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Friday, 26 February 2010

Full thoughts to follow...

Just a quick post to say I am playing through Heavy Rain (PS3) and Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing with Banjo-Kazooie (360) as of today. It may take a couple of days to get far enough through the pair of them that I can post a review, so in the mean time I will leave you with my initial impressions from having played both of them for around four of hours:

Heavy Rain: More like "Heavy Handed Drama". In fact, the first trophy I recieved thanked me for "supporting interactive drama" so it has certainly nailed its colours to the mast. To start with the dialogue is cliche, drawn from every thriller movie ever made about the hunt for a serial killer. The voice acting is only one notch above Shenmue in terms of how natural it sounds (which I quite enjoy because it makes me laugh, so I'm not knocking it there).

I suppose this next comment is a SPOILER. The opening section where you lose your son as Ethan seems to demonstrate the best and worst of the game: there is nothing else like it, as you genuinely feel lost in a crowd, unable to get to your son, and it is a nightmare. However, it is also faintly ridiculous in terms of plausibility (Ethan allows his child to wonder off twice in two minutes, and not only does his kid disobey him by leaving his side, but he crosses the road outside the mall for some unknown reason)and because of the heavy handed way in which your sons red balloon floats into the sky after he is killed. It just made me laugh, which isn't the reaction David Cage wanted, I'm sure. It certainly isn't how I wanted/expected to feel playing this game. It is also oddly un-engaging as you never really feel in control of anything, just resonding to occasional button prompts and lurching ever forward with 'R2'. "Interactive drama" is about right, as you don't decide where to go or what to do there, with most decisions being pointless (orange juice or coffee?) and with most areas (so far) not letting you leave until you have found the important plot point.

Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing: This much more traditional game will not win anything like the plaudits of the above, but has still been brilliant fun (so far). It looks lovely (with notable frame rate issues) and plays just like Mario Kart, although is obviously as derivative as that sounds at its heart. I am just happy to be playing something on my X-Box that doesn't involve shooting someone through the brain in an alleyway or something. The cast of SEGA characters and the recognisable music have filled me with a nostalgic glee I never get from Smash Brothers, I suppose due to being a SEGA kid at heart.

On the negative side, the game doesn't go as far as Nintendo's Smash Brothers in really offering content to the fanboys. There is no unlockable art or models or anything like that: just characters (each with a little piece of biography), courses and music tracks are there to be earned. I never usually care about this sort of thing, but I would have loved it here. Also, in my first few games on X-Box Live it seems that the game may share a problem with Mario Kart Wii's online multiplayer: races tend to be dominated by one player who goes so far ahead you never see him again, whilst the rest of the pack blow each other up. Maybe I'm just not good enough at the game, and it's my fault, so I'll just keep trying!

Two very different games, as you can tell, with one trying to develop and evolve the medium with something a bit different, whilst the other is attempting to be a decent and polished example of a tried and tested formula. Anyhow, come back in the week for full and fair reviews of both!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Ode to the glory days...

When I were a lad, there were these brilliant things called ‘point n’ click’ adventure games, so called because you used a PC mouse to point at things, and then to click on them. You could click on things to look at them, to pick them up, to talk to them or to use them on other things. It was marvellous. Many of the best examples were British (Discworld - pictured - and Simon and the Sorcerer to name a couple), though most of the really good ones were being made by an ancient and forgotten American company known as “LucasArts”. Almost every game made by this innovative developer during the late 1980s up until the late 1990s was pure gold. But then sophisticated 3D graphics came along and rapidly every game was about a grizzled marine shooting the guts out of Nazis/aliens. It was a sad time.

LucasArts continued making adventure games with the new 3D graphics for a couple of years (making Grim Fandango and Escape from Monkey Island), before they realised that they would make more money whoring around the Star Wars license instead. They had always made a lot of highly rated Star Wars games, but for the last ten years they have been just about all LucasArts have made (and to a terrifyingly low standard). So adventure games died along with the reputation of their biggest advocate.

However, there are a few reasons to be cheerful, as in the last few years the genre has had something of a minor resurgence. A company of ex-LucasArts employees called Telltale Games has released new games in the old Sam & Max and Monkey Island franchises (as well as a number of new series), whilst the brilliant 1996 game Broken Sword has been re-released on everything from the Wii to the iPhone (pictured below) in recent times. The iPhone platform has also seen the re-release of Beneath a Steel Sky, an even older game also made by Broken Sword’s creator, Charles Cecil. Valve’s Steam service on PC has (in the last year) seen LucasArts cashing in on their former glory by re-releasing a bunch of the old classics including: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis; The Dig; and Loom, as well as a remake of the original Monkey Island.

With the iPhone and small downloadable games (like those on XBLA or PSN) becoming increasingly popular, perhaps this once proud genre can find a new home and thrive once again. I certainly hope so. I leave you with some footage of a few of my favourites:

By far the best original point and click of the last half-decade, Capcom's largely unloved 2007 adventure Zack and Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros' Treasure, may not have the dialogue and story of most the classic adventure games of yesteryear, but it's every bit as good:

One of the most stylish and well-designed games ever made in any genre, 1998's Grim Fandango, published by LucasArts and created by the legendary Tim Schafer (Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island). I remember when my PC wasn't good enough for this:

My personal favourite Monkey Island game had nothing to do with the original creators (Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer). The third game in the series, The Curse of Monkey Island, introduced the voice cast now associated with the franchise (with Dominic Armato as Guybrush) as well as giving the game a major graphical facelift. The Curse of Monkey Island maybe my favourite point-and-click game simply because it feels like you're playing a detailed cartoon (whereas its 3D successor has aged less gracefully):

Check out the LucasArts Classic Adventure pack on Steam. It's £6.99 and includes four great adventure games (The Dig, Loom and two Indiana Jones adventures).

Monday, 22 February 2010

Grow Up Australia!

