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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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...

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Review: New Rally X (XBLA)

Pac-Man with cars is short-lived fun.

Gameplay: I must admit when I first played this game I hated it: it was Pac-Mac with cars and bigger mazes. After I discovered that smoke could be used to block the other cars, and that the achievements were easy, I decided to take the plunge and splashed the 400M$. Actually the gameplay is pretty addictive, and once you start getting rocks and fuel issues, quite challenging. You always want just one more go.

Graphics: As a retro game it is hard to rate, but the complete lack of any tweaks or improvements means it is below par.

Sound: As with the graphics, they could have at least given us some nice menu music or anything!

Value: The real problem with Rally X is that you can get to the “final” achievement level (16) in an hour or so. There are an infinite number of continues, so this is just an exercise in practice and perseverance. There is no multiplayer or additional content to unlock. The achievements are all very easy.

Tilt: I actually quite liked this game once I got into it. It became quite addictive in a way that Pac-Man never does. Must be all that smoke!


Review: Bankshot Billiards 2 (XBLA)

Bankshot Billiards 2 offers a variety of international pool game variations and trick shot mini games. Each shot can be set with power, spin, and cue angle like most snooker and pool simulations. The controls are fairly intuitive with the Right Trigger used to provide precision movement to the power, spin and angle.

The core pool game has pretty realistic physics although the cushion bounce variation (due to power) does seem a little exaggerated. You are limited to 3 views: top-down, behind and follow, but these function fine and you'll probably find yourself using the top-down the most, particularly on the trickshots and golf. There are three levels of player assistance so a complete pool novice should be able to pick-up and play.

The trick shots and golf provide the main puzzle element and challenge in the game. The trick shots allow you to see an example of the shot (pressing Back button) but the Golf requires you to puzzle out the best shot to get the balls down in under par. Both these games types will require you to master the spin, and angle shots.

The graphics are fine, with some nice light sourcing on the balls. The music, although limited, and sound effects are also appropriate and don't annoy you too much.

At 1200M$ this is one of the more expensive XBLA games, but it does offer quite good value considering the variety and number of game types and there are no "additional" packs to download so you get the whole game for 1200 (*edit* now 800M$).

Overall, Bankshot Billiards 2 is a solid XBLA game, proving a nice little diversion, and is better than most of the poor retro conversions currently available.


Review: Jetpac Refuelled (XBLA)

JetPac plays as well as it ever did, and the HD remix is both visual pleasing and faithful to the original.

Pros: It’s JetPac!; excellent remix version; fun and frantic gameplay; great sounds, graphics
Cons: difficult to make out enemies on some levels; weak multiplayer; hard
Achievements: Hard


Review: Eets: Chowdown (XBLA)

Eets: Chowdown is a quirky looking and fun puzzle game.

Pros: quirky visuals and style; puzzle gameplay; two game modes
Cons: visuals not everyone’s cup of tea; too many buttons to press
Achievements: Hard


Review: Pinball FX (XBLA)

Pinball FX looks and plays well, but is slightly let down by only having two decent tables.

Pros: nice HD tables; good recreation of pinball; vision-cam compatible
Cons: light balls; “extreme” table is weak; could do with a few more tables
Achievements: Medium


Review: Luxor 2 (XBLA)

An unwelcome and weaker version of Zuma; ...avoid.

Pros: Zuma style gameplay can be entertaining
Cons: 4:3 format; weak visuals; worse than Zuma.
Achievements: Hard


Review: Boom Boom Rocket (XBLA)

BB Rocket is a likeable rhythm action game that is initially diverting.

Pros: rhythm action game for the XBLA; nice fireworks; music display mode
Cons: limited set of songs; boring backgrounds; not even close to Guitar Hero
Achievements: Hard


Review: 3D Ultra MiniGolf (XBLA)

MiniGolf is a neat idea that is partially successful and includes a clever course designer.

Pros: welcome change from shooting; course designer; fun multiplayer

Cons: inconsistent putting physics; uneven difficulty

Achievements Rating: Medium


Review: Hardwood Spades (XBLA)

Hardwood Spades is a nice diversion and a better multiplayer card game than Hearts

Pros: cheap; strategic gameplay; nice multiplayer game

: same music and gfx as Hearts and Backgammon; AI occasionally cheats

Achievements Rating:


Reviews: Worms HD (XBLA)

Worms is probably the most anticipated XBLA game so far and has been the subject of numerous delays. Worms fans, like myself, have been left despondent every Wednesday that Worms wasn’t released since the game was announced in summer 2006. Now it is here does it deliver the same simple, but brilliant gameplay of old?

