Saturday, 20 December 2008

Fun iPhone Games For the Holidays (CGUK)


I've posted a small article on the Cranky Gamers UK blog (bit.ly/7lKP) about some great iPhone games to try out this Christmas.

The most addictive of these games was Monopoly - Here and Now. The game is so quick and easy to play on the touch screen. It looks great too and you can listen to your own music or podcast while playing.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The best games of 2008 that most people played

The following list contains my favorite games of 2008 for each of the usual gaming categories.

Best Vehicle Game = Burnout Paradise put the fun back into driving games. We may have lost the crash mode, but the open world and numerous challenges more than made up for it. Worthy of a mention is GRID, which turned out to be a very enjoyable track racer with amazing presentation.

Best Shooter = Gears of War 2 is the "Burnout" of shooters: it perfectly balances action, fun and difficulty. Bold and brash, and this time with a decent plot. Gears 2's fantastic set pieces make it is the closest thing to an action movie you can get. The Horde and Online modes complete the package.

Best Action Game = The Bourne Conspiracy was the surprise of 2008 for me. It brilliantly captured the spirit of the books and films. It looked great too and has superb destruct able environments and frantic melee combat. Runners-up include Viking: Battle of Asgard, which combined huge battles with action RPG; and Mirror's Edge with its blend of style, free-running and sense of danger.

Best Open World Game = GTA IV really raised the bar in what can be achieved in an open world game. Many may lament the more serious tone, but the story and characters are some of the deepest created in a video game. It was just a shame the final acts dropped into an excessively darker tone.

Best Strategy Game = Civilization Revolution. No one thought it could be done, but Sid said he knew how. Both the DS and 360 versions are perfect strategy games for the console player. Short, intelligent, well designed and action packed. Anno 1701 on the DS completed a great year for handheld strategy games.

Best Party Game = Guitar Hero World Tour narrowly pips Rockband 1 & 2. World Tour is more accessible to new players, has better instruments, and has a more eclectic mix of music to suite all tastes. Singstar should also had a successful next-gen launch with its user-content videos.

Best Role Play Game = Lost Odyssey. For me RPGs live a die by the story. If the story doesn't engage with you then the game can become a grindfest. Thankfully, Lost Odyssey had a beautiful story woven with tragedy and humour. The world, characters and plot we perfectly in harmony though to the climatic and satisfying conclusion. 

It has been a great year for RPGs: Fable II was a wonderful experience, particularly the quality of its presentation and gameplay; Final Fantasy IV was a fantastic DS update of a fine JRPG. Unfortunately Fallout 3 was less successful. It suffered from some questionable "dungeon" design, poor character animation, and recycled side quests.

Best Sports/Casual Game = FIFA Street 3 might be an unusual choice for some. But FIFA Street 3 put the fun back into football games that have become increasingly dull the more realistic they become. Exaggerated character models, tight controls and a funky soundtrack made this a whole lot of fun to play.

Best Multiplayer Game = Burnout Paradise. A Ninja Fat Pigeon gaming favourite. The online co-op challenges are the real highlight of a great game - played with 3-8 mates it is timeless fun. Some of the best gaming nights I have ever played were with Burnout Paradise.

Best Download Game (Xbox Live Arcade, PSN or Wiiware) = Geometry Wars 2 – bigger, better and with even more compulsion to beat your scores. Other notable downloadable games include A Kingdom for Keflings and Elefunk: both of which offer something different and constructive. I personally loved Ticket to Ride too. It was just a shame you have to buy it three times to get the full game.

Best Microsoft Platform Exclusive Game (Xbox 360 or PC) = Lost Odyssey. The year's best RPG and a 360 exclusive to boot. Runners-up include: Fable II, Gears of War 2, Viva Pinata Trouble in Paradise and Banjo Kazooie Nuts and Bolts.

Best Sony Platform Exclusive (PS3 or PSP) = Little Big Planet might have dodgy controls and an underwhelming single player experience, but the level creator and on-line co-op are genius. The YouTube of video games really is revolutionary. Runners-up include: Elefunk, Motorstorm 2 and Wipeout HD

Best Nintendo Platform Exclusive (Wii or DS) = Professor Layton and the Curious Village is one of the most original and fun game for years. Great art, story and puzzles. A must buy! Also worthy was Anno 1701 – Dawn of Discovery (DS). Based on the long running German PC game series (don't let that put you off) this is one of the most polished and rewarding god games, and best of all it fits in the palm of your hand. Graphics are good, sound and music are excellent, gameplay top notch, and stylus control is perfect.

Best Graphics in a Game = Gears of War 2. Step back an look at the incredible attention to detail lavished in the environments. From full rendered drip trails on the windows, to unbelievable underground worlds and huge vistas. It is breathtaking. Runners-up: Fable II, Dead Space, and Lost Odyssey.

Best Music/Sound in a Game = Dead Space brings all the audio tricks from Alien and the Thing to create one of the most atmospheric games of recent years. Play in the dark if you dare. Runners-up: Fable II, GTA IV, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, and The World Ends with You.

Best Story in a Game = Lost Odyssey had a beautiful story woven with tragedy and humour. GTA IV featured fully fleshed out characters, a very real and human story, and a real sense of time and place. So it is a shame that the last few acts tarnish it. Professor Layton and the Curious Village added a great story to the puzzles and comic book art.

Biggest Waste of Money = Rainbow Six Vegas 2 was an almighty let down. One of the best strategic shooters was reduced to a damp Call of Duty 4 wannabe. The best bits were taken out and all sense of drama was lost. Even the multiplayer mode had become tired. Mercenaries 2 (terrible voice acting and weak gameplay) and A-Train (impossible to win) came a very close second.

Game of the Year = Burnout Paradise is a landmark game in many ways. It's innovative co-op challenges and drop-in/out world set a new standard for online play. It was also tonnes of fun with friends and great value. The continuous stream of free DLC updates was the icing on the cake.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The best games of 2008 I won't be playing

1. Left 4 Dead

I don't know what it is, but I have never enjoyed a Valve game. I don't include Portal in the mix, as it was developed by another team, just the Half Lifes and now Left 4 Dead. I find them to be rather sterile and unsatisfactory. Their games often feature design decisions that baffle me. Left 4 Dead is a case in point: It's loose controls and twitch mechanics feel like something from 10 years ago. If it wasn't for the Zombies - another overrated cliché - I really don't think it would get the critical acclaim is has.

2. Call of Duty - World at War

I'm so done with Call of Duty games. The series' obsession with war glamorisation, in all its gruesome violence, is bordering on outright vulgarity. The message in the original Call of Duty - and to a certain extent Modern Warfare - is completely lost on the masses of teenagers gleefully murdering each other in multiplayer areas.

3. Resistance 2

The first game was mediocre at best. The flagship shooter on the PS3 for many months, it was carried on the shoulders of fanboys to a height the sequel could never match. Essentially more of the same, it has been interesting to see how PS3 owners have been more critical and less forgiving second time around.

4. Animal Crossing - City Folk

Nintendo is establishing a reputation for releasing very flimsy sequels to much loved franchises. Mario Kart Wii and Super Smash Bros Brawl were sequels barely distinguishable from their predecessors. Animal Crossing - City Folk is its predecessor: a port of a DS game, ported from the Gamecube, ported from the N64. Any good will for Nintendo's Wii has all but vanished for the enthusiast gamer now.

5. Mercenaries 2 - World in Flames

I purchased Mercs 2 with good intensions. It looked like fun, people seemed to like it, and it would fill the void left post GTA IV completion. Unfortunately it was a good awful mess with clumsy controls, terrible dialog and a poor game structure. Two hours was enough to banish it to the back of the CD wallet for good.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The best games of 2008 you didn't play.

The best games of 2008 you didn't play.

