Category Archives: Opinion Pieces

Max Payne – How writer Sam Lake’s face came to define one of the most iconic characters of a generation

Anyone who has even glimpsed gameplay of Remedy‘s Max Payne knows that face. The iconic look of a man having just eaten a lemon that appeared plastered over protagonist Max’s polygonic profile throughout your playtime. A facade so iconic it’s endured two console generations, a mobile port and even been poorly replicated in a Mark Wahlberg film. It’s a pretty perfect profile for a violent vigilante but did you know that this physiognomic phenomenon actually has an amusing anecdote attached.

The look of biting into a lemon more bitter than Max’s past

To understand the origins of Max’s mug it’s important to know something about the climate of game development way back in the mid to late 90s when Remedy‘s ideas for a new third-person shooter title first arose. In a world where the multi-million dollar budgets of your entertainment seem to increase year on year it’s hard to remember a time where game developers were not corporations with thousands upon thousands of employees but rather a small group of guys and gals on a hamstring budget trying to cobble together the best game they could.

A graph showcasing development budgets source:

That’s not to say they didn’t do a good job. In fact, developers in the 90s with their miniscule budgets managed to make games that are a damn sight better than the titles today into which millions upon millions is poured. For a particularly relevant example, just look at Max Payne 3. Max Payne 3 cost over 115 Million US$ and although it is undeniably a great game, it just can’t compare to the first in the series accomplished with a mere 3 Million2.

The development of the first Max Payne was a very careful game of compromise. One of the biggest compromises was made with the cut scenes which, although intended to be rendered in-engine, became real life photographs filtered and set out in the now iconic comic-book style.

Whilst using photos is visually more impressive and far cheaper than rendered cut scenes it did open up the need for models to portray the characters. As the comic panels were static images, and had narration placed over the top of them, it allowed the studio to skip out on hiring professional actors. Why spend all that extra cash hiring someone to model stills when you can come up with a far more creative solution.

Enter the Remedy staff who, along with their friends, families, distant long lost relatives and pretty much anyone they could convince to come along with them, ended up becoming the game’s impromptu models. The game’s lead writer, Sam Lake, took the starring role as the titular hero and, looking at the end result, it was a match made in heaven.

A even lesser known is the fact the game’s villain, Nicole Horne, was Lake’s mother which puts a new and slightly uncomfortable spin on the hero-villain dynamic.

Although only a character model, with Max’s voice portrayed by the excellent James McCaffrey, Lake’s impact on the character is palpable. It’s safe to say that Max Payne just wouldn’t carry the same B film charm without him.

How useful is this information? Not very. I suppose it could save you quite a fright if you bumped into Lake while you’re holidaying in Finland and thought that your childhood videogames were somehow coming to life; perhaps as a twisted form of revenge for all those years you never cleaned the discs. No, more than anything this little story into Max Payne’s development highlights a sense of humanity that may have been lost in the modern age of game development – an age where games no longer come with anecdotes.



Hitman 2 – The newly announced Bank map has you bumping off a discount Cruella de Vil

One of the main dishes in the veritable buffet of Hitman 2‘s extensive of post-launch content has just been revealed in the form of a trailer for the latest addition to the franchise’s extensive library of locations: the New York branch of the fictional Milton-Fitzpatrick investment bank in an upcoming mission entitled the Golden Handshake“. You can watch the aforementioned trailer below:

As well as this endearingly overdramatic trailer, which predominantly showcases the presumed target of the map: the bank’s director – a cartoonishly evil capitalist who seems just a little bit too familiar to anyone housing vague childhood memories of Disney‘s animated classic 101 Dalmatians, a series of screenshots have been released.

These latest press release screenshots show a little bit more of the settings itself: a large and surprisingly empty looking colonial building. Perhaps its eerie deserted-ness is explained by the fact the bank is currently “under investigation” for some kind of wrongdoing – exactly what that means and how that fact will impact the level is likely to only become apparent on release.

A stylish noir trench-coat, the latest addition to 47’s wardrobe

The screenshots also display a little more of 47’s new location suit which, along with a throwable gold bar and remote flash-mine, will be available as a unlock in the level’s level mastery unlock tree.

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The level mastery unlock tree

The starting locations shown in the mastery tree seem to suggest a definite movement towards the bank’s vault – perhaps the site of a dodgy clandestine meeting or maybe the location of a valuable piece of intelligence Hitman 2’s fictional spy agency the ICA need to get their grubby hands on. Indeed, the high-tech green laser grid behind the vault door shown in the screenshot below certainly makes me lean towards the idea that things are going to get a little bit Mission Impossible in this level.

