Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Hidden Gems Volume 3

This weeks entry into the Hidden Gems hall of fame is a little game by the name of Startopia. Many moons ago, there was a little game company called Bullfrog. Over the years, they produced many classic games, including Magic Carpet, Populous, Dungeon Keeper, Syndicate, Theme Park, Theme Hospital and more. Eventually, they were bought out by EA (which happens a lot), and several smaller groups of employees left their parent company to go it alone.

One of these groups was of course Lionhead, fronted by Peter Molyneux. But there was another company who didn't share as much of the limelight by the name of Mucky Foot. Their first game was the rather uninspiring third person adventure/fighter, Urban Chaos. However, after that, and unbeknownst to me at the time, they made a truly fantastic game called Startopia. It shares many similarities with some of the Bullfrog games of old (mainly Theme Park & Theme Hospital).

Basically, you are put in charge of a space station, and it is your job to keep your residents & workers happy, your equipment ticking over, and invaders at bay. You can do this over the course of many missions, or you can just play the Sandbox mode and play however you wish indefinitely. The range of different play styles on offer is staggering, as the missions to a very good job of showing you. Your station could be a leisure resort, a trade station, a maximum security prison, a research station, a hospital, and much more. It can even have elements of some or all of these functions at the same time - but managing everything could get a little difficult.

The whole game is put together with flair and wit, and the guy who does the voiceover of the computer that helps you out during the game reminds me of the voice of the book, from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The graphics are fantastic, and I can quite happily just sit there and watch my residents going about their business - it's fascinating to watch. If you've played and enjoyed games like the afore-mentioned Theme Park & Theme Hospital, or Transport Tycoon, Rollercoaster Tycoon or any of the other games of this genre - then you will be in heaven playing this game.

Now for the really good news. This amazing game is part of the Sold Out range - which means it's only £4.99. What's more, if you buy it directly from their web site (www.sold-out.co.uk), you can buy two games at get one free, and they have loads of worthwhile titles. You can expect more games in the Sold Out range to be featured as Hidden Gems in the future, as I have bought and enjoyed many of them which were sadly under rated when they first appeared. Startopia delivers months of high quality gameplay at the same price as a copy of your average games magazine, and as such, is utterly essential.

Monday, September 27, 2004

The Best Games in the World, Ever Part 2

With Star Wars currently having a bit of a revival at the moment thanks to the DVD box set, I thought I'd talk about one of my favourite PC games of all time - TIE Fighter. While X-Wing was the original space combat game, TIE Fighter improved on it in may ways, with better visuals, sound, slightly easier missions and a more varied structure.

The biggest change of course was that instead of fighting for the goodie-goodie Rebellion, you played the game as a TIE pilot for the mighty Empire. Initially you were at a disadvantage when you went up against X-Wings and other rebel starfighters because basic TIE's don't have any shields. As the game goes on however you get to take control of TIE Bombers, Interceptor's, Advanced and Defender's, each better than the last.

The great thing about the X-Wing/TIE Fighter games if you ask me is the amount of strategy that the missions involve. They're not just straight forward shoot 'em ups, but instead you have a wide range of keyboard controls for juggling shield, engine and laser settings. You have to trade one off against the other - if you want fast shield regeneration you will have to suffer a reduced top speed or slower laser rechage. Then there are all the different wingman commands you can use to order the rest of the fleet to defend you, attack your target, etc.

It's a shame LucasArts stopped making these games just as 3D acceleration was catching on in home PC's. X-Wing Alliance is the most recent offerering and is also a very good game, but I can't help but wonder what a proper X-Wing sequel with all of todays bells and whistles would look like. I think it would be amazing, and a darn sight more playable than any of the recent Rogue Squadron series. Hopefully Totally Games will go back to the series after a long enough rest and dazzle us with their game design. Maybe they could even create a new story instead of reusing set pieces from the original story, or perhaps use Timothy Zahn's trilogy of books as the basis?

You can find the X-Wing Collector's Edition package if you look around on the net. Not many shops sell it new anymore but it should be around on ebay. You get X-Wing Collector's Edition, TIE Fighter Collectors Edition, and a cut down version of X-Wing VS TIE Fighter. The B-Wing, Imperial Assault and Defender of the Empire expansion packs are also included. This is vast amount of game to enjoy. After that little lot, you could also go for X-Wing Alliance, also still available second hand quite often. Until a new game comes out, TIE Fighter will remain my favourite of the series - I still have fond memories of being Darth Vader's wingman toward the end of the game. Note: The closest thing to a new game in the series is Secret Weapons Over Normandy - it's by the same team, but of course it's not quite the same because it's World War II rather than Star Wars.