1. The Bourne Conspiracy. (PS/360)

The Bourne Conspiracy was one of the best movie tie-ins of recent years. It features cracking melée combat and great pacing. It also adds further back story to the movie/books.

2. Viking: Battle For Asgard (PS/360)

A proper game based on Norse mythology, and from the talents at Creative Assembly. Huge battles & satisfying combat blend with an interesting story and an enticing game world. One of the best action RPGs this year. Take note Denis Dyack.

3. FIFA Street 3. (PS/360)

Poo poo'd by the sports game snobs, but Street actually put the fun and enjoyment back into a footie game. Over the top action and a comic book aethetics make this a genuine video game rather than a dull virtual sport.

4. Anno 1701. (DS)

One of the best strategy games series makes its way onto the little DS. Plenty of depth and charm than make this the best "god" game this year. Fine music and graphics complete the package.

5. Elefunk. (PS3)

Get elephants across a ravine by building a bridge from wood, steel or rope. Sounds crazy but it is immense fun and challenging too. One of the best PSN titles.


Posted from my iPhone

Monday, 20 October 2008

Review: Age of Booty (X360)

Developed by former Bungie developers, Booty is a real-time strategy game featuring customisable maps and pirate whimsy. Played with up to 8 other players, you control a single pirate ship and work together to capture a specific number of towns. Easy to pick up and tricky to master, Booty is a good edition to XBLA libary.

Co-operation and strategy are key elements needed to win each match: do you attack or defend? which town offers the best resources? Played with friends, Booty can be a lot of fun. Teams can coordinate who gets ship upgrades and who holds or attacks. Online, random players tend to
steal upgrades and double cross team mates. Depending on your view this could be a laugh or just plain annoying.

Offline there are 21 challenges to keep you going, with a less than satisfactory AI for company. However, the challenges do allow the player to learn the best strategies to use in the game and prepare you for life on the Live high seas. A map editor and Bungie like playlists complete the package.

4/5


Sent from my iPhone

Review: Viva Pinata - Trouble in Paradise (X360)

The sequel to 2007's Viva Pinata, Trouble in Paradise makes enough tweaks and improvements to justify a new release: including structured challenges, an improved user interface and some novel co-op features.

Essentially a garden and zoo simulator, Viva Pinata requires players to develop a virtual garden to entice and breed cute Pinata creatures. The game employs a food chain so that you must carefully balance the plants and Pinatas in your garden to attract higher species. .

The cute visuals and jolly music mask what can be a very challenging and adult game. Later stages include garden vandals called "ruffians", who can ruin your best laid plans. Thankfully Trouble in Paradise includes a "just for fun" mode which removes some of the difficulty
and allows parents and children to develop gardens together.

5/5


Sent from my iPhone

Review: CSI - Hard Evidence (X360)

Pros: Captures the spirit and cheese of the TV show; great for achievement boosting

Cons: Dialog is often ponderous (like the TV show!); voice acting can be really bad; bizarre use of the d-pad; long load times.

CSI - Hard Evidence is a good example of how not to port a PC game. Despite this, it is actually a compelling game with five interesting investigations to resolve.

Anyone who has seen the TV series will be familiar with the laughable context (forensics playing lead homicide detectives), plot misdirection, and over-acting that are hallmarks of the show. Thankfully, these elements have been successfully retained in the video game. Essentially
a point and click adventure, you are tasked with solving each crime by: performing investigations of the crime scene, collecting evidence and interviewing suspects - normally just asking them every question you can.

Each of the five crimes has been carefully constructed with a colourful set of characters and a plausible trail of evidence. Unfortunately, on each investigation you are accompanied by a sound-alike character from the Vegas show, who generally states the bleeding obvious and gets in the way. Other minor irritations include the mysterious unlocking of new evidence at certain points -something the show does- and occasionally long load times.

The presentation is adequate but the menu navigation is poorly implemented. The game is clearly a port from a PC title, and you often move a cursor around the screen using the analogue stick to select or identify objects - this in itself works just fine. However, for some bizarre reason you cannot use the cursor to select large menu icons on the same screen. Instead you have to use the unresponsive abomination of a d-pad that the 360 controller comes equipped with. It is often difficult to see which menu button is highlighted and you'll often select the wrong menu option.

Achievement collectors will enjoy the 200G reward for completing each investigation - which can take anything from 2-3 hours to complete. Fans of the show will also enjoy the opportunity to play out 5 new episodes. CSI - Hard Evidence actually provides a welcome change of pace and can be enjoyed in single sittings or small instalments. As a cheap purchase or rental it makes perfect sense for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

3/5

Review: The Bourne Conspiracy (X360)

Pros: Feels like the movies; great combat; presentation; quality

Cons: Not much to do once the story has been completed; you need to like cut-scene events; driving level is a bit of a mess.

The Bourne Conspiracy is a character action game, based on the book & film series and is probably one of the best tie-ins since GoldenEye on the N64. High Moon studios have created quality product with superb presentation and production values that really gives you the feeling of playing Jason Bourne.

Released in the summer of 2008, the Bourne Conspiracy will probably have been overlooked by many, or rejected as another cheesy movie tie-in. It is a real shame as no game has captured the action film aesthetic as successfully as this. The game plays like a combination of "God of War" or "Conan" melee action and "Gears of War" cover-based firearm combat.

What really makes the game stand-out, however, is the use of destructible environments and finishing moves. Build up enough "adrenaline" and you can initiate a melee or gun finishing move. This often results in your character slamming the enemy into chairs, tables, windows, pipes or other scenery with spectacular results. You really feel like you are bashing the shit out of someone and making full use of the environment to hand. It is just awesome!

The presentation, music and level design is lifted straight from the movies and books. The quality of the presentation is top notch, and is supported by full THX 5.1 support. It 10 hours of play, I never encountered a single glitch or graphical anomaly.

The game carefully blends the present day story with assassination missions during Bourne's Treadstone years. These provide additional back-story, not found in the movies, and add to the Bourne universe. Not many games can claim to add something valuable to a movie or book
franchise, but The Bourne Conspiracy certainly does. If there is one criticism however, it is that the game can be completed (on easy) in under 10 hours. It doesn't offer much replay either, other than achievement collecting.

Such a high quality and enjoyable game should really have got more attention on release. Short? Yes. But also immensely satisfying and fun. Fans of the books or films will get even more from the game, and for them The Bourne Conspiracy should be a must buy.

A full demo, taken from one of the few escape missions in the game, can be found on XBL Marketplace and PSN.

5/5

Review: Lego Batman (X360)

Pros: It's Batman; Lego characters are cute; the villains

Cons: Platforming hampered by camera; vehicle levels are poor; hub world has instant death; no online co-op; dodgy AI again!

Lego Batman continues with the same formula used in Lego Starwars and Lego Indy. It is the usual mixture of 3D platforming and item collecting -studs, mini-kits & red power bricks- that have been hallmarks of the series. Where Lego Batman does differ is that we now have an original story and context that is not based on existing movies alone. Lego Batman is an welcome addition to the family but ultimately highlights the usual complaints about the Lego titles.

The Lego games are really the last bastion of traditional 3D platforming left in the current generation of video game consoles. For that we should be truly thankful. However, the cracks are starting to show, and the issues in the previous Lego games have still not been addressed: poor camera, instant death jumps, screen tearing, and unpredictable AI are still here and just as
annoying as in the last 3 games.

The switch to an original story, based around the various movie, comic book and TV interpretations of Batman, works well. It has allowed the developers to include some interesting new gameplay mechanics, specifically with the villain characters (always the best characters in the Batman canon). It does, however, make this Lego game even more fragmented when playing through on Free Play (where you can use any characters). You often have to toggle through 20 different characters to find the one skill you need to unlock a
particular door or object.