The vault opens

The final screenshot, below, shows the target’s office and, judging by 47’s actions in the trailer, one of the main areas in the level where things have quite the potential to get a little bit homicidal.

The arena for the final confrontation

The setting of America for a Hitman map certainly isn’t unique; with Hitman Absolution taking place almost entirely within the United States. The idea of a bank level however seems intriguing, and such a highly secure environment contained within an indoor-only level should prove an interesting challenge, even for series veterans like me.

In order to play this content, you’ll need to head on over to your platforms store and purchase the Hitman 2 Expansion Pass. Gold Edition and Collector’s Edition owners however need not worry, the level should be available to you immediately upon its release on the 25th of June.

For the latest updates on Hitman 2 and it’s latest location check out the official Hitman 2 blog site. Alternatively, stay right here on Arcadeberry, where we’ll strive to bring you latest and most interesting news from everybody’s favourite sandbox murder sim.

Learn with Pokémon: Typing Adventure – The logic behind the DS’ bizzare keyboard

For many, including myself, Learn with Pokémon: Typing Adventure is a complete oddity. A typing tutorial game, an unusual concept but certainly one that isn’t unheard of, but for the Nintendo DS? The idea of pairing the tiny handheld device with a large stand and keyboard seems absolutely absurd, but that’s exactly what the weirdos over at developer Genius Sonority did. The strangest part however is that this unlikely match of technology came about thanks to a shockingly sound reason.

Image result for Learn with Pokémon: Typing Adventure

For many, this will likely be the first time you’ve ever even heard of this product due to its rather strange release status; only seeing the light of day in Japan (obviously), The United Kingdom and Australia. Even so, in the countries where it released in the West it suffered very poor sales; evidenced by availability brand new on Amazon to this day despite being a sought-after collectors item for those in the know.

Now, before we move on to the reasons behind the odd piece of kit I just want to address the elephant in the room. Those with a knowledge of the DS’ hardware are likely scratching their heads as to how exactly this wireless keyboard works. The obvious answer would be “via bluetooth duh” but that’s not quite the whole story. No models of the DS offer bluetooth support; not even the very latest 3DS lines. This lead to the creation of one of the most interesting and unique cartridges in the DS library.

Despite its unassuming appearance and regular retail price the Learn with Pokémon: Typing Adventure packs its own Bluetooth chip, powered by the system power supply when the cartridge is inserted. Although I wasn’t able to find any images of this chip, and I’m certainly not cracking open my copy to check, I’ve heard from various sources over the years that it’s definitely there. That or it’s just a convenient cover story to mask the fact the keyboard operates off of some kind of ancient and extremely forbidden dark magic.

To fully understand the purpose of this device, and the reasons for its conception, it’s important to first look at the wider context of the state of computer literacy in Japan. Despite Japan’s prevalence on the technology scene, the population in fact has one of the lowest computer literacy levels in the developed world. Demonstrated by the handy graph below from the OECD Skills Outlet study1:


Many people arrive at job interviews after very little exposure to computers, some even lacking the ability to type. Likely due to cramped living spaces in cities and lesser access to resources in rural areas, a situation has arisen whereby the majority of technology used by the population is mobile. The average person in Japan is far more likely to own a mobile phone or a tablet over a desktop computer. Even more likely to own say… a Nintendo DS.

Aiming to capitalise on the lack of essential computer knowhow Learn with Pokémon: Typing Adventure aimed to offer those without ready computer access the opportunity to learn how to type rapidly and accurately.

This still leaves one question unanswered however. Whilst Japan suffers from a general lack of computer skills, justifying its release there, why was the very same product released in Australia and England where computer literacy levels are just fine?

The answer is surprisingly simple. Japanese keyboards are almost identical to the British (and by extension Australian) keyboard layout2. All that Genius Sonority would need to do to bring the product to these markets is simply translate the game itself, which due to the game’s inherent simplicity couldn’t have been too hard a task, and then not print the Kanji characters which sit below the letters.

Image result for british and japanese keyboards
A typical Japanese keyboard

Banking off the success of the Pokémon would guarantee at least a few sales combined with the simplicity of the translation job, it would have been illogical for Genius Sonority to not bring the game to the commonwealth.

That banking off the brand didn’t work out too well however. The mediocre nature of the game itself lead to low sales and a mixed reception that quashed one of the most beautifully weird mixes of technology in gaming history. Even Amazon reducing the price to £9.99 in a flash sale failed to gain any excitement. The keyboard itself is probably the best thing to come from Learn with Pokémon: Typing Adventure, superbly built and quite frankly an absolute joy to type on. It’s excellent value especially considering it also boasts compatibility with not just it’s packaged game but any PC or mobile device.

