Category Archives: Reviews

GRID-autosport

GRID Autosport Review – 2014

It is sometimes disturbing to observe precisely how little content sequels add to the offering of their predecessors.  Can you really release what is effectively a mildly rejigged experience, with a few new twists, a few coding updates, and few new graphical tweaks, and then ask the public to pay full whack for it?  Apparently you can, as history has shown, with an embarrassing number of games lazy enough to deceive their loyal adherents.

It is even more disturbing when I look at reviewsGRID-autosport of previous GRID titles, and realise I could copy/paste 80% or more of the text straight into this GRID Autosport review without any alterations.  Of course there are various technical differences in how career works, and some other minor tweaks and alterations, but the game experience is frankly almost identical.  It is true that racing games are limited in how much changes they can offer, but is the passing of time sufficient reason for us to pay for the same experience all over again?

For those who are new to the GRID universe, it is certainly a universe you want to take part in.  It is overall one of the most polished racing experiences available today.  Codemasters are not new to racing titles, so they have had many years to hone ideal car handling and physics.  And to the end of creating a great balance between simulation and arcade, they have done a really great job.  With various difficulty tweaks to broaden the player spectrum, things can be toned up or down depending on ability.

There is just one huge, glaring, ridiculous bug.  There is something in the handling code that occasionally resets your button presses.  So if you are driving along normally, the accelerator button which you are holding will deactivate itself, meaning, you are effectively no longer pressing the button.  So you will slow down until you realise what is happening, and will have to re-press the accelerator to speed up again.  This also happens with steering.  You are sliding round a corner, then the direction button will reset, meaning you stop turning, and usually make the acquaintance of a barrier or two.

To ensure this wasn’t just my controller, I tried a different one, but the problem persisted.  Whilst the bug doesn’t sound too game threatening, it can be absolutely devastating when it occurs at the wrong time.  For instance, one race I was in an 8 minute Endurance slog, having a really close battle on advanced difficulty with the Ravenwest boys.  We were jostling at the front the entire race.  Then with less than a minute to go, the directional key reset, and my car ploughed into the sand, followed by a barrier.  And that is not a one-off situation.  In total, the bug has occurred over 30 times throughout the career mode, and has cost me numerous wasted hours in having to re-attempt races it ruined.  Hopefully an upcoming patch will resolve this glaring issue.

Aside from the controls, there is the usual career mode to work your way through.  There are the usual mixed array of driving disciplines, such as Open Wheel and Endurance.  These focus on different aspects of driving, and adds a bit of needed to variety to proceedings.  With the more scalable difficulty, you can create a real challenge for yourself if you turn off all the assists and shove the difficulty up to maximum.  Not only will your car require the utmost precision to master, but the AI enemies will also raise their game.

Speaking of AI, those pesky Ravenwest drivers are frankly automatons.  Almost every single race in the entire game has the same result; both Ravenwest drivers on the podium.  In challenges where you need to get a higher place on the team standings, it is hard because the earlier co-drivers are so inept.  So even if you win a race, the 2nd and 3rd places are inevitably for Ravenwest.  Thus tactics resort to attempting to smash them out of the race early on, knocking them to the back of the pack, and giving your team-mate a chance.  Although with AI cars made of concrete, it is a bit tricky.

As a matter of priority, I always try to see how human and fallible the enemy AI are.  Sadly, their resemblance to real drivers is terrible.  Whilst a few tussles and ‘mistakes’ are coded into their nature, the problem is when interacting with them.  Hit an AI car from behind, and you will spin off the track.  Hit them from the side, and you will spin off the track.  Get hit from behind and…..you will spin of the track.  During one session of experimentation, I took a run up, and smashed at high speed into the side of an AI racer.  The impact spun him a full 90 degrees, which he somehow managed to correct whilst driving over 100 mph.  Meanwhile, I of course spun off the track.  That’s just cheating!

Where GRID Autosport really shines is in the multiplayer side of things.  With the car handling mixed in with real life racers, making real life mistakes, it pushes the racing experience up near perfection.  The online matchup system had a few flaws which have been ironed out now, and the whole process is near-seamless.  There are online lobbies which rotate driving disciplines, as well as giving players the opportunity to vote on the next track.  Plus car choices are kept on a reasonably tight leash, so that most races are balanced.

GRID Autosport is not a required purchase if you own the previous title.  However, it is worth a look if you are new to GRID, despite a few annoyances.  And I thought one experience summed up the game nicely.  At the end of a very long straight, I rammed Nathan McKane so hard we both slid behind a small barrier.  Nathan could get back onto the track by heading either side of this barrier.  But instead the dear fellow decided the best course of action was to ram directly into it.  Time and again he reversed, then ploughed forwards at full speed into the barrier.  I gave up trying to win the race and just watched the wretched fellow methodically destroy his car.

Usually he is so smooth, so polished, so professional.  But every now and then, the façade cracks, and you see something broken underneath.  That pretty much describes GRID Autosport as a whole.  It is mostly polished and professional, but the veneer sometimes peels back to remind you that it is still just a game.

Reviewed for Bagogames – www.bagogames.com

platformines

Platformines Review – 2014

Mr Brew was forging through the dark mine chamber, alert to danger.  A spinning blade swung out of nowhere, which swished a few millimetres from his nose.  Sweating a little, our intrepid hero inched further into the gloom.  A sheer drop loomed up out of nowhere, catching Mr Brew off guard.  He just managed to jump out of the way of the spikes at the bottom.  The ledge which secured his safety was already occupied by a strange fellow wearing a cardboard box on his head, and toting a shotgun.  After taking a painful burst from the boxy guy, Mr Brew managed to take him down.

Mr Brew had been following this passageway platforminesfor about 15 minutes, trying to make his way to the objective, which the map showed was tantalisingly close.  Health, or lack of it, was becoming an issue.  A green-haired chick with a machine gun took a pop, forcing Mr Brew to take cover before taking her down with a bazooka.  Then, with just a fragment of health remaining,  he continued down the passageway to….a dead end.  Mr Brew stopped in silence for a moment, then just stood still and laughed.  He carried on laughing until an evil floating square eventually drifted in behind him and nibbled on his fleshy parts.

