Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Mafia II review

Mafia II
as the name would imply, is the sequel to the original title Mafia that was released for the PC, PlayStation 2 and Xbox in 2002. Where the original was set in the 1930's and based around the exploits of protagonist Tommy Angelo, this time around things have moved forward to the 40's and you now play as Vito Scavelli. Together with his buddy Joe he falls in with the Mafia within the fictional city of Empire Bay, and gets into a whole heap of trouble along the way. Things very rarely go smoothly for him. If you've seen the classic movie Goodfellas, Mafia II has a very similar vibe and the story takes place over quite a large period of time, much like the film. While it is tempting to compare the game to the Grand Theft Auto series, to do so would really be doing it a disservice because while the game does take place in a vividly realised city, it is a much more linear and cinematic experience. Those expecting to be able to roam around and find lots of activities to distract them from the main plot will be disappointed - knowing what you're getting here before you go in will help you appreciate what you do get that much more. So, let's break it down and see what's what...

Format: Xbox 360 (PS3 and PC also available)
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Czech
Expect to pay: £20 - £25

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Mafia II looks absolutely fantastic. The earlier chapters of the game take place in the winter, so the city is blanketed in snow, the ice on the road shines in the sun, and white flakes are falling all around you. There is a great amount of attention to detail too, with dozens of citizens going about their daily lives realistically. When things heat up and the bullets start flying the game does a good job of keeping up with the action, with no noticeable slow down or tearing, and the same can also be said about the driving. The cars, while not licensed on any real life vehicles, do look like they could belong within the time period quite easily.

During cut scenes where you get a close up view of the various characters the game looks equally good, and while you can still tell it's a game you are looking at and not real life the lip syncing is a good deal better than many games out there. While these days a good looking game on the current generation on consoles is pretty easy to find, Mafia II does a very good job of keeping up with the competition and you will definitely not be disappointed in this regard.

Sound and Music: 10 out of 10
Mafia II performs outstandingly well on all fronts in the audio department. The voice actors all do an extremely good job of reading their lines, and those who are supposed to have authentic Italian-American accents do so. The various, pistols, shotguns and the fantastic period Tommy guns also sound like their real life counterparts (or at least, their heightened reality movie versions).

Where Mafia II is really remarkable though is in its use of music. Just like the two most recent Fallout games, it gathers a collection of genuine classics from the era it is based in, from war time songs during first third in the game, to tunes that exemplify the birth of rock and roll like Rock Around the Clock in the latter stages. I was initially concerned that there was only a small selection of songs and they would soon start getting repetitive, but once the story moves in to the 50's, there is a much great range of music to listen to, and three different radio stations to switch between when driving around. The original score, composed by Matus Siroky and performed by the Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra is used fairly minimally, mostly to add drama to the cut scenes, but it is of an equally high standard.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
I was slightly tempted to drop the score in the category down to 7 out of 10 because Mafia II doesn't really give you any opportunities to explore the wonderfully realised city of Empire Bay, but like I said in my intro this isn't really trying to be a competitor to Grand Theft Auto and neither was its predecessor, so to penalise it for that would be a little unfair. No, in reality it is more comparable to other 3rd person action games, and in that regard it stacks up very favourably.

Firstly, lets take a look at the combat. While you are often over run by dozens of enemies at a time, you never feel like the game or the controls let you down. The camera angle is good, aiming is easy enough and the action is smooth and fast. More often than not, if you find yourself dead it was because you rush in to quickly and were overrun. It's much better to stay in cover, line your shot up and wait for your enemies to expose themselves than to blunder in and end up with a shotgun in the back. Usually you will go into battle with others fighting by your side (usually your buddy Joe), and the AI does a good job of covering you and genuinely helping you out. Don't think you can rely on these characters to do all the hard work for you though, you will still have to pull your weight in these shootouts.

Driving around the city is comparable to other games of this ilk, but Mafa II lets you switch on a speed limiter which is handy when your trying to keep your car in one piece or you'd rather just casually cruise around the city and soak in the sights. Should the rozzers chase you, you have a few options to aid your escape - you can take your car to a garage and pay to have the plates changed, have it resprayed a different colour or have the engine upgraded so you can leave them in your dust. Going to a clothing store and changing your outfit can also help you lose your wanted level. A good deal of the game will see you behind the wheel of a car, most missions involve you driving somewhere specific, before fighting your way through a scripted shooting sequence on foot.

Early in the game you will get into a fist fight, which basically serves as a tutorial for hand to hand combat. From then on you will have to fight people sporadically throughout the story, and like the other aspects of the game it is well implemented. You can dodge and block enemy attacks, strike back with light or hard punches, and execute finishing moves once you have worn down your opponent sufficiently.

As for the storyline of the game, it's pretty good stuff, full of betrayal, criminal escapades which more often than not go horribly wrong, sprinkled with plenty of foul language and violent scenes. All of this takes place over a decade or so, and as previously mentioned there is more than a hint of Goodfellas in the style and tone of the game, so those who love their classic gangster films or a TV series such as The Sopranos should find plenty to like here.

