Sevenstreets – The Stines Interview

Interview for Sevenstreets with Vince Sylvester, bass legend of The Stines: http://www.sevenstreets.com/features/what-happened-next/

Twitter Update

Hullo thar, I now have one of those awful Twitter things:

http://twitter.com/JohnMeadowcroft

If you could follow me or whatever you do on it that would be swell.

Does Square Enix Still Have Its Finger On The Pulse? – Final Fantasy XIII Review

Most of the criticisms and cries of derision being poured all over Final Fantasy XIII have been because of (justified) complaints of linearity – lack of exploration and a general deficiency of RPG convention. Square Enix have decided in this instalment to focus more on aesthetics for the latest in its flagship series, and they’ve produced a title that commands your attention from the word go but will ultimately struggle to pull you back for more.

I know it sounds boring but over a decade on I still give Final Fantasy VII a whirl. Not because I’m a dribbling vegetable of an obsessive but because it’s a perfectly balanced RPG that still captures the imagination and demands to be perfected. For my money, Final Fantasy XIII offers the strongest story in the franchise since VII (now I know there are others before VII but the 8-bit RPG doesn’t captivate me in the same way that an FMV FF does) yet it can also be destitute of direction thanks to the bold move of sacrificing NPCs, explorable towns and weapon gathering.

I don’t buy into the argument that XIII is an abomination due to its narrow mindset and A-to-B attitude. Final Fantasy X was just as linear and didn’t have anywhere near the depth of characterisation as XIII does. However, XIII doesn’t possess as near an expansive and customisable battle system as Final Fantasy XII which, as proven by my memory card, effortlessly swallowed up a good 100 hours during my languid time as an unemployed scrubber last summer.

It’s an associated problem when commenting on a Final Fantasy title that you’ll inevitably argue with yourself and make comparisons and contrasts with other games in the series – most likely against your favourite. Taking a step back and looking at the wider market, Final Fantasy XIII is undoubtedly one of the best next-gen RPGs available for the current systems. Far more interesting, action-packed and fast-paced than the sluggish Lost Odyssey and more ambitious than other production line JRPGs such as Infinite Undiscovery.

Yes, many standard elements have been done away with and they are a lamentable loss. I barely broke the 1,000gil mark until nearly 14 hours into play and the boring paint-by-numbers weapon upgrade system can be as dull as a bull in Hull. Levelling up – a similar system to that in X – is interesting yet fails to offer any personality or distinction to the characters themselves. Square Enix have decided to jettison such staples for the ability to tell a story, and thankfully it’s one that entertained me all the way through, swimming in my system like week-old heroin.

Characterisation in Final Fantasy XIII is much stronger than in any previous title since VII (sorry, I’ll shut up about VII now), with likeable figures complemented by exceptional voice acting talents. Square Enix have unbuckled their shackles and refused to supply whiney, emo stereotypes that have branded and overshadowed the franchise in recent efforts. Banished are the memories of effeminate leads such as Vaan and Tidus to be replaced by all-action powerhouses in the guise of Snow and Lightning. Early comic relief by gun-toting Sazh lays way to a genuinely moving account of the love and loyalty for his son, Dajh, whilst even the staple annoyance in the shape of Hope is well carried off with his own story of confused vengeance and his rankling/growing acceptance of Snow.

Themes of guilt, remorse, sorrow and determination are explored in the progressive stories of Snow and Lightning – both linked by fate through their love of Lightning’s sister/Snow’s fiancé, Serah, who has been turned into a crystal through powerful fal’Cie magic. Characters are brought to life with fluid, gorgeous animation and spot-on voice acting – though, sorry Square, Vanille’s casting has been terribly mismanaged and sent me to extensive Cognitive Brain Therapy sessions to wipe her existence from my memory.

All of this is told through cutscenes so in-tune with the rest of the game world that Square Enix should be rightfully applauded for such a wonderful technical achievement. Cutscenes are the perfect length – to detractors calling it more ‘movie’ than ‘game’, I will point them in the direction of the miserable Metal Gear Solid 4 which is the sole reason I bought a PlayStation 3 and is the sole reason I could only play the bugger after heavy drinking to quell the boredom before my eyes.

But as I say, it’ll be tough for me to go back for more. I spent so much time on XII, for instance, because of the mark hunts, for the need to construct the perfect gambits and explore every last inch of its beautifully realised world. While I love the production of XIII, I don’t fancy being leashed to the same story and path again during another session, especially as the game doesn’t really expand or open up until at least 25 hours in.

Believe it or not, that’s the only time when you get to configure your own personal battle team and generate your own paradigms. Maybe I’m still hung over from the breadth of option and customisation offered by XII, but the return to an Active Time Battle (ATB) system – though offering spectacular fights and real tactical nuance by the time you reach Pulse – is regressive, especially when it’s too easy to select the auto battle command and put your feet up. The AI takes charge of the rest of your party as you shoulder the responsibility of the lead character, unable to change or delegate their actions as you wildly press ‘X’.

