Month: January 2009

Meet Catherine O’Hara


catherine-oharaThis is Catherine O’Hara. She’s a sniper. She’s a key member of Squad 7—of my Squad 7, I should say—which is a militia unit fighting in a war in a game called Valkyria Chronicles. This game is exclusive to the PlayStation3, a games console with a singular lack of great exclusive games—until now.

The genius of Valkyria Chronicles is in the whole package, not just in the shooting. The turn-based/real-time battling is plenty good enough on its own. But the way the story and characters merge with the battles to create a unified whole is something I’ve rarely come across before.

I try to keep two snipers in my Squad 7 at all times. You can pick and choose your squad selection, mixing it up between various unit classes. (Scouts, Shocktroopers, Lancers, Snipers, Engineers.) Valkyria Chronicles shows its quality in the flexibility it permits you, the many routes you can take to achieve your goal. You could play the whole game without ever meeting Catherine O’Hara. You have to choose her from the list of available recruits.

Catherine takes her shot—with you aiming for her, and pulling the trigger—and if she hits her target she usually kills it. Then she hoists her rifle onto her shoulders and says, “I’m not done yet.” If you don’t grin and/or punch the air at least once when this happens, you may not be human. If she misses her shot, well, she misses. She does sometimes miss. It depends on various factors—the distance of the target, its type, the conditions, the terrain, how she’s feeling. This is the RPG side of the game.

I’ve managed to get Catherine killed quite a lot. I lost her at least once during every mission, in the early days, although I’m a lot better now. I know. I’m rubbish. It shouldn’t be happening at all. But it does, because I take foolish risks. I move her out into the open where enemy snipers can pick her off. Or I move her too close to the enemy shocktroopers. Because this is turn-based strategy RPG, you can do nothing during the enemy’s turn except watch it take advantage of your errors and missteps. I hate watching Catherine being machine-gunned to death.

If I don’t get to her within three turns or before an enemy reaches her body, that’s it, she’s gone. Dead for good. Gone from the whole game. I’ve already lost two valued squad members in this way. Aisha, a fine shocktrooper, died in one of the early missions. She begged piteously not to be allowed to die. I stared at the screen, helpless, as she died anyway. Then I lost one of my Engineers, just a few turns later (that mission was a disaster). I was still in actual shock from Aisha’s death and I’m almost ashamed to say I’ve forgotten the Engineer’s name. War doesn’t change.

But if you get to your fallen comrades before the enemy does, you can rescue them. When Catherine falls, all my mission goals are temporarily suspended. It’s all about rescuing Catherine. I have always done it so far. I don’t know what I would do if I failed. If Catherine died for good, I’d probably break one of my cardinal rules of gaming, and reload an old save to get a different outcome. I pray God it never comes to that…

In praise of Final Fantasy VIII

How about a whistlestop tour of my gaming history? I want to give some flavour of my gaming tastes and habits. They’re peculiar in some ways, as today’s post title may suggest…

I’m primarily a console gamer. The only PC gaming I tend to do is on strategy games, with the likes of Civilization III and IV, Hearts of Iron 2, and even older titles like the Combat Mission series being particular favourites.

I entered the next generation of console gaming in August 2007. That was when I finally buckled under the pressure and headed into town and returned with a gleaming new PlayStation3, looking forward to the day—not far off—when PES2008 would arrive and be the Best Football Game Ever. I know that I wasn’t alone in this. How many thousands—or tens of thousands—of consoles were snapped up by PES fans in that period? How naive and trusting we were back then. Sigh. I just don’t like to think about it now.

The next generation is now the current generation. PES seems to be withering on the vine, but that’s another story (one to be revisited as 2009 unfolds). Over the past 18 months I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing PES and FIFA and assorted other football games (hence the blog, natch). But somehow—I don’t know how—I’ve found time to play other games as well. In no particular order, I have completed (or ‘beat’, as American gamers say) Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid 4, Portal, Mirror’s Edge, Uncharted, and no doubt several others that I’ve forgotten about for now.

In addition I have played pieces (bits and bobs; odds and ends) of many, many other games. I played over 30 hours of Oblivion before stopping suddenly. Things came crashing to a halt when I suddenly needed a lot of money to bribe a key character in a crucial mission. I didn’t have the money and it would have taken me an hour or two to get it by playing another few missions. I saved my game and meant to come back, but I kept putting it off and putting it off, and that was over a year ago now.

