I'm Currently Playing...

Blur [Xbox 360]
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 [PS3]

Friday, 30 April 2010

Preview- Halo: Reach

Released: 1st September 2010
Format(s): Xbox 360
Developer: Bungie
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Like countless others, I'm a big fan of the Halo franchise. From its humble beginnings as the dawn of a new era for first-person shooters to the trilogies' epic conclusion and one of the biggest entertainment releases ever with Halo 3. However, the announcement of Halo 3: ODST at Tokyo Game Show 2008, for some reason, didn't interest me in the slightest. I played through it, no doubt, but only months after. For me, it wasn't a case of the storyline, the new setting or the fact that you play as an 'Orbital Drop Shock Trooper' (I ended up quite liking all this!) It just seemed like too much Halo at a time when the series needed to cool down to still be fresh. There's no doubting how accomplished a shooter like Halo really is but since its release in 2001 for the original Xbox, it has done little to keep its head above the crowd of the competition.

Announced at E3 2009 to muted fanfare, Halo: Reach has my attention. To be honest, early footage of the Beta (which is playable on the ODST disc from 3rd May 2010!) has swept away any preconceptions I had that this would be some major leap for the series. It looks much the same, and from what people have said playing it, it feels much the same. But Reach does introduce one major new game play mechanic...

Anyone who has played Halo 3 will be aware of the deployment of particular items with the 'X' button within the game. This could have been anything from a blinding flash of light to a deployable 'bubble shield'. Here, the concept works in much the same way, other than this time they revolve around 'armour abilities' and are reuseable and persistent to the player until they are replaced. Multiplayer will also allow the use of these abilities, meaning the competitive online community will be enlivened with fresh new game play opportunities and an all new experience. Amongst the suit upgrades are; 'active camo', sprinting, 'armour lock' (a protective suit that hinders movement), and a jet pack addition. The latter could really alter the way in which the game is played and it'll only be time that tells whether it'll truly add to the experience.

Other additions to multiplayer include the introduction of weapon 'loadouts' upon spawning, meaning players can choose which weapons to start with, an improved 'veto' system and new game modes. “Headhunter” sees players drop skulls upon death which can then be picked up by enemy players and deposited at drop zones for points. “Stockpile” involves the race for teams to collect neutral flags which then have to be held at capture points for game points. “Generator defense” puts 'Spartans' up against 'Elites' in a game not dissimilar to 'Defend the base' in which three generators have to be attacked/defended depending on the team. Finally, the last new game mode is possibly the most exciting, “Invasion” is a six-versus-six round of 'Spartans' versus 'Elites' once again but one in which as the round progresses, new weapon loadouts, vehicles and areas of the map become available with the opportunity of games really turning on their head a huge possibility. The mode is not too different to Killzone 2's service to the multiplayer scene in which objectives change on the fly for a real diversity in game progression. This type of design into multiplayer marks Bungie being inventive, trying something different, when they could so easily have rested on their laurels once again.

In terms of the single player experience, Reach sees you take control of “Control 6”, a member of an elite squad of supersoliders, set during the world for the human world 'Reach' in 2552. The game's designers have promised a “rich world, with a great fiction surrounding it” and have also detailed their work on the improvement of enemy AI and a more open-world or sandbox approach to combat. Forge, Custom Games and Theater all return with no mention as yet whether these too have any significant improvements.

And yes, this is Bungie's swansong to the Halo universe and if it's going to be a fond farewell, it's no doubt going to be worth getting excited about.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

"Bargain Bin" Review- Brutal Legend [PS3]

Publisher: EA
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Released: 16th October 2009
Other Formats: Xbox 360

Bioshock's final boss fight, Mass Effect 2's mining, Far Cry 2's re-spawning enemies. What do they have in common? They are all great games let down by tiny aspects of design that hinder the overall experience. But where a boss fight at the end of a truly atmospheric, hugely accomplished title can be seen as a little misstep on what is considered one of the greatest games of the generation, it is a little harder to forgive Brutal Legend's use of its real-time strategy hybrid 'Stage Battles', time and time again. In fact, it acts as a significant portion of the game. But more on this later...