The sound effects are lifted from previous Lego titles, and the music has been licensed from the Batman movies. The music blends well with the "Burton-sequel" level design aesthetics. This is also probably the best looking Lego game to date, with lots of cool next-gen water and smoke
effects thrown into the environments.

Lego Batman is a good game but it feels like it should be the last in the current Lego series. Whilst maintaining the fun and whimsy of the previous games, the gameplay mechanics are starting to become tiresome. Adding more skills and characters doesn't completely make up for the poor AI and often unfair level design that continue to be a problem. Wherever the Lego series goes next, it must reinvent and resolve these issues or risk undermining the
good will it has generated so far.

3/5

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Review: Too Human (X360)


Too Human is worth exploring if you have enjoyed action RPGs in the past, but you will have to look beyond flawed game mechanics and design.

Pros: Sci-Fi twist on Norse mythology; plenty of action
Cons: Broken RPG class & item system; no sense of empowerment; weak level design; many small annoyances; below par graphics and character design

Too Human attempts to blend elements from multiple video genres and concepts: including, Diablo, Halo, Devil May Cry, God of War, Legacy of Kane and Shadowman. However, for each neat idea that has been borrowed, there is flawed execution and questionable design decisions.

The combat is a very good example. The game is designed to mirror the point and click top-down PC RPGs, by using a twin stick mechanic where you point towards enemies to engage them. It is a nice idea, but you are actually left with a very loose feeling experience and limited camera control as the right stick usually assigned camera control in 3D games. Unfortunately the automatic camera doesn’t work too well so there can be some really frustrating moments. The lack of camera control also makes exploring the game world, for secrets and hidden items, needlessly tiresome.

Too Human features an extremely comprehensive item system with many nuances and customization options. However, again, the good idea is ruined by the game forcing you to use weapons within a level or two. You never, therefore, feel any benefit from the new item, as the enemies level up at exactly the same rate. Other RPGs and action RPGs successfully allow the player to use a powerful weapon - to give the feeling of awesomeness from the reward. Unfortunately, Too Human never lets you experience empowerment, and removes one of the key features that make action RPGs fun and satisfying.

Too Human also attempts to blend Sci-Fi with Norse mythology. It should be fantastic but it is less than successful. The narrative is clumsy and crude, whilst the characters are not established such that you feel anything for them. The Norse Mythology was so badly handled that I had to resort to Wikipedia to actually work out what was going on! The game ends with a rather limp cliffhanger too. So much for Dyack’s priority in storytelling?

The biggest problem with Too Human, by far, are the fundamental design issues; particularly the class system. On my play-through, I chose the Berserker class who’s strengths reside in combos and dual welding. However, these strengths are balanced with very weak ranged attack and no real defense. This would be fine except that nearly all the the game’s larger enemies and bosses require ranged attacks in order to expose their weak spots. Creating a game that plays to the strengths of some classes, but makes it almost impossible for others, is a serious oversight. It can make for some very long and tedious battles that could only be accomplished by the (fairly) penalty free reincarnation - provided you can put up with the 30 second death animation..clipping and all.

Every time I felt I was starting to enjoy my play-through of Too Human, another serious flaw would rob me of my enjoyment. Despite that, it is worth playing though the game to experience some of the better scripted moments and occasional sense of accomplishment. I did enjoy the game in places. If only it had another 12 months of development to fix some of the design flaws.

3/5

Thursday, 17 July 2008

First Impressions: Guitar Hero - On Tour (DS)


My copy of GH On Tour arrived this morning, and I am about 25% though the set list.

The Good
- It really is Guitar Hero! (see my photo)
- 3D Animation is very good for the DS
- Touch Screen controls
- Blow to activate Star Power
- New characters

The Bad
- The controller is slightly loose when plugged in
- It is a little awkward to see what is going on behind your strumming hand

The Ugly
- It takes a while to get a comfortable position
- You can only really play 5-6 songs without having to take rest

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Telling Niko's Story


Originally posted for the Cranky Gamers UK

About six months ago I wrote an article on why Bioshock was the most important game of this generation. In my opinion it was the first video game to successfully implement a genuine interactive narrative. Until that point, video games had relied on emulating cinematic techniques using non-interactive cutscenes to deliver the story. Even the mighty Metal Gear Solid, often lauded for its complex story and cinematic quality, relied on non-interactive methods: remember the codec!

The latest edition of the GTA series includes many new features: such as, multiplayer, improved combat and cutting-edge physics. But it has also subtly changed the way in which the narrative is delivered. You might not notice when you are playing, but the cut scenes only set-up each mission. Just like Bioshock, the real detail and plot are revealed through more interactive events - your relationships with other characters.

If you blast through the game without engaging in the relationships, by taking out friends and dating, you will only reveal a tiny proportion of Niko’s story. Like the “tapes” in Bioshock, exploration and interacting with the environment are just as important to the story as the cutscenes and missions themselves. Even after completing the game, you can find out more about Niko and the other characters, by continuing to socialise and interact with them; particularly Roman and Packie.

The current generation of video games are setting new standards for technology: such as graphics, physics and scope. But as someone who has played and thought about games for 25 years, the big change I have seen is the birth of a genuine interactive art form. One where the boundaries on non-interactive cinema no longer constrain the game design. I think we can look forward to games that don’t just deliver fun, but also emotional and thought provoking stories for those who seek it as they play.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Bioshock is the most important game of this generation



Let me explain why.

For many years, video games have been seen as a childish pursuit, something the the “mainstream” looks down on as being immature and unworthy. It all feeds into the debate about whether a video game can be judged as an art form.

This point of view upsets me and degrades our hobby. We are constantly tarnished with accusations that all games involve killing and violence. Alright, so does Bioshock, but it is balanced with emotion and alternative play mechanics.

We all know this perception that we are all immature and blood thirsty morons is wrong. I’m pleased, in some small way, that consoles like the Wii & DS are starting to dispel this myth.

Back to Bioshock.... Every few years a game comes along that revolutionises the game design: Mario Brothers established platform gaming rules, Tomb Raider did the same for adventure gaming; Mario 64 shocked the gaming world with a virtual three dimensional world; Metal Gear Solid 2 pioneered cinematic story telling; and Grand Theft Auto III released the shackles of linear game design, creating a new sense of “exploration and fun”.

To this epic list, you should now add Bioshock.

When people look back in a few years time, it will be Bioshock that defines the key landmark in the current generation of video games. Not because of its gameplay, or how fun it is, but because it is the first game to establish video games as the fourth storytelling art form, after books, comics and film. The first video game that can be considered art. I shall try to explain why....

Until now, video games have used cinematic techniques to tell stories: through cut scenes, dialog, or flash backs. Metal Gear Solid 2 was the first game to establish many of the techniques we see used today in hit games like Uncharted, COD4, Halo 3 etc. All of these techniques, while original for video games, are borrowed from the cinema. The trend has been to make games more like movies, in order to tell a dramatic story.

Bioshock completely re-writes the rule book; rather than follow the established convention it has actually defined a new form of “interactive story telling” which no movie, game, book or comic has previously achieved. Bioshock has a genuine claim to present video games as a new art form.

Let me give you a definition of art: “Generally art is a (product of) human activity, made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind; by transmitting emotions and/or ideas.”

If you have played through this game, you would be hard pressed to say that it did not stir an emotional reaction when you decided the fate of a little sister, or when you discover the reasons for you linear actions.

At no time during the game are you spoon fed what to think (other than the “motivation” to move forward). In fact, the games power is in turning an established norm in video game design into a key part of the plot and narrative.

The story itself is not “watched” like a movie, or “read” like comic but interactively discovered and revealed through interaction and exploration. The audio diaries are cleverly distributed so that they reveal character stories and plot in reverse, or out of sync, so that you constantly question the motivations and wrestle with your own ideas. Anyone who has seen the film Memento will know what a powerful and unsettling experience that can be.