Pardon the inflammatory title, but “Grow Up Australia” is the name of a high-profile campaign which is seeking to persuade the Australian government to allow the introduction of an ‘18+’ age rating for in-game content (read the full news item here). This has been a hot issue in Australia for many years, with a great deal of moral panic generated by the media and politicians regarding the dangerous moral sewer that is the video gaming industry. There are lots of good articles about the history of video game censorship in Australia and the video below depicts a notorious recent example of this policy in action, with footage of the Australian version of Left 4 Dead 2, released with significant changes to its content last year.

I won't get into whether or not media images can turn children into serial killers (though, for the record, I doubt it) as that is an issue for another day and a longer post. I am just baffled by the fact that this debate is even happening in modern day Australia. Censorship is an unpopular idea when it comes to limiting freedom of expression, so how is it possible for video games to be singled out in this way? Well, because they are still not are still not seen as a form of artistic expression and so they are easier to censor or ban than a book or a film, especially as they are still perceived by many to be children's toys. In the UK, many parents I have spoken to (whilst working in games retail) will happily buy their young children BBFC-rated '18' games, whilst they may be less keen on them seeing a film with the same certification. People simply assume that a video game is something produced for children. When I have explained to parents that a game they are buying include the similar content to that of a violent film, they often express surprise that a video game might contain such graphic content.

Isn't the video games industry partly to blame for this perception? Because whatever their content, most games are still too juvenile to be taken seriously. It is the games industry, as well as Australia, that needs to grow up, and once that happens games may be able to confidently contain the same content as a graphic movie, perhaps even with the consent of the Australian government.

The official "Grow Up Australia" website is full of information about the history and future of Australian video game censorship and those interested should check it out!

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Games used to come on shiny, silver discs...

It is well known that a couple of things really scare the games industry these days. One is pre-owned games, which undercut publishers and provide zero profits for anyone but the retailer. The other is the internet and all the high-speed piracy it has introduced - pretty much crippling the PC games market all together (with the exception of The Sims and Football Manager), whilst consoles like the DS have also seen their software sales take a hit thanks to illegal downloading.

But as Valve have proven with the success of Steam on the PC (pictured), internet downloading can be a friend to Games publishers (and developers themselves), who are looking seriously at cutting out the middle man on the high street and selling directly to the consumer. By doing this, publishers can better dictate the price of games, can cut out pre-owned and can provide a legal alternative for those who prefer to download their media. This sounds like a good solution for everyone (but the high street retailer).

Although we maybe a few years off a total download-only games industry, the first signs of this change can be seen happening within this console generation. The PS3 already has full retail games like Burnout: Paradise available in digital form on its PSN store. Similarly the 360 has launched its own Games on Demand service, allowing gamers to buy a whole range of older titles using their Microsoft points. None of the titles offered by these services have, as of yet, been new releases, with Sony and Microsoft seemingly content to dip their toes in the water, but it is a sign of things to come.

Another good indicator of this trend is the online-exclusive download games available on all three major consoles, via XBLA, PSN (pictured) and WiiWare. Whilst a few years ago the output in this domain was limited to retro arcade titles or HD renditions of simplistic mobile-phone quality games, they now in some cases rival full-retail products, having become increasingly sophisticated. Games like Epic’s Shadow Complex on the XBLA are now pushing at the boundaries between download-only and retail product, whilst a number of PSN titles have since become retail products (Pain, WipeOut HD, Quest for Booty, Siren: Blood Curse). Fable 2, a full 360 retail game, has also been converted into an episodic XBLA game, available in small instalments, another move which could indicate future changes to the way we receive this medium.

So far, these titles have subtly served to introduce gamers to the idea of downloading games directly to their consoles, as well as to the idea of paying for something without receiving a hard copy. Now all that remains is for the majority of people to have high-speed internet access and then we can expect to see this form of games distribution become the mainstream.

Of course, there are already download-only platforms on the market, in the form of the PSP Go and the iPhone (and now the iPad). There is also the OnLive platform, which was announced last year and plans to cut out retail through live streaming of games over the internet (think of it as being like YouTube, but for games). Digital Foundry’s Richard Leadbetter has already written an interesting piece questioning its viability, which I won’t go into here. But whether or not OnLive works, it is yet another example of a burgeoning trend in video game distribution.

Here are some download-only games I highly recommend:

Oh, the hours I've spent on this! A brilliant re-vamp of an arcade classic, Pac Man Championship Edition on XBLA (also available at retail in the Namco Museum compilation):

The highly-rated World of Goo, available on WiiWare (and through Steam on PC):

And of course, as mentioned before on this blog, the amazing Flower on PSN:

Thursday, 18 February 2010

'Super Monkey Ball Step & Roll' review: Monkey Balls...

I am quite conscious that, so far, I have reviewed two “mature” games, both of which involve a lot of shooting in dimly lit corridors (I am of course referring to Bioshock 2 and Mass Effect 2). I therefore thought that it would be a good idea to make my next review a Wii game, with a more casual (less bloodthirsty) audience in mind. I am also aware that I’ve been giving SEGA a rather easy time of it lately. First I talked up their new 2D Sonic game, then I charitably compared one of their biggest flops (Shenmue) with one of this year’s most anticipated titles (Heavy Rain), before going on to praise the demo of (what is sure to be) a fairly average Mario Kart-clone in the form of Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing. In the interest of balance, it seems only fair that I now take SEGA to task over their most recent release: Super Monkey Ball Step & Roll, on the Wii.

For those unfamiliar with this particular franchise, the original Super Monkey Ball was a rather brilliant Arcade cabinet game which became a successful and well-received Gamecube launch title back in 2001. The game basically sees the player take control of a monkey in a gumball. You must guide this monkey to the end of each level within the time limit whilst avoiding falling off the stage. Effectively you were not so much in control of the monkey itself, but of the level, tilting it so as to cause the monkey to follow your chosen path. It was good fun and was a decent party game as you could easily pass the controller around upon failing and give somebody else a go. Since then, SEGA has released a number of sequels to varying degrees of success.