There is something quite special about having a game experience nobody has ever had.  Whilst the majority of our gaming experiences are shared by thousands or millions, once in a while we get the opportunity to go somewhere, or do something unique.  The game world within Platformines is randomly generated, depending on the name you assign the world.

My world of Brewtopia was an unsullied location, never touched by another living soul before me.  So exploring cool places, and having strange events, like getting stuck at the end of a great long dead-end in Brewtopia adds an individuality that is quite refreshing.  Randomly generated worlds are rarely perfect, but that is part of what makes them memorable.  The small homely eccentricities of your own little variation.

Platformines is set underground in a network of mines.  Imagine Terraria-style 2D platform exploration, but more connectivity between underground locations.  Starting at a central hub and safe zone, you can venture outside into the dangerous mines to scavenge the parts you need to escape your subterranean lair.  Any loot you collect from fallen baddies, or from metal deposits can be sold at the shop for money.  Then with that money you buy more expensive gear, such as bigger guns and better shields.

With this better equipment, you can then explore further afield.  The further from base you go, the more dangerous things become, so exploring the outer edges of the map can get almost suicidal at times.  But it makes for a balanced difficulty progression, with early objectives being just a short jaunt away, and the later retrieval missions requiring marathon slogs through mines brimming with different ways for you to die.

The levels are frankly enormous.  Although finishing the game took several hours, the map was still less than 25% explored by the time I had completed it.  If you are one of those gamers with a compulsive desire to explore every corner, Platformines may be a little too much for you.  With ‘retro’ blocky graphics, Platformines is not aiming for any graphical awards.  But the selection of music tracks is very good indeed, helping to create an even more exciting atmosphere as you dance most frivolously with death.

The biggest possible criticism that could be lowered at Platformines is that there simply isn’t enough variety in what is expected of you.  Every assignment involves retrieving something from around the map.  So you explore, try not to die, get the vital piece, and teleport back to your hub.  Then, when you have all the pieces, it’s game over.

It is certainly fun to lunge around the intriguing worlds of Platformines; there just isn’t enough to keep you around for long.  But don’t underestimate the value of a few hours pleasant gaming.  Create your own digital world, and enjoy creating a memory that nobody else has ever experienced in quite the same way.  Just watch out for dead-ends.  And evil nibbly squares.

Reviewed for Brash Games – www.brashgames.com

the-impossible-game

The Impossible Game Review – 2014

It’s quite an intriguing title to be sure.  The Impossible Game.  Such a bold accusation against the skills of any hardcore gamer just begs us to prove our worth by defeating it.  To be crowned the winner of an impossible game is quite a compelling sales pitch.  A public declaration of how awesome we are.  The jewel in the hardcore gamer’s crown.  But that would only be so if the game lived up to the title.  Sadly it doesn’t.

So you are an orange 2D block.  Nothing the-impossible-gamespecial about  you whatsoever.  Except for being orange of course.  Your controls consist of just one button: jump.  With this key function you get to….jump over stuff.  Usually it is triangles.  Nasty, pointy black triangles.  Sometimes you get even more vindictive black blocks, that try to stop you with their innate blockiness.  That’s about it.

Each level consists solely of jumping.  And as the title would suggest, it is certainly challenging.  But not as you might imagine.  It does not challenge skill; it challenges memory.  Since you move moderately fast, and the path of obstacles in front of you does not appear until you are quite close to them, you don’t get a lot of time to see exactly what you should do next.  Sometimes, you are on a block suspended in mid-air, and the next block you must either fall or jump to is only just starting to materialise.  So you die, and try again.

Basically, trial and error.  You keep working your way through the level, dying a stupid number of times, until you have literally memorised the entire route.  Then the only bit of skill involves a bit of timing as you go through your memorised level.  The ‘impossible’ nature the title suggests then comes into play when you realise that the ultimate objective is to complete each level without a single fault.  And the online stats show that a very small percentage of people have actually invested the innumerable hours of frustration required to complete these objectives.

But here is the crux of the matter.  If you want a memory and timing test, then this is just what you need.  But for actual fun as a game, or as a test of skill, then this title is redundant.  In fact, it is arguable whether or not The Impossible Game is even a game.  In fact, it could serve an excellent role as a form of punishment for wayward miscreants.  Force them to play this for a couple of hours, and they will soon see the error of their ways.

Without even touching on the basic graphics, the music restriction, the fact that there are only 5 levels….all of that is superfluous to the core problem.  This game is not fun.  Nor is it impossible; it’s just damn annoying.  Whatever you do, do not get sucked in by this ego assault.  The Impossible Game is one of the most pointless attempts at a game the world has ever seen.

Reviewed for Brash Games – www.brashgames.com

war-of-the-vikings

War of the Vikings Review – 2014

One of the Steam achievements in War of the Vikings is entitled Ragnar Lothbrok.  The hero of the current TV series Vikings.  One of the game’s upgrades is called Blood Eagle Edition, another historical factoid illuminated by the TV series.  Whilst some devs would try to hide their ‘inspiration’ under a veil of coincidence, it seems Fatshark seem keen to brazenly toss it in our faces.  I cannot decide if I admire their honesty or deplore their impudence.

There has never been a cooler time to be a war-of-the-vikingsViking though.  Charging down a hill waggling an axe and screaming something about Valhalla is the flavour of the week right now.  Gameplay in WotV consists of choosing what kind of warrior you want to play as (axeman, swordsman, archer, etc.) then hopping onto an online server to battle against other like-minded folk.  Saxons vs. Vikings locked in an epic never-ending struggle.

There is no single-player mode aside from the very basic tutorial.  Your only foes will be other human opponents from around the interweb.  Gameplay revolves around learning how to use your weapons effectively, as well as figuring out how to stay alive long enough to use them.  The basic mechanism of fighting and blocking is directional, and identical to most other historical battlers.  You swing or block in one of three directions, and use the timing of your power bar to inflict more damage.

