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Wii Sports Resort: Artificial Impossibilities July 27, 2009

Posted by Mike in Comment, Console, Games.
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Clearly the mandatory drug testing regime in Wii Sports Resort is a little lax.

The later opponents in Table Tennis move supernaturally fast across the table to return my shots, are capable of unleashing unstoppable top spins on a whim (often in response to a particularly good shot from me), and even seem capable of screwing up the calibration in my Motion Plus during a particularly long rally, making me flail at the ball with all the hand-eye coordination of Alex Bogdanovic. Blindfolded. In a Davis Cup tie.

Suddenly the hideous blue shells in Mario Kart don’t seem so bad after all. There’s cheap, and then there’s this. At times, I swear I can see a certain Mr Wizpig in the crowd, taking notes…

We like… sound design November 13, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, gaming, Miscellaneous.
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There’s little doubt that the often overlooked area of sound design has come of age in this console generation, with the current poster child being EA’s fantastic Dead Space.

Turn off the lights and crank up that surround, as immersion is the game’s trump card. Stop dead in the middle of a corridor and take it all in: the creaks of the USG Ishimura’s walls, the low drone of engines and air purifiers, the far-off wails of… something. Take a step forward… just one… then one more… BAM! A discordant orchestral stab blasts the speakers around you, making you jump, as a hideously deformed monstrosity bursts out of a vent in front of you, screaming. You cry out in terror, moving backwards, firing wildly in panic, hoping to kill the thing before it leaps on top of you and rips you to a bloody pulp. One of its arms blows off under your fire… then a leg… finally it falls to the floor, your shots echoing loudly as the creature gurgles its last. You breathe again, your heart rate slowly returning to something approaching normality. But never normal. Not while playing this game.

This is what good sound design can do. In Dead Space it adds a new level to survival horror, working in tandem with the horribly beautiful visuals and lighting to make you feel like you really are on that doomed spaceship. Alone. Knowing that every step could be your last. All the tiny details convincing you that the moment is about to come.

Gears of War 2 review (Xbox 360) November 12, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, gaming, Reviews.
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Cliff Bleszinski (née: ‘B’) may have spent much of the year talking about how Gears of War 2 has problems with its bottom, but the only piles on display here are the ‘of setpieces’ variety. Immensely loud and dumb the series remains, but when playing it is so much fun, who needs Proust?

It comes as no surprise that big unit sales for Gears 1 ensured that the Lightmass bomb unleashed against the Locust at the end of the first game didn’t succeed in wiping them out, proving once again that capitalism is the real adversary in videogame plotland. Marcus Fenix (sic) and his lovelorn sidekick Dom are therefore tasked with blowing shit up to save humanity. It’s our last stand… again, and you have to go deep into the enemy’s lair to set off a big bomb… again. Yes, the sophisticated tunnel mapping you went to so much trouble gathering in Gears 1 managed to completely miss the existence of a massive underground Locust city. Should have called Ordnance Survey.

New to the experience is an attempt at proper story pathos, which works intermittently, although the themes of love and loss fight against the casual uberviolence present in the game. This isn’t helped by the script being fairly rubbish (although sometimes you’re convinced that it knows it) despite the presence of a well-known comic book writer on scribe duties, and the voice acting is solid but occasionally overwrought (Dom’s big ‘moment’ is visually superb, but partially ruined by the actor’s OTT line delivery and few real story consequences). Turn off the subtitles and your brain on entry, and everything seems better. Don’t think. Just shoot.

The trademark use of cover, pop and shoot in the game’s firefights is all present and correct, but what’s surprising this time around is the amount of variety to break up the classic Gears gameplay. For every familiar courtyard encounter with a group of enemies, there’s an on-rails vehicle section with crazy amounts of explosions going on all around you, a new environmental hazard that forces you to adopt a newer, riskier strategy to keep going forwards, a thrilling boat trip, a sinking city, a massive boss battle, using the enemy’s own forces against them in a bravura fireworks display – there’s rarely a dull moment.

New weapons fit into the series well – the flamethrower being a particular visual highlight – and, thankfully, any that seem overpowered at first glance come with a crippling movement speed modifier or an aiming disadvantage that doesn’t throw off the delicate balancing on display. Portable cover proves to be an inspired new feature too, with the use of metal shields from certain downed enemies (at the cost of using better guns while you’re walking around with them) providing another option to get close to a group of entrenched nasties, without making everything too easy. The Locust sport well-integrated new forces, including the Warg-like Bloodmounts; the massive, shield-carrying Maulers; and the intensely irritating, exploding Tickers. There’s more to the game than before, then, but the additions work without adversely affecting gameplay. It’s all rather splendid.

