SavyGamer » Reviews What're you buying, stranger? Sun, 09 Oct 2016 15:45:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Quarrel, XBLA – Review Fri, 27 Jan 2012 12:55:32 +0000 Quarrel, XBLA – 400MSP

Review by Will Templeton

Quarrel’s been through a lot on its journey to XBLA. Rejected several times by publishers everywhere, Denki’s taken the stance that the publishers are playing it safe rather than playing the market – that their little word game could stand on its own two feet in the land of guns. Finally, following its success on iOS, Denki was able to secure a publisher and release a much more full-featured version, including the simultaneous multiplayer that was so tragically cut from the mobile app.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Quarrel is a delicious mix between the best parts of Risk and the best parts of Countdown. Players occupy a board filled with territories, are given troops on those territories, and then battle their neighbours for domination of the board. In battle, each player is given the same jumbling of eight letters that have the potential to form an eight-letter word, but the length of word you’re able to form depends on the amount of troops you have in your square. You can see that the word is EQUALITY (29), but you only have two guys? Tough. Looks like you’re stuck with QI (16). At the end of your turn, you get reinforcements based on the amount of territories you hold and the amount you took that turn. And that’s where the comparisons to Risk rear their heads once more.

Despite the aspect of words scoring points based on their constituent letters, it’d be a mistake to think you were playing anything similar to Scrabble – even though it uses the official Collins Scrabble dictionary. Whereas Scrabble tests your vocabulary, Quarrel expects you to guess at anagrams that have already been preordained. It’s a different feeling altogether to know that somewhere in the set of tiles you’ve been given is a word waiting to be set down with a flourish, and often you’ll find yourself glancing at the letter scores rather than the letters themselves. With four spaces, and a G and M sitting there, you’d be much better served using GUM (11) than GRIN (8). It’s tempting to give in to a Words with Friends-style guessing game of Is This A Word, but a three-guess limit and a very well-adjusted timer ensure that the emphasis is on vocabulary knowledge, not guesswork. Wonderfully, it supports both USB keyboards and the ill-fated Xbox Chatpad, which prove to be invaluable tools when you both have a stab at SKY (12) and it relies on a “fastest finger first” scenario.

The vocab, though, is where Quarrel XBLA fails significantly – and it’s a problem that the iOS game does not share. XBLA certifications are notoriously stringent, and every game must adhere to a one-size-fits-all set of similar rules, with very few exceptions – every game, for example, must have a menu formatted in the same way, support online leaderboards (even if in name only), and crucially, if any content can be user-generated, this content is subject to even more guidelines.

So, say I’m making a word in Quarrel online against a friend. I can’t tap in the word MINGE (11). Fair enough. I have GEM (6), or maybe even GEMINI (9). But later, I have the opportunity to use the word SHAT (7). Apparently, that’s fine, I get points, and the game even tells me it’s the offensive colloquial past participle of defecation; it’s not some odd alternate meaning. My opponent tries TRAIN (6). It’s disallowed, as is CUP (8). We’re given an anagram to which the only solution is SEXUALLY (25), but we’re prevented from submitting SEX (12), SEXY (17), SEXUAL (18), or even solving the anagram itself. AXLES (15) is the only useful option. And then the game chastises us: “Nobody made SEXUALLY (25).”

Evidently, this cripples Quarrel. Even Countdown, a programme well-known for its conservative audience, won’t often blush at a racy or inappropriate chance encounter with the language, but in an increasingly child safety-conscious Live environment, gameplay is affected as a result, often with no chance of a comeback from a valid word due to the time limit. According to Denki, they’re forced to use Microsoft’s own uncompromising whitelist – meaning that a word that works one day might be disallowed the other, or vice-versa. And while this means Quarrel won’t accept some of these, it will accept a wide range of things that Susie Dent would sneer at, such as NAETHING (14, Scots variant of ‘nothing’), YOGHOURT (21, archaic spelling of ‘yoghurt’ presumably only known to overzealous autocorrect algorithms) and RIVETTING (18, variant spelling of ‘riveting’ and denounced by every style guide imaginable). While it’s commendable that Denki are trying to increase the already expansive wordlist as much as possible, it invariably leads to frustration. “It was CRAPIEST (12)? Most like a crepe? Really?”

It’s such a shame that these issues exist, because Quarrel, fundamentally, is great. An unabashedly brilliant game that gets friends forming alliances and laughing at their own mental blocks, and even with the aforementioned reservations (including a very reproducible crash bug, which should be stomped out with a swift patch) I still recommend it very highly. It executes extremely well on the promise of Xbox Live Arcade, allowing that board-game atmosphere in a more convenient form for a fraction of the price, and crammed full of that lovely Denki charm. But, just more often than is comfortable, it stumbles, and that’s also due to Arcade’s inflexible guidelines. If Quarrel fails to prove that gamers want brilliant innovation, it’ll be the fault of the platform, not the game itself. And IRONY only scores 10.

[UPDATE – January 27th 2012, 22:14 pm – It’s come to my attention that a little clarity is in order. As the main selling point of Quarrel XBLA over iOS is its competitive multiplayer, I have focused primarily on this mode in this review. The censorship issues I mention here are in sole regard to play over Xbox Live, and do not apply to the single-player modes when playing against bots unless Family Settings are enabled. It should be noted, though, that Quarrel against AI-controlled dictionaries is a far duller affair then against devious human opponents.]

Quarrel, XBLA – 400MSP

]]> 6
Brink, PC – Review Fri, 27 May 2011 19:50:00 +0000 Brink, PC – £14.85 delivered

Registers on Steam.

Review by Lewie Procter

I often feel like I’m too old to properly get into multiplayer shooters these days. I’m only 23, but in my teenage counterstrike heyday I could keep up the pace in online games, whereas I just get slaughtered playing CS these days. It’s hard to say whether Brink having successfully sucked me into a team based FPS is a huge success of design, or just it being a game that is in tune with my skills, or a mix of the two, but I’ve been kicking ass at Brink online, and thoroughly enjoying myself in the process. Here’s why.

Brink is a team based versus shooter. It has bots for single player, but if you are looking for a single player shooter, I highly recommend you look elsewhere. There’s been a glut of brilliant FPSs with solid single player campaigns over the last year or so, and Brink’s single player mode does not outdo them.

However, if you aren’t terrified by interaction with other humans, Brink is a very nicely refined class based shooter, with lots of unique touches. Occasionally everything comes together, and when you have a particularly good match, Brink is peerless.

Set on the Ark, a near-future floating city. Brink tells the story of a conflict between the Resistance and the Security, one side fighting to escape the Ark, the other trying to keep it under control. Most of the story comes in the form of skipable cut scenes before each mission, where you see the lead up to the battle from the perspective of whichever side you’re on, but there’s also things hidden amongst the levels that add to the narrative. The story is interesting, and the setting is unique, but it takes a backseat to the manshooting, and if you’re anything like me, you’re not going to be watching any of the cutscenes more than once.

You start off by building your character. There’s a whole bunch of cosmetic options that gradually unlock as you play through the game, but the elements that affect gameplay are: bodytype, weapons and abilities. You don’t have to make any permanent decisions here, bodytype, weapons and abilities can be changed at any point in the game (but only between matches, not mid-match). I’m not exactly sure what technology Splash Damage are expecting to be developed between now and when we live on floating cities that will let people switch from this to this like changing their shoes, but sign me up.

The three different body sizes represent a trade off between manoeuvrability and beefiness. The light has lower health than the rest, and his limp wrists are too feeble for the heaviest weapons, but in return has the fastest sprint speed, and can wall jump and climb up higher ledges. The heavy has more health than the other bodytypes, and has access to the full arsenal of weapons, but has a slower, more deliberate pace, and is a bigger target. The medium is a compromise between the two. I’ve been almost exclusively playing as the light since I unlocked it, the increase slide length is both highly badass and highly useful, and reaching areas and shortcuts around the levels that the other classes can’t is a tonne of fun, and is a great way to sneak up behind a big group of enemies and rack up a lot of easy kills.

There’s a decent selection of weapons, SMGs, rifles, pistols, shotguns and a grenade launcher, although you have to unlock them by levelling up. Each weapon is also customisable with various add ons and tweaks that affect stats like accuracy, range, clip size and damage, so if you feel like tinkering with your gun you can tune it to suit your playstyle. The sounds the weapons make is a little inconsistent. Some of the pistols make a delicious “BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!”, but some of the SMGs could do with packing a bit more punch.

The abilities system links up with the class system. Classes are the four roles you can occupy, that each have different special abilities, and are able to tackle different specific objectives needed to accomplish a mission. These classes can be switched on the fly during matches, so if a particular role required for a task is under-represented in your team, you’re able to head to a command post and instantly swap. How the abilities work is that there are five categories. One for abilities that will benefit you no matter what class you have currently selected, and then there is one category of abilities for each of the classes. It’s impossible to unlock all of the abilities with one character, they’re purchased with credits earned as you level up, and once you hit the level cap that’s it. For any given match you need to have made a commitment to your particular set of abilities beforehand.

I opted to specialise as a medic, so only bothered investing in general skills and medic specific skills. This means I’m at a disadvantage when I switch to any of the other classes, but have got lots of fun tricks whenever I am a medic. The whole system could be made a little bit clearer, because it’s not entirely clear exactly what a character actually is. You use the same character no matter which side you are on, and the separation between which things you can change, and when you are allowed to change them, can be a little counter intuitive, even if there are solid design reasons behind the distinctions.

With the goal of facilitating teamwork, Brink uses an objective system that gives every player instructions of what they can do to best help their team win the match, each appropriate to their class and overall team objective. It then rewards players with experience for carrying out these objectives. For instance, as a medic, you might get the choice of reviving fallen team mates, escorting a mission critical player, or capturing command posts (which give your whole team supply or health boosts). The idea is that players can always have a range of instructions for how to best support their team, and if attempting one objective they keep hitting up against a brick wall, you can avoid frustration by trying something else. There’s plenty of times when I’ve found my team keep getting killed at a particular bottleneck near a mission critical location, which is a perfect time to switch to an alternative objective to tip the balance in your team’s favour.

There is a button to instantly select the most important team objective, or you can bring up a radial menu to quickly pick from the 4/5 different objectives available to you.

The objective system isn’t perfect, there has been several times when it’s given what I would describe as strategically questionable instructions. For example, on one level, you have to prevent the other team taking some fuel to a plane. I saw many of my teammates just standing next to the plane, because they were being drip fed experience for “Guarding the plane”, when really they needed to go and help kill the baddies that were on their way, which was not one of the objectives. As a framework for how to learn the ropes though, it works, it’s just that going outside that framework will mean missing out on experience, since you will only get the boosted experience for a specific task if it is your current objective.

There’s a balance between independence and interdependence, where working as a team together is essential for winning, but breaking off from your team to be a solo hero from time to time is also viable. Players can give each other buffs to stats like weapons, health, and refill each other’s ammo, depending on which class you are, so working well as a group can give you an advantage over your enemies. On the flipside, the right person in the right place can turn the tide of a whole match, and my favourite moments have all come from solo achievements.

Brink successfully removes a few of my major frustrations with traditional online shooters too. Instead of simply dying when you get filled with bullets, you get incapacitated. Once incapacitated, you lie on the ground feeble waiving your hands in the air. You’re then given the choice to either wait for a medic to lob you a healing syringe, which lets you revive yourself, or you can choose to respawn when the counter hits zero. This means that, as long as your medics do a good job of reviving you, you’ll spend less time hanging around waiting to get back into the fight. Later on you can unlock abilities that let you use your sidearm whilst incapacitated, and medics can (at the level) self revive. You can also finish off incapacitated enemies with a few more bullets, or using melee attacks, which prevents them being revived, but it’s quite fun to down a few guys, then wait for an enemy medic to come to heal them, then kill him too.

The melee attacks are nicely implemented too. When you’ve got your primary weapon equipped, you use it to knock people off their feet. It doesn’t take off a huge amount of health, but it temporarilly prevents them shooting back at you, and it’s pretty easy to finish people off whilst their knocked down. When you switch to your sidearm, instead you’ll use a knife for stabby action, which won’t knock people down, but does a bit more damage.

The smartly backronymed S.M.A.R.T. movement system is several flavours of brilliant. It’s essentially a sprint button that does a lot more than sprinting. There’s a bit of a learning curve to it, but once you have got to grips with it, it gives you a lot of options for movement, and you’ll be able to get from A to B in style. It’s no autopilot, that’s for sure, you still have to think about how to best move around, and combining well timed jumps with the smart button is absolutely faster than just relying on smart. It’s not as elegant as Mirror’s Edge: the animation for your bloke climbing up things is not as good as it could be, but it makes up for it in ease of use and enhancing, rather than getting in the way of the shooting.

I’d be very happy if waves of future developers outright steal the smart system and stick it in their games. It seems ripe for plagiarism, and aside from the level design challenges posed by enhanced freedom of movement, I can’t really see any downside to it.

Brink is a melting pot of good ideas and well implemented systems that, if you’re good enough, can let you be the hero that wins the game for your team, and if not you can still do your bit to help win. Not every match is going to be spectacular, but the more abilities you unlock the more interesting it gets, and if you are willing to experiment and take a few risks, it will produce plenty of incredible moments. The selection of just 8 maps (Update: Although there is a free update out next month, which will include, among other things, 2 new maps), and no real single player campaign, is a little content light for my tastes, especially for a full price game. But in the time it’s taken me to formulate my opinion on it, it’s received a decent price drop, and for under £15 I have no trouble heartily recommending Brink to anyone looking for a online shooter that offers something a bit different.

Brink, PC – £14.85 delivered

Registers on Steam.

Note: There was a few bugs at release, but almost everything that affected me has been sorted out now. I still get odd text glitches where some characters are just grids of random pixels, seemingly at random.

]]> 7
Darkspore – Review Thu, 05 May 2011 16:35:21 +0000 Darkspore, PC – £23.49 delivered

Review by Ben Tyrer

When I heard that Darkspore was comparing itself to Diablo, a favourite series of mine, I immediately knew I would have to take a look and see what all the fuss was about. I was surprised that Maxis had decided to have a stab at creating something a little more daring than their usual expansions of the never-going-to-disappear Sims franchise. I just didn’t think Maxis had it in them to create a visceral action RPG, but was I counting my loot before it had been identified?

