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Stacking Review

3 Mar

Did I just ‘sip tea’ as an attack? I think I did. Wonderful, what next? Ah, obviously I’ll tell these people to get out of my way. Bulletstorm appears to be gaining acclaim for inventive gameplay, but it’s archaic when compared with Tim Schafer’s latest release, Stacking. After the excellent Psychonauts and the underrated Brutal Legend, Double Fine (Schafer’s development company) turned to download-only releases and it’s been a resounding success so far. As the mainstream stagnates and physical releases become ever more bland, Double Fine have carved out a niche for intelligent and unique titles. Costume Quest was the first and Stacking the glorious follow-up.

A combination of adventure and puzzle game, Stacking has a gameplay mechanic that other developers have failed utterly to implement. Remember the altogether disappointing ‘Messiah’ from 2000? You could be forgiven for being unable to, but if you do, you’ll remember it offered the ability to possess other characters and use their abilities. The problems this presented were that firstly, most human characters are essentially the same and second, it takes an imaginative mind to make this in any way useful in terms of gameplay. Schafer is one such creative mind and thankfully Stacking fails to suffer from use of something so complex. Rather, the game makes the whole concept seem remarkably simple, and therein lies the brilliance of Double Fine’s latest creation.

The locations all look fantastic

Using Russian Stacking Dolls as characters allows the player to inhabit the body of larger dolls and use their ability, so you can go from a small child to a tea-sipping lady, to an elderly gent struggling with his hearing. If that sounds utterly ridiculous, that’s because it is. Stacking is a game with its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek and each and every doll has a charm all its own. Gameplay is simple, with left stick moving, right stick controlling the camera and the four main buttons controlling entering and exiting dolls, talking and using a unique ability, each doll has one. These abilities are used to solve the puzzles presented, in a similar manner to the classic adventure games which made Schafer’s name. Each doll is akin to an item, some can open doors, others can distract guards and so on. It’s all extremely easy to play, though the puzzles are satisfyingly tough.

Each obstacle presented by the game can be overcome in several ways, using different dolls and their abilities, which avoids the major pitfall of the adventure game – a lack of creative freedom. Stacking asks players to be intelligent, rather than just lucky, and there are no absurd item combinations or illogical answers. Each problem has a common sense solution or two and gameplay is a simple matter of finding the right doll for the job, then having the imagination to use it. An early example is distracting a guard with a ‘sexy’ doll who can seduce him from his post. Later puzzles involve quite silly abilities and often elicit a laugh, such is their absurdity. Stacking amuses and delights in equal measure, and a large amount of effort has clearly gone into creating an experience that feels a world away from the average game.

Each doll is unique and has bags of personality

Further setting Stacking apart is the setting. Opening with a silent movie style introduction, with a family of dolls gyrating, followed by cards showing what they have said. An evil Baron has kidnapped children, and the youngest child must rescue them. Nothing too complex, but the presentation is exquisite. Cut-scenes move between location theatre style, sets fall away and are replaced, rather than characters moving. The locales reflect the Russian doll styling and look like ‘The Last Express’ re-imagined by Pixar. This aesthetic style is a visual treat, with the dolls looking like painted wood, reflective and smooth, and backgrounds having a period style reminiscent of a drama set in 19th century Europe. Even the occasional tutorial is expertly presented, with a film-reel appearing on the edge of the screen as the game quickly introduces its controls and puzzles. The music also, is perfectly fitting, and creates an atmosphere of joviality without sacrificing the slow melancholic sound of the style it draws upon.

This sumptuous design is a rare treat in gaming. While many games have incredible graphics, few have this level of art design and ultimately that is far more impressive. Even the simplest of elements, the way the dolls move, is brilliantly realised. They all move by gently rocking from left to right, but some are more or less pronounced depending on personality. The aforementioned ‘sexy’ doll rocks the top part of her body as if rocking her hips, while other dolls move in a manner which reveals the smaller doll beneath. Attention to detail like this makes Stacking constantly interesting and appealing, as each new doll is more than just a new ability in a pretty shell, but a character all its own. You will likely spend a few moments just walking around looking at the dolls in each new location, wondering which to control first.

I'm a bit lost for words on this one.

Stacking is a genuinely new experience, feeling like little else, and looking more like a CGI cartoon than a game. It’s full of the kind of humour and personality Schafer’s games have become known for while addressing the problems adventure games often fall victim to. This is the evolution of the point and click into something far more intuitive. It’s clever in so many little ways that it shames the average mainstream release. In times past this would have been one of the biggest releases of the year, rather than an afterthought to the likes of ‘Worst Game Title Ever Award Winner’ Killzone 3 or Bulletstorm. It’s a pity many will miss out on this due to its non-physical release and the relative obscurity that brings, as not only is it the best game of the year so far, but will be a definite contender for game of the year when December comes. On the other hand, sometimes finding and appreciating a game like Stacking makes it that much more special.

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Killzone 3 Review

28 Feb

The latest in a series better known for its graphical prowess than its gameplay, Killzone 3 is one of Sony’s system shifters. It’s a first person shooter, the bad guys wear gas masks and clothes with red trim and it has an action style somewhere between Call of Duty and Halo. This is the kind of thing that sells in the millions with a little marketing, and Sony have put a lot of resources into making sure everyone knows that KZ3 is playable in 3D and has eye-wateringly good visuals.

The problem with telling the world that Guerrilla Games have made the best graphics since time began is that it makes otherwise forgivable flaws seem exaggerated. While the characters are chunky and detailed, environments look good and boring details like explosions are excruciatingly well animated, there are plenty of little errors that catch the eye. If you’ve played the demo you’ll have seen how pretty all the snow looks in that ice level, but what really stood out was the two dimensional water hitting the sides of rocks and boats. It looked pitifully lacklustre, as if the developers had either forgotten to finish it, or decided no one would care. If I was buying KZ3 for graphics I’d be thoroughly disappointed. Attention to detail is important when visuals are such a selling point and this kind of thing should be eliminated.