Graphically, the ‘destroyed beauty’ angle of the first game has been dialled down somewhat in favour of elaborate underground areas, enemy temples, and spectacular outdoor vistas. It’s a different aesthetic: one moment more colourful than the original game, the next even gloomier. The design work remains impressive, and there are several sequences that showcase the major advances made to the Unreal Engine 3 in the intervening period. True, the infamous ‘Meat Cubes’, Hordes and environmental destruction don’t show up as much as we perhaps expected after their unveiling at GDC, but everything’s a clear level up from Gears 1.

The same applies to the music too, the volume of which badly needs to be turned up from its default setting. Whether the atmospheric pieces present in the lead-up to the next encounter, or the pulse-pounding score during frenetic battles, it genuinely adds to the experience, along with the general sound mix for the meaty effects.

Longer than the original game’s campaign, Gears 2 certainly gives you your money’s worth in single player alone, and the different difficulty settings, as well as extremely solid online co-op support, encourage replayability. The online setup rivals Halo 3’s integration, with your friends list always available on the controller’s left bumper in the menus, meaning that you don’t have to go through the slow Xbox Guide functions to invite people into a game.

Online multiplayer is potentially fantastic but currently a mixed bag due to matchmaking issues. The new objective gametypes (Gears-tailored variants on the standard King of the Hill, Domination and Capture the Flag) are excellent, the play is virtually lag-free through decent connections, and the maps are generally well designed, with many of the complaints from Gears 1 (e.g. shotgun spamming) eliminated. The problem with online at the moment is that it can take upwards of five minutes to find a game, which is a serious drawback, particularly when you consider that you’re thrown back to the menus at the end of a match. Private matches are unaffected by this, of course, and the ability to form a party of five (no Neve Campbell included, unfortunately) to move around ranked games will come into its own as soon as a patch for the matchmaking issues is forthcoming.

Now for the really good stuff. The co-operative Horde mode, where up to five human players face off against waves of Locust, is one of the most exciting and addictive game modes I’ve ever played. It’s incredibly tense, with the limited ammo and race for decent cover points against the aggressive enemy AI bringing to mind Michael Caine battling against all odds in a bastardised alien version of Zulu. Starting off easily enough, with low-powered enemies and slow Butchers proving to be easy cannon fodder in the early waves, you’ll soon be screaming in panic as multiple Bloodmounts leap over your security cordon and groups of Maulers assault your position en masse, while your carefully prepared defence plans disintegrate into chaos. The difficulty escalates to a peak in every tenth wave, with the overall strength of every enemy in the Horde then increasing, ready for the next ten to begin. When you consider that there are fifty waves, with the same difficulty levels available as in the campaign mode, and all the multiplayer maps to choose from, Horde is almost endlessly replayable, and the undisputed highlight of the game.

Regardless of its minor issues, Gears 2 is a triumph. With the door for a further sequel left not so much open as clean blown off its hinges at the game’s climax, it’s difficult to see how the series can possibly top this instalment in the current console generation. Other devs would be well advised to consult CliffsNotes before bothering with a further preponderance of third-person, second best imitators, however, as Gears 2 has emerged in the rude health of a vintage Bruckheimer blockbuster, and is by some distance the standout entry of its genre.

Guitar Hero World Tour review (Xbox 360) November 6, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, gaming, Reviews.
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In a turnaround akin to Russell Brand being made a Freeman of Torquay, Activision has eschewed (gesundheit) last year’s inter-game peripheral wars with Harmonix, and embraced the Rock Band drum kit to such an extent that Guitar Hero World Tour not only supports the rival instrument, but even changes the number of gameplay lanes from five to four to accommodate it. The Rock Band guitar is also compatible. Let’s put this front and centre – it’s a really welcome move. Peace at last!

That’s if you really want to use inferior peripherals, of course. The new batch of Red Octane’s finest is a clear step above any previously released. The guitar has a touchpad to help you pull off those tricky solos, and a specific button to activate Star Power to help those who got distracted when they had to tilt the neck up. The drum kit has three drum pads and two cymbal pads above them, is velocity sensitive, and remarkably sturdy. If you don’t already have the Rock Band drum set, or are crazy (and single) enough to have the disposable income to fork out on extra kit, the GHWT Full Band package is the one to get.

