Tag Archives: ps3

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.

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.

Why I Gave Up On Fallout:New Vegas

7 Feb

I gave up on Fallout: New Vegas, just stopped playing it altogether after sinking around 20 hours into it. The game was my most anticipated of 2010 by some distance. Fallout 3 is one of the best games ever made as far as I’m concerned, and more of the same was very welcome. The problem was, it wasn’t more of the same. It was the same engine, but with a yellowish brown hue. That was ok, the desert theme made sense and while I disliked the setting because of what Las Vegas is in reality, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland it would hardly be the same, right?

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Las Vegas is everywhere, seeping in where it has no place. It’s there in the adolescent sexual humour, in the pointless gambling, in the worst minigame I’ve ever played (Caravan), in the organised crime clichés. It influences all of the mission names, characters and on and on to the point that if I hear anyone mention ‘Vegas’ again, I am no longer responsible for my actions.

'What happens in Vegas' wins 'tired phrase of the decade' award

It’s not even a bad game, not by a long shot. It just falls so short of the legacy laid out by Fallout 3. Following up a game with a cold, satirical take on politics and war with a classless attempt to inject humour through missions involving recruiting prostitutes for a brothel is crass. Fallout 3 may have even handled it well, made it a darkly comic take on the economic realities of the wasteland, but in New Vegas it’s just another shoddy attempt at humour derived from a robot called ‘Fisto’. Weren’t Obsidian meant to have great writers?

The faction concept, with you offered the chance to choose sides in the battle for New Vegas, should have been great, but any ambiguity about the intentions and righteousness of the NCR (the good guys) is destroyed by the fact that Caesar’s Legion (the bad guys) are about as ambiguous as a kick in the face. They crucify people, the make women slaves, they don’t allow their followers to use medicine, etc, etc. It’s by the numbers writing, choose a historical figure/empire and mix them with Nazi Germany. Worse, it’s the same tired morality system, ultimate good versus ultimate evil.

The first robot you meet is so annoying that all robots must die

Playing the game though, is about exploring the desert and finding those hidden stories that tell more than the main quest. In 3 this was achieved brilliantly in places like Little Lamplight and the Republic of Dave, but again, New Vegas just goes for the facile option, one evil mutant settlement, one that exemplifies goodness and kindness. At least it seems to play as well as its predecessor, for a while. The area around Las Vegas is large and full of settlements and the like, but it soon becomes very clear there is only one direction. You must follow the main story and reach Las Vegas. Other routes mean either certain death, which I could live with knowing I’ll return later as the Terminator mixed with Rambo with enough guns to keep an army happy, but there are also invisible walls, invisible walls in a game which is supposed to be an adventure, an epic quest, not a corridor. It’s extremely lazy design and hugely disappointing.

The worst is yet to come though, and before I get to it I’ll point out that I was playing the PS3 edition. New Vegas has more bugs than an entomology lab. It’s as if a plague of virtual locusts hit Obsidian’s offices during development. The game needed to be held back, but was clearly pushed through for a Christmas release, safe in the knowledge that a patch would cure all. Well not everyone has an internet connection for starters, but even then it would be nice to play a working game on release day, not a month or so later.

Aesthetically it's nowhere near as interesting as Fallout 3

It started with freezing, which escalated into full on crashes. Corrupted save games became commonplace and no fix arrived. Quests would end inexplicably, or be impossible to finish. I currently have three that I can do nothing to complete. I’m in the right place, talking to the right person, yet they refuse to speak to me for one. In another the character I need to find has disappeared. Frankly, it’s insulting that a game was actually released in that state.

So I quit. Between the juvenile humour, the lazy writing, the even lazier development and apparent lack of any testing, this was a quest I’d never complete. If the game had been mechanically sound it would have been quite good. A lot worse than 3 but still a fun adventure, but adding invisible walls, quests that can’t be finished and creating a game world that was basically a long rectangle, with random impassable obstacles, made this an exercise in futility, a game which does little to engage and when it does it freezes. If there is to be a Fallout 4 I would hope Bethesda either know better than to let someone else make it, or at least give it to the Obsidian team who worked on the far more impressive Alpha Protocol.