There are various types of battles with subtle differences.  The main battle type allows players just 1 life, and once you die, you stay dead for the rest of the round.  This discourages reckless digital bravery in favour of decent teamwork, sticking together to overpower the enemy forces.  However, on deathmatch servers, things tend to be far too random.  You spawn very quickly after dying, and it is all too easy to spawn right in front of a band of aggressors, to be dispatched once again before you can so much as soil your tunic.  This has the added effect that when you carefully check an area for danger and turn away to fire an arrow at your foes, you can then be stabbed from behind by somebody who just spawned right behind you.

There are also some servers that are purely for duelling.  This is an interesting concept, as you face up against an enemy in a private battle, and other players are not allowed to join in until one of you has died.  Then someone else can join in and take on the victor.  So if there are 4 Vikings and only 1 Saxon, each remaining Viking must wait their turn to take on the last Saxon.  Even when matching up against a potential adversary, you are encouraged to use a gesture to show that you are ready and willing to fight.  This adds a strange but refreshing etiquette to fighting.    There is a thrill to know that if you win, you do so through your own actions, not because somebody shot you in the head whilst you were exchanging bladed pleasantries with somebody else.

Whilst the overall concept of WotV is appealing, there are a number of issues to deal with.  Firstly the lag problems.  I have a completely average internet connection with no major problems.  However, over all the matches I played online, I was auto-kicked from over 50% of them.  Most servers have a ping limit, and the second you cross over that line, no matter how briefly, your match is ended and you are unceremoniously dumped back on the title screen.  Extremely frustrating, especially if you were having an intense battle with a really decent bunch of teammates.  Even worse is the fact that a number of people lag considerably worse without getting kicked.  It is a common occurrence to swing your sword right through somebody without any hit detection whatsoever.  This may be less of an issue overall if there were more localised servers, but there are only ever a few servers that have a low enough latency for people to play on.  And that is a common complaint from around the world, not just a European issue.

Perhaps the biggest issue comes when you consider the previous offering from Fatshark.  War of the Roses is a historical 3rd-person slice-em-up in exactly the same fashion.  Whilst there are indeed a few changes, it is worrying that just by renaming the sides, and adding Viking-esque character skins, you genuinely struggle to identify the difference between the 2 games.  In fact it is debatable whether WotV is even a real improvement over its predecessor.  And the killer blow is that War of the Roses is a Free-to-Play game.  So you can keep playing it for an almost identical experience, without paying a single penny.

So should you buy War of the Vikings?  For most of the gaming public this is a superfluous purchase.  There is little need to purchase something that is already available for free.  But if you happen to have an obsession with everything Viking, and some spare dosh just lying around, then there is certainly fun to be found.  “Tonight, we dine in Valhalla!”

Reviewed for Bagogames – www.bagogames.com

gigantic-army

Gigantic Army Review – 2014

Some people don’t get the full picture of games journalism, especially when it comes to reviewing.  Our job is not only to ascertain the quality of a title and all its component parts.  It also involves highlighting the entire game experience and what effect it has on the player.  For example, when some games have overly intrusive DRM to the point that it interferes with the game experience, then that makes up part of the evaluation, because it makes up part of the game experience.

Gigantic Army has a somewhat unique foible to gigantic-armyadd to most players’ game experience.  How often do you read the entire game manual of a digitally downloaded game?  For most of us the answer would probably be rarely or never.  Upon starting GA for the first time, it is a little odd to note that none of the intro credits appear to be skippable.  Hammering away at Enter, Esc and Spacebar yield no results.  So having waited through an interminable intro detailing the generic storyline via white text on a black background, and the usual introductory mini movies, you are finally ditched in the main menu.

First stop of course is to check the options.  There is no mouse support, so you use cursor keys to choose options on the main menu and press Enter.  Nothing happens.  Spacebar.  Nothing.  Ctrl, Alt, Numpad Enter, Insert, Tab, CapsLock.  Nothing.  All number keys.  Nothing.  Mash entire keyboard frantically trying to find any button that will do something.  Then when you hit the Esc key, the whole game will quit.  After your first two attempts to run the game have met with the same success as a concrete parachute, some will have given up on this little indie title and moved onto something else.

Only when forcing yourself to wade through the manual do you notice that the attack key Z, also doubles to mean ‘accept’.  Could that possibly mean for the menus?  Indeed it does.  How silly of me.  I can’t believe I didn’t try Z at the beginning.  Why would I be so presumptuous as to assume that GA would follow the path of 99% of other games and use that big shiny obvious Enter button to navigate menus.  And who needs mouse support anyway?  There were no mice on the old arcade machines, so that just means we’re retro right?

In fact, why not make the whole game retro like an arcade game?  All these modern games with their flashy new savegames and level select features just don’t get it.  Unless you complete a game in one sitting you are not a real man (or woman – Gender Equality Ed).  It’s not like you are going to have something occur in your life that would make you stop playing and render your entire game time thus far redundant.  When you start every game don’t you have an unlimited amount of time to spend playing, even if you have absolutely no idea how long the game is?

But just imagine the cataclysmic scenario where you did need to briefly pause the game for something as extreme as, let’s say, the phone ringing, or someone knocking at the door.  Naturally you’d probably want to ignore those pesky distractions, but in the event that it might be the president of the United States, or the pizza boy, you may need to pause the game.  Easy enough surely?  Let’s press P.  Nothing.  Esc.  Nothing.  Spacebar.  Dammit, that just wasted my superweapon into a wall.  Where the hell is the pause key?  Well, if you’d memorised the manual properly you’d know that it is the Q key.  Joy!

Not that you’d have reason to need to access the game menu whilst playing the game (for instance to check out what key is Pause, but you already knew that from reading the manual right?), but if you do need to check the menu, then the key is the sensibly assigned R key.  However, the cost of accessing the menu mid-game means that your entire game progress is erased, and you must start again from the very beginning when you wish to continue playing.

