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Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Some games to look forward to in 2010...

Epic Mickey is the upcoming Wii platformer being developed by Warren Spector, the creator of the highly-rated year 2000 PC game Deus Ex. Below is a long clip of Spector explaining some things about the game. As anyone who reads my film blog will know, I am a fan of classic Disney animations. This game just looks awesome from that perspective as it has so much loving detail. Please take the time to check it out if you have any interest in Disney, animation history or platform games. It looks like 2010 may see a real novelty in the form of a decent third-party Wii game.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 needs no introduction here: its predecessor is easily the best game on the Wii and one of my favourite games of the last decade. Needless to say, I can't wait for this new entry into the series, which represents the first time Nintendo have released more than one 3D Mario game on the same console.

Alpha Protocol has been delayed a number of times since it was revealed a couple of years ago, but I am still excited by Obsidian's RPG/Spy shooter. Obsidian have a close relationship with the great BioWare and developed the sequel to Knights of the Old Republic back in 2004, so this game, based on the Mass Effect engine, should be pretty good when it eventually comes out later this year on 360,PS3 and PC.

Finally, Red Dead Redemption, a Western-era Grand Theft Auto clone from Rockstar, looks simply awesome and should be out within the next couple of months. I can't wait for this one which looks to bring a good Western-movie-style atmosphere to the PS3 and 360. A Wild West GTA game is an exciting prospect.

Monday, 29 March 2010

'Dragon Age: Awakening' review: More of the same... in a good way

It has been a while since I last reviewed a game (Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing at the beginning of the month) and I was beginning to think I’d never have time to finish one ever again. However, today I completed Dragon Age: Awakening on 360 after around fifteen hours of gameplay. Awakening is an expansion to last year’s Dragon Age: Origins, an RPG by BioWare (who also made Mass Effect 2 which I reviewed back in February). Last November I played Origins on 360 even though it is (apparently) the worst version of the game (Eurogamer rated the 360 version a ‘6’ and the PC version an ‘8’). This is because my PC is pretty rubbish and wouldn’t have been able to run the game at all. The PS3 version is supposed to be a little better than it’s 360 counterpart (at least graphically) but that version came out about two weeks later and I wanted the game at launch. Anyway, that’s why I’m reviewing the 360 version of this expansion.

Awakening is probably the best console-based expansion I have ever played. Whilst the two downloadable Grand Theft Auto IV “episodes” were of great quality and length, most the downloadable content (DLC) offered on XBLA and PSN has been disappointing so far, with even highly-rated games like Fallout 3 failing to deliver the goods when it comes to expansions. Indeed BioWare themselves have been pretty sloppy with DLC up to now. They only released two (very short and overpriced) expansions to the original Mass Effect and the two previous pieces of DLC released for Dragon Age prior to Awakening (Warden’s Keep and Return to Ostagar) have hardly set the world on fire. But where Awakening is different is that it adds a lot of content: side-quests, items, companions, a whole new map of locations and, most importantly, it offers a continuation of the main Dragon Age story and allows you to up the level of your original character (to level 35 from 20).

As well as providing a lot of new content, Awakening also improves on the basic gameplay of the original. It is less glitchy, it looks a bit better than the original and the difficulty is balanced far better. In Origins I had to turn the diffculty down to “easy” during some boss fights, which otherwise seemed impossible. However, the “normal” setting on Awakening is much more playable whilst still providing a decent challenge. Where the game falls down a little bit is that, although I was continuing my character from Origins, there are precious few references to characters and plot elements from the first game. Awakening (bar a few small exceptions) doesn’t reference decisions the player has made in its predecessor, unlike Mass Effect 2. But this is hardly the point: Awakening is so much better than what we have seen so far from DLC that it is quite exciting and sets the bar considerably higher for future BioWare DLC releases (hopefully a Mass Effect 2 equivalent).

Dragon Age also continues to be the only video game that I have ever come across where social class and personal politics play a part in decision making (at least outside of something like Tropico). Quite often the decisions do seem morally grey compared to a lot of other RPG games and characters who are basically "good guys" are often dimissive of lower class people or of certain races (Elves are almost always considered as a lower caste of slaves, for example). In Origins one of the main things to consider when creating your character is which social class they are from, and this does tend to change how people react to you. I probably shouldn't stress it too much, because this element of the game could stand to be fleshed out a bit more in the future, but it is interesting that Dragon Age covers some of that ground.