I was relatively excited by the prospect of this new Wii iteration of the series as it employs the Balance Board peripheral (hence the word “Step” in the title) and whilst a few mediocre titles have so far tried to incorporate Nintendo’s fitness controller, Monkey Ball is arguably the first respectable games franchise to give it a try. In theory it is a good fit. As anyone who has played Wii Fit knows, the Balance Board is sensitive at detecting changes in weight distribution and this should lend itself to Monkey Ball well, as you tilt your body to tilt the level onscreen. But whilst this works in theory, in practice it is far too sensitive for its own good, rendering the game’s harder stages impossible. I was able to struggle through and complete the game’s two easiest “worlds” (sets of 10 levels) using this control method, but as the game progressed it became clear that I would need to switch to the Wii Remote.

It is a great shame that the Balance Board option doesn’t work as hoped. However, when played with the Wii Remote, Step & Roll handles fairly well after a bit of practice, and the difficult later stages become much easier. This is another problem with Step & Roll. It is too easy. With only 70 levels in the main mode (compared with around 300 in 2005’s Super Monkey Ball Deluxe on the XBOX/PS2) the game is far too short and even the hardest of the levels are quite simple to beat. Furthermore, losing all your lives results in being given the option to continue from the same point... which is completely pointless. Why bother with having lives when they are so meaningless? And when you (inevitably) complete each 10-level world, you are treated to an unskipable end credit sequence, each with it's own delightful J-Pop song (including lyrics about “living your dream” and “following your heart” like every piece of J-Pop ever recorded) which has nothing to do with guiding a monkey to the end of an obstacle course, whatsoever. The first time this happened, after world one, I thought I had completed the game within ten minutes.

Not only are Step & Roll's levels much easier than those in earlier instalments, they are also less fun to play. Whereas the original games were focussed purely on remaining on the level by avoiding holes, often building up a lot of speed, Step & Roll is mainly about the finesse required to roll around obstacles planted over every inch of each stage. Totems, rocks and blocks of ice are scattered throughout the levels and buffeting off them is not fun and just breaks any hope of building momentum. The game is best in the few levels where speeding from one end to the other is still possible and when this is possible, the game is still quite brilliant fun.

Whilst the main mode is unreasonably short (I completed it within a couple of hours), there is the option of co-operative play to add a little replay value to those courses, as well as the allure of besting your score from last time around. There are also around 20 multiplayer mini-games to keep you and your friends entertained. At least that is the intention. Bizarrely none of these mini-games employ the Super Monkey Ball gameplay mechanics at all, instead requiring you to: shake the Wii Remote to knock your friend off a pedestal; hold the Wii Remote like a steering wheel for a terrible Mario Kart-style game; waggle the remote to pump air into a balloon and so on. None of the mini-games have anything to do with Super Monkey Ball, or the concept of "fun". Take a look at the video (below) to get an idea about just how fun these mini-games are for yourself.

All in all, Step & Roll is not a bad game. It just isn't as good as it should/could have been, especially with regards to use of the Balance Board, which seemed like a match made in heaven. The originals were superior games and people who haven't played either of the first two instalments in the series would do better to utilise the Wii's Gamecube disc compatibility and find an old copy of one of those instead. However, if you can't find those games or if you have played them and are hungry for more Monkey Ball, the single player is fun (if short) when played with the Wii Remote. People looking for a fun multiplayer experience should probably stick to Wii Sports or buy a more polished dedicated mini-games collection (Raving Rabbids or WarioWare for example) and avoid what's on offer here.

Super Monkey Ball Step & Roll is out now on Wii and is rated '3' by PEGI. For another piece of SEGA-related news, check out the latest news on Sonic 4 at IQGamer.

Monday, 15 February 2010

'Bioshock 2' review: Now that it's finished...

Last Thursday I posted my first thoughts on Bioshock 2, based on having played about four hours of the game. I was unimpressed and felt the title was falling way short of its glorious predecessor. However, I have since completed the game and can now say with confidence that Bioshock 2 is a very good game which not only lives up to, but improves upon, the original in most respects. I should probably start by directly explaining the reasons for this change of opinion.

Bioshock 2 is a slow starter. As I mentioned before, you begin the game a little underpowered. But any misgivings I had about the weapons at the beginning of the game were long gone by the game’s climax. Not only can you power up the original weapon set so that it becomes quite effective, but the game also introduces a number of more powerful weapons (not least among these: the shotgun and spear gun) which dramatically improve your offensive options. While I never ended up feeling like an all-powerful “Big Daddy”, I did end up really enjoying the combat the game offers.

A big part of the combat in both Bioshock games is the ability to use “Plasmids”, injections which genetically alter your character enabling you to acquire superpowers, and these powers are better balanced and more refined than those in the original game. There are two good examples of this. The first is that the only Plasmid I ever felt I needed to use in the original game was telekinesis. In the first game the telekinesis plasmid was overpowered to the extent that you could pick up any item (a tin of beans say) and hurl it at an enemy with the effect of killing them. I saved a lot of ammo that way and it was pretty fun, but it wasn’t great game design.

The second example of an improvement in balancing the Plasmids comes in the shape of combining what were once two separate (and therefore largely pointless) abilities into one much more effective one. In the first game you could use the “Enrage” Plasmid to make an enemy fight against his comrades, whilst using the “Hypnotise Big Daddy” power enabled you to force one of those hulking guardians to come to your aid. Now, in the place of these is an improved “Hypnotise” Plasmid, which at its lowest level causes enemies to fight amongst themselves and at a more advanced stage enables you to convince any enemy (Big Daddy’s included) to defend you. So two Plasmids I never bothered to equip last time became the one Plasmid I couldn’t do without, in the sequel.

It is also fair to say that the game has some interesting locations which rival those seen in the original. Whilst I was at first concerned that it lacked the same personality, as the game progresses you reach some really nicely realised sections of Rapture, which never feel repetitive or too similar to those seen in the first game. Whilst I am still unhappy that the developers removed some of the games personality (for instance by removing the jingle from the vending machines), Bioshock 2 is not a personality free zone, as I had orinally thought.

