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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Review- Metro 2033 [Xbox 360]

Publisher: THQ
Developer: 4A Games
Released: 19th March 2010
Other Formats: PC

You don't see too many games based on novels lying about the shelves, granted, but 4A Games' first release ponders the question, why not!? Based on the novel of the same name by Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro 2033 is a prime example of an entirely intriguing concept that can be sufficiently brought into video game form in apt fashion. It makes you wonder, what else lies out there that awaits video game conversion...

Taking place from the perspective of lead character Artyom, 2033 is set in the dark and dank tunnels of post apocalyptic Moscow's metro tunnels after nuclear war obliterated all remaining life on the surface. This is a tale meandering through depression, communism and survivalism of the highest degree, in the drab and grey underbelly of Moscow's subway stations, populated by desecrated and weak survivors. The post apocalyptic setting here, every match for the barren and oppressing DC wastelands witnessed in Bethesda's thrilling Fallout 3. It's something so resonant and involving that the slight lack of visual fidelity fails to mask it, instead, the game's overarching bleakness that wallows in its dark brutality leaps from the screen. The theme resides within every aspect of the game's unique design- of which the developer can take full credit in delivering Glukhovsky's thematic tones- from the drab scapes to the makeshift and almost home-made look and feel of its weaponry, rusting parts and mechanical faults that seem to have been put together through loose, ramshackle components. The dense back story that no doubt is lent a helping hand from the novel, meanwhile, delivers unique and neat ideas of its own- the concept of 'Military Grade' bullets that were made pre-war acting as both currency and more effective rounds of ammo is well implemented (holding down 'RB' swaps bullet type). Equipping your weapon to literally “fire money” is something you'll only have to do maybe once or twice within the relatively short campaign, that can faulter with its severe difficulty spikes.

Whilst it is admirable that 4A Games have tried their hardest in sticking true to the source novel on a number of occasions, through both plotting and pacing, you can't help but find fault in its overly drawn out and linear meanderings through tunnels, with vast stretches of the game becoming tiresome given the developers insistence on 'hand-holding' as fellow characters drawl in pseudo English-Russian accents that are distinctly poor. In tackling such issues, portions of the game do take refuge on the destroyed land of the surface where the gas mask (equipped through holding 'down') is your aid from the toxic gas that poisons the air. Keeping an eye on your gas mask filter levels (where a click of 'LB' results in the character showing his wrist meter) is vitally important if you're to survive, since extended periods of use will blur vision and result in the excellent aural cues of rasping and wheezing, as well as visual screen blotches. Thankfully, replacement filters can be bought in any of Metro's underground markets- in addition to weapon upgrades (a bayonet attachment for example), weaponry, and ammunition (where the aforementioned 'Military Grade' bullets are exchanged for currency).

In fact, the game only really struggles in its combat, where the use of an obtrusive lock-on mechanic fails to help the generally ineffective and poor shooting mechanics. In trying to deal with any of 2033's hideous monstrosities that sap from the filthy surroundings, you'll most probably feel overwhelmed with the attacking ferocity that can come as a result of the combative system that governs play. Not helped along by the often severe lack of ammo, this is where Metro 2033 perhaps fails to shine the brightest.

It's also a shame to see such an interesting story or narrative fall from the developers grasp as they struggle to seep any weight of cinematic ambition from their first-person viewpoint (we only see the lead protagonist in full in the closing scene!) In the plot that stretches from survival to friendship and more supernatural and strange phenomenon in plentiful dreamscapes, it's at a detriment to its whole when the conclusion is this underwhelming, as the amped up progression fizzles and combusts into a overly long, drawn out close.

In weighing up my feelings on Metro, I can't help but applaud the fantastic setting and world that has been expertly constructed, keeping a firm grasp of its thematic bearings whichever way you choose to look. The story could have perhaps been dealt with a little more resolutely in some of its more stretched out scenes, although within its infrastructure are some frankly excellent examples of how to create undying levels of tension, with the thematically resolute tone only helping in such instances. The sequel has just been announced, so if Metro 2034 can refine in the aspects that I believe it should, then 4A ought to have a fantastic shooter on their hands.

Review- Football Genius: The Ultimate Quiz [Xbox 360/XBLA]

If you are, like me, swayed by the odd casual quiz game, from the likes of Scene It?, Xbox Live's 1 vs. 100, or the excellent Buzz! series on Sony's PS3, you might well just find this little arcade title a lovely little pleasure. If you're a football fan, that is!