Friday, September 24, 2004

New Releases - 24/09/04

Here I am again with these weeks releases - is there anything amongst this lot that will tempt you to part with your hard earned cash? Let's take a look-see...

It's PlayStation 2 time!

Adiboo & The Energy Thieves
Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone
Star Wars: Battlefront
Terminator 3: The Redemption
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005

I'm sad to say I don't know a whole lot about the Adiboo game - I think it's an edutainment title for the young 'uns, but don't quote me on that. I was quite tempted myself by the Forgotten Realms game, as it's put together by the same team that made The Lord of the Rings (both of them) for EA. It looks like more of the same, but the graphics are notably better and there's more freedom to explore the levels.

Star Wars Battlefront also looks like great fun if you have a load of mates or a Network Adaptor, as it's main focus is the multiplayer battles. I've had a brief go on the Xbox demo, and shooting Ewoks was brilliant! Terminator 3: The Redemption is reportedly a great improvement over the previous T3 offerings, but then that's not difficult as they were utter bilge. Finally, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 features some excellent golfing action - but if you already have the 2004 version I'd skip it, as the small amount of changes don't really warrant a purchase.

Now it's the turn of the Gamecube:

Animal Crossing
Bad Boys: Miami Takedown
Medabots Infinity
Terminator 3: The Redemption
Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 2005

Animal Crossing! Finally, it's out on these shores. I've had this game for over two years now, ever since it was released in the US, and pressure from fans has finally made Nintendo release it over here. Was it worth the wait? Not really. After a month or two the novelty of the "game" wore off, as there's really very little to do.

Let's take a look at the Xbox:

Colin McRae Rally 2005
NHL 2005
Star Wars: Battlefront
Terminator 3: The Redemption
Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 2005

Ooh, Colin McRae Rally 2005. If I wasn't already buying two games this month, I'd get this for sure, even though I already have 04. The career mode is much longer, the graphics have been improved even more, and this time you can take it online.

It's the GBA's turn now:

Action Man: Robot Attack
Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper
Star Wars Trilogy: Apprentice of the Force

Not much going on here this week - the Star Wars game is a ropey 2D blaster/platform thing, made to cash in on the DVD release.

Anything exciting happening on the PC?

Call of Duty: United Offensive
Hidden & Dangerous 2: Sabre Squadron
NHL 2005
Silent Hill 4: The Room
Star Wars Battlefront
The Saga of Ryzom
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005
Trainz Railway Simulator 2004: Passenger Edition
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
Yu-Gi-Oh! Power of Chaos 3

Two games stand out on this list - The Saga of Ryzom and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. The first is a new MMOPRG (yes, another one) with fantastic graphics, and the second is an RTS by the creators of the excellent Homeworld games, of course set in famous table-top game world.

Finally, it would appear that there's nothing much worth importing this week. However - it should be a different matter next week as there's some rather exciting games on the horizon.

Whatever you decide to buy, I hope you enjoy it. Over and out.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

May the Force be with you?

So, I just finished watching the new Star Wars DVD's last night. The films anyway, I haven't got around to the epic documentary yet. This is approximately the 50th time I've watched them during my lifetime, but only the second time have seen the Special Editions. While I must admit I would have preferred to have the theatrical versions, or at least a choice (perhaps via seamless branching that was used on the Aliens and Terminator 2 DVD's), it certainly didn't bother me enough to boycott the set altogether.

The only change that really doesn't work is the added Jabba scene in A New Hope. This is because most of the lines during the conversation were said seconds before during Han's showdown with Greedo. Also, the line where Han refers to Jabba as a human being is a jarring giveaway that the scene isn't supposed to be there.

While I bought the set regardless of all the changes (both old ones and even more new ones), many people I know aren't getting the DVD's precisely because of them. I think LucasFilm will lose more than a few sales a result, but it's not likely to cause George Lucas to lose any sleep, as he must be rolling in Galactic credits anyway.