You may ask yourself why the last 4 paragraphs have been dealing with asinine key allocation and lack of ability to save progress.  As explained at the beginning, these are all part of your game experience.  Whilst it is possible that you did read and memorise the manual, and just did happen to have plenty of time to spend playing a game of indeterminate length, that is quite simply not going to happen for most people.  You are likely going to fall at every hurdle, and have your playtime ruined multiple times by the sheer stupidity of the way the game is set up.

Those grinding issues aside, the actual game itself is pretty good.  There are 6 missions through which you guide a robotic avatar through levels crammed to bursting with things that want to shoot you.  From turrets to tanks, to freaking enormous flying hunks of metallic badness that rain down fiery, lasery, explodey death upon you in a constant stream.  Your dextrous leaping and dodging whilst returning fire is the only way to survive.  Oh, and the whole thing is timed, so don’t dawdle or you’ll get a Game Over without even dying.

You get a choice of 3 primary weapons and 3 special weapons, each with a different way of firing, and requiring different playing techniques.  Although it must be said that the riot gun does make things quite simple as it has such a wide spread and fast rate of fire that you can stop almost any rocket headed in your direction without even aiming.  That’s quite fortunate because aiming is a task suited to a mouse or a gamepad.  Since there is no mouse, you get keyboard or gamepad.  And the gamepad does not function in the way you would expect, with the weapon simply being raised or lowered, and then locking in position whenever you start shooting.  This means it does not follow the literal direction you are pointing for much of the time.  So there is little benefit in using the gamepad over the keyboard.  Retro indeed.

Gigantic Army sadly cannot earn the merit of being recommended.  It is fun to play through a few times, but offers nothing new or particularly interesting.  It sits alongside a veritable slew of similar titles that provide a similar experience, and does very little to differentiate itself from the pack, aside from the uniquely nonsensical control allocations.  Consider it a pleasant diversion if you find it on sale or in an indie bundle somewhere.

Reviewed for Bagogames – www.bagogames.com

Divinity-Dragon-Commander

Divinity: Dragon Commander Review – 2013

I’m a bit stupid when it comes to bargains.  Can’t get enough of them.  You should have seen how quickly I emptied my wallet on the Steam Summer Sale.  Divinity: Dragon Commander is actually something of a bargain, even when full price.  Because it is so clearly divided into 3 segments, it is more like 3 games for the price of 1.  Wahoo!

This is going to be a rather large change inDivinity-Dragon-Commander direction for Divinity fans.  Rather than the usual RPG action, the formula has been blended with other genres into a fine soup.  You now have a rather interesting mix of turn-based strategy, real-time strategy and management sim.  The main story is progressed via a strategy map which lets you take turns to shove your units around the board, taking over territories, and establishing dominance.  Most battles are decided by dice throws, influenced by the strength of each army in each encounter.  But for 1 battle per turn, you get the option to fight directly, with your eponymous dragon commander.

When you choose to fight yourself, you will start with some base military units, plus the option to expand over the map, building structures that will both create units, and give you the resources to do so.  After a specified period of time has elapsed, you will also get the opportunity to enter the battle yourself.  As the story paints you, you are a human/dragon hybrid.  Although in battle you only get to play a dragon, who happens to sport an unusually powerful jetpack.  So a deadly flying creature gets a useful item that helps him to…..fly.  Genius!

So when fighting a real-time battle, things get a whole lot more complex.  You get various buildings to construct, with a vast array of possible units.  And each of these units can be upgraded to have certain abilities.  So some will be able to self-destruct, and wipe out surrounding enemy forces.  Others can capture buildings.  Others can use various tools to heal, maim, or destroy.  There is no lack of tactical opportunities within the RTS game mode.  But whether or not you actually get to use these is questionable.

The fly in the RTS ointment here is the very thing that makes it unique.  Yourself.  Having a fireball-launching dragon to influence battles may appear to make things somewhat one-sided.  The key would be to tone down the power of your dragon.  But sadly that doesn’t really happen.  With such a huge influence over the sway of battle, you tend to focus everything on keeping your key unit (your scaled self) destroying things.  So instead of using tactical finesse, and strategic nous, you instead are funnelled towards a style of gameplay where you just need bulk behind your dragon to keep pushing the enemy.

Let’s be clear here.  I completed the entire singleplayer campaign in the default difficulty level, without a single strategic move.  I didn’t invest one iota into unit abilities.  Instead I upgraded my dragon, and got some mean killer units to surround him, as well as some healer units to keep in good health.  Then I simply churned out units to accompany myself as I winged my way through the enemy base.  Thus, even battles that suggested I had a 5% chance of victory, I decisively turned in my favour, purely through the brute force of having a killer unit to control.

This means the singleplayer campaign is fairly redundant.  The only battles I ever lost were ones that put me under a 5% victory chance, or ones that I didn’t get to personally control, submitting to the decision of dice.  Especially since the enemy never gets to fight back with their own dragon, you can just launch devastating attacks in quick succession, and even vast armies will bow under your winged prowess.  Exacerbating the situation are the facts that you get increasingly more powerful spells to give your dragon, and also the fact that even if your dragon dies, it will only take 5 seconds and few resources to respawn him.  The entire game is grossly unbalanced in your favour, so long as you have the faintest rudimentary idea of how to take over an RTS map.

Time for a glance at the management and diplomacy aspect of the game.  Whilst the war is waged on the strategy map, at the end of each turn you will return to your ship, and be greeted with a variety of counsellors who wish to guide your judgement on the way your kingdom should be ruled.  So you will constantly be making decisions such as whether to allow gay marriage, whether you wish to permit euthanasia, or whether it is morally acceptable to eat Orc meat.

Your decisions will affect your relationships with each race within the game, which will in turn affect the support they will give you.  The problem is, the entire management sub-game has a 100% assured method of overall success, even if it means making decisions that you as a player really don’t want to make.  So take a really banal issue, and listen to your counsellors witter righteously about it, then you simply side with the majority, which will guarantee you the most success overall.  Gameplay be damned, this is purely about the numbers.  Admittedly it can be entertaining to hear the races spout endlessly about the hot topics, such as ‘poof nuptials’, but if you aim to progress in the game, you are never in doubt as to which decision to make.  You are encouraged to sell out your values to tickle the ears of the majority if you wish to progress.