If you hadn't guessed from the title, Football Genius is aimed squarely at those who love all things football, and punts “over 3500 questions” your way throughout its variety of game modes. If you're not a fan, then things are going to get tricky. It's a casual title sure (avatar integration and its comedic sound effect buzz-ins are a sign of which), however it never feels so overwhelming as to be a lesser game...[ctd.]

Monday, 28 June 2010

All Format Chart- 26th June 2010

Naughty Bear (Xbox 360, PS3)

2010 Fifa World Cup (PS3, Xbox 360, PSP, Wii)

Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

Red Dead Redemption (PS3, Xbox 360)

Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (PS3, Xbox 360, PC, DS, Wii, PSP)

Finally, Rockstar's fantastic Western epic Red Dead Redemption is finally knocked from first in the charts as Harry Potter casts his spell in Lego world with Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4. Elsewhere, new release Naughty Bear by A2M enters at a very satisfying fifth although the Transformers license bearing Transformers: War for Cybertron can only enter the chart in 8th.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 is always a strong contender for chart position although the other releases of the week, APB and Sniper Ghost Warrior needn't trouble Potter at the top.

Out this Week! 2nd July 2010

Realtime Worlds' follow-up to 2007 title Crackdown- the open world, cel-shaded extravaganza- is this week's massively multiplayer APB, of which they have been working on since finishing the aforementioned. The MMO will allow players to act either as an 'Enforcer' or 'Criminal' in a dynamic balance between law and order, of which players can affect. APB also features impressive matchmaking systematics to ensure players of similar skill levels are matched in competitive multiplayer, whilst its real-time combat system should deliver exciting game play experiences. Furthermore, the expansive customisation options keeps things feeling entirely personal along the way, allowing the player to create not only characters, but vehicles, with help from the in-game tool-set. [PC]

The Tiger Woods games suffer from the curse of yearly franchises- projecting unnecessary releases at gamers with little need to pay attention. The franchise has long since near-perfected its golfing game play, with the recent PGA series of games adding next to nothing for core gamers. However, it doesn't stop EA, with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 said to feature new tournament play, online modes and player control. And for the first time in the series, the Ryder Cup has been included, simulating all players and courses no less. This comes with the ability to partake in a giant 24-player multiplayer Ryder Cup for your own online. Motion support has been shown off for both Wii's 'MotionPlus' and Sony's new Move controller. [PS3, Xbox 360, Wii]

I'll forgive you if you haven't heard of the final release of the week, Sniper Ghost Warrior, since its one of those games that comes along unnoticed in a haze of cheap thrills. From developer City Interactive, Ghost Warrior is a first-person tactical shooter said to be “the most realistic sniping experience in a video game” with the its system for tracking bullet trajectory and environmental affects met with player control of breathing. The setting of lush jungle certainly looks appealing, and the insistence that players can choose how they approach given situations sounds entirely promising. Perhaps not one to go amiss, after all. I'll wait and see. [PC, Xbox 360]

Friday, 25 June 2010

Preview- Crackdown 2 [Hands-on]

Released: 9th July 2010
Format: Xbox 360
Developer: Ruffian Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Having bypassed Realtime Worlds' original game released in 2007, I came to Crackdown 2 knowing little of what to expect. Not that I hadn't heard great things of the prequel, with a number of nods toward its “orbs” and devilishly difficult achievements. The direct sequel, now developed by Ruffian Games, follows the super-human officer working for the Agency (simply referred to as “Agent”) who looks to put a stop to the mutants that that have escaped the research facility from the original.

Granted a 30 minute demo with the game, it becomes immediately apparent what the team strive for, in a flash bang of explosive, fast, frenetic action with the beautiful cel-shaded metropolis of the open world sandbox Pacific City glistening in high def, fantastically realised, superbly composed and rendered. Considering a quick press of 'Start' unveils the map of the foreboding city, and you'll begin to admire the enormous play area that will be available to rip through in the main game, although here only a portion of which is playable. The cel-shaded feel only subverting your gaze away from similar open-world clones, and yes, it is indeed, beautiful.

But suppress premature applauds, since the combat system is where the game can truly be tested. And thus, it's where the game is perhaps least adequate. The over-the-shoulder third person perspective mitigated and underwhelming when 'firing from the hip', although the targeting system (a click of 'LT') does little to alleviate any problems since such lock mechanics are extremely rigid and far from dynamic. Specific targets can not be targeted, instead you'll be hoping that the system correctly guesses your plan of attack in a frustrating display of combative nuance. It'll certainly take a good deal of your hands-on if you're to get to grips with the mechanics behind such a system, although thankfully meleeing your way through the AI hordes is satisfying and deadly- going some way to alleviating such problems. It's a testament to its kinetic design that this is the case, since you'll most probably wade through the wave of enemies so quickly that such frustrations fail to hinder the impressive weight of the rest of the experience.