When I was younger, I was a big fan of The Sims. Then, as I matured, I started craving games with a more guided and structured narrative. I would occasionally return to Maxis’ colossal Sim games but was sorely disappointed with Spore, which I felt was a substandard (albeit ambitious) game whose stages were not fully developed enough to sustain long term interest. In short, it sounded great on paper but when the game loaded up, the magic Will Wright had described to us all just wasn’t there for me. Understandably, then, I was feeling pretty cynical with regards to Darkspore. Was it a lame attempt at rebranding a tepidly received game? How could Maxis of all people be the ones to deliver my next dose of high-octane alien smashing, loot rolling and stat building action? You can almost imagine the board meeting in which it was decided Spore could be re-programmed to appeal to the angst-ridden youth of today (step one: add Dark to the name- they’ll go mad for it!), but let me tell you: I’m hooked.

There’s a particular element to games like this, a sense of hefty responsiveness that allows you to feel every attack your character makes as he totters around levels dishing out the pain. It’s a crucial aspect of the action RPG – If you can’t feel the weight of your character’s movement, it’s hard to be invested in them. Diablo had this remarkable sense of connection between player and character, and – luckily- so does Darkspore, to an extent.

A notably slower paced affair than most other games of this genre, each of the one hundred heroes I activated- You do not create a character á la Spore, but rather pick from a curated selection of monsters- had a palatable sense of oomph about them which otherwise would have rendered the characters feeble. It’s a bit like playing a role playing game with the cast of Monsters Inc., but once the action begins this is thankfully easy to overlook.

Rather than making a choice of Class at the beginning of the game, you are free to select up to three Heroes, the requisite amount which comprises a squad. These chosen few will be who accompany you through the game’s levels, though only one will be active on the field at any given moment and you must swap them on the fly. If you ever find yourself tiring of a character during the course of an RPG, this mechanic may be the solution. You’re free to mix and match heroes however you choose, and the necessity of ensuring you have access to a variety of Hero ‘types’ in order to prevent same-type conflicts (in which you will sustain double damage) adds an additional layer of depth to the game. If you’re worried about having to level each Hero as you unlock it, don’t – Your account has an overall level which permits you to purchase upgrades and items, but individual Hero levels are calculated via the quality of their equipment (think World of Warcraft item levels). Essentially, you can activate a hero which will start at level 0, gear him with all the goodies you acquired during your last session, and he will be good to go with the rest of your squad. It’s an interesting system, and one that completely removes the need to grind laboriously just to be able to get into the game with some friends. It also means you aren’t stuck with a single character and filled with regret ten hours in, so it’s a great move in my books.

There are some niggles, however. From what I’ve played, levels are little more than ploughing your way through opponents before reaching a stand-off stage where you must survive waves of increasingly tough enemies before battling an end-of-level boss. Don’t get me wrong – this is still enormously fun, and the stand-off stage genuinely gives Diablo a run for its money with regards to excitement and difficulty, but it would have been nice to see objectives other than ‘See alien, kill alien’. Rather than being compelling, Darkspores narrative is easily – and honestly, preferably- ignored. I’m glad Maxis attempted to create a backdrop, a reason for the sci-fi carnage that ensues in Darkspore, but that’s all it really is. And no more. Narrated video clips often interrupt crucial mid-level stages in which you and your friends must equip your heroes with freshly acquired loot, and so are often skipped. This brings me to another problem.

You are not able to equip loot as it drops. This is presumably due to the difficulty of loading the much-hyped creator toolset in the middle of the game, but when a vastly superior Celestial Cutlass finds its way into my inventory, I want to equip it right now. Considering you can’t create your own characters, the Spore Creator feels somewhat wasted on Darkspore. Sure, you can position your loot on your character and change their colour, but is that worth being unable to immediately better them in the heat of the moment? From what I’ve heard on forums, Maxis are looking into a way to rectify this issue.

With regards to abilities, Darkspore operates largely how it would appear Diablo III is set to function: A spell is assigned to the right mouse button, with a bar of abilities running along the bottom of the screen. Sadly, you are unable to remap the right-click power, meaning it will only ever perform your hero’s unique default attack. Also, as characters do not level in the usual manner, there are no skill trees. Instead, your heroes are pre-equipped with four unique abilities, the fourth of which is added to a shared pool of spells on the ability bar. Essentially this means if your hero’s fourth ability is a life-draining ability, you will be able to cast that power even when another squad member is activated. The result is the typical ability bar showing both your Heroes four innate abilities and two other powers sourced from the other Heroes in your squad. There’s also the Overdrive ability, charged over time by killing enemies, which vastly increases the potency of your attacks while halving all damage received for a short time.

While Darkspore may take some getting used to – its menus are cumbersome at times and the behaviour of the ability bar, while justifiable, can be jarring– it is undeniably fun, especially when played online as such games were always intended to be. Thankfully, a brilliant matchmaking service is provided alongside a Friend system which enables easy play. The music and ambience bring levels to life with a cool sci-fi edge, and the graphics are pleasing to the eye even if not the most advanced to grace your screen. You’ll see plenty of blood; something that surprised me considering the clinical censoring of Spore. It’s almost possible to see Darkspore as a letter of apology to disillusioned Spore devotees – Maxis have focused on one particular play style, honed it to near perfection and have utterly surprised me, to say the least. If you’re into action RPGs, and have been waiting for Maxis to whisper sweet apologetic nothings in your ear, Darkspore will give you plenty of incentive to stay a while and listen.

Editors note: Darkspore requires you to be online all the time when played, whether you are playing multiplayer or single player. The devs claim that this is not DRM, but I don’t actually think people selling you games get to redefine what counts as DRM and what doesn’t. They say its more comparable to an MMO model, but I’m not really convinced. If there was an MMO which was possible to play to completion in a single player mode, but didn’t support offline play, that would be bullshit too. EA have tried this stealth always-online DRM before, and it seems to me that rather than technical or design reasons, it is motivated by business reasons. They’ve likely seen the bad PR Ubi got for their batshit insane DRM, and have tried to implement something that is in practice exactly the same as far as end users are concerned, but is a much less controversial headline – Lewie.

Darkspore, PC – £23.49 delivered

]]> 8
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light – Review Mon, 21 Feb 2011 00:43:51 +0000 Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, PC – £3.39

PC version review by Ben Tyrer

Lara Croft art

Right now, this game is on offer over at Steam as part of the Square Enix week promotion. What better time to share my thoughts on the latest escapade of beloved raider of tombs, Lara Croft?

Okay, okay. I have to admit. I didn’t play many Tomb Raider games- none to completion at least- so I wasn’t entirely sure what I was in for when I booted up Guardian of Light. Hopefully some antiquated runes to be explored, ancient artifacts so prized and mysterious Indiana Jones would be green with envy and (if the films are any indication) a strip tease or two were to be thrown my way. To this end, Guardian of Light didn’t disappoint. Well, there were no strip teases, but read on anyway for my thoughts.

Note: For the sake of this review, and my fears of not being able to find a suitable companion, I stuck with the single player campaign, and so this review will concern only that.

One thing that was clear from my hazy recollection of the past Tomb Raider games was how different they are to this title. In fact, as you keen-minded and observant readers have no doubt realized, this isn’t a Tomb Raider game. It’s a Lara Croft game. Goody! Perhaps this change of title reflects a stronger focus on character and narrative, an intriguing insight into what makes the long loved British heroine tick? Well, no. If you were hoping for a detailed narrative, you’re out of luck, because the story definitely took a back-seat to game design when Crystal Dynamics cobbled the thing together. Thankfully, it rarely interrupts your shenanigans, and the things you’ll get up to in the mean time are really quite something. Guardian of Light plays in a fashion not dissimilar to the likes of Diablo II, Shadowgrounds and more recently Alien Breed and Torchlight. It has the same isometric viewpoint and simple click-to-kill combat, but manages to pull off the latter in a way arguably more satisfying than most of the other games mentioned. It’s nice to see the isometric camera angle being adopted, and pleasant as it was to have our screens obscured by Lara’s sumptuous behind in earlier Tomb Raider games, this fresh perspective definitely results in less frustration when it comes to platforming and puzzle solving. And in true Lara Croft style, there are plenty of both to be found. The puzzles are clever enough to warrant some pondering, but never ridiculous or farfetched to the point of feeling unfair. Likewise, while you’ll be spending the majority of your time throwing Lara from pillar to post, and while some segments may be subject to good old trial-and-error, you’ll never find yourself overwhelmed by the difficulty of this element. The whole platforming business has been made drastically more interesting by enabling Lara to essentially craft her own way through the levels by way of throwing a spear into any surface that will allow it, acting as a make-shift ledge.

And what of the combat? Well, you see an enemy, you click an enemy, and you kill an enemy. While it’s as simple as that on paper (and usually in practice), it doesn’t stop it being bloody good fun. Enemies will explode into fleshy chunks as you rampage around with a variety of weapons ranging from pistols to shotguns and machineguns, all of which manage to pack a satisfyingly beefy punch. Some element of strategy is added in the form of artifacts unlocked by completing particularly fiddly puzzles, and these augment weapons and abilities giving them extra damage or speed. Lara is able to roll about too, and this is an extremely effective (if not overpowered) way of avoiding a lot of damage.

Visually, Lara Croft is a treat overall. There are plenty of dazzling effects and set pieces, with smoke and water looking particularly delicious. Great atmospheric lighting really makes the Aztec setting pop, especially in the many damp tunnels and temples you’ll undoubtedly be exploring.

There’s not much else to say about Lara Croft and The Guardian of Light. I hesitate to call it shallow, though it’s possible to plough through it in an evening if you feel compelled enough to do so (and you probably will). The bulk of the game comes from the challenges in collecting hidden skulls and gems, as well as perfecting your timing for certain levels. If you’re not a big completionist, you might very well finish this game and never return, though co-op makes all games vastly more replayable.

As it stands, it’s a great little game. It doesn’t push the boundaries of its genre, nor does it offer quite the same level of depth that you might be expecting, but what it does offer is done incredibly well. You could do far worse than this tidy package of adventure, especially at its current reduced cost.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, PC – £3.39

]]> 0
Protected: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit – Review Thu, 30 Dec 2010 06:37:37 +0000

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

]]> 11
AI War: Fleet Command, PC – Review Mon, 29 Nov 2010 19:45:47 +0000 AI War: Fleet Command, PC – £5.32 (DRM free, direct from the developer, but also can be registered on Steam)

Review by Bobby Foster

If I could take only one videogame with me to a desert island, it might be this one. There is so much depth and challenge here that even if I spent a lifetime in solitary confinement playing it, I might still never be able to say I’d mastered it.

Unfortunately, away from the desert island, my patience was too short.

The longer I played, the more stupid and ordinary I felt. My tiny mind failed to remember which ship I was supposed to click on first to build a certain kind of unit, and then I kept losing my bearings in a sea of identically sized, abstract icons. It took me nearly an hour just to play through the “basic” tutorial, and afterwards I felt exhausted.

Now I find myself worrying that I’ve gone soft and/or stupid after playing too many primitive games- the kind that can be boiled down to nothing much cleverer than “press X now to be awesome!!!” It seems plenty of others have been able to get their heads around the game and enjoy it, and it wasn’t so long ago that I was exactly the kind of guy who’d throw himself into a deep and sophisticated strategy game. Have my game-playing abilities in fact regressed despite the 20-30 hours I spend each week playing the damned things?

Maybe. You probably don’t care: it’s more my problem than yours. I guess the point here is that if you too have played a lot of “press X now to be awesome!!!” games, you might struggle with AI War.

There is of course an honesty and fairness thing too. I hold my hands up: I definitely haven’t spent as long with the game as would be needed to review it “properly”. I felt worn down and gave up, because it was starting to feel more stressful and undermining than my day job. Four hours is my current total play time according to Steam, and even if this were the most basic of Real-Time-Strategy games, I’d have scarcely scratched the surface.

AI War is categorically not the most basic of real-time-strategy games. And if the consensus usually is that it’s a good idea to thoroughly understand a thing before you criticise it, shouldn’t you be asking why this says “review” at the top of the page and not “lazy, irresponsible, scratch of surface”?

Go ahead. Ask. You could well be onto something. Maybe Lewie will change what it says if enough people ask for it.

Yet with disappointing sales taking developer Arcen Games to the brink of bankruptcy, it seems downright bizarre that so much of their (hugely admirable) post-release support has been directed toward satisfying people who already love the game, rather than working on how to make it more approachable for new players. Wouldn’t it have far greater reach – and thus potential profitability – if it could realistically be marketed beyond players who found Starcraft too easy?

[Editors note: Chris from Arcen popped along to the comments to add a clarification on a few points regarding the sales, and other things. Cheers Chris]

I wonder whether Arcen have even grasped that this is a fundamental problem with their game. From the first dialog box of the first tutorial – where the RTS concept is introduced in terms of chess – alarm bells start ringing. Why use a slightly confusing analogy with a turn-based board game purely to make a redundant point about how the player isn’t represented by a piece in the game? How is that important? And are people with no prior RTS experience seriously expected to make AI War their first? Wow.

The first RTS I played was the original Command & Conquer. Players rarely gave up on that one, because it knew how to introduce itself. Sure, it was a much simpler game than AI War, with far fewer mechanics to learn, but nonetheless, it knew that if it showed us everything it had to offer right from the start it would have freaked out our simple mid-90s gaming brains. So instead you had a first mission that was really just about getting used to using the mouse to drag and select units, pointing and clicking to move and shoot, and right-clicking to de-select. This point, which could quite easily be (and just has been) made in one sentence, Command & Conquer used an entire mission to demonstrate. When the player completed their objective, big red capital letters saying MISSION ACCOMPLISHED appeared in the centre of screen, and while those words were probably just there to deliver some sense of satisfaction to the player, they could equally describe the developer’s success at entertainingly communicating the knowledge needed to play the game.