From Tim Schafer, of Grim Fandango and Monkey Island fame, Brutal Legend is first and foremost, an action-adventure game with an infusion of RTS-style mechanics. Schafer's hand lends itself to the writing, creative direction and design of the game, which uses its heavy metal inspiration to deliver a story of roadie Eddie Riggs, voiced by Jack Black, who has been sent to an unnamed fantasy world of rock to overthrow the evil forces at work.

The world, first and foremost, is fantastically crafted. Taking its inspiration from heavy metal, this is a world where awesome solos are used as literal face-melting attacks and guitar's are used as overpowered weaponry. The open-world is filled with landmarks such as 'Devil Thorns', locations such as the 'Dry Ice Mines' and 'Bladehenge' and populated by fantastical beasts of rock. It's refreshing to see a game's design so involved in a singular vision, the heavy metal inspiration is everywhere, from the character models to the superbly integrated soundtrack and the art style of bone, stone and metal. It even lends itself to the combat, a mix of axe and guitar combos and special moves. Solos, a necessity to perform such actions as summoning your customisable hot rod or perform special attacks, can be activated with a click of the right trigger and the completion of a short rhythm-action inspired guitar riff.

The plot unfolds through a series of linear levels that are activated within the main open-world. The story is well written and well presented, delivering a unique assortment of characters, a unique sense of humour and, thanks to the profanity selection, gives plenty of blood, gore and strong language. In addition to Jack Black's over-exuberant tones, Tim Curry, Kyle Gass and Ozzy Osbourne also lend a hand to voice duties. The latter's appearance is also used as the 'Guardian of Metal'- a provider of all upgrades within the game which keeps things feeling fresh and powerful throughout. Mission types are positively varied and well sustained whilst secondary objectives are somewhat more restricted. I'd be tempted to avoid these altogether were it not for the award of 'fire tributes' which are the currency lent to upgradeable items and combos.

Moving on to the aforementioned RTS-hybrid 'stage battles', which act as stop-gaps between important events within the narrative. A sort of replacement of the boss battle, as it were. The concept is to attack the enemies' stage whilst protecting your own, all with the help of several unit types. The three basic; 'head bangers', 'razor girls' and 'thunder hogs', accompanied with more specialised squads such as the 'roadies' which are used to destroy towers. Afforded the luxury of flying during these sections, tactics amount to little more than taking over 'fan geysers' which essentially provide you with fans/resources to build unit types and upgrade items, and then marching your troops to the enemies stage in a full blown attack. To tell you the 'stage battles' don't quite work would be an understatement. Frankly, their existence within the game breaks any pace that the story had going and delivers frustration and difficulty in ordering squads in equal measure. Not to say it doesn't get easier to get to grips with, because it does, but it would have been nice to have seen a more whole-hearted RTS design or just remove it altogether. Having to mix combat with RTS management is difficult and unappealing. The whole design choice that means commands are only applicable to those within an immediate vicinity or “voice distance” away from Eddie means that tactics, even if you have any, are frustratingly difficult to fulfil since units on the other side of the map need to be flown to, meaning your strategy is probably already dead on its feet before you give the proper orders! The use of stronger 'double-team' moves with any of the squad types is helpful in delivering stronger attacks, however, the 'stage battle' experience, ultimately, is a strange design choice, and means the game suffers because of it.

It's hard not to be ultimately disappointed by Brutal Legend. From a team of this calibre, it's clear for all to see the effort and singularity in vision that is afforded to the game. This, in a market full of FPS-clones and casual titles, is great to see. But then, were it not for the strange mix of real-time strategy into the core of the game, it might be easier to rate amongst the very best this generation has to offer. As it is, the game is easy to recommend, especially for heavy metal fans, just don't go expecting the game that it could have been.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

All Format Chart- Week Ending 24th April 2010

Monster Hunter Tri (Nintendo Wii)

Wii Fit Plus (Nintendo Wii)

Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City (PS3, Xbox 360)

Just Dance (Nintendo Wii)

Splinter Cell: Conviction (Xbox 360)

Sam Fisher hangs on to the top spot of the chart for the second week running and with a release due on PC this Friday, there's all chance it'll be sitting up there once again come next week. Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii was the only new entry into the chart, a respectable 5th position for the series that often struggles at UK retail- take a look at my preview. Fantastic shooter Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is knocked from the chart after its hugely successful haul so far.
Next week sees some high profile releases such as God of War Collection, 2010 Fifa World Cup, Iron Man 2 and Super Street Fighter IV. Take a look at my 'Out this Week' feature to get more information on these. It'll be interesting to see whether any of these games can knock Fisher from number 1. My money's on Fifa!