You may also be intrigued to hear of a 4th small sub-game, which deals with your marriage.  You get the opportunity to wed someone from your kingdom, who will then move into your quarters with you.  Various storylines and issues arise, depending on the character you choose, and you get to help them make decisions that will affect the outcome.  Let’s rephrase that.  You get to lead their lives for them, making every major decision, for better or for worse.  You are certainly the king of this castle.

Multiplayer does ramp up the playability significantly.  When fighting human generals, each will have their own dragon, and you can play with just 1 enemy, or several.  This makes for some rather insane fights, with multiple dragons swirling around the skies trying to decimate each other.  There are certainly a whole host of tactical opportunities opened up when fighting human opponents, and you do tend to use your unit a abilities a bit more than in singleplayer mode, where they were largely redundant owing to the power of your avatar.  But here the playing field is levelled, so any extra edge could prove to be decisive.  You can also play campaigns with other humans, which can also be fun.

One  downside in multiplayer mode comes from the fact that most games appear to be hosted by one of the players.  I was playing a map once with 2 other opponents.  The host of the game was wiped out early on.  So instead of staying so we could finish the match, he just quit out, meaning myself and the other opponent never got to finish our tussle.  Lack of host migration could be a very damning flaw if it is not addressed through a patch.  Also, at the time of writing there were very few people playing online, although this should hopefully change in the near future.

Divinity: Dragon Commander tries to juggle several balls at the same time.  To give it fair credit, it manages to provide an entertaining, albeit simplistic experience.  Each part of the 3 main game styles intersect with the other styles well.  The biggest issue is that the carefully devised real-time strategy section, with lots of options and gameplay styles, is mainly rendered useless in singleplayer by the ease of winning with your overpowered dragon.  You rarely use all the wonderful options, simply because you don’t need to.  Plus there are no enemy dragons to provide a challenge.  Attacking the enemies is usually like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.  The squidgy remains are tasty, but you feel like a bully for being so forceful.  But there is plenty of life to be had from the multiplayer, so do be sure to invest in it, especially as you get 3 games for the price of 1.

Reviewed for Select Button – www.selectbutton.com

Jack-Keane-2

Jack Keane 2: The Fire Within Review – 2013

Have you ever tried to eat a gourmet dinner, but using your bare hands?  Have you ever watched an important sporting event, only to have most of your view obstructed by a pillar?  Or what about trying to play Call of Duty with one hand tied behind your back?

Sadly, some truly fantastic experiences can be Jack-Keane-2dampened if you are unable to fully appreciate the event as it was intended.  This is the case with Jack Keane 2 – The Fire Within.  The core game is frankly delightful, with a compelling story, logical puzzles, and some great characters.  But when you have to play this game with broken controls, soul-destroying bugs, and a camera view that appears to be under the payroll of your enemy, you must genuinely question whether it is worth fighting through a tidal wave of vexation to uncover the hidden gem within.

With a nod towards classic Lucasarts adventures, Jack Keane 2 combines a simplistic cartoon animation style, and some very unique characters to create a truly memorable game environment.  The story whisks you across several continents in search of various artifacts (yawn), but the fun is in solving all the puzzles en route.  So you’ll pick up whatever the game will let you, and combine them or use them with other things to formulate some wacky improvised solution.  Traditional adventure fare, but with a healthy dose of character.

Unlike some adventure titles which have the most obscenely illogical solutions, JK2 never makes things too difficult or obscure.  Sure, you’ll be scratching your head in bemusement in several places, but the answer just requires a bit of searching and common sense.  You will also never be bombarded with so many items that you are constantly trying to figure out what bit to use next, or spend most of your time trying to combine your inventory.  Instead, you get a steady stream of useless junk, which you must use sensibly to generate useful equipment.  So you are kept in reasonably tight rein, never acquiring too many inventory items, or having too many places to visit at one time.   This keeps the action flowing, and ensures you get stuck less often.

Throughout your journey, you get to form relationships with some of the people you adventure with.  You are presented with a variety of speech options for most scenarios, and the way you treat people will affect your relationship.  There are no vast storyline differences gained from this, but it does give a slight difference to the game ending, depending on who you bestow your attention upon.

As you would hope for an adventure game of this style, there is a commendable sense of humour conveyed through both the story, and the communication with the characters you meet.  German developers Deck 13 are clearly aware of their national stereotype, but they actually use that very stereotype in-game to mock themselves.  Having such an attitude shows that these guys don’t try and take themselves too seriously, but are purely focused on giving the player a fun time.  One particular scene contains the following speech sequence (paraphrased):  “Are you Ralph?” – “What?  No.  What makes you think I’m Ralph?” – “Because it says ‘Ralph’ when I hover the mouse cursor over you”.  Genius!

So it all sounds good right?  Well it is good.  Until you factor in the technical aspect of controlling and playing the game.  Then things get a whole lot more challenging.  I will try not spend too long dwelling on these failings, but here is a brief list.  Jumpy hit spots; a camera angle which is usually working against you; items floating in mid air; cumbersome controls, especially when jumping; one point at which a game character found a game bug which allowed her to walk across thin air to reach her target, then when she was 1 inch from her target she still complained that she couldn’t reach it.

And finally, the worst flaw of all.  There is a frequently occurring bug which means that your character refuses to examine or take action on the item you just clicked on.  So imagine you want to go an examine a rock.  You click on the rock.  Nothing happens.  Click again.  Nothing happens.  Click 20 times repeatedly in frustration, and your character finally starts moving, only to realise that your last click was off target, and your character ran off the screen instead.  At one point, this bug completely denied game progression, as the mission-critical item simply refused to be clicked on.  It took half an hour of repeated attempts and game restarts, pounding my keyboard and mouse fruitlessly, before the item finally allowed itself to be clicked on.  This bug alone added well over an hour on the time it took to complete the game.  To say that it is somewhat vexatious would be an understatement of grand proportions.