Of course, all this extra content comes at a price (literally) and Awakening is £29.99 (at retail on a disc for 360/PC or as a download on 360/PC/PS3), but fans of Origins should not be put off by the price tag: Awakening is the first good piece of DLC BioWare have ever released and it is worth the money. Especially as it sets up ideas and characters which are almost certain to be part of the games sequel next year.

Dragon Age: Awakening is available now and is rated an '18' by the BBFC. Interesting that the BBFC has given Dragon Age a higher age certificate than the ultra-sweary, ultra-violent 'Kick-Ass' (which I reviewed recently on my Film blog).

Friday, 26 March 2010

"I haven't had time to play any games"

I have always completed a new game within a week of buying it (obviously, depending on the length), with most games requiring only a couple of long sessions in order to play them to the end. So, I have always been perplexed by people claiming they haven't had time to play through the last few games they have bought with some of my friends having upopened games they bought a couple of years ago sitting at home. I have never understood this... that is, until now.

You may recall, a few weeks ago, that I failed to put more than one hour into Final Fantasy XIII because (now that I'm no longer a full-time student) I haven't had the time to play very many games myself. I am currently playing Dragon Age: Awakening on the 360 and, a week into its release, I am six hours in. I'm sure that seems like a lot of time to people less anti-social than me, but as someone who would have polished off Awakening within a few days normally, it really feels that I am playing it in bite size chunks.

Now I understand why it is that most people don't finish half the games they buy. In recent times I have always rather tended to feel that, considering they cost around £40, video games are too short (some games take little more than six hours to complete). But maybe the reverse is true and games are too long and maybe something that takes six hours to best is perfectly pitched to provide a full experience to people who don’t want to devote their life to a game. Now that I work two jobs and have a few evenings a week where I am at home (and need to spend some of those catching up on episodes of 'Mad Men', making/eating dinner and talking to my girlfriend) I can't see myself getting through games like I used to. When will I complete Awakening in order to post a review? When will I get round to God of War 3? When will I put some hours into Perfect Dark XBLA (which has been out for a couple of weeks now, and I have barely touched it)?

Of course, if I spent less time writing about games then I would probably be able to play a little bit more each week...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Damn you Natal! I think this rules me out...

The big announcements of last year (in gaming terms) were two different solutions for competing with Nintendo on the motion sensing/”casual gamer” front, with PlayStation Move (for PS3, obviously) and Project Natal (developed for the 360 and shown in the video above). Both are interesting, but Natal is potentially revolutionary. There have been some early reports which are fairly sceptical about whether or not it can really live up to a lot of Microsoft’s claims, but whether or not it does, it is an exciting new idea to play games without holding any kind of controller at all.

However, I have just read a report on Natal from TechFlash which suggests that you need a pretty big living room to use the damn thing. They write:
“To be precise, you'll want to clear an area extending at least 4 meters (a little more than 13 feet) away from the television. That's the back edge of the space to be taken into account by the Natal sensors. In terms of width and height, the field of vision naturally expands as it moves from the Natal device to that back edge, ending up a little more than 4 meters wide and 2.7 meters high (about 8 feet, 10 inches).”

Now I have a pretty big living room and I don’t know if I can clear this much space. Kotaku made the good point that Natal may not be usable in most Japanese homes (although I suppose none of those have an Xbox in anyway) and I’m not sure UK homes will fare much better. The video above shows huge American living rooms with loads of clear space to play around in.

It is still early days; with Natal not out until the end of the year. Hopefully this information is not completely solid. Of course, many Natal videos have shown people standing in front of the TV and interacting with it up close, so maybe people are worrying over nothing and these spacial measurements are just the amount of space Natal can register. However, if it is people are going to have to think carefully about whether they can fit Natal in their homes at all.

Update I spoke to the head of a Brighton-based developer this afternoon (who I probably shouldn't name, because it was just an informal chat and not an interview!) and he said that although his studio have Natal development kits to play with, they won't be making any games for it. This, he said, is due to the fact that Natal is too laggy and you have to sacrifice graphics in order to make it work. He said that if this were not the case he would want to integrate Natal features (head-tracking was the example he gave) into future games, but that as things stand he believes Natal (and Move) will be limited to first party support and cheap, Wii-style shovelware (probably provided by Ubisoft and probably called things like "Family Avatar Summer Sports Games").

Is Natal going to be D.O.A later this year? Wii Motionplus has already shown how an optional motion add-on can be ignored by developers (Red Steel 2, out this Friday, is only the second game, since it came out last June, to require it). I still await both Natal and Move with interest, but I am not getting my hopes up for anything too radical.

