gamescom 2019: the fun starts today

Today is the opening of gamescom 2019 for the general public and the first time I’ve travelled outside of the UK for years. I’m drafting this post before leaving for the airport. I’ve been to EGX and Rezzed which are significant in size, but gamescom is even bigger.

I’ll be looking out for anything Bethesda-related, as I’ve spent almost all my time playing their games recently and we may get some new information on The Elder Scrolls 6. Otherwise, the list of games and developers attending the event is endless but we’ve got four full days to explore everything. Please do leave any comments for titles you’d like me to try out and I’ll be happy to give my feedback!

In terms of scale, it’s suggested that the event will be host to hundreds of thousands of visitors and this is significantly more than any gaming event in the UK. Having been squashed into Tobacco Dock for Rezzed with only hundreds of attendees, gamescom is a daunting prospect. We’re also staying at a hotel 40-minutes away from the venue by train because that was the only real option when I arranged the trip four months ago, so we know it will be packed.

This year there won’t be the usual conferences from the likes of Microsoft, Nintendo or Sony but an opening-night live event hosted by Geoff Keighley will contain any big announcements instead. Guests include Hideo Kojima with more previews of Death Stranding and exclusives from all the other major companies in one conference. At the time you’re reading this, the live stream will be available on YouTube.

I originally planned the trip this year expecting an unveiling of the next generation of games consoles, but that’s now looking unlikely. Hopefully, I’ll get my hands on Borderlands 3 instead to see if the core gameplay has changed much or if there are any more freedom and scale to the environment. I’ll also be looking out for anything more on the Final Fantasy VII remake.

Could 2020 be yet another year of sequels and remakes? So far it does appear to be going this way, but I’m hopeful we see new story-based single-player experiences including Cyberpunk 2077. I’ll be posting photos from the event on Twitter so be sure to follow me, and I’ll have some posts here on Later Levels at the end of the week.

Locked in a room in Bristol

A trip to Bristol last weekend with the Later Levels and GeekOut UK crew saw us attempt an escape room at Locked In A Room. It’s my second experience, the first one for a team-building event with work colleagues at Omescape in London.

I assumed my years solving puzzles, deciphering messages and finding keys in video games would apply in an escape room to make it easier – but no. Troubleshooting skills do help, but escape rooms don’t employ the same techniques such as the use of lights and sound to point you in the right direction.
I first met Tim at Kitacon in 2014 with Kim and it was an instant friendship. The guy is an extremely likeable person and it feels like you’ve known him for years because he’s so knowledgeable and a great listener; it’s a pleasure to know him and Jake, who we met not long after. It’s just like old times even though I’ve not seen them for a few years, but that might have something to do with playing The Elder Scrolls Online with them every day for the last two months.

We selected the Parallax escape room, which apparently has a 45% completion rate. Not good news for a newbie such as myself but I was in great hands with an experienced crew. It was introduced by Dr Backstory, a mad scientist character, who shocked us with the news that time-travelling genius Professor Pottenger had been kidnapped. We were tasked with entering the hideout of the unknown assailants and obtain the vital intelligence needed to unearth this peculiar mystery before it was too late.
After practising our most evil cackles with him, we were let into our room with a 60-minute time-limit to escape by finding four different keys to unlock the exit. The room was quite bare and was themed as a bedroom with antique furniture and plenty of locked cupboards and containers. Avoiding spoilers, we found multiple typed letters containing clues about the occupant and their family using birth dates and hidden numbers to open padlocks. Despite the apparent difficulty level of the room, we were capable of understanding quickly what information was likely the solution, so it was more about finding where to use it that took most of the time.

Locked In A Room, Parallax, team, Bristol, Kim, Pete, Phil, Ethan, Tim, Jake

There were enough pieces that the six of us could go off and investigate a puzzle before bringing it back to the group to solve it quickly. A variety of skills were needed to order random objects, solve world puzzles and transmit Morse code. My favourite was finding the right telephone number to dial into an old-fashioned rotary telephone which Ethan had no idea how to use due to growing up with touchscreens. I’m always interested in how they put these rooms together and in this case, resurrecting an old rotary telephone with dial and ring tones, then identifying the right numbers to dial gave us a recorded message which contained another clue.