So, the ultimate question:  Is it worth playing through a technically incompetent game in order to enjoy the story and puzzles locked within?  Taking everything into account, the answer is yes.  There will be many moments of irritation as the game attempts to thwart your attempts at playing, but the delicious fruity innards of Jack Keane 2 are worth the endeavour.  Venture forth and conquer this game, bugs and all.

Now I’m off to feast on a succulent banana casserole.  With my hands.

Reviewed for Select Button – www.selectbutton.com

Stealth Bastard Deluxe

Stealth Bastard Deluxe Review – 2013

A little encouragement goes a long way.  Like when you were 3, and you proudly presented your mangled monstrosity of a painting to your mother, and she likely beamed and gushed with such boundless enthusiasm for your grotesque inability that you decided you should probably be an artist.  Stealth Bastard Deluxe is instead like the drunken father, who glanced at your painting, then shouted at you for being worthless, tore the painting up into tiny little bits, flogged you with a cactus, and then sent you off to your bed of nails.

Expect no mercy.  Not even a tiny little bit.  Stealth Bastard DeluxeStealth Bastard Deluxe is absolutely relentless.  It gives you barely more than a whisper of how the game operates, before tossing you straight in at the deep end.  And the deep end has sharks.  And killy stuff.  By the time most games have finished giving you a tutorial, SBD already expects you to be a master spy.

Imagine the Thief series as a 2D platformer, set to treble speed, and you might get a rough idea of how things work.  Light is your enemy and darkness is your friend.  Staying in the dark will enable you to avoid probably imminent death for just a little longer.  And various mechanical bad things are out looking for you, and are very efficient in their task of showing no mercy.  Essentially it is a puzzle game, which also requires precision timing and nimble acrobatics.

Predictably, you will die a lot.  Sometimes from an uber death laser, which is admittedly a funky way to go, or sometimes it is just getting caught in a closing door, which is considerably more embarrassing.  But the whole time you play, the game is brazenly mocking you.  Every time you die it jibes your inadequacy, questions your intelligence, and impugns your abilities.  Since you will die a lot, you better get used to it.

As a game, SBD works well.  The concept is not brand new, but it feels fresh and different enough.  Possibly the only minor failing I would level at it, is that it tends to reward trial and error a little higher than genuine skill.  So perhaps after trying and failing 5 times, you are forced to explore every dark crevice, and might find some hidden room which will enable you to progress.  Locating essential areas which lie in the darkness is a common theme, so will require a lot of screen squinting to figure out exactly what to do at times.

The base game itself shouldn’t take too many hours to complete, but SBD has some rather sneaky ways of extending lifespan.  Firstly, there is the inclusion of global leaderboards.  So gamers can take part in a worldwide joystick waggling competition to see who is the most awesome.  Not content with being placed in position 3,401?  Shave an extra second off your level time, and you could reach the heady height of position 2,845.  It is actually annoyingly addictive, since you always know you could do just that little bit better if you really tried.

The second way of extending lifespan is a bit more dubious.  Your first play through each level is enforced as just a basic character with no special abilities.  But then after you complete each level, you will then have the ability to go back and replay that level with the new ability you just unlocked.  So there are a few tricks and tools, such as camo gear, a decoy, or even a teleporter.  These can assist the level quite a bit, but the problem is, you don’t get to access each tool until you have completed the level with every previous tool.  So for example, if you wanted to use the teleporter on a level, you’d have to play that exact level 5 times previously to earn all the other tools, before the teleporter would be unlocked.  It is a really lazy way of extending lifespan, even if some of the tools are quite fun to use.  There are just very few people who would be devoted enough to play each level 6 times over.

And the third method of extending gameplay is the splendid addition of community-created levels.  These are not something you will need to download separately and install, but rather you can access them directly using the in-game menu.  The results can be sorted by ratings if required, so you can be sure of finding all the very best levels that the community has to offer.  Potentially limitless gametime overall then, so nobody could argue that SBD is not good value for money.

Blow your mind, Stealth Bastard Deluxe will not.  But an entertaining indie experience it will delight in providing.  As polished as my shuriken collection, and as deadly as my cooking, there is whole world of fun and fast-paced stealth awaiting you.

Reviewed for Brash Games – www.brashgames.com

Sanctum 2

Sanctum 2 Review – 2013

Have you ever been chatting to someone who’s not really listening?  Someone with a glazed look in their eyes, who keeps checking their phone, keeps looking around at other things, as you attempt to expound the finer points of anthropoid limb dismemberment.  You certainly get the feeling that they have better things to do than sit there talking to you.  Just like many game developers fail to listen to their consumers.   But not Coffee Stain Studios.  I love those guys, because listening and learning is their speciality.

Firstly, they listened to what people did/didn’tSanctum 2 like about the first Sanctum.  What was over-powered, what was useless, what needed streamlining, and even how people like to purchase any add-on content.  Thus was born Sanctum 2.  Yet far from releasing and retiring, Coffee Stain are still at the forefront of their fanbase, responding to feedback, and constructive criticism.  Very shortly after launch, the rather unwieldy and unfair method of resource acquisition has already been revamped, in reaction to fan feedback.  And the game is a much sweeter deal because of that.

For Sanctum virgins, the series is a tower-defence game, which is played in the first person.  That means you get to build defences to defend against the enemy swarms, then you get to fight alongside your towers as you attempt to stem the fierce flow of fierce baddies that want to destroy your core (the heart of your base).  Your input is certainly not negligible; your actions will be integral to bringing down some of the more powerful baddies when your towers are overwhelmed.

Sanctum 2 has brought a number of new features to the table.  Firstly, your character gets RPG style level-ups, meaning they will get better abilities, and unlock some mighty fine weaponry and towers.  There are also perks you can use to enhance the abilities of your character, and these little boosts can really help tip the balance in certain maps.