As for myself, I'm going to continue to enjoy the films (all five of them so far) regardless of what other people think. A lot of people have got it in for the prequels, but I really didn't think they were that bad. Granted, the acting and the script were pretty poor compared to the snappy dialogue between Han, Leia and the others, but there's still a lot to enjoy. I didn't even mind Jar Jar Binks that much (and I don't care if you have a problem with that). Personally, I'm not one to stop liking something just because it's currently the fashionable thing to do (if I did that, I wouldn't own a Gamecube, or even play games at all). I look forward to the day that the gap between my copies of Episode II and episode IV is finally filled.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Hidden Gems Volume 2

Hi everybody, it's Tuesday again so that means it's time for another Hidden Gem!

Last year, LucasArts released a game that was played and adored by thousands of people. That game was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. However, in the same year they also released another RPG by the name of Gladius, and this time I'm here to talk about that.

If you are a fan of the film Gladiator, Tactical RPG's or indeed both, then you absolutely, positively have to check out Gladius. At the start of the game you choose one of two heroes - either Valen's from the Imperia region, or Ursula from the Nordagh region. You begin the game in training to open your own gladiatorial school, either to maintain the respect of your family name or to build it, respectively. During the course of the game, dark tidings are afoot and your skills will be called upon to put down a malevolent dark god once and for all.

Gameplay is rather similar to other games in the genre (such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Arc the Lad, Disgaea or many others). You take turns between your group of gladiators and the enemies, and move around on a grid system. The distance you can travel depends on the movement statistic of your character, which is naturally higher for certain classes, and also increases as your character levels up. You can use a wide variety of weapons, magic spells and other abilities to crush your foe, as well as taking advantage of terrain that is above the enemy, or position (by stabbing the enemy is the back or side for example). The game can be quite challenging because quite often you will be outnumbered and you will therefore have to use tactics to win the day rather than brute force.

The game has a fantastic musical score, and the graphics, while not the best I've ever seen, do a good job of setting the scene and keeping you immersed in the fantasy world which is heavily inspired by ancient Rome. Replay value is high, because the challenges and route you take through the game depends on the character types you choose to employ and train up. Plus of course there are two main characters to choose from at the beginning of the game. Ursula's story is supposedly for beginners, although having played a little of both they don't seem to differ much as far as difficulty is concerned.

Gladius is available on all three of the major consoles, and can be found at a very reasonable price if you look in the right place. For around £10 - £15, you can have yourself a game that will keep you entertained for at least 30-40 hours (even more if you replay as the other character or are determined to finish every last challenge in the game).

Note: Do not confuse this game with Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance, they are quite different games (this is an RPG, and that is an action hack 'n' slash game).

Saturday, September 18, 2004

The Best Games in the World, Ever Part 1

This series of posts is to celebrate some of the best games ever made. If you have any suggestions for future posts feel free to let me know in the comments section and I will see what I can do. It's very hard to pin down exactly what is the single best game ever made as everyone has their own opinion on the matter, so each entry in this series is treated equally and no game is regarded as being better than the rest. Let's get on with the first entry, shall we?

The Secret of Monkey Island - Multi Format, but PC is easiest to come by these days.

Back in 1990, LucaArts took the adventure gaming community by storm when they released the first in the highly regarded Monkey Island series. The game saw you in the role of Guybrush Threepwood, as he attempts to fulfill his dream of becoming a mighty pirate and save his love Elaine Marley from the evil clutches of Ghost Pirate LeChuck.

It was the start of the golden age of graphic adventure games, and the easy to use interface and frustration-free design made the whole game an absolute pleasure to play from beginning to end. The gentle but entertaining sense of humour, the brilliant animation (which still holds up today), and the wide range of colourful characters such as Stan the used ship salesman and the Cannibals who are on a low-fat diet, all help make The Secret of Monkey Island one of the most endearing games ever.

I recently fired up the game once again on my PC and it's still a pleasure to play 14 years after it was first released. The graphics may be only 2D and in a fairly low resolution, but the gameplay, script, plot and attention to detail make sure it remains worthy of your time. If you've never played this game, and you're willing to try a more cerebral and slow experience than many of today's releases, then I recommend you hunt a copy of this game down on Ebay and enjoy a slice of gaming history.

Friday, September 17, 2004

New Releases - 17/09/04

Have you got some spare cash burning a hole in your pocket? Thinking of buying a game, but not sure what's come out today? Then you need this weeks New Release list.