The Guitar Hero brand now has so many levels of players – casual, hardcore, insane metalheads – that making all of them happy is becoming nigh-on impossible. However, developer Neversoft has made a good fist of this thorny problem. Progression through the guitar career mode is much less prone to the irritating difficulty spikes that littered GH3. The note charts are almost unrecognisably better, with chord progressions that feel ‘right’, and less ridiculous finger-stretching. Perhaps the Hard career (the step below Expert, and my personal comfort zone) is a little too easy, but then again, maybe I’ve just been playing these games for so many iterations now that I’m straddling two different difficulty levels. Certainly Expert is a serious challenge, where you’re basically playing every single note in the song, whereas even Jeremy Beadle would have a shot at completing the lowest difficulty setting. I’ve always been one for championing proper recreations of the songs themselves in music games, rather than arbitrarily making things ‘videogame hard’ for the sake of it, and GHWT ticks that particular box.

Finger-shredding solos have been made easier by the addition of the touch-pad, but even those using older guitar models will be happy. Semi-transparent notes, connected together by purple ‘ropes’, can be played simply by tapping the fret buttons rather than having to strum them as well, and this new type of note is used in many of the more challenging solos. It’s fantastic. With the new system, that bit in GH3’s Knights of Cydonia would have been passable at higher difficulties without having to grow octopus limbs.

The career mode has been changed from a simple list of songs into organised setlists, where you play one song after another without having to return to the menus. Initially this seems like a serious departure, but soon it becomes clear that it’s effectively the same structure as before, only with more choice over which set of songs to tackle next. While the tracklist isn’t as mainstream as the likes of Rock Band overall (and it remains to be seen whether downloadable content will be structured better than before), the thrill of discovering a new guitar or drum line you love is as intact as ever – before this, I never knew that pumping the likes of Billy Idol or Wings through my speakers could possibly bring a smile to my face.

Successful gig performances earn cash, which in turn is put into buying the right to play new concerts, picking up an assortment of unlockables for your instruments, or further pimping out your mad axeman in the detailed character creator. I did object to having to pay to play a set of Tool songs at one point, though. Surely they should have paid me for having to shit out such painful, piles-inducing crap on my guitar, particularly since the set took place in front of a giant moving eye backdrop that could only have been the result of the work experience kid channelling Giger’s hitherto unknown kaleidoscope fetish.

Thankfully, the rest of the arenas in the game are numerous, well designed and full of character, particularly during the Encores, when there’s a bit of graphical pizzazz to introduce the last song of a set. Jets do a flyby over the Aircraft Carrier stage; the Ferris Wheel topples off its hinges and rolls past the crowd in the funfair level – it’s lovely stuff. Even the boss battles are acceptable this time around. There are no silly power-ups in these duels against music legends to ruin them – you only have to survive until the end of the specially-written songs without the crowd meter going all the way over to your opponent’s side. The career mode ends with a pleasing supergroup gig in a very recognisable location. Believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Ozzy Osbourne’s in-game avatar crooning La Bamba.

The only problem with the single player career is that it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s a safe, polished extension of the previous games, and unfortunately this stretches to the Band Career, which has exactly the same structure as the single player. This means that there are none of the flourishes of Rock Band (such as picking up fans for your band, or random setlists), and while each individual track obviously has the enhanced enjoyment factor of being performed by more people – and this will be revelatory for those who haven’t yet experienced that particular pleasure – essentially the Band Career is ‘just’ co-op Guitar Hero. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that at all, but it’s only a step in a particular direction, rather than a giant, risky leap into making the Band modes different in any way, and as such it’s relatively disappointing.

The Music Studio, the game’s big innovation, is likely to divide opinion. The variety of guitar sounds, drum styles, arpeggiators and effects available is impressive (extra presets are available to unlock by visiting www.line6.com/gh which also shows you how to play certain famous licks), but since navigation is carried out using the instrument you’re playing, it’s all very fiddly. Neversoft clearly knows this – there’s a whole mass of tutorials to plough through. While there is the ability to jam with three other people, it’s almost impossible to create anything in real-time other than an unlistenable dirge, and although there are a variety of scales to play with, the lack of buttons on the guitar controller tells in the end if you want to make anything other than a basic tune. You really need to jump over to the GHEdit suite, which allows you to fiddle with individual notes and step-record, layering your tune up track by track. While this is time-consuming, the results are far better than anything you will come up with in the main studio itself.