Resources to build towers are now kept separate from resources for tower bases.  This simply means that you cannot set out a vast network of tunnels to channel the baddies down, right from the start of the level.  Instead, owing to the limited resources which are slowly accreted as the level progresses, you must keep adjusting your setup with each round to maximise your available resources for each wave.  It sounds like a small addition, but it works very nicely to keep the challenge high throughout all the waves, rather than just the later ones.

A splendid touch is the addition of bosses.  These gargantuan creatures are generally far more powerful then common baddies, and will even start to destroy your previously invincible towers, should they so desire.  Although the creatures themselves may be taken down, they could also knock a hole in your meticulously constructed tower path, leaving a shortcut for all the common baddies to gleefully scuttle straight through to your vulnerable core.  So tower  layout requires even more thought and planning.

Weapon upgrades have been removed as part of the streamlining process, meaning you can focus purely on your towers, and getting them as deadly and efficient as possible.  At first this was a bit of a disappointment, as I enjoyed having uber-upgraded weapons of mass destruction in Sanctum 1.  But after playing for a while, you can see that this omission does help to add consistency to the gameplay, especially in co-op mode, where players would have different ideas about what to spend their money on.  Now with just towers to focus attention on, the skill is in getting the optimal tower build, rather then relying on over-powered weapons.

Having completed the game, you can replay each level with special difficulty modifiers enabled.  These will make the enemies stronger, faster, and badder, which will ramp up the difficulty to create a challenge for even the most advanced Sanctumites.

Adding a little more structure to game progression, there is a story-driven campaign with comic-strip introductions to each level.  Don’t expect anything special, it is all generic sci-fi waffle which is eminently forgettable 5 minutes later.  Something about codes, computers, fighting, and the square root of tedium.  But nobody is playing Sanctum 2 for the storyline, so this is not really an issue.

Sanctum 2 is polished, and will become even more so as the devs keep tweaking and refining to edge the game even further towards perfection.  The concept is simple, but with such a good execution, it will keep you playing for well beyond its natural shelf life.  It is safe to say that this sequel has surpassed the original significantly, and in such a number of different ways that it truly does merit being a sequel, rather than a glorified add-on pack.

It is comforting to know that Sanctum 2 listens.  It stares deep and lovingly into your eyes, and snuggles you with a warm embrace.  When you bring down a colossus of an enemy within spitting distance of your core, when you set up the perfect tower arrangement to annihilate the hordes, when you frivolously dance between the boisterous baddies, you realise that Sanctum 2 is granting you a deep sense of fulfilment.  It has tailored itself to be as much fun as it can be.  I hereby request that you buy this game.  You won’t regret it, unless you have an abnormal aversion to fun.

Reviewed for Bagogames – www.bagogames.com

Mini Motor Racing EVO

Mini Motor Racing EVO Review – 2013

Casual racing games can be immense fun.  Remember the joys of Micromachines V3, Mashed, or Mario Kart?  They provided a slice of sheer gaming fun, leaving you laughing, giggling, and at the very least smiling, regardless of who won.  Watching the trailer from Mini Motor Racing EVO, I was desperately hoping that it could match or possibly even surpass the thrills of the gaming giants that trod before it.  I was wrong.  Really wrong.  So wrong I want to cry.

This game appears to be completely in Mini Motor Racing EVOreverse.  Forgive me for being a traditionalist, but I am of the general opinion that something called a ‘beginner cup’ should be something quite simple, something to ease you into the game.  It goes without saying that we would expect the ‘expert’ and ‘master’ cups to be something more a of a challenge.  Well, Mini Motor Racing EVO gives that notion the finger, and scuttles off in the opposite direction.

Thus, the beginner championship is one of the most teeth-clenchingly, soul-destroyingly frustrating experiences you are ever likely to experience in your gaming career.  You will weep, tear out your hair, gnash your teeth, and boil with unbridled rage most of the time.  And this is for one supremely simple reason which could so easily have been remedied.  Collisions.

Let us take a few case studies to try and highlight where things start breaking down.  Bear in mind that these examples are based upon the most common occurrences in each given situation.  So these are not rare or isolated problems, these are constantly happening throughout the entire game:

EXAMPLE 1 – I find myself leading the race.  As I turn into the corner, the car in second position comes from behind and gently strokes my posterior.  I slide straight out and hit the edge of the track, my speed decimated.  As the following racers come round the corner, every single one hits me, owing to my slow speed, and knocks me back out to the edge of the track again.  I emerge in last position with no hope of victory.

EXAMPLE 2 – I have just overtaken an opposing racer.  He is level with me.  He steers in towards my car, and effortlessly spins me round.  The following cars hit me on the way past, and send me flying.  I emerge in last position.

EXAMPLE 3 – I try to spin out another racer.  I approach him, and nudge the back of his car.  He does indeed spin, and comes to a halt in front me, completely blocking my progress.  All other racers pass.  When I finally get free of him, he still manages to turn around stay ahead in the race.  I emerge in last position.

Simply put, virtually every single time you encounter an AI racer, things will end badly.  The slightest touch either to them or from them will generally result in you being flung into the wall, flipped over, spun round, or at the very least slowed down to a crawl.  And with some really narrow tracks, and plenty of hairpin bends, there is no way to avoid colliding with the moving destructoids that are the enemy racers.

You soon come to realise that there is only 1 tactic to win races.  Get ahead immediately, and stay there.  As soon as you get a fragment of distance between you and the bloodthirsty pack behind, the racing turns from blood-curdingly annoying, into something very simple.  So long as you don’t make too many mistakes, the race is won.

It must be said that this flaw is exacerbated whilst your car is new and before you start upgrading it.  Meaning cornering is painfully slow and slidey, so enemy AI have all the time in the world to bounce you in the buttocks and sail past your corpse.  However, as you upgrade your speed, handling, and acceleration, you are able to take corners more fluidly, thus marginally reducing the chances of being botty-batted.

This is the singular reason why the beginner campaign is so difficult, as you attempt to manoeuvre your floundering turd of a car through a moving minefield.  Then the following campaigns get progressively easier as your cars get better.