Finally, the subject matter itself: Ryan’s objectivist-dystopian city of Rapture; is an ingenious comment on the conventions established in modern video games. Once again, you are left to decide for yourself: Is Rapture was a flawed and evil concept? Or the unlucky result of a failed genius’ big idea. The developers leave hints to their opinions through the audio diaries, but ultimately the player makes up their own mind.

I’ve being reading and listening to the various “games of the year” awards that the internet is saturated with at this time of year. I’ve becoming increasingly cranky about the short-sighted views of some of the mass media, and one or two sites in particular (not this one I hasten to add). They all moan and complain about the reputation that video games has, and how it is not taken seriously. Now, when presented with the clearest evidence yet that we have reach a new high, they fail to see the significance and resort back to handing out awards to the best looking games, or the most recent, or (worse) the most hyped.

I felt I had to make this point because I probably won’t get a chance in the Cranky Gamer’s Xmas Podcast...plus I would probably go on, and on, like an intellectual idiot anyway.

I would be interested to know what other people think?

I am not talking about how “fun” Bioshock was (although it was a lot of fun), but how significant and important you think it will be in years to come?

[Orginally posted on www.crankygamersuk.com]

First Impressions: Wii Fit


The first thing you notice is the weight. The board is heavy, solid and large. The build quality is excellent and the plastics are tough. 4AA batteries sit in the base, as does the WiFi sync button to hook it up to the Wii.

On starting the game you are asked to select a Mii, perform a balance test (something to do with posture) and then enter your age and height. Wii Fit then weighs you and gives you a BMI rating. Just to rub salt into the wound, your Mii then morphs comically according to your BMI. In my case this resulted in a humiliating and depressing expansion.

You are then asked to set your fitness goal -lowering the BMI in my case- and how long you want to set the goal for. The game then suggests the type of games to play and gives you a Wii Fit age; again, depressingly I was 20% over. At this point I was starting to see how Wii Fit works, it humiliates you into loosing weight…it certainly put me off my tea.

The two most interesting games I tried were Skiing (a balance game) and Jogging (aerobic). The Skiing was a lot of fun, whilst the Jogging worked a lot better than I thought. The Jogging doesn’t use the board. Instead you put the Wiimote in your back pocket and jog on the spot. On screen, your jogging Mii follows the trainer around a park filled with all your other Mii characters. Not only was it a good work-out (I did get out of breath), there was enough on screen to make it interesting too. Your fellow Mii’s wave and cheer you on, which improves ones mood a little after the depressing weigh-in.

Overall, I have actually been impressed with Wii Fit. My Wife has been looking forward to getting the game and gizmo for some time. Time will tell if it actually works or just becomes another peripheral collecting dust.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix


HP OotP has all the right elements to be a great game but is let down
by a lack of imagination.

Pros: Hogwarts is fantastic; licenced music; voiced by some of the cast; cool analog stick spell casting

Cons: Dull quests; excessive treking; limited shortcuts; weak story integration

The opening 10 minutes of HP OotP contains all the good and bad things in the game. Your introduction to Hogwarts is breathtaking and the analog stick spell casting makes immediate sense. However, unless you've seen the film or read the book, the cut scenes do not tell the
story successfully. Worse, the tasks and quests have little to do with the novel's plot.

The game design is clearly inspired by Bully, but toned down in scope and difficulty. Exploring Hogwarts is initially enjoyable, and finding all its secrets proves to be fun. However, many tasks resort to you treking from one side of the school to the other for nothing more than greeting a new character. Shortcuts are provided but they are of limited use and never really reduce the time taken to traipse across Hogwarts for the 100th time.

The game clearly has great potential and the core elements are there. If EA can integrate the story into the game and reduce the pointless school treking, the next installment could be a real winner. 

3/5

Friday, 18 April 2008

Review: Bladestorm


Bladestorm successfully blends Japanese hack and slash with real time strategy.

Pros: Plenty of strategic options; unit variety; a great sense of scale;

Cons: Lack of variety; repetitive mission structure; some AI path finding issues; more historical inaccuracies than Braveheart.

Set against the Hundred Years War between England and France, Bladestorm is a curious game that defies categorising. Visually it is a marriage between Japanese style and western theme. The character models are pure Japanese fantasy, whilst the environments and settings recreate the castles and fortified towns of northern France. It is a curious blend but one that does work.

The simplistic story is revealed by completing various mercenary missions for either the French or English forces. Essentially, you use your mercenary avatar to control entire battlefield units and capture control points. You are able to issue command instructions and special attacks to your unit by holding down controller face buttons. Missions can be completed with the provided units, or you can hire and summon your own. There is not a great deal of variety and it soon becomes a little repetitive.

Occasionally you are required to follow key NPC characters to capture mission objectives or locations. The AI is often not quite up to the job of finding the path for the units to get to the destination. This can lead to some comedy moments when the NPC characters get stuck on walls or in bushes.

Bladestorm offers a unique game experience on the Xbox 360 and should appeal to fans of real time strategy and action role-play games. The blend of European setting and Japanese character design may put some people off, but they would be missing an enjoyable game.

3/5

Review: Singstar


Singstar makes its way to the PS3 and introduces some revolutionary community features.

Pros: fun; excellent integrated community features; great online store; large selection of music DLC

Cons: limited initial play list; weaker rap mode; no online modes

Singstar has a long pedigree on the Playstation 2.  The PS3 version expands the features to include both iTunes and YouTube like functionality. Singstar is one of the first PS3 games to make full use of both the Playstation Store and Playstation Eye. You can capture movie, audio and photo snapshots of your performances, and then upload them to share with friends and other players.

The core game remains unchanged from the previous generation. You might feel silly the first time you play Singstar's virtual karaoke but with a partner or friends it can be a whole lot of fun.

Singstar's excellent community features and integrated store really do showcase the potential of the Playstation 3. The game should be a welcome addition to any party.

5/5

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Review: Burnout Paradise


Burnout Paradise is the best game in the series, and possibly the best arcade driving experience on any console. 

Pros: Fantastic city environment; seamless online; online co-op challenges; well balanced cars 

Cons: Some bad EA Trax; EA servers; online racing is dull; single player can become repetitive; Sat Nav and map are hard to read.

No other game this year that has had me grinning from ear to ear so much. What Burnout Paradise's clever online experience exploits is the sheer fun to be found in completing silly challenges with a group of friends. Criterion have also managed to create the first seamless online system that allows players to drop in and out of a session without any disruption. 

Paradise's brilliantly designed open city allows the player to explore, play and race at their leisure. The driving mechanics are classic Burnout: fast, frantic and with lots of power sliding. The framerate never falls and the sense of speed is without equal. Only minor niggles over the map and sound-track tarnish an otherwise perfect game.

There is something for everyone in Burnout Paradise. Petrol heads will love the seat of the pants racing, whilst puzzle solvers will enjoy the stunt and online co-op challenges. 

5/5

 PS3 and X360 versions played.

Review: Blue Dragon


Blue Dragon is a quality role-play game that any fan of the genre will enjoy. 

Pros: Simple mechanics; no random battles; great music; 

Cons: Obsessive item hunting; difficulty spikes; tough bosses; unbalanced achievements; occasional framerate issues. 

Along with Mistwalker's other Xbox 360 game -Lost Odyssey-, Blue Dragon gives the role-play game fan another interesting and fun adventure to experience. Filled with the usual assortment of dysfunctional teenagers, Blue Dragon looks like a clichéd title. However, there are enough
innovations to make it accessible to everyone. 

One of Blue Dragon's best features is the inclusion of field enemies rather than random encounters. As your characters gain skills, you can actually avoid endless battles with weak enemies by beating them on touch - at the expense of some experience and energy. This saves a lot of time and tedious level grinding later in the game.