And yes, before you ask, I even used the keyboard to write this review.

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Mirror’s Edge Catalyst – How corporate greed stole a potential gem

It’s safe to say that for many, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was a tremendous disappointment. Despite not being truly “bad” per se (although I am admittedly guilty of unfairly labeling it with the humorous portmanteau: Mirror’s Edge Catastrophic in conversation surrounding the game) but was a product that so truly wallowed in complete general mediocrity it brutally and prematurely ended arguably the most original franchise ideas to ever emerge from the creative black hole that is studio DICE – and one that I personally would have loved to have seen continued for years to come.

In order to fully explore the tragedy that was the development of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst it is first vital to understand why the original Mirror’s Edge exists in the first place. It’s no secret that around the start of Mirror’s Edge‘s development DICE was struggling to establish independence from EA – after the recent acquisition DICE by EA – with then CEO of DICE Patrick Söderlund saying that “there was a push inside the studio to do something different” and that “we were still an independent company. We wanted to push for a new IP”1. For all intents and purposes, the original Mirror’s Edge was nothing more than a tech demo – a proof of concept that became such a striking example of unique game design not by choice, but by necessity.

Mirror’s Edge‘s hybrid FPS parkour gameplay wasn’t chosen because a particular developer really wanted to make a parkour game, or that there was even a strong market demand for one, but rather because such a feat had never been attempted before. The game’s iconic art-style too was chosen almost mathematically to make a game that stood out as much as possible from the crowd, with Senior producer Owen O’Brien saying that they deliberately  “wanted a game where I could look at a screenshot and say, “Hey, that’s ‘Mirror’s Edge'”2. What better way to establish a clear division between your studio and its parent than by attempting something so risky and different – something that would never be attempted by the methodical EA – that it would surely receive a large amount of press coverage, helping to remind everyone that “yes indeed, DICE was still separate from EA”… kind of

In addition to that, the financial success of Mirror’s Edge was not ultimately necessary. DICE had the backing of EA in addition to the Battlefield franchise, which was (and still is) a reliable money maker. With the majority of the studio focused on the production of a new Battlefield game, Söderlund describes setting “several small groups of three to five developers beg[inning] workshopping pitches for something new”1. It was one of these small teams that created the concept that would soon become Mirror’s Edge.

After the 3-5 man team demo attracted a large amount of attention within the studio, wow-ing all that saw it Mirror’s Edge was greenlit and began production now with a far bigger, but still relatively small, team. The story was tasked to brilliant Writer’s Guild of America outstanding achievement in videogame writing award winning3 writer Rhianna Pratchett4 and whilst the story of Mirror’s Edge was by no means fantastic, it is veritable masterpiece when compared with what’s to come.

The musical artists selected for the game’s soundtrack were Swedish composers Solar Fieldsand Lisa Miskovsky6 and was their respective debuts into the gaming soundtrack scene. Miskovsky‘s creation, the game’s main theme Still Alive, being the stand-out track even becoming so popular as to spawn its own album of individual remixes7. Choosing composers that had done no prior work within the gaming industry was a particularly clever move considering that the unique nature of the most important aspects of Mirror’s Edge: gameplay, visual style, soundtrack was paramount to the developer’s criteria for the game’s “success”.  Miskovsky and Solar Fields both did absolutely stellar jobs in the creation of a soundtrack but for DICE that was pleasant surprise. The overall quality of the tracks didn’t matter, only their ability to stand out from the creations of other EA studios and this was likely their top priority when selecting composers.

All these factors almost inadvertently contributed to the finished product – a superbly promising game that still delights today. It is important to differentiate between comments and observations of the circumstances surrounding the game’s development and critiques of the finished game itself. I personally absolutely adore Mirror’s Edge, as you can see here in my shamelessly plugged reviewand as such can reconcile the idea that the game may have been created in circumstances some would consider cynical. The brilliant nature of the end product, I would in fact argue, was solely due to cold careful calculation and the splash of edge provided by a certain level of studio desperation that a bold idea was able, not just to be greenlit, but to come to fruition.

After discussing the circumstances that culminated in the success of the first Mirror’s Edge, it is now time to move on to the circumstances the culminated the failure of its successor Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.