Detailed, but hardly interesting

Other than the few minor flaws, which are only magnified by the visual quality of the rest of the game, I will concede that the graphics are very good. That’s not particularly unique anymore, but they are some of the best on any console, which I suppose is an achievement. The problem is that this is the game’s focus. It’s so obvious that the developers want me to be impressed, that at times I have no idea what’s going on around me. Reloading is dangerous not only because the gun is unusable, but also because the animation is unnecessarily long and takes up almost the entire screen. As always with newer shooters, being shot or taking damage leads to the screen being obscured by a blood effect, but when the game is so graphically detailed, it’s hard to see enemies who wear camouflage as it is. Even the great particle effects just get in the way, with explosions making dust clouds that make seeing enemies impossible.

All the graphical power is wasted really, as it was in KZ2, which had incredibly bland environments. This game tries to do a little better, but inevitably the plot means that most locales are varying shades of grey. The art design is generic, with enemies having no personality and the same being true of the player characters. It’s as if they were pitched as a cross between the awful, jingoistic heroes of Modern Warfare, and the muscle-bound brutes of Gears of War, but with nothing to make them exciting or unique. At least Marcus Fenix et al had some personality, even if it was all a bit over-the-top. KZ3 just doesn’t know what it wants to be. It lacks the pseudo-seriousness of Infinity Ward’s efforts, but seems to want to emulate it, but in space, with big guns and the Empire from Star Wars.

Snow is Guerrilla's one attempt to liven up the environments

The plot is equally bland, a hollow re-imagination of Halo, but with more ‘grit’ and ‘realism’ and human enemies. The characters are not only boring, but mind-numbingly irritating. They chatter as in Modern Warfare, but it’s mostly grunts rather than words. The voice actors sound as if they’re straining to maintain the gruffness in the voices of ‘Sev’ and ‘Rico’ and enemies just shout the same things over and over. Cut-scenes are over-elaborate messes, that never seem to focus on telling a story, rather on the pretty incidental detail that the developers think will impress. The whole thing plays out as little more than Modern Warfare rebranded and set in space, same glorification of war, same irritatingly unoriginal characterisation and same failed effort to turn meat headed morons into compelling characters. Even Master Chief had more personality.

I could forgive much of Killzone 3’s faults if the gameplay was good enough, but it just isn’t. Killzone 2 had exactly the same flaws and its sequel does nothing to address them. The cover system, for example, is awkward, requiring a shoulder button to be held down in order to stay hidden. Unfortunately this is one of the most poorly implemented elements of the game. Instead of, as in other cover-based games, snapping quickly to cover, Killzone is somewhat erratic in when the cover system works. I suppose this is to make things seem more ‘realistic’ but I’m in space shooting Stormtroopers cosplaying as Nazis and frankly, I want to be able to just press the button and hide. The game is hard in the sense that trying to make it fun by shooting as dumbly as one presumes the characters you play as would means certain death. Playing it tactically though, is impossibly dull, and since the cover mechanic is flawed the ‘cover, shoot, move, repeat’ gameplay can’t stand up to continued play. The single player campaign is mercifully short at least, but if you were to like the game enough to continue playing, this would be a negative, so no one wins.

Is that a robot wearing kneepads?

There are further gameplay issues. Iron sights is present and correct (Sir!) and even more frustrating and counter intuitive than ever. While CoD managed to both make iron sights work (though I can’t say I’m a fan) and make it suit the context, Killzone makes it one of the most exasperating aspects of the game in one simple control choice. You have to click the right stick once to enter iron sights and click again to exit. There’s no quick snapping to a target, and it just feels awkward. On top of that, I’m part of a civilisation that’s invading another planet, surely they’ve made some guns that shoot lasers like it’s a light show of infinite destruction by now? The guns are stupidly underpowered for that matter, and useless unless iron sights is used. It all adds up to a frustrating and boring experience that sacrifices fun for strained realism and graphical grunt.

Killzone 3 will no doubt sell in the millions, which is a depressing thought. With a story and characters that fail to do anything other than irritate, a focus on realistic war in a setting which has no place for it and some astonishingly poor design choices, this is a game so mired in mediocrity that it should appeal to no one. I honestly can’t understand why anyone would want to play a game where the characters could only be relatable to someone with the imagination of an earthworm. It somehow glorifies war, yet makes it seem boring. There’s just no imagination here whatsoever. This does nothing the previous game in the series doesn’t do, and steals all its ideas from other sources, on top of implementing them poorly. With no reason to find out what happens next in the world’s least interesting storyline, grinding through the turgid gameplay is only for the most masochistic of souls. Even that one remaining selling point, the graphics, either falls flat due to mistakes, or because the visuals get in the way of the gameplay.

Bland, uninspired, mindless and utterly derivative, Killzone 3 is the poster child for everything that is currently wrong with the games industry. If you want a big dumb shooter, go get Gears of War or BulletStorm. If you want to feel like an imperialist soldier intent on destroying the country/planet of another race, buy Modern Warfare 2 and hum ‘Star Spangled Banner’. If you want great graphics and good cover mechanics, try Uncharted 2. There is nothing about Killzone 3 which hasn’t been done better elsewhere.

Go Ireland: The VideoGame by Fine Gael – Review

22 Feb

The debut title from new developers ‘Fine Gael Digital Task Force’ is a flash platformer, in the vein of the superb ‘Super Meat Boy’ but a little slower paced. Players control Fine Gael (Irish political party) leader Enda Kenny, and we are treated to the voice talents of Seán McShiurtáin as the politician. The game is based around Mr. Kenny attempting to gain votes, each of which is represented by a Fine Gael logo, while avoiding opposition politicians, traffic cones and moving platforms. In order to get a high score though, all the opposition must be defeated, by means of Fine Gael (ninja) star, and having the ‘5 point-plan for economic recovery’ enacted. It’s only one level, but it’s quite tough, due to the number of hazards and various goals.

