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

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

Norse Code – the riddle of Too Human August 26, 2008

Posted by Chris in Console, Games, Impressions.
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I received a copy of Silicon Knights’ much-derided Too Human through the post today. Well, at least if you believe half the stuff you read on internet gaming forums, you’d think it was much-derided. In fact, Too Human currently sits on a Metacritic average of 68 – hardly something to rival Bioshock or Halo 3, but not quite subject to the critical lambasting some were expecting.

Yet has there been any kind of marketing blitz for this key first-party release? Hardly. Then surely a special edition – the likes of which Fable 2 and the forthcoming Gears of War are being treated to? Not a sausage. Even the game’s manual seems a little flimsy and nondescript – neatly laid out and printed, sure, but that paper doesn’t smell very expensive.

Start the game, and you’ll likely feel equally unimpressed – production values are hardly sky-high, while the lack of both visual and technical polish (stuttering characters, clipping, enemies dying in mid-air and staying there) betray the game’s troubled development. Whatever your opinion on Microsoft Game Studios’ output this generation, few can suggest its games haven’t felt like they’ve had a thorough going over, with the sort of tiny, niggly flaws seen here all but airbrushed out. Yet Too Human’s blemishes and flabby bits are there for all to see.

Yet these eccentricities seem to add a little character to this curious game – there’s something fascinating about how such a strange title came to be. The story seems to take itself almost laughably seriously, but then there are comments in the manual that can’t be anything but tongue-in-cheek. And the equipment names are almost certain to inspire the odd chuckle – I’m particularly fond of my Willful Conformal Pauldrons of Havoc at the moment. The game is hardly an easy sell – it’s a Diablo-esque dungeon crawler with a combat system that seems to posit itself as an RPG version of Devil May Cry, as your hero Baldur slashes away with swords, juggling enemy mechs and shooting them with twin pistols as they fall. And, weirdly, all this is accomplished by holding and flicking the right analogue stick, the camera controls taken entirely out of the user’s hands. Yet it remains curiously compelling – defiantly its own beast, somehow Too Human mixes Norse mythology and nanomachines, fast-paced hackandslash action and messy menu-fiddling, and just about makes it all cohesive. And it’s addictive enough to make me want to continue playing after the first couple of dungeons, so it must be doing something right.

In some ways it’s little wonder Microsoft is refusing to start a fanfare for Too Human, but this plucky outsider seems plenty capable of blowing its own trumpet – if, admittedly, to a smaller, more cult-sized audience than its publisher usually attracts.

Absolute Kaoss: The story of Mike and his Korg DS-10 (Part Two) August 20, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, Impressions.
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Everyone occasionally feels that the world hates them.  Such was the case today when I found out that my Dell desktop has a known problem with Line-In recording.  As in: it’s claimed that Dell likes to disable it on many of its Vista machines due to some kind of piracy concerns, but actually I know it’s a conspiracy to screw me over, the one time I actually want to use the bloody thing.

So unfortunately, even though I have one tune ready to upload that is the zenith of analogue synth achievement (or a borderline C grade in GCSE music coursework, one or the other), it has to remain confined to my DS for now, repetitively going through its sixteen patterns, wondering when it’s finally going to make its bow in front of an audience.

When you left me at the end of my last piece, I was contemplating my wishes to make music, and the Korg DS-10’s possible shouts of “I am the Holy Grail” to this immortal quest.  But the initial post on PSO was light on detail about how the program actually works, and since then I’ve at least partly got my head around it.

The first feeling when you make your way across the various screens in the DS-10 is one of mild horror, as you can see so many knobs that you think you must have accidentally found your way into a Paul Danan Fan Club convention.  However, the way the program works is surprisingly simple – it’s just the intricacies of creating the sound you want from each synth that baffle, but also reward experimentation.

You can create sixteen separate musical “patterns” to make up a song.  Each of these is made up of two analogue synth parts, plus four drum parts.  Each pattern can be in a sequence of up to sixteen beats, and these are either laid down live in a virtual keyboard controlled by the stylus, or at your leisure on a matrix grid set up to represent the notes and the timings, or (where the drums are concerned) live on the four touch-sensitive drum pads.  This is the easy end of the spectrum.  Simply create a tune on Pattern 1, copy it to Pattern 2, and then change an element – for example, increase the drum frequency to make it sound like the track is starting to build up – and as you carry on throughout the sixteen patterns, you can make something that sounds coherent, but which probably isn’t very exciting.

This is where the other stuff comes into play.  Finding out exactly which turn of which knob or slightly different setting will produce weird and wonderful sounds was part and parcel of the myth of the original MS-10 synth, and this is also very much the case with the DS-10.  There really is something magical about finding a sound you had no idea existed, and then realising with a heavy heart that it’s so good you’re going to have to retcon it back through all the patterns you’ve already created.

But that’s nothing compared to the Kaoss pads.

Once a particular synth pattern has been laid down, it can be modified in real-time (and the recording updated, if you wish) on the virtual, touch-sensitive Kaoss pads.  These are configurable to enable many different note-altering variables to be selected, and just one pattern is perfectly capable of being noodled with on the touch screen for absolutely ages.  It’s easy improvisation – ridiculously enjoyable solo noodling – and a lovely extra that wasn’t on the original MS-10 synth.  It’s one of the things that, when locked onto a particular pattern, can either turn a song to genius, or mess it up completely.  I love it.  Musical maths theorists out there can also adjust the Kaoss pads in whatever pre-set grid arrangement they wish in the advanced sections of the sequence controls.