AI War’s approach couldn’t be more different. It uses lengthy tutorials instead of short missions to introduce concepts. In those tutorials a paragraph or two of text is thrown at the player that details the elaborate mechanics and keyboard shortcuts the game uses. You’re then told how important it is that you don’t forget the information being told to you, before the game quickly rushes on to the next equally important demonstration.

Wait, hang on, what did it just say I wasn’t supposed to forget?

It’s telling that within AI War’s tutorial menu there’s also a link to the developer’s Wiki, in which you’ll find a further six chapters to help out beginners to the game. Under the “How Do I Know What Difficulty Level To Play On?” heading, they recommend that “If you have never touched an RTS game before, and you struggled with the tutorials, you should probably start with difficulty 1 or 2, which will be extremely easy and will give you more time to get used to the game.”

Wait- what’s that? It seems Arcen Games are indeed aware – but aren’t concerned – that some people will sit for hours playing through the lengthy tutorials and still be struggling. That attitude seems foolish- if not a little irresponsible to me. Don’t they realise that it won’t just be lazy reviewers, but also cherished paying customers who give up on the game before they get to the good bit?

I realise that it would likely take a lot of hard work and creativity to break the components of the game down in such a way that they could be gradually introduced organically one-by-one instead of all at once, but you know what? If you want to make an elaborate and sophisticated game that involves running a galaxy-spanning empire, then you can’t afford not to think about this stuff. It’s simply unfair to expect your less-able players to take it on trust that the game they’re struggling through will eventually be worth the effort.

Then again, what do I know? Not enough, admittedly. But I can be certain that I won’t be the only one generating the sort of word-of-mouth that says, “I had a quick go and it looked kinda interesting but I got bored long before I could really get into it”.

AI War: Fleet Command, PC – £5.32

]]> 14
Fallout: New Vegas – Review Mon, 25 Oct 2010 18:13:22 +0000 Fallout: New Vegas, PC – £22.99, or if you don’t care when you get it, The Hut have it for £22.44 when you use a 10% off voucher.

PC version review by Ben Tyrer (Tumblr)

New Vegas Art

The days leading up to the release of New Vegas were something of an emotional roller-coaster for me. My anxiety was painfully high, having read the numerous terrifying accounts of it being a hilariously broken game from the onset. Had I squandered my pennies on nothing more than a broken mod? Not only that, but I received my disc copy (having decided the Steam servers were too much for my already-frayed nerves) excruciatingly early. Normally, this is an excellent thing, but the game being tethered to Steam’s unlock countdown meant I was in for a gruelling wait, and the box smiling down at me served only as a teasing reminder of that fact. When I was finally presented with the game’s splash-screen, I had no idea what to expect. Twenty-something hours in, here’s what I think.

War. War never changes. There’s something about that chilling sentiment which holds a brutal truth, and yet I couldn’t help but contemplate that in the case of New Vegas, war had certainly changed. Perhaps the more obvious of the many tweaks implemented by Obsidian to the game’s engine are those directly related to combat, the most fun for me being the inclusion of iron sights on weapons. The most not-so-fun was the game’s desire to show me every death in cinematic kill-cam mode regardless of VATS usage but you can thankfully nip that one in the bud via the options menu. There are, of course, a slew of new weapons and the option to modify them with different ammo types, recoil-absorbers, silencers and all other manner of contraptions the likes of which I won’t bore you with and this greater diversity certainly makes encounters more interesting. General combat feels more tightly tuned, and VATS remains a fiendishly enjoyable way of introducing your enemy to their makers.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. A large arsenal of weaponry is all well and good, but you want to know whether the thing is a bug-ridden monstrosity, correct? Well, in the 20-something hours I played, I’ve had one crash-to-desktop and no AI quirks… Okay, no AI quirks that ruined the game for me. In that respect, then, I feel I’ve had with New Vegas one of the smoother experiences with this game engine. The game’s as pretty as it could be running on the old girl, and I’ve had far more annoying visual glitches than the occasional white speck on the horizon in my time playing games.

One aspect that remains unforgivable, though, are the walking and running animations. Goodness, gracious, me. I don’t know if the entire animation team are legless amputees locked away in some game-development dungeon and therefore have never seen how a human being moves itself to and fro using those meaty sticks with feet on the end, though I much doubt it. You’d think that was the case, however, when you see your character hopping about the shop like an ape with a numb posterior from having sat down for too long. It’s shoddy, shoddy business and spoils the immersion of watching your character strut his stuff in the shady recesses of the strip. The big problem though is that everyone walks like this, so you have to endure your companions unsightly struggle to move, as well as any human NPC you encounter. It’s a change for the sake of a change, and luckily you’re able to revert back to Fallout 3 style animations via a mod, which while not perfect either are a tad less dreadful.

Oh yes, companions. That’s something New Vegas expanded upon. In your travels you’ll no doubt stumble upon the odd character who provided you posses the relevant S.P.E.C.I.A.L requirements or some other skill (in one instance, I needed level 50 guns) will be more than willing to brave the Mojave wasteland with you, acting not only as a loving storage mule but also a (usually) helpful assistant in combat. There’s a flashy radial menu with which you can issue basic commands, and while slightly cumbersome I’ve found that my loyal friends are more useful than annoying to have around. They also comment on the events taking place before them somewhat dynamically, in a fashion vaguely reminiscent to Left 4 Dead or Dragon Age: Origins, which makes the whole affair feel less sterile. On that note:


Yes, you read correctly, I’ve not heard a single voice actor who even slightly reminds me of the cast of every Bethesda game ever in the world. These are fresh, beautiful voices, and I’m sure of a celebrity pedigree here and there, though I’m far too ignorant to know or care about that. The music is superb too, with more than a few nods to the older Fallout titles, with some of the golden oldies from Fallout 2 even re-used in certain towns. An excellent nostalgic trip indeed.

And even tear-wellingly better is the fact that these lovely voices bring to life some genuinely interesting, brilliant characters who make up the populace of New Vegas. Obviously I don’t want to spoil the experience for you, but rest assured the writing here is top-knotch stuff. I’ve been through some fantastically entertaining quest (quest? mission?) lines, and that’s without selecting the trait which makes the game decidedly more ‘wacky’.

Oh, yeah. Traits. Based on how you allocate your SPECIAL points, you’ll be given a list of traits from which you can select two before beginning your adventure. In typical fallout fashion, they’re furiously difficult to decide upon if you don’t have a specific play-style in mind. There are things like the ability to shoot 20% faster but 20% less accurately, to have +1 Perception while wearing glasses but -1 when you’re not, and many more. I spent ages agonising over which to pick, and ended up firing weapons 20% slower than usual but with 20% greater accuracy, and with melee attacks dealing on average a greater amount of damage, but with severely reduced crits. It’s just another layer of character customization, so it’s definitely welcome in my books.

Obsidian have also brought a reputation system to the table, which operates on top of the Fallout 3 karma system. Basically, if you do good by a group of people, you’ll experience the benefits of your kindly nature. Screw them over, and they’re liable to hate you and possibly attack you on sight. Naturally, I’m vilified with most gangs, but a good number of towns liken me to some post-apocalyptic saint. One perk from this communal appreciation was that I didn’t have to pay to live in a cosy motel apartment. So whoever says good deeds go unrewarded has never helped lure a suspected traitor into the sights of an angry sniper with a strong taste for revenge.

There’s probably much more to say about Fallout New Vegas, but what I’ve taken away from my time with the game is that while not a revolution in roleplaying games, It’s certainly a blast to play, just as addictive as it’s predecessor and certainly an improvement in a good number of aspects. While it got off to a rough start (especially in the optional shooting tutorial where geckos were falling through the floor), the more I played New Vegas the more polished it became. Ultimately, Obsidian have delivered the goods, ensuring Fallout remains the number one in post-nuclear simulation.

Fallout: New Vegas, PC – £22.99, or if you don’t care when you get it, The Hut have it for £22.44 when you use a 10% off voucher.

]]> 13
Batman: The Brave and the Bold – Review Fri, 22 Oct 2010 07:24:20 +0000 Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Wii – £13.99 delivered
Batman: The Brave and the Bold, DS – £13.99 delivered

Review by Lewie Procter

You can punch dinosaurs as Batman.

]]> 4
Super Meat Boy – Review Mon, 18 Oct 2010 15:30:58 +0000 Super Meat Boy, XBLA – 1,200 MS Points (800 MS Points at release, til November)
4,200 MS points – £25.98 delivered
Spend 2,400 points in October, and get 800 points back.

Review by Lewie Procter

Every single time I died in Super Meat Boy, it was my fault.

That’s not strictly true, there is one boss that bucks the trend, but every other death in Super Meat Boy was entirely my fault. I misjudged the jump, I ran into the spinning death saw, I fell into the lava pit and I got impaled on the spikes. 4,260 deaths I’m up to now, and I’m only part way into the post game, there’s plenty of marrow to suck from this game yet. With all those failed attempts, it’s a bloody good job that Team Meat have stitched some kind of amnesia educing witchcraft into the fabric of the game. My overriding memory is that one time I beat that one difficult level, not the thousands of other times I didn’t make it. I kick ass at Super Meat Boy. I kick ass at video games. Nothing can stop me.

Death isn’t failure, it’s the process of gradually carving out that one perfect run you know you have in you. The levels are almost all under 30 seconds long, so when you’re kicked back to the start, you don’t ever lose a huge amount of progress. You leave a meaty trail of blood everywhere you go, and this stays behind after you die. This not only looks badass, but is useful for working out the best or correct route. It reloads close enough to instantly that I’m happy enough to exaggerate by saying it loads instantly. Before the flayed pieces of mincemeat from your previous attempt have even hit the ground, you’re back at the start of the level, ready to give it another try. There is no lives counter, and it doesn’t even have to ask you if you want to try again (it already knows that you do).

Structurally, the game is bundles of 20 levels, collected into chapters. You only have to complete some of the levels in each chapter to open up the next chapter, but really, you’ll be wanting to complete them all. Each level has a par time too, which are generally fairly forgiving. If you beat a level under par time, you’ll unlock the “dark world” version of that level, a super hard remix with more spinning death saws and a menacing visual makeover. Beyond that though, there are dozens of secrets. Super Meat Boy has a sense of mystery that I’ve not felt in games for a long time. I’ve scratched the surface of some of its secrets, but I know that there is far more hidden than I have been able to find so for. I love it, and I’m going to be unlocking additional stuff for weeks after having “beat” the game.

One such mystery is the retro-inspired Warp Zones. These are gateways to a set of three bonus levels, hidden in the normal ones. Here you have three lives to finish a level, so the paramters for success have changed. There’s also additional playable characters, collectable bandages hidden around the levels, and on the Xbox version “The Internets”, a bonus chapter which will be updated with new levels regularly.


I made some notes about the controls whilst playing, but it ended up just being a piece of A4 with the word “tight” written on it several hundred times, getting messier as I got onto later levels. That’s probably not good enough, so he is why they are tight.

The running is good:
To move slowly you press either left or right on the stick (or dpad or right stick) and Meat Boy moves to the left or right slowly. I’ve not used this very much so I’m not too familiar with it.
To move fast, same as before, but you press either “X” or the right trigger to run faster. I’ve used this a lot, and it is fun.
Importantly, these buttons have immediate effect. There’s no time wasted waiting for animation to start, you have near instant acceleration and deceleration when you are on the ground. There is a clear and simple audio and visual feedback when you are running instead of walking, and the top running speed is pretty fast

The jumping is good:
A quick tap on “A” makes Meat Boy jump exactly one tile high. This is really useful for getting over small obstacles, or up small steps, without jumping any higher than you need to.
Hold down “A”, and he’ll jump really high. If, you let go of “A” mid jump, he stops going upwards. Very quickly you get a good sense of his maximum jump height.
You have a lot of manoeuvrability in the air, giving you precise control over jumps.

The wall jumping is good:
It’s all about the slide. It’d probably make my GCSE physics teacher cry, but how Super Meat Boy does wall jumping is sublime. Firstly, when you jump in to a wall, you stick to that wall. This means that you have plenty of time to prepare to jump away from the wall, rather than having to time it perfectly. Even though you are stuck to the wall, you still slide up and down it. You conserve vertical momentum, so if you jump upwards into a wall, you’ll slide up, if you are falling when you hit the wall, you’ll slide down it. By about chapter 3 I’d got my head round exactly how it works, and in the latter levels you can use this trick to save lots of time.

There’s a little bit to learn about these controls, but they will be second nature very quickly. They are everything you would want out of a 2D platformer’s controls, and if they weren’t so tight, the game would not work as well at all.


Complaints? That boss I mentioned before. After the entire of the rest of the game being all about how good you are at platforming, there is a boss just after halfway through that will kill you. No matter how good you are at the game, this boss is impossible to beat (outside of pure fluke of randomly standing in the right places) until you have learnt it’s entire attack pattern. It’s impossible to learn it’s entire attack pattern without dieing more than once. It’s a shame because the boss looks fantastic, and no where else in the game is dumb trial and error the solution. Other than that, I’d personally like there to be an instant respawn button for those few moments when it’s not easy to kill yourself and start again, and the fact that you die if you go off any edge of the screen (including the top) has unfairly screwed me over a couple of times.

Beyond those minor niggles, SMB is a platformer that is worthy of that acronym. It’s fantastic looking, challenging and fair. The fiendish level design towards the end holds nothing back, and is rightly demanding of the player. In its head is forward thinking game design, in its heart is reverence for the games that have come before it, and on its face is a huge grin and a focused stare.

]]> 8
Amnesia: The Descent, PC – Review Sat, 02 Oct 2010 13:00:48 +0000 Review by Ben Tyrer (Tumblr)

Amnesia Artwork

Fresh from the Penumbra series, I pre-ordered Amnesia: The Dark Descent with a spring in my step. Interested not only to see whether the formula had improved any, but whether my experience with Overture and Black Plague had made me any less of a coward, I launched into the grissly world of Brennenburg Castle. Was I still a pathetic craven? Was the game scary? And just what makes a survival horror horrific?

