Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Hidden Gems 2005 Volume 4

For this edition of Hidden Gems I will once again turn my attention to the PC, and little game called Mutant Storm. Recently re-released on the Sold Out budget label, it can be snapped up for £5 on it's own or as part of their 3 games for £10 offer. What's it all about? Well, Mutant Storm successfully combines all that was good about arcade games and shoot 'em ups in the 80's and 90's, and brings the visuals up to date.

Those of you who are familiar with Midway's Robotron or Smash TV (either you're old enough to have been their the first time, or you may have played them or the Midway's Greatest Hits disc) will know roughly what to expect from this game. Basically you control one ship in the middle of an arena, and a constant stream of enemies warp in and try and destroy you. If you survive, you warp on to the next arena, and so on. What made Midway's games unique was the control scheme - the arcade machines had two joysticks, one for movement and one which fired your weapon in whatever direction you pointed it. PomPom, the developers of Mutant Storm, have successfully replicated this if you have a twin stick pad for your PC, and the game is also perfectly serviceable on an 8-button pad. If all you have is a keyboard however, I would suggest you treat yourself to a pad of some sort if you're serious about those high scores.

PomPom have thrown a few more ideas into the classic mixture. These include the complex high score system and scaling level of difficulty. Basically, the longer you can go without dying, the higher your score multiplier will get, and therefore your score at the end of the game will be higher. As you rack up points, you will a kind of experience bar, and once it is completely full, you go up a belt. These belts are similar to martial arts belts, and range from white through to black. The higher you get the more the odds are stacked against you, and only the true masters will live to see the end of the black belt levels.

Once a belt is unlocked, you can play the game from the beginning on that difficulty setting. These means you can customise the game to your abilities. While you're still getting used to the game and honing your reflexes, you will probably want to stick to the white or yellow belts, but as your confidence increases you can step up the challenge a notch and challenge the best.

Once you achieve a high score you can connect to the internet and upload it onto the official Mutant Storm scoreboard, but you will have to put some serious practice in if you want to challenge the best.

Graphically, Mutant Storm is extremely smooth, fast and is crammed with bright colors. In the more hectic levels the entire screen can be covered in mutants, bullets and explosions, yet you don't need a powerful PC to run the game at a decent framerate. The sound is a bit more functional, but it suits the style of the game and is reminiscent of the sounds of the classic arcade machines.

If you hunger for simple but challenging gameplay, and you have a love of retro shoot 'em ups, then Mutant Storm is the ideal game for you. If you've never tried a game like this, and you think you might like it, then it's well worth the risk finding out for the paltry £5 asking price. I look forward to PomPom's next game with great interest.

Eat laser death, alien scum!

Monday, May 02, 2005

Jade Empire review

I have long been a fan of games or films in a mythical chinese setting, from John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, Yu Suzuki's Shenmue, through to Bioware's Jade Empire. However, whereas Big Trouble and Shenmue were fictional tales set in the real world, chinese myth was the inspiration for the fictional world of Jade Empire. So while you will see emperor's, pagodas, temples and many other things that you may expect, you will also see gods, demons, magic and many other fantastical elements. What all three works share in common though are their gripping stories and interesting characters.

Jade Empire begins in a martial arts school, where you character is under the tutelage of Master Li, the founder and head of the school. Fans of martial arts movies will recognise the wise old master stereotype straight away. In fact, a great deal of the game is like a love letter to the Hong Kong martial arts genre in general. Real life fighting styles such as Drunken Master are included, along with some fictional styles like Thousand Cuts or Paralyzing Palm. However, hand to hand styles are just the beginning, because throughout the game you will also acquire weapon styles, magic styles, transformation styles and support styles. These are mostly self explanatory, except for the last two. You gain transformation styles as you slay certain demons - for example the Horse Demon, and you can then turn into that creature for a certain length of time. Support styles don't do damage directly, but instead can freeze, shock, or drain your opponents. The Spirit Strike style for example, can be used to extract some Chi (magic), which can save your life. The white button can be pressed to change any spare Chi into health.