This is the genius of the DS-10.  It’s simple enough to enable the easy creation of a tune, yet the options available are very deep for a piece of software that’s much cheaper than a “real” synthesiser/sequencer.  For example, remember how I said you can have two analogue synths plus four drums per pattern?  Why not try sacrificing a drum track in order to load up another synth and treat it as a drum, configuring notes for it as you would for a synth, which enables a three-on-three combination?  And how about ditching the pre-set song patterns, and using the patterns screen plus D-pad shortcuts to the various effects options to play your tunes live?  The patterns screen allows you to mute various parts or play one single track on its own, meaning that instead of having to use three or four patterns to build up the beat of a track, you can play it live and build up a particular line yourself in just one, enabling you to free up more pattern memory for creativity.

In many ways the DS-10 reminds me of the SID chip on the Commodore 64, which is interesting because, just as with the programmers who worked on that computer, the trick to producing something potentially memorable is to improvise your way around the memory issues.  The sixteen pattern memory per song really isn’t that much once you get going, but after you learn a few of the ways in which you can stretch this out using the tools available, you start to realise that, while the DS-10 is never going to be better than a $300 program on a PC, you are only ever going to be bound by your own ingenuity up to a certain point.  And, for me, the challenge of learning to reach and then push that boundary is rather compelling.

Next time: More skirting around the issue of what the various knobs do.  And, hopefully, a song link.

I am the music man: The story of Mike and his KORG DS-10 (Part One) August 18, 2008

Posted by Mike in Impressions.
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Ticking off the entries on my imaginary “Things To Do Before You Die” list a week ago, it was obvious to me that the one that said “create a musical masterpiece” would have to be passed over with regret.  So I decided to do something about that by importing the Korg DS-10 for Nintendo DS from Japan.

I’ve always wanted to be a music maestro.  I learnt the guitar for years.  Classical, unfortunately.  At the time I had no idea that I’d later want to be in a band, and learning how to play melodic, Spanish, sub-Gipsy Kings musak never quite made me confident enough of an effective transition to take the plunge.  There’s a videogame to paper over that particular crack in my life and allow me to unleash my inner rock god, of course: Rock Band.  I’ve always wanted to sing as well, and there’s a fine pretend-me-up for that too: Singstar.

But the only console games that allowed me to dab my hand at the third wheel – electronic musical composition – were the Music series from Codemasters on PS1 and PS2.  And after the hilarious David Morales intro  (“This is the M… T… V… music denerator 2… 2…” (and yes, that ‘d’ is intentional. Dig the game out of your collection if you have it, and relive the horror)), nothing I made could ever possibly live up to my dreams. Basic stuff was possible with Music, but as it was sample-based, pissing around with the sounds themselves led to diminishing returns. Stuff just sounded “wrong”. And it was all rather fiddly, despite being an impressive technical achievement at the time.  I didn’t just want to pattern match.  I wanted to create my own sounds.

Now there’s a new kid on the block: the Korg DS-10.  But surely there’s some mistake here.  A full-blown synthesiser on the DS?  The Nintendo DS?  The console that can come in shocking pink and has games with titles such as Horsez?  Yes indeed.  In Japan, you see, the DS is much more than just a games machine.  There is a veritable banquet of non-gaming applications that we see neither hide nor hair of on our shores, and it was only a matter of time before a program like DS-10 became available.  The homebrew scene has developed a few music offerings itself, but this is the first real attempt by a developer for retail, and in partnering with Korg, the developer of many synths over the years (the 70s classic MS-10 being the inspiration for the DS version), AQ Interactive clearly has high hopes to plug this apparent gap in the market.

Confession time: I had never used a synth before today.  I had no idea what attack, decay, sustain and release actually meant in practise.  Until today, I thought that Kaoss was a comical misspelling by someone in extreme need of remedial education.  But having now whizzed and wooed my way around the various knobs, dials and stylus sensitive pads on the DS-10, I know what all of them mean and more.  Okay, so actually, that’s a complete lie.  I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, to be honest.  At the moment I’m flailing around on the thing like Mikey from Big Brother facing a 90 mph bouncer from Andrew Flintoff.

But here’s the thing: I’m having loads of fun regardless.  The squelchy analogue sounds I’m enticing out of this pocket-sized marvel are rather tremendous.  And I want to learn how to do it properly.  Sometime over the next few days, I’m going to make my first proper tune.  I’ll upload it somewhere for you all to listen to and laugh at.  And maybe then I’ll be able to tell you whether you should import the DS-10 yourselves.

My first impression is that you probably should, but, to be sure, stay tuned for the forthcoming Part Two of this musical odyssey, in which I’ll not only go into some of the features of the synth and exactly what kind of things you’re able to do with it, but also outline how friendly (or not) it is for people like me who’ve never used anything like it before.

The Korg DS-10 is now available for import from Play-Asia for £33.12 plus delivery charge, and will typically take around a week to get to the UK.  While the manual is in Japanese, the program itself is in English.  A US release is currently expected in October.  No UK release has yet been confirmed.

Tonight, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll star December 23, 2007

Posted by Chris in Console, Games, Impressions.
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It doesn't look amazing, but to play it is to love it

A word of warning: if you play Rock Band, you’ll never want to go back to Guitar Hero. Up until now, Activision’s game has ruled the peripheral-dependent rhythm action roost. But no more; original GH devs Harmonix have upped the stakes so significantly that their old series is very definitely playing catch-up. (more…)