Tunes can be uploaded to the it’s-a-describing-name GHTunes for others to play and rate, and there are already shining examples of what can be done with a lot of dedication. It’s a treasure trove of videogames music at present, with passable fan renditions of the Mario and Zelda themes (the odd bum note rankles, thanks to the creators sticking with the limited scales they selected, rather than changing them for one particular note), and my personal favourite – a nigh-on perfect rendition of the music from Bubble Bubble. Ah, the memories! How this mode fares down the line is entirely up to the music making community, but early signs are good, and files sizes for download are tiny. It’s a shame that copyright concerns led to user songs being capped at 3 minutes and 1,200 notes per instrument. For the sake of GHTunes, I hope that Activision isn’t too strict with the deletion button for recreated classics despite the company’s obvious legal obligations.

Guitar Hero World Tour is a consistently excellent entry in the series. While not as revolutionary as it promised to be, except in the quality of its peripherals, there is enough content to satisfy any music fan – or creator – until the next instalment arrives. Any game that lets you play the Bubble Bobble theme, or a thrash-metal Mario suite, is worth your time and money, and if Neversoft can continue to improve year-on-year as it has done here, competition in the music genre will remain healthy for some years to come.

The Fun Factor November 1, 2008

Posted by Chris in Articles, Console, Games.
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The excellent IGN UK review for Disaster: Day of Crisis prompted me to think about how often we gamers – and, indeed, videogame critics – often lose sight of exactly what games should be. We frequently crow about how important immersion and atmosphere is, we bang on about impressive sound design and how Dead Space sounds amazing through our surround setup. We talk about longevity, about replay value, about the importance of multiplayer modes. We wax lyrical about graphics – about screen tearing, jaggies, textures, pop-up, draw distance.

But we often forget to mention the one thing that’s most important about games, and the one real reason we play them – the fun factor.

The reason that IGN review made me think about this was that it seemed surprised at how enjoyable Disaster: Day of Crisis is, explaining away its flaws with an almost apologetic shrug, telling us how its problems aren’t such a big issue because…well, because it’s just really good fun.

Day of Crisis, by any ordinary critical standards, isn’t really an 8/10 game. It’s never a bad game, but really not one of its constituent parts would really stand up to close scrutiny. But that’s the beauty of the game – it never stays in one place for long enough, moving from third-person rescues through lightgun-shooting sections to waggle-based disaster escapes and brief driving interludes. Its script is hysterical at times, seemingly hell-bent on including every possible disaster movie cliche while robbing lines and themes from 24, Armageddon and Independence Day. Its gratuitous – albeit fairly mild – swearing offers plenty of unintentional laughs. Its graphics vary from the reasonably impressive to the sub-PS2, while its voice acting once again offers accidental amusement. But does any of that really matter?

Arriving in the same month as immersive open-world non-linear epics like Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2, Disaster faced a rough ride from some critics, many feeling it compared unfavourably to many of the big games released this silly season. It’s good to see that some people can recognise it for exactly what it is – a big, dumb, loveable game that has no pretensions towards art but merely wants to entertain.

It’s nice to think that there’s still room for games like that in this curious, transitional period for the industry, and hopefully we can all recognise that a game doesn’t need to be anything other than fun to succeed.

LittleBigCockUp October 17, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, News.
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An Edge 10, a rapturous Beta reception… what could possibly go wrong? Well, in the case of classic-in-waiting LittleBigPlanet, it’s religion. Careful launch plans have been scuppered, and the game will now not be released on Friday October 24, following a surprising worldwide recall of the title this afternoon.

According to an official Sony statement: “LittleBigPlanet will be remastered in order to remove a track from the game that contained two expressions found in the Qur’an. Whilst shorter expressions from the Qur’an are sometimes used in Nasheeds, we are aware that the mixing of musical instruments with recognisable extracts from the Qur’an is offensive to Muslims. Therefore, we have taken immediate action to rectify this. We will confirm a new launch date shortly.”