Monday, 26 April 2010

"Bargain Bin" Review- Lego Batman: The Videogame [Xbox 360]

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Traveller's Tales
Released: 10th October 2008
Other Formats: PC/MAC, PS3, PS2, DS, Wii, PSP

Lego Batman: The Videogame is the third in the 'Lego' series of games by developer 'Traveller's Tales', arriving after the much loved Star Wars and Indiana Jones tie-ins. At its core, the Lego Batman, like previous Lego games, is hugely simple in design, blending environmental destructibility (collectible Lego pieces), 'button-bashing' combat, puzzles and witty cut scenes. Not to be mistaken, the simplicity is no bad thing. There is something so charming and fun with the way the game is crafted, from the childish portrayal of superheroes to the forgiving nature of the game play. It's not going to challenge you, that's just not the point. What it does provide is rewarding mechanics and a fantastic experience for young and old to play through (integrated co-op provides an ideal platform to get newcomers into gaming!)

Featuring both 'hero' and 'villain' story modes, Lego Batman features 30 levels in all (15 for either storyline). These are connected through a central hub which can be played through also. A huge cast of characters are playable, though only two within each level, with a simple tap of the 'Y' button interchanging between the two. 'Batman' and 'Robin' act as the two playable characters within the hero campaign whilst a miss-match of various villainous rebels are used within the villain campaign, from the ever-popular 'Joker' to 'Catwoman' and 'The Penguin'. It's great to see the number of characters on show- especially since each character provides their own interaction to the world via a special ability of some kind. These generally form the basis for the number of puzzles throughout the game. For example, the Joker's use of hand buzzer can interact with electronic machinery which can open doors to new areas. This often means that even the most simplistic of puzzles require some thinking other than simply re-building smashed Lego bricks to construct levers and such-like to progress (these forming the basis of the remainder of the puzzle mechanics). 'Batman' and 'Robin', in place of special abilities, can walk through ports that swap their costumes. These act in very much the same way, giving a certain ability to make progress in the level. One example of this the way in which Batman can glide over extended gaps using his 'Glide suit'. The way that the whole ability system works is really enjoyable, giving characters individuality in regards to game style and providing a complex enough system for puzzle solving.

Playing through the levels, you may also notice objects and such that are interactable but not with the characters/abilities you currently have at your disposal. This is where the 'free-play' game mode is introduced- upon completion of a level, you will be given the opportunity to 'free-play'- meaning you can play through the level again with any unlocked character, vehicle or suit to gain access to previous locked items. This Metroid-esque mechanic offers further rewards upon replayabilty and provides ample opportunity for further play-throughs.

Looking toward the elements of the game that don't quite work, it's very difficult to forgive how simplistic the combat game design really is. Whilst not a 'button-basher' game, you will spend most of the play-time repeatedly levelling the 'X' attack button in the developer's understandable need to cater to its audience. This is all well and good in its context, however, it'd still be nice to see them throw in several more combative options or super powers that add to the game for more hardcore tastes, yet don't detach the game from its casual core. It is a Batman game after all and many will find the repetitiveness, endless waves of enemies and rigid mission structure somewhat hard to get through when so many games are doing things different. The use of vehicular levels are too few and far between to offer much variety to proceedings and are somewhat stale anyway, with a quick run through of the level a basic certainty.