The variety in the arsenal of weaponry is certainly pleasing, with the usual shotgun, assault rifles and SMG's all complimented with the more powerful additions of the grenade launcher, rocket launcher and projectiles- cluster grenades and the like. All of which will be unlocked upon further progression in the game, and available to you from calling in weapon and vehicle drops (from a roll-caged buggy to a hefty steel truck) from Agency controlled areas. The demo, in fact, speeds up the rate of upgrades sufficiently in proportion to the limited 30 minutes with the hands-on that there is a smooth sense of progression felt in the half hour. The game's design is in fact so devoted to the feeling of ever-evolving suit abilities and the like, with the help of the collection of the number of orbs (ability, vehicle, strength etc.) scattered over the city, that soon you'll be adding verticality to your level of play, jumping from rooftops and over Pacific City's sprawling urban jungle instead of driving in any of the vehicles on the roads, as an increased skill-set is given- increasing running speeds, or the height of jumps, for example.

Of course, with sandbox gaming comes a level of freedom. Whether you choose to take up the Agency's missions, here in “restoring Agency dominance” or “establishing power networks” with the eradication of Crackdown's aptly named “freaks”, or choose to quench your unabashed desire for sheer mayhem in choosing to deviate from any required actions. The addition of its side missions are satisfactory and fulfilling in addition to the weight of the main game, whether in checkpoint races through the streets in vehicles, or 'free-running on steroids' in the free-running missions, leaping from checkpoint to checkpoint over rooftops. Audio logs can also be picked in order to flesh out the back-story in regards to the foundations of the city, and handily play over the top of game play.

The demo that is now available on Xbox Live is exceptional in delivering key aspects of Crackdown 2's design. It's engaging, exciting and not amiss to the odd splashing of claret. Also featuring up to four player co-op and the ability to unlock achievements within the demo, it'll get no doubt get you revved up for the full package. It's taken me by surprise, certainly that I'm now actively awaiting its July 9th release.

All Format Chart- Week Ending 19th June 2010

Rooms: The Main Building (DS)

Just Dance (Wii)

2010 Fifa World Cup (PS3, Xbox 360, PSP, Wii)

Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

Red Dead Redemption (PS3, Xbox 360)

Wow. Being as the chart is exactly the same from last week's, besides Rooms and Just Dance swapping places, there really is little to say. Red Dead Redemption's prowess continues to shine sales wise, with even the World Cup failing to push 2010 Fifa World Cup to a higher position.

Hopefully, we will see a change next week with a few big releases. Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is likely to enter the top 5, possibly making it into the top three. The second licensed video game of the week, Transformers: War for Cybertron is likely to also trouble Marston on top spot, although I'd expect this to remain consistent sales wise, rather than a huge first week push.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Out this Week! 25th June 2010

American football game Backbreaker is the first of many titles that are set for release this week. Using the 'Euphoria' engine, physical player interactions are all calculated on the fly, in differentiation a set animation technique, ensuring play is fluid and dynamic. The NFL license is not used however within the game, with Madden having sole use of licensed teams and players. [PS3, Xbox 360]

Coming much later than its release elsewhere in the world, From Software's hardcore RPG Demon's Souls is finally available within the UK this Friday, published by Namco Bandai. The third-person action RPG takes place in the fictional land of Boletaria- a land beset by cursed demons, of which the hero will need to banish. [PS3]

Traveller's Tales' latest Lego game is out this week. Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 focuses on the first four Potter films, all re-created in plastic block glory. The classic humour that TT have shown in abundance in delivery of their other licenses ought to be seen here, with the magical story only further infusing the game with unique and fun game play mechanics. [PS3, Xbox 360, PC, DS, Wii, PSP]

Another game relying on the success of its licensed forbearer's is High Moon Studios' third person shooter Transformers: War for Cybertron which takes place prior to the event's of the original animated series, when the Transformers still lived on the planet of Cybertron. The game hosts two distinct campaigns for each faction, the Autobots and the Decepticons. [PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii, DS]

Preview- Doctor Who: The Adventure Series (Ep.2)

Fans of the classic British sci-fi series, 'Doctor Who', can now play as the Doctor themselves in the second episode of the game series Doctor Who: The Adventure Series, developed by BBC Wales and Sumo Digital. The first episode, 'City of the Daleks', received over 525,000 downloads within its first 12 days, whilst the latest episode (entitled 'Blood of the Cybermen') can be downloaded straight from the Doctor Who web-site immediately after the TV series finale this Saturday, 26th June 2010...[ctd.]