The game is, unfortunately, beset by issues. Collision detection is horrendous, as landing anywhere near the cones leads to death. Jumping has no consistency, and making it over any gaps is purely based on luck. The throwing of stars only works on around one out of three occasions, and never when it’s needed. Gameplay is so hampered by these flaws, and the hideous level design, that it’s almost as if the game was hastily produced in an extremely cynical manner.

It's very easy for Mr. Kenny to die

The graphics aren’t awful, as flash games go, but they are blocky and uninspired, though a somewhat accurate reflection of Ireland. The character design is awful though, with each politician little more than an unidentifiable blob. The human heads on tiny cartoon bodies are slightly disturbing, and there is an awe-inspiring lack of creativity in the visuals as a whole.

The sound effects are even worse, with a repetitive jingle being played at all times and some even more awful snippets of sound. ‘On yer bike’ and ‘Tax that’ are repeated ad infinitum, and still the music tortures the player’s ears with its sheer offensiveness. The complete lack of effort here is shocking, really, considering the work put into the gameplay. Listening to the poor voice actor imitate lines that were seemingly recorded through the microphone on someone’s laptop is a special kind of nightmare, with a repetitive jingle. To his credit though, when delivering the line ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ he becomes a rather reasonable Jedward impersonator.

Gerry Adams doesn't provide the expected level of challenge

The most interesting element of the game then, is the bizarre element of controlling a murderous politician, seemingly on a mission to kill all opposition. It is possibly a retro-kitsch nod to the Blueshirt era of the political party. If not, it is altogether intriguing. With a lack of obvious plot, it seems that Mr. Kenny merely wants to destroy all those who oppose him, either with physical ninja stars in his party colours, or with some sort of metaphorical propaganda based weapon. The latter seems more likely, due to the nature of Fine Gael’s media campaign, with flash games, an e-card creator and YouTube videos. With these tools they will crush their foes and gain election, perhaps.

On the other hand, the death of opposition party members in a pile of ashes, with a sign appearing above their now-cremated remains saying “Bye John Gormley” (or whoever happens to be on the receiving end of Mr. Kenny’s wrath) makes it hard to assume that the goal is merely to propagate ideas. The very nature of the killing, and the cold one-liners mentioned earlier (tax that) seem to indicate that Mr. Kenny has taken it upon himself to become Ireland’s answer to the ‘Governator’ Arnold Schwarzenegger, but based more on his role in ‘Commando’ than as a political figure.

Enda Kenny, stone cold killer

It is perhaps most interesting that the game is fraught with technical errors, as it seems almost impossible to finish the level and achieve all the goals set out in the objectives. Maybe this is an ironic or existential argument put forth by the creators, allowing us to meditate on the futility of Fine Gael’s policies, or perhaps it is truly just one of the most poorly designed and ill-conceived pieces of political propaganda ever produced. Might this reviewer suggest that if Fine Gael cannot get this game working, then their stated aim of getting Ireland working may be far more than they have the means to achieve.

Mad Chad Review iOS

16 Feb

Game: Mad Chad
Format: iOS

American Football player Chad OchoCinco is as well known for his fantastically over-the-top personality as his play, and Mad Chad, the first game to feature him in a starring role, aims to bring this to the iPhone. The game is an endless runner, in the style of the brilliant Canabalt. It’s a crowded market, but Mad Chad stands out surprisingly well, even for those who may not know the wide receiver.

The first thing that impresses about Mad Chad is the art style. Our hero is as bold and brash as his personality, almost leaping off the screen thanks to the excellent cartoon-esque visuals. The setting may be a little uninspired in terms of their selection, but each one has a unique style and there are fun facts to learn in each one. No, really. The enemies are as well-animated as Chad, and the bizarre storyline about a stolen pigeon actually fits the game rather well. The game looks great on the hi-res screen, with a lot of vivid colour and detail.

The vivid colours look excellent

Gameplay is tight, with excellent and intuitive controls. There is a decent level of challenge, though it’s not as hard as some of the best running games, it still manages to provide a reasonable level of difficulty throughout. With the ability to jump, slide and tap to destroy enemies, there are some nice additional elements over some of the simpler variations on the genre, though simplicity can be a good thing, and sometimes missing the ‘slide’ command is a problem here. With extra points on offer for destroying, rather than avoiding enemies, there is some replay value in attempting to top high scores. With a good number of levels, it will last a while, probably just long enough for this format.

Controls are simple and intuitive

Perfect for a quick level or two between plays, Mad Chad is loud and unabashed fun. It isn’t too complex, it’s got an in-your-face style and can be just a little odd. A bit like Chad himself, then. Well worth picking up if you enjoyed Canabalt and want a little more, Mad Chad is a good app, whether you have any idea who Chad is or not.

Mad Blocker Alpha Review

13 Feb

Open Emotion Studios, based in Limerick, Ireland, have been making quirky and entertaining flash games since early 2010. The first of these games was an addictive puzzler called ‘Mad Blocker’ The game proved popular enough to warrant a sequel, and after making several more flash games, for Mad Blocker Alpha: Revenge of the Fluzzles, Open Emotion moved onto Sony’s ‘Minis’ – a platform for simple, accessible games that can be played on PSP and PS3. This is a real indication of the success of Open Emotion with Mad Blocker. Ireland may be home to some high-profile international studios, but for an Irish indie developer to release a game for a major console is extremely impressive, and a real testament to the work Open Emotion have put into MBA.