While Sony’s swift action here is commendable, strangely it seems that the furore began because of a single user posting on a couple of forums, including here

That a single forum post can inspire such wild panic is not only pretty unprecedented in the videogames industry, but also rather controversial. As a result of Sony’s actions, certain videogame forums are already awash with posts full of unpleasant racist overtones directed towards Muslims.

Hopefully the delay to LittleBigPlanet’s release will be small, but this incident will no doubt cause the industry to further look at its practices regarding its relationship with religion. I personally find it rather ironic that an industry that has always railed against censorship of any kind is now falling over itself to remove a game that may be offensive to a small group of people. I find it unlikely that the vast majority of Muslim players will either notice the said music track in the game, or be offended by it.

I suppose that, where religion is concerned, Sony have to be seen to tread very carefully, as so many other companies across the world in varous fields have in the past few years. The music track in question’s existence on iTunes, however, suggests that who is offended by what, and with what consequence, is far more open to interpretation than Sony’s swift action to withdraw the current version of the game from worldwide markets might make us believe.

And please spare a thought for Media Molecule, whose triumphant development of LittleBigPlanet is in danger of being overshadowed by a truism that may leave many people shifting uncomfortably in their seats in the 21st Century: religion still equals power.

UPDATE – Media Molecule has said the following: “We learnt yesterday that there is a lyric in one of the licensed tracks which some people may find offensive, and which slipped through the usual screening processes. Obviously MM and Sony together took this very seriously. LBP should be enjoyable by all. So within 12 hours of hearing about this issue involving a lyric (in Somalian, I believe!), we prepared an automatic day 0 patch and had a new disk image ready; however a decision was made within Sony that the right thing to do for quality and support of people with no on-line was to replace existing disks. They assure us that they are doing everything in their power to get things straightened out as fast as possible, and will announce dates soon.”

Putting the band back together: Guitar Hero World Tour preview October 17, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, Impressions.
2 comments

I’m onstage in the Camden Electric Ballroom… yes, that Camden Electric Ballroom, preparing to murder Bon Jovi. Only figuratively, of course: he’s a lovely man, and I’d be happy to say that to any policeman. Lights above me are whizzing about. The sound system, I’m reliably informed, has been cranked up to eleven.

Tom from Eurogamer is next to me, a figure of intense concentration, clutching his guitar as if he was born to do this. Andy from IncGamers is sat on a stool staring at the drums below him, memorising the positions of the pads, ready to unleash his best impression of a gorilla doing an impression of Phil Collins. Chris, my fellow PSO scribe, coolly stands with his bass in hand, waiting for a decent analogy. And Leon from the Official Playstation Magazine hovers off stage, tapping his feet, itching to get on. Yes, we’ve got people in reserve. We’re that good.

The song starts with the famous bass line and I wait nervously, hoping that all those years in the junior school choir will finally come to fruition. Soon, I’m off and running: “Tommy used to work on the do-o-ocks…” A verse, then the lead-in to the chorus, and finally I’m there with the money shot: “Whoaaaaah, we’re halfway there. WHOAH-OH… LIVIN’ ON A PRAY-ER!” The crowd goes wild. This is, quite possibly, the most ridiculously awesome gaming experience ever.

Of course, we didn’t have an adoring audience (unless you count the lovely PR folk). We didn’t have proper instruments, either, just a couple of becoming-less-like-Fisher-Price-every-year guitars, an electronic drum kit, and a microphone. But for those four minutes, and many more over the course of the day, we felt like rock stars anyway. This is the power of music. This is the power of a mid-life crisis.

Guitar Hero: World Tour is Activision’s answer to Rock Band (though we’re careful to call EA’s series “The Scottish Play” within earshot of the PR people whenever possible), and the need for comparisons is higher than ever. Both games feature the same combination of instruments. Both games offer a large tracklist of hits, as well as ongoing downloadable content. So what’s going to separate them? GHWT has a couple of big things going for it in that regard: the quality of its instruments, and the music studio mode.

The instruments are a long way ahead of the original Rock Band’s. The drums are extremely sturdy, velocity sensitive with more bouncebackability than Iain Dowie could ever dream of, and feature a pedal that doesn’t snap in two if you breathe on it. From a hundred yards away. With chronic asthma. Even Eurogamer Tom’s patented “stamping test” didn’t manage to break the thing. The drums are made up of three pads, with two cymbal pads above them. For veterans of The Scottish Play, it takes a track or two to adjust to the new layout, but going back to “another” drum kit soon becomes unthinkable. The GHWT one just feels a lot nicer.