Update 2! According to IGN, Microsoft have already moved to play down this thing about the amount of room you need to use Natal, here is the article.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

With a little help from my friends....

What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me? Well on Friday night’s evidence the answer is “no”, as I had around ten people squeezed into my living room for an “epic night of tunes” (as “the kids” would say). I am honestly not intending to exude laddish bravado when I say I can’t remember a lot of it (for example, the next day I took LEGO: Rock Band out of my X-Box and I don’t remember us playing it at all) but I will summon up what I can remember for this blog.

I know that the night started with either Lady Gaga’s “ Bad Romance” or REM’s “Losing My Religion” (both sung by me!) and went from strength to strength from there. A personal highlight was muting the sound on “Living on a Prayer” during the chorus (in a night club cliché) so that the room was filled with the voices of the drunken multitude. Anyway, I’m told a good time was had by all and this is down in no small part to how Rock Band fairs as a social game.

The genius of Rock Band (and I’m sure Guitar Hero employs the same mechanic) is that each player gets to select their own difficulty level independent of everyone else. This means that a good player can play with a rubbish player and both can play at a level which provides a challenge whilst still being fun. Of course, this is open to abuse. My friend Ally insisted on playing every song on expert and constantly failed, which meant everyone had to keep replaying the same songs as long as he saw fit! However, Ally and I did do an awesome duet on The Beatles “A Day in the Life” in which he was John and I was Paul, so I will forgive him.

I am not a proper musician (I can play guitar chords, but apart from that I know nothing about music) and so it was interesting to learn that my drums aren’t calibrated to go with the music at all! My friend John, who can really play the drums, was having to hit the notes early and was completely thrown by the games inaccuracy. But that was really my fault. Next time I need one of these music people to set it up properly before hand, like a video game roadie.

It was really great to see how people, in a party setting, would pass the mic around mid-song, or start dueting with one another. I wasn’t sure whether the game would work with so any people, but everyone seemed to get to play as much or as little as they wanted and almost everyone took turns singing, which I was really pleased with. My mate Dave from IQGamer (as pictured in the truly disturbed image to the right) looked a little like he was asleep for some of the night, but I think that was down to the fact that he was mixing his vodka and coke a bit wrong (more or less making it a 50-50 split between vodka and coke).

It was a really good night, and it made a change to have a night of drinking which revolved around singing and pretending to play guitar. I think everyone enjoyed it and I really want to do it all again!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Frédérick Raynal is making a new game!

"Who?", you ask. Well Frédérick Raynal (pictured here with his medal for the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) is as close as I have to a gaming hero. Little Big Adventure 1 and 2 (no relation to Little Big Planet) and the Dreamcast game Toy Commander are among my very favourite games of all time. He also created the original Alone in the Dark (though he isn't to blame for anything that has happened with that since). His Adeline Studios were bought by SEGA and became No Cliché in 1997 and after the amazing Toy Commander, and a budget spin-off called Toy Racer (which retailed for about £5), a new survival horror game called Agartha was sadly cancelled and No Cliché were no more. For whatever reason, he hasn't been able to make a game since then. Raynal worked as a consultant at Ubi Soft and helped with the design of the charming DS game Soul Bubbles, but that was all he did for video games in the best part of the last ten years. Until now!

This morning I read a news story on Eurogamer which reveals that there is a new game (format and genre yet unknown, but it isn't LBA 3) coming out this year. I suspect it will be a low-budget DS game or a download title, but if someone has given Raynal the money to make a big new game, then his track record suggests it will be awesome. Does anyone else remember when all the best games were French (Michel Ancel's Rayman and Beyond Good and Evil, for example)? What happened Ubi Soft? Hopefully this new Raynal game will make up for all the Imagine Tom Clancy rubbish.I am going to be following this one with interest.

Check out Raynal's personal website for a full gameography here. Also, come back in the week for my report on Rock Band night!

Friday, 19 March 2010

Because it's Rock Band night (oh what a night)

The excitement is almost too much for me on the morning of my first "Rock Band Night". For weeks now, I have been stockpiling tracks (many by bands I don’t even like) in order that people might come into my house and make fools of themselves. The big night is now upon me and around fifteen people will be crammed into my living room around a set of tiny plastic instruments to sing the hits of Lady Gaga (thanks to a recent track pack) as well as all the Weezer and Tom Petty Microsoft Points can buy.