In short, it is a big YES. This is probably the best version of Worms since Worms 2 thanks to the addition of 4 player games over XBLA, crisp graphics, and value for money (it is only 800 M$).

The Worms turned base combat with a variety of crazy weapons is retained, as is the 2D cartoon style and sense of humour of the original game. As with pervious games you can create your own worm army (it checks for rude words when you play online!), and gameplay rules. You can battle friends or in ranked matches over XBLA. The game also features 20 single player levels, the last 4 of which are extremely difficult; especially with the AI sometimes having a supreme accuracy that renders all defence useless.

The XBLA version features a limited set of the Worms’ arsenal, including exploding sheep, air-strikes and the mighty dragon punch. However, the are some omissions, including the Holy Hand Grenade and old Woman, which suggests that a future DLC update will follow, or even a Worms 2.

The 2D gfx are crisp and cute, whilst the 3D backgrounds look great. If you scroll the screen around you can actually see the perspectives of depth in the backgrounds, especially in London. Sadly, there are only three backgrounds to choose from. Yes three! This might explain why Worms is only a 40MB download when the new limit is 150MB. Once again, we can smell the prospect of further paid-for DLC.

The music is functional and the sound effects and voices are cute. There are 5 different worm voices provided: including English, French 1 & 2, Italian and my favourite, German. Unfortunately, there are no variations on these like those featured in classic Worms, such as Cockney, Welsh and Irish, but I fully expect them to arrive in the future as DLC.

Worms represents fantastic value for money at only 800M$ (although DLC later may push this up!). The 20 challenges are fun and rewarding, whilst the multiplayer, which was always the best feature of Worms, is an absolute riot. You’ll split you sides as a friend ends up destroying him/herself with a carefully planned attacked going awry or managed to swing from a rope straight into the drink. Multiplayer games are always close and fun given the randomness of many of the weapons being such a leveller of ability.

Worms is the best XBLA game available at this point. What are you waiting for, start throwing exploding sheep today!


Review: Heavy Weapon: Atomic Tank (XBLA)

Heavy Weapon: Atomic Tank is an enjoyable shoot’em-up and worthy edition to XBLA.

Gameplay: HW is a classic side scrolling shoot’em-up, clearly inspired by games such as “Swiv”. Essentially you pilot your tank, shooting air and land based foes, collecting crazy weapons upgrades and fighting huge bosses. Both analogue sticks are used to control tank movement and shooting/direction (like Geometry Wars).

The gameplay is extremely forgiving thanks to large & clear projectiles, collectable shield upgrades, and massive “Nukes” to kill all enemies on the screen at once.

Graphics: HW features big bright sprites and cool explosions - including a fantastic nuclear blast! The graphics are perfectly fine for an original XBLA title with a solid frame-rate even when the screen is completely full of bad-guys.

Sound: The music is suitably over the top and reminds me of the sound track to the film “Commando”: cheesy and appropriate.

Value: At 800M$, I think it is good value. The Story mode is fine and offers a decent, if difficult, challenge, whilst the Survival modes, both single player and on XBL, are frantic, fun and addictive.

The achievements are nicely balanced: there are (the standard for XBLA) 12 achievements; 50% are fairly easier; 50% will require some adept skills and patience.

Tilt: There is some very subtle humour in HW:
- people sunbathing on a beach as you deliver nuclear death;
- a little button that launches the game is labelled “Invade”;
- and frivolous use of weapons of mass destruction; just have to love it.

The gameplay is great fun too: especially Survival on XBL, which is just completely crazy in its intensity.

If you like your action fast and frenetic, then Heavy Weapon IS the game for you.


Review: Assault Heroes (XBLA)

Assault Heroes is classic old school “shoot-em-up” action in a contemporary package.

Gameplay: Anyone familiar with the scrolling “shoot-em-up” classics of the 1980s - like R-Type, Swiv, or Commando - will instantly feel at home with Assault Heroes. You (and a co-op buddy) control a heavily armed ATV in a top-down scrolling shoot-em-up. Your ATV has three fire modes – chain gun, flame thrower, and cannon – that are used to take out a variety of enemies from foot-soldiers and tanks, to bombers and missile-boats. The game is divided into combat “zones” and comes complete with on-foot bonus stages and end of level Bosses.

Both control sticks are employed with the right stick controlling the direction of fire. Should your ATV get destroyed you will find yourself on foot until a new vehicle can be spawned. It is only while on foot that you can be killed but also obtain key "power-ups".

