Horizon Zero Dawn, my game of E3 2015

I love E3. Five days of non-stop game coverage, with more announcements and surprises than the mind can comfortably conceive.

What’s more, E3 just keeps getting better, with all of the big publishers showing an amazing variety of games. For every predictable sequel, there was a brand new game or unique looking indy title.

So many incredible games, but the one that stood out to me the most was the new game from Guerrilla Games: Horizon: Zero Dawn.

I was expecting Uncharted 4 to be my game of the show, and for the insane Uncharted fan within, it was, but this will be my forth adventure with Drake and I sort of know what to expect.

I have no idea what to expect from Horizon, not just because it’s a new IP and they showed very little of it, but because it’s being developed by Guerrilla Games, who for the past 10 years haven’t made anything other than Killzone.

Something new

I really enjoy the Killzone games and while Shadow Fall showed that Guerrilla are capable of using a more varied colour palette (not just different shades of brown) an open world third person role playing game is completely new for them.

Despite the lack of colour, Guerrilla’s games have always been graphical powerhouses and the first bit of Horizon we saw looked incredible. No colour is off the table in this post-post apocalyptic world and it looks beautiful.

And then there is Aloy, the game’s protagonist. Killzone games were first-person, and while you saw your character during cut-scenes, you were only really able to build a relationship with his hands, which is what you saw 95% of the time.

Aloy will be played in third-person so you will really get to know her, especially if she is as vocal as she was in what we’ve seen.

Endless possibilities

What has me most excited for this game is how little we know about it. How did humanity come so close to extinction? Who are the tribes and where did they come from? And what the hell is up with the machines that roam the land and that Aloy treats like wild animals to be hunted and respected?

Guerrilla has created what looks like an incredible world that is packed full of questions and that first trailer and piece of gameplay, with that goose bump inducing score has me so excited for the game.

I know it was only a first look but I just cannot wait to find out more.

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Back to where it all began

I love my PS4. In it’s short life it has already taken me on many a memorable journey and my games have never looked or played better.

When I got my first game console, the Nintendo 64, I never imagined that one day, sitting under my TV would be a machine capable of creating such detailed worlds and crafting such deep experiences.

Yet as much as I love my PS4 I can’t help but feel that something is missing.

The first time I was ever blown away by a game was when I watched my friend play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I was so enchanted that it wasn’t long before my parents got me a Nintendo 64 and my own copy of the game.

I finally had Hyrule all to myself to explore and save and to this day, that is still my favourite game of all time. My trusty N64 is still alive and kicking and I try and beat Ocarina every now and again.

Ocarina was followed by Majora’s Mask and that was the last Zelda game I ever played on a console I owned. Which when I think about it is crazy considering how much I love the franchise. It gets worse; somehow, despite my dedication to this medium, the only Mario game I ever played was on a Gameboy.

Nintendo has gone through a tough time in the last few years, but still even thinking about their games creates more wonder and excitement then almost any others. They are games that strive for nothing less than being the pinnacle of perfection to play. The story doesn’t really matter, one way or another the princess will be saved. These are games where gameplay is king.

I think as I have grown up, I have become a bit of a snob; I expect so much from a game; it has to be fun, has to tell an engaging story, has to play well and has to make me feel like it was worth my money.

I want all of those things but more and more I just want a game that is just really good at being exactly that, a game.

I want to be surprised again and to bring back that childhood sense of wonder. What I want is a Wii U. After 15 years I want to return to where it all started.

Nintendo gets a lot of criticism for surviving off just a few franchises, but there is a reason that people keep wanting to go back to them, and after all this time, I do to.

Constant collecting – Far Cry 4

What makes Far Cry 4 so special is it feels like it was developed for only one purpose: to be fun.

Obviously all games are meant to be fun, we wouldn’t spend hours and hours playing them if they weren’t, but this isn’t a game that is trying to tell you a deep complex story, or revolutionise game mechanics. Far Cry 4 gives you the biggest most beautiful playground possible, drops you in the middle of it and gives you all the tools you need to enjoy yourself.

Maybe you want to jump off a mountain, open your wingsuit and take in Kyrat’s beautiful vistas, maybe you want to hunt honey badgers with nothing but a bow, or maybe you want to hop onto the back of an elephant and charge straight into an enemy truck. All of these and so much more are possible in Far Cry 4.

With so much to do, it is probably quite surprising that most of my Far Cry 4 experience so far has involved hunting treasure, and by treasure I mean the hundreds of chests shown with diamond symbols on the game map.

The chests don’t contain anything particularly interesting, just trinkets that can be sold for rupees, so why would someone spend so much time looking for all of them?

Because the clever developers at Ubisoft know that by leaving the chests clearly marked, they would awaken within people like me the compulsion to collect.

Find all the things

Such a strong need to collect every last fake chest filled with fake loot to clear a map of a fake place is probably the kind of thing that used to get people committed.

