Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hidden Gems: The Return Volume 2

I arrived home last night and discovered that one of the two new Xbox Live Arcade titles for this week was none other than Rez HD - Sega's classic Dreamcast shooter all tarted up with full HD support and a 5.1 Surround Sound mix. If you've never played this game then there's never been a better time to try it, and even if you don't own an Xbox 360 you should be able to find a used copy of the Dreamcast or PS2 version for the same or less money it would cost you to download if you look hard enough. What makes the game such an overlooked classic? Yes, you guessed it - I'm going to tell you!

Title: Rez HD
Format: Xbox 360 (original available on Dreamcast and PS2)
Genre: On-rails shoot 'em up
Expect to pay: 800 points or about £8 for a boxed copy

If you've ever played an on-rails shooter such as Panzer Dragoon or one of the Star Fox games then you will already be familiar with the basic gameplay or Rez. Fly along on a predeterimed path, locking onto enemies and taking them down, before facing off against a boss in an epic encounter. What really makes Rez different from these titles though is the way it uses sound and music and the way they interact with each other. The game has a wire frame neon Tron style look to it, which makes sense because the plot involves you hacking a computer in order to save the CPU (personified by a woman) from a nasty virus that is attacking the system. Before you can get this far you have to get past the various security systems yourself however in the form of the games bosses.

The soundtrack includes a stunning contribution from Adam Freeland who has gone on to moderate fame and fortune in his own right since the game was originally released. As you progress from one section of a level to the next by shooting down and opening network points, the music builds up stage by stage until you have a thumping dance track by the end of the level. Shooting down enemies or items also produces various drum, cymbal or synth sounds, so in a way you are effecting the music as you play.

There are five levels in the standard game which will take you a little while to play through, but after you finish that there's a whole range of bonus modes which become available, including a boss rush and more difficult, reskinned versions of the regular levels. Unfortunately there's nothing new content wise in the 360 version, but there's already plenty to keep you busy and if you've never played Rez before you should be more than satisfied with what you get for your money.

I hope this trend of releasing hard to find classics continues on the 360. We've already had Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and now Rez HD, and Ikaruga is also on they way. Who knows, maybe we'll even get Radiant Silvergun one day (which sells for silly money on ebay). Whatever format you have, be it DC, PS2 or 360, you should give Rez a go, you won't regret it.

Facing off agains the first boss in the fantastic looking (and sounding) Rez.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Retro Review: Alien vs Predator (Arcade)

In an attempt to readdress the balance of retro and modern content on the blog, I am planning to devote an entire month to nothing but retro reviews. I'm not sure quite when this will happen - I was hoping for February but it's looking more likely that it will actually take place in March. This will be aided by the arrival of my GP2X in early February, a wonderful little handheld machine that can run a vast array of emulators and homebrew games.

In the meantime I am going to take a break from reviewing recent releases this week and instead concentrate on an arcade title by Capcom - Alien vs Predator. There have been several attempts at the licence over the years including the Atari Jaguar and PC game by Rebellion, and I have to say the games usually fair better than the rather dreadful films. Capcom were famous for their arcade scrolling beat 'em ups, in particular Final Fight, but they released many more after that, and AvP is one of the later ones. Let's take a closer look shall we?
Note: Criteria such as graphics and sound are judged against other games released at the time on comparable hardware, and not on today's next generation machines.

Format: Arcade (CPS2 board)
Manufacturer: Capcom
Genre: Scrolling Beat 'em up
Released: Worldwide
Year: 1994

Graphics: 8 out of 10
AvP does a good job of portraying the face huggers, chest bursters, alien warriors and predators that we're familiar with from the films, but also goes one step further by adding several new alien types which actually feel a whole lot more authentic than anything the film sequels have attempted to introduce. These include smashers with a larger forehead area to headbutt you with, defenders with armour plating on their heads, arachnids that scuttle around like spiders. and more. One of the four playable characters in the game is Major Dutch Schaefer, the character played by Arnie in the original Predator film, and it does indeed look like him, except he's now got a large robotic arm attachment to help him pummel his enemies.

The atmosphere of both the early Alien movies and Predator have also been captured in other ways throughout the game - you will see Weyland Yutani billboards in the background, and the Predator characters have their triangular targeting system, spears and discs. Animation is also of a very high quality, with large sprites movingly fluidly across the screen.