I am really interested in how tonight will go. Will we all stop playing the game and just sit around drinking? Will it get competitive? Will anyone get angry and smash a plastic guitar? Will anyone be moved to tears at the sound of a beautiful rendition of Blink 182's I Miss You? The answers to all those questions (and many, many more) will be provided in due course. I will write a full, sleazy expose on the night’s events for this blog... hopefully with photos. I am personally looking forward to the singing (both giving and receiving, as it were) as it has the biggest potential for foolishness by far. To the probable annoyance of my neighbours I’ve been practising 5-Star, expert grade Michael Stipe impressions on REM’s Losing My Religion and I can’t wait to unleash that bad boy to a (hopefully) appreciative audience. What I don’t want is a person to leave during it, or for a neighbour to ask "is everyone OK?" upon hearing my whining through the floor.

So what will we be playing? Well I can answer that. I own Rock Band on the 360 along with the Beatles (pictured above) and LEGO variants, so there is a lot to play with. Maybe three people will want to play through the whole of Rubber Soul with me. Probably not. Anyway, watch this space if you want to read about some anarchic, fake music craziness.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Namco show off new four player Pac Man!

I love Pac Man: Championship Edition, the downloadable Pac Man variant released in2007 on XBLA. It’s one of my very favourite download titles in fact. So, when I saw this new four player arcade version earlier today, I got excited. I don’t know when or where this game will be in the UK (if it even makes it over here), but it could possibly be released on XBLA at some point in the future... I hope.

If you don’t understand why I am excited, do yourself a favour and download the demo version of Pac Man C.E on XBLA now! Or, if you prefer solid media, treat yourself to the excellent Namco Museum Virtual Arcade, also on 360, which is available at retail.

He has cried wolf before... but is Molyneux for real this time?

Fable 1 & 2 were both enjoyable yet frustrating games. Predictably neither could hope to live up to the massive-hype-generator that is Peter Molyneux, with claims such as "if you can see something in the distance, you can walk up to it" (a feature touted for inclusion in Fable 1 - possibly one of the most linear games ever made) or more recently his over-the-top stuff about the dog in Fable 2 being the most advanced piece of AI ever seen in a game (even though all the dog does is run ahead and find treasure). Basically, he always seems like a bit of a fantasist, and I always imagine the game designers (who actually have to make the game, whilst he attends expos and talks rubbish) sigh when they see/hear him.

That aside, I always get taken in by Molyneux. When I see him talk about Natal or, now, Fable 3, I am always lulled right into a state of believing the hype all over again. I think this is because I want to. Molyneux is a dreamer and visionary. He may say a lot of crazy, OTT things about his games, but at least he has ambition. For example, watch the video below (stolen from the good folks at IGN) where Molyneux talks about the lack of a traditional interface in Fable 3. It is great that he is out there challenging established things like that and seeing if he can change the nature of how we experience games.

Yes, I am afraid I will get more and more excited by Fable 3 the more he talks it up, as is (by now) tradition. He is always so disarmingly honest when it comes to recognising his older games shortcomings that I always think “maybe he’s learned from last time”. It remains to be seen whether this one also disappoints, but until then I will try to fight my Molyneux gag-reflex and give the old chap another chance.

For an interview with an effects artist working on Fable 3, check out this earlier article.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Alright! I can't do it! Happy Now?!

I am afraid I chickened out. I can’t play Final Fantasy XIII and thusly can’t live up to my claim that I was going to review it... but it’s not my fault! The game is supposed to be about 50 hours long and after having it for a week, due to work commitments, I was only able to play it for around an hour. At that rate I would have finished it sometime next year. So, sorry about that! I figured that with God of War 3 coming out imminently I should ditch Final Fantasy and play that instead, seeing as how it won’t be 50 hours long and will be fun to play. However, you won’t leave this blog empty handed. I can still give you my hands-on impressions of that hour of gameplay I experienced with Final Fantasy XIII.

A game like FFXIII lives or dies by whether or not you care about the story. In this respect, it failed miserably for me. The opening cinematic was all fighting and fast-cutting and I wasn’t sure who anyone was and what they were doing. I’m sure this was intended, with this information filled in as you play the game, but I find it very hard to care about action sequences which I have no investment in. The game also seemed similar to a lot of bad anime films, in the way that scenes of sudden extreme sadness or earnestness always feature just as much quirky humour, which serves to break that mood and undermine everything that’s happening. At the very beginning you witness a mother falling to her death whilst her devastated child looks on. To make matters worse, this bereaved boy has been given the cringingly bad name: Hope.