DICE by this time was under new management, with Söderlund vanishing into the upper echelons of EA’s management, now under the eyes of the then EA director Karl Magnus Troedsson – with roots very firmly in the Battlefield franchise. It was also announced via twitter the writer Rhianna Pratchett would not be returning8 and instead was replaced with Christofer Emgård in his return to the game writing scene after a hiatus of over nine years9. Much like the new director, the writer also had his roots firmly in the war genre, previously helming the World in Conflict franchise and going on to write the two most recent Battlefield games, the confusingly titled Battlefield 1 and Battlefield V.

In addition to confirming her departure from the franchise, Pratchett also revealed that almost the entirety of the original team behind Mirror’s Edge was now gone. It was likely that the new team was far bigger and composed of yet more veterans of the Battlefield franchise – likely resulting in the change in game engine from the original’s Unreal Engine to the in house Frostbite 3 Engine 10– with which the Battlefield devs had the most experience and resources.

The aim of the original Mirror’s Edge was never to create an engaging plot, and it at most needed to be serviceable and facilitate the gameplay. Despite floundering under one of the greatest writers in the gaming industry DICE announced that Catalyst would be far more story focused – a recipe for disaster particularly in hands of a much less capable writer.

The reason for developing Catalyst in the first place was also unclear. This coupled by the strange details surrounding the true nature of the game at launch; with many unsure if the game was a prequel, sequel or a reboot – a confusion not helped by the developer’s insistence that it was none of those11. To this day the Wikipedia page for the game erroneously states that “the game is a prequel to Mirror’s Edge, showcasing the origins of Faith”12.

This confusion of direction reflected a developmental confusion surrounding the game’s purpose. DICE no longer had anything to prove for it was firmly within EA’s grasp and anyone who did have something to prove had been taken away from the project. The new team had no experience with the IP and the change in director lead to the vast majority of the central visions from Mirror’s Edge being compromised. The most glaring example of which can be seen in the very setting of Catalyst. Söderlund stated that in Mirror’s Edge he was very careful to not name the city in which the game takes place. It was intended to be an amalgamation of already existing modern cities, one that would be relatable and could serve as a warning of the increased prevalence of surveillance and corruption throughout the world. Catalyst throws all of this subtlety and clever design away with the laughably named extremely futuristic “City of Glass”.

There are many other examples too, just read some original interviews with Söderlund and compare his vision to Catalyst but for the sake of time, I’ll just leave the direct comparisons there.

Without a clear vision, Catalyst became a strange mess of unfinished mechanics; the meaningless skill trees, the unbalanced combat, the boring collectibles, the redundant trial modes. Catalyst reeks of a game that didn’t want to be made which eventually just became a conduit to test developer’s ideas at the expense of the end product. It is no secret the Mirror’s Edge sold well above expectations and the whisking away of the property from a side team to one of the EA DICE titans of development was likely entirely financially motivated.

Under the full control of EA, such a promising franchise couldn’t be allowed to remain in the hands of what they likely viewed as an unreliable team. All the data shows that under the main Battlefield team, Catalyst would surely sell well, everything that team produced would have certainly seemed to sell well. The open-world design of Catalyst, the skill trees, the new focus on combat all of it was carefully chosen not to defy convention but to follow it.

Unfortunately Mirror’s Edge was never about convention. It was about creating an experience that was truly unique. In trying to water down the original ideas in order to create something more “consumer friendly” and more heavily focused on market demands EA created something truly awful. A product that did nothing different. A new game that would be lost in the seas of time and one without any notable legacy.

The more cynical side of me would want to argue that this was a deliberate choice – an act of sabotaging the product if you will. For EA, the Mirror’s Edge franchise was a liability. The first game had sold just well enough to warrant a sequel, but was nowhere near the level of Battlefield or Fifa, and we know from recent news surrounding EA’s latest slice of mediocrity, Anthem13, that EA values that importance of a franchise solely on how much money it can reliably make. For EA, deliberately killing Mirror’s Edge with a very poor follow up would quell demand and shift focus towards the major EA franchises. Although there is no evidence for this, it is quite a compelling theory and one that many gamers would have no trouble accepting considering EA’s reputation for anti-consumer business decisions.

Overall, even if Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was not designed to fail, it was definitely doomed to. The lack of creative vision demonstrable from even the earliest stages of the game’s development and the lesser amount of talent that was allocated to the game meant that it’s a miracle the game was even mediocre in the first place. Catalyst is most valuable as a  prime example of how utilising purely motivated financial decisions can destroy the games we love.