Innovation and Cleverness: 5 out of 10
There is nothing especially innovative about Mafia II, but what is present is high polished and well implemented. You always feel like you're in control, whether in a shoot out, in hand to hand combat or driving, which is extremely important in an action game like this but overlooked surprisingly often.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
Mafia II took me around 15 hours to complete, which is a pretty decent amount for an action game. The story and gameplay is good enough that I may go back and play through again on hard sometime, but it is a bit of shame in the way that 2K Czech didn't put a few more side missions or distractions around Empire Bay, because the city is beautifully realised and deserves to to be explored more thoroughly. They did address this in the first DLC that was released (which I will review at a later date) but it would be nice to have a bit more here. It's by no means a deal breaker though, and now that the game can be picked up for around £20 it should not adversely influence your decision to purchase the game.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Mafa II is an incredibly solid action game - well written, mechanically sound, and most importantly good fun. If you enjoy the gangster genre then you should definitely track down a copy.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mass Effect 2 DLC Round Up

Mass Effect 2 is without a doubt one of the standout games of 2010, in fact I would go as far as saying that it is my pick for game of the year, narrowly beating competition from the likes of Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Fallout: New Vegas. This time around, Bioware really got the balance of shooting action and RPG customisation/exploration right, and the game just exudes confidence and style from every pore. If you haven't played the original game yet, I would suggest that you go back and give my review a read. Then, come back here and we'll get stuck into looking at the DLC that has been released over the course of the year. The forthcoming PS3 version of the game promises to include all of this extra content on the disc, making it the definitive version of the game.

1. The Cerberus Network
Now for those who bought a brand new copy of Mass Effect 2, activating the included code and enjoying the downloads that are included as part of the Cerberus Network is a no brainer. But for those who have picked up a copy of the game and therefore don't have a valid code, is the 1200 MS points really worth it? Well... almost, I'd say. What exactly do you get?

Normandy Crash Site: This is a fairly brief diversion where you visit the wreckage of the Normandy Mark I, find 20 dog tags of your fallen comrades (so that their families can be notified), and place a memorial at the site. There is no combat involved and it should only take about 20 minutes to complete. More interesting as a piece of nostalgia for those who played the first game than for people new to the franchise, I would say.

Zaeed - The Price of Revenge: Zaeed is a mercenary for hire who join your squad on the condition that you do something for him - namely help him get revenge on the Blue Suns, who he is a former founder of. He's not a particularly interesting character and is not fully integrated into the game like those who shipped on the disc, so you won't be having any in depth conversations with him back on the Normandy.

Firewalker Pack
This is a series of 5 new missions that are designed to introduce you to the Hammerhead, which is the Mass Effect 2 equivalent of the Mako. Most of the missions take place in or around volcanic regions, and involve you finding resources, boosting, leaping and hovering from place to place while avoiding lava, and blowing up Geth with your cannon. It's pretty good fun and adds an new element to the established gameplay, but it looks like the Hammerhead is ultimately doomed to be under utilised because the only other place it's appeared so far is in the Overlord DLC. Maybe Bioware has some more DLC up its sleeve that will bring it back again, we shall see.

Cerberus Weapon and Armour: I used the armour as it looks fairly cool and makes your character quite a lot more poweful, but personally I didn't bother with the weapon (the M-22 Eviscerator shotgun) as I was more than happy with those that I already had.

Arc Projector: Another extremely powerful extra weapon, this time one that can electrocute an entire squad of enemies within seconds. Again, I just stuck to the default weapons for my playthrough.

Overall: 6 out of 10
This stuff isn't that bad but not especially mind blowing either - the Firewalker pack is definitely the highlight. Worth checking out if you have the code to sign up to the Cerberus Network for free, but not worth spending 1200 MS points on if you don't.

2. Stolen Memory
This DLC centres around another new character, Kasumi Goto, a master thief. In order to obtain her loyalty you have to help her recover a black box containing vital secrets from the mansion of Donovan Heck, a deadly master criminal. Like with the Zaeed DLC, there is no mission involved in getting Kasumi to join your squad, and no conversation options once she is on the ship, but she will chip in the occasional piece of dialogue if you choose to take her along on other missions with you. She is at least an interesting character with the useful ability of turning invisible and striking her opponents from behind. This DLC isn't especially long for 800 MS points, but it is fun while it lasts and there is less emphasis on combat and more on story and atmosphere this time.

Overall: 7 out of 10

3. Overlord
This download sees you travelling to a remote Cerberus funded research station where an experiment to connect a human brain with a VI has gone horribly wrong, resulting in the deaths of nearly everyone stationed there at the hands of the formerly dormant Geth that the scientists were tinkering with. It is your job to force your way into the station, find out exactly what's happening, shut down the VI and recover as much data for the Illusive Man as possible.

This is a fairly lengthy mission, at least two hours, and is as well designed as anything found in the retail game. The on foot shooting sections are broken up by brief segments in the Hammerhead vehicle, but there is no combat while driving around this time, it's more just for getting to A to B. There are some achievement points to be earned and some decisions to be made based on your paragon/renegade preferences, so there's a little bit of replay value. All in all I would definitely recommend getting this one if you want more Mass Effect 2 action.

Overall: 8 out of 10.

4. Lair of the Shadow Broker
This time the story and action revolves around Liara T'Soni, your Asari friend and potential love interest from the original Mass Effect. She has been secretly plotting revenge on the Shadow Broker for years, but no one knows his true identity or where he can be found, until now. Shephard recovers some intelligence that may indicate where the Shadow Broker may be found, which sets the scene for a dangerous game of cat and mouse on Ilium and the eponymous lair.

This is another combat heavy download but the story is decent as well, especially if you invested hours into the first game and developed your characters relationship with Liara. There is some new gameplay included here in the form of a brief chase sequence in a taxi, which is highly reminiscent of the scene from Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. Again, there are a bunch of new achievements to unlock, and this time after a successful mission you unlock access to dossiers about the various characters from the game, which is entertaining reading for fans of the universe.

The length of Shadow Broker is roughly the same as Overlord at just over two hours, and the quality is about the same too, so again I can recommend spending the 800 Microsoft points on this.

