Wednesday, February 25, 2009

GP2X: The Return

My GP2X has unfortunately been out of action for quite some time because my rechargeable batteries gave up the ghost, but I have just ordered a number of items that will restore it to its former glory and allow me to continue to enjoy retro classics and innovative homebrew games on the move. These include, new batteries, a new ultra fast charger, an 8GB SDHC card and reader to allow me to use it.

I really like the look of the GP2X Wiz which was released towards the end of last year, in particular the built in battery pack (having to rely on AA's is such a pain), but unfortunately I can't afford it just at the moment. There is a chance that I might get the Nintendo DSi later in the year though, as I have some HMV vouchers coming my way from work for completing 10 years service. I am intrigued about the gameplay possibilities that the two built in cameras and the new DSiWare service have to offer.

My PSP isn't being left out either, as I have been playing Star Ocean: The First Departure on the bus to and from work for several weeks now. It's a great classic style JRPG which has been lovingly remastered with new graphics, an English script and decent voice acting. What's more the load times are mercifully brief, which is one key area where the PSP usually suffers thanks to its reliance on disk based technology rather than cartridges. Expect a fully comprehensive review when I manage to complete it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Movie Watch: The King of Kong - A Fistful of Quarters

Last Wednesday night I finally got a chance to watch the retro gaming documentary film, The King of Kong - A Fistful of Quarters, and it is truly a gripping insight into the world of competitive score chasing and the mentality of the people who spend hours of their daily lives honing and maintaining their skills. This movie in particular focuses on the rivalry between two Donkey Kong players and the race to be the first to score over 1 million points.

In one corner, we have Billy Mitchell, who is the closest thing that competitive gaming has to a superstar. He's been around since the early 80's. and made his name by being the first person to ever achieve the perfect game of Pac Man (eat every dot, collect every fruit, pick up every power pill and munch every single ghost on 255 mazes). In the film, he comes across as an arrogant cock who only cares about protecting his one remaining high score - no matter the cost.

In the other corner, we have Steve Wiebe, life long underachiever (yet still amazingly skilled, life just hasn't cut him a break) and all around Nice Guy. When he was made redundant and spent a period of time unemployed, he decided to purchase a Donkey Kong machine, having developed the skills necessary for the game when he was at high school. He took a look at the online score board on the Twin Galaxies web site, saw that Billy Mitchell had the top spot, and thought "I can beat that".

What follows is the tale of how Steve first beat Billy's score and submitted it by video tape, then had it taken away from him when it was discovered that the board may have been tampered with. He was told to come to FunSpot and repeat the achievement in front of a live audience. Which he did, only for a tape submitted by Billy Mitchell to be unveiled revealing an even higher score - which promptly got entered on the Twin Galaxies site as the highest score ever.

The final part of the film sees Steve attempting to get Billy to play him in a head to head match at an event that the Twin Galaxies organisation held in order to try and find new scores to be included in the forthcoming edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, only Billy refuses to turn up and take part. From everything the viewer has seen so far, it appears that the only reason he refuses to play is because he is scared to lose, but all is not as it seems. If you dig a little deeper into the background of the film, you will find that it has been edited in such a way as to portray Billy as the bad guy. It conveniently leaves out the fact that after Billy's videotaped score was accepted, it was taken town within 48 hours and then Steve was the uncontested champion for the next three years. Yes, their friendship did fall apart and Billy did indeed stop associating with Steve, but not because of the record attempt, because Steve was acquainted with a guy who calls himself Mr Awesome, a man who Billy has had several run ins with in the past.

The King of Kong is still a highly entertaining glimpse of competitive gaming but events portrayed within it should be taken with a pinch of salt. After viewing, I suggest you check up on some of the facts here.

Overall: 7 out of 10.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Fable II review

As I have mentioned previously when I included it in my Top 100 Games of the Last Generation feature, the original Fable and its creator Peter Molyneux received a lot of flack because it was supposed to completely revolutionise the RPG genre overnight and in reality it fell short of the mark. It was still a great game though, especially if you like your RPG's more action oriented. This time around, Peter has been somewhat more modest about the sequel. That's not to say he's been completely silent about the game - the new doggy companion and coop have been shown off plenty of times over the last year or so - but this time the goals that have been set out for it are far more attainable. Does it deliver the goods this time around? Guess what, I'm about to let you know...

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Lionhead
Genre: RPG
Region: PAL (Europe)
Price: £25 - £40

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Fable II is a colourful, HD, work of art. The same cartoony feel of the original game is present, but there is far more detail in everything, from the gloomiest dungeon to the hustle and bustle of Bowerstone Market. From a technical standpoint, even when you are attacked by a dozen enemies the game doesn't slow down (which is more than can be said for a certain recent Square-Enix RPG). Visual highlights include Wraithmarsh, with it's eerily atmospheric fog, and the picturesque little country town of Oakfield, which is home to the Temple of Light.

Your actions in the game will also have a gradual impact on the appearance of your character. If you are predominantly evil, you will slowly grow a pair of demonic horns. Choose to be play as a good guy, and you will get a halo instead. If magic is your chosen method of combat, blue glowing lines will start to appear on your skin. A similar system was also included in the original Fable of course but there is a wider range of appearances in the sequel. I must also mention your doggy companion, because the animation is fantastic and he/she really does act like a real dog. Again, the appearance of your canine chum is also effected by your actions, ranging from a healthy looking golden Labrador to a mangy, black as midnight mutt with evil red eyes.