This is one of the perils of being  a mature gamer with a full-time job and lots of other commitments besides. You end up gaming in fragments, playing bits of games here and there, never settling into one game and just playing that one alone to completion. After a certain amount of time away from a game, you are less likely to go back to it. Which is why I have been—and still am—so attracted to the pick-up-and-play ethos of sports games, in particular football games. There’s no story to remember. No fiddly controls to relearn after a week or two of letting them go rusty. Oh, yes, that button brings up the map. Now, what zooms in? Oh, crap, I’ve accidentally sold the Amulet of Rathgorn. Uh? Who’s this Breenow the Bold fellow, and why have I got to kill him? Oh, where’s my PES2009 disc… So it goes, with me anyway.

The best game I’ve played on the current generation of consoles is, without question, Bioshock. That game still awes me just to think about it, and there are only two or three other games I’d ever say that about. Yes, Bioshock’s last hour is weak in comparison to everything that preceded it. The story twists are predictable. The final boss battle is surprisingly easy. But, oh my God, look at the whole. Look at the package. I have to think back to Metal Gear Solid 3 on the PS2 for a comparable feeling of being immersed in the kind of gaming experience that I play games for.

It’s tempting to go off into some kind of top-5 list of My Best Games Ever, but I won’t. I have peculiar tastes in games. For one example, one of my most favourite-ever games, even more of a favourite than Bioshock, is, wait for it, Final Fantasy VIII.

Yes, I said Final Fantasy EIGHT. You know, that one. The Final Fantasy that people love to hate. Speaking personally, I’d put FFVIII in my top 3 games of all time. I loved it in a way that I never loved FFVII—the one you’re supposed to revere without question. And I did love FFVII, but I loved FFVIII more. I loved the battle system, the magic system, the Triple Triad card game. I even loved the love story. I’m a hard-hearted, unsentimental son of a bitch—but I loved this computer game’s soppy love story.

I replayed Final Fantasy VIII three times in total, each replay lasting about 40-60 hours. I’ve never even considered replaying any of the other Final Fantasy games. I’ve never actually completed either FFX or FFXII, and I’m not looking forward to FFXIII (the phrase ‘action RPG’ makes me feel ill).

After that wander down memory lane, back to my recent gaming history. Over Christmas I completed Mirror’s Edge—a great gaming experience for two-thirds of the time, but a curiously empty-feeling and frustrating one for the other third. It deserved its slew of lukewarm reviews, but it was still well worth playing and I don’t regret paying full price for it on release day. (I also got a free promotional t-shirt that remains in its cellophane wrapper to this day. I doubt it’ll ever come out. I think that if I ever unwrapped it, much less wore it, I would instantly morph into Comic Bookstore Guy from The Simpsons.)

Just in the last week I completed Uncharted. I will talk about this amazing game in its own post, but I just have to say—what a criminally neglected masterpiece this is.

And then in the middle of last year there was Metal Gear Solid 4. Another great but flawed masterpiece. Even I, a dedicated Metal Gear aficionado, grew weary of MGS4’s aimless, rambling cutscenes towards the end, and the boss fights were the weakest in the whole MGS canon. But the game, what there was of it, was excellent.

And that is mostly that. This summing-up post is not the shape of things to come for the blog. I’ve got a backlog of unplayed games like you wouldn’t believe. What I intend is to work my way through them, one by one. I will treat my games-in-progress in much the same way as I treated my PES Master Leagues. I’ll blog about exactly what I’m up to, how I’m enjoying things, and so forth. We’ll see how the PES Chronicles format holds up.

First out of the blocks, naturally, is the game I’m playing at the moment, right now at the end of January 2009. Valkyria Chronicles, half of whose name is shared auspiciously with this blog, has got the PlayStation3 community buzzing. Could this game be the platform exclusive that we have been waiting for? Or, like Uncharted, is it doomed to inhabit the ‘cult classic’ niche?

Treble yell

It’s all over. Season 2018 has come to an end. I’ve been going for the Treble of League, Cup, and European Cup. It’s been a long, hard slog on a number of levels, not least the sheer number of matches involved.

The Division 1 Cup final had my alarm bells ringing even before kick-off. My opponents would be one of my bogey teams—AEK Athens.

The match turned out to be just as expected. Against a Man Utd or an AC Milan,I doubt I’d have had any trouble coasting to an easy victory. But when it’s a bogey team…

I hit the post twice in the 90 minutes, had 20+ shots overall, and still it went to extra time. Early in the second period of extra time, I got the goal that I thought had to be the winner. It was a nice little Prieto thunderbolt scored from the ‘DMF hole’ 25 yards out. (In this entire ML career Prieto is probably my Most Valuable Player, all told.) Ah, but this is PES, and this was AIK Athens. Straight from their kick-off, they went upfield and lobbed a floaty pass over my defence. There was too much strength on it and I brought out Dudek to collect. Only, he collapsed on the ground in front of the ball, letting it roll past him. An Athens striker, following up, had an easy tap-in. Sensational! 1-1! I had to smile, really. What else can you do?