AH effectively utilises risk & reward to make the gameplay challenging but rewarding. For example, the cannon-shot is destructive but has a poor rate of fire; the flamethrower is ideal for troops by is short ranged and weak against armour; the rail-gun is a good compromise but lacks punch without the power-ups. Everything is brilliantly balanced.

Fundamentally, AH is great fun, especially when plated with a buddy. The action is fast, frantic, and addictive whilst never becoming frustrating or impossible.

Graphics: The graphics in AH are polished with satisfying explosions, varied environments and some very cool animations: especially on the Bosses. Everything is rendered in full HD wide-screen beauty; on a big screen, it is a feast for the eyes.

Sound: AH has a fun “arcade” sound track that suits the game style perfectly. The sound effects are great too, augmenting the explosions with fantastic booms and rumbles.

AH costs 800M$, which is excellent value for money. AH features an excellent co-op mode and offers an addictive challenge that ensures you should easily get your money’s worth out of the game. The achievements are also reasonable for an XBLA game: you should be able to unlock a fair few just playing through the game.

Assault Heroes has a winning combination of fun gameplay, great graphics & sound, co-op play, and high quality production. Assault Heroes is one of the best games to come to the XBLA and represents a new benchmark in terms of quality, value and fun. If you have the points then by Assault Heroes now, you won’t regret it!


Review: Galaga (XBLA)

Galaga is a prehistoric shoot’em-up that is a genuine classic and still good fun.

Gameplay: Galaga is a classic, if not the original, up-scrolling vertical shoot’em-up featuring power-ups (clone your ship), attack waves, bonus levels and frantic button bashing. It plays as well now as it did in 1981.

Graphics: Actually, for its time, pretty good and still better than most mobile phone games! Galaga features minor updates for XBLA.

Sound: Classic, old school, beeps and smashes that still have a element of simple charm. Galaga has no obvious updates for XBLA.

Like other Namco games on XBLA, it is made easier by infinite continues, but the later levels are really tough, so you’ll need them. The achievements range from easy to quite difficult, so you may be playing this in short bursts for some time. There is no XBL multiplayer.

I can remember playing Galaga as a nipper in the children’s room of “The Angel” pub, Portland, Dorset – my ancestral home. It was one of the first video games I became addicted to. Luckily, my parents didn’t mind as it was an excuse to stay in the pub longer ;P. Galaga still has nostalgic appeal for me, and is a fun retro arcade game.


Review: Feeding Frenzy (XBLA)

Feeding Frenzy's basic premise is to make your way up the food chain by eating smaller fish so that you become bigger and bigger. The game starts with you playing as a little Angel Fish and finishes with you becoming a shark eating Orca.

The core gameplay revolves around you eating small fish while avoiding larger fish until you are big enough to eat them yourself. Along the way you can grab pearls and power ups to boost your skills and score whilst dodging mines, jelly fish and other hazards. Bonus levels allow you to boost your overall score, as does eating shoals of fish or eating fish in quick succession. The game features a nicely balanced risk and reward mechanic: for instance, black pearls boost your growth and score, but the clam shuts on it very quickly and could cost you a life. There is a lot of fun and humour in the game: look out for the Frenzy power up which has your fish darting around the screen easting everything in sight. The difficulty curse is fair, with higher levels featuring many more hazards but also more extra lives.

The graphics are pleasant but not spectacular but the music is catchy and jolly. The overall look and feel of the game is rather good.

At 800M$ Feeding Frenzy is reasonable value, featuring the normal and time attach modes, as well as high scores and achievements. If there is a criticism, it is that the game is fairly short. Unless you love fish, there is no compelling reason to play again once you have finished it.

Overall, a nice little game that's fun and balanced to play, if a little short.


Review: Small Arms (XBLA)

Review written 30/03/07

Small Arms is a Super Smash Bros style game with cute animals and BIG guns - how could it not work! The core gameplay revolves around you shooting or bashing your opponents on 2D platforms using a variety of weapons at your disposal. The weapons spawn on the map, as do healing items. You use the left stick to move and right to aim, with the buttons and triggers used to jump, dash, and shoot. Most weapons have a primary and secondary function. An excellent tutorial introduces you to the controls which are tight and responsive.

The single player can consists of s series of "battles" and the occasional bonus level. The level designs are nicely different with some being animated in some way (like the train level). The multi player plays much the same. Both modes are excellent and great fun. The core feel of Super Smash Bros is great and the slight changes to the format make the game feel fresh and prefect for XBLA.

Graphically it looks like a kind of 2D Fur Fighters. The background textures are good and the character models are fine considering the speed at which they zip around the screen.