In my original post, I also expressed some concern about the games story, saying that Dr. Lamb was not as compelling an antagonist as those battled in the previous game. Well, as with just about everything else, the story really got going after that initial spell of playing, and whilst it is certainly worth criticising the game for failing to really capture my imagination from the start (in the manner of the original), it is also worth pointing out that this game improves on its predecessor’s sloppy ending. Without giving anything away, Bioshock 2 does build to a good climax and the story ends up enriching the story of Rapture (and its fall) in a way I never expected. I had wondered how a character that was never mentioned in the first game could suddenly become such an important part of the story, but the game addresses this issue satisfactorily and does well to keep continuity with the original.

I’ll stand by some of my initial complaints though. Enemies don’t really seem to fear you (but then again they don’t seem to mind taking on the regular “Big Daddys” this time around either) and the “Little Sisters” you protect don’t have enough personality about them. They do occasionally chime in with “look daddy another angel” or something similar, but this is merely functional and not done to provide that illusive “atmosphere” Bioshock 2 ultimately rather lacks. Perhaps they need to be singing nursery rhymes or something. I can understand why a developer might cut something like that out in order to avoid annoying the player, but I think it would have added something, and would have made me feel a little creeped out (which is how the spooky corpse-inspector children should be making you feel, right?).

I don’t want to get too far into talking about the new online multiplayer mode. This is partly because I haven’t yet put the hours into playing it, but mostly because there is a lot I had to write about the single player, which takes precedence. However, I will say that from what I have played the multiplayer it is a solid addition to the game. I was impressed by the effort that has gone into its setting, as the Bioshock 2 multiplayer is based during the fall of rapture, and as such tells as story (complete with collectable audio logs) which serves to complement the main event. It is certainly nice to glimpse Rapture in a less run down state and it is refreshing to come across a mulitplayer mode that has clearly had some effort put into it.

Ultimately, Bioshock 2 manages to improve upon the (excellent) first game in terms of the gunplay, with a slightly improved control system, as you can now wield a weapon and a Plasmid at once. Add to this the refined set of weapons and Plasmids and the combat is quite brilliant. The additional gameplay element of defending the “Little Sisters” is welcome and quite enjoyable, although it is not exploited enough during the campaign. The story is a little stronger this time around and the end section (including the ending itself) is much improved over the original, although it lacks the original’s pacing, taking longer to get going. In terms of atmosphere Bioshock 2 fails to generate the same tension and never pulled me into Rapture completely, despite some nice level design and interesting visual elements (like the shrines around some of the “Little Sister” vents). Perhaps this is simply because I have been to Rapture before, rather than that the game is made inferiorly, as I can’t really put my finger on what is missing. However, the fact can't be avoided that Bioshock 2 is a sequel and so can't really be expected to make as great an impact as the original.

I would definitely recommend Bioshock 2 to fans of the original game. And although I would probably advise new players to experience the original for a proper introduction to my favourite city under the sea, playing the first is by no means essential to the Bioshock 2 experience.

Bioshock 2 has been available in the UK since the 9th of February and is rated an '18' by the BBFC. For a look at the game from a technical view point, head over to IQGamer.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Rejoice for the SEGA All-Stars (and, again, that bloke from Shenmue)

After railing against console-brand-biased fanboys earlier this week, it is time for me to be a big hypocrite and don my SEGA fanboy hat. Last night I played the 360 demo for “Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing” and loved it. I know Sonic’s track record for spin-off titles isn’t great, with lacklustre games like Sonic Riders and All-Stars Racing developer Sumo Digital’s previous effort SEGA Superstars Tennis scoring poorly with reviewers. However, from what I played, this new Sonic racing game was pretty good fun. In the same way that Sumo’s Sonic tennis game was based around the principles of SEGA’s Virtua Tennis franchise, All-Stars Racing seems to have been based on the driving mechanics of the arcade series Outrun, in that you must drift to turn corners. As a pretender to the Mario Kart throne, the game seems to be a lot better than it has any right to be and may provide PS3 and 360 fans with the opportunity to enjoy a decent game of that type without having to go cap in hand to Nintendo.

As I said, though, I am a bit fanboyish about this topic. Most of my time playing the demo was spent gawping at the references to other SEGA games, most of which come from the Dreamcast era and pointing them out to my girlfriend (who couldn't care less). There are playable characters and stages from Space Channel 5, Shenmue, Jet Set Radio and Samba Di Amigo and nods to other neglected games like Chu Chu Rocket. I also loved the fact that the music for the Sonic-themed stage of the demo was taken from directly from Sonic Adventure. I hope all the stages take their music directly from these old games. I couldn’t tell from the demo whether Shenmue’s Ryo Hazuki is voiced by the legendary Corey Marshall, but I remain hopeful (despite the fact his IMDB entry doesn’t list the game).

Basically, as you can tell from that last paragraph, a fair slice of my enthusiasm for this game comes from loving many of the franchises which it is cynically cashing in on. I knew I’d like that aspect of the game when it was first announced (it had me at “hello”), but what surprises me is that the game seems playable enough for me to actually buy it. It seems off though that this game should be released now and continue the Sonic Adventure-era branding of Sonic, seeing as SEGA are trying to bring the franchise back to its roots and put an end to this kind of crap. Anyway, enjoy the video of Shenmue's hero getting his race on below:

Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing is rated '7+' by PEGI and comes out in Europe on February 26th... which come to think of it, clashes with the release of Heavy Rain.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Heavy Rain demo available!

Anyone who read my first post on this blog will know I am keenly awaiting Heavy Rain, the PS3 exclusive crime-thriller game. Developed under the direction of David Cage (the man responsible for the interesting Fahrenheit as well as the underappreciated Omikron: The Nomad Soul), Heavy Rain has attracted a lot of interest since it was announced way back in 2006. Much of this interest has been raised by the games mission to be a genuinely emotional experience, with realistic and interesting characters.