Sound: 8 out of 10
The authenticity of the graphics is also carried into the sound, with many sound samples coming directly from the films - for example the pulse rifle sounds exactly like it did in Aliens, and the roar of the Predator is spot on. The music is passable stuff but they don't use any of the movie score, it's all made up of original compositions.

Here you can see the Predator Hunter taking on a legion of angry Xenomorphs.

Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
By this stage in the lifespan of the arcades, the scrolling beat 'em up genre was starting to feel a little tired, and unfortunately Alien vs Predator doesn't really come up with any clever new tricks to freshen it up. For example, both Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow over Mystara and Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder featured branching stages so you could choose a different path through the game the next time you played, which AvP unfortunately lacks. It also only supports two players, rather than the three or four player cabinets that Konami fighters like Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles and The Simpsons made popular.

You can choose from two human characters (the big, slow Dutch or the quick and nimble Linn Kurosawa) or two Predators (a Hunter or a Warrior) and the progress through stage after stage of button bashing mayhem against a variety of enemies. As well as aliens you will also be up against the army, humans who are incubating aliens (their cries of "Kill me!" is very disturbing), and the odd infected Predator or two. There is a large range of weaponry, but you can only use a weapon for a very short period of time before it breaks or runs out of ammo, and there's also a lot of breakable scenery in every stage that either contains said weaponry, health giving items or gems that give you points.

There's no doubt that this type of game is much more fun to play in multiplayer and AvP is no exception - playing on your own can start to feel rather repetitive towards the end of the game, but with a friend you can race to pick up the best weapons or team up against a particularly tough boss. All in all, AvP isn't the worst game in it's niche genre by any means, but it's some way short of the best as well. Fans of the movies that it's based on will probably love it, however

Here you can see Dutch facing off against a military general in the famous powerloader from Aliens.

Innovation and Cleverness: 5 out of 10
The various elements of the Alien and Predator films have been implemented in quite a clever way (certainly far better than the recent cinematic travesties), but by the time this game was released the scrolling beat 'em up template was definitely starting to show it's age.

Value and Replayabilty: 5 out of 10
Another average score here I'm afraid, because there is really only one path through the game, and you will probably start to tire of the constant alien smashing by the end of one playthrough any way. Being a fairly elderly arcade title does have an advantage however, as many of today's machines can run the game via the MAME emulator perfectly.

Overall: 6 out of 10
If you are a fan of the early, decent movies then you will definitely enjoy AvP, at least until repetition sets in and you start to nod off. Unfortunately there's only so far this genre can go, and this game doesn't even go that far. For a real prime example of the best that this genre can offer, check out Guardian Heroes on the Sega Saturn, which features branching levels, gaining levels and XP RPG style, tons of unlockable characters, a six player multiplayer mode and even more innovative touches.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

PGR4 review

Way back in August of 2006 I reviewed PGR3, which performed well in all areas earning it a 9 out of 10 overall. The presentation, sound and gameplay were all top notch, but I was slightly disappointed at the relative lack of cities compared to PGR2. PGR4 brings plenty of new cities to the forefront, all of which feature many fantastic tracks to race around. These include the twisty Asian cities of Shanghai and Macau, the hilly Quebec, and the scenic St Petersburg. The game also has some other new features to help differentiate it from its predecessors, but do they really add to the experience or is it just a case of more of the same? Let's find out...

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bizarre Creations
Genre: Racing
Region: Europe (PAL)
Price: Around £30 new, or £18 pre-owned

9 out of 10
PGR3 was a launch title for the Xbox 360 and at the time the graphics were a huge leap beyond those of the previous hardware generation. They're still pretty impressive today, but the sequel manages to outdo them on every level. There's more detail in the track and car models there's a much wider array of lighting effects due to the different times of day that the races can take place at. Then we have the weather effects which are simply amazing, especially as a race can turn from wet to dry and back again in real time. As well as rain, you will also have to contend with varying levels of fog, snow and all out thunder storms. Snowy weather can also result in patches of ice on the track which can be very treacherous (especially if found on a corner). The tracks take on a completely different dynamic when they're wet or icy compared to in the dry, and this helps add to the variety and depth of the game.