For support, we could request clues by waving at the camera which would end up displaying a hint on the monitor alongside the 60-minute countdown. We didn’t need the clues although whoever monitored us decided to post some anyway, and by the time we realised we had already solved the puzzle. Let’s call this foreshadowing for how we actually performed. We were told that if we hadn’t found the first key in 30 minutes then we had little hope of completing on time; luckily we found the first key soon after ten minutes, but during the last half an hour I could tell we were all thinking we weren’t going to complete the room in time.

certificate, Locked In A Room, Bristol, Parallax, escape room

‘Assume the worst and you’ll be pleasantly surprised’ – and in this case surprised would be an understatement. We escaped the room with 12:33 minutes remaining! As we stepped out of the room, we saw the lobby was empty and all assumed we took so long that everyone else had already finished and left, but we were actually the first to finish. The event team greeted and praised us for how well did, saying they enjoyed watching us work. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience and it far overshadowed my first go at an escape room in London. Even though it felt like we weren’t progressing as efficiently as we would have preferred, we actually performed well above the average. Not bad for a group of people that sit down and play video games for most of their spare time.
We finished the day with a visit to Forbidden Planet for Ethan, a delicious meal and finally a few rounds of drinks and board games. If there’s one thing to rely on, it’s that Tim and Jake will bring a collection of carefully-curated board games to the pub that you’ve never heard of but are a blast to play. We had the most enjoyment with Unusual Suspects, which is like a judgemental version of Cluedo but the questions about the suspect rely on how you associate people visually; for example, are they are superstitious, do they sing the national anthem, have been on a cruise. Let’s just say that not all our assumptions were exactly politically-correct, but I think that’s the purpose of the game. We all learned a bit more about each other because of it.
After breakfast with everyone the next morning, I jumped on a train back to London to finish packing for my trip to Cologne for Gamescom. More on this later in the week. A big thanks and much love to Kim, Pete, Ethan and the GeekOut UK guys for the superb weekend in Bristol, I can’t wait for next one!

A trip down nostalgia lane

It’s time for some sentimentality and yearning for a return to past periods in my gaming history, with some particular titles that evoke the feeling of nostalgia for me.

This is a very subjective topic and I’d love the opportunity to share my own memories and see how they compare to yours. Most of the following games come from the late 1990s when I finally had my own income and could buy any release I wanted – or one every few months at least.

1997: Tomb Raider II

A friend and I had reached level 14 together, the ice palace, and had just pulled a lever before leaving Lara Croft standing still while we checked a game guide for what to do next. We had left our progress un-paused for quite some time with the character stood facing the wall, so our view was restricted. We had no idea there were giant Yetis in the game – and we definitely didn’t know that this was the level which introduced them – and I expect you can imagine our screams a giant creature barged it’s way on screen and began attacking Lara.

I found this title to be just as scary as Resident Evil 2 (see below), if not more in some places. I believe it was the ambient music and sound that provided the right atmosphere to immerse myself in the 3D world. The scariest thing would have to be the butler at Croft Manor who follows Lara around the lonely mansion while carrying a tray of crockery, and groaning from back pain no doubt. I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t managed to lock him into the freezer just to get rid of him.

1998: Metal Gear Solid

This was a timed demo from the Official PlayStation magazine, and I remember the preview article made the game out to be something special.From the intro only is was obvious it was going to be a big hit and I’m not usually one for stealth games. The story, cinematic cutscenes and gritty aesthetic drew me in with its movie-like quality; and let’s not forget one of the best boss-fights ever in video games with Psycho Mantis. This sequence broke the fourth-wall by making your controller move using the rumble feature and causing you to believe the television channel had been changed by blanking the screen with ‘HIDEO’ in the top-right corner – a reference to Hideo Kojima.
Beating Psycho Mantis requires the PlayStation controller to be unplugged and placed into the second controller port, otherwise you’re unable to control Snake. He even reads your memory card making references to how many saves have been made and comments on particular entries such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night if one exists. The controller trick alone is both genius and risky because unless you have a friend or game guide to explain it, you could become stuck. One other trick worth mentioning is the point where a character tells Snake about a radio frequency that can be found ‘on the back of the CD case’, referring to the actual physical one. One of the screenshots included there was of a radio conversation with the frequency clearly visible. Imagine what an incredible problem this was if you rented the game as often the original sleeve wasn’t included.


