Monday, July 28, 2008

This Is Living: My First Impressions of the PS3

So bonus time has come around again and it's a good one this year, so I was finally able to pick up a PS3. Along with the console I also got copies of Metal Gear Solid 4, Motorstorm, Ridge Racer 7, Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction, Folklore and Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. I also bought The Golden Compass on Blu Ray as I am a big fan of the book trilogy and thought the film was a decent attempt at adapting the first book (although it ends in a very strange place). Here are my initial thoughts about the machine and the games...

Sony have basically taken the same interface from the PSP and shoved it into the PS3, and to be honest compared to Xbox Live it is rather unwieldly. There are dozens of sub menus to sift through, surely it could be streamlined a bit? Maybe when Home finally arrives (if it ever does) things will improve.

As for the games, I have mostly been playing Motorstorm and Ridge Racer 7, mainly because they are easy to pick up and play without having to commit to a deep storyline. They were only a £10 each and worth it in my opinion. RR7 isn't really that much different than RR6 on the Xbox 360, however it does have a hand full of new tracks and a new campaign mode which being the Ridge Racer slut that I am, is enough to keep me satisfied. Motorstorm may be a bit thin of modes and options but the races themselves are brilliant fun and the tracks are all really well designed with multiple routes branching off all over the place. I haven't felt the need to buy any of the extra content yet but I may do once I've exhausted the "tickets" that come on the disc.

I'm going to hold off from playing MGS4 properly until I have gone back and completed MGS3 - something which I never got around to doing for some reason despite having owned the game since the day it was released. I have had a quick peek at the game though and annoying installation process aside, what I have seen has really impressed me.

Ratchet & Clank is more of the same gameplay wise but given a full HD makeover and contains more enemies on screen at once than ever before. There are some great new weapons/gadgets as you would expect from this series but no major surprises. Gran Turismo 5 Prologue is really just a glorified demo, but I picked it up for the GT TV mode which just sounded too interesting to pass up, plus I am a fan of motorsport (which does help). The thought of old episodes of Top Gear being piped through my PS3 doesn't really thrill me, as I can turn my Freeview TV on to Dave at any moment of the day and chances are they will be showing an old epsiode anyway, but coverage of the Nurburgring 24 Hour race and detailed documentaries about the development of the worlds best cars sounds promising. There are a handful of videos to watch already, but the service launches properly on the 1st of August.

Finally, there's Folklore, which I'm just starting to get into. The graphics are stunning and the whole package is my sort of game. You take control of either a male or female lead and explore the island of Doolin, as well as travelling to the underworld to commune with the dead and harness the powers of the "Folk" - a wild array of monsters the all have different abilities - some offensive, some defensive. It reminds me of the sort of gothic fantasy that Neil Gaiman is famous for, and I can't wait to play more.

I also bought and downloaded Super Stardust HD which is the PS3's equivalent of Geometry Wars (although it's based on an old Amiga game). More great pick up and play fun - highly recommended. When I've had more time to play all of these thoroughly I will start reviewing PS3 games. In conclusion, the PS3 is actually a great games machine with the brilliant bonus of being able to play Blu Ray films. It has a handful of exclusive titles that are worth checking out and more on the way, but I would still pick the 360 version of a game over the PS3 because of the Achievements and the fact that all my friends own 360's and none own PS3's.

Folklore, yesterday

Monday, July 14, 2008

Soul Bubbles review

Soul Bubbles makes its intentions clear from the moment you first fire up the game - you are presented with the following disclaimer...

This game does not depict any of the following objects or events:

Licensed racing cars
Post-apocalyptic soldiers
Elfs, orcs or magicians
Gang fights

Please do not not panic! It's all gonna be hunky dory...

Not only does it poke fun at the genres that have become something of a cliche in recent times, it also tells you that Soul Bubbles is a game designed with everyone in mind, young or old, experienced gamer or not. This is indeed the truth - developer Mekensleep has created one of the most interesting and enjoyable games of the year and it's a nice change of pace from the likes of GTA, Halo or World of Warcraft.

Format: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Eidos
Developer: Mekensleep
Genre: Puzzle
Region: Europe
Price: Around £30

8 out of 10
Soul Bubbles features gorgeous 2D visuals in a hand painted style which are extremely pleasant to look at. The physics of the bubbles in particular are impressive - they react to the effects of wind, water and being sliced into smaller bubbles just as you'd expect. After a while to start to take this for granted and begin to think of them as real bubbles, but it is important to remember that someone somewhere had to draw, animate and program them that way.

The intricate maze-like levels which feature gears, cogs and other contraptions will remind you of Loco Roco if you have had the fortune to play that game, and indeed this is what Soul Bubbles most closely resembles. In some of the later levels you need to trap water inside a bubble and then use it to douse flames so you can progress further, and the water inside the bubble also sloshes around convincingly.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
I'm going to compare Soul Bubbles to another recent release now - this time LostWinds for Nintendo's WiiWare service. Not only because they both involved manipulating the world with wind power, but because they also share a similar art and audio style. The music is extremely relaxing and therapeutic and features chanting and the use of exotic instruments such as the didgeridoo. While I was playing through the game I would often get through a level or two on my lunch break at work and it was a great stress buster after the morning's work - so much so that I had to be careful I didn't fall asleep! The music had a lot to do with this.

