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We like… sound design November 13, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, gaming, Miscellaneous.

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.
1 comment so far


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.
1 comment so far

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.
1 comment so far

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.