You can once again view replays or take photos of the action but this time you can also post them to PGR on Demand, which is like Gotham TV but the players have much more control over the content. This is a growing trend in games (see also Halo 3) and is clearly aimed at the Youtube/Facebook generation. Personally I think it's a good thing, and these modes are usually optional extras anyway and not forced upon you.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
As well as the accurately sampled engine noises which are just as good as the last game, there is a new and highly varied range of music to accompany the racing action. Popular artists such as Goldfrapp, Bloc Party and Lilly Allen are featured along with a more eclectic mix of classical, world and jazz music. The only musical style I usually find myself skipping are the rap tunes, which have little appeal to me, but the rest is of very high quality.

Here you can see a... car. It could be a Lamborghini, or maybe a Lotus, I don't know. Do I look like Jeremy Clarkson to you?

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
I'm not really going to go into the basics of the PGR franchise because I have already done so, instead I'd rather focus on what's changed. Firstly, you have a whole new Gotham Career mode which takes place on a rolling calendar of events and sees you clawing your way up from the bottom of the rankings all the way up to the number one spot. You will proceed through several levels of events before you get to the top, each of feature new, more challenging championships. These include Rookie, Professional, Hotshot and Master. There are regular championships that feature one to six events that can be made up of any of the different game styles (Street Race, Eliminator, Hot Lap, Speed Challenge, etc), and there are also one off Invitationals that can involve you doing something a bit more out of the ordinary and usually result in you winning a vehicle. Finally there are the Majors, which happen three times in a season. These are the really big championships for the best drivers and they can be really challenging at first, and you will also have to qualify until you get into the top ten drivers.

On top of this new career mode there is also an Arcade mode, which essentially the same as the single player from PGR3 with multiple chapters made up of numerous events where you can earn medals ranging from Bronze to Platinum When you're done with all of that you can take the plunge into the world of online racing, which this time can include entire championships as well as single events, and a much improved lobby system. You can also try your hand at a Tournament, but these are really only for the very best players in the world as the qualifying conditions are extremely harsh indeed.

The other major addition to the game on top of the variable weather that I've already mentioned are motorbikes. As you'd expect they handle rather differently than their four-wheeled counterparts and can be a really thrill to drive. They also feature they're own exclusive range of Kudos earning moves such as wheelies and endos. However, you are extremely prone to being knocked off of a bike which is the major reason why you won't see a lot of people racing them online.

There are also are few new race types including Superstar where you have to chain kudos earning manoeuvres together in order to earn a certain number of stars within a time limit, and Super Cone Sprint which is a bit like the standard cone sprint but instead of featuring gates on a regular track, the entire track is made up of cones.

Finally, the PGR Shop has had something of an overhaul and now you have to buy everything in various packs, and not just the cars and bikes. There are also game types and track variations that have to be bought before you can use them. For example, there is an endurance track pack, a Bulldog game type, or a pack of Ferrari cars. All of these can be bought with the kudos points that you earn in single player or online.

Another car... but this time in black. It's very shiny isn't it?

Innovation and Cleverness:
6 out of 10
Much like last weeks game, Mass Effect, PGR4 is more of a refinement of an existing idea rather than anything truly new. The motorbikes, weather and overhauled career mode add to the game tremendously but none of them are truly revolutionary. I feel that the PGR series has now reached its peak, especially now that Bizarre have moved from Microsoft to Activision. I suggest that Microsoft should retire the brand now rather than giving it to another developer who probably won't make anywhere near as good a job of it. Some of the smarter ideas of the PGR series will make a modified appearance in Bizzare's next game, The Club however, as the game is set to take the kudos systems and apply it to a shooting game.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
The single player Gotham Career will last you a considerable amount of time on it's own, but then you have the arcade mode, and the online mode which in theory could go on forever (or at least until no one plays it anyone and they shut down the server). There is a lot more to do in PGR4 than there was in PGR3, and you're not likely to get tired of it anywhere near as quickly. So far there has been no downloadable content released, but hopefully this will change soon. I would like to see Microsoft add some new cities this time rather than simply releasing car packs, as there's nothing wrong with the cars already in the game, but new tracks are always welcome. Even if they are just tarted up versions of old cities from PGR2 (Barcelona or Edinburgh maybe?) that would be better than nothing.