The presentation is consistently attractive with some sophisticated graphical effects and wonderful music. The colourful palette and cartoon characters help to make the game enjoyable for a western gamer. The robots enemies, in particular, are well designed and somewhat reminiscent of characters from Ratchet and Clank.

Blue Dragon is recommended for any role-play game fans. Gamers more orientated toward action games, may enjoy Blue Dragon because of the lack of random encounters too.

4/5 

Review: Lost Odyssey


Lost Odyssey is an exceptional title. It mixes a compelling story with a perfectly presented and balanced game.

Pros: Fantastic music and visuals; well defined characters; evenly paced; balanced battle system; novel ring system; level grinding is not necessary

Cons: Item hunting in scenery gets tiresome; one over dramatic scene; occasional long load times

I've never been a great fan of Japanese role-play games. However, Lost Odyssey hit every one of my gaming buttons. It features an engrossing story in an imaginative game world. The presentation is exceptional with a unique "Future-Medieval" art style and some wonderful music by Uemastu.

The usual JRPG teenage angst is replaced with more adult themes of death, love and loss. The characters are all interesting and appealing. And with the exception of one scene, the game deftly blends drama, tragedy and comedy. The writing is universally good and never descends into Eastenders like character changes.

If you have never played or enjoyed a JRPG in the past, then Lost Odyssey could be the gateway game for you. If you are a fan, then this is an essential purchase.

5/5

Friday, 11 April 2008

Friday, 21 March 2008

First Impressions: Rainbow Six Vegas 2

Rainbow Six Vegas 2 is a slightly disappointing sequel to one of the best games of 2006.

Vegas 2 lacks the polish and level design of its predecessor, with the first 3 acts consisting of narrow corridors in dull buildings. Some of the levels, like the Convention Centre, are constructed from multiple featureless rectangular objects and flat surfaces. The result is that Vegas 2 looks like a high-res version of a 5 year old game...quite frankly, it is ugly in places. The original Rainbow Six Vegas had much more variety and far superior level design to this. It makes me wonder if this game was developed by a different team?

The basic gameplay is still spot on, and T-Hunt is great. However, both are hampered the numerous technical issues and AI problems that did not effect the previous game. I lost count how many times the NPCs have got stuck or I have fallen through or clipped the scenery. What is it with Ubisoft at the moment? Do they not have a QA department?

The additional EXP stuff is neat, but it only unlocks all the same weapons we had in the previous game. That seems kind of pointless really? The revised achievements are well designed, equally rewarding players in Player and Ranked matches.

Unfortunately, Rainbow Six Vegas 2 feels rushed and unfinished. For me, this was a missed opportunity.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Review: Patapon (PSP)


Pros: charming graphics, music and gameplay; original ideas; good value

Cons: repeated backtracking; unnecessary resource management; no in-level save; difficult in parts; occasionally confusing

Patapon follows on from last years quirky PSP title LocoRoco, in offering a fun, stylised and unforgettable experience. Sadly, Patapon is let down by some unwelcome backtracking, resource management and difficulty spikes.

The basic premise of Patapon is to progress your little army of units through a series of battles and boss fights by issuing instructions played out on a drum. Essentially a rhythm action game, you beat out different rhythms using the four face buttons on the PSP. These rhythms instruct the little army to move forward, attack, take cover or fall back.

For example: Square, Square, Circle, Square (pata, pata, pata, pon) sends the units forward; Triangle, Triangle, Square, Circle (chaka, chaka, pata, pon) makes them take cover.

A successfully timed instruction is greeted by singing Patapons, whilst a missed beat will cause them to get confused and expose them to danger. Chaining together successful rhythms will put the army into fever which powers-up their individual attacks.

Each level consists of hunting animals for food, attacking enemy units, or taking on a huge boss. There isn’t a great deal of variety other than in the art and boss attacks. The game feels artificially lengthened as you often have to repeat early levels several times to collect food and items required to continue. The hunting is particularly tedious as soon as you move forward the animals run away (tip: only use ranged units).

To add a little RPG to the mix, you can upgrade your unit’s weapons and armor, and earn new items from a singing tree (a whimsical trumpet playing mini-game). However, the game does a very poor job of explaining all these elements, particularly the backtracking, despite the frequent tips and messages displayed on the loading screens.

Visually Patapon is a treat. It may not push the hardware to the limits, but the abstract silhouettes and cute visual style are charming. Each of the different units is uniquely animated and expressive in their own way. The visuals are complemented by the music and sound effects, which are essential elements in a rhythm action game like this. The Patapon songs are certainly infectious, and you will find yourself humming them long after you have stopped playing.

The frequent backtracking, and often unforgiving difficulty, mean that the game represents good value if you have the patience to stick with it. Sadly it a difficult game to enjoy in a portable environment: there is no save game feature in the levels, and you obviously must have the headphones on. I tend to play the PSP on the train, where the lack of inh-level save means that I must either abandon a level or miss my stop.

There is genuine charm and enjoyment in tapping out the rhythms and watching the cute little army, but the game’s problems do hinder the overall experience. However, it is still a recommended purchase for anyone in the market for an original PSP title, but be aware it is addictive and frustrating in equal measure.

3/5

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Review: FIFA Street 3 (X360)


Underrated and unappreciated, FIFA Street 3 injects a sense of fun back into video game football.

Pros: well balanced teams and players; arcade controls; a glorious sense of fun; slick animations; superb music sound track

Cons: online plays slightly slower; most game modes designed for local multiplayer; product placement

Achievements: Fair - Easy

Each year both FIFA and ProEvo try their best to beat each other by adding more of everything: more controls; mode game modes; more realism; more menus! FIFA Street represents a move in the opposite direction with deconstructed fun and acrobatic gameplay at its heart. As a video game, FIFA Street 3 is a resounding success

Fundamentally, EA have taken the NBA Street Homecourt engine and applied it to the concepts you see in the Nike/Adidas football advertisements. To emphasis this new approach, the player models have been replaced with abstract caricature styling. Some of the more discerning football fans may not appreciate the change, but I think they are an interesting twist and add to the sense of fun.

ProEvo and FIFA’s annual battle has ensured that the games have become increasingly complex. ProEvo alone, has more than 17 different button combinations. What makes Street so refreshing is the adoption of gaming first principles - with well tuned, basic controls, a risk vs reward system (the Game-breaker), and perfect rock-paper-scissor balance (Tricksters > Enforcers > Strikers). The result is some of the best arcade sports fun I have enjoyed for a long time. Let me just say that I’ve played more FIFA Street in past last 3 days, that I’ve played ProEvo and FIFA in the past 3 years...that’s how good it is.

If you approach Street as a “football sim”, then you will undoubtedly hate it. However, if you come to it with an open mind and embrace the video game principles of building “trick combos” and exploiting the “game-breaker” power-up, it is loads of fun and very satisfying. I've read a few reviews and been surprised by some of the comments. In some cases I have felt that the reviewer has missed the point. It is not football sports game, but an arcade game that happens to use cartoon footballers and a ball. I don’t remember the same criticisms being leveled at Mario Strikers? However, this is essentially the same type of game. I can’t help feeling there is a degree of football snobbery when it comes to video games.

The team/character combinations are really quite clever with players are grouped into attribute sets like “Youngsters”, “Veterans” and “Speedsters”. Individually, the players are all balanced by a class system that effects the ability to shoot, pass, dash and tackle [from Enforcers and Defenders to Tricksters and Strikers].

I have read a few comments that is too difficult to tackle. Let me dispel that issue: it is no harder than ProEvo and FIFA, and in fact the “block-rather-than-slide” rule works just as well here. You also have to remember that this is essentially and arcade game about crazy skills rather than clod-hopping centre halfs. If you pick Enforcers in your team, the the tackling is lot easier and works just fine. It is all a question of optimising your team to your play style.