If you’re a fan of the survival horror genre, and have never played Frictional Game’s Penumbra (for which you are to be publically berated, you scamp) let me quickly describe the wondrous and immersive mechanics for which the games are praised. Running on the HPL engine- a tribute to HP Lovecraft- games of the Penumbra series require the player to interact with the game world in a much more tactile method than simply pressing ‘E’ to open a door, and so on. No, in Penumbra you have to grab hold of a door by clicking, then sliding your mouse forward to ease it open lest it slam and attract the attention of any nasties in the area. The same was true for drawers, cupboard doors and essentially every interactive element of the game. The mere act of physically turning a valve to open a gate creates a level of immersion pretty much unsurpassed by any other game, RSI be damned.

Amnesia carries over these mechanics in a shiny, updated engine and with a brand new setting and storyline. One burning question inevitably asked of all horror games is relatively simple: is it scary? The short answer is yes. The long answer is OH MY JESUS CHRIST IT’S COMING IN, WHERE CAN I HIDE, THERE ARE BEETLES SCURRYING OVER MY EYES. Perhaps more importantly, however, is how the game is scary. Two games in the horror genre which are often called upon as examples of not being particularly scary are Doom 3, and F.E.A.R, but I think this is relatively unfair. Both have their share of scary moments, and I’m not talking about making you jump; I don’t consider that to be a true method of the genre. A kid in a dolphin costume could kick the door in behind me and release a primal scream, and I’d probably jump. But are children in dolphin costumes scary? I’m talking about true, anticipatory fear, the disempowerment of the player leaving him feeling totally vulnerable against a vastly more powerful, opposing force. That’s scary stuff, and Doom 3 has it by making you choose between either wielding a weapon, or being able to see who’s attacking you. F.E.A.R has it by occasionally removing your weapons or simply making the nasties unkillable, rendering your big strong-man attempts at keeping control completely moot.

And Amnesia? Amnesia has it by the truckload. Castle Brennenburg is a dark place, and I often found myself running blindly around desperately hoping to come across some tinder to light a few candles, or some oil for my lantern. It’s a profound design choice to actually impede the player’s progress with such claustrophobic blackness, and it’s really effective, not only because I literally found myself creeping along walls for direction but also because Daniel, the protagonist, doesn’t handle the dark so well. Extended exposure to terrible lighting conditions puts Dan in a fragile state of mind, making him harder to control and, more crucially, easier to be found. So, you’ll need to keep a healthy supply of lantern oil and tinderboxes, but even choosing where to spark up involves a level of consideration. There’s no way to put out the candles you light, so once you illuminate a room it’s lost forever as a potential hiding place.

What of weaponry? Surely Daniel can sort out whatever’s waiting for him in the darkness with a well placed lantern swing, or aptly thrown rock? Sorry, no dice. There is not a single weapon in the game, and it’s vastly better for it, for two reasons: Firstly, combat in the first Penumbra game was dire, and was removed from it’s sequel. While the interaction system worked wonders in almost every other aspect, combat is one area that did not benefit from having to wave your mouse around like a lunatic. Secondly, going back to my point of the disempowerment of the player, the horrendous creatures to be found lurking in the dark are infinitely more terrifying when your only option is to run and hide.

The monsters themselves are varied enough to still feel terrifying after you’ve seen them a few times, with some only inhabiting specific areas of the castle. It has to be said that it felt as though I encountered a lot less monsters (in terms of actual attacks) than in Penumbra, but unlike Penumbra I was never given the luxury of presuming an area to be ‘monster safe’, making for much more nail-biting fun and a more satisfying pace to the levels.

As you’ll know if you’ve watched the trailers or even played the demo, Amnesia has a fair amount of voice acting. While not the best I’ve ever heard, it’s certainly believable where it needs to be, and is more than welcome when the alternative is reading a lengthy piece of text. This often becomes your task however as, of the many notes and memos left around the castle, only a specific set are voiced. This niggle was enormously outweighed by the appreciation I have for Frictional taking the time to flesh out their world and narrative with these notes, however, and most are optional anyway so if you’re truly averse to these types of pick-ups you need only endure them a few times.

Throughout the course of the game, Amnesia jumps from strength to strength with a thickening plot and heavy atmosphere. The only- and I stress the word only- thing that left me wanting for more were the endings. Oh Frictional, you and your endings! There are a few of them, based on how you handle the closing events of the game (which far be it from me to spoil) and none of them really square up to the be climactic finale I was hoping for. It’s not that they undermine the process of actually getting to the end, it’s just sad to see such care was taken with detail up until then, only to play through what feels like a comparatively rushed segment. I’ve spent nine hours working toward this finale, Frictional, and I want to relish in my accomplishments (or indeed my own demise) rather than gruffly being shown the door by a game that doesn’t seem fully convinced of how it should tie up it’s loose ends acceptably before letting the curtain fall.

All things considered, the games released by Frictional continue to carve out the delicious little niche they hold in the survival horror genre. The interaction system won’t be to everybody’s tastes, but I commend them for having the guts to include it anyway. While still incredibly worth your time, with a sharper ending I feel Amnesia would have been an even more unforgettable title.

]]> 2
Blade Kitten – Review Mon, 27 Sep 2010 13:00:18 +0000 Blade Kitten, PC – £9.99
Also available on XBLA and PSN.

Review by Ben Tyrer (Tumblr)

Blade Kitten Artwork

My first concern with Blade Kitten was the notion that two vastly different words could be juxtaposed in such a disconcerting way. A blade is a weapon of slashing and maiming, whereas I have it on good authority that a kitten is a device used only to a fluffy and endearing end. In what twisted world could the two drastically dissimilar nouns coexist in a single, shameless title? Surely not a world I would want to live in, and yet there I was. Linguistic emotional rollercoaster aside and images of murderous felines suppressed deep into my subconscious, my second concern was that I hadn’t even heard of the comic series on which the game was based. Not a good start at all, I’m sure you’ll agree, but this didn’t seem to matter once I got down to actually playing the thing. So, how was it?

The overall aesthetic of the game is very stylised, in an obvious nod toward the comic. Bright colours wash over everything in abundance, and the menu features some incredibly quirky quasi-oriental music. I found it difficult not to draw comparisons to titles such as Borderlands in the aesthetics department, and I hope the image that conjures in your mind goes some way to describing the reasonably attractive setting of the game. This extends somewhat to the character design too, as I’m reasonably sure I was fighting the Crimson Lance.  Decent use of physics is made, if only to decorate levels. Pots and crates are sent flying every which way as you dash around the different platforms collecting what are essentially coins and hitting checkpoints. Unfortunately, I found the controls to be sluggish in the instances where this mattered most such as when trying to change direction quickly, as well as stopping yourself from being crushed by machinery due to a bizarrely over-done skidding animation played after sprinting. The controls themselves are a fairly standard platforming affair; directional arrows to move, space to jump and double jump, E to interact and with the mouse buttons serving as your means of waving the Blade about. I say you wave it, but the Blade itself seems somewhat intelligent and doesn’t even require Kit (the protagonist) to be holding it in order to function. I daresay the Blade would perform most admirably even without it’s feline companion, possibly even better without having to wait for her to climb up every wall and retreat for running jumps. It’s no coincidence that Blade comes first in the title. He’s definitely my favourite character.

Blade Kitten Fighting... Mercenaries

The combat is reasonable, if not fiendishly easy. Spamming left-click will most certainly see you through the majority of encounters, but I wasn’t averse to throwing in a few double jumps for good measure. The platforming aspect of the game, from what I played, was relatively simple too. This is no detriment, however, as over-complication does not a good platformer make. Sadly, though, this simplicity is often Blade Kitten’s Achilles heel. For example, if you want to make Kit climb a wall you need only have her walk toward it, but inadvertent contact with a wall in the heat of combat can result in her dutifully grabbing onto them, interrupting any impressively acrobatic feat of arse-kickery and stopping you dead in your tracks. The ‘blade play’ itself is acceptably satisfying, as enemies are sent reeling away from your devastating swipes. It really is ‘press left mouse to win’, but this formula is somewhat shaken up by enemies who tend to block more, attack from a distance, and so on. Much in the way that Diablo isn’t particularly difficult at the beginning, you will still enjoy thrashing around eliminating everyone in your path. Should you get into a sticky situation, you need only clamber away to a platform inaccessible to your comparably dense attackers, because health regenerates after a few moments.

There are a few interesting ‘driving’ segments where you ride on the back of what can only be described as a large, pink, bipedal dinosaur type creature. These parts are generally fun, and as I dodged obstacles and jumped over explosive mushrooms (or were they mines?) I was vaguely reminded of one of the many Crash Bandicoot chasing levels. Good stuff.

As for the narrative, I don’t want to spoil anything for you, though I’m not entirely sure there’s much to be spoiled. Suffice it to say you dock your ship on a strange planet in order to accept a bounty offer which is then, among other things, stolen from you by a peculiar and frankly insulting blonde woman dressed in red. Obviously that just wont do, so Kit sets off in hot pursuit of the burgundy culprit. It was here, about fifty seconds into the game, that I realised the voice acting wasn’t particularly stellar. Not to worry, though, I’ve heard far worse and it’s still refreshing to hear the soft, quirky remarks made by this girl-cat-person who sadly exists amidst the oh-so-many corny, animalist grunts of Angry Space Marine type protagonists in other games.

Technically speaking, there aren’t many options to tone the game down graphically if you’re struggling to run it (which you probably shouldn’t be, the specifications are listed here) aside from a comprehensive list of screen resolutions, and the ability to toggle shadow rendering. Sadly, there’s no save feature, so you’ll have to rely on the autosaved checkpoints which can be a bit of a nuisance, though they’re placed regularly enough. There is, however, excellent Steam integration, offering Cloud support and a decent amount of achievements should that kind of thing be worthwhile to you.

If you’re looking for a combat-oriented platformer with a quirky vibe and don’t mind looking past a few minor annoyances with regards to the controls and difficulty you can’t go too far wrong with Blade Kitten, though the narrative might be lost on all but fans of the web comic.

Blade Kitten, PC – £9.99
Also available on XBLA and PSN.

]]> 1
Tidalis – Review Fri, 24 Sep 2010 23:00:31 +0000 Tidalis, PC/Mac – £7.68 (actually a little cheaper on Steam, but do them a solid and buy it direct from them)

Review by Ben Tyrer (Tumblr)

Tidalis. A vast, unexplored continent, shrouded in mystery and void of all life… But is it really?

This is the setting for the latest Puzzle offering from Arcen Games, who you may recall for their extremely well received AI War Series, and boy is it a sight. In adventure mode, you crash on the golden shores of this rather magnificent region and it’s charm is immediately encapsulating. It’s evident from the onset that a vast amount of passion was poured into this game, from the superb piano-and-string musical score to the detailed and smoothly animated backgrounds that chart your progress into the heart of the continent, which- while beautiful – never distract from the game.

That was never too much of a concern, however, because this is one of the more engrossing puzzle games I’ve played. On the surface it looks relatively to similar to any other clear-the-board type puzzle game currently on the market, but in actuality Tidalis possesses unique mechanics which not only breathe life into this somewhat tired genre, but make for consistently challenging and interesting puzzling challenge.

Essentially, you are given a standard grid board which begins to slowly fill with coloured blocks, each engraved with an arrow. By aligning blocks and changing their arrows’ direction, you direct ‘streams’ which, when passed through a chain of three or more same-coloured blocks, removes those blocks from the grid. This ingenious mechanic forms the foundation of the game, and there are many variations on the mode itself and the types of block to be found, making for a great amount of diversity. For example, glass blocks can only be removed from the grid by eliminating the blocks underneath it, causing the glass block to fall and shatter. Tinder blocks directly interrupt the streams, preventing large chains from being created, and can only be removed by eliminating a red block within a certain radius of the timber, scorching it from the board. Other variants come into play as the game goes on, including the necessity to avoid removing certain colours from the board, which adds a layer of strategic thinking to the game so as not to inadvertently spark off chains which will remove those restricted blocks.

Throughout your journey into the heart of Tidalis, you will encounter a weird and wonderful cast in the form of the land’s inhabitants. The dialogue here is surprisingly sharp and amusing, with the delightfully eccentric creatures intent on creating puzzles difficult enough to convince you to leave their treasured home.

You’re really getting a bang for your buck with this game, as it offers an exhaustive amount of modes and options to toy around with. Not only does it support custom games, community-created brainteasers, ranked levels, and editors of all shapes and sizes, but it also includes network play- that’s local and internet. Impressive stuff.

Seriously, the effort poured into this game cannot be stressed enough. You can submit scores to twitter, customize the appearance of blocks, even directly edit the animated backgrounds to better suit your taste. There’s nothing they haven’t thought of.

Browsing the update log offered in-game, I can see a huge list of enhancements brought on quite a regular basis. Most recently, bugs were fixed and monitor resolution support was enhanced. It’s refreshing to see a developer take such care with their product after release.

If you’re interested in trying it out, Tidalis can be demoed on steam here, and with all the features I’ve mentioned above, I think you’d be amiss not to.

Tidalis, PC – £7.68

]]> 6
Limbo – Review Mon, 19 Jul 2010 16:00:59 +0000 Limbo, XBLA – 1,200 MS Points

Review by Lewie Procter


Limbo is a story.

The story is a tale of a fragile hero. His powers are the abilities to run, to jump, and to interact with environmental objects. He uses these powers to try and accomplish a goal. Along the way he encounters some haunting images, some fierce opponents, and every inch of his mental and physical endurance is tested. His adventure, your adventure, is a series of menacing ordeals. There is a constant oppressive atmosphere, and you’re always driven onwards, deeper into a surreal realm of existence.

Limbo’s biggest success, the foundation that the entirety of the game is built on, is the nearly perfect animation of the player character. The one moment that a sliding block and a ladder confuse the animation is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Once you feel that connection to “boy on the screen that you are in control of”, you can’t really let go. He needs to complete his quest, and you need to help him; a strong sense of empathy is developed as the game draws you into it’s world.

There is an underlying tone of symbolism; it feels like throughout the game, something much bigger than what we are witnessing is going on, everything is left mysterious. The story leaves more questions than answers, allowing for multiple interpretations. It’s interesting territory for a platformer.