Some reviewers have attacked Jade Empire because the combat is too basic, but personally I found it accessible and quite refreshing to not have to wade through complicated menus for a change. Four styles can be mapped on to the d-pad, and you can change quickly and easily from one style to another in mid-flow, which you can use to set up Harmonic Combos. While it's true that you only have one basic attack button, one heavy attack button and a block/dodge button, you are free to mix up attacks whenever you want, and in fact you have to on many occasions. You see, different enemies are immune to certain styles of attack. For example, spirits cannot be harmed with weaponry. I have read in several places that the battles are to easy as well, and while this is true in some cases, there are challenging battles to be found, especially when you're up against a whole room of opponents. In any case, if you find the default setting of Master too easy, you could just change it Grand Master on the options screen.

In addition to all these styles, you also gain the support of many followers as you work your way through the story. You can either have them fight beside you (very useful when you are outnumbered) or you can put them in a support role. What they do in the support roll varies from character to character but includes refilling your various energy bars or throwing you bottles of wine (required for the Drunken Master style).

Speaking of energy bars, there are three - Health, Chi and Focus, which are increased by spending points on Body, Spirit and Mind when you level up. Chi is your magic power, and you use it to cast spells, heal yourself and make attacks more potent by using Chi strikes. Focus is used to slow down battles, and is also used when you use weapon styles. The Body, Spirit and Mind statistics also come in to play in conversation. For example, if you choose the Intimidation option when talking to someone, your foe will either run away in fear if your Body stat is high enough, or they will laugh in your face if you're a magic using weakling.

Conversations and missions play out in a similar fashion to Knights of the Old Republic, where you are given multiple choices and it is left up to you what the best way to proceed is. Instead of Light Side and Dark Side, in Jade Empire there is the Path of the Open Palm and the Path of the Closed Fist. While the Path of Closed Fist isn't necessarily evil (they consider strength to be the greatest virtue, not patience or humility), the two ideals often go hand in hand. So you could decide to be a do-gooder, helping out everyone you find, or you could create chaos and disharmony throughout the land, leaving many live's shattered. The choice is yours.

Of course, you could always do both, which is one of the great things about Jade Empire and KOTOR before it. There's is a high degree of replayability, both from the character you choose, the Path you tread, the styles you use, the quests you complete, and the supporting characters you decide to develop a relationship with. There is a lot of scope for experimentation, and I personally found this the most rewarding aspect of the game.

What of the storyline, and the game's length? On the whole, I don't think the story of Jade Empire is quite as strong as KOTOR. Certain parts of the game were quite atmospheric, but overall it doesn't quite have the same impact as the Star Wars game did. As for the length - the first time I played the game I spoke to everyone, finished every side quest and explored every area, and I finished the game in about 28 hours. I have heard of people finishing the game in 12 hours, but they must have really been rushing their way through. I don't know about you, but to me that kind of defeats the point of playing an RPG in the first place - especially one that looks and sounds as good as this one.

Which brings me nicely to the graphics and the sound. Visually, Jade Empire would be unsurpassed on the Xbox if it wasn't for the odd stutter and lapse in framerate. This is most noticeable in battle when to try and jump gracefully and the game freezes for a second before you suddenly reappear on the other side of your enemy. When you are just walking around exploring the games environments however, the graphics are breathtaking. Like in KOTOR, you can click the right thumbstick in at any time and go into a first person view, and really take in the details.

Jack Wall has done a fantastic job with the musical score - it sounds like authentic Chinese music should sound. I'm no expert in the field, but the soundtrack really adds to the atmosphere that the graphics conjure up and the two combined make for a very memorable experience. Finally we come to the voice acting, and I must admit it took me a while to get used to Americans and Canadians playing oriental characters. However, the quality of the acting cannot be faulted. You will hear the voices of video game veterans Came Clarke (Liquid Snake from Metal Gear Solid), Kim Mai Guest (Mei Ling from MGS), Paul Eiding (the general from, you guessed it, MGS) and Quinton Flynn (Raiden from MGS 2), as well as celebrity voices from John Cleese, Nathan Fillion (Captain Mal Reynolds from Firefly) and Armin Shimerman (Quark in Deep Space Nine, or Principal Snyder from Buffy). All these people and many others put in spot on performances and really add to the overall quality of the game.

If you are fan of RPG's, martial arts films or just appreciate a good story, I can recommend Jade Empire to you without hesitation. The more impatient of you may find that conversations go on for a tad longer than you'd like, but at least the quality voice work and well written script makes them worth listening to. Better than KOTOR? Not quite, but it is of a similar standard overall and benefits from a more immediate battle engine. Highly recommended!

The RetroGaming Score: 8 out of 10.

Amazing visuals can be found all throughout Jade Empire.