The game itself is familiar, yet has a style all of its own, both in gameplay and visually. Certainly there are strong influences from other puzzle games so it’s instantly accessible to anyone who enjoys the genre. Gameplay feels something like a cross between Columns and Dr. Mario, with a little Super Puzzle Fighter in the mix too. Blocks fall horizontally in sets of three, the order of which can be changed as they fall. They can’t be rotated however, so it plays like columns on a vertical plane in this sense. The gameplay is a fantastic risk/reward trade off, as the more blocks eliminated at once, the more points scored, but the screen can become clogged quickly and the best laid plans turn to defeat. The score attack gameplay is very addictive, every bit as much as the classic puzzlers the game draws from.

The hand drawn visuals are a delight

In addition to the simple gameplay of the original flash version, Open Emotion have added more than just a few new blocks and power-ups. There is a story mode which, while simple, has a lot of charm. Much like Puzzle Bobble, the story mode adds impetus to keep playing, not just to get to the next level, but to see the next piece of gorgeous art. The hand-drawn style visuals are one of the best things about the game, giving it a look that stands out in a crowded genre. A lot of effort clearly went into crafting stimulating backgrounds, and offering the player a reward for their continued play. The blocks themselves have different faces, with the happy pink block looking like ‘company mascot’ material from the off. The others, from angry red to terrified yellow, are equally charming and full of personality. The music is also high-quality, catchy and jovial. It scores the experience perfectly and between sound and visuals it’s a delight to play. The design is really excellent and in adding a story mode for this full-featured release there are more than enough reasons to justify buying, rather than just playing the flash version.

A puzzle game though, lives and dies by its gameplay. MBA doesn’t disappoint, it’s perfect for PSP players in particular, offering an addictive and compelling portable experience which suits short stints of play. PS3 owners shouldn’t be put off though, as the story mode adds just enough depth. Attempting to beat high scores encourages repeat play, and the level of challenge is pitch-perfect for this type of gameplay. It’s definitely a throwback, but that’s no bad thing. The familiarity only adds to the experience and the combination of nostalgic gameplay with modern visuals keeps things fresh. The only real criticisms are that the visuals may not appeal to everyone. They’re odd, to say the least, and some may be turned off by them. In terms of gameplay the columns influence is a tad strong, but again, not a bad thing really. Unique power ups and blocks and an original style mean it’s not derivative, more of a tribute to classic puzzle games than anything.

Story mode adds some real depth

It really is great to see an indie developer from Ireland get a game released on a home console. Not only because it shows just how far indie games have come, but that Irish developers have a chance to compete in the industry. Open Emotion are blazing a trail and already have another mini due for release – Ninjamurai, due May of this year. The Sega influence is clear as they describe it as ‘Shinobi meets Sonic’. If it’s as unique and interesting as Mad Blocker Alpha, and retains Open Emotion’s sense of style it could be another winner. If Mad Blocker Alpha is anything to go by, it should be.

Best and Worst of 2010

22 Jan

2010 was an exciting year for games, with Microsoft and Sony jumping on the motion bandwagon, indie games reaching new heights and some excellent mainstream releases. There was, of course, plenty of bad as well. We saw yearly instalments of the big-budget titles become the established norm as Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty joined FIFA and the rest of the sports games in the stockings of the majority of console owners. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert denounced the idea that games could be art, and while initially this seems a negative, the fact it’s even being considered by someone like Ebert is a huge leap for the medium. California saw debate on censorship laws for games distinct to other entertainment, and the court’s ruling in 2011 may be a landmark moment in the industry. It’s been an exciting year for gamers, and with some great titles coming in early 2011, it’s time for a look back at the best and worst games of 2010, from the terrible to the pinnacle of 2010, GameGameBlog’s game of the year.

The Worst
Allow to me qualify this slightly. Of course there are worse games than those on this list, but these are the most derivative or disappointing of the year. A bad developer making a bad game is no surprise, but this list is for those games which got our hopes up only to dash them against the pointy, pointy rocks of reality.

Dark Void
This is the game where Nolan North, cover shooters and wisecracking leads all jumped the shark. On a jetpack. Featuring a flight element which defies all efforts at control and sends the player around in circles as they try in vain to find enemies, as all bad flight games do, Dark Void had an instant sense of cheapness. With Nathan Drake basically the main character, but with a different name and a steampunk aesthetic trying to hide the blatant theft of ideas, Dark Void did very little to stand out other than the jetpack sections. Unfortunately, having a jetpack in a cover shooter is a bit like having a bazooka in a boxing match – in the end you’re just going to kill yourself no matter who you take with you. With the ability to fly snatched away at random as well, it really is just Uncharted, minus the gameplay, minus the somewhat original ideas, minus the charm (that some seem to think the irritating Drake has) Dark Void is genuinely awful, but the developers at least were nice enough to create an 8-bit style version, which is infinitely better called Dark Void Zero, as well as advertising the game A LOT. If nothing else, at least they have a good marketing department, but all that made was a game that feels like the publishers getting focus groups to pitch ideas. ‘I liked Uncharted, and jetpacks are cool’ Gamers deserve better.

Final Fantasy XIII
For such a beloved franchise to fall so far from grace is sad to see, but much of that is down to Final Fantasy fans refusal to accept Square Enix moving in a new direction. It would be commendable, to be fair, were they making quality games, but Final Fantasy XIII is sadly a far cry from the level of quality that Square Enix should be producing. FFXIII has the problem of linearity without a compelling reason to continue playing. Now, the Final Fantasy games were never as open-ended as they seemed, but it was the illusion that made them work. Previously, Square created living, breathing worlds. You may have seen only a small part, but it felt open, like a real adventure. FFXIII is a series of corridors and really feels like it, the game world is bland and lifeless. This would be ok if the plot and characters were worth following, but the characters are as bland as the environment and incredibly annoying and cliched. The only interesting part is a large open field, but any freedom is hampered by the fact that the only thing to do is battle, and while the battle system is quite good, it rapidly descends into repeatedly pressing one button repeatedly. Final Fantasy has had some poor characters before, but Square always managed to create a world worth exploring, until now. XIII does a massive disservice to fans of the series, and while it’s great to see a new direction, here it does nothing but destroy what made Final Fantasy great, and fails to add anything to replace that.