It’s littered with all too brief narrative events viewed from afar. I don’t know what the BBFC would have to say about it. You aren’t particularity violent, but it’s a bit dark. At certain points you might find yourself horrified at what you’re experiencing.

It helps that a lot of video game conceits have been successfully eschewed. Like the best of the games in it’s heritage (Éric Chahi’s works mostly, ICO too), death is both a learning tool and a motivation to do better next time. There are no levels or load screens. You learn all of the controls in the first 30 seconds. It’s pretty much always fair.

Pretty quickly it gets quite hard, and it remains challenging throughout. Almost as if it assumes you already know how to play a platformer. It captivated my interest from beginning to end. It is short, I didn’t time it, and neither should you, but I was surprised it finished so quickly. I have been very ill and on lots of drugs, so maybe I just lost track of time. I’m sure it has more secrets for me though.

Limbo is a beautiful thing, a beautiful game. It’s clever, it’s very pretty to look at. But more than that, it’s got soul. It stays with you after you’ve completed it, and I’m certainly going to come back to it.

]]> 1
Super Mario Galaxy 2, Wii – Review Wed, 14 Jul 2010 12:00:03 +0000 Super Mario Galaxy 2 – £29.74 delivered

Apply coupon “FTSL15-1″

Review by Bobby Foster

Super Mario Galaxy 2 artwork

Seriously? You want to read about Super Mario Galaxy 2 instead of play Super Mario Galaxy 2? You are, quite simply, wasting precious moments of your life that could otherwise be spent enjoying the greatest videogame ever made. Really. Honestly. I promise I’m not just saying that to catch your attention.

The history here is well-worn but important. Shigeru Miyamoto gave us Donkey Kong a little under thirty years ago. You got to jump over barrels and occasionally smash the barrels up with a hammer, as you set about trying to save the kidnapped Pauline from the giant ape at the top of the screen.

Despite that the technology driving Miyamoto’s Mario games has gotten ever more powerful, none of these essential details have changed much in the past thirty years. Pauline might have been edged out in favour of Daisy or Peach or Rosalind (or whatever the bland token female might be called next), but the damsel in distress motif endures. The slightly too cuddly Donkey Kong was quickly replaced by a meaner, spikier and ever-growing Bowser, but his role was the same: irrational and unyielding tyrant. Even now that the action has evolved from taking place across a single screen to multiple planets, the game can still be boiled down to one core principle: “time jump well to get girl”.

It’s no coincidence that the biggest misstep Mario ever made was when Nintendo forgot these crucial tenets. The generously reviewed but massively disappointing Super Mario Sunshine changed the formula to “hose graffiti down to clean town”. It didn’t have the same ring to it and the game bored away all but the most devout of Mario fans before it had a chance to get interesting. Even Mario 64, in spite of the assuredness with which it first put Mario into three dimensions, suffered from a similar problem. It wasn’t a game that boiled down to just jumping. You had to explore. Retrace your steps. Play the same level six times over. Most notably, it was happy to throw you into situations where you didn’t know exactly what you were supposed to do next.

Okay it was a great game, but it wasn’t a proper Mario game.

Real Mario games are about obstacles courses- usually the most beautifully designed obstacle courses it’s possible for their host hardware to generate. They’re about getting from point A to point B without coming to harm. In Donkey Kong, it was obvious that “point B” was up there where the barrels were coming from. And in the original Super Mario Brothers, the screen was only capable of moving from left to right, so it was pretty clear which way you had to go. But in three dimensions? Who knew which way was forward? Even with the greatest level design in the world (and at the time it pretty much was), Mario 64 couldn’t communicate so effectively or consistently which way to go next.

The real triumph of the first Super Mario Galaxy was solving the conundrum of how to do a proper Mario game in 3D. By basing the action on small planets and firing the player between them in quick succession, it reinjected the pace of the 2D games, and was much better at compelling you to keep moving in the right direction. It also featured some of the greatest architecture ever featured in a game. (Yes, I’m calling the level design “architecture”- because I simply don’t believe it’s possible to be pretentious when you’re talking about something so exquisitely fit for purpose.) Unsurprisingly, nearly everybody loved it and – unlike Super Mario Sunshine – it truly deserved the universal acclaim.

What was left for the sequel to do? “More of the same” would have satisfied all of us who spent large amounts of time since the first game’s release wanting to rip out the tongue and tear off the fingers of anyone regurgitating that lazy unthinking nonsense that “the Wii doesn’t have any games for proper hardcore gamers”. And in some ways that’s what we’ve got: riotously inventive levels, a huge variety of challenges, and a generosity of ideas that most developers would spread across ten games and try to sell for £40 a pop.

Yet this isn’t just more of the same: it is by a long stretch a superior game to the original. The levels – in particular those that mess around with gravity and perspective – are braver and more ambitious, and ultimately more rewarding to play. Across the board it’s bigger and tougher, and whilst getting the 70 stars required to defeat Bowser should be within almost any player’s reach, collecting the additional 172 that lie beyond that point will be a severe test for even the most dexterous and patient. Happily, the unnecessarily convoluted hub system from the first game has been stripped back so there’s less pointless wandering about. The new power-ups open up entirely new ways of thinking about levels. Yoshi has been implemented superbly. The hairs on Mario’s moustache flap in the wind more convincingly than ever before…

Yep, it’s the greatest videogame ever made. Sure, you might want to deduct points because it wastes time at the start telling you nonsense like “ shimmering stardust falls on the Mushroom Kingdom only once a century”. Or you might think that the “daredevil” comet challenges (where you have to replay a level without taking a single hit) are just a little too frequent and unforgiving. You might even be disappointed that the camera, although pretty much perfect 99.9% of the time, isn’t quite as capable of psychically predicting where you want it to be as it would be in your geekiest dreams.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that in Super Mario Galaxy 2 we have a game that compels you to keep playing without the need for a cheap cliffhanger story. It doesn’t have to bother with the illusion of character development and a tedious slow-drip of upgrades, because in its unashamedly old skool way, it asks that the player, rather than the avatar, improves their skill level in order to progress. It’s got the confidence to frustrate you with challenging objectives, because it has enough faith in the sheer joyousness of what it’s presenting to you that it knows you’ll keep trying at it.

But really. Words words words… you’re still wasting time. This is simply the best a videogame has ever been. Go play it.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 – £29.74 delivered

Apply coupon “FTSL15-1″

]]> 1
Joe Danger – Review Wed, 07 Jul 2010 19:48:37 +0000 Joe Danger, £9.99 on PSN (£20 PSN money for £17.91)

Review by Lewie Procter

Joe Danger Artwork</a>

I’ve been playing this same level over and over. I’ve learnt every single obstacle. I know where they are, and I know how to get past them all. The controller has become an extension of my body, the buttons are mapped to my muscle memory in extreme detail.

I can do it. I know I have got a perfect run in me. Just one more try.

Of course, something always gets me. I smash my bike into a hurdle, I miss time my jump and land in a pit of spikes, or just can’t quite go fast enough. I’m kind of hazy as to exactly how long I’ve been repeating the same level, but the counter tells me that I have had over 500 attempts, and not one of them has been good enough.

Joe Danger really comes into a league of it’s own in the endgame. After the credits roll, the “Directors Cut” tour opens up, and it’s here where the level design has been completely let off the leash. It demands near perfection. I’m just not good enough yet.

It starts off as a much more friendly game. Before delving into the insanity of the last chapter, the premise is as simple as it gets. You are a bloke on the bike, and you need to go from left to right. You have to get the things that you have to get, and you have to avoid the things that you have to avoid. The controls are precise, but the physics are forgiving. You’re always in direct control of the bike, but you’re not going to get screwed over because you don’t quite land at the correct angle. Don’t let the motorbike trick you, this isn’t a racing game. Or, it is, but it’s not just a racing game. It’s much much more of a platformer than I expected it to be. In fact, I’d say Joe Danger is probably the closest we’re had to a decent Sonic platformer since the 90s.

Each level has several objectives, like “collect all the ministars”, “beat it in a certain time” or “combo the whole level”. This achieves several things. Firstly, it adds to the variety between the levels. Secondly, it adds to the replayabilty a lot, as you repeat levels to complete the objectives you missed first time round (it is often impossible to complete all objectives in just one go) and finally, it reminds me more than a little bit of Tony Hawk. It’s good that if and when you mess up by not quite beating a level on time, it wasn’t all wasted effort if you did combo the whole level.

The levels themselves are super duper fun. There are big silly cacti, massive jumps, and funny billboards. Bright colours are everywhere. A real nice touch that might go unnoticed are little flourishes some of the traps have. There are bombs and mouse traps that kill you instantly, but if you land them just right you can trigger them with the very bottom of your rear tire, and get a clean getaway. You don’t get any extra points or rewards, but that’s the life of the stuntman, sometimes just knowing you pulled it off is enough. I’ve not touched the level editor, because bollocks to that, but I bet more creative folk than I will make some amazing levels with it

The menu is all swish. Sometimes you don’t know quite where to look, but it’s pretty anyway.

Now the bad.

The leaderboards integration isn’t really up to the standard that you might expect from a modern high score orientated game. Information about which levels your friends are beating you at is hidden away under several button presses, and you can’t ever see all the information at once. I think that the competitive nature of the leaderboards is sadly probably going to suffer. Games like Trials HD and Retro Evolved 2, take every chance they can to pit you against your friends, and it’s a shame Joe Danger doesn’t.

The scoring system is a little bit bullshit too. The combo system is fantastic for normal use, but score is really only one component of how well you did on a level. The leaderboards only track “Score”, not “Time” or any of the other objectives. Since score is the only thing that leaderboards track, they don’t really represent who is best at a level, just who did more tricks on it. Did they not play Sonic 2 multiplayer?

There are also a few invisible walls, but whatever.

Honestly, I love Joe Danger. I love his cheeky grin, I love the sound his bike makes, and I love how he hopelessly flails his limbs as he careers head first towards a brick wall, and then gets right back on his bike for more. I probably wouldn’t have cared enough to moan about the small problems it does have if I hadn’t enjoyed it so much. You can’t miss out on Joe Danger.

]]> 1
Iron Man 2 – Review Fri, 02 Jul 2010 21:26:18 +0000 [DEAL GOES HERE]

Review by Will Templeton


I’ve been trying to write a review for the Iron Man 2 game since it launched. I’ve been writing and scrapping paragraphs for weeks, unsatisfied with every single one of them in the end, and I realised why – I was trying to see something that wasn’t there. I was wrestling with myself, trying to convince myself that it wasn’t all bad, that surely it had some redeeming qualities, and then maybe somewhere – God knows where, but somewhere – there was someone that this game was designed for and who would get some enjoyment from it.

Really, though, there isn’t. Even the most die-hard Iron Man fan has another reason to hate the product as a whole – the team that developed this just had no love for the franchise at all, and I’d struggle to even recommend it to a kid who loved the film but didn’t know any better. It’s sloppy from start to finish – while some of the voices from the film are present and welcome, the key part of Robert Downey Jr’s Stark is played by an only passable soundalike, and the models and animations are amateur and wooden.

The key part, though, is that none of the missions give enough feedback as to how you’re affecting the outcome. The fifth time I was flying around with as much purpose as possible trying to defend a poor representation of Scarlett Johansson and failing without and feedback as to why, I lost any and all interest I may have had.

It’s not as if the developers haven’t tried. They’ve at least paid some attention to what the game could have been, by setting it after the movie rather than simply following it to the letter, actually cobbling together a decent story within the world revolving around JARVIS being cloned, and providing a whole slew of fanservice such as battles with the Crimson Dynamo and Ultimo, but in every other respect, the game fails. It controls poorly. The collision detection is wonky, causing you to clip through walls and stumble on doorways. The timing windows to perform certain actions are unforgivably short and unreliable, and the prevalence of quick-time events just serves to underline the lack of any sort of design other than ‘fly around and shoot’. Tony Stark’s technological expertise should never be reduced to hammering the B button for five seconds.

Every single attempt the game has to provide depth is deeply flawed. Each level can be played as Iron Man or War Machine, with a variety of suit and weapon combinations available to suit any particular mission, unlockable through points earned while playing the game. This sounds fantastic on paper, allowing you to tailor a loadout to meet a specific set of enemies. I’d have loved to streak out into the sky with a chaingun and an arsenal of explosives ready to tear my enemies apart. In practice, though, the guns are weak and largely ineffective, and each battle boils down to firing repulsors while waiting for your missile supply to regenerate and hoping that you can dodge the seemingly random barrage of attacks that are sent your way.

To boil it down, Iron Man 2 is frustrating. It fights you every step of the way through everything it has you do, and the most frustrating thing is that it shouldn’t have to be. We’ve seen in the last year by way of several different studios that superhero games tied to movie licences can work, and while they range from the average to the fantastic there’s no need for them to be poor. Iron Man is a character with a unique skillset, Tony Stark is a fascinating and nuanced character, and there’s a great game begging to be made there – but this is so far from it it’s almost impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel. All I want to do is suit up and jet effortlessly across the desert, but the best I can do is a string of poorly-engineered escort missions that prevent me from unleashing the power in the suit.

Iron Man is about being empowered and taking control, and in this game I feel underpowered and fighting for understanding. It’s not enjoyable in any sense of the word. I can’t recommend it to anyone, at any price.


]]> 1
APB – Review Thu, 17 Jun 2010 13:36:46 +0000 It’s not very good.

]]> 18
Trine – Review Wed, 12 May 2010 11:54:32 +0000 Trine, PC – £4.99 delivered

Review by Laura Michet

Trine artwork

A friend of mine sidled over and took a peek at my laptop screen. “Wo-oah,” he said. “That’s pretty.

During the twenty minutes he spent watching me play Trine, this friend of mine came up with a number of bite-sized summaries of the game. According to him, Trine is “Lost Vikings with a chick in it,” “Lost Vikings: Bloom Effects Edition,” “Better than Lost Vikings because the guy who kills dudes with the sword is also the guy with the shield,” “Better at puzzles and platforming than Lost Vikings,” and plain-old “Better than Lost Vikings.” As he explained it, Lost Vikings was a critical part of his childhood. “Are you sure you don’t want to have a go at this yourself?” I asked. I wasn’t so sure that Trine really did trump Lost Vikings. “You know, to make sure it isn’t destroying your childhood memories completely?”