The achievements are nicely balanced. You can get the 100 games achievement on or off line. This game also features a unique achievement you can only get from playing someone with it already...a nice "community" touch (0 points).

At 800 point$, this is a bargain for one of the best games currently on XBLA. Well done Gastronaut Studios!


Review: Scene It? LCA (X360)

Scene It? LCA is a very enjoyable party game and perfect festive family fun.

For: loads of move clips; huge no of questions; excellent movie selection; controllers are great
Against: commentator gets annoying;

Worse than: Guitar Hero II
As good as: Mario Party 6 (GC)
Better than: Fusion Frenzy 2

Gameplay: Basically you answer questions, either rounds where you Buzz In, or just timed responses. The faster you answer the more points you earn, but if you get the question wrong you loose the same number of points. The questions and difficulty are much better than the demo suggested, with a wide range of genres and epochs - right up to date (I found a question on the Bee Movie).

Design: There are two game types: party and quick. The quick game is the principle mode with either a long or short match. Each match consists of 4 rounds, with 3 to 5 sub-rounds in each. Each sub-round is one of 16+ types: ranging from standard "what was" questions to audio clips, movie stills, pictograms, anagrams and many more. The new official Microsoft "Big Button Pads" are excellent: being tactile, easy to use, wireless and small.

Presentation: There are loads of movie clips, many of which are presented in HD. In general, graphics and sound are good, although you'll get fed up with some of the animations and the presenter.

Longevity: There are 1800+ questions, so you'll never get bored. In addition, the game keeps track of what it has asked you before; so every replay is unique. Really this is a party game, so for the maximum enjoyment you will need some friends. The game can be played in teams as well as four individuals, but there is no online play. The achievements are fairly easy, but they do encourage replay. One or two achievements are pretty tough and you'll need to have a good 10-20 hours worth of play to earn them.


Review: Tomb Raider - Anniversary (X360)

Tomb Raider: Anniversary (X360) is an enjoyable and sympathetic re-engineering of a classic game.

For: Classic Tomb Raider puzzles; retro-evolved with excellent new features; good value
Against: Some minor frame rate issues; dinosaurs are still silly;

Gameplay 8: Basically it is the control scheme from “Legend”, applied to the levels from Tomb Raider (original). Tomb Raider needs no further description other than to say that the classic puzzle/fight Gameplay remains as enjoyable as ever.

Design 8: The developers have enhanced many of the puzzles and environments to take advantage of the excellent “Legend” controls whilst the original design remains intact. The game still feels fresh and contemporary despite is relative age.

Presentation 7: The HD graphics are fine, but the game does suffer from occasional minor frame rate issues – particularly with long Vistas and particle effects. The music and sound effects are good, and the overall presentation is solid, if a little uninspired.

Longevity 7: As well as the main story, the game features a time attack mode and the usual hidden artefacts, and, of course, those tricky achievements. A bonus in the retail package (just £30) is the inclusion of an interesting making-of DVD.


Review: FIFA '08 (X360)

FIFA ’08 has become the best football ‘simulator’ on the Xbox360.

For: Match engine; loads of replay value & features; ‘Be the Pro’; online integration

Against: Some bugs; clumsy menu system; dodgy character models

For the last 6 years the two football franchises, FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer, have been in annual competition with each other. PES was always the choice of the football purists, whilst FIFA was the game of the masses - with it license and star names.

The next generation consoles gave Konami and EA a chance to change and improve the football genre, which had become a by-word in minimal annual updates. It has taken 2 years, but finally there is a football game worthy of the title ‘next gen’. The surprise is that it is FIFA ’08!

Having played and enjoyed every PES since ISS64 on the N64, I have often looked at EA’s FIFA with a sense of disappointment and indifference. Sure, they had the licenced names, and a good sound track, but the match engine was stuck in the 90s and there was too much emphasis on dribbling and shooting - the ball magically sticking to your feet. FIFA just wasn’t football.

Last year PES 2007 was released with much fanfare, but for me it just seemed like a graphical update on the 5 year old game. It still played fine, but little gimmicks that had plague FIFA were starting to creep in -the number of button combinations could now be measured in the 50s- and it was feature sparse:the solo play game modes were uninspired; the online options were even worse; features in the Xbox version had been stripped out; and the Xbox Live matches suffered bad lag. PES was starting to feel more like an arcade cabinet football game, with minimal features, rather than a ‘next gen’ iteration of a much loved franchise.