Monday, 21 June 2010

Review- Splinter Cell: Conviction [Xbox 360]

Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Released: 13th April 2010
Other Formats: PC

Ubisoft had a difficult decision in how to approach the latest Splinter Cell game. In fact, after the critically disappointing Double Agent, the follow-up was officially announced in May 2007- set for release later that same year. However, the project was then “put on hold” by Ubisoft who decided to re-think their approach. The game re-surfaced at last year's E3, with an all-new visual style, with Sam Fisher having shaved his dishevelled beard for a cleaner, more casual look.

The wait has been long, but the qualities that seethe from Splinter Cell: Conviction's surface make it abundantly clear from the get-go that this has been a labour of love, a project in which the developer, Ubisoft Montreal, were unwilling to release without it oozing with polish. Coming to play Conviction is joyful and eventful- whether a fan of the previous titles within the series, or as a newbie to the stealth-action franchise.

Linear in its outset, Conviction actually presents more choices to the player than it first appears. In its open level design, progression can come about in a number of variants. In a differentiation from the previous SC titles, Conviction is less insistent on focusing entirely on the tip-towing of its stealth game play mechanics- instead allowing the player to take the fight to the enemy with a more action-orientated design. Not that it's particularly useful, since you will more likely focus on its stealth, cover-to-cover approach for combat to be truly effective since it can be be justifiably overwhelming if employing the role of action hero, with a non-stop barrage and spray of bullets coming from AI operatives. Sticking to the shadows is probably your best bet (neatly visualised with an amalgamation into black-and-white visuals), whilst sticking to cover (by holding the left trigger) and systematically bouncing from cover-to-cover to avoid the onlooking gaze of unaware opponents, with arrows super-imposed over cover objects to indicate where Fisher will end up, making stealth game play smooth, direct and as hassle-free as can be. The aforementioned black and white visuals and pointer arrows are only two of the uniquely distinctive aesthetic tricks that the team employ to give the game its dynamic looks. Objectives are also projected onto the scene, with expositional markers key to the overarching plot also intertwined seamlessly into the environment. Certainly a neat trick but also suitably pointless and unnecessary- I felt the addition of such elements withdrew me from scenes instead of the intended purpose to immerse me, with their distractions pulling me out of the otherwise engaging experience.

The “last known position” 'ghost' is an inclusion, however, that I felt was particularly outstanding, with an outline of Fisher shown where last seen. Key in crafting neat tactical approaches, the ghost ensnares AI to pound that one spot (seemingly unaware that Fisher can, in fact, move!) to flank them from behind. In all respects, it's where the player can plan ahead into unique encounters that the game really works, ensuring thrilling and often nail-biting tension sequences to crop up from minute to minute. The 'ghost' only adding to the already hugely accomplished Splinter Cell tactical style of play that makes the series so successful, with silent take-downs, taking out light sources, and use of gadgets also playing a key role in survival. Gadgets are wondrous if you are to experience Conviction at its best- where a sole flash bang is unlikely to suffice if you wish to take on a whole room of goons. Instead, gadgets can be used in conjunction with each other for constructive progression through levels, where enemies can be tackled head on with EMP blasts that stun them momentarily, whereas a stealth approach can be established with the excellent 'sticky cam'- allowing you to take in your surroundings, or entice enemies nearer to its self-detonation with its “make noise” effect. In balancing all of the abilities available to you (and combining this with the correct equipment of firearm- where a pistol will more than suffice), Conviction puts its lead leg forward, establishing a breathtaking action game. The deadly mechanic of “mark and execute” is also nicely integrated, and results in a devastating fury of succinct bullets bound for each of Fisher's targeted nemeses (highlighted using 'RB')- often seeing room-fulls of enemies dispatched in one clear sweep, and marks Sam out as his natural born killer personality. Not that Michael Ironside otherwise does anything to give Fisher any redeeming qualities as a character, in his droll voice delivery that rambles through the script with a feel of utter boredom and laziness.

The underlying problems with the game can almost be overlooked for the quality that lay elsewhere within. Sometimes frustrating, the game has large sections of game play with little checkpoints between, so savouring cut scenes time after time is likely to grow aggravating when trying to accomplish your task. In one section, I had to walk to a desk every time, talk to the clerk, only then getting into the action. I witnessed this time and time again, no doubt ensuring heightened stress levels, only making progression even harder.