1998: Resident Evil 2

Back when demo discs were stuck to the front of magazines, I had my first experience with the Capcom’s Resident Evil series on my original PlayStation. I’m sure it was my first time with zombies in video games and the quality of this one was astounding, but I hadn’t heard of the developer before. My brother and I played the time-limited ten-minute demo over and over to get as far into the opening section as possible. We thoroughly enjoyed it and didn’t find it that scary until after the statue puzzle upstairs in the police station. Returning to the lobby takes you through a narrow corridor where we experienced our first jump-scare – zombie arms smashing through the window. We both up and left our room in horror.
The frights in Resident Evil 2 were unintentionally signposted by a pause in the gameplay while the CD drive spun up and you could hear the sound of the laser navigating the disc. It wasn’t obvious at the time as it’s not something you’re aware of as a kid, but today it would almost be comical. We were planning to buy the full game as soon as it was released until this fright and we headed straight to our parent’s room to let them know we’d had second thoughts. In the end we did get it, and the same thing happened again but with crows instead of zombies; except for this time we had the volume up high to make the most of a new set of speakers, and once more we left the room sharply.

2003: PlanetSide

Not many will know this unique massively-multiplayer first-person shooter for PC but it’s still going strong today with PlanetSide 2, a free-to-play title. The enormous scale of the game made every battle unique with hundreds of players from three factions sometimes converging on the same base and fighting for ownership. It was like Battlefield but set in the future with MMO mechanics and a persistent world where capturing territory wasn’t temporary like in round-based games, but an ongoing war that didn’t end until the servers were turned off in July 2016. I spent most of my online life playing just this game.
My fondest memories are of those times with my outfit, which was like a guild, and there was a strong sense of belonging to your faction which fuelled competition with players on other groups. I can still remember the in-game names of the top players on my server, called Werner, and one god-like player who was always at the top of the leaderboard. There still hasn’t been another online shooter with the same level of strategy and team-play as PlanetSide. Becoming a top-tier squad leader required experience points only earned through leading a successful squad. Once you reached the coveted command rank five, you received a powerful orbital strike and access to a channel where other leaders would agree where to strike next on behalf of hundreds of players.

I could probably continue down memory lane for much longer but I’ll leave it here. This list is only the tip of the iceberg for me, and I’ll probably remember some other significant games I wish I had included, but we can leave this for the comment section. Do any of these resonate with you? Are you from a generation in gaming before or after these games? Let me know below!

Battle royale: what am I missing?

Online multiplayer shooters have been my thing since my parents first got a 14.4k internet connection in the 1990s. It allowed me to play Half-Life Deathmatch and Team Fortress Classic, the latter of which remained my most-loved game for years.

Counter-Strike then arrived and, while it was an impressive step forward in team-play, there was something about waiting for the round to finish before playing again which just didn’t sit well with me (I’ll talk a bit more about this later). The early 2000s were a rich time for multiplayer shooters and my personal list of favourites goes on for a while: you’ve got Unreal Tournament, Quake III Arena, Natural Selection, Wolfenstein and PlanetSide, and that’s to name only a few.

The last one was massive for me and is probably my most played game of all time, as every day was a different experience in a persistent world. You could be stuck in stalemate for hours, take a break to eat, and then come back an hour later to find the same battle still raging. It’s the only massively-multiplayer-online (MMO) title I’ve actually played enough to become known as a regular among the community on my particular server, including the politics. Yes, I could spend the rest of this post about PlanetSide and how much I enjoyed it.

But let’s move on. Next came the battle between Call of Duty and Battlefield for the number-one spot in the genre. They’re equally matched in popularity but vastly different in gameplay with the latter, my personal favourite, featuring larger environments, vehicles and aircraft with a greater focus on team-play. Battlefield 2 in particular introduced persistent player statistics and strengthened the class system.

Since then, I’ve played almost every release in the series. I’m keen on Battlefield 2142 because of the epic titan assault mode which combines the traditional capture-the-point objectives with an assault on a floating battleship. As a soldier, you could take the fight to the enemy’s titan and destroy it from the inside, or continue to capture missile silos on the ground that slowly chip away at the hull.

Considering my history with the first-person shooter, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d like everything that battle royale games have to offer. The popularity of the genre today is staggering but there’s something all entries share in their design that I struggle to enjoy. I’ve tried each of the most popular including Fortnite, Apex Legends and Fallout 76 (but not PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds). It’s not one single title that’s the problem: it’s more about the core gameplay loop, and I just don’t feel the same attraction a significant of other gamers do.