Overall: 8 out of 10

Monday, November 01, 2010

Broken Steel - Fallout DLC Review

Broken Steel signified the mid point in Bethesda's Fallout 3 DLC campaign, and it slots in rather awkwardly amidst the other four self contained mini campaigns, being a direct continuation of the main games plot. Though I would personally recommend buying and installing before you play any of the the other DLC packs in order to take advantage of the increased level cap and the new perks that go along with it, I personally decided to play it last (note: while I have played Operation Anchorage it was such as long time ago that I don't have a clear recollection of it, so I intend to replay it as my evil character this week and come back with my thoughts by the end of the week).

Broken Steel directly addresses a problem that many people had with Fallout 3, namely that once you completed the final mission of the main storyline the credits rolled and in order to continue playing you would have to reload an earlier save before you set certain events in to motion. This is a bit of a pain in a game that is ostensibly a free roaming experience, so Bethesda listened to their fans and now you have another option that allows you to play on and take part in several missions that show what befell the Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel after Project Purity.

The missions in Broken Steel are good fun and take place in a combination of existing locations and a major new one. The main plot lasts a little bit longer than that of the other DLC packs as well, around 5-6 hours. Then of course you have the 10 extra levels of experience. When I played through all the of DLC, I was still only level 26 at the end of it all, so from that point on I explored all of the places that I had yet to visit in the wasteland (which was quite a few as it turns out). Fallout 3 is an absolutely vast game, but a good deal of the content is entirely optional so have further impetus to get out explore is a good thing.

Also, the new perks featured in Broken Steel meant that I was finally able to complete the annoying Nuka Cola Challenge side quest and earn the achievement points. In the original game I hadn't realised that you were supposed to save the bottles of Nuka Cola Quantum that you find and hand them in to one of two particular NPCs, so I actually drank a lot of them as healing items. Thankfully Bethesda must have realised that people might do this, and they added a perk that converts every 10 normal bottles of Nuka Cola into a Quantum. There are also other perks that reset your karma to neutral status, allow you to walk over traps without triggering them, and give you increased resistance to radiation, so by the end of the game you can pretty much make your character an unstoppable killing machine. I have also noticed many of these perks make a return in New Vegas.

All in all, Broken Steel is the DLC that many Fallout 3 fans were waiting for all along - it fixes certain problems, enhances an already brilliant game and allows you to wander the capital wasteland for as long as you wish. It's well worth the Microsoft points!

Overall: 8 out of 10

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Pitt - Fallout 3 DLC Review

The Pitt was the second of five pieces of DLC released for Fallout 3, and personally is the one I enjoyed the least. First, a bit of background. This time, after receiving an emergency radio signal, you will encounter an escaped slave looking for help to free his fellow captives from the ruins of what used to be Pittsburgh. The unfortunate masses are forced by those in power to labour away in the steel mills, and venture out into the hazardous, Trog invested city to salvage steel ingots that can be fashioned into ammunition. Trogs were once normal human beings, but a disease has swept the city, causing many of its occupants to de-evolve and turn into these feral creatures. You have been tasked with both helping to free the slaves and also to help deliver the cure to the people, which is currently in possession of the leader of the slavers.

It appears that The Pitt is aimed at the Fallout 3 hardcore player, something which I certainly am not, despite having now invested over 80 hours into the game. I prefer to play on Easy, enjoying the exploration, the thrill of combat and towards the end of the game the over powered weaponry. Not long after starting this side story, all of your equipment is taken away from you (you can get it back later, so don't worry too much) and for a while all you have to defend yourself with is a brand new weapon to Fallout 3, the auto axe. You will be able to pick up guns from defeated slavers, but ammo is pretty sparse and there are many Trogs that you will need to kill, so you may run out pretty quickly.

As you'd expect, The Pitt isn't too difficult when played on one of the lower difficulty settings - but what it is, is annoying. It's fairly linear, the graphics aren't very varied (and nowhere near as nice as in Zeta), and the lack of ammo/decent weapons is a pain. Don't get me wrong, it's not a boring waste of time like some of the DLC I've been unfortunate to waste my money on (Dragon Age, I'm looking at you), but for me at least, The Pitt is definitely the weakest of the bunch. Those who struggled through the main game on one of the harder settings and are looking for a challenge may well enjoy it though.

Overall: 5 out of 10
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Monday, October 25, 2010

Mothership Zeta - Fallout 3 DLC Review

Mothership Zeta was the fifth and final piece of DLC released for Fallout 3, and in my opinion it could well be the best of the bunch, or at least of equal standing to Point Lookout and Broken Steel. It all depends what you want to get out of it really. If for you the best part of Fallout 3 was exploring the wasteland at your leisure, discovering quests and places of interest at your own pace, then Point Lookout would probably be the best choice. On the other hand if you would like a more linear experience, packed with high powered weaponry and unique enemies, then Mothership Zeta really delivers.

Some of your may have already stumbled upon the downed UFO out in the wasteland and picked up the Alien Blaster, an extremely powerful energy weapon. Well, this vessel is the starting point of Mothership Zeta, and it sees you being beamed aboard a ship populated by ETs that strongly resemble the classic Roswell alien from the legends. You are taken captive and thrown into a cell with another prisoner, and decide to work together to get out of there before your alien abuctees have an opportunity to test out their anal probes, or whatever else it is they may have in store for you.