Elsewhere in the game's superb presentation, Kaveh Cohen and Michael Nielsen do their best in composing an uncompromising score- where they leap from slowly drawn out melancholic moments to upbeat, tension-heavy orchestral pieces (often not too dissimilar to the Bourne score). In a story that leaps from set piece to set piece in its short running time, Splinter Cell: Conviction presents a number of remarkable and hugely memorable sequences, such as the foot race around the Washington Monument, or infiltrating the Third Echelon headquarters in nerve-tingling fashion with the help of Sonar goggles. With enough attention to detail to match the most classy of games of this generation, you can't help but feel the extended development time has done no harm to the game whatsoever, with sets vibrant with life and minute constructions. Game play is forever smooth and well worked, with gun play also being well suited to its genre tropes. Definitely worth recommending, Conviction is a blast.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Review- DJ Hero [Xbox 360]

Publisher: Activision
Developer: FreeStyleGames
Released: 29th October 2009
Other Formats: PS2, PS3, Wii

Like most gamers, upon the announcement of DJ Hero, I shook my head, went about my daily business, and laughed at the mere mention of the game. Well, how wrong could I have been!? It's difficult to think of a game recently that has really had be so enveloped in its up-taking. From my first scratch on the plastic turntable, to my first successful and tricky cross-fade at the left of the controller, every portion of the game has taken me by storm, literally.

It's not that the soundtrack had me particularly rushing out to go pick up the game, because most of it is dross and way out of sync to my musical tastes, although it has to be said that some mixes are superb and hugely playable! From Black Eyed Peas and Jackson 5, to Eminem, via David Guetta, it's all here- dance to hip hop, R n' B to pop. Some tunes are actually insanely catchy once replayed, yearning for the five gold stars, that actually the original track listings that had you wincing, will (after a sustained period of time), have you bobbing your head to its rhythmic beats and ear-deafening bass.

Like Guitar Hero that came before it, playing DJ Hero for the first time is a fantastic experience. The turntable in fact is so well designed and easy to use that it will immediately become apparent what is required to really get the most out of the game. The 'note highway' is justified in being uniquely similar to its instrumental counterpart, although now the cross-fader acts as a switch between the two tracks within each mix- a line will mark where this needs to be adjusted (resulting in an endlessly satisfying silence as one track resonates!) Difficult to handle at first, the slider is one of DJ Hero's most entertaining skill aspects to hone for its sheer simplistic nature that is rewarding to pull off yet tremendously difficult to master. Of course, when one thinks of being a DJ, the record scratch always comes to mind- this is a large part of the game also, with the revolving turntable (also host to the three coloured buttons), having to be 'scratched' where a continuous line joins the highway. More forgiving on Medium difficulty (where the deck can be scratched either way), the game gets much more difficult through 'Hard' and the outrageous 'Expert' modes- where the turntable will need to be scratched in specific directions! The 'Euphoria' button acts as Guitar Hero's equivalent 'Star Power', where the multiplier doubles for a short amount of time for the best scores to be achieved, although the addition of a 'rewind' mechanic (through a anti-clockwise turn of the decks), also has the same impact, playing the same piece of the track back again for dramatic score bonuses. It's when you really become accustomed to the DJ controller that the game comes into its own, where every scratch, slide, and rewind blend into a superior experience than what can be given by its full band counterpart. As much as I enjoy Rock Band and Guitar Hero, nothing has connected with me quite so much as getting to grips with the controller, where I retry thumping track after track for a high score- often resulting in lost hours of time and aching fingers to boot.

Progression through the career unlocks further venues and set-lists through the granting of stars (a total of 5 per track). The recent band games have instead opted for an 'all is unlocked' approached from the very beginning of each of their new titles, which I feel is a huge misstep. Not only do players instead get to experience all that the licensed tracks have to give, but the overbearing sense of skill progression is also extremely better off. The developers seem to have taken notice of many flaws of other rhythm-action titles, where severe difficulty spikes hinder the overall experience- instead, FreeStyleGames give a more suited playing field for players to accustom themselves to the controller, from the first scratch to 'Expert' difficulty, a smooth transition.

In other aspects of the game, the presentation is top-notch and seething with quality. From the clean and clear ability to flick through un-fussy menus, to the strobe lighting effects and graphical package of the on-stage DJ set, everything just seems to coalesce into a complete, and exceptional whole. In addition to the wealth of modes, from its single player career, to competitive and cooperative online and offline modes (including a 'DJ vs. DJ' mode), DJ Hero also gives players the option to plug in a guitar for mixes that enable the riff between DJ and guitar (a total of 10 songs), or a microphone for your non-scoring pleasure.

My final verdict comes as no surprise, DJ Hero is undoubtedly worthy of a buy. At £30, I'm certainly not complaining- in fact, it stands far above and beyond what I was expecting for the price. I'd heard good things, but nothing can truly match the feeling when you first put the game into the drive and unravel all that the game has to offer.