First up is the PlayStation 2:

Cabela's Dangerous Hunts
Crisis Zone
Madden NFL 2005
Resident Evil Outbreak

Comment: Hmm, not a whole lot to choose from this week. The most interesting game here is Resident Evil Outbreak, but even that isn't perfect. As you may be aware the online mode has been completely removed from the PAL release, and the controls, interface and puzzles are as clunky as ever. The sooner Resident Evil 4 arrives on the Gamecube the better.

Speaking of the Gamecube, let's see what's out today:

Madden NFL 2005
WWE Day of Reckoning

Wow, what a selection. I don't know about you but neither of these float my boat. Let's hope this is just the lull before the Christmas season tidal wave of gaming goodness.

So, to the Xbox then - are things any better here?

Madden NFL 2005
Silent Hill 4: The Room

Hmm, oh dear. Silent Hill 4 could be worth a look I suppose but if you ask me the series is getting a little stale.

Let's check out the GBA releases:

Mario Golf: Advance Tour

Just the one game, but boy is it a good one. This game kept me glued to my GBA for months when it was released in the US, and now it's officially available in Europe. It even manages to breath new life into Mario Golf on the Gamecube, with its ability to carry your leveled up characters over.

How does the PC fare this week?

Barbie: The Prince and the Pauper
Final Fantasy XI
Kohan 2: Kings of War
The Sims 2

If you disregard Barbie, this is a pretty respectable selection. FF XI is way overdue in Europe, but at least in comes with the two expansion packs. Expect it to eat into your free time and money in a big way though. Another time-sink of a game, The Sims 2 arrives and it has a wide range of improvements over the original. If you like that sort of thing (and thousands of you do) it's sure to keep you happy for a long time to come.

Finally, for all you importers, Fable was recently released on the Xbox in the US. While initial opinions are that it doesn't quite live up to all the hype the magazines have been doling out over it for the last few years, it is still a very enjoyable game, so it's worth keeping an eye on.

So, a pretty poor selection all in all. I'll be back next week to see if there's any improvement.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Strange Ways of Sega and Squaresoft

A few weeks ago Sega announced that they would finally be continuing their much loved Shenmue series. However, rather than given fans what they've longed for ever since the credits rolled on Shenmue II, they've decided to make it a MMORPG, and now I hear they're only going to release it in China.

Today, Square-Enix, lords of all that is RPG and Final Fantasy, announced that yes, indeed, they are going to make a sequel to the mighty Final Fantasy VII. However, instead of another RPG featuring Cloud & Co, it is apparently going to be a Devil May Cry clone featuring Vincent Valentine, the moody vampire in the lead role.

Both of these decisions make me shrug my shoulders and say "meh". I'm not too bothered about the FF sequel, as I discovered since 1997 that the Final Fantasy series is not the be all and end all of RPG's, but the Shenmue news is quite upsetting. I, and many other fans the world over, have invested quite a lot of time and cash in the first two chapters of the game, so to be cut out completely is rather annoying to say the least. I can only hope that Sega will decide to make Shenmue III one day and finally bring Ryo's journey to a close. I would be interested to hear anyone's thoughts comments on these two sequels.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Movie View - The Cat Returns

I thought I'd take a break from talking about games to talk about a film I watched recently instead. The Cat Returns is the latest Studio Ghibli film to get a DVD release, at least in Asia. However, this one isn't directed by Hizao Miyazaki, but a new director named Hiroyuki Morita.

The film is animated in a slightly different style to Miyazaki's works, but it is just as magical and entertaining as his films. Basically, the story is about a young girl called Haru, who is struggling to come to terms with who she is and what she wants to get out of life. On the way home from school one day, she rescues a strange black cat who is carrying a parcel. Later, the King of the Cat Kingdom tries to thank Haru by arranging her marriage to the prince, who is the cat that she saved. What follows is a funny and charming adventure in the Cat Kingdom.

It isn't as deep and meaningful as some of Ghibli's previous films (such as Princess Mononoke) but is throughly entertaining, and absolutely essential viewing if you're a cat lover. I haven't heard any news about an english version yet, but the Ghibli back catalogue are slowly appearing in the West through Disney/Buena Vista, so hopefully it won't be too long before it appears on this side of the world.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Hidden Gems Volume 1

This series of posts is designed to make gamers aware of some excellent games that they may have missed. More often than not, these games didn't get much hype at the time of release and can now be found for a bargain price at the bottom of a bargain bin. Let's take a look at the first entry.