Little Hope will be alone now and he has just seen his mum splatter on the city pavement. But hey, it’s ok though, because his quirky, perky, female side-kick keeps laughing and shaking him and being weird! How inappropriate? Of course, defenders of this sort of bollocks will put it down to cultural differences or to a certain style... but that is no excuse, because I’ve seen a lot of Japanese movies and played enough Japanese games to know that this sort of thing isn’t an unavoidable part of the culture. Yes, FFXIII is uniquely Japanese in its humour and style, but then ‘Carry On’ films are uniquely British too. Basically, every society has something to be culturally embarrassed by (for what it’s worth, we’re winning there).

Let’s talk about Hope’s mother for a moment too. Before she merges with the infinite, she twice (and without irony) uses the phrase “mums are tough”. Another character (again completely sincerely) keeps referring to himself as a “hero” and says things like “heroes don’t need a plan” and “heroes don’t run from fights”. He is wearing a bandana and looks like he is in his late twenties, but speaks like a child. There is something disturbingly infantile about the whole thing actually: like a sort of school girl fetishist’s dream, as all the characters are sexy grown-ups who act like children. Very odd. My favourite bit of the game that I saw was when this bandana hero (called Snow and pictured here!) told a group of new soldier recruits “we go home together!” and punched his fist into the air... only to find that no one had bothered to animate any sort of response from the crowd. It was brilliant as it just made me think the character was as ineffectual at leading men as he evidently was at getting dressed.

Now the “gameplay”. Before I called it quits I had a lot battles against three different types of enemy and all of them went exactly the same way. I pressed the “auto” button and the computer fought the bad guys for me and I won easily every time. Basically (and I’m told the Japanese version doesn’t have this feature) the game has a “win” button. Now, maybe it gets much harder later on (this is the first hour of gameplay, remember?) but it made the game feel a little pointless... almost as if I was just lurching from cinematic to cinematic at the mercy of frustrated filmmakers determined to sneak their movie into your home by calling it a video game.

Anyway, that’s about all I have to say about that, as Forest Gump would no doubt say. Check out a gameplay video of trauma child and perky-girl, below (why are they making breathy sex noises in between sentences?).

For those of you who want an in-depth technical look at FFXIII, look no further than IQ Gamer. Final Fantasy XIII is out now in all good game specialists and is rated '16' by PEGI.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Raiders of the Lost Arts - Monkey Island 2 and Perfect Dark re-released!

A few weeks ago I wrote a little bit about the point and click adventure games of old. Since then, I have been happy to discover that LucasArts are again raiding their (impressive) back catalogue in the form of a re-release of Monkey Island 2 (original pictured above), with the same additions as last year’s brilliant re-release of the first game (voice acting and a graphical overhaul). I (obviously) welcome this move!

I seem to spend a lot of time on this blog harping on about XBLA and PSN games, and this next few months promise to be no different, with Monkey Island 2 being joined by an XBLA version of the N64 classic, Perfect Dark, and by the release of Sonic 4 this summer. I will certainly be playing all three of those.

I am really looking forward to Perfect Dark because, although I was an N64 owner, I never played it. I was obsessed with Rare's own GoldenEye (Perfect Dark's predecessor), but Perfect Dark tried to get every last possible effect out of that old hardware and the result was a really blurry, hazy and (in my view) unplayable game. I am in the minority here, as it was really enthusiastically received upon release in 2000 (just realised that's 10 years ago now!), but I couldn't stand to look at it (a problem I now have with all N64 games). However, I find the idea of playing a new sharpened-up, HD version of that game very appealing indeed (it will certainly be better than Perfect Dark Zero, the over-hyped and underwhelming 360 launch title).

Below I've put a before/after videos of N64 Perfect Dark and the new graphical overhaul on XBLA (run them both at once... go on). Enjoy. The game is out on the 17th of March for 800 Microsoft Points, whilst Monkey Island 2 and Sonic 4 are just "summer 2010" releases for the moment.

Gameplay footage of the N64 original, Perfect Dark:

A trailer for the improved HD version running on XBLA:

Monday, 8 March 2010

The JRPG and me

As Tuesday the 9th approaches, fan anticipation (fanticipation?) for the latest instalment of the Final Fantasy franchise is reaching fever pitch. However, I am left rather nonplussed. You see, I never played Final Fantasy VII and I couldn’t pick Cloud from a line-up of generic JRPG characters if my life depended on it. I am hoping to play and review FFXIII from this perspective, but in the mean time, I thought it would be best to come clean and put my (lack of) JRPG credentials on the table.