9 out of 10
If this indeed the last in the PGR series then it has gone out on a high (engine) note. The handling is more satisfying than ever, the sensation of speed is spectacular, the range of game options is extensive and the weather and motorbikes make the old feel new again. Is it worth buying if you've already got PGR3? That depends on how avid a racing game fan you are, but I was more than happy with my purchase. The game can also be found quite cheaply if you're prepared to buy a pre-owned copy. Take the Marketplace demo for a spin and see what you think.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mass Effect review

Bioware is one of a select list of developers (see also: Blizzard, Nintendo), that have managed to build up a legion of fans thanks to the consistently high quality of their games. Though they started out as predominantly a PC developer, in more recent times they have moved further towards consoles, a trend which began when they took over the MDK franchise from Shiny, and then moved on to the Xbox with Knights of the Old Republic. Their RPG's have always carried certain hallmarks, such as branching dialogue trees, the ability to complete quests in a number of different ways, and deciding whether to be predominantly good or evil. Other aspects of their games have continued to evolve though, from a true turn based system, to partial real time, and then fully real time battles with the martial arts game Jade Empire and now the action adventure that is Mass Effect. Do they manage to get the balance right? Read on...

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bioware
Genre: RPG
Region: Europe (PAL)
Price: can be found for £29.99

Graphics: 8 out of 10
For most of the time, Mass Effect looks pretty damn good, but it is let down by textures that take a few seconds to be drawn when you switch scenes, and a sometimes unstable frame rate in battle. It's not a major problem by any means but it is enough to lose a few points in this category. When everything is running smoothly however, the game looks fantastic, if a bit plasticky. The planets which feature the main parts of the story are very well designed and range from a volcanic world, and icy industrial planet and a picturesque tropical world, but uncharted worlds can be a bit barren and featureless. This is compounded by a rather lazy repetition of buildings and scenery on these worlds, which means they largely feel interchangeable. You'd think that having spent more than three years developing the game, you'd spend a bit of time on these optional side areas before pushing the game out the door, but no. Hopefully Bioware won't need to spend so long developing underlying game systems for the sequel, and will be able to spend more time addressing problems like this. Time will tell.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
This is one of the strongest areas of the game, due to the excellent voice acting, synth score and weapon sounds. The cast includes many familiar names, both from Hollywood and TV (Marina Sirtis, Seth Green and Armin Shimmerman) and from other games and anime (Jennifer Hale, Kim Mai Guest, that-guy-who-did-the-voice-of-Carth-Onassi-who-I-forget-the-name-of and more). The quality of the voice acting is up to the usual high standard that you can expect from a Bioware game.

The music is highly reminiscent of Blade Runner at times which is entirely in keeping with the style and tone of the rest of the game, and the the weapons all sound suitably forceful and realistic. The sniper rifle with its thunderous boom is a particular favourite. The Geth (a nasty cyborg race which are very similar to the Borg from Star Trek: TNG) make noises which can only be described as robotty, which is appropriate really. All things considered, it's a job well done. Nice one, Bioware.

Exploring uncharted worlds in your Mako tank looks like fun doesn't it? It is, until you've done it over two dozens times on worlds that all look the same.

Plot and Character: 9 out of 10
This always the major strength of a Bioware title, especially the character part. The basics of the plot involve a Spectre agent (kind of like the SAS, but in space) going rogue and you and your team having to first expose him and then stop him, although of course there are some twist along the way. While the plot was entertaining, I wouldn't say it was amazing, but it's also only part one of a trilogy so it was setting up pay offs for further into the series. I only hope that Mass Effect sells enough copies for Microsoft to see it through to the end, I wouldn't want this series to suffer the same fate as Shenmue and be cruelly cut short.

The characters include a human soldier called Ashley Williams, a biotic by the name of Kaiden Alenko, a huge ugly alien mercenary by the name of Wrex, an engineer called Tali, an ex Citadel Security agent named Garrus and finally Liara, an Asari scientist who was studying Prothean ruins until she got attacked by the Geth. The first time I played the game I left her rescue until last, and when I finally turned up to save her she thought I was a hallucination! The second time I played the game however, I went there first and she was fine, so the order you choose to carry out the main missions does have a bearing on the overall story, which is quite smart.

Each of the characters does have their own backstory which can be explored during downtime after a mission on the ship, and if you choose the right conversation options you can actually get into their pants. Because the Asari are a mono gender race, they can "do it" with both men and women, which makes for some interesting gameplay options to say the least!

This is Liara, blue-skinned alien scientist and potential love-buddy (even if you play as a girl!).