The guitar, meanwhile, has the familiar green-red-blue-yellow-orange button combination, but sports a redesigned neck, a nicer finish, and a longer whammy bar, as well as a less clicky strum bar, and even a button to activate Star Power for those people who get distracted from the song every time they tilt the neck up. The drums and guitars are wireless, with the microphone being a standard wired USB jobbie. So far, so good, then. Red Octane’s peripheral vision becomes increasingly impressive with each passing year.

The music studio was demonstrated to us briefly, but I didn’t get enough of a look at it to pass any real judgement yet. However, from what I did see, it’s impressively deep. Profound, huh? (More incisive news on this potentially fantastic USP for the game soon, once I’ve had the time to fully delve into my review copy.) A streamlined profiles system makes it much easier to start up a full band game than Rock Band (although we occasionally still had some trouble, probably due to videogames journo ineptitude rather than the game itself), and so for Quickplay purposes, GHWT proves to be far less hassle. Again, there will be more on the proper career modes in the review.

On, then, to what everyone wants to know about regarding the gameplay: the note charts. These deceptively important elements – regarded by many as the main weakness of Guitar Hero III’s gameplay compared to Rock Band’s – are much improved over last year’s version. There are no longer strange note progressions on the guitar parts, and in my time playing tracks on the Hard difficulty level, I only spotted an isolated few of the hated three-note chords. From what I understand, the boss battles from GHIII are out. Hallelujah! (Jeff Buckley.) The drum tracks are well laid out too, and the singing recognition is forgiving enough not to humiliate those who struggle to carry a tune.

The only potential Ringo in The Beatles is that the tracklisting isn’t as mainstream as Rock Band 2’s. This isn’t a problem for the guitar parts – after all, coming across a song you don’t know, and learning to absolutely love the shit out of its riffs, is a big part of the Guitar Hero experience – but it remains to be seen how not knowing many of the songs will affect full band potential when it comes to vocals. We’ll see. There are also questions about how the downloadable content will compare to Rock Band’s, given different strategies about albums, three track downloads, and single track releases.

But those potential niggles aside, which I’ll be able to fully address after I’ve sunk many more hours into the game, GHWT looks like a winner. The full band play is a real match for that of its rival, with better instruments enhancing the experience, and when you consider the music studio mode and the potential for amazing stuff coming out of the community, it’s clear that developer Neversoft has made a giant leap forward in its second year in the saddle. Whether it’s enough to beat Rock Band 2 is still unclear, but it’s certainly going to be a closer and more interesting scrap than Noel vs audience guy.

Huge thanks to Simon and Anna from Barrington Harvey for setting the day up for us, and for their overly kind words about my guitar + vocals rendition of “Shiver”.

The Dark Side of Paradise: New Burnout DLC impressions September 18, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, Impressions.
2 comments

New offline and online events, a full 24 hour day/night cycle, the addition of motorbikes, and all this for free – it sounds great on paper. And indeed, the latest downloadable content in Burnout Paradise makes quite the first impression, with the novelty of the bikes and their different handling opening up a genuinely new feel to racing through Paradise City.

But while the content is sizeable, there are problems. For one thing, night is NIGHT. Come midnight in the game it’s so dark – pitch-black in places, with only your bike’s weedy headlights pointing out landmarks in the gloom – that you’re forced to rely on the mini-map in the corner of the screen more than ever. This lack of visibility makes perfect sense when racing on the country roads at the west edge of the map, but the near-darkness at the very heart of Paradise City itself (other than the flashing lights that indicate jump positions) somehow just looks lifeless and wrong, and makes night-time racing extremely difficult. The night cycle can’t have been accounted for in the initial design of the game, otherwise Criterion would have put twinkling lights in a number of the buildings to help guide your way, and the lack of some sort of tweaking to make the darkness less of a hindrance is frustrating. Those country roads are rather pretty at night, though, and the day/night cycle is tweakable through a number of settings. These include (among others) a 24 minute cycle, a local time setting tied to your real-world location, and the ability to permanently set the game time to a chosen point. I recommend sunset.

The motorbikes’ lack of boost is an interesting design decision. It arguably makes the racing more “pure” (although the speed differential between the two types of bike initially available will likely make one of them comparatively useless in competitive online play), but Burnout without boost just doesn’t feel like Burnout. The lack of any crash animations at all for a big shunt is disappointing too, but whether this is due to technical constraints or because having riders fly off the bikes would invalidate the game’s age rating is unknown.