For starters, why didn’t I play FFVII? It isn’t because I’m being a contrarian killjoy. Plenty of people I trust and respect love that game and I feel like maybe I missed out on something. I was an N64 gamer back in 1997, and without a PSX or high-spec PC to run it on, I was forced to go without. I was therefore never really exposed to Japanese Role-Playing Games like my peers. That was until 1998 gave my “Gameboy” (a huge brick-like “portable” gaming device with a green screen) an imported US copy of Pokemon Blue. I know “serious” Final Fantasy fans will be outraged that I honestly consider Pokemon to be an equivalent experience to their beloved series. But rest assured, I don’t think it’s Final Fantasy’s equal. No, for me Pokemon is the king of the JRPG.

I say that, of course, fully admitting that I don’t have the biggest frame of reference to draw from in that regard, but for me aged 13, Pokemon was the perfect combination of a childish love of collecting stuff with JRPG elements. Plus, I liked the cartoon and can still sing all the songs. But since those days, I have played every major instalment in the series and look forward to the next. Yet, I have never really played another JRPG. Why is that?

Well, that’s not completely true. I did quite enjoy Lost Odyssey (pictured above) on the 360 when that came out, until I went on holiday and never felt the urge to pick it up ever again upon returning. I was involved in the story and the atmosphere, which was all lost during my break from the game and was hard to re-capture. I also really wanted to play a little-known Dreamcast JRPG called Evolution, which I first saw on an Official Dreamcast Magazine demo disc which contained a video of the game way back in the launch issue (I’ve found it, albeit with an odd resolution, and posted it below!). I watched that video over and over again throughout 1999, in the hope of finally having a meaty JRPG of my own to dig into and make up for neglecting FFVII. But, as the date slipped back, and back some more, so my interest in the title waned. When it finally came into shops a year after the video that had excited me, I didn’t even bother to play it (in fairness it wasn't actually supposed to be any good anyway).

I think the main reason Pokemon has always worked for me whilst other JRPGs haven’t is due to the fact that I can’t really stand any game where you spend more time watching it than playing it (Metal Gear Solid 4 being the absolute worst game ever, in that regard). I am also not generally a fan of the super long boss battles or of grinding to “level-up”. Anyway, I promise to give the new Final Fantasy a fair crack of the whip, and as I'm reliably informed that no knowledge of previous Final Fantasy games is strictly necessary, either in terms of plot or gameplay, then I should be able to offer the non-fan's view on this "must-have new title" that will undoubtedly sweep the nation over the next week. Watch this space!

Final Fantasy XIII is out on Tuesday on PS3 and 360 (though I'm told the 360 version is "a bit rubbish"). Meanwhile, the classic Pokemon Silver and Gold games have been re-made for the DS and will be released in the UK on the 26th of March.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

'Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing' review: Hazuki All-Star Racing!

I mentioned last week that I was due to review Heavy Rain and Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing. Well, having met my commitment to the SONY title earlier in the week, I can now turn my attentions to this fun piece of SEGA fan service from Sumo Digital. Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing (with Banjo-Kazooie - on 360) is the latest in a long line of cartoony kart racing games inspired by the original 1992 game, Super Mario Kart. When I say Sonic & SEGA is “inspired” by Mario Kart, I mean it rips it off wholesale. The power-ups are more or less like for like, with red homing missiles instead of red homing shells, green boxing gloves instead of green shells and mines standing in for banana skins. It is unquestionably derivative and unoriginal, but it remains a lot of fun.

For a start a SEGA fan like me is treated to a range of playable characters from across SEGA history, with characters from every SEGA platform, as wide ranging as the Master System icon Alex Kidd and Opa-Opa (the star of the 1985 coin-op Fantasy Zone) to the Bananza Bros from the Mega Drive game of the same name and even including cult hero Ryo Hazuki, from the masterful Dreamcast game Shenmue. SEGA enthusiasts will also recognise much of the music used in Sonic & SEGA from games such as Sonic Adventure and Jet Set Radio Future. However, the game is less of a love letter to SEGA than Smash Brothers (the beat em' up which allows you to play as a range of Nintendo characters) is to Nintendo, as that title allows you to unlock far more (in terms of characters, stages and collectable items) than Sonic & SEGA does. It is disappointing that more time wasn’t spent adding unlockable character art (or something of that type) to the game, as once you’ve played Ryo Hazuki and gotten into his fork-lift truck, there aren’t really any more Shenmue references awaiting you as a hungry fan. A collectable model of an obscure Shenmue character (like Ine-San - pictured), in the way Smash Brothers does with Nintendo characters, would have provided that extra level of fan service the game needs to appeal to SEGA fans.