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Mass Effect is really divided into three separate parts which all flow and interact with each other - talking, exploring and fighting. For the talking part, things are pretty similar to how they've been in past Bioware titles, except that your response can be chosen while the other party is still chatting, which eliminates the pauses in the conversation and makes things seem much more natural. There are nearly always several types of reply you can make, unless the game is trying to steer you down a particular path which it does from time to time. This include a positive or kind response which usually leads to you being helpful and earning Paragon points, an indifferent response which doesn't do very much, a negative or nasty response which often results in you doing something bad and earning Renegade points, the option to Investigate and get more detail on whatever you are discussing, and if you have put enough ability points into them, the option to Charm or Intimidate the person you are talking to. A battle can often be avoided by using one of these options, but you have to invest enough points in them before you can use them everywhere.

Exploration sees you zipping from one star system to the next and landing on an uncharted planet, before trundling around in your Mako tank and investigating various things depicted on the map screen, such as debris, research facilities, or everybody's favourite word from Star Trek, anomalies. You will pick up many side quests while you work your way through the game, and most of them take place on some backwater planet which doesn't even have a Tesco Express. In fact, this is easily the most boring part of the whole game, as the planets are so similar that by and large they are interchangeable. I did complete the majority of the side quests on my first play through though, despite the monotony. In between planetside missions you can also wander the Citadel, a huge space station which serves as the main hub of the game. This place is full of interesting characters and lots of opportunities to soak up the backstory and get into mischief (if you want to). I must stress though that those of you who have a fairly low tolerance threshold for lots of and lots of talking may find the conversations rather boring, but for me this is one of my favourite aspects of any Bioware game. Make sure you know what you're getting yourself into if you've never played one of their games before.

Finally we have the combat, which plays like a version of Gears of War but with the need addition of all sorts of powers that you can call up and use at any time. There six character classes you can choose from, including Solidiers who mostly use traditional weaponry and can use heavy armour, Engineers who have abilities that focus on hacking or frying electronic enemies, Adepts who can use biotic powers which include being able to levitate enemies in the air, or suck them into a mini black hole. The other three classes, Infiltrator, Sentinel and Vanguard, are all almalgams of the first three classes. Later on in the game when you finish a certain side quest, you can choose a prestige class that further specialises your character. As a Adept, I was able to choose from Nemesis who specialises in attack biotic powers, or the Bastion who concentrates on defence.

A typical battle for me, sees me and my team sneaking into the enemies vicinity, powering up my barrier and then the Marksman ability of my Pistol, sending in Ashley to pick of a few enemies using her Assassination ability with the Sniper Rifle, and then Lifting or Throwing enemies with my character and Liara before finally hitting them with Warp or shooting them full of hot lead. So as you can see there's quite a lot of scope for different tactics. Purists may miss the more turn based systems from KOTOR or even Baldur's Gate but I enjoyed the shooty action of Mass Effect.

Innovation & Cleverness: 6 out of 10
While Mass Effect is undoubtedly a very solid gaming experience overall, it does feel like Bioware are following the same template they used with KOTOR and Jade Empire and just swapping out various elements for other ones, such as tactical shooting instead of kung fu. For all Bioware's claims that the conversation system would be revolutionary, it's effect on gameplay is really quite subtle and feels very similar to their other games. Yes, it's a good game, but it isn't particularly innovative on any particular front.

Value and Replayabilty: 9 out of 10
Replayability has always been another major strength of past Bioware games and Mass Effect is no different in this regard. The branching conversation options, the fact you can visit the main story sections in any order and the good/evil dichotomy all give you plenty of things to do for at least two playthroughs, maybe more. The character classes all play rather differently as well, with the biotic class having to rely on their powers way more than the soldier class who can usually just shoot their way through.

As for value, the main story is actually fairly short and can be finished off in about 15 hours, but there are so many side quests and optional conversation paths that this can easily be stretched out to almost 30 hours. This feels just about right in my opinion, and I felt the game was pretty well paced from beginning to end. In fact, I enjoyed playing the game as a kind female soldier (Billie Shepherd) so much that I immediately started replaying as a male psychotic biotic (Wanker Shepherd).

Overall: 8 out of 10
I really enjoyed playing Mass Effect (in fact I'm still playing it) but it's not without it's flaws. Microsoft have been positioning this new trilogy almost as a Halo replacement at times which is rather unfair as the two games are very different apart from the basic sci-fi setting. I hope Bioware continue to develop the series as it grows and they don't just churn out another adventure based on the exact same engine, as that would grow tiresome very quickly. If you're going to pick this game up, make sure you have the patience to sit through a lot of conversations, as that's half of the point of the game. If you don't you're probably better off playing something else.