Eurogamer


Playing Quarrel for the first time is one of the strangest gaming experiences I've had for a while, and it was definitely unrelated to the 12th cup of tea of the day. Sometimes games feel so familiar and perfectly formed that you assume that you must have played them before in some nascent form, possibly sometime in the late 1980s before mullets were officially outlawed.


But no. Despite concerted internet searches and experimental primal scream therapy, it turns out that Quarrel wasn't some sort of gaming deja vu, but was thrust, fully formed, onto the unsuspecting App Store on August 25th 2011. Its unheralded arrival immediately galvanised the clever swines of the world into trying to describe it adequately. The best one yet ("Scrabble x Risk x Countdown") is also one of the most irritatingly concise, and also sums it up perfectly. As Denki amusingly points out, words (11 points) literally speak louder than actions (8 points).


There I was about to blather haplessly about its ingenious mixture of Scrabble wordplay and land-grab turn-based board game strategy, while some one else pressed the buzzer and won the internet. This also possibly explains why I am not very good at Quarrel and don't sip champagne on a yacht while dolphins pirouette in the background. But general inadequacy has never been a problem before, and it isn't here either. With Quarrel it really isn't about the winning but the taking part - at least not for habitual losers like me that enjoy flustered wordplay punishment. Besides, it's fun to tell you all over again why it's ace and thoroughly deserves a place in Eurogamer's hallowed Christmas games of the year selection.


For those of you still unaware of its BAFTA award-winning charms, the crux of Quarrel is, like Scrabble, all about trying to craft the most valuable word out of a collection of letter tiles, each valued in precisely the same way that you'll be familiar with. That alone might not be especially interesting, but grafting these core mechanics onto a time-pressured head-to-head game of turn-based strategy most certainly is.


Whether you elect to sidle up for an elegant two-player quickie or opt for a sweaty Krankie-sized four-player marathon, it plays out the same way, with each of you in possession of an equal number of territories on an island map. To win, obviously, means capturing all of them by crushing your opponent with your devastatingly fast word formation skills - and the occasional piece of desk-thumping, temple-throbbing luck.


As simple as it sounds, it's always a wickedly finely balanced affair, and therefore a game that you never seem to want to stop playing. Like Risk, you have a finite number of troops (automatically) dished out across your territories at the start of the game, and once it's your turn to dish out the pain, you have to weigh up which territories are most advisable to invade.


Unless you positively sweat confidence (in which case, get in line for the next Old Spice ad), the most obvious thing to do is be a bullying git and win via weight of numbers. The basic gist of the battle is that the number of units you have on each territory translate to the number of letter tiles you'll get to fight with in that battle, so for instance, if you've got the maximum eight units, it'd be easy enough to claim a territory defended by a paltry five units. That said, it's still possible to pull off a flukey win if a) you're quick and form the word before your rival and, and b) you're lucky enough that the options are horribly limited.


Eventually, though, you'll either push your luck or run out of steam and play then passes to the next player in clockwise order. But even when it's no longer your turn, the fact that the game keeps you involved by allowing you to prove that you've got the fastest fingers. Apart from anything else, it's good practice, and sharpens the mind to keep training yourself under pressure.


Even if all of this was presented with all the panache of an errant child, it'd still be extra-brilliant. The fact that Denki has bothered to infuse it with such slick, characterful professionalism makes an absolute mockery of its £2.99 price tag. You're probably as bored reading about amazing cheap games by now as we are banging on about them, but, bear with me, Mr Impatient. A few years ago no-one would have batted an eyelid about paying £25 for a game with as much replayability as this. There's even a free version to check out if you're averse to the idea of prescribed fun.


The fact that Scottish geniuses Denki had one hell of a faff even getting it to market probably tells you all you need to know about the kind of dunderheads responsible for bringing games to market in 2011. Go back 18 months, and the developer was forced to lay off most of its talented staff just to stay afloat. But with an equal portion of resolve and persistence, they've not only turned around a really bad situation, but shown what a ridiculous rejection it was in the first place.