Personally, Heavy Rain excites me for many reasons, the first and most frivolous being that it bears some resemblance to the notorious Dreamcast flop, Shenmue (one of my favourite games of all time - pictured above). The resemblance, as I see it, is in the way both games feature mundane actions as gameplay elements. For example, Shenmue saw players waiting at a bus stop on their way to work every morning. You could also open pointless drawers and pick up the various pots and pans... for no reason whatsoever. Heavy Rain seems to allow similar scope for relatively pointless moments, such as playing with your son or opening a fridge. Of course, none of these moments are pointless within the context of the game, as they create a world and an atmosphere. The other similarity both games seem to share is a reliance on reaction times in responding to on-screen button prompts, popularly known as QTE’s (quick timer events).

Shenmue likeness aside, the main reason I am excited by Heavy Rain is that I want to see whether it lives up to its ambitious goal, and makes me cry (or at least feel something for the characters). In that earlier post, I discussed whether games could be considered art, and I see Heavy Rain as a potentially interesting chapter in that ongoing saga.

The reason for writing this now is that a playable demo has arrived on Playstation Network. In it you are allowed to play two brief scenarios, which introduce you to the games control system, as well as setting up two of its characters. I have played this demo and can now give my proper first impressions on the title.

I’ll start with the bad. Well, nothing I played was truly bad. The one thing I really wasn’t sure about was the control system. Pressing the “R2” button (the lower-right trigger on the control pad) causes your character to move forwards (this is again similar to Shenmue) and this took some time getting used to. Moving your character in this way lacks fluidity and this seems to undermine the realism of the game, as my character changes direction like a robot. The QTE’s themselves work well, but I was thrown by their inconsistency. For example, at one point in the demo I was told that pressing down “L2” would always present the option of hearing my characters thoughts. However, this didn’t prove to be the case more than half of the time. Another minor gripe is that the early previews of the game made the characters facial animations appear much more detailed and fluid then they would seem to be in the final game.

The single worst thing I can say about Heavy Rain, so far, is this: the all-important believable story and characters are falling into the trap of aiming for “cinematic”. The story and the dialogue do indeed feel cinematic, but only because they feel cliché. In one section of the demo I played as an FBI agent, complete with the standard banter with local law enforcement about jurisdictions and people saying “look, just remember we’re both on the same team here”. All the dialogue, from what I’ve played in the demo, seems directly ripped out of a million cop shows and movies. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t groundbreaking either. It certainly isn’t “realistic”. Within a minute of starting the demo I was asking a hotel receptionist whether Abe Lincoln would jog his memory. It’s that sort of thing.

It was all curiously affecting, however. Once the demo was over I was surprised that I was really hungry for more, despite having some reservations about what I’d seen. Most encouragingly I was left feeling that even though I had only spent limited time with them I knew both the characters I had been playing as. This will be vital in a game which splits between multiple characters fairly frequently. The game also had a decent atmosphere, with the titular heavy rain lashing down throughout. I must also say that the QTE fight scene I had in the first half of the demo was pretty good. I missed lots of prompts and was rewarded with bruises and busted limbs, rather than having to replay the section as with other games that feature QTE’s. I need to replay the demo and check this out, but it certainly felt like I could have walked away and not had the fight at all, or like I could have come out of it without taking a beating or even that I could have been truly smashed up by the end of it. One of the most intriguing elements of all this is seeing how these different outcomes will affect the remainder of the story. Of course, the demo gives me no insight into this.

It remains to be seem whether the story is emotionally affecting, but overall I am left excited by the prospect of getting deeper into it and I am looking forward to playing the full game (and reviewing it here) later this month.

Heavy Rain is released on Playstation 3 on the 26th of February and was rated a 15 by the BBFC.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Bioshock 2 - 4 hours in...

I have to preface these comments by saying that I am only four hours (or thereabouts) into Bioshock 2 at the time of writing and I may revise many of these opinions upon completely the game. However, I have so far found a number of reasons to complain about this highly-anticipated sequel.

The original Bioshock was probably my favourite game of 2007, if not my favourite game of this console generation. It was certainly imaginative when compared to the majority of brown-grey shooters which flood the market. Set in 1960 the player was submerged into a colourful, art-deco, underwater dystopia called Rapture. Rapture was eerie, atmospheric and it held my attention fully, demanding that I obsessively uncovered every inch of the map and located each and every audio recording (the games way of filling in background story). Everything from the kitsch faux-1950’s advertising to the bold fascistic sculptures was compelling and made me want to see more of this place and to find out more about its ruin. The sight of a hulking man in a diving suit, with a pneumatic drill for an arm, protecting a little girl from bemasked, Tommy gun wielding drug addicts to the strains of “How Much is that Doggy in the Window” was something approaching the iconic. Needless to say, when a sequel was announced I was extremely excited by the prospect of returning, even if just to see the same things all over again.

It brings me no pleasure to report that I am a little disappointed by what I have found in Rapture this time around. So what is wrong? Well, it’s little things. One of the pleasures of the first game was combining the use of gene-splicing “plasmids”, which granted you the power to throw fire or lightning at your enemies, with more traditional contemporary weaponry, like the aforementioned Tommy gun. This time around you take the role of a “Big Daddy”, one of the diving suit clad guardians who roam the sunken halls, and so you are restricted you using their weapons. These, so far, amount to a pea shooter, a drill which runs out of fuel very quickly (the use of which sees you die as you attempt to get close to your gun wielding enemies) and a heavy machine gun, which runs out of ammo just as quickly. Whereas, in the first game, these tools of the “Big Daddy” spelled quick death when turned against me, in Bioshock 2 they aren't half as effective and I am left feeling a little weak. Of course, my abilities and weaponry will upgrade through the course of playing the game, so this complaint maybe premature.