Final Fantasy XIII

God of War III
The first two God of War games were good, but between Bayonetta and Darksiders, God of War’s third installment had been outclassed and rendered obsolete before it hit shelves. The game was more of the same, technically brilliant and with some excellent graphics, but the gameplay simply paled in comparison to the competition. Add to that the fact that niggling annoyances remained, such as the button mashing just to open a chest, and pointless quick-time-events to defeat a boss repeated ad infinitum. Worst of all though, was the fact that Kratos has evolved into a less and less interesting or likeable character. Essentially the game requires you to play as a nasty, cruel and sadistic moron with little motivation other than apparently being angry at himself for being stupid. He makes Squall from FFVIII look like the greatest character ever conceived and is an emo fringe away from crying as he gouges out the eyeball of a Cyclops. Without a decent plot and with both gameplay and graphics being far less impressive as they were on PS2 thanks to the advances made by other devs, GOW III traded on controversy with ill-advised sexual content and pointless violence, the kind of things that sold games in the early 90’s. Sexual content in games needs to have some maturity if it’s to be taken seriously, but GOWIII barely manages to depict an adolescent fantasy without seemingly impossibly tacky and cheap. Bioware showed that sex has a place in videogames, but games like this just make gamers look like 14-year old idiots who like breasts and blood. That’s not even mentioning the ridiculous levels of violence. Games can be violent, I’ve played plenty of them and I’m not averse to it, but some context other than ‘I’m angry so I’ll tear off your leg’ would be nice. Surely as a medium games have moved beyond the likes of this?

Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days
Did anyone actually like Kane and Lynch? Didn’t think so, but no one told Eidos or Squeenix. It’s not without an original idea, I suppose, there’s an incredibly gimmicky and annoying youtube/grainy camera style. It’s not exactly appealing and clashes with the crime movie styling of the plot. In terms of gameplay, it’s a third person cover shooter, with another cheap gimmick – co-op focus. This makes what works best in single player utterly pointless played alone, and didn’t Army of Two beat IO to the punch? It’s amazing really that anyone bothered to play Dog Days, the characters are about as appealing as your average X-Factor contestant, and have even less to say. The plot is contrived, clichéd and frankly, boring. By-the-numbers gameplay really doesn’t add much incentive to keep shooting things. There are just so many better cover shooters out there. Dog Days is ultimately the Rocky V of third person shooters, it’s pretty much the same as everything else, yet somehow far, far worse.

Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
The levels are mostly well-designed, there’s plenty of colour and great visuals, it looks like Sonic and sounds like it too. It was a real treat to finally see Sonic return to his 2D roots, without a cast of annoying sidekicks. All was not well however, as despite all the great work that went into the design, Sonic 4 had one fatal flaw, the controls. It seems Sonic has slowed down a bit in his old age. Sure, he can get going, but maybe its arthritis or just muscle deterioration that makes him have similar acceleration to a tank. It takes so long to get Sonic to a decent pace that getting slowed down at all is controller-hurlingly frustrating. It promised so, so much, but Sonic fans who’ve suffered through the 3D years should have been more wary. Go buy a Mega Drive and Sonic 2 for the definitive experience and to remember why the blue hedgehog was the coolest thing in videogames, because now he’s just a cold shell of his former self. Here’s hoping Sega realise the mistakes they made with the physics for episode 2.

Halo: Reach
I’m being slightly harsh putting Reach here, it’s no less derivative than Black Ops or any of the other pointless sequels released this year, but Halo was actually a good game. The original, while a bit overrated, was fun and had some incredible moments, but Bungie conspired to remove the large scale and unpredictable battles which made Combat Evolved so enjoyable. Instead of the brilliant vehicle sections over open environments, or through ramp-filled corridors, there was only driving slowly and awkwardly between the same skirmish, with the same amount of enemies. The mistakes made in Halo 2, which forced the player into far more linear environments, with little choice in how to approach combat, remain. It was forgivable once, but a third time is just unacceptable, even more so when ODST, barely more than a mission pack, had more originality and creativity. In a vacuum it’s a decent game, but it really is a poor send-off for Bungie in their last Halo game, and considering how much Halo fans love the franchise, they deserved better.

Halo Reach

Bioshock 2
Bioshock needed a sequel even less than Army of Two (which almost made this list). It may have been a great game, but the story was totally self-contained, perfectly wrapped up and pointless to continue. But then, 2K love money… a lot. They love it so much they were willing to put a different studio (2K Marin) to work on a sequel to Irrational’s classic. It was a terrible decision. Obviously plenty of gamers wanted a sequel, but Bioshock is a game that attracted those who wanted something a little more cerebral, so it’s not just a case of putting a few new levels into an existing engine, it had to be more than that. Removing the quality of storytelling and replacing it with a bland, uninventive plot with dull characters is not redeemed by putting the player in the shoes of a Big Daddy, especially when it makes zero difference to gameplay. Even worse, the game revolves around protection of others, which I’m pretty sure everyone hates but a few very masochistic game developers. Bioshock 2 is as derivative as they come, it lacks originality and intelligence and is clear winner of the ‘cynical cash-in of the year’ award.

Aliens vs. Predator
If you remember the 1999 Aliens vs. Predator then this is possibly even worse a game than it already seems. AVP ‘99 was a wonderful mix of three games. Playing as the Predator was an FPS with some well-implemented additional skills like infra-red and thermal vision. You could use all the classic weapons and really felt like a monster, lopping heads off marines and generally causing mayhem. The alien was strange, but a lot of fun, with the ability to quickly crawl around ceilings and walls, using stealth and surprise to take out the humans. Then the marine was an FPS survival horror that created a great sense of tension, a bit like Dead Space. AVP2010 manages not only to be a poor game, but to totally ignore what made the ‘99 version good. Playing as the Predator feels slow and boring, with a focus on melee rather than the shoulder cannon and speargun. The alien is a confused mess of terrible controls, dated graphics and terrible level design. At least the Marine campaign is playable, but it feels less up to date than the earlier iteration and even amongst the current crop of cookie-cutter iron sights as standard FPS games, it falls flat in any attempt to create dramatic tension, or even a few shocks. Most incredible of all is that Rebellion developed both this and the previous AVP game. It’s shocking what a decade can do to a studio.