You really should check out this smart and fun game, it deserves to do well.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
As the name suggests, Soul Bubbles involves you manipulating a bubble or bubbles around maze-like levels via the use of wind power. However - there's more to the game than that. Your bubble is there to serve a purpose - it is the protective vessel for 7 souls. Should your bubble burst, either through accident or due to an act of aggression from a creature in the level, you will have a few seconds to redraw another bubble around the souls, or they will start to die. Should you lose all of them it's game over, and the fewer you have also affect your overall rating for the level.

You can also draw new bubbles independently from your main one for various reasons - for example if there's some fairy dust that you are unable to get to, just draw a bubble in the space on the other side of the obstruction and pick it up. Then use the Deflate ability to burst it. You may also want a separate bubble for other reasons - putting out a fire for example. You don't want to fill your main bubble with water, or the souls will drown!

Then you have the ability to split your one big bubble into multiple smaller bubbles - you may have to do this in order to squeeze through tight gaps, or in order to get through strong gusts of wind (many smaller bubbles have less wind resistance that one big one, making them easier to get through). As well as these there are other elements that come into play throughout the game at the rate of one new gameplay mechanic per world. Other than the fire/water that I've already mentioned, I'll keep the rest a secret as discovering them as you go along and figuring out how they work is all part of the charm.

To complicate matters a little, there is fairy dust and Calabash to collect. Collecting all the fairy dust also has an effect on your overall rating for the level, but Calabash is a bit more important. In order to gain access to the later worlds you must have collected a certain amount of Calabash - there are three per level and they are usually hidden away from the main route, so finding them all requires patient exploration and some fairly straightforward puzzle solving. Getting from one end of a level to the other is pretty easy for the most part, so having these extra side goals to aim for adds a bit of extra challenge to the game (though not much). The real emphasis of these game is having fun, rather than the challenge.

Innovation and Cleverness: 8 out of 10
There's some good, solid use of the touch screen to be found here, and the levels are well designed with some interesting puzzles to figure out. This is an example of what the DS does best and the developers of horrid shovelware such as the Catz games should take a look at this and feel ashamed.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
Unfortunately I have to mark the game down a bit here, because although great fun, there's not quite enough of it and what there is isn't particularly challenging. A few more worlds would have made quite a difference. True, in order to get a perfect rating on a stage you need to collect everything and make sure all your souls stay alive - but if you're thorough and careful this never really becomes an issue.

Overall: 8 out of 10
If you are looking for a great new game to play on your DS or just want a change from the usual crap that is churned out for all the major consoles, then Soul Bubbles should give you what you need. True, it's not the longest or most challenging game in the world but it is a memorable and absorbing experience. I look forward to whatever Mekensleep decides to do next!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Vault: Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (Gamecube)

Title: Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes
Format: Gamecube:
Genre: Action
Expect to pay:
Around £50!

With Solid Snake currently appearing in two very high profile games on two different consoles (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots on PS3 and Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii) I thought now would be a good time to take a look at Silicon Knights' re imagining of the original game.

While this essentially the same story and gameplay as the PlayStation classic, it has been somewhat "remastered", with improved visuals, extended cut scenes with incredibly elaborate fight sequences directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (who has also returned to do the same for MGS4). Fans of The Matrix trilogy should feel right at home with the action here.

From a mechanical point of view, the game now plays more like MGS2 and gives you the option to look down your gun from a first person perspective just like that game did. Visually and audibly, the graphics, music and dialogue have also been overhauled, with mixed results. The graphics are undoubtedly improved, however the music has suffered somewhat. From some strange reason, the decision was made to rerecord all of the dialogue with the same actors that did it the first time. It's not a bad job, but the acting was perfectly decent the first time around so hearing the same characters say familiar lines slightly differently is a bit strange.

There have also been other small tweaks to the game. Psycho Mantis now comments on which Nintendo published games you have been playing based on your saves instead of various Konami games, and you can spot action figures of Mario and Yoshi in the background at one point. Does all of this make it a better game than the original? Well, no - it's not better per se, just different. If you are a die hard fan of the MGS series then this will probably be of interest to you - likewise if you don't own a machine capable of playing PS1 games but you happen to own a Gamecube or Wii then you could pick this up if you've always wanted the play the first game in the series (and trust me, familiarity with the earlier games in the series is almost essential to avoid confusion while playing MGS4).

Whether the game is worth shelling out around £50 for (which it regularly goes for on ebay) is up to you. I'm glad I bought my copy when it could be found for a tenner!

Next time: I take a look at an Xbox classic that is worth revisiting or picking up for the first time.

Those who have played the original won't find many surprises here, but the game does look smoother.