Summons feel diluted (turning them into vehicles is especially odd) and exonerating MP from the game cancels out any kind of party management – as does resetting character statuses after battles. No longer do you defeat a particularly tough foe and go into the menu to tend to your party’s wounds, a move which sadly puts a bit of distance between yourself and characters who feel more human the longer you spend time with them.

However I can’t be too harsh on Final Fantasy XIII, because as I highlighted before, the genre is currently stagnant and I view this as a bold attempt to try and at least offer something different, to cut through the mire if you will. But by removing some of the RPG basics, they haven’t really offered a suitable replacement or a system that will be the envy of rival developers. By no means perfect, it’s easy to say that Final Fantasy XIII could benefit from a lot of tinkering under its hood. However, it’s still an excellent game to immerse yourself in and is a worthwhile RPG to fill your time with until Natal comes out and you can swing your umbrella around like it’s a big, ridiculous over-the-top Japanese sword at your Nan for 10 XP.

SCORE – 8/10

LittleBigPlanet Interview – Exclusive Chat With Media Molecule

Exclusive interview with Media Molecule, including comment from Siobhan Reddy, Anton Kirczenow and Mark Stephenson. Unpublished, interview was undertaken for GamesMaster Magazine – obtained 8 April, 2009:

Critically acclaimed and BAFTA nominated, could you have asked for any more from LBP?

Siobhan: You just never really know what’s going to happen until a game is out and so for us it’s been an incredibly cool experience, the highlight of which has definitely been watching the community grow and seeing so many levels and creations being shared as that’s what we really hoped would happen but was the most experimental of our ambitions. Awards are nice too, especially Bafta’s as everyone’s mum has heard of them!

Do you feel the online users are squeezing every last drop out of the community? Is there anything you’d like to see more of – or, even – less of?

Siobhan: The community are doing stuff with the tools that we didn’t even know could be done. We don’t want to direct them particularly, the community should just keep doing its thing J We highlight our picks each week on our blog www.mediamolecule.com

How has the feedback been in relation to the PlayStation Eye? Is it a tool with a lot of potential for creative games like this?

Siobhan: People use it in their levels and it gives them a way to personalise their creations.

Can a company survive on Downloadable content? Is there a stringent plan in place when it comes to future LBP DLC?

Siobhan: Working on multiple DLC threads has been a big change to the way we have traditionally worked at Mm but it’s been a good experience so far. We added in new functionality with the MGS pack and so whilst it was hard work as it came straight after the blu-ray release it was re-energising to see the community take the new feature and run with it. It was especially cool to see levels that we knew be iterated to include new elements. When you get great feedback like that it gives you the energy and inspiration to keep doing it. It’s a new area for us and so we are trying out some cool ideas and new collaborations this year.

What was your reaction when you heard the game had to be recalled over the music controversy? Did you think you’d have to start again from scratch?

Siobhan: It was a dark day, but we got over it and moved on!


Are there parts or in-jokes in the game that have completely zipped over the publics head that you wish had been made more of?

Anton Kirczenow: Nope, they notice absolutely everything.  Francis’ daughter’s birthday tagged onto costume textures, the meaning of the morse code in the pod music, how you make multicolored laser shows.

They are fanatical and obessesive and spot stuff we didn’t know was in there.

Is there anything at all you’re disappointed with? What didn’t make the final cut that you’d have loved to have seen on a personal level?

Anton Kirczenow: Well there were always things we wanted to add but didn’t have time, and happily we’re sneaking them into DLC or even just making a level using the idea and publishing it the normal way.

Mark Stephenson: I love Pirate stuff so I was sad that the Seaside theme didn’t make it. Maybe it’ll appear again…

How well are the public utilizing the construction tools in your opinion? Has the game been as accessible as you had hoped?

Anton Kirczenow: Amazingly amazingly well. We are constantly surprised by how much time and energy people pour into a creation and often have to have a good think to work out how they did it.
Even kids below the 7+ age rating on the box seem to get on well and have a lot of fun making things, including my daughter.

Mark Stephenson: Creators have exceeded my expectations in every way. I am really stunned by what I see online and it makes me happy that LBP is providing a creative outlet for musicians, artists, story tellers, roller coaster designers, monster makers, etc.

Have any levels in particular made you sit up and go ‘Wow, this is what it’s all about!’ If so, are you worried about keeping your job?

Anton Kirczenow: Stacks actually. But we get to make up the tools everyone plays with so I don’t really feel like it’s a competition between us and the users.  Also we get organized and gang up.
What I would like to see is more user team efforts in making levels – most seem to be solo at the moment, but there are some very impressive exceptions.

Mark Stephenson: A lot of levels have made us fear for our jobs! 😀

It seems so much emotion was poured into this project, was it all worth it in the end? Can you sit back and relax now?

Anton Kirczenow: Well it’s not so much relax as watch and think what to do next and how to help and grow the community.

Mark Stephenson: There was a slight moment of relaxation but since we are all creative ocd types here, we just can’t sit still. Creativity is what keeps us all going.