Enemy design is solid if not spectacular. Classic fantasy archetypes are present and correct here, from the undead (hollow men) to werewolves (balverines). There are also some impressively large enemies in the game in the form of trolls, and even though they are essentially all the same creature, they all look slightly different depending on the environment that they live in. One of the areas that is disappointing in the Knothole Island DLC is the fact that no new enemies were designed for it, and you have to fight the same old creatures you've battled dozens of times before (albeit shadowy versions of them).

A troll, looking a bit pissed off to be honest.

Sound: 9 out of 10
This is one of the strongest areas of the game. Firstly, the sounds that the various weapons make are brilliantly realised, and no two guns or swords sound the same. When you buy a rifle that is better quality than the one you already have for example, you can hear that it is better when you fire it. It has a deeper, louder effect. Magical effects are equally as impressive.

Then you have the music, which reacts depending on the situation, so if you are under threat, you get some pulse-pounding battle music, which is properly separated into 5.1 channels which sounds fantastic if you have the speakers and amplifier at home. It's surprising how many games don't bother with this, but you can really hear the difference when developers put the extra work in to get it right.

Finally, the voice acting, which is handled buy SIDE - the same studio that did the voiceover duties for Dragon Quest VIII. There are some notable people lending their talents to the game, including Zoe Wanamaker, Julia Sawahla, Stephen Fry and Ron Glass (Shepherd Book from Firefly), but even those who aren't celebrities put in some very commendable and distinctly British performances. I have heard some US podcasters saying that the voiceovers are a bit too over the top (one compared them to Mary Poppins), but to my ears they sound just fine.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
For the most part, Fable 2 takes the work that Lionhead put into the original game and refines it. Combat is easy to understand, with each of the three types (melee, ranged and magical) each being mapped to an individual button. Holding down those buttons allows access to more advanced combat techniques, such as more powerful spells, aimed shots or flourishes with the sword. It works well and makes combat a fluid experience, where you can for example freeze time, knock your opponent to the ground with a powerful strike, and then shoot him in the head several times while your loyal dog savages him. As well as spells that do direct damage to opponents such as fireballs or lightning, there are other skills like the Force Push which could be used to throw your enemies over a cliff, for example.

How do the brand new mechanics fare? Well firstly, the dog. You obtain your loyal companion during the intro to the game and from that point on he will be by your side for many hours to come. As you wander around the world, he will sense treasures, either in chests or buried under the ground. He will also notify you that enemies are nearby by growling, and if they are knocked down in combat he will assist by biting them. Both his treasure finding ability and his combat skills can be improved by buying or finding certain books and reading them. He can also learn various tricks, such as begging or playing dead, which can come into play when trying to charm villagers, or attempting to open Demon Doors.

Next, we have the golden trail, which many people have criticised for basically holding your hand throughout the entire game. Firstly I must point out that it can be TURNED OFF! If you don't want to use it, you don't have to. Secondly, I found it actually made have a greater sense of freedom, as I could totally ignore the trail, go off wherever I please and do whatever I wanted, and never have to worry about getting lost as the trail ensured I could find my way back.

Finally, we come to co-op play. Now, I haven't actually got around to trying it myself so I'm not going to judge the game for it, but I have heard some very negative things about it. It sounded like a nice idea in theory but it seems it hasn't been implemented all that well.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
While the game does share quite a few similarities with its predecessor, the addition of the golden quest trail and the dog are significant innovations that enhance the gameplay significantly. Also, managing to keep the combat simple and intuitive while at the same time still managing to offer a deep enough system to keep players interested is no mean feat, but Lionhead have pulled it off.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
Should you wish to, you can race through the main storyline of the game in 10 hours or less, but that would be doing yourself and the developers a disservice. Take the time to complete all of the optional quests, go out and explore the world, play the pub games (for free, no need to download the Live Arcade versions unless you really want to), shoot all the gargoyles, open all the demon doors and find all the silver keys, and you can rack up a time significantly higher.

You can if you wish replay the whole game as an evil character instead of a good one or vice versa, but other than at a few key points during the story, not a whole lot is changed by doing this. If you do want to earn all of the achievements, you will have to replay at least three times. The game also only allows one save slot per character, which makes sure once you've made a decision you will stick to it but this can also create problems. For example, on my first playthrough I was extremely close to completing the game, but my 360 decided to crash while autosave was doing its thing - my save was corrupted and I had to start from the beginning.

Overall: 8 out 10
Fable 2 would have been my favourite game to come out during 2008 if it weren't for a certain other game which I will also be reviewing soon. As it is, it's a highly polished, thoroughly entertaining and amusing romp through Albion which lasts as long as you want it to. There has already been one piece of DLC released which wasn't all that great to be honest, but hopefully future content will be tied into the main story in some way and not just be a frivolous extra. I would also welcome a Fable 3 should Lionhead and Microsoft decide that is the way to go.

A snowy scene from the Knothole Island DLC pack.