. Even if at times these strayed too far into the realms of deliberation and procrastination, these cinematics have told more story than gameplay ever could. One particularly lengthy scene in MGS4 was a perfect example of what could never be done in-game, when during an explanation of a particularly complex plot point the camera suddenly cut to that of a previous game in the series, allowing the audience to be reminded of past storylines. The change of scene also did wonders for the pacing of the segment, by introducing an action sequence in the middle of a lengthy piece of dialogue the audiences attention was kept wrapped in the story, exactly where Kojima-san wanted it.

I don’t believe all story should be told passively, but at the same time I don’t believe directors should expect the audience to experience a storyline completely through gameplay. How would you, if directing a Final Fantasy 7 remake, display Aeries death? How would you show a protagonists reaction to events without changing the camera angle? How would you manipulate the player to see what you want them to?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Jon Porter

SparkiJ’s Top Ten Compilations – Part 3: Top Ten Games to Play Before You Kick It..

September 10, 2008 § 2 Comments

Firstly, have to say apologies. With the recent return to full time education and being swamped with work as well as sport, social life and sleep. I found little times for anything video game. Okay that’s a lie! Any precious time I do have I spend on trying to get the Foxhound ranking on Metal Gear Solid 4 and it’s pretty freaking difficult.

This is the final part to my top ten compilations and is probably the most important in terms of offering opinions as I’m basically telling you what you should be playing but I hope you feel it’s a fair. Hey, I loved all of these games but for a rule of thumb please notice out of certain series I’ll only pick out one game from it so it’s fair, otherwise you would be seeing an array of Ratchet and Clanks and probably Lumines.

10. Silent Hill 2 – This is odd to me. The thing is I remember playing through this game when I was 9 or 10 I think with a friend and we were both on the edge of our seats. Notice this is the only survival horror game I’ve played through start to finish so there could be Resident Evil’s better than this. What this game does offer you is a gripping storyline and decent protagonist in James Sunderland because of the fact that the game makes it clear that he is mortal just like you. The highlight of the game for me however is the sound. If you play through it without sound I don’t think you’re likely to be that tense or jumpy at some parts. The monsters and the background music to Silent Hill is fantastically done just like the influential strings scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho. Level design and maps work fantastically well except some of the item collecting hunts get repetitive. As my only survival horror game, this is an easy recommendation for me.

9. Super Smash Bros. – Now who said that the Clockwork Manual was biased eh? Set the scene, four people in a shed with an N64. It’s Sunday morning we’re all tired and hungover and suddenly you hear the Smash Bros. melody. Everyone wants to play and everyone does. The variation in characters and style plays a huge part in this which is why it’s such an amazing game. Mixing in the mechanics of a platformer and beat em up, Smash Bros. is the N64 game to play. Why? It doesn’t take itself seriously at all and it’s just fun for all. It’s where Nintendo have excelled. Take away shiny high-def graphics and pointless AI conversations, you have good family fun for all. Where else will you see Pikachu beating up Kirby on Fox’s starship whilst Donkey Kong’s spinning around in the corner?

8. Lumines – This is the game that you need. The game that won’t let you down and that if you like it you won’t get bored of it ever. You won’t understand until you play Lumines. A lot of people get frustrated with it and hate it but that’s fair enough. However if you enjoy playing it, you’ll see yourself getting better and better until your dreams contain cubes. Lumines is a new age “Tetris” like game where instead of clearing lines you clear blocks of 2 by 2 squares. Each similar square gets cleared by a passing cursor and you must keep clearing them in weird and wonderful ways such as turning and cutting them to make squares. That’s not all. The squares change in pattern as does the backdrop and music creating a wonderful variety in gameplay. It’s a case of if you like it, you can always go back to it but if you don’t, you’re stupid :|.

7. Devil May Cry – The best game of the series in my opinion. Everything about it fit so well. The story, graphics, level design and especially the stylish gameplay. The tricky combos give you a real sense of a satisfaction when you’re slashing up an enemy as does the fact that each boss requires skill and practice in controlling Dante to finish off. Also come on. You play as Dante in his prime. One of the coolest protagonists there is EVAR. Although now the graphics can’t compare to the beauty of the 4th installment, Devil May Cry polishes up each area well adding in variation and nice effects without it looking like complete piss.

6. God of War – Look at what I said about Devil May Cry. Copy and paste that, changing Dante for Kratos here and also note that the graphics, sound and storytelling is better for God of War. In fact God of War should be higher up actually… Kratos is a heartless mercenary soldier and travels around to kill the God of War. Puzzles are sometimes on the easy side but combat is amazing. Each new dungeon will offer different kinds of gameplay mechanics and as I said if you’re a fan of the all action titles, God of War will not disappoint. When I first bought it I expected a generic brutality hack ‘n’ slash. By all means, throw pre-conceptions out of the window because God of War’s story starts off with Kratos commiting suicide. If you haven’t played it and now you’re interested then I beg of you to buy it. David Jaffe will make you enjoy the bloodbath.

5. Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3 – Nintendo what happened to you? You used to be cool… Yoshi’s Island is an amazing platformer. There are no other ways to describe it, it’s beautiful. You play as Yoshi looking after a baby Mario and instead of having health you have a time limit. Let me explain, everytime you get hit by an enemy you drop the baby Mario and you must reclaim him before a certain period of time passes. Not only is this a unique way of displaying health, it adds an interesting dimension to your gameplay aspects, looking after a baby. The levels and worlds are all wonderfully different and the enemy design will shame even that of Patapon. The one thing lacking however is a story and you just play through it not really caring much about the lack of it. It’s still fucking awesome and will clock up over a day of your life.