After knocking out one of the guards, you can arm yourself with a Stun Baton until you get an opportunity to pick up a gun with a cool sounding name like a Disintigrator or Atomizer, before running amok on the ship, blowing up reactors and sabotaging the aliens attempt at destroying the world. It will probably take you between 3 and 4 hours to complete the quests contained within Mothership Zeta, and you will have great fun doing it as the graphics featured here are some of the best to feature throughout Fallout 3 and the DLC packs, with a steampunk vibe going on, lots of lovely shiny metal and some nice smoke effects. Reducing aliens to their component molecules is always good for a laugh as well. So all in all I heartily recommend downloading Mothership Zeta, but would suggest that you also buy Broken Steel as well so that you can take advantage of the increased level cap, or if you don't own Fallout 3 at all you could get the Game of the Year Edition which includes the main game and all of the DLC - which is amazing value for money and will probably take you a long while to complete.

Overall: 8 out 10

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Point Lookout - Fallout 3 DLC review

Point Lookout was the fourth of five DLC releases for Fallout 3. Way back when I put together my Fallout 3 review I promised that I would come back with my thoughts on the various DLC packages once I'd had the opportunity to check them out. Now, with Fallout: New Vegas less than a week away I have finally played through one of them, namely Point Lookout. Better late than never, eh?

I enjoyed this for the most part because it gives you a new, fairly large area to roam around in at your leisure, with quite a few locations to explore (and an achievement if you visit them all). There's a decent amount of gameplay to be had, too, with a main quest line that will take several hours to complete, a couple more optional quests, and of course many incidental and optional areas to discover. Throughout your time on Point Lookout you will come up against creepy rednecks, a tribe that has set themselves up in the local church and are obsessed with the native Punga fruit, and plenty of ghouls and mirelurks. Because I had already played through most of the main campaign by the time I came here I was armed to the teeth with a mini gun, combat shotgun, an alien blaster and full Brotherhood of Steel armour, but should you decide to visit earlier with the limited weaponry available towards the start of the game you may struggle a bit.

One of the optional quests you can complete in Point Lookout involves finding an evil book, which you can then take back to the mainland and destroy in the extremely creepy and ghoul infested Dunwich building should you decide to do so. Many people had already noted the references to H P Lovecraft throughout this building but had failed to locate the book mentioned in the audio logs that you can find - well now this DLC will finally help to solve that mystery.

Visually Point Lookout is a bit of a dreary place, which I suppose is in keeping with the atmosphere of Fallout 3 but a little more variety in the colour palette would have been nice. I also don't think the new areas were quite creepy enough - there were no scares that matched being assaulted by ghouls in the pitch black underground areas of the main game, or coming face to face with a Super Mutant Behemoth, for example. All in all though Point Lookout is an enjoyable experience and it was great to revisit the Fallout 3 world after all this time. I'm going to try and crack on with at least some of the other DLC packs this week, before picking up Fallout: New Vegas on Friday.

Overall: 7 out of 10.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Video Game Swag: GameSpite Quarterly Issue 5

I've just finished reading the latest hardback edition of GameSpite Quarterly, this time devoted to the NES and its 25 year legacy. The book is split into seven sections which cover the major events that occurred during the lifetime of the console including the launch of Nintendo Power magazine, Nintendo's many legal battles, bootleg cartridges and more. Sprinkled amongst these articles is coverage of all of the key games that were released for the platform, both good and bad.

As always this is a excellently written tome put together by Jeremy Parish and his team of regular contributors from the GameSpite web site. It weighs in at over 440 pages and as Jeremy has already said they're not likely to ever produce such a long book again due to the insane amount of work that goes into it. I have recently bought GameSpite Year 1 Volume 1 as well and the evolution from that early book to this latest one is clear to see - with fairly mundane and simple layouts put together in the free BookSmart software giving way to extremely professional looking articles that have been set out in Adobe InDesign. While in the face of it the book isn't cheap at just under £24 for the deluxe hardback and just under £12 for the standard edition, bear in mind that this is a print on demand enterprise put together in what little spare time the creators can afford. For the stingy or hard up, all of the content will eventually appear free of charge on the web site, but the books do make a great addition to any retro gamers library.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Wii Hidden Gems #1 - The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces

So here I am with the first of my new Wii Hidden Gems series - which incidentally will be full blown reviews rather than using the format of my older Hidden Gems articles. The Sky Crawlers game is based on a series of novels by Japanese author Hiroshi Mori. His books have been adapted into an anime film, the game which I'm covering here and a manga series. The basic premise is somewhat strange - although the world is actually at peace, in order to prevent a full blown war from breaking out amongst the aggressive human population, several corporations stage battles for show. Both the film and the game make reference to "Kildren" - genetically engineered children that are immortal unless shot down in battle, when they are simply cloned and the copy is sent out again with a new identity. The game is a combat flight sim developed by Project Aces - the same team that have worked on most of the Ace Combat series, and it shares many similarities with those titles. Now that I've filled you in on what the game is about, let me try and explain why you should give it a try.

Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Project Aces
Expect to pay: £10 (source: Amazon Marketplace)

7 out of 10

Sky Crawlers
is by no means an ugly came unless you happen to get fairly close to the ground whereupon the textures and general lack of detail leave you in no doubt that you’re playing on a machine that has less power under the hood than Xbox 360 or PS3. There are a nice variety of different skyboxes throughout the missions creating the atmosphere that you are flying against a sunset or during a thunderstorm for example. The various different planes (more of which can be unlocked) all look good and like they could feasibly be real machines, and importantly there is no trace of slowdown when there are a lot of bogies in the sky. Aside from the in game graphics another major visual component of this game are the anime style cut scenes, which have been given the same level of polish as the feature film. You don’t get to watch one of these after every mission but there is over 30 minutes of animation spread between the games 17 missions. All in all Sky Crawlers is a decent looking Wii game but obviously if you put it up against its fully HD counterpart on the other current generation consoles then it is going to suffer.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
I’m going to mention the voice acting first because surprisingly I feel that it is a good deal better than the voice work in the English dub of the film. Whereas a lot of the acting felt stilted and lacking emotion in the movie the VA’s tend to do a much better job. I definitely recognised the acting talents of Heather Hogan as Lt. Orishina (probably most well known for playing Collette Brunel in the Tales of Symphonia games).