Now though, developers are cramming collectibles into games specifically because they know that people find it fun.

It helps that Kyrat is such a beautiful place to travel through, but that’s not why I am happy to commit hours and hours to finding every single last chest, mask and journal entry.

It is the sense of completion that I am after, that feeling that I have done everything there is to do, left no corner unexplored and cleaned up the entire map.

The cynical view would be to see collectibles as a way developers try to artificially lengthen their games for those who measure the cost of a game against how long they took to complete it, and while to a certain extent that might be true, for the completionists they really add something to the game.

I’m sure Far Cry 4 has many more exciting chapters left in its story and I’m looking forward to getting to them, I just have a lot of collecting to do first.

Winning is everything

Manchester United’s 1 – 2 win over Southampton has extended their winning run to five games, moved them up to third in the table and was just terrible.

United had three shots at goal, the lowest since Opta started recording these things 11 years ago, and defended and passed the ball like they had never done it before.

But they won, so should I care how they played?

Once upon what feels like such a long time ago, 2012, I would have been far less impressed with that kind of victory, yes we got the win but I didn’t enjoy watching the game.

Now though, I would happily sit through terrible games like Manchester United against Southampton if we take the three points.

What is particularly interesting about this new way of thinking is that it is so at odds with what is happening in much of the Premier League in what I like to call the age of entitlement that we are now living in.

When fans at clubs like West Ham and Stoke are calling for their managers to be sacked, not because of the club’s league position, but because their teams don’t play entertaining football, it really does make you stop and wonder what is going on.

On the other hand, they may just be on to something.

With just a few good signings, West Ham has gone from a team that doesn’t just lump it forward and hope for the best, but where lumping it forward is just one good attacking option. You have to imagine Sam Allardyce now has even more cause to believe he would be treated as managerial royalty had he only be born on the continent as Samio Allardici.

There has also been a significant shift in the Premier League that has seen mid-table clubs play attacking football and pushing themselves closer to the top four and with only 10 points between third and tenth the league certainly feels a lot more competitive (if you ignore Chelsea and City).

Top and bottom                  

The more clubs in the league that play to win games the better and it’s great that fans can push their clubs to play entertaining football, but that mentality can only be enjoyed by certain clubs.

When you look at the bottom of the table, points are all that matter. For Leicester, Burnley, Hull and QPR, it doesn’t matter how well they play as long as they are getting points on the board.

At the top it is a bit different, there is an expectation to win games well, but you have to be able to grind out results and when you are honing in on the title, you can accept a poor performance as long as you get all three points.

Now, I have found a new position: I don’t care how United play as long as they win. Yes, we can be consistently terrible but if it means we qualify for Europe, I’ll take it. Controversial I know, it almost sounds like a football fan with almost reasonable expectations.

If we do end up in the Champions League next season and spend even more money on players, I promise all sense of being reasonable will go out the window.

ITV to bid for Premier League highlights

I don’t want to live in a world where ITV hold the rights to Premier League highlights.

Apparently I did live in that world between 2001 and 2004, but thankfully I didn’t notice and it is only in the last five or so years that I have become a Match of the Day devotee.

In this digital age where you can find match highlights practically as soon as they happen, watching Match of the Day is still a wonderfully appealing prospect; two evenings of uninterrupted football highlights combined with a great mix of tactical discussion, platitudes and Robbie Savage drivel.

Thankfully, these interludes of people actually talking act only as little palette cleansers between highlights that are crammed with all the ferocity and excitement that is your average Premier League weekend.

Keeping those numbers up

Why then, when highlights of every game are available online from numerous foreign and local outlets are people still persisting with BBC’s football programme?

Maybe the ritual is ingrained, or the thought of breaking Premier League copyright laws terrifies them, or maybe they aren’t interested in watching highlights of Stoke against Burnley with Russian commentary.

Whatever is keeping them coming back to Match of the Day every week and forgoing the immediacy of the internet is going to be totally wiped away if ITV are the new home of Premier League highlights.

Advert machine

The only word I associate with ITV is: adverts. If I was to expand on that, it would be to say that they arrive with such frequency and are so long that it almost feels like the ratio between programme an advert is one to one.

How do you think ITV are going to pay for this spectacularly expensive highlights package? With adverts of course! And because they are going to be premium television real estate, the only companies that seem to be able to afford those kinds of adverts are betting companies. I guarantee that if ITV are where Premier League highlights live, we are going to spend more time watching Ray Winstone’s giant revolving detached head than any actual football.

I can also guarantee that I will never watch it.

But no, I hear you crying, even putting up with ad-breaks must be better than watching highlights with massively over excited Arabic commentary.

Unfortunately not, I would take that any day over ITV’s terrible football pundits and commentators. Fortunately, the time spent in the studio listening to them would be extremely minimal, because, well, adverts.