WHAT NEXT FOR MEDIA MOLECULE?

LittleBigPlanet 2? Or something completely different?

Siobhan: I am not sure if you know but we name our releases after cheeses. Cornish yarg is due out very soon and so we are busy working on releasing our next cheese – Leerdammer which will happen later this year. There is a LOAD of exciting stuff going on in here and the best way to keep in touch is to check out our blog as it’s updated regularly with what’s happening!

Have you had any thoughts of how to integrate the massive community from LBP into a sequel?

Siobhan: Of course! But that would be telling! Our community are already doing a great job of making LittleBigPlanet a fantastic place to be.

SackBoy’s been very well received by the public (winning our ‘Hero of the Year’ in the GamesMaster Awards), might he possibly turn up in other games? Tekken for instance?

Siobhan: Good question! We hope sackboy and sackgirl get a few outings!

LittleBigPlanet is such a huge game, is there anything at all in-game that we’ve missed, secret wise?

Siobhan: Well, we are going to be making a bunch of movies to share on our website which will give people some more in depth instructions for how to use Pop-it or to build particular types of creations. As for secrets, well … they’re secret!

Dead Space – Developer Interview With Glen A. Schofield

Exclusive interview with Dead Space Creator and Executive Producer Glen A. Schofield. Unpublished, interview was undertaken for GamesMaster Magazine – obtained 9 March, 2009:

Dead Space was an instant hit in the office, a real surprise! Were you confident of such a reception early on in the development stages?

No, you always need to remain paranoid and humble when making a game I believe. We were getting some good internal feedback and we loved what we were making but the final critical success was fantastic.

With Dead Space becoming a franchise, how hard is it keeping things canon? Will you be hands on with projects such as films/comics or are you solely confined to the games?

We’ve been quite hands on with all the products to maintain the quality and continuity. The main thing though is to hire great people. They will strive to work with us, create something great and become a partnership with us.

With Isaac Clarke being named after Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, were you fans of their work? What influences in particular did you draw from them?

I’m huge fans of both if then. I love their huge stories. The idea of planet cracking was because we wanted to do something huge-Clarke wouldn’t just mine a planet, he’d take it apart. Both were great visionaries and I’m still reading and re-reading their books and short stories.

All the major players today seem to be taking a DLC path with their games by adding extended scenarios, yet Dead Space isn’t taking this route. Any particular reason why?

We did have DLC but that was quite modest- weapons, packs and suits. With Dead Space we decided we wanted to make a Wii game (Extraction) with our resources this time around. So in my opinion we’re creating something even bigger and better. But I hear you and we listen to our fans.

The Wii version is up next, what challenges will that set up for development? Will you have to learn the limitations of a whole new console and work around it?

We don’t look at them as limitations, they’re just different challenges and we’re completely embracing the new controllers and the great things we can do on the Wii. I have to say the game looks absolutely fantastic and the new perspective is fun as hell.

The Internet went crazy trying to decipher the language of Unitology. Just how difficult is it creating a new language, and will it be built upon in the future?

It is hard to create a look for a new language. But it’s one of those fun challenges the team just feels is necessary. I loved the fact that people were able to decipher it, we were thrilled since there were some bits of info in them.

Is there anything at all you’re disappointed with? What specifically didn’t make the final cut that you’d have loved to have seen on a personal level?

We got a lot in. Obviously there are things that didn’t make it but it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss them. You never know if they’ll show up in a future game like Extraction.

How much of a risk was it not including a standard HUD? What other ideas were bandied around the office when inventing new ways to present Isaac’s stats?

No HUD was a goal from day one. There was no other discussions than how to make it work. Huge challenge but that’s what this team thrives on. As soon as you waver on your vision it’s no longer the game you want to make. So the challenges were many but the final outcome is something we are extremely proud of.

Art wise, how much fun went into creating the Necromorphs? The Thing has been heralded as an inspiration; can you guide us through the creative process?

It’s funny, the Thing had nothing to do with it. We just have some exceptionally talented, twisted and demented (in a good way) people on the team who are always pushing every limit and boundary. And as far as fun, well they were some of the most enjoyable and sick creative meetings you could ever have. Imagine sitting around talking about pregnant neceomorphs, babies with tentacles, exploding sacks and infected flying creatures.

Finally, is there anything else you want to add? Any information on upcoming projects such as the sequel?

I want to thank our fans, that’s for sure. Without them we’re nothing.

As for projects, Extraction is the one we are feverishly creating right now. It’s has a great new prequel story, new characters, weapons, mechanics and levels. It’s a definitely following in the footsteps of Dead Space in terms if atmosphere, graphics, sound, innovation and above all fun and quality.

Freelancer Of The Fortnight

Jonny's interview

I have been named ‘Freelancer Of The Fortnight’ by industry body Journalism.co.uk. You can read the interview at: http://www.journalism.co.uk/5/articles/537076.php

GamePeople Review – DJ Star

DJ Star Review