Thursday, September 29, 2011

Gears of War 3 review

So finally, with the release of Gears of War 3, the story of Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad comes to a close.  The first part of the trilogy was released in the early days of the 360, and although 3rd person cover based shooters had been seen before, they were never as polished as this.  The first Gears also brought some other new ideas to the table, such as the addictive Active Reload mechanic, which rewards good timing with extra damage. It was a great game at the time but in light of what has come along since I would only give it a 7 out of 10 if reviewing it today.  Then a few years later the middle chapter in the story was released, which improved the graphics, added a whole load of extra monster types to keep things fresh, and most notably added the excellent Horde mode into the mix.  It was a very good sequel and today would still be worthy of at least an 8 out of 10.  Is the closing part of the trilogy another step forward? Let's break it down...

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Epic Games
Expect to pay: £40 (for the standard edition), silly money (for the other editions)

Graphics: 9 out of 10
The first two games in the Gears of War saga have had plenty of criticism for their mostly brown and red colour palette, and for that fact that a lot of the game is spent in dark areas underground.  In start contrast to this, Gears of War 3 takes place in a variety of environments, that are not only outdoors for a good chunk of the time but also extremely colourful.  From the decks of a ship, to a beach, underneath the waves of a clear blue sea, and inside a luxury hotel on a tropical island, each act of this game shakes things up and really helps to keep things interesting.  Added to this are a huge number of new baddies to pit yourself against, both from the locust horde and the lambent, which have been seen in previous games but are now running wild and threatening the existence of the whole of planet Sera.  I don't want to spoil the many surprises so I'll just mention one encounter that features an old "friend" but in a new way.  The corpser that you may remember facing off against during the first game in the series makes a return, but this time she has brought her entire family.  Tiny corpsers and adolescent versions of the spider like beast will come to their mothers aid in an exciting boss battle, that comes not at the end of an act, but in the middle.  There are plenty of similar situations throughout the game but this was my favourite.

Another common criticism of the Gears trilogy is the look of the characters: namely that they all look like they're jacked up on steroids.  While they are still indeed some chunky looking a-holes, I think they have actually toned this down a little bit this time around as Cole Train in particular doesn't look quite as ridiculous as he has previously.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
John DiMaggio, Carlos Ferro and company are back as you would hope and in fine form for this third fantastic fracas.  Most of the major characters: Marcus, Dom, Cole Train, Baird and Anja get their moment in the spotlight as the story progresses and their voice actors do a fine job of it. They are ably supported by some familiar voice talent: Jennifer Hale, Dwight Schultz and Yuri Lowenthal all play at least one character - there's a good chance you will know them when you hear them.

The soundtrack is also up to the par of the previous games in the trilogy, with plenty of new music backed up by new renditions of themes that were composed for the other two games. You can't help but feel the excitement well up in the final act when some the recognisable them kicks in - it signals that the end is coming and it is time to kick the queens ass once and for all.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
Everything that was present in the previous games is back again - the way you can easy snap into and out of cover, the active reload mechanic, the many weapons including the lancer with its chainsaw bayonet, the explosive torque bow and the supremely satisfying longshot sniper rifle.  Epic Games have retained all that was good about the previous entries in the trilogy and expanded upon them.  So now we have new weapons such as the retro lancer which packs more raw power that its more modern equivalent but suffers from terrible recall, and the deadly One Shot which can literally obliterate anything in a single well aimed shot.

On top of this, they have added a levelling mechanic that is prevalent across all game modes, including single player, and a wealth of ribbons, medals, characters and collectibles to find or unlock.  There is plenty of game here to keep the average player entertained for quite some time.  Horde mode makes a welcome return but it has had tower defence elements added to shake things up - now you get 30 seconds between rounds to buy defences including barricades, turrets and decoys.  You will need them too because your opponents are more vicious than ever, and every 10th round is now a boss wave that could see you going up against a couple of Brumaks for example, or perhaps three very angry lambent berserkers!