Another problem with playing as the “Big Daddy” is the fact that the enemy characters don’t seem to be afraid of me... at all. I remember hearing that they would run away if they came across you alone, and come back in greater numbers. However, in practice they always attack me as soon as they see me. They also have the annoying habit of being brilliant shots. I really don’t like it when enemies in a game seem to get the homing bullets out as soon as you turn a corner.

It is also a shame that the game doesn’t imbue your relationship with the “little sisters” with any personality. The key role of a “Big Daddy” is to protect these little girls, and in the first game you’d hear them chatting away to their guardians as they walked about the place. “This way Mr. Bubbles” they would say. However, in the stretches of the game which see you protecting one, by placing her upon your shoulders, she remains silent. A sad omission, this just leads you to forget you’re even carrying one, when it could have been a really atmospheric and interesting new element of the game.

A cosmetic difference, but one that leaves Rapture poorer, is that the vending machines no longer have the jingles and advertisements that gave them so much personality last time ("Fill your cravings at the circus of values!"). They also added a layer of horror: their enthusiasm and happiness contrasting with the carnage which lay about them. I have also found the environments less interesting this time around, because they seem busier. Writing is all over the walls, along with posters and photos, surrounded by candles and cream cakes (I’m not making that up). The last game had a less is more quality to it which compelled me to seek out the details and to study my surroundings. The sequel is less atmospheric and has less personality. Without wanting to sound pretentious, I felt like each level was a distinct character last time around. There was the place where the crazed artist had made displays out of the dead and his whole level had elements of performance and displays of demented art all through it. In contrast, the two levels I have visited so far feel a little samey.

There have been some nice touches so far, in the Ryan Amusements level you can find a number of animatronic dioramas over which Rapture founder Andrew Ryan explains the reasons for the construction of his ocean metropolis as well as the mechanics of constructing the city itself. As a fan of the world from the first game, this was interesting stuff, but it underlined another problem with this instalment: Andrew Ryan and Rapture's past is much more interesting than the new antagonist “Dr. Lamb” and her the new threat she poses. For the sake of not spoiling either game, I won’t go into any more detail on this here.

Probably my single biggest problem with this new instalment of Bioshock is the opening. The first game had you sitting on a commercial airplane, which crashed into the ocean. You were then placed in the middle of the ocean in the dead of the night, your path lit by the bright yellow flames of the rapidly sinking fuselage. You swim to a tower which stands on a small island, in the middle of nowhere. You climb the steps and go through a huge metal door which closes behind you. The lights turn on and you find that you are in a magnificent lobby. You walk down a staircase and get into a small submarine, which begins its descent whilst playing you a video message from Andrew Ryan explaining his intentions for Rapture. This video is pulled away to reveal a window onto the ocean and you look out in wonder at the city on the sea floor and the sea creatures swimming about it. It stunned me and had me deeply immersed in the world of the game from there on in. Check this intro out below:

There is nothing so grand about the opening to Bioshock 2. It opens with a cutscene, which was entertaining, but over which I had no control over and so it didn’t immerse me at all. The first steps you take as a player find you already in Rapture and the game begins immediately in earnest. I can see why the developers at 2K Marin (a different team to that behind the first game) might feel that people who had already played the first game might want to hit the ground running this time around. But for me Bioshock is about atmosphere and having an interest in discovering Rapture is crucial. In terms of gameplay there was nothing really original or groundbreaking about the first game and, obviously, there is even less originality in this sequel.

So, with the game (so far) failing to replicate the atmosphere of its predecessor, I am left feeling a little short-changed. The fact that I have only played the game for four hours since its release on Tuesday speaks volumes.

Come back soon for a full review.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

So much silliness...

Jordan Thomas of 2K Marin (the developers of Bioshock 2 which was released today and will be reviewed here later this week) has called it like he sees it and decried the pointless “my console is better than yours” juvenility present since time immemorial. He is quoted by Destructoid as saying: “There's a cognitive effect known as confirmation bias which leads people to latch onto conclusions that support their preferences and ignore data which doesn't... This leads to wild, unreasoning loyalty to a chosen platform, sports team, or brand of soda.” I don’t know about you, but those people who go on and on about their favourite soft drink do my head in. But partisan video gamers come in a close second. Whether they play for team Microsoft, Nintendo or Sony, they are all their fair share of annoying.

Now, I’m not against people pointing out differences between platform specific versions of a game, (as done in great detail by such sites as IQGamer). Those sorts of comments are only right and fair. But I am really tired of arbitrary bias affecting any reasonable conversation you may want to have about a game or a console, especially as it’s hard enough to have a serious conversation about video games at the best of times. But a brand-loyal gamer just won’t hear you speaking if you insist on talking well of an enemy clan. They may as well be making “la la la” noises and holding their palms against their ears. This is illogical for many reasons, but my favourite reason is this: the companies themselves don’t care if you live or die. This loyalty is a one-way street. In fact I’m not sure the head of Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo wouldn’t bludgeon you to death like so many baby seals with his raw and bloodied fists if it would make the corporation a few dollars richer. OK, maybe he’s actually a smashing bloke... but you get my point.

So why do these machines command such loyalty? I suppose it is understandable for people to defend the one they have bought: to justify the money they have spent. Nobody wants to have bought the “wrong” one, so you naturally might not want the rival machine to have better games than the one you chose to purchase. I know I relished each and every bad review of the PS2 launch title, when I was a Dreamcast groupie. But people shouldn’t pretend it’s for any grand moral or cultural reason that they have aligned themselves with one of these massive companies and are prepared to sacrifice their integrity by becoming some sort of volunteer spokesperson in their free time. Especially seeing as how the 360 and PS3 are the same, but one plays Blu-ray discs and the other has a superior set of online options. They both have fairly bad reliability records and they both run games that look approximately the same, so long as the developers have done their job right. Otherwise some look better on one and some look better on the other. One is more expensive, but includes built-in features which you must pay for as extras on the other, balancing the whole cost thing out in the end. Ok they have the odd exclusive title to harp on about, but exclusives are becoming less and less frequent by the year.