Indeed, Sonic & SEGA doesn’t try very hard to SEGAise every little detail in the same way Mario Kart and Smash Brothers do for Nintendo. Why are the power-ups red homing missiles and green boxing gloves? The shells and mushrooms in Mario Kart come from the Mario games. Whilst the Sonic & SEGA equivalent of the mushroom boost is a pair of Sonic’s speedy shoes, the other power-ups don’t seem to be SEGA-related at all, which is disappointing. How much effort would it have taken to turn the "confusion star" power-up into a picture of Mega Drive hero Ristar? A friend of mine at IQGamer told me that he thinks the game doesn’t have personality in the same way that Mario Kart does, and it’s hard to really disagree with that statement. There are some nice touches to be found, like the speech bubbles which indicate the objectives during mission mode, which are clearly stolen right out of SEGA’s OutRun arcade racing series, but they are few in number.

These gripes aside, I really enjoyed Sonic & SEGA as the Mario Kart rip-off it is. I played the 360 version, and it is great to have a colourful, fun game on that console in contrast to all the grim shooters. The courses look great, especially the Sonic-themed Ocean Ruin, which takes you through a translucent glass tube under the water. The slide mechanic, which again owes something to the slide and boost mechanism from the Mario Kart series (as well as SEGA’s own OutRun) works well and once you’re used to it you can naturally slide into the harshest bends and boost ahead of your rivals. The trick and boost mechanic is stolen wholesale from Mario Kart Wii to good effect, as performing a trick whilst airborne grants your an additional speed boost.

There is a pleasing variety to the games (60+) missions, a decent system for downloading pretty much anybody’s ghost on the time trials and the obligatory championship mode, with three difficulty settings (of course), is also pretty strong. Whilst I would have preferred there to have been more unlockables, there is still plenty to do in Sonic & SEGA. I’ve played it, across all the modes (including online and local multiplayer) for around seven hours now, and I still have half the missions to do, the majority of the time trials to attempt and I am yet to master the hardest difficulty in the cups. If you are looking for a fun racing game which offers 4-player split screen multiplayer (a rarity in this day and age) and an atmosphere of cartoony fun, then I would seriously recommend you play Sonic & SEGA.

Ultimately, how appealing Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing is will depend on which system you own. If you own a Wii and don’t already have Mario Kart Wii, than I’d suggest going for Nintendo’s more polished title instead. Similarly, whilst the DS version is surprisingly pretty and plays quite well, DS owners can play the excellent Mario Kart DS, as well as a perfect port of the classic N64 Kart-clone Diddy Kong Racing, which for my money is the best option. Sonic & SEGA really shines as a 360/PS3 game, where the only other option is DreamWorks Madagascar Kartz. Without Mario Kart on these systems, Sonic’s pretender is as good as you are going to get (although ModNation Racers may best it on PS3 later this year) and aside from the aforementioned Diddy Kong Racing (which was basically a re-skinned Mario Kart 64 anyway), it is by far the best Mario Kart clone that I have ever played.

However, it is with a curious sense of survivor guilt that I enjoy this game. The great studios behind the original games referenced in Sonic & SEGA either no longer exist (Smilebit, Hitmaker, United Game Artists) or are a shell of their former glory (Sonic Team, AM2) and it strikes me as cynical that SEGA have no interest in making new entries in many of these series (Shenmue, Crazy Taxi, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio) but are perfectly happy to pimp them for an easy buck here. What a slap in the face it must be to somebody like Yu Suzuki (creator of Afterburner, OutRun, Virtua Fighter) to hear that SEGA don’t want to conclude his Shenmue trilogy, but they would rather like to see Ryo racing Sonic on a motorbike! Gee, thanks SEGA. If you really want to please fans, this isn't going to be the way to do it. Sorry to end the review on that down note, but as much as I enjoyed Sonic & SEGA, I’d rather be playing a new entry in any of the classic series themselves rather than a derivative Kart-clone, however fun (and this game IS fun).

Check out footage from the German version running on a top-spec PC, below (thanks to the Fr3akDeluxe YouTube channel):

Sonic & SEGA All-Star Racing is out now on PC/Wii/DS/PS3/360 (not PSP?) and is rated '7' by PEGI. It really is a lot of fun.

Monday, 1 March 2010

'Heavy Rain' review: It's not big and it's not clever

I know I am massively out of step with popular critical opinion here, but it is with a heavy heart that I must say, I didn’t like Heavy Rain, the PS3 exclusive title which has promised so much since it was announced at E3 2006. It gives me no pleasure at all to say that many fears people had about the game being nothing more than a series of QTE’s have proven correct. As I said in my last post, after a few hours of playing I had found the “drama” aspect fairly comical and heavy handed, and it didn’t improve from there, with multiple sequences that REALLY stretch all credibility, including a major plot twist that comes from nowhere, and is a far cry from being the game which would make you cry (see video below for Mega64's take on this!).