As well as the unusual art style, the music is also a revelation. The mix of European dance and Latin American beats is inspired and perfectly suits the game. When not completely engrossed in the action, it is is quite nice and just kick back and listen to the EA Trax - I don’t recall ever doing that in an EA game before.

FIFA Street 3 does come-up a little short with the options for the solo player. Most football games are always better enjoyed playing locally with friends. Three out the the four game modes in Street are specifically designed for local multiplayer. As a solo player you really only have the challenging career mode (I’ve racked up about 8 hours and I have just one tier left) or ‘Xbox Live’. ‘Xbox Live’ supports the same local multiplayer match modes (playground, normal, and game-breaker) but does play noticeable slower than a solo or local game. I expect this is to reduce the effects of lag in what is a very face paced game.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed playing FIFA Street 3 more than any football game for the past few years. The back-to-basics arcade controls and finely balanced gameplay really puts the fun back into video game football. Only the limited number of solo player options hinders its value and longevity.

8/10

Friday, 22 February 2008

Preview: Final Fantasy XII – Revenant Wings (DS)


First off, I have never played FFXII. Fortunately, that doesn't seem to matter as the story kicks off after the events in the original game, and the characters (including Vaan) are all carefully introduced for new players.

The game is an original concept in the series. It cleverly merges a traditional RPG with real-time strategy (instead of the turn-based FF Tactics). Each member of your party is able to summon units (Espers) to fight along side them. It plays very much much Warcraft 3's heroes system, with each character fighting as well as controlling one group of units. The units themselves follow the standard RTS convention of three different types that all counter each other: Ranged > Flying > Melee; and Fire > Lightning > Earth > Water. In order to win each level, you must capture summoning points, and assemble your little army, before defeating the enemy forces. As you progress you can level-up to obtain new weapons, units (Espers), magic and abilities.

I'm about 20% of the way through the story (about 3 hours), which is excellent, witty and compelling. I've enjoyed the challenges presented so far, and the level design has been very interesting. What really amazes me is the quality of the dual-screen full motion video used in the cut scenes. The quality of the images and animation on the little DS screens is incredible. The levels are also highly detailed with some fantastic textures.

The only couple of niggles I have found so far is that it can get a bit chaotic on screen (like all RTSs do when it becomes a unit brawl) and the stealth missions are horrible.

I'll probably publish a full review when I get past 50%.

Preview: FIFA Street 3 (X360)


My pre-order arrived, and I played the first 4 challenges on FIFA Street 3 last night. I have to say that I really like it.

EA have basically taken the NBA Street Homecourt engine and applied it to the concepts you see in a Nike/Adidas football advertisement. They have also thrown in abstract caricature styling and player models – which some folks will dislike, but I think they are an interesting twist.

Now I was a big fan of NBA Street Homecourt. I actually think the over-the-top acrobatics and simple arcade controls make for a better video game. It worked perfectly in Homecourt, and it works really well in FIFA Street.

If you approach this game as a “football sim”, then you will undoubtedly hate it. However, if you come to it with an open mind and embrace the “trick combos” and “gamebreaker” mechanics, it is a load of fun. I've read a few reviews and been surprised by some of the comments. In some cases I have felt that the reviewer has missed the point. It is not football sports game, but an arcade game that happens to use cartoon footballers and a ball.

I'll need to play it a lot more to see how much depth and longevity there is, but so far the 4 games I played were great fun. The team/character combinations are really quite clever (players are grouped into sets like “Youngsters”, “Veterans” and “Speedsters”) and I personally like the caricatures (- particularly Samuel Eto's which made me laugh!.

BTW: There is an achievement for scoring a hat-trick with Peter Crouch!

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Review: Geometry Wars Galaxies (DS)


Geometry Wars is perfectly suited to the DS and trumps Evolved in every way.

Pros: Great controls; many game variations; more enemy types; the drone and geoms are excellent additions; online leaderboards; music

Cons: Some slow down when the enemies number in 100s; later levels are really tough; best for daily play rather than long sessions

Xbox owners will already know the simple joy of Geometry Wars. Everyone else will have done well to avoid the many “rip-off” twin stick shooters that have emerged since. Now the Wii and DS get their very own full retail release of Geometry Wars Galaxies.

Were this just Geometry Wars Evolved, it would be a questionable purchase, but the game is some 100 times larger than Evolved with many planets, each representing one Geometry Wars grid. No two grids are the same, with virtually every conceivable parameter changed on each: from enemy types and patterns, to grid shape, number of lives and enemy AI.

The dual stick controls and mapped to the D-pad, for movement, and touch screen, for shooting. Basically you point on the lower screen in the direction you want to shoot. To assist you, the ship has a thin red “laser target” line coming out of the front so you can always orientate your hand to the ship. It works a treat.

Galaxies also introduces two new concepts. First is the Drone, a small orbiting partner to your ship, its logic and powers can be customised and levelled-up. For example, you can tailor the drone to protect you, attack at will, encircle you or collect items. The second innovation is the game's currency – the geoms – which must be collected after destroying enemies, and are used to unlock planets and the power-ups for your drone. The geoms fundamentally change your strategy: you now have to move the ship, not only to destroy the waves of enemies, but also to collect the geoms. It adds a further risk vs. reward mechanism into what is already an intense game, and it is a stroke of genius. The combination of the drone and geoms mean you can adjust your tactics depending on the grid.

The graphics and music are top quality, and perfectly suited to the DS. With the exception of some or the more fancy effects, the music and graphics are ported straight from the Xbox 360 version. Only when encountering the occasional framerate drop, when there are many enemies on screen, do the limitations of the hardware become noticeable.

Leaderboards made the Xbox version so addictive, and amazingly, they have made there way into the DS version too. When you start a new galaxy, you are prompted to download/upload the latest scores via the Nintendo WFC.

With dozens of grids, simple controls, online leaderboards, and a considerable challenge, Geometry Wars Galaxies is an excellent addition to anyone's DS library.

8/10

Review: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (PS3)


Uncharted lands on the PS3 with a bang as loud as Indiana Jones' whip.

Pros: Slick presentation and graphics; a cracking yarn; interesting lead character; great controls; achievements!

Cons: A little short; final boss is lame; some illogical paths; simple puzzles

Medals (Achievements): Fair

Very few games deliver on their early promise. Fewer still exceed it. Uncharted is one of those rare beasts that, right from the start, displays a quality of gameplay and presentation that supersedes any preconceptions or expectations. Uncharted looks amazing, sounds brilliant, has some excellent voice acting, and is complemented by an engrossing story.

Essentially, Uncharted is a new take on the Indiana Jones/Lara Croft action adventure that blends the classic puzzle solving and platforming with an exceptional third person shooter. Uncharted is more combat orientated than Lara's adventures, and more tactical in execution. You will need make extensive use of cover and conserve ammunition in order to progress through the story.

The game has a genuine sense of pace, with enemy encounters counterpointed with more laid-back problem solving, platforming or adrenaline fuelled vehicles sections, including a memorable journey up river-rapids on a jet-bike. At no point does any of this become repetitive or old, and it really helps to drive the story and adventure forward. If there is a slight criticism, it is that the puzzles can be a tad obvious, and some of the routes a little illogical. For instance, in once section you travel through enemy infested tombs, following a trail of puzzles and clues, only to end up back where you started from.

I completed a play-through on normal difficulty in about 11 hours, which would have been shorter were it not for the ridiculous last boss. The Medals (Achievements) add an incentive to replay the game and unlock all 1000 points.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is my PS3 game of 2007, and should be the first game you purchase when you pick up a new PS3. The breathtaking environments, story, gameplay, action and adventure, all add up to one great game.

5/5

Review: Football Manager Handheld 2008 (PSP)


FMH 2008 for the PSP contains all the essential elements that make Football Manager such a great game.