Earlier this year EA released UEFA Champions League that featuring a brand new match engine where the ball, rather than the player, was the central object. The change and improvement was remarkable. EA had finally produced a game that looked and played like real football. Gone were the gimmicky controls, and in came a simple control scheme, excellent ball physics and tons of fun. It also introduced a number of innovations (such as Card Collecting) and some excellent lag free online modes.

Now with FIFA’08, EA has perfected the engine to create what is definitely a ‘next gen’ football game. The match engine is now almost flawless, and plays so much better than I would have expected. If anything FIFA has become a football simulator - the quality of the physics and game engine is really that good - you might actually think you are watching a televised game. FIFA ’08 rewards slow tactical build-up and quality passing game, rather than the headless chicken running of yesteryear. Thus, for football purists, FIFA is now the game of choice.

FIFA ’08 also features a number of excellent solo and online game modes, several of which are new. The best of these modes are listed below:

+ Online Club Tournament - you play as your club and all the results of all the XBL players’ playing as your club contribute to an overall club leader board.
+ Managerial Mode - you manage and play for the team. You have transfers, sponsorship, press, contracts, the whole lot!
Challenge Mode - match challenges in both team and “Be the Pro” modes
Custom Tournaments - FIFA’s version of Halo’s Forge mode - construct competitions and post them on XBL

“Be the Pro”, a feature in other EA Sports titles this year, is simply brilliant. You control just one player, and you must play your position as a part of the team. Through clever use of the camera and adaption of the match engine you really do feel part of the game - even to the point when you call for a through ball and get angry with the computer for not picking you out!

The presentation in FIFA ’08, normally the strong point, is actually the weakness in this version. Clearly EA has concentrated on the important stuff, like the match engine and ‘be the pro’, and spent less time polishing. The graphics are fine, but the character models are quite ugly up close, and I’d wish EA Sports would ditch the stupid menu system they use on all their games. I also uncovered a rather nasty bug where my online match was played against invisible players - I managed a draw some how!

So FIFA ’08 has become the best football ‘simulator’ on the Xbox360: it has tones of features; some excellent new innovations; and a real sense of ‘next gen’ quality in its scope and play. There still is a place for the arcade like immediacy of PES, and I could see some people owning both to get the best of both worlds. However, I will get my arcade kicks from Sensible Soccer and so it is FIFA ’08 that will now sit in the disc tray when I want a football fix.


Review: Halo 3 (X360)

Only a limp plot and weak story telling mar an otherwise perfect gaming package.

For: Awesome overall package; perfectly balanced gameplay in SP and MP; huge fun online; fantastic AI; high quality (except perhaps the writing!)
Against: Poor plot, story, and narrative; generic environments

The Halo franchise has become increasingly schizophrenic with each episode. Whilst the online multiplayer has repeatedly set new standards, the solo player campaign has lacked any form of cohesive narrative and features an increasingly flimsy plot. How you judge the quality of Halo 3 will depend on how much importance you apply to gameplay and long-term value, verses the Halo story and artistic merit.

In terms of story, plot and storytelling the Halo series has deteriorated severely. There are many parallels with the Matrix series of movies. The first had all the original good ideas: a cohesive world; a beginning, a middle, and end; fleshed out characters; and a twist in the tale. However, subsequent episodes introduced unnecessary politics, fragmented storytelling, no real plot and a lack of viewer/gamer engagement.

Halo 3 goes someway to address these issues, by a least sticking to one character and attempting to provide some closure, but it is still told in a haphazard way -through cuts scenes- with no reference to what has gone before and no illumination to why. In fact, so emotionally detached from story is the game that the levels you play through could be anywhere. Kenya, High Charity, Halo, really doesn’t matter and often you can’t remember, or don’t even care, why you are there at all. It doesn’t help that the cut-scenes often have the soundtrack drown out what is being said, so any vague recognition of plot is lost in the inability to hear the dialog (in addition to the terrible and corny script). To be quite frank, Halo 3’s story telling, although an improvement over Halo 2, is still an abject mess and Bungie’s writers would do well to get a job on a remake of the A-Team.

Fortunately a poor story/plot/narrative however, does not ruin the game as the gameplay elements are honed to absolute perfection. In many ways, each level in Halo 3 is so beautifully crafted and balanced -on all difficulties- it annoys me even more that they screwed the writing up so much.

The campaign plays like a series of massive multiplayer maps populated by pockets of gaming brilliance and fiendish AI. Each encounter, particularly the Brutes, is so cleverly designed, balanced and executed that you can really appreciate every bit of quality and effort that has gone in to make it. In terms of memorable and enjoyable battles that can dramatically play out differently based on difficulty/co-op/modifiers, Halo 3 has no equal - Halo 3 is the best designed FPS to date.