Admittedly, Heavy Rain does get you doing some novel things for a video game (brushing your teeth; applying mascara; changing a nappy) but none of them are fun or involving or emotional and all revolve around pressing the right control stick in various directions. Failure to get the prompt right usually just results in doing it again and the whole thing is completely pointless. If the intention is to make a drama which just happens to be a video game, then it completely fails on that level. If you play the game imagining it is a film then you are just left with the most hackneyed series of derivative thriller-movie sequences. The whole thing is also quite smug. It is almost insulting how clever Heavy Rain thinks it is whilst being nothing more than a boring Dragon’s Lair clone. I applaud the ambition, and think developer's should be encouraged to aim for the stars more often, but the opening credit sequence, with sad people standing in the rain, or the moment when a red balloon ascends into the sky, are super pretentious and laughable as a result.

Oh, and it is boring and then some. There were so many times when I wished I could run somewhere rather than slowly walk (however "cinematic" walking in the rain might be). There were so many times when I couldn’t care less about a conversation which was happening on screen. But where Heavy Rain really, truly fails is in an area so many ambitious games have failed to master before: that is in meeting actions with consequences, with the intended result of making choices difficult. There are apparently more than twenty possible outcomes, but these are mostly reflected in an end of game “news report”, similar to the bit at the end of Fallout 3 where a few sentences have been recorded for each variant and all get stuck together in the final speech to reflect your path. Most of the time Heavy Rain is asking you to choose whether you want to have orange juice or not... and this has no consequence whatsoever.

Indeed, there were many times I wanted to make a game changing choice (like shooting somebody you have pulled a gun on, rather than waiting for the obligatory bit where they hit it out of your hand and you have to scuffle about on the floor) only to find that there was no option. There was a (stupid) scene where a “bad cop” pulled a gun on my FBI agent during an interrogation of a suspect, and infuriatingly I couldn’t fight him, or tell anyone he’d done it, or turn on the video camera behind the two-way glass to show him beating the suspect... it was completely out of my control. I could go and make myself a coffee, but that would be POINTLESS!

I have nothing against pointless details if they add to an atmosphere (I’ll never forget standing at a bus stop on a cold Yokosuka morning in Shenmue, for example) but the lack of any choice in terms of where the characters go (I never knew why my characters were turning up at various locations for half the game) and generally not having any meaningful input in what will eventually happen (bar a few key moments) took me right out of the game and cut the atmosphere dead.

I don’t want to completely bash this game, however this reads. Heavy Rain is commendable for its ambition and for the fact that there isn’t another game quite like it (previous QTE games have generally used them for action and not tooth-brushing or French-kissing). The titular rain is really well realised and the motion capture work is superb. There were a couple of really entertaining moments, which usually involved running away from/after someone. I also quite liked using the FBI agent character, who has a pair of futuristic glasses that allow him to find forensic evidence quite easily. These bits felt the most like I was playing a game and not watching a generic Channel 5 thriller. I also liked the Kubrick-inspired art design in one key location, which I won't spoil here.

But most of the time the game is stupefyingly repetitive and bland. How many times must I check a bathroom medicine cabinet in a single video game? It felt like every other scene in Heavy Rain involved doing just that. Why is every fight sequence the same (people pick up objects and try to bash you with them or throw them at you, and when you fall to the floor you have to pummel ‘x’ to stand up again). The first time I had one of these fights, it was entertaining. But the novelty quickly wore off.

Basically, Heavy Rain is quite a stupid game with delusions of grandeur, aspiring clearly to win some sort of industry Oscars. If you want to watch a drama about a serial killer, then lord knows there are plenty of them and most of them are better than this one in more or less every way imaginable. Or if you want to see games as an art form than I would, again, direct you to Flower or Shadow of the Colossus. I would love to know someone who genuinely cried at some point during Heavy Rain. I am easily moved to tears, and yet I found myself laughing at every terribly acted “poignant” scene in the game. It takes a real effort to take the tragedy out of child murder, but hats off to the guys at developer Quantic Dream for making it happen.

In summary: top marks for trying... but please don’t try again. Also, the "sexy" female journalist character, Madison, looks unsettlingly like the 1980s Scotch tape skeleton.

Heavy Rain is out now and is rated '15' by the BBFC!