The music is also nicely composed and features Celtic influences which helps gives the Sky Crawlers universe its own unique feel. The music was also a strong component of the animated film so its good to see this carry across from one medium to another.

Neeooooowwwww... dugga-dugga-dugga-dugga!

Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
As mentioned previously, The Sky Crawlers takes place over 17 separate missions, some of which have multiple sections. These predominantly involve shooting down other planes, but there are a few missions which diverge from this pattern to involve taking reconnaissance photos, destroying generators before shields can be activated, or protecting a downed sea plane from both naval and aerial attack.

I have to praise Project Aces/Namco now for being considerate enough to provide multiple controller options for the game. The default controls sees you using the nunchuk in your dominant hand as the joystick of your plane, and the Wii remote as your throttle control. You can also perform various evasive maneuvers by carrying out motions with the remote, and these can be very important in some of the trickier missions as they allow you to position yourself directly behind an enemy plane and take them out efficiently. These can sometimes make the missions rather too easy though and reduce the amount of actual dogfighting skill necessary to take down the opposition. You can also use either a Gamecube controller or a Classic controller, which is typically something that only Nintendo is thoughtful enough to offer. I have played many Wii games which are hampered by there insistence that you must use the motion controls and nothing else (Tiger Woods 2010 comes to mind).

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out 10
Though I have said that the Classic controller is my preferred control method for playing Sky Crawlers, the motion controls are in fact very well implemented and do a good job of making you feel that you are in control of a plane. There is also the small but very useful addition of a zoomed in targeting reticule that appears one you are in a certain range of your target, which makes lining up shots in the the middle of a hectic dogfight much easier.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
It will probably take you in the region of 10 hours to play through the main story mode on the default difficulty setting. Then you have the option of either playing individual missions again in free play, or playing through the whole story again a second time on the hard setting. Though the amount of play time you will glean from this game is by no means huge, it is quite possible to find a new, sealed copy of the game for £10 which means that I still recommend that you pick it up, especially if you're already a fan of the film. The game and film are best experienced as part of a package, as both of them fill in missing details of the others storyline and are more understandable (not to mention enjoyable) once you are aware of all the back story.

Overall: 7 out of 10
Sky Crawlers is a game that is likely to fly under the radar of many, especially in the west where there original series of novels haven't been translated. Fans of anime and aerial combat games should definitely take the time to check this cross media project out, as there's a lot to enjoy.

Wii will rock you.

Please forgive the rather tired and obvious pun - it's been a long week and we're only at the halfway stage! Today I would like to announce some plans that I have, although I'm not going to do anything rash like commit my self to a schedule or anything like that as that is a surefire way to guarantee that it won't actually happen! Anyway, I've been thinking for a little while that it would be nice to shift the focus away from Xbox 360 for a little bit and onto other platforms - beginning with the Nintendo Wii. The Wii has been very under represented on this blog and also gets a fair bit of stick from both hardcore gamers and journalists alike - with even the best games the system can offer often receiving the dreaded "It looks good, for a Wii game" comment.

I would like to readdress the balance a bit by introducing two new series of articles - Wii Essentials, and Wii Hidden Gems. The first will include games that should be in anybodies Wii collection and will cover some of the more obvious titles that I have been meaning to talk about but never have for one reason or another - such as Super Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime Trilogy, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and others. The second will try and unearth some of the Wii's less well known but no less deserving titles. Games like Little King's Story, A Boy and His Blob, and Sky Crawlers. The first of each of these will hopefully appear fairly soon but like I said I'm not going to doom this enterprise to failure by promising exactly when they will appear. Once I get into my stride and get a few of these up I may well follow up will something similar for some of the other platforms that I haven't given much coverage - the Nintendo DS, or more retro coverage for example. I'm quite excited to get working on this at the moment, so maybe I will strike while the iron is hot and start working on the first one now! I've even created logo's for them, look:

In future, clicking on these banners will take you to all of the articles within each series - for now they will only bring up this one though!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

First Impressions Round Up 31/08/10 - 360 Fest

Another new month is around the corner and with it another batch of new(ish) games. I spent a bit of time over the bank holiday weekend checking out some recent Xbox 360 titles. The poor old PS3 and Wii aren’t getting much of a look in at the moment, mostly because the allure of my shiny new black 360 hasn’t worn off yet. I do have a couple of Wii games that I need to check out soon though. Without further ado let’s get to it…

Just Cause 2
I was a big fan of the original Just Cause and its blend of crazy stunts, free roaming game play and destruction, but there wasn’t really enough variety to it. The setting pretty much looked the same from one side of the archipelago to the other, and the liberation missions were extremely samey. This time though there is a much wider array of environments – from snowy mountainous areas, through tropical rainforests and deserts. There’s lots of fun to be had just exploring the world, discovering and completing all the challenges and mucking about with the physics engine. Try connecting one end of your grappling hook to a gas canister and the other to the a bad guy before shooting said canister, and watch as hilarity ensues!