All this doesn’t mean that the content is without merit – far from it. Having a new driving license to work for increases the breadth of the single player game (although I have yet to find any races against AI opposition, which is an interesting oversight), and while difficult, the Midnight Runs use their new checkpoint system to great effect. The Freeburn challenges are as compelling an example of social online gaming as you can find on Xbox Live at the moment, and the addition of all new Road Rules leaderboards for bikes for both day and night will reinvigorate those particular bragging rights. Online interaction between bikes brings an extra dimension to a now overly-familiar game world, too.

It seems churlish to complain about a free update – and certainly this DLC is remarkably generous – but given how long it has been in development, the various design foibles are more than curious. Paradise it may be, but this game definitely still has a dark side.

The Farce Unleashed? First impressions of the new Star Wars game (360) September 18, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, Impressions.
3 comments

Did you know that the name of Darth Vader’s secret Apprentice in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed – “Starkiller” – was the original surname of Luke Skywalker in early drafts of the Star Wars screenplay? Or that Babylon 5 showrunner J. Michael Straczynski paid homage to this fact by giving his own lead character, John Sheridan, the Starkiller moniker as his nickname among the mysterious Minbari? No? Then be assured that I’ve now outlined my sci-fi geek credentials. You’re in safe hands here.

I’ve always ignored the litany of Star Wars expanded universe material. My view is that if a plot isn’t onscreen canon, then balls to it. Therefore the Lucas-approved storyline in Force Unleashed, which fills in the squiggly bits between Episodes III and IV of the Star Wars saga, is the first major draw outside the movies for me personally, for years. Just how did we get from the Jedi being wiped out, to the fledgling Rebel Alliance? And what does the Apprentice – who seemingly exists solely to do Darth Vader’s duplicitously dirty, off-the-books bidding, rather than shouting “That’s what I’m talking abaaaaat!” every five seconds – have to do with it all?

The early story cutscenes are promising. The Apprentice himself is surprisingly likeable and sympathetic rather than brimming with the expected genero-teen-angst evil, and an engaging droid character called Proxy provides the funnies while having more than a little bit of sinister bite behind him. He doesn’t even come across as an HK-47 rip-off, which is refreshing. The only downsides are Darth Vader’s “It’s not really him, is it? Why didn’t you get James Earl Jones, you idiots?” voice and subtly misjudged line-readings, which make you root for man-in-the-suit David Prowse to finally be given the chance to utilise his “The Farrrrce is strang wiv you, moi luvver” vocal talents. The first test, however, is easily passed. Since the story isn’t rubbish, Force Unleashed is automatically better than 99% of narrative-based games.

But the other story here – the gameplay itself – is more troublesome, and Force Unleashed has many of the same problems that crop up again and again in third person action adventures. The major issue is the automatic targeting system, which is, frankly, broken. It selects your target very vaguely based on the direction in which you’re facing, but there badly needs to be an option to switch manually, as in the middle of a fight against multiple enemies, with multiple targetable objects also around you, it’s almost impossible to Force Grip the exact Stormtrooper you really want to fling about.

This leads to the game becoming rather more of a button-masher than it should be. With the targeting woes hampering efforts at precision, the best strategy is to hammer the lightsabre and various Force buttons willy-nilly in order to rid the screen of all opposition. The Euphoria engine (formerly seen in Grand Theft Auto IV) proves itself to be the ideal technical gubbins to depict chaotic uses of The Force here, with the requisite Force Grip and Force Push abilities all present, spangly and correct. The action often looks spectacular onscreen, with enemies flying through the air in multiple directions, and electronics being ripped out of their housings to explode all over the place, but when the button-mashing is compounded by the dreaded QTE sequences that pop up when defeating some of the larger enemies and in boss battles, it often feels that you’re not in complete control of the action. Your inability to move while using The Force, and the swiftly dwindling energy bar for use of the ability (presumably both present for difficulty balancing purposes), are the final nails in the coffin. Having seen Jedis fight in the movies, the Force Unleashed’s control problems and restrictions make the combat more old man Guinness than young pretender McGregor. The game isn’t helped by the level paths’ extreme linearity either, which almost Jedi Mind Tricked me into thinking that N+ was a free-roaming extravaganza.