That is not all though, because a new mode has been added to Gears 3: the Beast mode.  It turns the tables on Horde and sees you playing the part of the locus.  At first you a limited to low level fodder such as tickers and grunts, but as you earn experience you will unlocked the ability to play as tougher and tougher creatures like a Theron Guard or a the Kantus.  Things are topped off by a fun range of competitive multiplayer modes including old favourites like Execution, and a co-op campaign that has been expanded from two players to four. My only complaint is that I would have like more consideration to have been made for lone wolves such as myself to be able to play Horde with the assistance of three bots.  I don't think this would have been too hard to implement: the Unreal Tournament series had bot matches years ago.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
Though this is the third part of a trilogy and therefore quite iterative in its nature, Gears of War 3 still contains plenty of clever touches.  The single player stages are excellently designed and full of set piece moments that put most big budget actions films to shame.  The controls and the weapons feel right and are very satisfying, and the whole game just exudes polish.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
There is a LOT of stuff to keep Gearheads occupied in this game: single player over 4 different difficulties, co-op for up to four players, a special arcade version of the campaign, an expanded Horde mode, the brand new Beast mode, multiple competitive multiplayer modes, 100 levels of character advancement, dozens of ribbons, medals and achievements, 15 COG tags to find and even more stuff to collect.  Phew! That sounds like plenty to be going on with for the time being if you ask me.

Overall: 9 out of 10
Gears of War 3 is a very fitting swansong for Delta Squad, but it is not the end of the franchise as a whole. For starters we've been promised campaign DLC that introduces a new cast of characters and paves the way for the next Gears of War title. My guess is that will be a Halo Reach style prequel set in or around the Pendulum Wars that occurred before Emergence Day - humans fighting amongst themselves over the emulsion fuel.  I look forward to it and now, having finished the Gears 3 campaign for the first time, am about to settle into several months worth of levelling up over countless Horde, Beast, and competitive matches. See you online!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wii Hidden Gems #2 - Little King's Story

It has been way, way too long since I wrote the first entry in my Wii Hidden Gems series, and seeing as the article is one of the top five most popular posts on the blog I thought it was time to highlight another title from the consoles back catalogue that I feel doesn't get quite as much love as it deserves.  This time I will be covering Little King's Story, a strategy game that was published in 2009 by Rising Star Games in Europe and XSeed Games in the US.

Publisher: Rising Star Games
Developer: Cing
Expect to pay: £5 - £10

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Little King's Story features extremely colourful graphics that are very whimsical in nature.  They are quite cartoony yet quite stylised and detailed, and they suit the host platform very well.  There can be quite a lot going on at the same time yet the game doesn't slow down, even when you have dozens of your loyal follows trailing along behind you.  There are quite a few boss battles throughout the course of the game, both optional and obligatory, and they are usually quite large in size.  It can be quite a challenge to keep all of your little soldiers alive when you are being charged by a giant bull, squashed by a huge toad or attacked by the Oni King and his many minions, to name just three examples.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
This is where Little King's Story really gets a lot of its charm.  Despite the music consisting almost entirely of classical music that has been out of copyright for centuries, the soundtrack still manages to amaze due to the way the various compositions have been remixed and implemented into the game.  You will most likely recognise a good deal of the music from the moment it starts up. Speech consists of a gibberish language that the characters speak that sounds vaguely foreign but in actually fact is just a bunch of random noises.  Depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing it could get quite annoying after a while.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
As for the gameplay, well... it's Pikmin, isn't it? Except in a fantasy setting and a few more RPG overtones.  If you have never played a Pikmin game, you control one character - in this case the eponymous Little King, and then roam around the game world with minions of different types trailing around behind you.  Each type of minion serves a purpose - use soldiers to take out monsters, carpenters to build bridges, etc.  You have to be careful not to let your non combative minions too close to monsters because they will not be able to defend themselves very effectively.

So armed with your different types of followers, you slowly explore further and further into the game world, uncovering loot and slaying bosses as you go.  You can bring back the stuff you have found to your kingdom where you can either sell it to help fund the further development of your kingdom (which is required to progress) or sometimes keep items for yourself to equip.  The game can actually be quite tough in places but it does allow for a certain amount of grinding because smaller monsters do reappear over time.

Innovation and Cleverness:
6 out of 10
While the game does undoubtedly steal a lot of the design from Pikmin it does bring it's share of new ideas to the table and overall is a better (not to mention longer) experience in my opinion.  As the Wii never got it's own new Pikmin game (the re releases don't count), this makes for a very good substitute.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
Quite some time ago I happened to spot Little King's Story in the bargain games rack of my local Morrison's supermarket for a fiver.  That my friends is an absolute bargain and if you see while stocking up on groceries you should really chuck it in your basket or trolley without a moments hesitation.  There are quite a lot of stages in the game so it will take you quite some time to finish, but I'm not too sure whether you'd come back and do it a second time.  Luckily though the game is getting a sequel for the PS Vita - hopefully it will sell more copies this time, but maybe not if handhelds are as dead as most video game journalists would like you to believe.