Mafia 2
On the surface, both Mafia 2 and Just Cause 2 appear to be free roaming action games in the template of Grand Theft Auto, but once you actually spend a bit of time with Mafia 2 it becomes clear that it is actually a much more linear affair than the games publicity would have you believe. The city of Empire Bay is beautiful and the game is incredibly cinematic, but there is actually very little scope to go off and explore at your leisure. Even if you were to do so, you would find very few distractions throughout the city other than the odd garage where you can upgrade your car or a bar where you can get drunk. I also have concerns over the length of the game because I’ve only been playing for a couple of hours and I’m already as far as chapter 4. Let’s hope the storyline slows down a little as you get further in.

Brutal Legend
I actually picked this one up about a month ago but it’s taken this long to put it in my 360 and give it a spin, mainly because I had already played the demo and that was a fairly decent sized chunk of the game in itself. I’ve now got a bit further than that and rescued the head bangers, and I’m enjoying it so far even though the vast majority of the metal references are going straight over my head. Roaming around the over world a bit was fun, and I’ve yet to encounter the allegedly broken RTS sections.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game
Played through the first level of this Live Arcade tie in with the Edgar Wright film. It’s a retro style scrolling beat ‘em up in the same vein as Final Fight or Streets of Rage, and it follows the plot of the film/graphic novels pretty faithfully. The levels do seem to be a little on the lengthy side so I was starting to get a little fatigued by the time I encountered the first boss, but the game does support up to 4 players in local co-op play which would be great fun. Alas though, I was playing it on my own which feels a little dull.

Puzzle Quest 2
The extremely addictive puzzle/RPG hybrid game returns with even stronger RPG elements than before. There are lengthy dungeons to explore and many side quests to be found, as well as new treasure looting and door bashing mini games which add a little variety to the main puzzle mechanics. Equipable weapons have been added as another way of doing damage to your adversaries in addition to the skulls and spells that were present in the first game, and there is plenty of game to be found here for your 800 points.

That’s it for this round up – the promised Alan Wake and DeathSpank reviews are on the way, and one for Dragon Quest IX may not be too far behind. I'm also waiting for another trio of GameSpite books so I may have a thing or two to say about them once they arrive and I have consumed them.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Red Faction: Guerrilla review

The Red Faction series has been around for quite some time now, having made its debut on the PS2 back in 2001. It is famed for its "GeoMod" system, which allowed for realistic destruction of buildings and environments. Now, this is the first time I've actually played an entry in the series, but from what I hear, the original GeoMod was by no means perfect as it only let you destroy preset parts of the environment. Things were improved slightly for the sequel, and now for Guerrilla we have GeoMod 2.0. Instead of letting you blow chunks out of the entire environment, you are limited to being able to destroy man made structures, but this isn't a huge problem as Volition have crafted a sprawling open ended playground for you to smash into pieces. Without further ado, let's get stuck into the main part of the review.

Format: Xbox 360, (also available for PS3 & PC)
Volition Inc.
Expect to pay:
£10 - £20

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Visually Red Faction: Guerrilla is extremely solid, with big chunky vehicles, large environments that flow into one another without any loading times, and a frame rate that for the most part remains stable (only showing signs of slowdown when there is extreme amounts of carnage going on). Thanks to the fact that the various districts of Mars are at differing stages of being terraformed, Volition are able to avoid everything simply looking red or brown. Granted, the first few environments you find yourself exploring look like something taken directly from Total Recall, but later on you find yourself in the the slightly greener environs of Oasis, and later still the dark and oppressive surroundings of
Eos, where the evil Earth Defence Force are based. The vehicles range from sturdy looking trucks, through buggies, recreational vehicles that look a bit like the Johnny Cab from the aforementioned Arnie film, huge tanks, and robotic walkers that are immensely satisfying to pilot and smash things to bits with.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
First of all, I absolutely love the music in this game. During downtime within your base or just travelling to your next district of devastation, the music is very serene and somewhat melancholy. Once you start ripping things apart though, the tempo increases to match and it really gets the blood pumping as you raze buildings to the ground. The various weapons sound suitably meaty, and the vehicular emanations reflect the typing of transport you're driving - so electronic whirring from some space age looking hatchback, and a deep rumbling from a behemoth tank. As for the voice acting, I would say it is solidly done but not in danger of winning any acting awards. The most recognisable voice is probably that of Michael
McConnohie, who plays the Commander. Fans of Crackdown will most definitely recognise him, and he's been in dozens of other games too. It was absolutely no surprise to see Nolan North and Yuri Lowenthal among the cast list too, as they seemingly sign up for any VO job they're offered - though I'd be hard pressed to identify them as specific characters this time around.

Vehicles are not only useful for getting to A to B - they are also a great source of protection from bullets, especially when the area is swarming with enemies.

Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
The basic structure of the game goes like this: you are given a new area of Mars to explore. The EDF are in control of this area and you need to take over, by completing Guerrilla Actions (more on this in a minute), destroying EDF property of varying importance, and completing missions that comprise part of the main storyline. The the Guerrilla Actions include Transporter (driving a vehicle back to a safe house within a time limit), raids on EDF buildings, protecting an area from an EDF incursion, House Arrest (breaking fellow faction members out of imprisonment), Demolitions Expert (blowing stuff up against the clock and with limited resources), and my personal favourites - Heavy Metal (causing wanton destruction in a big stompy robot exoskeleton), and Collateral Damage, where you man a rocket launcher on the back of a bike driven by a nutcase, and have to destroy as much EDF property as you can. Successful completion of these actions lowers the influence of the EDF on that sector, and increases the morale of the Red Faction. Before you are able to liberate an area completely, the EDF influence must be reduced to zero. Then you can take part in the liberation mission (having completed the proceeding story based missions as well), and access to the next area is granted where the whole process starts again.