Pros: Short load times; large database; less bloat than the PC/Mac version; good user interface

Cons: Can't compare players easily; challenging; buggy loan system

In writing this review, I will assume that the reader has at least played a “Football Manager” iteration before on the PC/Mac, Xbox or PSP.

I have been fan of the Sports Interactive series from the original Championship Manager through to the latest SEGA Football Manager. I purchased the Xbox 360 version last year, and the first PSP version the year before that. Essentially this is the same game again, although the 2008 hand-held edition does introduce some interesting new features as well as an up-to-date database.

The biggest change is the introduction of media handling, from the PC/Mac/Xbox, to the hand-held game. It adds an additional team and player dynamic that you must handle in addition to the formation and team squad management. On the whole it works pretty well, with players responding to media speculation and comments for better or worse.

Other changes include an overall of the user interface, which has resulted in a much more intuitive navigation through the use of the PSP shoulder buttons (back page and forward page). The text and button placement has also been improved for greater clarity on the PSP screen.

The game is as challenging, addictive and satisfying as ever. My success in promoting Darlington through two leagues was really engaging, and I found myself sitting in work meetings, planning the changes I was going to make in the game on the way home. Personally I find the PSP version to be a much leaner and superior game to the PC/Mac edition, which I find has become too complicated and convoluted. FMH 2008 just seems perfectly suited to short gameplay sessions on the train, bus or plane.

FMH 2008 is not without its faults. It would be nice to be able to compare players statistics without having to resort to Stato-like memory or scribbles on paper; the game can occasionally be totally unfair – particularly with injuries or bad luck – and can throw up some crazy results; and the loan system is broken, resulting on players staying on loan indefinitely with the loan recall not working.

If you are a fan of the series, and own a PSP, then you can't go far wrong with FMH 2008. Football Manager in your pocket has never been better.

8/10

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Review: Assassins Creed (X360)


Assassins Creed is a beautiful but flawed open world game, that leaves the player feeling both elated and annoyed in equal measure.

Pros: Beautiful environments; wonderful historic setting; free-running is fun; climbing is enjoyable; animations are superb; solid counter-based combat; assassinations are satisfying

Cons: Confused and confusing story with no coherent narrative; Sci-Fi feels tacked on; poor variety of missions; difficulty spikes; occasional control issues; flag missions are game breaking

Achievements: Fair

I managed to complete Assassins Creed in two separate play-throughs. I eventually completed the game following a break after hitting “the wall”, as described by many players, just after the first visit to Acre. I am glad I did eventually completed it, as I wanted to find out what was going on. It also cemented my view that Assassins Creed could have been a spectacular game if not for some curious design decisions and a lack of depth.

There is no question that Assassins Creed looks fantastic. The historic renditions of the middle east are truly breathtaking, especially when enjoyed from the many vantage points. One of the highlights of the game for me was simply climbing the tallest building and surveying the city scape beneath Altair's feet. Down in the city streets, the world feels alive with people engaging in various day-to-day activities. The whole sense of place would have been incredible if it were not for the cod-Sci-Fi intrusions that blight the landscape and take the player out the the exquisitely crafted world.

The actual assassinations themselves, when you reach them, provide a good intellectual challenge, and offer the player a number of strategies. Had Assassins Creed stuck to the cities and assassinations, this would have been a superb game along the same lines of Shadow of the Colossus.

However, Ubisoft tried to take the game one stage further by introducing side-quests and missions of questionable design & quality. Most ridiculous of which is the timed flag collecting mission. Never has the inclusion of a mini-game been so out of place, and been so successful at reminding the player that they are playing a by-the-numbers video game. A simulation of Medieval Jerusalem should not include Crackdown style timed collection missions- I'm sorry it is fucking stupid!

Finally, we have the completely unsatisfactory Sci-Fi sub-plot, which I will maintain was added late in the development. If you have completed the game, and found all the “clues” in the present, sit back and think about the game's story again. How much of the Medieval game had any relevance to the “future”,.....the answer is none until the very last chapter, and even then it is pretty tenuous. I am willing to bet a tidy sum that the game originally did not have any of the cod-Sci-Fi. In fact, previews as late as last August had none of the “DNA glitching”effects or reference to the sub-plot. From a story telling point of view, the game makes much more sense, and has better narrative cohesion, without the inclusion of the DNA memory stuff. I just don't understand why they felt the need to introduce it, unless it was to ensure they could engineer a sequel.

So, Assassins Creed: some people love it, others hate it. Personally, I found it to be a good and enjoyable game that suffers from some flawed concepts and crazy design decisions. I would definitely recommend the game to anyone, simply for the satisfying assassinations and recreation of a Medieval Middle East.

4/5

Review: Mass Effect (X360)


Mass Effect merges an astonishingly good Sci-Fi story with some great characters to create a truly memorable RPG

Pros: Incredible story; engaging characters; excellent RPG elements; solid combat; Mako is pretty cool

Cons: Graphical defects: texture pop-up & slowdown; some strange UI decisions; lack of environment variety; Mako can also be annoying

Achievements: Fair

I completed my first 40 hour play through of Mass Effect some 2 months ago, and I am about 20 hours into my second. I feel I have had sufficient time to come down from the climatic emotional story conclusion to be able to write an decent retrospective review.

If you are someone who prefers to play a game in bite size chunks, and enjoy immediate action, then I would suggest Mass Effect is not for you. If you are an RPG fan, or a Sci-Fi nerd, then Mass Effect is nothing short of an essential purchase.

Mass Effect's faults are well documented, and to be honest no single problem effects the overall experience. Yes, it does have the worlds slowest elevators, but then who is in a hurry!? Yes, the Mako driving can get on your nerves, but then it can also be very cool. Yes, cash seems largely irrelevant, but then we are all loot hoarders at heart.

The sheer depth and quality of the world created by Bioware is breathtaking and provides a rich back story to the events played out in the game. The game's narrative is exquisitely controlled though the best dialogue system in a game yet, with outcomes directly driven from the responses you make. It may often seem a bit predicable, but the allegiance to Paragon or Renegade really does have an impact on the overall story and the interactions with your crew.

Essentially, Mass Effect is one of the best RPGs of recent years, and definitely the best RPG of 2007. Everyone should at least give Mass Effect a go; you never know, you might get engrossed too?

5/5

Monday, 18 February 2008

Review: Commanders - Attack of the Genos (XBLA)


Commanders is a welcome addition to the strategy games currently available on XBLA.

Pros: Advanced Wars on XBLA; well balanced gameplay;

Cons: music is weak; limited camera; multiplayer needs to be fine tuned.

Achievements: Hard

Commanders is a turn-based strategy game in which you use military units to complete single player missions, AI battle maps or 2-4 player online matches. Essentially Commanders is a rip-off of Advance Wars (Nintendo DS), complete with mock-anime characters, cheesy dialog and rock-paper-scissor units. Normally, I would decry the lack of originality. However, the lack of decent strategy games on the Xbox 360 means that this title stands out and is a lot of fun to play.

There are some minor issues with the game. The maps are viewed from a top down perspective, and it is sometimes hard to get the right zoom and view that you need. The graphics themselves are fine, but the units do lack variety (only two sets of models) and some of the colour combinations can be confusing.

The overall presentation is good for an XBLA title, with only the repetitive music really standing out as a weak area. The menus, user interface and general aesthetic, a kind of art-deco, are all perfectly functional and legible.

The turn-based gameplay is spot on, and the missions (15) offer a fairly steep challenge for Advanced Wars veterans. The addition of 10 multiplayer maps, that can be played both on-line and off, is enough to get started with. If there is a slight criticism, the maps are sometimes a little too large for the unit movement distances.