He declined. “It’s awesome just to watch,” he said.

And I suppose it is: Trine is gorgeous. It’s one of those games that go heavy on the bloom effects, yeah, but its setting is the kind of charming fantasy world that seems to require bloom. The environments are colorful, complex, and filled with careful detail. Moving from area to area within a level will sometimes trigger dramatic lighting changes that shift the whole mood of the game in an instant. Passing from a squalid and grey-green underground cave onto a sunny hilltop, or into a twilight forest of cool blues and crisp white moonlight, is absolutely beautiful. Graphically, Trine is a standout.

I disagree with my friend, however, about the ways in which it’s comparable to Lost Vikings, and I’m pretty sure that he would have disagreed, too, if he’d played it when I offered him the mouse. Single-player Trine doesn’t actually feel much at all like Lost Vikings. Lost Vikings, as you may recall, had all three characters onscreen at once, and each depended on the presence and positioning of the others. Single-player Trine, rather, has only one character in the game-world at a time: they replace one another with a keystroke and a flash of light. In Lost Vikings, none of the characters were self-sufficient; on the other hand, the neatest part about Trine is that each character can solve practically every puzzle in a different way. Though Trine is clearly indebted to the earlier game, particularly in its multiplayer, it’s impossible to not appreciate the quality of Frozenbyte’s fresh creative flourishes. The game feels unique and masterful.

At any rate, you’ve got three characters with three separate ability-sets. The Knight has a shield, lifts and throws heavy objects, and melees enemies; the Thief grapple-swings like Spiderman and shoots foes with her bow; the Wizard can levitate things and build his own physics objects. Most puzzles can be solved in three completely different ways, depending on which characters you use. Sometimes a deadly error forced me to solve a puzzle with the exact characters who seemed least-suited to handle it. The moments of victory which follow these challenges are among most satisfying in the game. As the set-piece puzzles grow in size and difficulty, they begin to involve hilarious combinations of swinging, spinning, and sliding environmental objects. Using the Wizard to transform a giant cog into a catapult to fling your knight across a pit filled with spikes, then switching to the thief at the last moment to claw to safety, hand over hand up your grappling rope, is incredibly satisfying, not to mention charmingly absurd.

The combat, on the other hand, is much less entertaining. There are about five different kinds of basic enemies, mostly variations on the “evil skeleton” formula. The first you meet is a skeleton with a sword. Then a skeleton with a bow. The next has a shield and a sword. The next has armor and a bow. There’s a firebreathing skeleton. There’s one with a stronger shield and a bigger sword. Blah, blah, blah. By the time you acquire weapon upgrades, defeating them becomes busywork. Also infuriating are the bats—for some reason, a cloud of bats can kill any character in about five seconds unless they run like hell in the opposite direction. Even if you’ve got the Knight out, with his increased health, you can’t target them very easily. Sometimes, you’ll just vault up into a cloud of the furry little jerks as if you’ve come to say hello, and while you swipe ineffectually with your sword they’ll devour you like midair piranhas. Which seems, frankly, stupid. Nevertheless, this bland and sometimes frustrating combat isn’t game-ruining. In fact, it’s actually rather fun in multiplayer, because you can kill everything twice as fast. It’s the sheer excellence of the rest package that makes me so conscious of the occasional ultra-lameness of the fighting.

Why are we fighting these skeletons anyway, you might ask? Well, Trine has a plot to explain that, but it’s paper-thin: it seems more like mood-setting or atmosphere than actual plot. You’re saving the world from some, uh, evil guy. He shows up in the last level. You’re able to control three characters at once because they all touched this one glowy thing while it was being magic and stuff. The wizard is a smooth-talking ladies’ man. The knight is brave and stupid. The Thief is secretive. The narrator sounds like a version of your grandfather who smokes a pipe and wears velvet. It’s exactly what people mean when they say ‘fairy-tale’—I felt like drinking a glass of warm cocoa while I played this, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that while also using the mouse and keyboard. This plot is brilliant in that it manages to set the exact right tone for the game without wasting any of your brain-power! Trine is a mood, ladies and gentlemen. Trine is both a physics puzzle-platformer and a feeling, simultaneously. Does this make sense to you? It makes sense to me.

As for the co-op multiplayer: it is marvelous. You are certainly cheating yourself out of at least fifty percent of the fun of the game if you don’t play multiplayer at least once. After beating it in single-player I completed about three-quarters of the game through in multiplayer, at first with only one partner, then with two others. The game feels quite a bit like Lost Vikings when you can’t switch at will between the characters. Puzzles which were once simple can become quite complicated when you’ve got two other people to worry about, while puzzles which took me fifteen minutes to figure out in single-player sometimes took less than a single minute with someone else onscreen to help. Though it’s disorienting, this keeps the puzzles fresh: playing through in co-op is just as exciting even after you’ve finished the single-player game once already.

Once, however, while caught as the thief at the bottom of a pit filled with skeletons, watching the wizard gleefully drop physics objects and spiked balls on my head while the knight hopped away offscreen like an armed mental ward escapee, I realized that this game is incredibly entertaining when you play like a dangerous maniac. It becomes a physics playground draped in bloom-effects, and there’s no reason not to take advantage of that, even if it means dropping skeletons on your friends until they shout at you. We saw no reason to always play the multiplayer ‘straight’. The characters are all a little bit self-sufficient—your friends can stand having a crate kicked in their face once or twice a level. Or three times. Or every other second. At any rate, the multiplayer is hands-down excellent, no matter what attitude you bring to it.

However: the camera control in multiplayer is pretty terrible, particularly in three-person co-op. Occasionally, characters will run off of opposite sides of the screen and die invisibly because the camera can only zoom out a very, very limited distance. Every level had a few problems related to this, and it eventually became frustrating, particularly since some of the levels seem to give good strategic reasons for the characters to split up.

Overall, however, I had an incredibly positive experience with Trine. It gets so much right that its few faults are pretty easy to ignore. Its single-player can be brain-wrenchingly challenging, and its multiplayer adds solid replay. Particularly if you plan on playing with friends, Trine is a brilliant way to take a break from the sometimes-tiresome rigmarole of gunplay-based co-op games. It’s like ‘Splosion Man in that way, I think: interesting already in single-player, but rewardingly fresh in multiplayer, too. You and your friends will probably finish it in only a few play sessions, and then maybe decide to take on the free, mind-bogglingly-difficult, so-far-PC-only DLC, Path to a New Dawn, together. I haven’t even beaten that in solo play yet—it’s crazy-tough. Whether or not it will also be coming to PSN is unclear at this point, but even if it doesn’t, it’s still a game I would energetically recommend.

Trine, PC – £4.99 delivered

]]> 3
Splinter Cell: Conviction – Review Tue, 27 Apr 2010 11:00:39 +0000 Splinter Cell: Conviction, Xbox 360 – £27.95 delivered

Apply code “APRIL2″

Review by Lewie Procter

I’m not sure exactly how to approach distilling my opinion on the new Tom Clancy’s™ Splinter Cell™ game down into text. Unlike the game itself there is more than one way I could accomplish that goal. Tom Clancy’s™ Splinter Cell™ has had a complete overhaul. Remember how in the old Tom Clancy’s™ Splinter Cell™ games you had to think? Not any more. In the place of intelligent stealth action is flashy whiz bang punchy shooty nonsense, where the most complex challenge you’ll ever have to solve is “how do I press the button that the game tells me to”.

Part of me wishes I could forget that it exists, or at least it didn’t have “Tom Clancy’s™ Splinter Cell™” in the name. But undeniably it is the next chapter in the continuing adventures of Mr Cell, so I’ll start by comparing it to it’s predecessors.

Chaos Theory was bloody brilliant. If you’ve not played it, it’s cheap on Steam and the oxbox version is 360 compatible. I didn’t particularly like either of the first games, but Chaos Theory was just incredible.

It got all the big details right. The levels were intelligently designed to give the player lots of smaller objectives which could often be tackled in different orders. There was always more than one way to solve any given scenario. Guns blazing worked, but you’d be better off sneaking in the shadows, taking out the baddies when no one looked.

New to Chaos Theory was that you never got game over for being spotted. There was a system in the first Tom Clancy’s™ Splinter Cell™ where if you got seen 3 times it was game over, and they got rid of that. This was a good thing. See, in Chaos Theory, if you were ever seen, you could manage get away from the baddies and hide. After taking someone out, be it lethally or non-lethally, you could hide their body out of line of sight from other guards patrolling the area. You could mess with the guards by whistling to get their attention. The ammo was very limited so it forced you to think about every single shot fired.

It also got all the small details right too. The phenomenal soundtrack by Amon Tobin was brilliantly used, always triggering crescendos at appropriate times. The interrogation system made some guards have useful nuggets of non-essential information. So if you could get up to a guard alone, you might find out exactly how many cameras a building has, or a keycode to a door which lets you avoid confrontation later.

Conviction is a very different game.

Is it actually even a game? It’s definitely a cinematic experience, but all of the best bits about it are either non-interactive or pseudo-interactive.

Mark and execute is the big new mechanic. It lets you tag guys at your leisure for “automatic kill at the press of a button”. To be able to pull off an execution, you need to have recently melee killed a baddie, and then you can kill several baddies automatically at once. It’s a bit of a broken mechanic. For starters, when they’ve removed most of the elements of the game that aren’t shooting, it’s kind of patronising game design to let the game seize control of the shooting too. But also, once you have marked an enemy, you get a HUD icon showing you exactly where they are, and if you have line of sight with them. This means that you could see an enemy in a doorway, tag them, and then they could walk away from you, out of your line of sight, and the player would still know exactly where the enemy was. This is information that Sam Fisher wouldn’t have any way of possibly knowing. When executing a, uh, execution, you do get a bad ass slow mo camera effect that looks a bit cool. Closeups of baddies receiving bullets to the face are flashy and brutal, but I’d happily trade them for just a slither of substance.

The interrogation system is now a violence porn cut-scene punctuating the missions, where you press a button to make Sam do lots of hurting at the people he is interrogating. Then you wait a bit. Then you press the button again. It’s not too far removed from a DVD menu, except you get to move the camera and walk around too. You don’t ever have to worry if anyone else is around because the game locks you in a small area as soon as the interrogation starts, even if you were in a big wide open space only moment ago. Laughably, when there is a crowd of guards and the game has decided that you need to interrogate one of them, it becomes impossible to kill the last one. I thought this was a glitch at first, but after killing six out of seven of a group of guards, my crosshair turned into a big “X” when I tried to target the last one. Instead of letting me kill the last one and miss out on the information like I might have done in previous games, Conviction grabs the player by the arm, and says “no, you have to do this the way that I have planned for you to do it, stop trying to have any control over your actions.”

The same refusal to let the player decide what they want to do applies to the mission structure. The mission are all linear. They are A to B to C to D. There’s no room for the player to decide which objective to complete first, and only occasional superficial decisions about which path to take. This door or that door, which both lead to the same room. By default there is an arrow that always appears on the HUD telling you which direction to go. Because there is only ever one direction to go. Previous Splinter Cells directly encouraged and rewarded experimentation. They were about pushing the player to think of new ways to use your equipment and environment to achieve a range of goals, with freedom to bring your own personality into how you played it. Conviction is about doing what the game tells you to do, when it tells you to do it.

In a startling display of backward thinking, there are multiple missions where if you get spotted just once, it is game over. Restart mission. Watch cutscene again. Retry. This is a game design convention that is so dated that the very same series even parodied it back in 2005, yet here it is back in full force.

Even when you don’t fail a mission, the check point save system isn’t particularly well designed. There are a whole load of times when it feels like the checkpoints make you repeat way more than you need to, and even more occasions where they place you before a cut scene or conversation.

I do have to begrudgingly give props to certain aspects of Conviction. There is a fair amount of variety in where the missions take place, and they are universally good looking. It is definitely a good looking game, the animation, lighting, and particularly the mission information HUD are all visually pleasing.

It does at one point use a brilliant song by DJ Shadow.

It manages to integrate the mechanics of the game into the story at a few points too (notably one whilst that song is playing). Where something happens in the story, and then there is a minor change to how the game plays to reflect that, although the choice at the very end of the game is a pretty feeble cop out.

So what’s left at the end of all that? An acceptable cover shooter with some superficial trappings of a stealth game. To what end? Accessibility? Well congratulations Ubisoft, you’re at the top of the charts. I hope you’re proud of yourselves.

Splinter Cell: Conviction, Xbox 360 – £27.95 delivered

Apply code “APRIL2″

]]> 11
Persona 3 FES, PS2 – Review Thu, 15 Apr 2010 13:23:11 +0000 Persona 3 FES – £14.95 delivered

Review by Bobby Foster

Routine is important. I get that. Like most people, I learnt young that failing to brush your teeth every morning has disastrous consequences both hygienically and socially. And although I’ve always kinda felt that the alarm clock is the cruellest machine mankind ever made, I’ve come to accept that you have to use one to be successful in the modern world.

Yet it’s still true that the darkest and most powerful depression that ever took hold of any of us stemmed from the realisation that we’re dancing to the beat of someone else’s drum. With worrying ease, routine has the power to take us prisoner, and its capacity to rob us of our freedom and creativity is the reason every blues song you ever heard was about the same thing. We all want control of our own destiny.

As it is in life, so it is in videogames. The most pointless and facile titles are those that one person plays in exactly the same way as the next. A game with a linear plot and one-solution puzzles never lets me feel like I’m playing. I want to experiment, take risks and work out my own way of doing things. In fact, my ability to do that within the safe context of videogames is one of the key reasons I continue to tolerate the humdrumity of the rest of my existence.

So if I say Japanese Role Playing Games aren’t usually for me, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. They mostly seem like an attempt to tell the most long-winded story possible in the most roundabout way imaginable. Despite their elaborate battle systems they’re often pathetically formulaic, and thanks to their needless complexity they end up rewarding conservative play over experimentation. Remembering to equip all my party members with fire-based weapons when I enter a dungeon made of ice won’t ever make me feel creative or resourceful. In fact, I’d probably feel more fulfilled stepping away from the game and flossing between my teeth.