4. Ratchet and Clank 3: Up Your Arsenal – I wish all platformers were like this. Ratchet and Clank 3 is Ratchet and Clank 2’s polished combat with shinier graphics,
more planets and bigger guns. Insomniac have grasped onto the fact that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it and so stuck with this winning formula for rocket launchers destroying frogs. On top of all of that it adds replayability in the trophy system and also a game console mini game which is surprisingly fun. What’s great is that everything links into the story to a tee and you’re not given a cock slap ending. As far as I’m concerned, Ratchet and Clank finished here and I’m awaiting the next decent installment.

3. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – This for me is the transition game into the 7th generation of gaming. So far the only FPS that has put me in the body and mind of the protagonist and made me think, act and shoot like how you play. Campaign is a little on the short side but you cover so much you only realise this as you finish it. Now the graphics, are beautiful, covering a generic unnamed middle eastern country to the forests and wastelands of Russia. Not only does all this offer exciting gameplay, mechanics you’ve never seen before are introduced through the story as well as a true attachment to the protagonist by the end. The multiplayer? Biggest and best community of gamers in the world without a doubt and offers the customization and variety that all online games should be aiming for. Awesome.

2. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – Tactical. Action. Espionage. Intense use of sneaking tactics and soldier warfare makes this game feel like your mission and your time. Its the cold war and suddenly your thrown into the midst of it to do the clean up work. There’s no blasting your way through like MGS4 nor the shop for your use anytime you want. Everything you pick up is of use to you and your on your own even when it gets down to treating your own wounds. Yes it’s a hardcore game and yes the story will drag on for those that aren’t really interested but the dramatic cinematic storytelling is gripping if you sit and take it all in. Play this as your first Metal Gear and then you’re thrown into a kind of gameplay that you’ve never experienced before and trust me it won’t hold your hand through it. Even on easy you will need to be and think like Naked Snake.

1. Final Fantasy VII – No surprises there! I’ll try and keep this short because I could write about this game all day. Final Fantasy VII was my childhood game and basically it got me into RPGs. As I grew up, my expectations of a emotive storyline and original characters were very high and were never quite matched. Graphics got better and cutscenes became more detailed but I could never feel for Cloud like I did as I played through FF7. Why though? My main focus will be on the story which all RPGs need. The storyline mixes in problems with fighting with yourself and isolation as well as preserving the planet from the capitalist corporations. It unites the people of the world Gaia very world with a very satisfying magical feel. Each character has a fantastic original background behind them and the side quests and hidden items are a real treat to get for the more hardcore FF7 fans. There’s a huge variety in magic and attack which means everything must be done strategically when fighting monsters and also introduced the “Materia” system of magic which I maintain as the best kind of customisation in magic I’ve ever seen in a Final Fantasy. If you like RPGs and detailed storylines this is the game for you. If you like RPGs, you’ll love this. And if you have respect for gaming as a whole, you can do a hell of a lot worse than Final Fantasy VII. Let’s hope XIII and XIII Versus blow me away too.

GRID: A reason to return to the racing genre

September 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

GRID doesn’t do anything new with the racing genre, nor does it have any amazing features that one could point to in order to justify a purchase. Instead it polishes everything it does do to a mirror sheen, and adds a few small enhancements to the core racing mechanic to ensure this isn’t just another racer.

At the core of the game is a career mode which immediately manages to distinguish itself from the competition. You spend the majority of the game entering races in whichever order you please. Whilst this may not seem so different from other racers, crucially you enter events as part of a team and as such you’ll have team members racing alongside you during the race. There’s a tonne of different drivers to choose from, each with their own set of stats as well as salaries and preferred racing disciplines, which adds a nice strategic element to the game – even if you’re likely just to pick a driver and stay with him for your entire career.
Speaking of racing disciplines, GRID provides you with a huge range of events to choose from. Events are sorted into three regions, North America, Europe and Japan, each with their own types of events. For example you’re likely to find a destruction derby in America but not in Japan, whilst drift events are non existent in the US. Surprisingly each of the event types are fun in their own respect, and each different car type that the races require feels subtly different from each other, whilst still remaining consistent enough to allow you to transition easily between them. The muscle car events in America for example provide you with a car filled to the brim with power and acceleration, but with a distinctly floating feeling around corners, whilst open wheeled cars used predominantly in some European races have much tighter handling, but make up for this with less speed. 
When I said that there wasn’t one feature that could be described as revolutionary, I perhaps hadn’t reckons with the awesome power of the replay. In essence it’s completely removes the most frustrating aspect of any racing game, the single crash in a race that’ll lose you the lead, as well as another five places. If such a crash occurs in GRID, all you need to do is enter the replay and rewind the “tape” to when you feel is a suitable moment to retake control. You can use this feature at any time, so even if you simply drop a place coming around a corner, the replay is just a second away to whip you back into first place. On harder difficulty levels the number of times you can use this feature is significantly reduced so it never makes the game too easy.
With fully licenced vehicles you might expect GRID to be absent of any form of damage system, however if you were to think this you’d be entirely wrong. In fact, GRID has the best damage system of any racing game I’ve ever come across, straddling perfectly both realism and enjoyment. A wrecked car never feels too far away, and yet it never impacts your enjoyment of the game. Indeed after a few races the game manages to convey an accurate feeling of connection between you and your vehicle, and soon you just know when your car’s about to give up the ghost. 
Overall though GRID is an extremely polished and well put together game with perhaps the only downside being that the core racing mechanic isn’t as intuitive as you might have initially liked. Once you get over this small hiccup thogh you’ll discover a racing game with more personality than all of the Gran Turismo games combined, presented in a way which is hard not to be in awe of. If you’ve been shying away from the genre until now, this might be a good place to start, meanwhile if you’re an established racing fan looking for a break of the monotony of Gran Turismo, then this game might just provide that for you to.

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