All-in-all, for what it is, Lego Batman: The Videogame is successful. There is something to be said for its ease to pick-up and play and the co-op only helps in this regard for some really simple, yet fun and enjoyable gaming. The Lego game design is, as ever, rewarding and graciously charming to behold whilst the Batman license means the game is a joy to play through. For under a tenner, you can't go wrong.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Out this Week! 30th April 2010

A cash-in or an important update? Of course, it's most probably the former, but you'd be hard pressed to find a Fifa fan who isn't excited about the latest in the series, 2010 Fifa World Cup. The game features a roster of 199 playable nations, all questing for ultimate glory on the world stage, whilst a new penalty shoot-out system is also added to make those nail-biting finishes all the more thrilling. As the officially licensed game of the World Cup, all 10 South African stadia are re-created in exacting detail. Come on England! [Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PSP]

Not played God of War yet but eager to play the third in the trilogy? The God of War: Collection can fill in the blanks of Kratos's bid for revenge- a re-release of the first two God of War games, both up-scaled to glorious 720p high definition and with added trophy support- all on one Blu Ray disc! [PS3]

Arriving just after a year since it was first released. Capcom's hugely popular 2D fighter Super Street Fighter IV is out this week. The release boosts the character roster up 10 to a total of 35 and adds 6 new stages. Characters have also been re-balanced and tuned whilst each fighter also receives a new 'Ultra' attack. The online mode has also been vastly improved from the original release, with added modes ('Tag match', 'Tournament') and the ability to view replays from the top matches via 'Street Fighter TV'. Definitely worth another punt on for fans of the original and newcomer's alike. [Xbox 360, PS3]

Iron Man 2 rounds off the look at this week's releases. With a storyline written entirely for the game by comic book author Matt Fraction, the game features destructible environments, hand-to-hand combat, flying mechanics and huge bosses, as well as more inspiration taken from the comic book universe. Players can play as either 'Iron Man' or 'War Machine'. Interested? No, me neither. Movie tie-ins are notoriously under-whelming, especially when the game is released at the same time as the cinematic release. [Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PSP, DS]

Thursday, 22 April 2010

3D Gaming: PS3 update gets us 3D-ready

So, the new PS3 firmware (v3.30) brings with it... the ability to sort trophies!? Oh, and stereoscopic 3D capability for the console. Yes, as the first big 3D-push gets under-way, it's really time to stand back and take a look at what all this means for the years to come. To coincide with the launch of their 3D 'Bravia' model of TV's this June, Sony are providing, for free, Super Stardust HD, Wipeout HD, PAIN, and Motorstorm: Pacific Rift in their full 3D form for those lucky enough to get their hands on one. The TV's will also offer '3D up conversion' which will simulate a 3D effect on 2D visuals. Sony are currently looking into whether this will work for games.

Now, I'm one who votes in favour of 3D and I don't think there are many who feel the same. I rarely hear a positive note mentioned in regards to the third-dimension- high profile names such as James Cameron are obviously on board but the cynical mass make for a much louder argument. It's not that I don't have reservations, of course I do; for one, it is way too over-priced (the cheapest available 3D-TV set-up is around £1,500!)

But can't you remember a few years back when high definition first launched? With a pretty much identical pricing system and a fair few cynics of its own. The arguments that high definition was over-priced and pointless soon fell by the wayside as more and more of us witnessed the gorgeous visuals that greeted our HD-starved eyes. Of course, 3D isn't needed, but then neither was HD, and look at the uptake that we've seen there!

The leap to the current generation of consoles was met by the HD push in full force. PS3 and Xbox 360 were heavily championed that their systems were HD-ready and, like many other people, I originally bought my first HDTV for the sole purpose of gaming. Is 3D going to be the same kind of leap? Personally, I believe that it'd be a great thing for video games to embrace. It allows for a new level of immersion and thanks to the depth of field aspect of 3D, would make the visuals all the more sumptuous- with game world's becoming ever more realistic.