Persona 3 is a roleplaying game that was developed in Japan. Most of the male characters have stupid-looking spiky hair while your female party members are the usual collection of highly sexualised teenagers. It asks you to spend a lot of time comparing stats and collecting items. And the battle system involves everyone taking it in turns to hit each other. It goes without saying that it’s just as boring, creepy and pointless as the rest of its Far-Eastern genre-mates, right?

Wrong. This is among the most inventive, unpredictable, funny, engaging, well written and charmingly constructed games it’s possible to play on the PS2. Really. It’s blown my usual “modern JRPGs are all the same” shtick completely out of the water.

It probably helps that it’s not set in the kind of fantasy-cum-futuristic universe that’s become so over-familiar since Final Fantasy VII first popularised it. Here we’re based in the present (a setting still bizarrely underused in the genre), and the game starts with you arriving at a new school for the start of an academic year. Half of the game is based around the routine of school life: attending lessons, hanging out with your classmates, and deciding what extra-curricular activities you want to take part in. The other half, which follows from the early discovery that you’re no ordinary school boy, is about battling through Cerberus, the demonic tower that appears on the school grounds each day at midnight.

I don’t want to waste too much time on the details of the story, as the game’s anime sequences do a more impressive and stylish job of explaining the supernatural aspects of the plot than I ever could. What’s important is the way the paranormal and mundane elements of the story blend together. To be as powerful as possible when you go out dungeon-crawling, you need to have developed your relationships with your class mates and other people living in town, because as acquaintances become close friends, your ability to channel stronger magic increases. This allows these two very distinct parts of the game to provide variety without ever feeling pointless.

One interesting consequence of this “chat-up to level-up” mechanic is the possibility it raises that your character is a total sociopath. You might for instance ask yourself: am I befriending the boorish fat kid with no mates because I have an interest in him and his well-being, or because I need to get him to like me in order to max out the abilities I want? You’re certainly not likely to waste any time with him once you know he’s unlocked all the power that he has to give, because by far the most effective strategy is to keep moving from one emotionally needy person to the next to increase your powers as quickly as possible.

Happily it’s an issue that’s never fully resolved, giving the game a shade-of-grey moral atmosphere that’s almost unheard of in Japanese RPGs.

Yet more important than the ambiguous motivation of the leading man is the amount of control you have over how to play the game. Although the main story arc is about as linear as they come, you have plenty of freedom to choose which characters you engage with and therefore which powers you develop. It’s down to you who you speak to or ignore, and what order you deal with people. Crucially, there isn’t time to develop all the available friendships to their fullest, which adds weight to your decisions. Regardless of how efficiently your try to play the game, you will be left with loose ends by the time the school year ends, so you’re forced to prioritise.

Of course, none of this would have much significance if the game’s dozens of supporting characters were underdeveloped or uninteresting, but thankfully they’re among the most memorable you’re likely to encounter in a game. Some are charming, others funny, and a couple out-right twisted- and the writers and translators should be congratulated on the job they’ve done in making all of them worth caring about. Admittedly some of the romantic elements can feel pretty hackneyed, and you’re not going to gain any great insight into the nature of human relationships, but you could say the same about a TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You’ll still likely come away heavily invested in a well put-together ensemble of characters.

The dungeon-crawling is where there’s probably the biggest cause for complaint. Aside from the turn-based combat (which some will surely find an immediate turn-off) the layout of the tower is randomly generated, with very little variety in the types of rooms and corridors you’re walking through. In what is otherwise a very good-looking game, it’s disappointing that the sections you spend so much time exploring are really very repetitive and unattractively designed.

That said, it’s sufficiently redeemed by the fact you’re never allowed to switch onto autopilot. Almost every battle requires at least a little thought about which attacks you use, and the game demands that you’re willing and able to adjust your set up on the fly. Most fights work out so that if you get it right, and you can wipe out your enemies while scarcely taking a hit, but if you get it a bit wrong, the situation can turn precarious very quickly. It’s the proverbial glass cannon approach, and it’s very effective at keeping the player on their toes and preventing complacency.

What’s less successful is the decision to only give the player direct control over the lead character. Your team-mates can be given vague tactical instructions each turn, but you can’t specify exactly what action they take. In principle it’s an idea that could work, but it relies on having AI companions who are capable of consistently making smart –or at least rational- decisions. Unfortunately here your party members act foolishly a little too frequently, and when that happens in the crucial phase of a boss battle it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been stitched up.

Yet despite these occasional moments of frustration, Persona 3 still stands head and shoulders above other Japanese RPGs. There’s an element of genuine craft involved when fashioning a character that works for you, both through choosing which relationships your pursue, and in the constant evolution of your abilities. You often have to sacrifice powers you’d previously relied on to create the new and more powerful “Persona” that grant you your power, and this keeps the game feeling fresh and interesting from beginning to end. Or at least, I never felt like an idle spectator at a 100-hundred hour long CGI fireworks display, in the way some games might have made me feel in the past.

That’s the irony here. A game that’s based around the rigid timetable of school life, uses a very limited range of locations, and involves returning to the same dungeon again and again is in fact more inventive and varied than hundreds of others that try to create vast worlds for you to explore. I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the things Persona 3 has to offer – in particular the 30 hours of epilogue content that comes with FES Edition – but I don’t think I need to. It’s a game best explored for yourself, full of opportunities to develop your own tactics, and packed full of wonderful little surprises. I’m trying to think on an RPG on the PS2 that I’ve enjoyed more, and am coming up empty. Really. Go get it.

Persona 3 FES – £14.95 delivered

]]> 4
PixelJunk Shooter – Review Wed, 03 Mar 2010 18:45:30 +0000 £20 PSN card, £17.95 (Game cost: £6.29)

by Will Templeton

There’s something about PixelJunk games that distils the absolute best mechanics of a genre down to a seemingly simple experience. It’s a pattern and an ethos that Q-Games have followed for each of the series – take a base mechanic, stretch it to the best of its ability without straying too far from it, build a game around the abilities that are produced and release it, all within the span of an extremely short development cycle.

There’s also something about PixelJunk games which embodies some of the most frustrating gaming experiences possible. Because the games are so tightly constructed, there is often a very fine line between complete success and total failure, and it’s a line that all the Pixeljunk games dance on.

PixelJunk Shooter exemplifies these opposites in a game that forces the perfectionist in you to strive for just one more run at the level, and the designer in you to cry out in frustration at some of the choices that were made. It’s not that Shooter is badly-made, it just doesn’t seem polished enough.

The base mechanic is, as always, sound, a seamless blend of the dual-stick controls present in games like Geometry Wars and a gravity-based approach that hearkens back to Thrust. There are several manoeuvres that your ship can perform, but rather unfortunately some are never explained, and all fast become necessary to proceed. It’s indicative of a slight lack of finesse in PixelJunk Shooter – while the game is quick to detect when a player is stuck and provide hints, these can be insufficient more often than not and can require a little too much experimentation on the player’s part to proceed.

As the game progresses, and the player slowly figures out more and more of the abilities at their disposal, PixelJunk Shooter opens up to quite a sophisticated and crafted experience. Once comfortable with the suite of abilities available, attention can be focused more on each individual level, which operates like very much like a self-contained puzzle. The elements work almost exactly as you’d expect – cooled lava becomes rock, melted ice leaves water behind, and so forth. With these very limited set of tools, it becomes a challenge to use each of them to not only progress through the level but also to save your allies trapped within – kill too many of them by any means and the level has to be repeated. Soon, the caves start requiring much more pre-planning and less obvious a path to success, meting out reward very satisfactorily.

It’s unfortunate, then, that as soon as Shooter begins to pick up steam that it throws up a roadblock. At the end of each cave is a large boss fight, which while in itself is a rather welcome break from the standard game, requires a certain amount of gems found in earlier levels to unlock – and they’re easy to miss. The hunt through each of the previous levels for just a few extra gems can be very tedious, and takes a lot of the momentum out before allowing the player to re-engage in the experience.

PixelJunk Shooter’s biggest problem, though, is that it’s over before it gets a chance to begin. By the time the player has become fully comfortable with everything it has to offer, it’s already reaching its crescendo. While it might be the most accessible of the PixelJunk games to date, there’s also not enough of it to access, and ultimately leaves the player wanting more bang for their buck. It’s a missed opportunity more than anything else – while there’s obviously a very sound game underneath, it’s wrapped in a shroud of awkwardness and lacklustre signposting. For anyone willing to work at it, the rewards are there, but they’re buried very well.

£20 PSN card, £17.95 (Game cost: £6.29)

]]> 0
Mass Effect 2 – Review Tue, 09 Feb 2010 20:53:01 +0000 Mass Effect 2, Xbox 360 – £32.99 delivered
Mass Effect 2, PC – £19.99 delivered

Review by Bobby Foster

The first thing you’ll notice about Mass Effect 2 is the quality of the Brylcreem all the characters use. Every haircut in this universe stays perfectly shaped at all times, even when the hair is really long. It’s a truly exciting vision of what the future of hair care holds.

That’s a lie. It’s probably more likely the 112th thing you’ll notice. (At the start of the game nearly everyone is wearing a space helmet, so you don’t get to experience the amazing static hair thing until later.) Yet this game has the power to brainwash. You’ll find that when you do pick up on the slightly weird looking hair, your mind will have become so used to thinking “wow this is great!” that it won’t be able to accept that the game you’re playing could have any flaws.

“There’s no way the programmers could have run out of memory for proper hair physics. It’s just part of the fiction. In this universe they’ve mastered faster-than-light travel so they probably have pretty awesome hair gel. Makes sense. Probably referenced in the books somewhere.”

In fact, Mass Effect 2 is such a tremendous game that you’ll still be thinking “wow this is great!” when you’ve accidentally popped out from cover in the middle of a gunfight for the fifth time and have been left staring at the reload screen. (In other titles they call it the “game over” screen, but here you’re always so eager to carry on playing that it would be a totally inappropriate thing to name it.)

The part of you that hasn’t utterly succumbed to Mass Effect 2’s engaging story, believable characters, and enjoyable dialogue (and which is probably the same part of you that exists to make sure you don’t forget other important things in your life such as sleeping and eating) might nag at you that there’s no way the game should have interpreted your controller inputs as a command to spring out from cover. It might even ask the perfectly valid question, “if that doesn’t happen to me in Gears of War, why does it have to happen here?”

Mass Effect 2 doesn’t allow such questions to linger for long. The combat is so vastly improved over its predecessor that it guilt-trips you for nitpicking. While the cover system is certainly still not perfect, it’s a helluva lot more responsive and dynamic than it used to be, and at least a match for how it’s been done in games like Grand Theft Auto 4. Weapons now feel like they’ve actually got some weight and clout, and firing them feels satisfying in a way that the previous game never really managed. There’s also a greater variety of weapons to choose from, even for those playing a class that isn’t a weapons specialist, while they’ve gotten rid of all the faffing around in clumsy menus that plagued the first title.

Of course, beyond just shooting at people, your team also has various ‘biotic’ and ‘tech’ powers (which are basically the futuristic equivalent of magic). These too have been improved from the first game, so that you can now satisfyingly curl shots around or over cover. Additionally, the decision to put all these powers on the same recharge timer (i.e. each character can only use one at a time) makes deciding how to use them a lot more tactical than before. In the first Mass Effect, the majority of players will have spammed all their powers as soon as there were several enemies in the room. Now you’re forced to give a little more thought to how to use them and in what order.

It’s probably important to point out that this game isn’t just about trying to kill enemies though. There’s a lot of talking. And although in most videogames the bits where the characters talk to each other are rubbish, in Mass Effect 2 they’re really good. This is a videogame script that successfully combines suspense, intrigue and comedy, and that’s a pretty rare thing. The voice-acting, although occasionally a little too earnest from the supporting cast, is for the most part utterly convincing- especially if your Commander Shepard is female and voiced by Jennifer Hale instead of Mark Meer. There were times when I laughed out loud, not because of wooden delivery or dodgy lines, but because the game had tried to be funny and succeeded. That really doesn’t happen very often in videogames.

Yet what you, I and the world are probably going to remember as Mass Effect 2’s crowning achievement is the way it continues the story from the first game. In the first Mass Effect you had a lot of decisions to make, some in seemingly inconsequential conversations with bit-part characters, to other life-or-death dilemmas about the fate of an entire alien species. These all carry over when you import your saved game, and it gives the player a sense of ownership over the story in a way that no other game has managed. Perhaps more significantly, it also adds extra weight to all the new decisions you make, as Mass Effect 3 is guaranteed to make you feel the repercussions of choices made in both Mass Effect 2 and the first game.

The videogame press has always been pretty eager to throw hyperbole around, but this truly does feel like a landmark in interactive story telling. The pacing, which was quite severely misjudged in the first title, is now spot on, and special mention should probably go to an opening section that exhilarates instead of testing the player’s patience. Although some might object to the transparently formulaic way you go about recruiting your team and making them loyal to you, they’re all interesting enough characters with sufficiently varied back-stories that you’re never left feeling like you’re going through the motions.

So probably the worst thing about Mass Effect 2 is that you have to play the first Mass Effect to get the most out of it. Which is a bit like saying that the worst thing about going out to a restaurant for dinner is that the starter’s not as satisfying as the main meal. What’s for certain is that your mouth will be watering at the prospect of dessert.

]]> 0
Tales of Monkey Island: Series One – Review Tue, 26 Jan 2010 01:27:40 +0000 Tales of Monkey Island: Series One – £21.48

Review by Bobby Foster

Tales of Monkey Island artwork

Games in the early 90s mostly didn’t bother with narrative. The titles that sold best recreated the kind of experiences people were having in arcades, and you’d probably only catch a glimpse of a “plot” in the opening couple of screens. Even there, the aim was mostly to explain what the player needed to do and what was meant to be represented by the crude in-game graphics. Games that aimed to build a meaningful relationship between player and avatar were almost non-existent.