Rumble Racing - PlayStation 2
In the early days of the PS2, someone at EA made the rather uncharacteristic decision of turning the latest update to their NASCAR series into this arcade racer. The game features a generous number of tracks, each with multiple routes to seek out. It plays a bit like a kart game such as Mario Kart or Diddy Kong Racing with its range of collectible power-ups, but it also has shades of SSX with the stunt system. Holding the R1 button down in mid-air allows you to twist and turn your car, and as long as you land on your wheels you earn a speed boost. The afore mentioned power-ups included a twister, that travels ahead of you and wreaks havoc on the opposition.

The game also features and excellent multiplayer mode, with both competitive and cooperative options available. The graphics, while a bit basic by today's standard, at least maintain a fast and stable frame rate which means the game is playable at all times.

On the whole, Rumble Racing is well worth tracking down. It may have been overshadowed by the likes of the Burnout series, but for around £10 you can get yourself a fast, fun racer that will keep you entertained for quite sometime. That concludes this weeks Hidden Gems!

Monday, September 13, 2004

The History of Paper Mario

To celebrate the impending release of Paper Mario 2: The Thousand Year Door (October 11th in the US, and November 12th in the UK), I've decided to post a little recap on the series so far. If you have missed any of the games in the Mario RPG series, or heaven forbid you haven't played any of them at all, I highly recommend that you give them a go.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars - SNES
Towards the end of the SNES' life, Nintendo teamed up with Squaresoft to produce this little masterpiece. The graphics were some of the best that Nintendo's 16-bit machine ever produced, and the game featured countless neat little touches and mini games (including Yoshi racing!). It was up to Mario to stop the evil Smithy gang from taking over the Mushroom Kingdom. SMRPG introduced the idea of timed hits, which have been used in every game in the series since and certainly help prevent the battles from coming monotonous. A correcly timed press of the A button would see Mario either score extra damage, or he would block some of the damage if he was being attacked. The game also featured some unique characters that haven't been seen in any Mario game before or since, including Mallow and Geno. A fantastic start to one of most enjoyable series ever!

Paper Mario - Nintendo 64
Paper Mario
was unique (at the time, at least) because it used a pop-up book style visual effect. It was very succesful, and the game still looks fantastic today, if a little low-res next to Paper Mario 2. This time Intelligent Systems handled the developing duties (they've also made the brilliant Advance Wars games on the GBA), and they did a brilliant job. Like the other games in the series Paper Mario was a little on the easy side, but there was still more than enough game to keep you happily occupied for around 25 hours. The game also saw Mario team up with a strange bunch of characters, including a Parakoopa, a girl Boo and a Lakitu.

Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga - GBA
Last year saw Luigi finally get his turn in the limelight. However, he still had to share it with Mario. The game used a rather tricky control scheme whereby you used one button for each brother, and often had to use both at once to jump over spikes, electricity or enemies. There were cameos from more recent Nintendo characters such as Professor E. Gadd, who had started up his own coffee shop business called StarBeanz. If you have a GBA, this is an essential purchase, and if you don't, it's worth getting one just to play this game. Better yet, the forthcoming Nintendo DS is backwards compatible, so you can still enjoy all your GBA games on it. This time the game was made by AlphaDream Corporation, who previously made the thematically similar game Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door - Gamecube
So finally we come to the next, eagerly awaited installment of the Mario RPG series. Additions to the formula this time include a audience mode. Each time you enter a battle, you will be performing on stage. The better you do and the more spectacular you are the more audience members there will be, and if they are really impressed they will throw beneficial items to you such as mushrooms. However, if you play badly they will throw rotten fruit and other nasty things at you, so you'd better watch your step! The graphics take the style of the N64 original and up the resolution, which makes them amazing to behold. The power of the Gamecube also allows hundred of enemies to be on screen at the same time, which Mario can then bash with his trusty hammer. Intelligent Systems are developing this game once again.

So there you have it. One other thing I should mention is that all the games in the series up to now have featured some hilarious dialogue - the script in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was particularly well translated.

So don't delay, go out and preorder your copy of Paper Mario 2 today!


Hi, and welcome to my new blog!

On this site you will find my thoughts and opinions on video games through the ages, whatever format they happen to be on. I will also post opinions on movies, music and books from time to time. Hopefully some of you will actually find some of it interesting. If not it's not the end of the world (unless there happens to be a plague of locusts, or your see the Four Horsemen canter past your window, then I'd start to worry).

That's it for now, I just wanted to introduce myself.