The reason I have only given the game a 7 in this area is because of the controls. These days, you would expect a shoot em up to follow the majority of other games in the genre and have the zoom/iron sight mode on the left trigger, but for some reason Red Faction: Guerrilla has this mapped to clicking in the right stick and the left trigger is melee attack. Even late in the game, I would go to zoom in on an enemy and instead flail at thin air. I did check out the options menu to see if I could remap the controls, but unfortunately not. On normal difficulty, the game can be quite tough, as enemies can swarm you and take down your health incredibly quickly. I was dying all over the place, and eventually switched to Casual, having a much more enjoyable time as a result.

Freeing an area of Mars locks you out from completing particular types of Guerrilla Action if you haven't done so already, but fear not, once you finish the last story mission they will all become available to you, thus allowing you to get the Achievement for completing all 104 of them should you choose to do so. I should also mention that completing missions and destroying buildings grants you salvage, which is the currency that you can use to buy new weapons, shields and other useful items throughout the campaign. In the early stages of the game I found the sticky mines incredibly useful, and later on the rocket launcher upgraded with its heat seeking ability was a godsend. You can also buy a jet pack at a quite advanced stage in the campaign, which is another extremely useful little gadget for getting in and out of trouble.

As well as the single player campaign there is also a multi player mode. However, I've yet to experience this and unfortunately I doubt I ever will as it seems that nobody plays the game on the Xbox Live servers any more. PC owners should still be able to find somebody to play with, and I hear it is actually a pretty good multi player mode. It's a shame that a good half of the Xbox Achievements are based around the multi player though as there's not much chance of unlocking them now.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
Taken separately, sandbox games and third person shooters are of course nothing new. But by combining them together will the Martian setting and unprecedented amounts of destruction and mayhem, you have something rather special on your hands.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
Some reviewers think that we shouldn't take the cost of a game into consideration when critiquing it, and fair enough - but this blog speaks for real people who can't afford to buy every major release as soon as it comes out, so I feel taking the current market value of a game into consideration at the time the review is written is a valid thing to do. In this case, you can now pick up Red Faction: Guerrilla on its own for about £13, or as part of a 2 for £20 deal in the major retailers. Might I suggest Batman: Arkham Asylum as a possible companion to this game if you don't own it already? Two of the finest action games of 2009 for £20 is a real bargain.

The single player campaign didn't really take very long for me to finish - I'd estimate about 20 hours maximum. I must stress however that so far I've only completed 50 of the Guerrilla Actions - it would take a decent chunk of time to go back and do the other 54. I definitely feel that I've got decent value for money out of the game.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Red Faction: Guerrilla is a fun, chaotic, cathartic, yet sometimes frustrating trip to the planet Mars, well worth seeking out for those who love to blow things to smithereens. A follow up, Armageddon, has already been announced, and it would appear that it is shifting things back to a more linear structure, and also adding aliens to the mix. I have concerns about this because it means the game is in danger of becoming just another marines vs aliens shoot em up, and we've already go plenty of those. I'll reserve judgment until the final game appears though.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Need for Speed: Shift review

I picked up Need for Speed: Shift back in the middle of December with some of my birthday money, and it has taken until now to reach level 50 and complete the World Championship. I did stop for a while though and also took a slight detour away from the main campaign to play the Ferrari and Exotic DLC packs, which I will also incorporate into this review. Whilst I have quite enjoyed some of the recent NFS games such as Most Wanted and Carbon, I wasn't that keen on the Underground games or Pro Street, so this break away from illegal street races and the modding scene was quite refreshing.

Format: Xbox 360 (also available for PS3)
Publisher: EA
Developer: Slightly Mad Studios
Expect to pay: £20 - £25

Graphics: 9 out of 10

As you would hope and expect from a game with the word Speed in the title, Need for Speed: Shift feels convincingly fast, more so that Forza Motorsport 3 in fact. When you first get into some of the more powerful cars in the game, you may (or at least I did) struggle to stay on the track as the corners leap up on you with alarming velocity. The game also looks very pretty all round, with a stable frame rate, excellent in car view and well designed user interface. You are constantly getting feedback from the game as you earn stars, unlock badges and gain levels (more on this later), enticing you to play on just a bit more. There are also some great tracks in the game, based on real world circuits and cities, such as Spa, Brands Hatch, Road America and a London River track.

Sound and Music: 7 out of 10
I'm no expert on how one car should sound compared to another but the engine noises all sounded distinct and convincing to me. By default, the licenced soundtrack is turned off but after a while I decided to switch it on and give it a listen. Firstly, the choice of music isn't really to my tastes (it's quite hippity hop orientated), and secondly there isn't really a lot of it, so you'll be hearing the same tracks over and over again very frequently. In the end I preferred to play my own music that I'd ripped to the hard drive of my 360.

Racing around the London track, one of my favourites.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Firstly, how does the game feel? It's not quite as realistic as the Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo series, yet not as arcadey as PGR. The closest comparison I can make is Race Driver: GRID - you can't just throw the cars around the corner, but things feels ever so slightly exaggerated.

The main career mode of the game is split into 4 Tiers of events, followed by the World Championship. There are quite a lot sub events within each tier, which fall under various types: standard races, hot lap events (beating set times), time attack (getting the fastest lap within a set time limit), knockout, drift (my least favourite), Endurance, and series of 3-5 events. In order to progress to the next tier, you must earn a certain amount of stars, which are given out for podium finishes, earning certain amounts of profile points during races, and various bonus objectives such as beating a certain lap time, staying on the racing line or for a clean race.