This made the original Secret of Monkey Island stand out: it not only had a story, but it was funny. The protagonist, Guybrush Threepwood, had enough personality that you could even call him lovable. Helped by the fact that the game looked stunning for its time, players the world over were charmed, and it set a precedent for the long line of LucusArts SCUMM games that would eventually peak with the masterful Full Throttle.

Almost twenty years have passed since that first Monkey Island game, during which time the scale, ambition and scope of videogames have all grown exponentially. In the years between 1991 and 2009 we moved from playing the simplistic Catacomb 3D to the bombastic Modern Warfare 2, and progressed from managing the lives of insects in Sim Ant to letting narratives emerge in the Sims 3. This sense of progress and improvement is a major part of what keeps us all coming back to these clever electronic toys, and so I can’t help feeling a little disappointed that Tales of Monkey Island has turned its back on twenty years of progress and improvement.

Aside from the graphical overhaul, there’s nothing here that pushes the envelope any further than it got pushed a couple of decades ago. Developers Telltale, understandably worried about meeting the expectations of long-time fans of the series, have played it safe; and the result is a game that feels beholden to the past and never manages to carve out a strong identity of its own.

The titular Tales mostly involve visiting all the locations available to you and making sure you’ve picked up or interacted with every object you can. This becomes super-jaw-gratingly frustrating when you discover that, for no sensible narrative or logical reason, some events and objects can only be triggered after you’ve done an unrelated ‘something else’ first. Even twenty years ago this kind of design separated the crap point-n-click games from the great, and circuiting through a number of locations trying to discover the arbitrary order the developer wants you to do things is just as horribly unsatisfying now as it was back then.

What of the dialogue though? A few good laughs can go a long way to redeeming an otherwise mediocre game, and this is perhaps where Tales of Monkey Island is strongest. The voice-acting is credible and some of the gags, if not laugh-out-loud funny, at least have the power to bring a smile to your face.

Yet it’s all done with so little flair. Nine out of ten conversations involve nothing more than patiently trotting through all the available dialogue options until you hit the right one. Worse still, people’s responses flip between the angry, the light-hearted and the sad so quickly that it regularly feels disjointed and contrived, lacking the weight and drama needed to keep your interest through what often end up being quite long discussions.

I can believe that people with fonder memories of the early Monkey Island games than me might get more out of these games than I did. The feel of the originals has been captured very successfully, and some of the puzzles are quite ingeniously crafted. New characters like Morgan Le Flay compare well to the old guard, and you always just about care enough about the ensemble to keep you playing (although the particularly tedious second chapter, The Siege of Spinner Cay, might test that to the very limit).

Yet aren’t we entitled to more? Is it really okay for Telltale to rely on fans’ nostalgia to compensate for their own lack of ambition?

For me at least, telling a sort-of-funny story is no longer enough. Working through Tales of Monkey Island (and it did sometimes feel like work) only ever made me want to play other smarter, faster and funnier games. Something like Dreamfall: the Longest Journey, which in fact contains more genuine hilarity than Tales of Monkey Island despite being a much darker and more serious game. (It also has much greater variety to it and a superior system for handling dialogue, but I should probably try to remember which game it is I’m supposed to be reviewing here.)

Three words sum up all five episodes of Tales of Monkey Island: competent fan service. Should you demand more?

I know I’ll be taking a pass on Series Two.

]]> 1
Blood Bowl, Xbox 360 – Review Wed, 13 Jan 2010 20:42:25 +0000 Blood Bowl, Xbox 360 – £17.73

Review by – Mr Chris

Blood Bowl was a Games Workshop board game first released some time back in the, oooh, 80s or 90s or something. A while ago, anyway. Basically (for those of you who don’t know) it’s an American football style sports game played by the various denizens of the Warhammer fantasy universe. Your little plastic or lead team of Orcs, Goblins, Humans, Undead or whatever played a turn-based game of Extreme Rugby against each other on a big gridded board. Many dice would be thrown. People would get injured, or killed (and that’s just the argumentative teenagers disputing a dice roll). Touchdowns might be scored. Girls would likely be absent.

Blood Bowl is one of the few GW games I have never owned or played so I was quite looking forward to this game, not least as I’d be able to have a bash at it without going to the mortgage-stretching expense of buying the GW miniatures.

The first thing you notice when loading the game up is that the menu graphics are a little, well, shoddy. The second thing you notice is that navigating the menus is an exercise in random frustration – it’s never obvious which way you have to press the D-pad to get the correct menu button to highlight. For instance, to move right it can be either down, right, or up depending on the menu and, presumably, how the coding goblins felt at the time. But hey, that’s just the menus, what matters is the actual game.

The classic mode is basically a direct port of the Blood Bowl boardgame, using the current version 5 of the rules published by Games Workshop. I didn’t receive a manual with the review copy, so I’ll give the publishers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they attempt to explain the rather lengthy rules in full in it. However, playing without the manual I had no chuffing clue what was going on or why, and I nearly chucked the game in the bin within the first two games (both lost by my Orcish team, the Particular Thistles, by a large margin in both touchdowns and fatalities).

I tried the tutorial (and no real man resorts to that first, do they?) but not only is it entirely uninformative, it also puts a huge greyed-out box explaining each move over the top of the screen! The box has to be there because you have to read it because the tutorial’s not explained in speech, so you can’t see what you’re trying to do due to this bloody great greyed out section of screen. If you turn it off, you can see what you’re trying to do but you don’t actually, in fact, know what it is you’re supposed to be doing. It’s the dullest illustration of Catch-22 ever. It is, in summary, teeth-gnashingly irritating and hateful. So, the tutorial completed, I duly learned nothing and again nearly chucked the game in the bin. Good start so far, eh?

However, I really did want to play the thing (and more importantly I promised Lewie I’d review it) so I downloaded the boardgame rules. Yes, to play this game on even the most basic level you need to download a 63 page boardgame rulebook. Even if this is all set out in the manual, you’re still having to learn the rules to a flipping boardgame to play a game on the 360. Intuitive this is not.

I don’t think that this is something that is a necessary evil for all boardgame or RPG ports, either. For instance, the Baldur’s Gate games managed to run the pretty colossally spoddy 3rd Edition AD&D rules in a very accessible and understandable way (and in a way that didn’t make you feel like you were breaking out in spots and social maladjustment just by looking at it), and THQ have singularly failed to manage the same here with what is in comparison a very basic game. Soo boo-urns, THQ, boo-urns.

So, once I’d read the rules, I had another crack at it. In single player, you have the option of a campaign or a one off competition. The campaign mode is basically a string of competitions, each competition being like a qualifying group in the World Cup, only with more crying and less diving.

Your first job is to pick your race from the 8 you have to choose from (apparently more are promised as DLC. Oh joy), and then buy players. You can choose between various player classes, each having particular skillsets (e.g. bogstandard linemen, throwers, catchers, “blitzers”, Big Chuffing Trolls, Psycho Goblins With Chainsaws etc). You can then buy team goodies such as cheerleaders (they affect something or other. Try page 17 of the rulebook), apothecaries (they can patch up injured players during the game, or prevent deaths) and team rerolls (the ability to choose to reroll a diceroll that doesn’t go your way). You can buy more of all of these later when you earn more money through either winning, drawing or, as it happens, losing. How money is awarded post-match isn’t entirely clear, as with many things in this game.

Over the course of the campaign your players earn “star player points” which lead to them levelling up and then earning new skills. These skills are fairly vital to your progress – the initial competition with your vanilla team is quite disheartening as you’ll probably be continually stomped on by everyone else. However, some of this will be down to the matchup between your race and the opponents – some races are geared towards bowling through the opposition and jumping on them (dwarfs) and others for prancing around like a ballet dancer and falling over in a stiff breeze (wood elves). It’s just the luck of the draw, and you do have to modify your tactics to not only play to your own strengths, but to bear in mind the enemy’s strengths and capitalise on their weaknesses. But it does have shades of “rock paper scissors”, but costing £40 more and with a bit of interactivity.

However, more importantly, that word “luck” there epitomises to me what’s most wrong with this game. Every action (tackles, passing, running a bit further than your normal movement allowance, even picking up the ball. Off the ground. A stationary ball.) relies on dicerolls. This almost entire reliance on chance is fairly aggravating. I’ve had a thrower (who you would have thought would have some reasonable if basic ball skills) failed to pick the ball up on several consecutive attempts, leading to him chasing the ball around my half, while my defensive line desperately tried to prevent the fast moving goblins running through, picking it up, blowing a raspberry at my hapless thrower and legging it down the pitch and scoring. Which they duly did. The game may as well have had Yakkaty Sax playing as the in-game music.

To make matters worse, every failed action results in your turn ending, and you only get 8 turns per half. So my thrower’s English fielder level skills ran me through to half time with just enough time for the other side to score.

This is all partially mitigated by being able to buy rerolls for your team, and you can plan your more “risky” moves for the end of the turn, but the fact you can go for a fair stretch of a game with every single roll going against you (and everything requires a roll of some sort other than moving a short distance) is frustrating in the extreme. Yes, I know it’s a port of a boardgame, but for goodness’ sake.

All that said – once I did finally score my first touchdown, I was beaming. I had defeated the evil Dice Gods. So I kept going and have taken the Particular Thistles on to bigger and better things. Well, some of them. A number are corpses or invalids. I’ve had a few other teams of other races on the go as well, for variety, and the same pattern of having a rough first competition and then improving has repeated itself – so hang in there after the first round and you’ll start to actually achieve things, and enjoy playing the game.

On the nuts and bolts of things, I’ve already mentioned the fairly poor interface graphics, and the in-game graphics are only marginally better. It’s bright, colourful and a bit cartoony, which is nice, and the character models are detailed. However, the “miniatures” are all identical for each player class. They’re not even given different numbers, and they don’t change to reflect upgrades and mutations – so it’s impossible to tell at a glance who’s who. Given that the original boardgame placed a huge amount of emphasis (or so it seems from the rules) on customising your players, leaving out such a minor thing seems either criminal or lazy.

Also, the in-game graphics only look good when you’re zoomed right in on the action. To actually play the game you need to be zoomed well out and above the pitch, and from there the graphics look like something from the PS2.

Sound-wise the music and the effects are fine but the commentary, although partially amusing, repeats itself quite quickly, and you’ll soon want them to shut up. Much like watching football on ITV.

I tried to play the multiplayer mode, but there have been no available games any time I’ve tried to play. I can imagine, as with most games, the PC version may work for this better with clans and leagues and things. The lucky chaps.

A chum was round the other day and we thought we’d give the versus mode a go – however that was immediately scuppered because despite this being a turn-based game you need two controllers. Gah, and indeed bah.

So. It’s ok. I’ll play it for a little while longer, but I can’t see me picking this up too many times again in the future. The multiplayer version may open up wonderful horizons of fun, but that door has been closed to me, for some reason. All in all, though, this is a game that will only be loved, or even really liked, by fans of the original boardgame.

]]> 0
VVVVVV – ReVVVVVView Fri, 08 Jan 2010 21:09:01 +0000 VVVVVV, PC/Mac/Linux – £9.36

ReVVVVVView by Lewie Procter

VVVVVV Artwork

VVVVVV is the story of a little bloke with a big smile. He’s Captain Veridian. He has to save the day via puzzle platforming.

There’s a story about a space ship, and lost crew members. The little pieces of dialogue that punctuate the game are full of heart and wit, and really endear you to the pixels on screen. Not that there are many pixels, VVVVVV achieves visual beauty with as few pixels as necessary.

This efficiency shown in the visual design can be seen in all aspects of VVVVVV. My first complete playthrough took me 1 hour 55 to complete, and I died 1072 times (that’s one death every 6 and a half seconds, fact fans), although I had played a few of the harder levels before, so knew the solutions already. Under two hours might seem short, but there are more ideas here than most 10 hour+ games. VVVVVV throws new and interesting platforming challenges at you hard and fast from beginning to end. All just using three buttons.

You press left to make the little bloke go left, right to make the little bloke go right, and up to flip gravity.

The gravity flip function replaces what might normally be jump. If you see some spikes, you might have to flip gravity, then walk across the ceiling to get past them. Terry Cavanagh get’s a hell of a lot of mileage out of this fairly tiny moveset, and his keen eye for level design means that you never feel like there’s anything missing.

VVVVVV takes a novel approach to death, and frankly that’s it’s single strongest asset. Where most platformers treat death as a failure, VVVVV treats it as part of a learning experience. Death is about trial and improvement.

Mechanically, deaths aren’t too different from basically every platformer since super mario brothers. You die, then respawn at some point before you died. The key differences are that there is no life counter (other than the invisible one which serves mainly to embarrass you at the end of the game), respawning is near instant, and the check points are everywhere. Apart from a few small (and annoying) exceptions, VVVVVV never forces you to repeat any of the platforming puzzles, it’s far too busy pushing you on to the next platforming brain teaser.

The ‘puzzles’ are always simple. Work out where B is, then get from A to B. Standing between A and B are some hilarious abstract enemies, spikes, moving platforms, disappearing platforms and more.

Structurally, it’s a little odd. There is a big hub area, which feels a little like a more open metroid-esque world, and hidden around it are linear platforming sections. The world successfully balances feeling natural, almost as if it hasn’t been designed, whilst also providing an interesting place to explore, and platforming challenges. There are little bits of story spread around, in the form of (if you like, completely ignorable) terminals, that tell you a little bit about the world you are in.

There’s a bunch of neat post-game things to keep you busy too. A “Super Gravitron” unlockable arcade game, time trials, a “no death mode” for those of you who are insane. Plus a really funny bonus mode that I had thought of suggesting to Terry part way through playing it, then it was already there.

Add into the mix some rather hilarious room names, and a wonderful chiptunes soundtrack by SoulEye, and VVVVVV is an excellent complete package.

The biggest compliment I can give this game is that had it come out 20 years ago, there would probably be a mediocre spin off RPG called VVVVVV: Battle network, and you’d probably see a hi-res reimagination of that happy little spaceship captain on lunchboxes across the globe.

Terry Cavanagh has made a bunch of smaller games in the past, Don’t look back being my personal favourite, but VVVVVV is by far his biggest yet.

VVVVVV is the first excellent indie game of a new decade, whichever way up you look at it.

]]> 2