The competitive online co-op, with the scores and skull modifiers, is absolutely brilliant and really adds a huge amount of depth and replay to campaign - expect to see this feature creeping into other games next year. The difference in tactics and balancing of the AI at each difficulty also sets new standards - no longer does “Legendary” just mean having to fire 3x the bullets, but actually encourages different strategy and thinking.

The level designs are not without fault. The ugly spectre of backtracking appears more than once, whilst the penultimate level is unwelcome slog without the fantastic subtlety of earlier levels. The driving levels also feel a little bit like “here’s the vehicle of the day” with each one ‘introducing’ a new vehicle, only to never use it again.

The competitive multiplayer has always been Halo’s ace card. The integration into XBL is, once again, a new benchmark. Not only do we have the only working rank system, but now we have videos, screenshots, infinitely customisable game types, and Forge - the online co-operative map editor. Whilst live Forge sessions seem to descend into chaos, I can see the potential for creating new and interesting game types and playing them with friends - this alone makes Halo 3 a big leap forward.

The initial levels provided for MP are once again a lesson in perfect design. No matter what game type, size or options, each map seems perfectly designed for the purpose and carefully balanced with the weapons system to avoid the more unfair scenarios presented on Halo 2. Played with friends, Halo 3 is pure unadulterated fun and for this reason sits right at the top of the MP gaming tree.

So, how do I score a game that should be perfect, but is let down by elements that don’t really effect the gameplay? It is tricky? The best thing I can say is that I have not enjoyed an online FPS as much as this for a very long time. It might not be my favourite game this year, but it is certainly one of the very best.


Review: Two Worlds (X360)

For: It's another RPG
Against: Pretty much everything...!

The prospect of another Oblivion so soon after the last, and by a little known Polish developer was never going to be a good bet. Two Worlds just has too many serious flaws to recommend it to anyone other than die hard RPG fans who have learnt to overcome major quality issues.

The ambition is worthy, and some of the RPG elements, like cards for spells and power-ups, are neat ideas. The core gameplay of 'wander-quest-level-up' is sound and enjoyable as ever, but that's where it stops.

Two Worlds has a number of very serious flaws, and a whole wagon of minor ones. In order of severity they are:

1. The worst dialog and voice acting in any game, ...ever. Everything is in mock "ye olde English. verily, t'woth gets ye grammer mit nonny verbs and nouns all circum-twisted". That is is delivered with monotone American impressions of British accents with no pronunciation or enunciation is even worse. Playing with the voice track off doesn't help as the text is unreadable gibberish.
2. Terrible frame rate - at most 10fps
3. Terrible one click combat - pull trigger repeatedly until dead; else if you=dead {respawn}; repeat until enemy=dead. Enemy=[wolf, boar(wolf), bear(wolf), bandit(sort of wolf), orc(big wolf) ghost(wolf)].
4. Cheap PC port - complete with tiny icons, map that requires mouse to navigate, tiny text, no autosave, cheap textures.
5. Quests are guess work - there is no logic or reason to quests; and the AI often doesn't take into account what you are/doing/have been. In fact it is so broken it can be unplayable.

So there we have it. It is fun to wander around and laugh at the dialog. The RPG bits are quite nice (level-up, spell collecting), but when everything else is so bad, there is not much enjoyment to be had after the first couple of hours of hilarity.


Review: Stuntman Ignition (X360)

Stuntman: Ignition is no Fall-Guy.

For: Cool movies; good selection of vehicles; challenging but rewarding
Against: Odd Jobs are unforgiving; stringing requires a heavy dose of luck; not many players online

The original Stuntman game was an interesting concept that was destroyed in its execution. It was so frustrating and difficult that you had to play it in very short bursts to prevent permanent damage to your psyche. For those that never played it, you had to complete driving stunts, with zero room for error coupled with incredibly long load times between each attempt....imagine now having 20 attempts! Stuntman: Ignition fixes the majority of the flaws in its predecessor but it can still occasionally be a rough ride.

Once again, you are a stuntman hired to shoot action driving sequences for a series blockbuster movies, TV commercials and stunt shows. Each movie consists of scenes, with each scene comprising of a sequence of 10-20 stunt events that you must hit. These include, jumping, 2-wheeling, smashing, sliding and performing action events. The movies themselves range from James Bond style spy flicks to buddy comedies.