Aliens vs. Predator

The Best:

Game Dev Story
It seems strange to choose an iPhone game, but Game Dev Story is impossibly addictive, and far deeper than the majority of games for the system, yet without losing the simplicity necessary for a quick play. Angry Birds or Cut the Rope might have more immediate and obvious appeal, but GDS has much more to offer, it hooks and doesn’t let go in the same way classic sims like Theme Park did. With just enough options to make it strategic, and a great pacing which moves things along at a decent speed, creating games becomes a compulsion, as you try to get a little bit better, make a little more. There are plenty of little details and nods to gaming history that will raise a smile, and the sprites are well designed to the point that you become attached to your staff. Seeing ‘Intendro’ release a new console that looks like the Virtual Boy or NES is great, and a little knowledge of the past goes a long way. Finding combinations of genre and direction is well handled, encouraging a risk versus reward element to development, where innovation can lead to better games later, but a sequel or a genre you’ve made already is likely to sell better. Even after completion the desire to return and do a little better remains, GDS is a real highlight in the now rather impressive iPhone library.

Bayonetta
Platinum games must be the developer of the year, between this and Vanquish they’ve managed to release two of the most fun and playable games of 2010. Bayonetta is Devil May Cry sped up and camped up. An absurd plot, ridiculous heroine, oddly serene music and all manner of general craziness somehow makes the whole package even more appealing. It’s the gameplay though that really stands out. Bayonetta is sublime to play, an absolutely wonderful fighting system which becomes a savage ballet with a little practice and is an absolute joy to control, make it one of the best pure gameplay experiences in years. There’s a lot to be said about getting a combo perfect and being rewarded with a giant boot crushing your enemies, but it’s the precision button presses that add up to an intuitive game. It’s a little like a sped up Arkham Asylum at times, and is immensely rewarding. The difficulties that can be unlocked, as well as the compulsion to beat a high score make it a tremendously addictive title that has far more longevity than the average button masher, and far more intelligence behind those combos. Bayonetta may be a bit cringeworthy as a character, and her hyper-sexualisation is somewhat over the top, well a lot over the top, but it’s all in fun, and even if it’s not your thing, the gameplay is too good to ignore.

Bayonetta

Darksiders
Slipping in under the radar before God of War III, Darksiders showed the adventures of Kratos up as the shallow button mashers they are. Just as Bayonetta showed the slow moving God of War series how fighting should be done, Darksiders nailed the exploration and puzzle element, shamelessly ripping off Legend of Zelda. Its derivative, the art style is basically stolen from the mind of Todd McFarlane and the combat is very similar to God of War, but it all works brilliantly. The game has far more depth than most of this type, particularly western-style brawlers, which just don’t have the combat depth and need something extra. Darksiders finally delivers that, with a great Zelda-esque progression. The characters will appeal to some certainly, the voice acting is decent and the story isn’t terrible. The design is quite good, and the environments and enemies have enough variation that it doesn’t become stale. It’s not original, but manages to transcend its flaws and deliver an experience that outshines its competition easily.

Just Cause 2
Just Cause 2 was criticised unfairly at launch, critics citing a lack of depth, yet Just Cause 2 offers, at last, the ability to play the set pieces usually left to cutscenes – these the same critics who laud the likes of Assassin’s Creed, despite it being far too simple and repetitive. Just Cause 2 doesn’t bother trying to have an interesting plot, or good characters, they’re merely a footnote to the action. Some games will try to be something artistic, which is both important and interesting, but otherwise, they should be fun. For every ‘Citizen Kane’, there must be a ‘Commando’. Very few games try to be anything more than entertainment, yet they ignore the crucial point, that fun is paramount in that case. I can forgive a games flaws if it tries to tell an interesting story, but if, for example, GTA4 tries to shoehorn ‘realism’ into a cartoon world, it detracts from the experience. Just Cause 2 has a huge game world, no boundaries, and is bright and colourful. Basically, it’s everything a sandbox game should be. Probably the most fun game of the year, it suffers from the usual flaws of sandbox games, and the missions aren’t that much fun, but when you can hook an enemy to a gas canister and send him rocketing into the air, or climb to the highest mountain and leap onto a passing plane, or… well the missions just don’t matter, this is a virtual playground and it’s a crying shame that it’s so underappreciated.

Just Cause 2

Vanquish
Platinum’s other stroke of genius this year brilliantly redefined the cover shooter. Fast, action packed, and completely over the top, Vanquish has you sliding in slow motion along the ground while shooting giant robots within the first five minutes and never slows down. The intricate combat is a thing of beauty, allowing players to move with the sort of control not really seen in games like this. It’s precise, and encourages improvisation as enemies flood the screen, forcing you to dash to safety, move from cover to cover and never stop. It’s a far cry from the likes of Uncharted and Gears of War, which are littlemore than find cover, shoot, move forward. Vanquish is much more, you shoot while moving, constantly vary direction and take things on at a pace which defies logic. It takes a bit of getting used to but once you get it, it’s hard to imagine going back to the slow moving Marcus Fenix or Nathan Drake. As they did with Bayonetta, Platinum have stripped down and rebuilt the genre, making it more fun, more exciting and more intense in the process. Vanquish does what games have forgotten to do in their quest for realistic warzones, made the player feel like a superhero while retaining a high level of challenge. It’s a shame that that seems to have been lost between the iron sights of war shooters. The best thing about the game though, is that it really is great to see a Japanese company making unique, quality titles, despite the apparent decline in the quality of Japanese games