The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Multiplayer Modding

Bethesda’s 2011 open world RPG is often regarded as one of the games of a generation. Whilst the company’s most recent games (The Elder Scrolls Online and the dreaded Fallout 76) have attracted harsh criticism and dwindly player numbers, Skyrim remains a community favourite and still has a dedicated base of players constantly replaying, modding and exploring the expansive fictional world of Tamriel.

The prospect of a multiplayer Skyrim experience, one where this wonderful game can be experienced with a friend, has become almost the holy grail of gaming especially after the huge disappointment many people felt with The Elder Scrolls Online (which is not necessarily a bad game per se but absolutely not the kind of game the fans wanted). As a result of this desire numerous modding projects sprang to life, all with one common goal: Skyrim multiplayer.

Even as I am writing this, a new Skyrim online mod is teetering on the edge of completion – the greatly anticipated and much talked of Skyrim Together project, now in a closed beta phase. The imminent release of an online multiplayer mod got me thinking, surely such a thing had been attempted before. A brief search yielded details of hundreds of Skyrim multiplayer projects, most of which just being concepts which never actually reached a playable state. There was however one mod which stood out. The Tamriel Online Skyrim multiplayer mod (not to be confused The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited).

tamriel online
The Nexus mod page for Tamriel Online

Initial impressions were good. The set up was quick and extremely easy, with a host of available tutorials that are very simple to follow. The editing of some files is required, and if you want to play with a friend online you both need to configure some things but it is a simple as a a drag and drop of some files shared over a file sharing service.

Once all the setup is out the way, you can jump right into a game of Skyrim online. An important thing to note however, is that starting a new game is recommended. Save files do tend to become quite severely corrupted and broken, so it’s probably best you don’t lose your endgame 1000 hours+ character for the sake of killing some chickens with a pal.

Once you’ve sat through the excruciatingly long introduction cutscene, an introduction with a vast length and providing a level of boredom only rivalled by Fallout 3, it’s time to create your character. It’s best not to spend too much time doing this, the mod certainly isn’t going to be your next playthrough of Skyrim, for reasons discussed later, and you’ll likely have a friend on the edge of their seat desperately waiting for you to finish so you can both connect to the server and let the multiplayer fun commence.

After sprinting through the well rehearsed and ever-repeated dragon attack set piece, rushing into the caves below Helgen, hurriedly dispatching some guards, spiders, a black bear and you’re finally free. You come to the end of the dark cave blinded by not just rays of sunlight, but also an overwhelming sense of freedom and childish excitement. The open world of Skyrim is now your oyster.

A rapid tapping of the tilde key informs you that you are now “connecting to the cluster” signally that the magic is just about to begin. And those first few moments, seeing your friend’s character smoothly popping into your world (in my case a very stout balding breton), are just that: magic. There was something so surreal and indescribably amazing in seeing another human pop into a far too familiar world that was, until now, completely isolated. Akin to seeing man step foot on the moon, seeing another player in Skyrim feels like a monumental achievement of human progress, something that was once relegated to the confines of dreams has become reality through the wonder of technology and the blood, sweat and tears of a modding community.

Once the buzz from the gaming equivalent of a religious experience has worn off, you will likely begin the process of careful experimentation; pushing at the boundaries of the mod, trying to find its limits. These limits become extremely apparent almost instantly, with your first encounter with an NPC. As hysterically funny as my encounter with the moonwalking mountain wolves was, it did signal something. Whilst this mod may technically “work”, it is a far from playable experience.

Crashing was extremely common throughout my time with the mod. Almost every area you enter or exit presents a very likely crash to desktop, effectively confining you to the outside world. That would be fine, there are after all many none-quest activities that can be done without entering an area, if almost every aspect of the game was not in some way completely and bizarrely broken. Hunting isn’t too enjoyable when the animals all stand still, and turn invisible when killed. Horse riding loses its charm when the horses can only travel in two of the four cardinal directions. Collectibles aren’t worth collecting if they can’t even be picked up.

All this strange brokenness creates an experience much like a fever dream. That surreal feeling I noted in the first few moments continues throughout the experience, you’re trapped in a strange world with no logic, something you can never comprehend. Tamriel Online feels like a surrealist art gallery, a series of pieces beyond any understanding, but certainly improved by the presence of a friend with whom you can laugh at the bizarre nature of everything on show.

I cannot stress enough the fact that Tamriel Online is not the online Skyrim experience you want, but it’s definitely one you need. It will provide a few hours of laughs and a handful of extremely memorable moments. It will certainly give you a renewed sense of anticipation towards Skyrim Together, which promises to build the best Skyrim online experience, but it remains to be seen.