Still, the art design is absolutely lovely, the music recognisably Star Wars, and general presentation – apart from the screen tearing and some clunky loading times – is everything you’d expect from a big budget game. Certainly the compulsion to get to the next slice of the plot will overcome many of the gameplay problems for Star Wars fans. However, for anyone who has no interest in the story and has been fooled by the hype into expecting combat on the level of a Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, this probably isn’t the game you’re looking for. Darth Vader, everyone’s favourite intergalactic Sir Alan Sugar, certainly shouldn’t fire his Apprentice, but neither should he be rushing to hire him just yet.

Worthy sequels September 11, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, Miscellaneous.
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Amazingly for the ordinarily bean-counting videogames industry, a mediocre sales performance for a particular game no longer automatically means that it won’t get a sequel. A game’s Metacritic rating – its average review score across selected online and print sources, as collated by Metacritic.com – is increasingly being worn as a badge of honour by publishers, and finally it seems that being seen to have a roster of compelling titles, rather than just a money-train of financial success no matter what, is fast becoming a key consideration.

The likes of Electronic Arts’ CEO John Riccitiello have openly stated that quality is now king, and the welcome by-product is that critically revered but commercially unsuccessful games that would formerly have died a quiet death, only being mourned by a small band of devoted followers, have been given another chance to show their worth.

The Rare-developed Viva Pinata, for example, was Microsoft’s initial tentative dip into the ocean of casual gaming back in the autumn of 2006. An unfortunate flop on initial release due in part to the so-called “Gears of War demographic” of the Xbox 360’s userbase at that time, this well-regarded gardening game eventually limped via a combination of aggressive discounting and hardware bundling to sell just over a million copies. For a big first-party release, this was hardly a stellar performance. Earlier this year, however, the enhanced sequel Viva Pinata 2: Trouble in Paradise was announced, and found its way into shops last week, once again the recipient of a positive critical reception. Initial sales figures suggest that it may once again fail to trouble the upper echelons of the charts – and the lack of discernible marketing has been disappointing – but the fact it was made at all is a promising development.

An even more surprising forthcoming sequel is Beyond Good and Evil 2 from Ubisoft. The original game was the brainchild of Michel Ancel, one of the few individual developers with a public profile among the gaming community. (Other star names include the likes of Peter Molyneux, Shinji Mikami, Hideo Kojima, and Shigeru Miyamoto, but it is still a relatively unique phenomenon.) Released in 2003 into the packed Christmas market on Playstation 2 as a timed exclusive, and subsequently sneaking out on Xbox and Gamecube early the following year, it was clear that Ubisoft had no idea how to promote the game. It’s hard not to be mildly sympathetic about the company’s plight, however, since BGAE followed the adventures of a green-skinned photo journalist named Jade, and her pig-like uncle Pey’j, through a variety packed mix of stealth, photography, vehicle sections and limited combat – a recipe for high valium expenditure from the Ubi marketing department if ever I saw one.

Widely regarded as a severe commercial flop, with the game’s fans bemoaning both the advertising and the general public’s unwillingness to try something different, a return seemed about as likely as a certain better known Jade going on Celebrity Big Brother again. With that in mind, when the sequel was announced in May this year, it was a bolt from the blue cheered by the videogames community. It remains to be seen whether the title is simply Ubisoft reluctantly indulging the whims of its star developer, or whether it will genuinely try to make the series as successful as it deserves to be. Here’s hoping it’s the latter.

Even EA is getting in on the act these days, with the fantastic (and cruelly underselling) Boom Blox on Wii strongly rumoured to be getting a sequel next year. And, to its credit, EA is even giving critically mauled potential winners more time and another chance – take the karaoke/rhythm action game Boogie, for example, for which a far better looking sequel is out on Wii this autumn and may finally do justice to the concept.

It’s easy to imagine Duncan Bannatyne facing down the trembling executives of Microsoft, Ubisoft and EA in the Dragons’ Den to deliver one of his famous blasts: “Wodja min you dun know the duffrunce between a hut and a muss? This is no’ a biznuss. And for those reasons: a’m ow.” But for those of us who hope to see the videogames industry gain a better balance between its commercial interests and giving developers the time and opportunity to create games worthy of our cash – even if they may not be sure-fire commercial successes – recent events have hinted that a heartening future may well be ahead.

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