So that’s it. Case closed. And if you don’t agree with me I’ll get some biggers kids come and beat you up.

Monday, 8 February 2010

'Mass Effect 2' review: Judgement Day

I’ve finally played my way through 30-odd hours of Mass Effect 2 and only just feel like I am ready to review the game. As anyone who read my article at the beginning of last week would know, my Mass Effect 2 experience has been dominated by an obsessive compulsion to mine every planet in the universe for mineral ore. However, alongside this peculiar industrial career mode there is also a Bioware RPG game. Well, I say RPG, but Mass Effect 2 has really done away with most of the traditional role-playing game elements popularised in games such as Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. For instance, you are no longer asked to attribute skill points to stats like “strength” or “intelligence”, with the game instead simply asking you to select and upgrade abilities upon levelling up. This is hardly any more like an RPG than any game with basic customizable weapons.

I don’t think you need to have ever played an RPG to understand the combat system of ME2. Whereas in the first Mass Effect a sniper rifle was rubbish in the hands of a character without the required skill set, now the effectiveness of any given weapon is determined by your ability to aim it. In this respect the game now plays like any post-Gears of War third person action/shooter game: you glue yourself to a piece of cover (invariably a box or a wall) and pop out to take aim and shoot. However it’s not as full of wilfully unappealing brown environments as Gears of War, substituting them for pleasing, shiny sci-fi interiors and exotic alien locales... as well as a lot of warehouses filled with low walls and boxes. There are, incidentally, so many rooms and corridors filled with low walls and boxes in Mass Effect 2 that they quickly become mini plot spoilers indicating “there is going to be a fight in here”. And it’s a bad time for anyone with a warehouse, because their boxes are getting shot to bits in every system of the Milky Way.

Stripped of its RPG elements and played like a third person shooter, Mass Effect 2 is curiously easy. I had to switch its predecessor into ‘easy’ mode because I found the boss fights too tricky given the terrible combat mechanics. Yet I completed Mass Effect 2 on its default setting, only dying a handful of times. Even then it always felt as though I had been careless or over-zealous, rather than challenged. In the games defence it comes equipped with three difficulty settings harder than ‘normal’, which I imagine present much more of a challenge to players who place less faith in a games default settings.

Of course, the major selling point of all Bioware games, including Mass Effect 2, is the promise that your individual choices will dynamically change the game with actions always followed by consequences. This is made even more potentially interesting by the fact that in Mass Effect 2 you can continue your character from the first game (and into the third), with any meaningful decisions you made having further repercussions in the sequel. The problem with this is (and has always been) twofold in Bioware games. Firstly, the choices you make are never really difficult if you know how you want your character to turn out: all dialogue options fall into three categories: you can be saintly, Swiss or Hitler. This has the effect that I never end up making any natural decisions, but rather I think “this is my good character, so I will say all the “good” things”. There aren’t really shades of grey. You can either be narcissistic bore, high on the smell of their own farts, or a total jerk, being unnecessarily rude to everyone you meet - at every turn.

The second problem is that the decisions you make have only cosmetic impact on the game. It is never the case that taking one course of action sends the game to a different world or into a different mission to any other that could be taken. The game is always broadly the same for everyone who plays it. Take this example of a big decision you make in the first game which is carried over into ME2 (some may consider this a SPOILER): in ME1 you are forced to choose whether to sacrifice one crewman or another on a particular mission. In ME2 the character you saved turns up at one key plot moment and basically tells you to how you’ve let them down badly, then departs never to be seen again. This happens on the same world, at the same point, whichever character you chose to save. In other words they are completely interchangeable. Ultimately this made me feel like it made a bit of difference which character I chose to save, other than the fact that I saw a different character model and heard a different voice actor. You could argue that it adds an extra layer of reply value in that you can play through hearing different dialogue play out, but in practice I probably won’t want to spend another 15-20 hours (even when you cut out mining) running through what is mostly going to be the exact same game, with a handful of small differences to look forward to.

Having said that, it is worth pointing out that ME2 is supposed to run straight into ME3 (scheduled to be released in about two years time), with some of the decisions you make at the end of this second instalment really seeming to set up something very different depending on the games climatic final choices. I won’t spoil it, but the ending (laugh-out-loud-ridiculous boss fight aside) is really quite impactful. In fact this highlights the major strength of this series: the story. Bioware really create an interesting world of creatures, races and places, and considering just how many sci-fi films/TV shows/books have existed prior to the Mass Effect world, it is an achievement that it has a distinct atmosphere of its own.

Overall, Mass Effect 2 is a spectacular improvement on the original in every way, most notably in terms of its combat system and the comparative strength of its side quests (in that they don’t all take place in the same room, transposed onto a differently textured planet as in the first game). It has really fun shooter elements, a great atmosphere and an above average story. It isn't, in my view, as satisfying as Knights of the Old Republic, which had richer RPG elements, but it's far more polished than the recent Dragon Age: Origins. The best compliment I can play the game is that, after so many hours, I was sad to have completed it and am eagerly awaiting the next instalment.

Friday, 5 February 2010

American age rating body calls new Dead or Alive game "creepy"...

I am posting this up as it relates to an article I wrote a short while ago about video games and sex and the tastelessness of it all. Basically the ESRB, who rate video games for violence and sexual content in North America have branded the latest Dead or Alive swimsuit simulator as "creepy voyeurism". For more details check out the full story at Eurogamer or simply become a creepy voyeur youself by watching the trailer for the game in question.

I'm sure this is an issue that will run and run on this blog.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

As the secretive ‘Project Needlemouse’ becomes Sonic 4, the question is: should we care?

Sonic the Hedgehog was the first game I ever owned. I didn’t even know what a Mega Drive was when I returned home from school one day to find that my dad had brought one. As a result I view the announcement of a new Sonic game with a degree of (usually tragically misplaced) hope and optimism. So when today SEGA confirmed the name, the release date and the platform for the new Sonic game, previously known as ‘Project Needlemouse’, I was very excited. Sonic 4: Episode 1 is set to be released this summer on all three consoles as a downloadable title and has been touted (by its developer) as a return to the characters gaming roots. Certainly early concept art has been encouraging (the ‘badnik’ pictured is an original Sonic 1 enemy) and the title is another sign from SEGA that the game is intended as a true successor to the series as seen in its Mega Drive heyday – reverting to much-loved 2D side-scrolling gameplay (comparison pictured below).