Each scene can be completed by hitting all the stunt marks within a set time limit and is controlled by a mechanism of five strikes - so you can make a few mistakes but if you miss five marks you must start from the beginning again. The adverts and stunt shows are much harder, only permitting 1 strike on the normal difficulty. Each scene is awarded a score and star grade out of five, using a similar system to Project Gotham Racing’s Kudos system, where the more stunts you perform and “string” together, the bigger the multiplier and the score earned. However, the more risk you take the more likely you are to ****-up. Thankfully, restarting is almost instantaneous (no load time) so trying over and over again is less of a chore on the Movie scenes.

Further movies and events are unlocked by earning stars, as are other bonus content such as video interviews, achievements, and items for the construction mode - create your own stunt set. You can play online in “Burnout” style races around a studio back-lot, as well as try out custom tracks built in the construction mode.

There are numerous vehicles in the game that each feature their own unique and satisfying handling characteristics: big things feel big; fast things feel twitchy. The vehicle models and the movie sets are competently designed and displayed with a decent frame-rate that holds up even when everything is going “bang” about you. The music and voice work all add some much needed humour and brevity to the game, whilst the movie trailers - earner for completing each film - look cool and are satisfying way to conclude each film.

Stuntman: Ignition is not perfect: the difficulty is still probably too high, with the final movie being difficult to unlock unless you have scored well on all the previous films, and possibly the hardest movies is the first one you play - which seems a strange design decision. There is still an element of frustration thanks to the exclusion of strikes on the advertisement and stunt shows, and the luck required to keep a score multiplier going when so much is happening on screen outside your control.

Stuntman: Ignition offers something different from the usual driving fare that can be a lot of fun provided you have the patience to persevere. For any fans of Burnout crash mode, Stuntman: Ignition offers a similar experience and should fill the gap until Burnout: Paradise is released next year.


Review: Medal of Honor: Airborne (X360)

Welcome to Medal of Honor Airborne a game that really shouldn’t have been released yet for one simple reason… it's not finished.

Anyone who’s ever played a Medal of Honor game before will know what to expect (they haven’t really changed in ten years or so.). You play a WW2 Rambo, killing any German that gets in your way. Fair enough I guess, but all EA ever seem to do with a game nowadays is keep the core gameplay the same (NFS anyone?) then add a new gimmick or two and make a big fuss. The new gimmick here is in the title - Airborne. Yep, you have to parachute into battle. This sounds like a really cool idea, because it should be. Only problem is it doesn’t really matter because the game always plays out the same wherever you land. The idea is a great one, but in true EA style they haven’t thought it through. Also the game as a whole feels rushed, want some examples, ok.

How about enemies that run around like headless chickens? Or your squad mates shooting at boxes? Or thin air? Or just disappearing? The AI is SHIT no other word for it.

The Hit detection is way of at times too, it took me five headshots to kill a guy with a Sniper Rifle once! And a whole MP40 clip to see one German off. This could and should have been sorted before the game shipped… bad form EA, very bad.

Another moan is that one minuite you can be doing great, have five squad mates around you and have just accomplished an objective. Then out of nowhere Five Germans appear and blow your head off. I swear that the green dots on my radar turned red as if the Germans in WW2 could do that thing the Agents do in the Matrix and just take over a person! I think the reason for this is that the enemies in Airborne don’t die, they respawn. The idea being that the game never lets up and its “action, action, action” that’s an ok idea, but they respawn so thick and fast that you can spend AGES clearing one building out and getting to one of six objectives which are something that I don’t like too. Because all of them are “blow this up” or “Destroy this by shooting it” dull is a good word.

The Graphics are nice enough (I like the “glass” effect when you look through a scope) and at times really show off what the 360 can do but can also look “last gen” at times too. The campaign is short, really short. How short? Try Six (maybe seven) levels, uninspiring ones at that.

The multiplayer is a great addition and probably Airborne’s strength. But it’s nothing that you haven’t seen before with a EA “gimmick” attached. If you want a war FPS, wait till COD4. If you want a WW2 FPS then just replay COD2 and 3. Simple really.

I can’t express how much of a disappointment this game is for me. With a bit more work (and maybe a few more levels) it could have been a really great title. As it is its just EA shelf filler, NOT worth £40 in any way.


Review: Shadowrun (X360)

Shadowrun is a fun, well balanced, team based FPS shooter that suffers from flaws in scope and production quality

For: Well balanced classes, weapons, and skills; fun CTF and deathmatch; Excellent tutorial and bots
Against: No achievements in bot matches; no campaign; limited maps and game modes; poor models and animations

Achievements: Hard - will require endless online play

Shadowrun is a team based shooter that features a number of different character classes, weapons and skills - technologies and magic. Shadowrun is a focused online multiplayer game that does not feature a campaign or story of any kind for solo play, but offers offline bot matches instead. The Shadowrun RPG franchise is not particularly evident in the game, other than the nod to magic and the South American setting.