Back then, on its Black Easter Monday, Denki's managing director Colin Anderson commented bleakly, and accurately: "This industry doesn't value good games. Players do, but the games industry doesn't." At the time, he was reminded exactly why it got out of the traditional publisher-funded model in the first place and escaped to the Siberian salt mines of interactive television games. But now, like so many of the world's best developers, the company has figured out, wisely, that going "straight to the people who play games and value games" is the way forward. With a bit of help from UTV Ignition, it has essentially flicked the Vs at those who wouldn't know a classic game if it personally fellated them in their own homes.


And if you've got some sort of pathological aversion to enjoying games on iOS platforms, then, worry not. Despite the XBLA version having been seemingly written off earlier last year, it's back on the agenda again, with PSN and Steam version to follow sometime in 2012. In generations to come, all but the beard-stroking sages of gaming lore will know of the struggle that Quarrel had, but as long as the cream rises to the top, it matters not.

Eurogamer


It feels very appropriate to be writing about Mario in the run up to Christmas. Even though his games make no explicit reference to The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, and in fact are often blatantly summery with their primary colours and warm blue skies, there's just something inherently festive about the squat plumber and his surreal world.


Maybe that's why it's been Super Mario 3D Land that has kept me coming back, alternating with Skyrim for my gaming attention these past few months.


Obviously, the game features a jolly fellow with a bulging tummy and a fondness for red clothing. That he clearly takes great pleasure in descending down enclosed spaces - green pipes, chimneys, whatever - is the icing on a Santa-shaped cake.


But Mario's festive credentials go deeper than that. Buried right in the DNA of Super Mario Land 3D is something that goes beyond the surface trappings of what is "Christmassy" and cuts straight to the heart of the holiday. Mario is about joy.


It's true of most Mario games, of course, but there's something about the handheld intimacy of Super Mario Land 3D, something in the way the 3D effect makes it feel more than ever like a delightful parallel universe you can almost reach out and touch, that makes this a particularly potent example of what makes the plumber so special.


Like all the best Christmases, Super Mario 3D Land is both comfortingly familiar and thrillingly new. It's steeped in Nintendo lore, and makes no secret of its desire to win you over with fondly remembered audio and visual cues. Over a quarter century of gaming, Mario has stayed true to his original aesthetic so even now you can draw a direct line from the latest title all the way back to the 1980s. The yellow blocks, the bulbous trees, the yelps and wahoos: all, in their own way, as traditional as mince pies, holly wreaths and overcooked sprouts.


But Super Mario Land 3D is also full of surprises. It strikes a near perfect balance of tried and trusted gameplay, spiced up with a procession of tweaks, twists and flourishes that constantly make you reconsider the basic hops and jumps. It's 2011, and we really shouldn't be surprised when a game puts us underwater or asks us to navigate platforms that unfold and unpack as we walk along, yet somehow Mario still has me grinning like a loon, perpetually delighted with each new level, whether I'm firing cannons in a desert or running around in a haunted house. The game bounds over my cynical adult defences and leaves me brimming with excitement at what the next level will hold, and the one after that, and the one after that.


It doesn't take long to romp through the game's eight worlds, of course. The levels are all bite-sized morsels, designed to fit into your bus journey, toilet time or whatever moments accompany your gaming-on-the-go, but where too many games see handheld as an excuse to go small (yes, Sonic, we're looking at you), Mario's stocking is deceptively roomy.


Beat the game and you unlock the second half, with even more new abilities and levels waiting to be mastered. And then there's a bit more. And, if you want the actual actual ending, you should finish all the levels with Mario and Luigi. It's another Mario tradition, but to see so much content squeezed into a format blighted by make-do efforts is still a true pleasure.

Eurogamer


About once a year, a game makes me want to write.