So ITV, go ahead and bid for Premier League highlights and if you win, I will say farewell to you and your audience of masochists. Then I can look forward to the day that everyone gets fed-up with the adverts, stops watching and they are back on BBC, you know, like last time you tried this.

Still struggling with Van Gaal

At last, the final international break until next spring is over and it’s the last time for a while I will have to wait two whole weeks for the next Premier League game.

Waiting for one week has been hard enough and without Champions League football, I never appreciated how long most clubs have between games.

It’s just a shame that all the extra time Louis Van Gaal and the squad have for planning hasn’t made a whole lot of difference.

Our performances this season have been a mix of Moysian plodding and flashes of brilliance that are as wonderful as they are frustrating.

As pretty much every defender at the club sees it as their duty to get injured or suspended, discussing the defence is probably a waste of energy; but since whatever the hell it was against Leicester, things at the back haven’t been all that bad.

A lack of goals

The real issue is that we are not scoring goals and with our (supposedly) glorious array of attacking talent, this is a serious concern.

Getting rid of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez for the mighty beast that is Falcao seemed like a great idea, except of course he’s always injured.

Robin Van Persie hasn’t been the same player since that title-winning volley against Aston Villa, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata have been doing fine but no more, and our great beacon of hope Di Maria hasn’t looked up for it for a while now.

There is nothing you can do about injuries and after last season and how this season has gone, you can expect confidence to be low.

What I didn’t expect was that the pragmatic, goalkeeper changing, testicle showing Dutchman, Louis Van Gaal would take so long to figure out how he wants his team to play.

Questionable tactics 

There is a rigidity to the performances that belies the talent at his disposal. If Di Maria is struggling out wide against Palace because they are closing the space, let him roam around the pitch and look for his own.

If Moyes had dropped Rooney deep for Fellaini to play behind RVP he would have been crucified, but after an hour of neither Rooney nor Fellaini contributing anything to the game, surely he should have switched them round and allowed his creative player to play in an area where he might make a difference.

Instead, not for the first time this season the game ended with players completely out of position, in this case Mata on the right and Rooney on the left.

The best we have played has been in the 4-4-2 diamond, with Rooney behind Van Persie and Falcao, Blind behind him and Di Maria and Valencia or Januzaj on either side.

As Mata proved with his goal against Palace, he would have been just fine sitting at the head of the diamond behind Rooney and RVP.

Most concerning was the general lack of pace in our play and while it hasn’t been as much of an issue this season as last, there is no excuse for it against Palace at home.

You know what, I might have to rethink my feelings about international breaks. What a wonderful distraction from the agony of the Premier League they are. They should really come around more often. Especially now that (if you are Irish at least) they have the decency of being mildly interesting.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor – adapting the open world formula

Part of what makes playing games so wonderful is that they let you explore places you could only dream of.

Open world games are the best at this, throwing the player into a huge playground, leaving them to discover and carve their own adventures.

Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series offers incredible scope for the would-be adventurer to forge their path, just like the Grand Theft Auto games consistently provide the most lifelike playgrounds for you to destroy.

The worlds they create are so full of detail and large of scope that you can get totally lost in the experience but it is rare that you ever feel like more than just a passing force. Yes you can cause absolute carnage in GTA but when you go back to the scene there is no sign you were ever there.

In Skyrim, you can interact with almost everyone but their wooden features pull you out of the experience.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor takes a different tact and it really works.

A lived in world

Monolith’s take on Mordor isn’t the most spectacular game world and is almost bland compared to many other open world games. This is partly down to the subject matter; set during Sauron’s second rise to power, Mordor is becoming the dark place that we know from the books and films.

That is not to say the game is without beauty, it just doesn’t come close to replicating other games in the genre.

Where it stands out, possibly above any open world game I have played is with how much it makes you feel an actual part of its world. What you do has real consequence thanks to the games nemesis system.

A foe that remembers

As Sauron’s army of Uruks sweeps over Mordor, your character Talion is tasked with stopping them. This means that you are going to kill a lot of orks, and you do. But these are not a mindless foe wondering around waiting to die.

When you creep by them you hear them discussing your character, the rumors they have heard and exchanging legends of your deeds. This has become relatively common in many games but the nemesis system takes it further.

Before the game came out, the studio never really managed to adequately explain what the nemesis system is.

Essentially, Sauron’s army has a hierarchy that you can interact with: normal orks are led by Captains, who in turn are led by Warchiefs. If you are killed by an ork, they can be promoted to Captain. If a Captain you are fighting flees from battle, he will recall your previous fight when you meet again.

All of this makes you feel like you are really there, and you can have a direct impact not just on yourself, but on a myriad of well thought out baddies.

When you are facing up to a Captain who bears the scars of your last skirmish, the fact that the world itself isn’t that compelling doesn’t really matter anymore.

I really hope that the next Fallout, Elder Scrolls and GTA give you more than just a location for your adventure, but worlds that react, adapt and exist because of you, not just in spite of you.