So, whether you're one of the cynics or one of the lovers of 3D, it's going to be time that tells the truth to whether we are really ready to embrace the dimension. Having companies as big as Sony in the gaming market and Sky on the broadcasting side pushing the 3D bandwagon, however, is surely going to help.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

All Format Chart- Week Ending 17th April 2010

Wii Fit Plus (Nintendo Wii)

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (Xbox 360, PC, PS3)
*See my review

Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City (PS3, Xbox 360)

Just Dance (Nintendo Wii)

Splinter Cell: Conviction (Xbox 360)

Just Dance is finally pushed from the top spot once again by new release Splinter Cell: Conviction, exclusive on the Xbox 360. Check out my preview of the game here. Elsewhere, shooter behemoth Modern Warfare 2 loses its grip on the top 5 whilst Just Cause 2 and Wii Sports Resort are also relieved of their top 5 positions. The newly-released Grand Theft Auto IV expansion 'Episodes from Liberty City' enters the all format chart at 3.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Review- Battlefield: Bad Company 2 [PS3]

Publisher: EA

Developer: DICE
Released: 5th March 2010
Other Formats: PC, Xbox 360

Inviting direct comparison to the most successful video game of all time is a risky strategy no doubt. But, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 embraces it; interjecting sharp, cutting remarks via “Bad Company's” bravado dialogue, “snowmobiles are for cissies”. DICE have undertaken a major job in trying to deliver a comparable experience to the might of Infinity Ward's epic shooter Modern Warfare 2, and therefore it's extremely humbling to say that they have delivered with aplomb.

The comparison to MW2 lays with the initial FPS game mechanics, which are positively fantastic. The shooting mechanics are tight, delivering a great sense of force to the weapons. The Modern Warfare-approved cross-hair also makes an appearance upon accurate fire, meaning there is a constant feedback loop that works extremely well. And where MW2 in particular was fiercely criticised, its handling of story- with characters swapped to-and-fro and a highly convoluted plot. Bad Company 2, in contrast, excels, following the misfit “Bad Company” once again- the group of rag-tag characters that form the central core of the game. Delivering comedic dialogue and likeable personalities mean characters are developed well whilst also allowing DICE to craft an engaging narrative (the soldiers are tasked to seek out a secret weapon, codenamed “Aurora”) that entertains to the end. And whilst this means that Bad Company 2 can not quite match its competition's set piece count or style (due to its rooting in a central location), it does have a few neat tricks of its own (the aircraft finale, for example) to keep it feeling inspired and fresh.

The improvement of DICE's own engine, “Frostbite”, has meant that the game is also visually excellent. The dank darkness that opens Bad Company 2's campaign soon envelops to the openness of the bright jungle setting, giving the engine a chance to shine. The visuals are crisp, colourful and incredibly detailed. The upheaval in technology to the engine has also meant DICE have delivered on their promise of true destruction. No other game, other than last year's Red Faction Guerilla have been so successful in doing similar tricks that can alter the way in which the game is played. The original Bad Company's 'hole in the wall' effects have been stripped. Here, witnessing the destruction physics in motion is breathtaking, whilst it also means combat is rich and varied in variety. No longer can the player stay in one place for the duration of a battle, as cover can be decimated in front of you as quickly as you pulling the trigger. On the other hand, it offers great tactical awareness in terms of offing the enemy forces- pick off them one-by-one with a trusty pistol or risk using a valuable RPG in the hope the collapsed building does the work for you? The variety afforded to the player is also improved with the vast openness of the level design on show, only squandered in the final third as the levels tighten and become much more linear. In conjunction with the brilliant visual clarity and particle effects, BC2 also delivers an immensely satisfying masquerade to the senses with its sound. From the metallic clinking of the gun to the low thud of bullets hitting enemies.

The featured single player campaign of Bad Company 2 is a resounding success for DICE and EA. The blend of believable (whilst slightly stereotyped) characters, an involving plot, a good sense of variety in level structure and location and short, snappy and well scripted cut scenes all mean that the experience is incredibly satisfying.

Multiplayer acts as a team-based, tactical FPS experience. Players can choose from any of four weapon kits before each spawn (Medic, Engineer, Assault or Recon), all with an initial primary weapon and a pair of gadgets unique to that class. Experience points are awarded during play, with a level cap of 50 on offer. Game types include a defend/attack objective mode, 'Rush', a capture-the-flag mode, named 'Conquest', 'Squad Death match' and 'Squad Rush'.

