Monday, August 18, 2008

The Vault: Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

Title: Shadow of the Colossus
Format: PS2
Genre: Action

Expect to pay: £10 - £15

When the PS2's game output was at it's creative and technical peak, some truly amazing titles were released. Dragon Quest VIII and Final Fantasy XII are two such examples, but I've already talked about them in detail in the past. Instead I'm here to talk about Shadow of the Colossus, the spiritual sequel to the equally amazing Ico. Instead of dragging a ghostly girl around crumbling castles whilst solving puzzles however, Shadow has a much narrower focus, but is probably all the better for it. Your sole task is to head out into the vast wilderness on your faithful steed Agro and slay 16 colossi. These colossi vary from the huge to the mammoth to the gargantuan and as well as ground foes you will face flying ones and some based in the water.

The first trick to taking them down is working out how to scale them, which is a puzzle in itself. You will first need to find a spot to cling on to, either just by jumping onto a spot of exposed hair straight away, or by using your weapons (a sword and a bow) to cause the creature to expose their hairy bits (ooer) for you to jump on to. Then you will have to carefully climb the creature, pausing where possible to recharge your grip meter, lest you fall off and have to start all over again. Once atop the colossus, you will have to find its weak spot, which will only show up when you have the sword equipped. Find it, and plunge your sword into it, again and again. The creature will cry out in pain, and try and shake you off, but by hanging on for dear life and stabbing repeatedly, it will eventually be slain. Ghostly black tendrils will then envelop your character, and you will wake up back at the temple, where your female companion lies resting. Asleep? No, she's dead. The reason you're destroying all these graceful beasts is to bring her back from beyond - but there may be a heavy price to pay.

The visuals are fantastically designed, with a sprawling, load free wilderness to explore before you encounter one of the colossi. The colossi themselves are huge, craggy, hairy beasts which never fail to impress. Sometimes the draw distance is not so hot to compensate for the action going on, but in the heat of battle you probably won't even notice as all your attention will be focused on staying alive. The musical score is equally brilliant, once it gets going. Before you encounter one of the beasts, there is nothing but the sound of the wind and the hoof beats of your horse. As soon as you engage one of the colossi however the soundtrack wells up, and during a battle it is majestic and heroic, and once the colossi falls it is melancholy.

Shadow of the Colossus is undoubtedly well worth tracking down and playing today, especially as it can be found for a bargain price. I recently dusted off my copy and played through it again. It won't take your a terribly long time to complete but you will probably still feel that you have go your money's worth, and there are extra modes to play once you're finished. Both Shadow and Ico deserve your attention.

Meet my pet dog, Tiny.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Virtua Tennis 3 review

The Virtua Tennis series first appeared in the arcades as a companion piece to all of Sega's other Virtua titles (e.g. Racing, Cop, Striker, Fighter) and offered a stripped down and accessible version of the sport. As well as local multiplayer, the machine also featured a single player mode where you faced off against some of the most well known professional players of the time, with each match getting progressively more difficult. Eventually the game was ported over to the Dreamcast and it was a very faithful conversion, but without friends to play against the game lacked depth in the home environment.

This was rectified with the release of Virtua Tennis 2 towards the end of the life of the Dreamcast, which introduced a comprehensive career mode, and for those who played it, it was one of the finest and most addictive games on the system. The game was later made available on the PS2 as Sega Sports Tennis and on the PSP as Virtua Tennis: World Tour. It took Sega the best part of six years to continue the series with Virtua Tennis 3 on the Xbox 360 and PS3, and this time the reigns have been handed to Sumo Digital, who have previous handled the PSP version of Virtua Tennis 2, as well as the two PSP Outrun games and the Race Driver franchise. Can they bring anything new to the series while remaining true to the spirit of the older games? Read on...

Format: Xbox 360 (also available for PS3, PSP, PC)
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sumo Digital
Genre: Sports
Region: PAL (Europe)
Price: Around £20

Graphics: 8 out of 10
The graphics for the most part are crisp and clean, and a good representation of the real life sport. However the players look a little odd close up - more like wax work models than real people. You can tell who they are supposed to be if you know what the real players look like, but the skin has an unatural sheen to it. The animation on the other hand is smooth and convincing, so as long as the camera remains zoomed out the illusion isn't shattered and you could almost believe you were watching a game being broadcast on TV.

I did encounter a couple of freakish bugs while I was playing - in one of the replays a racket was floating around in midair next to the player, and another time there was a strange thick black outline around the mouths of the players which made them look as if they'd been attacked by the Joker! I only encountered both of these graphical bugs once, but there was also a gameplay bug which was rather more serious which I will get to later on.