Overall: 8 out of 10
This is a true shining gem amongst the collection of titles that have been released for the Wii over the years, and an affordable one at that.  So if my ramblings here have whetted your appetite at all, go seek it out and enjoy it!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Game Diary: Driver SF - don't let the ridiculous premise put you off

The Autumn release period is now well under way. In Europe it started with the amazing Xenoblade Chronicles, which I'm now almost 40 hours in.  I have taken a peak at a FAQ to see roughly how far into the game I've got and there's still a ton of content to go. I'm definitely taking my sweet time with it though, for example on Saturday afternoon I spent over an hour just walking around one of the huge towns picking up quests to complete later (to be fair the towns are vast in this game, and you have to explore them at different times to day because the NPC's all keep to their own schedule).  I'll be plugging away at this game gradually for quite some time to come, so I wouldn't expect a review until November at the earliest I would guess.

This past Friday saw the release of Driver: San Francisco.  Now, I must be one of the few people who actually quite enjoyed Driv3r on the last generation of consoles and didn't encounter too many bugs, so my enthusiasm for the franchise hasn't really waned and this game has been on my wanted list since I saw the E3 trailer from a few years back.  When the demo appeared on Xbox Live Marketplace last month I was quick to download it and take the game for a spin.  It was then that I started to get a bit cynical about the game, as Reflections have come up with a ridiculous coma storyline in order to explain away the new body shifting mechanic that plays a huge part in the new game.  I found the idea really naff and almost passed the game up as a result.  However, after a particularly bad day commuting which saw me get home from work at 10:30pm, I decided I was going to buy the game after all to cheer myself up (any excuse for a new game).  I'm very glad I did.

Once you get a little way in the storyline the shifting and coma ridden Tanner stop being an issue (at least for me) and then become the perfect excuse to take on all sorts of wacky side missions and just have fun.  Reflections have very wisely done away with the on foot sections of previous games that never worked very well (I think they fell into the trap of trying to compete with Grand Theft Auto, when they'd have been better off just doing their own thing).  The focus here is very much on driving, and the handling feels great - weighty but still on the arcade side. An old 70's muscle car feels completely different to drive than an Audi RS or a VW Beetle Buggy (my personal favourite), and throwing them around an exaggerated approximation of San Francisco is fantastic fun.

The multiplayer is if anything, even better, with many different modes to enjoy.  Some of them involve using the shift mechanic to stay in contention (Takedown events see cops chasing one player who's been designated as a criminal, and the rozzers can instantly beam themselves into any vehicle, whereas the perp is locked out of shifting and must use all of their skill to frantically escape).  My personal favourite discipline is traditional racing, where up to 8 players take part either in a series of 5 frantic sprint races, or one longer classic race.  There are a ton of tracks and many different vehicle types - although you don't get any choice in which you race, the game chooses at random.  There is also a qualifying round before each main event and there are several different types - smashing objects, jumping, drifting, overtaking and achieving the highest top speed.  I've got pretty good at these race events and consistently place in the top 3.

The one downside about the multiplayer that I can see is the level cap.  It only goes up to 38 and I managed to get to level 16 in just one day, so it won't be very long before I've maxed out.  I don't think there's a Call of Duty style Prestige mode present in this game, unfortunately. Hopefully future DLC will increase this cap at the same time as adding new content.

I also finally got around to picking up a copy of Demon's Souls for the PS3. I had hesitated for so long because I was aware how challenging the game was and it didn't sound like the sort of thing I would be able to get any enjoyment out of.  After hearing how great it is on many different podcasts though, I decided to give it a chance.  Though it certainly is challenging, it isn't unfair and the weighty combat feels really satisfying. I've only managed to get past the very first stage so far, but it would seem that your choice of character class makes quite a difference in how tough you will find the game and magic users get an easier time of it than melee fighters, so I may start again as a Royalist and see how it goes.

I did also buy Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but I haven't really played enough of it yet to comment.  I think I will be putting it on hold until I'm done with some of the other games I've started recently.  That's everything for this week - I'll have another post soon which will probably include my thoughts on Star Fox 64 3D.