In case you didn’t already know, battle royales consist of between 50 to 100 players who are dropped onto an island with the aim to kill everyone else to become the last one standing. Some games include team-play aspects, with small groups pitted against each other in the same way. Weapons, ammunition, armour and sometimes vehicles are scattered throughout the map and must be obtained to compete after you arrive empty-handed. I can understand how this aspect appeals as it adds chance to what gear you’ll find, but it takes still to use the equipment effectively and win the match.

If you lose in battle royale you’re out until the next round. Whether you’re outgunned by a better player, struck by a moment of bad luck or make a silly mistake, there’s no second chance. With each in Counter-Strike being quite short it wasn’t much of a problem. But I found myself getting frustrated after only one round of something like Fortnite, having spent quite some time finding some quality gear and planning my next move – before being destroyed by another player. I’m left in no mood to jump back in and repeat the whole process once again.

Don’t get me wrong: the quality of these games is high, and I appreciate that the feeling of winning after being up against 99 other people must be thrilling. I don’t think winning a match would encourage me to have another go; and even the battle royale mode in my favourite games, Battlefield V and Fallout 76, haven’t made the difference. Is it possible I’m becoming an older gamer that doesn’t quite get it?

And except for Hideo Kojima, who made it clear he doesn’t want to make this kind of game, does anyone else share my experience? Or do you completely disagree and want to shed some light on what fuels the battle royale addiction?

The return to blogging

After Matt from Normal Happenings tagged Later Levels in a Daily Inkling recently, it felt time to write about my return to blogging. Until recently it was almost three years since writing my last post for a blog, now long forgotten, which could be described as the prequel to this site.

The beginning of my long trip began with the inception of ideas that became Later Levels but for reasons now unclear, at least in my mind, I took the non-blogging direction. Somehow I was comfortable with this outcome and slipped into what I would call the ‘normal gamer’ life, being content with merely playing games and not taking much more from the experience.

Rezzed, NEC, Birmingham, GeetOut UK, Tim, Joel, Kim, Phil

Before this long trip I’d every gaming event possible, had exposure to developers, participated in discussions with a vast community on WordPress, had opportunities to develop my photography and video-editing skills, and was part of a fantastic group of friends with a shared passion for video games. I honestly couldn’t give one single reason why I chose to forego that part of my life, and it was at the beginning of 2019 when I was gripped by feelings of depression and the desire to wake up from my ‘normal gamer’ coma.

There was something in my life that was key to the mental wellbeing that I had managed to avoid during my long trip, but there’s no place like home. Being honest with myself and those I care about and have been close to was the most important step. It doesn’t automatically change everything for the better, but it does add purpose to your existence – a goal perhaps, something you can focus on.

The saying ‘it gets worse before it gets better’ had a lot of meaning to me at this point as I began to see how much I had missed during my time away now that my focus was on returning to blogging. Having continued playing video games, seeing new trends arrive, forming opinions on controversies and finding new gaming addictions, it was tough not having a place to share my thoughts and discuss them with like-minded gamers.

I think there became a boiling point at which I could hold back the tide no longer and asked Kim if I could make a post or two, which was completely out-of-the-blue and unexpected. Still, if you never take any risks you’ll never get anywhere in life, and she was very kind to let me post the article Live service games: ‘But it’s good now!’, a topic burning away in my mind for months since the release and of Fallout 76 and its controversies last year. It was just what I needed!

The post was well-received judging by the comments, and I’m so grateful to everyone for reading and commenting, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It represents the power of the amazing WordPress community, and I don’t know where else there is on the entire web to have such a positive experience.

Not long after this post I was lucky enough to meet TriformTrinity in person when we sat and discussed all areas of gaming and pop culture. It was incredible to see how much knowledge one person can recall so quickly and it felt like we had all known each other for years. It’s these encounters with fellow gamers and developers I had missed so much from blogging life. Writing just isn’t possible without meeting people and having these experiences, otherwise, you’re stuck in an own echo chamber which loosens your grip on reality and is hard to break out of.

Something I’ve always struggled with in blogging is output – the speed of writing posts, to be specific. Compared to content creation on a site like YouTube, writing gives you time to craft something that captures your thoughts precisely by focusing solely on the written words, compared to the various factors that go into creating a video. In the time it takes to edit a sequence of clips into something engaging and understandable, you can write several posts which much more meaning and to a high standard.