The game offers a good approximation of real life locations and courts, even if they're not allowed to be called by their real names (Sega didn't get the licences). So the clay court in France, and the English grass court look just like they should. In the mini games (more on this later) over sized fruit rolls around in a convincing fashion and giant bowling pins tumble as you would expect.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
Virtua Tennis 3 features a nice range of music tracks which are upbeat and catchy and help to make the games more exciting. There is usually one main theme for each court and then a second tune which plays when Match Point is reached to help raise the tension.

The sounds of the balls thwacking against the racket strings are authentically reproduced, as are the grunts and groans of the players, and in a nice touch the umpires in the different countries each speak in their native tongues.

Each of the different surfaces play slightly differently, either speeding up or slowing down the pace of the ball. Here you can see the VT3 version of Germany, complete with worn out patches of grass.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
The Virtua Tennis series has always offered a more simplified version of the sport than the likes of Top Spin, and have appealed more to my taste for that reason. That's not to say that control has been compromised however, as it's still possible to put the ball where you want it, at least after you have trained up your custom player.

As well as offering a Tournament mode, much like the one found in the first Virtua Tennis, where you can play as a fully powered up tennis star such as Federer, Henman, Hingis or Hantuchova, the game offers a full World Tour mode. You are first tasked with designing your own player (either male or female), and then you start and rank 300 and have to work your way to rank 1. There is a calendar that you can access at any time from the world map which shows you which tournaments are taking places as well as the entry requirements. For starters you will only be able to enter the Challengers events, until you get your ranking below 204.

Right at the start of the World Tour your player will move sluggishly and suffer from underpowered shots. They might just be good enough to win some of the easiest matches but in order to progress onwards and upwards you will need to train them and raise their stats. By playing various mini games, you will increase the ability of your player in a number of areas, including Serving, Volleying, ground strokes and movement. The mini games include knocking down bowling pins with your serve, trying to hit a bullseye, destroying ball launchers that are advancing towards the net space invaders style, and protecting chunks of meat from alligators by knocking the ball into spinners which winch them backwards. Yes, I did say alligators. Most of the mini games are larger than life and add to the fun factor of the game without making it a complete mockery of the sport (unlike Sega Superstars Tennis).

Everything I've already mentioned was also present in the Dreamcast version of Virtua Tennis 2, but there have been some minor additions as well. Eventually you will start getting offers of practice matches from the other tennis aces and these will also raise your stats. In addition, you can go to the Tennis Academy and learn the basics of the sport while increasing your stats again. Eventually you will be good enough to take part in the 4 Grand Slam tournaments, and if you do well enough in those you will be able to enter the King of Players tournament and be one step away from the top rank.
In addition to the Tournament and World Tour modes, you can also play multiplayer versions of the various training mini games, and go online to play ranked and unranked singles and doubles matches.

Now it's time to talk Achievements, and in VT3 they vary from ridiculously easy (creating your custom player or winning your first match), reasonably challenging (earning the top rank in the World Tour) and very tough (winning 50 ranked matches online). This is the right sort of balance as you will steadily unlock more achievements the further you go into the game.

Innovation and Cleverness: 5 out of 10
While most of the mini games are very inventive, the fact is that most of them made their debut in Virtua Tennis 2. Nearly everything about the game is a polished version of what has gone before, and the major additions (online play for example) are really no less than what you would expect from a game in this day and age, so I can't justify giving out a high score in this category.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
It will probably take you around 10 hours to get to the number one spot in World Tour mode, and then you can continue playing if you want for up 20 in game years. Then you could always go back and play as a character of the opposite sex for a slightly different route to the top. After this is done and dusted, you will probably turn to the mulit player modes - and I have to say playing this game with friends is great fun. There's no tricky controls to master but you still feel that you can put the ball where you want it to go. If you don't know anybody else who owns the game, then go online and challenge the world - but be warned there are some damn good players out there.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Virtua Tennis 3 is an incredibly enjoyable game and pretty much as good as tennis is going to get on a home console. Sure, it doesn't really offer much that the 6 year old Virtua Tennis 2 didn't have, but what's on offer is well put together (barring the odd bug). Sumo Digital went on to develop Sega Superstars Tennis, which features famous Sega characters, but the power moves unbalance the game so much it becomes something of a farce. It does feature another selection of smart mini games though (but no World Tour mode this time).

Virtua Tennis 3 Trailer