Super Meat Boy
Remember when platform games were a perfect blend of simplistic fun and complex challenge? When the game was hard enough that you might not finish it for weeks, but you kept coming back for more? Well Team Meat certainly did when they made Super Meat Boy. It’s one of the most unexpectedly charming games of the year, with oddly cute and likeable characters and a brilliantly unique visual style that continually surprises. The gameplay is the main thing though, and it’s unbelievably good. Tight controls barely begins to describe this, it has the same speedrun potential of the original Super Mario Bros. and the developers were keenly aware of the importance of giving the player total control. Its fast, but never too fast. It takes a few tries to figure out each of the challenging levels, but after a few goes you’ll be reaching the place where you died in seconds and getting that little bit further. It all culminates in one perfect rush, and a replay showing every last effort you made at once, possibly one of the simplest, yet most entertaining additions to a game this year. If you like classic platformers and aren’t afraid of a challenge, this could be your game of the year.

Super Meat Boy

Super Mario Galaxy 2
Nintendo just don’t get Mario games wrong. This is similar to the first Galaxy game, yet there’s enough new here that it still retains a freshness that most sequels can’t begin to match. The levels are as well designed as before, if not even better, and the challenge is just enough that it’s neither too easy, nor too hard. The music and general presentation are phenomenal, especially considering the Wii is little more than a GameCube in disguise. Nintendo know how to imbue a game with charm, and Galaxy 2 positively oozes it. From the gorgeous and varied worlds, to the inclusion of Yoshi, Nintendo have a sixth sense about knowing what to include to please their fans, and weren’t afraid to remove some of the less appealing elements of the first Galaxy. This is a game that revels in the innocence and fun of an adventure, it’s overflowing with imagination and creativity, both from an artistic and technical perspective. Galaxy 2 is a reminder, on the 25th anniversary of gaming’s most enduring and iconic character, of what it is that makes video games great, a flight of fancy like this would be almost impossible to achieve in any other medium, only Pixar and Studio Ghibli have a similar power to delight.

Deadly Premonition
This is an interesting one, wouldn’t you say, Zach? Deadly Premonition should, by all rights, be awful but it’s not even close, in fact it came close to being crowned best game of the year. Combining elements of disparate games and at times movies, it somehow manages to turn utter madness into a compelling and brilliant experience. There are plenty of flaws – the cars handle poorly, the combat is awful, the presentation is patchy and occasionally awful, the graphics are often terrible and it’s just a bit nuts, but it’s amazing in ways that can’t really be explained properly without having played it. The game begins as a poor Resident Evil 4 clone, nothing special, not really great, then becomes Alan Wake for a little while, adopting an episodic structure. After that it’s Shenmue, with your character questioning people and talking to everyone you can find. For a while it’s even Grand Theft Auto as you drive from place to place. Essentially it’s a sandbox detective game where you’re tasked with finding the killer of a local girl in a small American town. It’s also a survival horror at times. The plot and acting though, are the real draw. While the gameplay is good enough to keep things moving, the plot makes it special. Drawing on Twin Peaks, Stephen King and classic B-Movies, but ramping up the crazy, you play as Francis York Morgan, a mysterious FBI agent with a special interest in murders like the one you’re investigating. He veers from charming to delusional, and with a supporting cast of bizarre and suspicious locals, there’s not much that can be trusted and the game takes its time in revealing its cards. The plot is surprisingly good, despite being thoroughly odd, and it helps that the voice actors are mostly excellent, and the lead is simply brilliant. The soundtrack is the best of the year, despite being astonishingly ill-fitting. It really, really shouldn’t be good, but Deadly Premonition is so much more than the sum of its parts. If you like the idea of a game where the lead character talks to himself as he drives about 80’s movies (at great length) then you’ll adore this game, there really is nothing else like it, is there Zach?

Deadly Premonition

Alpha Protocol
This is a game that has a lot of flaws, to be frank, but it elevates itself above them. The early stages feel like any other cover shooter, but with some vague RPG elements. With a little perseverance though, the experience opens into something far more interesting. The choices you make become integral to the games developing plot, altering future interactions and challenges based on how you approach earlier situations. A dialogue system that encourages quick thinking leads to gut reactions, and makes for a far more impressive version of Bioware’s conversation system. Obviously Obsidian learned a lot from their work on Knight of the Old Republic II, and while New Vegas was the better of their 2010 output, the innovative Alpha Protocol is more deserving of praise. It actually handles the concept of player choice and consequence far better than New Vegas, as well as Heavy Rain in fact, without sacrificing the actual game in the process. It plays a bit like Mass Effect 2 minus the polish, but what AP lacks in that, it more than makes up for in the compelling nature of watching what you do change the world around you.


GAME OF THE YEAR

Minecraft
Minecraft isn’t even finished yet, which goes to show how impressive the concept is, and yet its so simple it boggles the mind that no one made this game before. The basic idea is that you mine for coal, rock, wood and such and create items, build a shelter and survive the night when monsters come to kill you. With simple graphics and a simple premise, the core mechanics are merely the gateway to a world in which your imagination is king. Online groups build cities, sculptures, vehicles, have even come up with games. Minecraft is phenomenally rewarding, and after a low-key start, where you simply survive the first few nights, suddenly you realise that the landscape is entirely yours to manipulate. Every block can be slowly moved and crafted into something totally unique. This genuinely puts the brilliant level editor of LittleBigPlanet to shame, and is the pinnacle thus far for games based on user-generated content. Forget LBP 2, this is the game for anyone wanting to join a community of creators. The amount that can be done with so simple a game is unbelievable, and this all came from a single developer. He now has a studio and a large staff, such is the popularity of a game that only very recently went to beta.