However, after years spent playing games of crushing mediocrity, Sonic the Hedgehog fans could be forgiven for having given up on SEGA’s spiney blue mascot. After all, a slurry of recent 3D outings have failed to re-ignite passions for the franchise. And with the 2006 game Sonic the Hedgehog and 2008’s Sonic Unleashed having both been billed as a return to form in early previews, it isn’t hard to understand why some fans may still feel pessimistic about this new game. I understand it... but I am not one of them. Despite my better judgement I am quite excited by the prospect of this game.

The problem with Sonic of late has been a fundamental lack of understanding, on SEGA’s part, of what the charm and strength of the original title was. Read any press release about a Sonic game made in the last ten years and the same comments come up every time. “Sonic is all about speed” they say. And so the more recent titles have increasingly based themselves around hitting boost pads and running along at high speed. When done well, as with a few of the levels in Sonic Unleashed, it has been fun, but the original Sonic was a different prospect entirely. Back then you had to earn the speed, without much in the way of boosts to help you. For example, a run round a loop-de-loop would need a build up of momentum with failure to achieve the required speed resulting in an unceremonious fall right back down to the bottom. It was also the case that the speed of Sonic was something which needed to be controlled in those early years, as much as embraced. Running from one end to the other without pause could be dangerous: you could easily fall into a pit; you could over-jump a gap resulting in landing on some devilishly placed spikes; or you could simply fail to gather enough rings to reach the zone’s special stage (and completion without the Chaos Emeralds isn’t really completion, is it?). When Sonic did attain speed shoes, the games one speed boost power-up, you tended to feel more vulnerable than not. With this in mind, it was comforting to read a recent press release for Sonic 4 where it seemed SEGA and Sonic Team had come to the same realisation. Apparently Sonic 4 will be less reliant on boosts and more traditional in terms of the build up of momentum.

It has also been noted, with some relief, that this game waves goodbye to the many terrible supporting characters Sonic Team has been introducing over the years. SEGA have been at pains to point out that Sonic is the only playable character in Sonic 4, and has confirmed that the likes of Big the Cat and Chip the whatever-he-was won’t be appearing this time. Hopefully the game will do away with “story” altogether, sticking with a “Press Start” “Zone One” immediacy missing from modern games in general. It would also be nice if the game had traditional electronic-toy sounding video game music and not the sort of J-Pop and soft rock that has plagued the series for the last fifteen years. I, for one, want to hear the old tunes.

There is caused for one note of caution however, as it has also been revealed that Sonic will still possess the “Homing Attack” as seen in every game since Sonic Adventure in 1998, an attack that always seemed to remove any need to time or judge jumps. It made sense in 3D, where the depth might have caused an added level of confusion (although Mario 64 never had a problem), but in 2D it seems redundant. Hopefully this minor concern will be put to rest when more videos and previews of the game are released. I am certainly watching this one with interest and will be reviewing it (for better or worse) when it is finally available later this year.

Enjoy the first gameplay footage of the new game below, in this nostalgic trailer:

For a less optimistic view on the new Sonic, head over to IQ Gamer.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

In game job par excellance: The life of a space miner

I wanted to be able to bring you my review of Mass Effect 2 this morning, but a funny thing happened: I haven't finished it yet due to the boring, yet completely addictive mining mini-game. For those of you who don’t know, Mass Effect 2 is a Sci-fi RPG developed by BioWare for Xbox 360 and PC and a sequel the 2007 original. I am supposed to be firing laser guns and talking to blue-skinned Aliens (no, not those ones), but instead I’ve been flying around looking for minerals in my starship, evidently a glorified space-digger. Yes, I’ve used these raw materials to upgrade the hull, shields and weapons, but so far they have been redundant... I just can’t stop mining for mining's sake. We have seen things like this before: Ryo had to get in his fork lift truck every week day morning in Shenmue and Fable 2 had you chopping wood, but this is the most addictive time-sink in game job yet.

It goes like this: I travel to a new system, under the pretence of recruiting some exotic space marine into my band of plucky space crusaders (of course I never tell them about all the mining we’re going to be doing) and instead spend three to four hours visiting unexplored worlds and mining the shit out of them. This is made even more tedious by the fact that you run out of fuel and mining probes (apparently capable of locating, digging up and recovering raw minerals from the rock... what do the space unions make of this?) quite regularly and are forced to fly your ship to the nearest fuel depot, where you stock up again, before flying back for more Platinum mining of the fourth moon of Epsilon VI, or whatever.

What I find amusing about this planetary plundering is that the worlds have a status regarding their abundance or scarcity of minerals, ranging from Rich to Depleted. Now, I usually find a world Rich in minerals and mine it until it’s Depleted... but how and why is this possible? Why is my military ship making off with whole solar systems worth of raw materials? Why are the governments of these planets allowing me to do this to their economies and their landscapes? The mind boggles. Although you could be forgiven for thinking I’m getting too worked up over the technicalities here, it is precisely this level of absurdity that has kept me so entertained.

Now, I understand this ISN’T the game. If I wanted to, I could be blowing things up and trying to consort with beautiful alien females, but there is just something about this mining mini-game that both infuriates and compels with equal force. Once I even used my minerals to research improved mining.

For a look at mining in Mass Effect 2, the video below really captures the essence (though don't watch it all!), as does the comment posted on YouTube by one fan: "Where is the best place to find element zero?"
Mass Effect 2 is really very good and when I'm done mining you'll able to read my full review on this blog! In the mean time, for some propper games journalism (including an in-depth technical analysis of Halo: Reach), head over to IQ Gamer.