I don't mean criticism, a review or even a cutting tweet about how long it takes to open a bloody chest in Zelda. I mean fiction. For - er - money. Since I've been completely out of games journalism for over a year, it's fairly likely you won't know me, so I'm going to have to write a bit about myself. I'm sorry. That said, if you do know me, you won't be surprised that I'm going to write a bit about myself. I'm sorry.


Basically, I write comics for Marvel starring characters that even my mum has heard of, as well as a bunch that she hasn't. And while I enjoy games' genre fiction, it rarely does anything that screams that there's further novel stories in its world. Or, at least, further stories that wouldn't boil down to reheated genre pulp. The last game that made my writing instincts twitch was Arkham Asylum, which reminded me of the sheer physicality of the Batman in a way I'd previously forgotten. The latest, if the title at the top of the page hadn't given it away, is Saints Row: The Third.


Saints Row: The Third is apes**t.


It's not the story that I found most affecting this year. (That would probably be Bastion, which managed to find a perfect aesthetic nestling somewhere on the previously unexplored boundary between SNES action games and Cat Power.) It's not the best-designed narrative game of the year. (That would probably be SpaceChem, which is such a masterclass in design that it makes everyone else look a bit thick. Including the player, because it makes such enormous demands of you.) It's not the story which actually made me write a big ol' rambly rant about metaphors and stuff and things. (That would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution.)


But it is apes**t. And blither-provoking interesting apes**t, at that.

Eurogamer


Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is a game. You know, like chess, or backgammon, or tic-tac-toe, or, heck, Kerplunk. There are two sides in play, you take it in turns to make your move and success demands skill, concentration and, occasionally, a dash of luck.


Why am I pointing out such an obvious truism? Well, in a year when most of the big AAA duckhunts doggedly insisted on leading the player by the hand from one scripted, retina-scorching set piece to the next, it was mightily refreshing to see a mainstream console title really explore the millenia-old science of play and offer the grey matter some nourishment.


In a similar fashion to, say, Advance Wars before it, Capybara's phenomenal puzzle RPG reveled in the primal thrill of competition, of using your smarts to slowly grind down a seemingly more powerful opponent, of gradually mastering a rule set that at first sight seems bewilderingly complex.

Eurogamer


If golf is a good walk spoiled, StreetPass Quest might be the exact opposite. It's a good walk enhanced: a simple amble across town rendered tactical, speculative and even quietly thrilling. "Gather heroes, fight ghosts and collect hats," says the blurb that introduces the 3DS' unlikely killer app. Sold. As far as I'm concerned, that's pretty much the entire appeal of modern video games boiled down into a single sentence.


On some level, of course, it's all just a smart piece of strategizing. Paul Auster once said that if you wander around with a pencil and paper in your pocket all the time, there's a chance that, one day, you'll actually use them, and Nintendo clearly thinks the same is true for a handheld console - although, happily, there's a reduced chance that anybody will have to slog through The Book of Illusions as a result.


Nintendo might be onto something, too. Because of StreetPass Quest, I've been taking my 3DS everywhere with me for the last nine months. It's a large part of why I came to love the weird little device even before Super Mario 3D Land turned up and gave us all a much more legitimate reason to.


If you haven't played StreetPass Quest, the basics are pretty simple. At heart, the game's a rudimentary and entirely rigid dungeon crawler in which you work your way through a series of different rooms, battling monsters and unlocking treasure chests, all of which contain hats for your Mii. The twist is that you need to harvest adventurers to do the actual fighting for you, and you do this either by collecting other people's Miis via StreetPass - the exchange system that allows 3DS owners to passively trade data in public - or, if you happen to live in the sticks or are surrounded by the Amish, by buying them with the coins you earn with the console's on-board pedometer.


Each time you encounter the same Mii on your travels, they'll level up when they next appear within your game. This is handy, because StreetPass Quest is astonishingly grindy. Not only do most low-level heroes inflict only the tiniest amount of damage on the enemies they come across before sloping off with fatigue, you'll have to play through the entire suite of dungeons multiple times if you're going to collect all the hats on offer. And you are going to collect all the hats on offer, okay?