There is an incredible calm that washes over the player when the crafting starts coming together, a sort of zen-like appreciation for a simpler life. Just hacking away at stone becomes a blissful part of the experience, and the tranquil surrounding of trees, sand and water which give way to underground caverns filled with gems, iron and lave are all clearly crafted with an attention to detail unseen in most mainstream titles. The music too is wonderful, and the sound design is top-notch (no pun intended) in general. Red Dead Redemption got accolades for knowing when to be quiet, yet Minecarft should have earned that praise. The music only occasional breaks the serenity and when it does it only serves to draw the player in deeper. Such simple visuals may put off some, but they’re missing out on what is a victory for design and art over flashy graphics and explosions. The environment discourages conflict, and that’s only when enemies are even in the game, it is entirely possible to just build. Minecraft is what the Lego games always should have been, a virtual world of creativity, where only those with the imagination and drive to play and build are rewarded. There are no achievements or unlockables, just the joy of seeing, after hours of work, a huge structure, planned, designed and built by you, the player. It’s addictive, compelling and unfathomably clever, as well as being one of the best multiplayer experiences in gaming history. I must re-iterate, that it’s the idea of a single person, who at this point has done what minecraft allows players to, taken a simple idea and turned it into something enormous and utterly magnificent. Get in early and get creating because Minecraft will be the biggest thing in gaming soon enough, and no doubt one of the larger studios will snap up the rights to destroy it completely.

Super Mario All Stars 25th Anniversary Edition Impressions

20 Jan

Nintendo are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their most famous character in style, with a special edition of both the Wii and DS already on store shelves, and now ‘Super Mario All Stars: 25th Anniversary Edition’ available. Being a sucker for all things Nintendo, I picked up a copy, to go with my 25th anniversary Wii. How could I go wrong, it’s four of my (and everyone’s) favourite games, in a collector’s edition box with a CD and a book. Sounds like a really nice package.
To be blunt, it’s a tremendous disappointment. I knew it probably would be by the time I ordered it, but went ahead anyway, as I’m sure a huge amount of Nintendo fans will. It is a very pretty box, vaguely reminiscent of an NES box, which is a nice touch, and it’ll look good on a shelf, but chances are it’s going to remain there, gathering dust. The problem is that the contents are negligible, there’s nothing to get excited about, even for the hardcore collector. It’s hard to justify paying the €30 price tag for something so lacklustre, and it’s disappointing to see Nintendo miss an opportunity to really offer something special to the fans who’ve followed them over the years.

The biggest issue is the dearth of new content, there is absolutely nothing new about the game. When this was originally announced I was expecting the NES games re-released with the graphics of New Super Mario Bros. What this is though, is the SNES edition of All Stars on a disc. That’s it. It’s not even the version that includes Super Mario World. Without a graphical update, and with games that can be bought for less on Nintendo’s similarly disenchanting Virtual Console, why bother to repackage them at all? The target market for this, I can only assume, is older fans of Nintendo, the younger audience have Galaxy and New Super Mario to keep them amused, but the older players who might want this probably have a copy of All Stars on the SNES already, or the NES cartridges. It would have been so easy to make the package something really great, one disc could easily hold Super Mario World and Mario 64 as well as the NES games, maybe even Sunshine too, which would have made for a more complete Mario collection. Even if Donkey Kong had been thrown in that would have been something to be happy about.

The booklet chronicles, very briefly, the history of Super Mario, and is actually quite nice, but severely lacking in content. It’s basically the size of a game manual, and fits in a game case the same way. It only serves to perplex that the Mario timeline is covered completely, yet only four games made the package. I can obviously see why the Wii Mario games aren’t there, but at least the games up to Mario 64 should be. There is some interesting artwork, and contributions from Shigeru Miyamoto, Koji Kondo and Takashi Tezuka, but they only have a sentence per game, and it would have been great to read more of their thoughts on the development of each title. A DVD featuring them and some additional discussion, or even a short documentary would have been even better. The book is nice enough, I suppose, and seeing pictures of level design blueprints and some watercolour versions of concept art is interesting, but it could have been so much more.

The last part of the package is a 20 track soundtrack CD, and this is where it gets really poor for me. There has been so much great music over the years in the Mario games, so many recognisable themes, but only 10 make it to the CD. That’s one from each game in the Mario canon, other than 2, if you’re counting. That really is a miserable effort on Nintendo’s part, especially with how easy it would have been to add a few more tracks. There isn’t even some profit to be made off what’s left out, as there would be with the games. Instead of more music there are 10 additional tracks of Mario sounds, including such classics as the coin sound, 1-up sound and Game Over music. Order now and we’ll throw in a free hotplate. Please allow… Sorry, lost track of things for a second, that’s how amazed I am by the absolutely bizarre soundtrack. I’ll give it some credit, the music is memorable, and it’s fun to put it on shuffle and hear songs punctuated by the sounds of the classic games, but that’s not really the point here.

In sum, it’s a fairly poor effort by Nintendo to commemorate the anniversary of one of popular cultures most enduring icons, amounting to little more than a shameless cash-in. Nintendo’s marketing department really do know the appeal of the plumber in red and blue, and this is pure profit for them. I’m not going to let it dispel the magic of Mario of course, once the game itself goes on all is forgiven, very little tops the NES Mario games, but I would be loathe to recommend this to anyone, no matter how big a Nintendo fan they may be. If it had been packed in with the red anniversary Wii then it would have been a great extra, but the two never should have been sold separately, there’s far too little here to justify the price, and long-time Nintendo fans deserve a lot better than this.

As an aside, there is one part of the package I adored, the photo on the cover of the soundtrack case (see below). It’s just an NES, with a copy of Super Mario Bros. running on screen in the background, out of focus, but its stark simplicity is a wonderful reminder of an era of simple, elegant and innocent games, far from the realistic depictions of violence and war we see today. It encapsulates everything great about classic games like Mario, and is by some distance the best thing about Mario All Stars 25th Anniversary Edition.

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