You earn these aforementioned profile points by carrying out certain manoeuvres during a race, split into two categories: precision and aggression. Precision includes such things as clean overtakes, driving on the racing line, etc, whereas aggression points are awarded for bumping into your opponents, drafting them and sliding around corners for example. These profile points also act as a form of experience, and as you reach certain totals you will level up. Levelling up brings with it various awards, such as extra sponsorship money, more garage slots or the ability to take part in many different Invitational Events. Whether you're a precise or aggressive driver will influence the order in which this Invitational Events are unlocked, so if you fall within the Precision category you will be more likely to be invited to time trial events, whereas if you fall under the Aggression banner you will get knockout and drift events.

Making you reach certain star thresholds in order to progress through the career is all well and good, but there are so many Invitational Events on offer that you will probably have unlocked access to the World Championship way before you've finished with the other tiers. This initially caused me to lose interest in the game but eventually I came back, and I'm glad I did because taking part in the events is fun in and of itself (apart from the Drift events which I detest - not because they're bad, but because I'm not very good at them and don't find them fun). Now, on top of all these things there are badges, awarded for achieving various milestones within the game - such as driving a certain distance in a European car, mastering all the corners of a track, or pulling off a particular number of perfect starts (when the shift indicator is green). The badges come in various flavours - Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Epic - you earn certain amounts of them you will also unlock achievements/trophies. I was still earning badges right towards the end of the game.

If you just play through the main game without going online, then you probably won't hit level 50 by the time you've done all the events. If you decide to purchase the two DLC packs though, there's plenty to see you through all the way to the level cap, and some nice achievement points for bothering to do so. As for the packs themselves, both of them offer decent value for money for 800 points apiece, and playing through them will take a fair old while. The Exotic pack is ever so slightly longer and offers a set of new tracks (one of them being a version of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit), but both packs feature a set of new cars.

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out 10
While it is hard to truly innovate in a racing game these days, or one grounded in reality at least, the stars, experience and badges and attractive design of the interface help give Need for Speed: Shift a style and flavour of its own.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
The career mode will take you a decent chunk of time - it took me many many hours of playing hit level 50 and get to the end of the game, and I haven't even done absolutely everything (I still need to go back and do most of the Endurance events, as I never seem to have the time to devote to them). Those who want to squeeze the game for all of its achievement points will have to earn every star on offer in the game, and get every single Epic badge - which is no small task let me tell you. Since the game was released the price has fallen quite a bit, so you can now pick up the Limited Edition version for £23. If you love your driving games, it's well worth the money.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Need of Speed: Shift is an extremely solid, highly polished game. For petrol heads, it's not quite in the same league as Forza Motorsport 3, but it's a pretty close call. If you have already finished Turn 10/Microsoft's game and you want some more racing action, then definitely give this one a look.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Top 5 Announcements from E3 2010

Here it is, my list of what I consider to be the most exciting announcements to come out of last weeks Electronic Entertainment Expo. I'm only focusing on stuff that we didn't know about before E3 happened, although I will be including a short list of other stuff that I'm interested in afterwards.

5. Driver: San Francisco
I know the Driver franchise has fallen out of the public eye thanks to the buggy and decidedly average Driv3r (despite having several decent enough games since), but I really enjoyed the first two games back on the PS1. The series seems to be returning to its roots, with Tanner being reinstated as the main character. The developers are promising that the handling will still feel like the Driver that we know and love, and hopefully they will deliver a solid, entertaining game that will help turn the fortunes of the franchise around.

4. Kirby's Epic Yarn

Just one of several good looking platform games coming to the Nintendo Wii (see also Donkey Kong Country Returns and Epic Mickey). What really sets this one apart is the art style, as the backgrounds look like made of fabric and the characters out of string. Reminds me a little of Paper Mario, except you know, with knitting instead of paper. There appears to be solidly designed platform game behind this visual gimmick though, making this one to watch out for.

3. Back to the Future and Jurrasic Park game franchises from Telltale

This was actually unveiled a few days before E3 began on the Telltale web site, but I think it's fair to include it here. They have managed to secure a deal with NBC Universal to produce two episodic game series based on these much loved film properties. I would imagine that they will be within the graphic adventure genre as that is where Telltale excel, but I could be wrong...

2. The Nintendo 3DS
This has of course been rumoured for several months now but now Nintendo has officially unveiled the next iteration of its DS hardware. Rather than being just a minor upgrade like the DS Lite and DSi, this is a brand new console. The main selling point is of course the stereoscopic upper screen that allows you to play games and watch films in 3D without the need for glasse, but the console will also feature motion and gyro sensors, an analogue swipe pad, improved graphical and processing capabilities, two cameras on the front to allow you to take 3D photographs and perhaps most importantly full backwards compatability with all of the old DS cartridges.

There have been some very exciting game announcements for the platform already, including:
Kid Icarus Uprising, Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Super Street Fighter IV, Saints Row, Mario Kart, Paper Mario, Professor Layton, Kingdom Hearts, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and Assassin's Creed. For the complete list, click here.

1. Child of Eden

Many of my favourite games of the last decade were thought up by one man: Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Space Channel 5 Parts 1 and 2, Lumines, Every Extend Extra and of course, Rez. All of these games share something in common: they fuze music, graphics and game play together so that each part is important as the other. Child of Eden is his next project, and is a spiritual sucessor to Rez. It looks and feels very similar from what I've seen so far, and promises to make full use of the Microsoft Kinect camera to immerse you within the game. I can't wait to get ahold of it sometime during 2011 - in the meantime I'll just have to make to with replaying Rez yet again!

Also of note:
and many, many more...