It's around this point that I should probably admit that, when you get down to it, StreetPass Quest is a pretty terrible RPG most of the time. Levelling's taken out of your hands, the environments are fiercely repetitive, and your sole choices amount to whether to use a melee attack or magic when laying into the next monster. Sure, the colour-coded adventurers, each with their own powers, bring a surprising tactical depth to your decision at times, but you're hardly looking at Nintendo's answer to Dark Souls, or even HeroQuest.


The more you play, though, the more you'll start to realise that the RPG isn't actually the main event. Rather, each tiny sliver of the RPG you're given is your reward for successfully playing the true StreetPass Quest - and that turns out to be a game about carrying your 3DS around wherever you go, changing your walking habits so that even the shortest stroll takes you past as many shopping malls and densely populated areas as possible, and maximising every single chance you can get for that little green light on your 3DS - Gatsby would understand - to start glowing. It's like fishing, really, or dowsing. Or Pokémon.


It's also a reminder, should you need one, that StreetPass is probably the most Nintendoish element of the 3DS, a device which, with its gimmicky lenticular screen and horrible battery life, isn't exactly drowning in the kind of Gunpei Yokoi-style leftfield thinking that brought us the Gameboy or the original DS. The console's a bit of a cludge, perhaps, but at least its sharing aspects are brilliant. StreetPass enlivens titles like Mario and Street Fighter with regular tiny bursts of new content, and, even outside of other games, it seems wonderfully in line with its creator's playful ethos. Everyone's a generous stranger in the world of StreetPass, and everywhere you go is a place that something weird and sweet and modestly rewarding could happen. It's nice to have a game that is always playing by itself in the background. It's nice to have a game that makes you wait for things - a rarity in the current landscape.


So, slight as it is, StreetPass Quest is my game of 2011. Looking back, it's also been a game about 2011: an accidental diary of the places I've been to and the people I've met there, written in all the faces that are lined up in Mii Plaza. So there are the cluster of ludic geniuses I met at the Develop Conference in Summer, there are the bearded programmers from that studio visit in Autumn, and over there is fellow Eurogamer contributor Will Porter, collected during a drink we had in Brighton a few weeks' back. (Not sure the Kirby beret really suits you, Will.)


If you love games, you'll already know that they're more than the mere distraction they're often made out to be. At their best - when you're gathering heroes, fighting ghosts and collecting hats, let's say - they can occasionally break through the technology barrier completely and become a genuine companion.

Eurogamer


For PC owners, recording game footage is a piece of cake. You buy FRAPS or check out a free alternative (like the intriguing MSI Afterburner) and a few mouse clicks later you're on your way. But what are the cheapest options for console enthusiasts looking to capture their gameplay on a budget?


Digital Foundry's entry-level recommendation is the Blackmagic Intensity Pro, readily available for around £130-£150. There are alternatives of course, which we'll cover later, and the Blackmagic tech has a series of limitations that could put some people off, but for the average gamer simply looking to record his own gameplay, upload to YouTube or archive off for future reference, the Intensity Pro will do just fine - as long as it's configured correctly.


Taking the form of a PCI Express x1 expansion card, the Intensity Pro is compatible with PCs and desktop Macs, allowing users to record footage from analogue component or HDMI. The range of supported resolutions is limited, but for the purposes of recording game video from PS3 and 360, 720p is really all you need.


Its other major drawback is that you cannot acquire HDMI video from a PlayStation 3 or any other HD source that utilises the HDCP content protection system. This limitation is in effect for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while the utilisation of HDCP encryption on PS3 gameplay is pointless and baffling (Xbox 360 doesn't use it at all), capture card manufacturers are not keen on their equipment being used to create digitally perfect copies of content such as Blu-ray movies or TV transmissions. Secondly, Intensity Pro wasn't really designed for games consoles. It's primarily made for use with HD cameras, none of which have HDCP encryption active at all.