Online, the matches can take a long time. I personally have experienced a couple of 3 hour games. You can limit the number of turns to 20 or 30, and I would recommend that you do this otherwise things can start to drag on a bit. Another tip to maximise your enjoyment is to turn off the fog-of-war. Although this might make things a little easier for experienced players, the fog can lead to a vary isolated experience as you cannot see what is going on between the other players, and miss out on the more humorous encounters that might occur.

Overall, Commanders is a solid turn-based strategy game and one deserving of every-one's attention.

8/10

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Blog and Pod


Today I've manage to squeeze a few games of Commanders - Attack of the Genos in, whilst also recording and editing the NFP podcast and uploading the last of my reviews to the blog. Hopefully next week I can start writing some new reviews for a change; probably starting with Commanders which is an excellent little game.

If you have not had a chance to try the demo I suggest you have a go. It might be an Advance Wars rip off but that is no bad thing.

Right, the podcast should be up in the next hour... www.ninjafatpigeons.me.uk

Review: Geon: Emotions (XBLA)


Geon: Emotions is a fun and challenging game that is perfectly suited to Xbox Live Arcade.

For: Looks good; fun game concept; cool grids
Against: More fun online; some grids are difficult to navigate

‘Geon: Emotions’ has the potential to be one of those XBLA games that appears, you try once and and move on. That would be a real pitt because it is actually a fun and challenging game that is perfectly suited to the Arcade. The easiest way to describe it is a combination of Pac-Man and Marble-Blast’s competitive mode.

You control a cube on a 3d grid. The object of the game is collect enough pills on your side of the grid to become “full” and then score a goal. To score the goal, you flip the grid over onto your opponents side and make your way to the centre, before your opponent uses any collectable power-ups to inflict damage on you - knocking some of your pills out and sending you back to your grid to collect more.

The twist is provided in the emotions mechanic. You can play as a cube representing certain emotions: envy, anger, bliss etc. The collectable power-ups are also emotion based, and using matched emotions doubles the effect. This feature introduces an additional layer of strategy such that you select an emotion and power up combo that suits your game-play tactics.

The presentation of Geon: Emotions is excellent, with suitably vivid colours and nice visual and audio effects.
The game has a number of puzzle and challenge modes as well as competitive online, which is where the game really shines.

If you enjoyed Marble Blast or Pac-Man Championship edition (another brilliant game overlooked) then I can highly recommend Geon: Emotions as a game that you will enjoy both on and off-line.

7/10

Review: Bomberman Live (XBLA)


Backbone have done a fantastic job in delivering the best Bomberman yet

For: It's Bomberman; brilliant 2-8 player online; range of gameplay options
Against: No team mode (rumours of a later update)

Virtually every console in the past 15 years has featured a Bomberman game, or clone, at some point. Some editions have been a lot better than others. Attempts have been made, and failed, to reinvent the franchise but what Bomberman really needed was the ability to play online.

Bomberman Live delivers and is the perfect update for the current generation of video gaming with excellent HD graphics, slick controls and perfect multiplayer gameplay.

Bomberman Live also represents fantastic value for money with multiple maps, modes and character models to keep everything fresh and interesting.

On downloading Bomberman Live last week I racked up over 10 hours solid - rare for an Arcade tile - in just a couple of days; such was the addictiveness and enjoyment in playing the game.

5/5

Review: Carcassonne (XBLA)


Carcassonne is a thoroughly enjoyable rendition of a classic German board game.

For: Simple rules; tense games; deep strategy; 6 player online; 4 player local
Against: Annoying music; random colour assignment

Carcassonne is best described as a cross between Dominos and Risk. The basic premise is to connect land tiles –containing dirt, paths, monasteries and grass- to form towns, roads and farms and earn points. The strategy is introduced in how you build your towns, roads or farms. You are provided with seven settlers that must be placed tactically to claim that feature. Settlers are released once the feature is claimed, but the limited number of units means that you have to carefully consider your options at every turn.

The simplicity of the game hides the depth of the strategy involved. Matches vs other human opponents can be thoroughly tense affairs with the result often decided on the last tile placement.

The board game graphics are visually appealing; although the text can be small in SD (you can adjust the HUD size). The music is suitably medieval but it is also very repetitive and will get on your nerves after a few games.

At 800M$ Carcassone is brilliant value for money – it is actually cheaper than the board game and does all the difficult maths for you! If you enjoyed Catan or Outpost Kaloki X then Carcassone should make a worthy addition to your XBLA strategy game collection.

5/5

Review: Band of Bugs (XBLA)


Band of Bugs is an enjoyable turn-based game that has more than its fair share of bugs!

For: Well executed turn-based strategy; decent campaign; multiplayer
Against: Several show stopping bugs; dodgy camera

Band of Bugs recalls classic turn-based games such as FF Tactics, Advance Wars or UFO Enemy Unknown. The combat is well balanced with a range of unit types and weapons, whilst the story and level designs are well conceived.

Graphically Band of Bugs does a workman like job, but does suffer from a slightly off centre isometric view that the 4 position camera doesn’t always improve. The “comic book” style characters and story are nicely presented with some appropriate music and sound effects.

Unfortunately, I have found multiple ways to crash the game - including viewing the leaderboard with more than 50 friends - which is unacceptable for a finished title.

Any new strategy games in XBLA are always welcome and, despite the “bugs” in Band of Bugs, it is a solid and enjoyable game.

7/10

Review: Pac-Man Championship Edition (XBLA)


Pac-Man Championship Edition is a brilliant retro-evolved title up there with JetPac and Geometry Wars

For: Great controls; dynamic mazes and effects; good HD visuals and music; lots of game modes
Against: Quite expensive; previous Pac-Mans will put some off

Achievements: Medium

I hate Pac-Man. I hated Pac-Man when I was 8 and now when I am 33. It has taken 25 years but I have finally played a version of Pac-Man that is fun, fast and enjoyable. In fact, if this game didn't have the iconic characters, more people would probably give it a try.

This is the first version of Pac-Man to be completely updated by the original creator. The big changes from the previous XBL Pac-Man games are: controls that work (including sparking), HD dynamic evolving mazes, and time limited score boards. The net effect is a totally different feel to the game with less focus on frantic navigation and more emphasis fruit collection and attacking the ghosts. It has much more in common with Geometry Wars or Jet Pac Refuelled than the original Pac-Man.

The HD graphics and sound make over is well done: retro enough, whilst including some nice new visual effects.

Pac-Man CE has 6 different game modes that vary in time length, maze behaviour (dark mazes!), speed and pill occurrence. Each mode feels different enough to warrant a separate mode and all are challenging but enjoyable. At 800M$, Pac-Man CE is a bit expensive, especially as it is the 3rd Pac-Man game on the platform, but it is by far the best, and one of the most immediate and fun games on XBLA.

9/10

Review: Catan (XBLA)


Catan is the perfect strategy game in a small package: challenging, fun and relaxing

Pros: superb strategy game; two attractive skins; decent AI
Cons: some may find it a bit slow; broken lobby; could do with camera support; broken achivements

Achievements: Medium

I have been waiting for Catan to be released for some time. As a keen game player, of both video and board games, the prospect of board game I could play online with friends was very appealing. Catan delivers on the promise and is a challenging, fun and relaxing way to spend some time with friends on XBLA.

The game plays like a simplified version of Civilization with elements of Risk mixed in. Four players battle for control of resources on the island of Catan in a race to become the first to achieve 10 victory points. Victory points can be gained in a variety of ways, which results in there being a number of competing strategies that can be employed to gain victory. The balance between the strategies is absolutely perfect.

The game's presentation is clean and refined, with some mellow music and a choice of graphical textures: classic board game or 3D World.

At 800M$ Catan is great value for money as there is hours of gameplay to be had, whether playing with friends, or vs the AI for achievements. Catan is the perfect strategy game in a small package: challenging, fun and relaxing.

9/10