Overall, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 deserves to stand on its own two feet, not under the shadow of behemoth Modern Warfare 2. Rather it is, in actuality, a more fulfilling game in many instances. The conclusion to the campaign points straight towards a sequel, and frankly, if the step up from the first to second game is anything to go by, it's going to be fantastic.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Preview- God of War: Collection

Release Date: 30th April 2010
Format(s): PS3
Developer: SCE Santa Monica Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that up until the recent release of the incredible God of War III, I had never witnessed Kratos's bid for revenge against the Greek Gods for myself. Call me oblivious, but sadly, having not been an owner of the Playstation 2, I never had an opportunity to pick up the first two games in the series. Thus, coming to the release of the third and final in the trilogy this April (which I thoroughly enjoyed by the way!) was from a newcomer's stance- the combos, the platforming, puzzles, Kratos's anger management issues- all brand new to me.

It's a shame then that Sony have only just decided to release the God of War: Collection on this side of the pond. Out in the US since November, the delay has meant that Kratos's journey to revenge has ended before I even got the chance to play the first two games in the series. I could have waited, yes, but the hype machine proved insurmountable to pass, and I, like countless others, played one of the most epic games ever before seen. Released here on the 30th April 2010, the God of War: Collection packs in God of War and God of War II on a single Blu-Ray disc. Both are also re-mastered in glorious high definition at a resolution of 720p and feature trophy support for the PS3.

The region-free PS3 has meant that you may have already imported the collection, but if you haven't yet (like myself), you might want to be on the look out for this. At around £20, it's a bargain for two of PS2's most prestigious games.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Extended Preview- Crysis 2

Release Date: Holiday 2010
Format(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: Crytek
Publisher: EA

Released late-2007, the original Crysis by Crytek was a monumental achievement for a video game. Not only did it perform exceptionally well critically, the game was so technically demanding that to run at its highest resolution was unfeasible, even for the most high-end of rigs. Still the most graphically demanding video game for PC hardware, Crysis continues to be used to test PC efficiency.

A little over two years later, the sequel is well on its way to release for a 'Holiday 2010' launch for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Not to beat about the bush, Crytek have been treading the fine line between hype, 'PA' talk, harsh appraisal and extreme gloating or arrogance.

Lead programmer for the PS3, Michael Gluck, has been raising awareness of the game's graphical output, stating that it will set a new benchmark in terms of visual quality. Speaking with 'Play Magazine' he proposed, “I think with Crysis 2 you will see the quality bar being set at a very high level that games will struggle to excel”.

Similarly, in a remarkable display of one-upmanship, award-winning novelist and lead writer on Crysis 2, Richard Morgan, in an interview with 'NowGamer', has been criticising the most successful video games of recent years, including last year's BAFTA-winning Batman: Arkham Asylum and fan-favourite Halo- to which he says includes “bull*h** characters” and having “no real emotional impact”. Morgan went on to claim that his involvement in the latest Crysis has meant characters have been crafted “with weight and gravitas”.

Crytek have announced that the second in the series is somewhat a “resetting of the franchise”. Set in New York City, evacuated due to alien infestation, 'Nomad' returns to his role as lead protagonist. In addition to a broader freedom provided to the player, the 'urban jungle' setting also allows for improved tactical manoeuvrability and, due to the technical excellence of its game engine, CryEngine 3*, will feature destructible environments- like that seen in Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Crytek have also stated that combat will be “beautiful” with the new and improved 'Nanosuit 2' taking centre stage.

With so many first-person shooters already on the market, and with the weight of such huge releases as Modern Warfare 2 just past, can we really expect so much from Crysis 2? The talk may reek of arrogance but perhaps the current climate in where first-person shooters over-saturate the market, Crytek have had to stand their ground and be as aggressive. One thing's for sure, if it doesn't live up to the hype, they're sure going to know about it. I, for one, am not overly excited about the game. With little announced in terms of actual game play and still a long way off release, I'm hoping it is something more than a visual feast for the eyes and a press release comes along that announces a new game mechanic that will separate this from the competition. Until then, I couldn't really care.

(*Take a look at the 'CryEngine3' demo video on the 'Game Videos' page that showed at this year's GDC to get a feel of what the engine is capable of.)