It looked like going to penalties. I hate penalty shootouts in PES—you really might just as well have a coin-toss to determine the winner. I kicked off with that rather forlorn feeling of hope that you sometimes get in PES… Gambino got the ball out on the right. I cut inside, jinked past a defender, jinked past another (unashamedly using the zig-zag dribble)—and from 18 yards fired an unstoppable shot high into the Athens net. It was almost literally the last kick of the match. I’d won 2-1. And that was the Cup.

By contrast the European Cup final was a tame affair. My opponents were Real Madrid and I beat them easily. 2-0 it ended, and it could have been 10-0.

2018-winning-things

My next league game was against Roma. It ended 0-0, frustratingly, but it was enough to clinch the title. And that was the Treble, finally, in the bag. Below is the final table, showing me with a healthy goals-scored column at last, and a healthier goal difference. I’m satisfied with the title win, but dissatisfied at losing 8 matches in the process. That shouldn’t really be a title-winning record, but there you go. It’s ‘only a game’. When I return to PES2009 (and I will return), one of the challenges I’ll set myself will be to win the league without losing any (or many) matches.

2018-final-table

Here are the post-match locker-room celebrations, for anyone yet to see them. I did see them last season but a bug meant that I saw the CPU team celebrating instead of my own team. Here are my Coventry City heroes of 2018, jumping about like lunatics:

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And so that is that. I have to be honest and say that I have wearied of PES2009 over the course of this season. The main reason for this is that I have more or less worked out how to win matches, over and over again. The only times I get caught out now, really, are when I lose focus and get sloppy.

I am taking a break for a day and then returning on Thursday with—well, with what, exactly? Season 2019 in PES2009? (No, not yet—it’s still far too soon.) FIFA09? (I have played several more matches of my Atletico Madrid career in Manager Mode. It’s such a shame that Manager Mode feels so crude and empty. Such a great shame.)

But no, I think after all this time it’s time to broaden the scope of PES Chronicles. As of now, this is a general gaming blog—albeit with strong and frequent mentions of my PES/FIFA activities (because I will be back to them, eventually). I was a dedicated general gamer long before I was an obsessive ISS/PES gamer. I still love games in general and I want to play more of them again. So here goes.

Streaking to the finish

The driving sentiment behind Friday’s negative-sounding post still applies. I am on a downer with PES2009 at the moment.

But I don’t think this means the end for me and the game. PES2009, for all its (many) faults, is certainly no PES2008. I ended up despising PES2008 and everything it represented (i.e. betrayal, disappointment, the bitter taste of ashes…). But PES2009 will probably end up occupying roughly the same level as PES4 or PES6 in my personal pantheon of PES games. PES4 and PES6 were not strong favourites of mine. But they were still very playable, classic PESes, and I remember them both fondly. In years to come I hope I’ll recall PES2009 in the same way.

Before I take a break from PES2009 (for its sake, and my sanity’s), there’s some unfinished business to take care of. I’m almost at the end of my 11th season in Master League. I’ve been closing in on my first Treble all season. It’s closer now than ever.

I put together a 10-match winning streak that carried me back to the top of the table and opened up a nice lead. A picture paints a thousand words—looking at this one still makes me smile:

2018-winning-streak

It’s my best winning streak in PES2009 so far. I sailed through to the finals of the D1 Cup and the European Cup. Man Utd gave me no trouble in the D1 Cup semi-final. In Europe, Benfica were slightly trickier. I was 3-0 up at Benfica’s place, and the tie was all but over—then I mysteriously conceded two late goals. I took the lead in the second leg at my place, but they pulled it back to 1-2—making it 4-4 on aggregate—by literally walking the ball into my net, twice.

Lapses of concentration on my part or scripting shenanigans? I call shenanigans, naturally. I hope I’m honest enough to know when I’ve lost focus and sloppily allowed the CPU back into a match, and when Seabass’s celebrated ‘momentum’ has started to exert itself. This was ‘momentum’, I am certain of it. Still, I was through on away goals. I will play Göteborg in the D1 Cup final, and Real Madrid in the European Cup final.

The two Cup finals are the big matches as far as the Treble is concerned. That winning streak has seen me start to pull away at the top of the League table with only a handful of matches left. I’ve hit serious form at just the right time. I have absolutely no idea why the below screenshot is blurry. Could my mobile phone camera’s lens have needed a wipe?

2018-after-33

4 points clear with superior goal difference and only a handful of matches left is a great position to be in. I’m going to risk it and call the League title as mine. If I lose it from here, I don’t deserve to win anything at all in this game, ever. So the Treble will all come down to the Cups, I think.

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