With its multiplayer focus it is important that the game does not suffer from the balance issues that a lot of FPS games suffer from. Thankfully, Shadowrun proves to be one of the most finely balanced games yet to grace the X360. All of the weapons, classes, and skills are evenly balanced with classic rock-paper-scissors rules: for instance, damage can be avoided with the "smoke" spell -which puts you in a gaseous state- whilst a "gust" spell is weak against most foes but instantly kills someone who is in "smoke". Virtually all skills, weapons and classes are carefully organised so that you never feel one race, spell or tech is superior to another. The net result is fun, fair and exciting gameplay regardless of the class, weapon, of skills that you use.

I have complained previously about weak multiplayer implementations that almost prevent the casual gamer from playing on XBL. Shadowrun features an excellent tutorial that explains all the classes and skills, whilst bot matches (with a decent AI) are provided to help learn the levels.

Shadowrun is not without its problems. The game feels rushed and unpolished. There are no character skins customisations so everyone looks the same, whilst the character animations are poor or non-existent: watching a character float up a ladder is both hilarious and pathetic. Shadowrun also features only two gameplay variants: CTF and Deathmatch. The range and variety of maps is also quite small.

Without doubt, Shadowrun is a lot of fun, especially if you can play with a group of friends, and the well balanced gameplay is to be applauded. However, the unfinished feel and some examples of poor production quality, really hurt the enjoyment of the game. Shadowrun is a good budget/bargain buy but remember it will require a few friends to purchase the game to get the maximum enjoyment out of it.


Review: Bioshock (X360)

Bioshock is an instant classic that blends a superb narrative with cracking gameplay.

Achievements: Easy to Medium.

Rather than write a full review of something everyone knows about, I thought I would simply list my 10 reasons why you should play BioShock.

1. BioShock is one of the first games to truly deliver a coherent and well defined story with a proper dramatic narrative. The story is delivered in bite size chunks via audio diaries left among the ruins. Many of the characters that feature in the diaries reveal their stories in reverse and intertwine the plot threads and character interactions as the game progresses. At no point does the game resort to ham-fisted cut scenes but instead allows the player to slowly reveal the lives of these characters within the falling society within Rapture. More importantly, many of these stories allow the player to form their opinions and ideas about the morality and sanity of the main protagonist – Andrew Ryan.

2. BioShock has created one of the best video game “bosses” for a long time in the form of the Big Daddy. Rather than lumber players with end-of-level boss fights (CapCom!), BioShock allows the player to decide when and how the big guys are tackled.

3. BioShock is the first FPS that truly allows the player to be creative and cunning. The ability to plough straight in, or to lay traps, or confuse the enemy into fighting itself, or sneak in for a silent kill or even exploit various environmental elements to turn the advantage.

4. BioShock blends the basic elements from RPGs to allow the player to specialise the character. For instance, you can become a melee monster, or a stealth assassin, a battle mage or a gun tooting Jonny Rambo.

5. BioShock has a truly surprising and unique plot twist.

6. BioShock has wonderfully convincing water physics and beautifully designed art deco environments, which just draw you in to this city under the sea.

7. BioShock is one of the few games to actually test you moral compass. Sure it is pretty obvious what it is right to do – but could you actually bring yourself to do what is wrong? It just doesn’t feel right. There are also some well disguised (but much discussed) philosophical arguments – many of which are revealed through the various audio diaries. Questions regarding the objectivism philosophy of the main character –Ryan- (inspired by Ayd Rand), the exploitative nature of capitalism and the results of uncontrolled bio-sciences are all posed but not answered.

8. BioShock shows that you can create an enjoyable and accessible FPS without the need for pointless death-match modes, ninja-like reflexes or clumsy controls.

9. BioShock features some of the best voice acting, sound effects and sound track of recent times. The quality of the audio diaries is phenomenal; the sensations and mystery of Rapture are portrayed through some haunting sound effects; and the sound track brilliantly combines elements from the 1940s, 1970s Sci-Fi and more contemporary movie scores.

10. BioShock does have its weaknesses: there are some dodgy character models, there is a bit too much back tracking, and it is a fairly linear path. However, the shear brilliance of the story telling, the cinematic quality of the set pieces, the intelligence of the gameplay, and beautifully realised environments make BioShock an instant classic and goes straight into my top ten games of all time.