I feel that ten minutes of video doesn’t convey ideas or thoughts anywhere near as quickly as reading an article in the same length of time. Have you ever read a book and then followed up with the film adaptation and wondered why so much character development and plot mechanics were stripped away? I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary for the first time and then watched the 1989 adaptation. While the film was enjoyable, they cut most of the internal monologue of the main character, Louis, that added weight to his actions and made the ending so jarring.

gamecom, expo, exhibition, crowd, queue

While my writing doesn’t flow easily from mind to paper, I do thoroughly enjoy it and will happily spend hours re-writing and checking everything until everything is perfect. However, this is being tested throughout August with the Blaugust 2019 challenge. It’s a step outside of my blogging comfort zone, with not only coming up with topics to write about, but to get them written in a reasonable amount of time and not screw up the schedule. So far I feel it’s going quite well and the challenge will increase later in the month as I’m heading to gamescom in Cologne, Germany where I’ll be writing a post for each day of the event. Look out for these in the final week of August!

To summarise the return to blogging from my long hiatus: it started with a complete downturn in my mental wellbeing and a desire to return to the community. It was essential to seize all and any opportunity to heal by reaching out to others for help and committing to taking the appropriate steps without relapse. Life isn’t perfect, and you must learn to accept the reality of any situation and put the responsibility on yourself to resolve it in the best way you can. Not only is time a healer but it also allows everything to slot back into place one piece at a time, and to learn from mistakes.

So, here’s to a much stronger blogging career and thank you to everyone for your support and encouragement. Keep those tweets and comments coming!

Running for effect… and charity

If there’s one thing us gamers are good at, it’s sitting down and playing games. So how about celebrating this by getting up and going outside for some exercise? Even better: how about helping people with physical disabilities to play video games while you’re doing it?

Kim has spoken many times about her impressive volunteering work with SpecialEffect and, while I haven’t given even a fraction of that time myself, I do find myself very moved by how their efforts level the playing field. So there was no way I could turn it down when told me about the ASICS London 10k.

British 10K, race, runners, London, Kim, SpecialEffect

I’m not the slimmest of people to say the least, but I’ve recently put full focus on improving my health and losing weight. This was the perfect opportunity to do more of that and contribute to the amazing work of SpecialEffect. I’ve volunteered on their stands at expos to help people use an eye-tracker to play racing games and helped organise a pub quiz at work to raise money. The people that work for the charity are a fantastic group.

We’ve put together our own plan for the next 46 weeks based on the run taking place in July 2020, so the training will start on Monday. The plan is to gradually work up to a 5K run, complete that and then push the training up to 45-minutes of running comfortably. A 10K run will typically take around an hour, which would be 20-30 minutes of additional running and will no doubt be possible with the tremendous motivation from running with others for charity. Here are some details about our 46-week plan and any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Week one to 23 is our training for the couch-to-5K run with an actual 5K being set at week 24. The weeks leading up to this will consist of three training sessions each, small runs for a set number of minutes followed by one minute of walking repeated a certain number of times during the session. To keep them a consistent length, the 15-minute run would be repeated only twice and be roughly the expected length of a 5k. If that is all too easy, then we can ramp up those minutes per session or even add in more repetitions.

As an example, the first five weeks look like this:

Week Run Walk Repeat Sessions
1 1 minute 1 minute 10 times 3 times a week
2 2 minutes 1 minute 7 times 3 times a week
3 3 minutes 1 minute 6 times 3 times a week
4 4 minutes 1 minute 5 times 3 times a week
5 5 minutes 1 minute 4 times 3 times a week

The repeats are adjusted to keep the session between 20 and 30 minutes, and we can increase those should it become too comfortable. It’s essential to start and end each workout with a five-minute as a warm-up before and cool-down afterwards to avoid any injuries.

British 10K, race, runners, London

We hope that by week 24, it will become an easy thing to do and no more intensive than a boss battle in a tutorial, like Kingpin in Marvel’s Spider-Man. Moving onto weeks 25 to 46 is the real challenge with the sessions turning into long-running sessions, again three times a week. Starting with a 25-minute session in week 25, we’ll increase that run by one minute each week all the way up to a 45-minute run in the second to last week before the 10K event. That final week before the event will be a cool-off with rest and only very light sessions.

These last seven days are crucial. It’s also important to drink plenty of water! Finally, the most important day before the event itself will be spent playing video games and wondering why the hell did we sign up for this in the first place? SpecialEffect, that’s why!

If you’re also interested in taking part, then head over to the ASICS London 10k website to register your interest. You’ll receive more information once the event date has been confirmed.