If you want to buy this game for the singleplayer campaign, don’t do it!  Try punching yourself in the face instead, as that is significantly less painful overall.  However, there is just one small redeeming feature nestled in the hideous bosom of this cruel mistress.  This hidden gem is multiplayer.  Racing against fellow humans is far more fair and rewarding than the repulsive AI, and can lead to some very satisfying racing.

But to sully this small gleam of light as soon as it has burst forth into the world are 2 rather damning facts.  Firstly, out of the 10 attempts I made to play online at different times of day, I only found somebody to play against twice.  There are so few people who can stand to play this game, that it takes a whole lot of effort to find opponents.  And secondly, there is no local co-op mode, which would have opened up the game to a whole new branch of casual gamers.  So sadly this potentially redeeming feature is more of parp than a fanfare.

So far we have discussed just a tiny fragment of what this game actually contains.  But in honesty, that is most of what you need to know.  The game is generally unplayable.  Here is just a very brief précis in case you need it.

4 racing cups.  A number of zany little cars to race.  Upgradable car parts.  Plenty of tracks.  Wildly varying and uneven difficulty levels.  Invisible walls in open areas.  No walls in some scenery.  Random points where your car stops dead on a track for no reason.  Abysmal handling going up or down slopes.  Rather insane nitro boosts.  Oh yes, and a mechanical drill sound that dominates almost every single menu until you want to start using it on the developer who included it.

I leave you with this small anecdote.  I was racing on a track that was set in an abandoned ghost town.  It was about the 20th retry  of racing this particular track, because the opponents had unusually fast cars, and naturally blatted me into the dirt at every opportunity.   So winning the race turned into a more of a pot luck draw of hoping they would crash into each other just long enough for me to slip into the lead, and then stay there.  It finally happened, and I grabbed the lead gratefully, and whizzed off as fast as my nitro would take me.

Feeling quite heady with elation, I sailed down the home straight toward the finish line on the final lap.  Then a small twist of tumbleweed rolled languidly up to me, and under my car.  My dear little vehicle was lifted completely in the air by this small weed.  I spent a very long 2 seconds riding astride it, before it unceremoniously plonked me down on my side.  The game eventually reset my car, as the rest of the pack flew past.  I finished in last position.  Now I shall go sit in the fridge until my blood temperature comes back down to healthy figure.

Reviewed for Bagogames – www.bagogames.com

BIT.TRIP Presents... Runner2 Future Legend of Rhythm Alien

BIT.TRIP Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien – 2013

Games from 10 years ago tried to look as modern and graphically advanced as they could.  Suddenly, 10 years on, some games have started trying to look old again, making graphics as blocky and clunky as possible to achieve the ‘retro’ appeal, which reminds gamers of the good ol’ days.  A rather odd trend when viewed objectively, but who am I to pass judgement?

Now here comes BIT.TRIP Presents… BIT.TRIP Presents... Runner2 Future Legend of Rhythm AlienRunner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien.  For future reference we shall refer to it by a partial acronym, FLORA.  The Bit Trip Runner series started life as a delightful foray into our past, with deliciously blocky pixels repainting our memories of yesteryear.  It countered that nod to the past with clear evidence that it was actually capable of much more if it really wanted to, with some cool effects and backgrounds.  So what started life as a retro-inclined game has now suddenly taken a graphical leap into the current era with the latest version, FLORA.  But does it work when you modernise something designed to be retro?

Instinctively I would have said no.  But FLORA annoyingly combats that by throwing in a whole bunch of retro levels to supplement the modernised ones.  So it is modern AND retro.  Sneaky little game.  And in fairness, the modernised graphical style is still incredibly endearing, with a whole host of new playable characters, each one with a different personality and action style.  Plus the backgrounds are chock full of incidental detail and action, and there are plenty of different environmental themes to keep you interested.

To the uninitiated, the Bit Trip Runner series is a game that challenges your finger dexterity and rhythmical abilities to the absolute extreme.  You play a little runner who must sprint through various levels, and must jump, duck, block, hit, leap, and dance your way through a host of levels that quickly become obscenely difficult.  Reaching the end of the level is an accomplishment, then you need to do it again whilst collecting all the gold for a perfect run.  Certainly not a game for button bashers, this requires an exquisite elegance as your fingers dance furiously through the various controls that will keep your little runner alive as he pelts through the various obstacles.

What has always defined the Bit Trip series though is the sound.  There is a background soundtrack, and as you complete very tiny action, it adds an extra little sound to the overall harmony of the background music.  So with each jump, each block, etc, the soundtrack will reflect your action.  But not with the input of random noise, but as a logical musical progression.  Without the sound, FLORA would be just a reasonable game, but with the full soundtrack behind every level, it transforms the entire experience into an aural delight, as well as a mission of dexterity.  Plus add in the voice of Charles Martinet as a commentator (the voice of Mario, plus with over 100 game voiceovers under his belt), and things certainly are not neglected in the sound department.

FLORA is certainly is not something you’ll drift through in a few hours, or a day, or even a week.  Because of the vast amount of items to collect in each level, plus multiple routes through each level, plus the additional retro levels, plus unlockable extras which unlock further goodies throughout previously played levels, you will need a significant investment of time in order to obtain everything the game has to offer.  There are plenty of Steam achievements too if the base game doesn’t keep you bashing your keyboard for enough months.

The problem is, now I need to highlight any issues the game may have.  Any points which might make you question whether the game is worth your wonga.  But most vexingly, I simply cannot find any negative points about the game.  Sure it’s kind of niche, if you target an audience that wants a challenge in dexterity.  And maybe ones who are a bit slower of touch, or a tad clumsy may get a little frustrated with the precision required.  But put simply, FLORA is game that has learned every lesson from its forebear, and has evolved into a compelling, polished title that will provide a worthy gaming experience for every hardcore gamer.  Just prepare to fail.  A lot.

Reviewed for Bagogames – www.bagogames.com

The Bridge

The Bridge Review – 2013

Ok, so you like thinking puzzles?  Try these on for size.  1) If you have 2 bottles of beer, and you add 1 more, how many bottles of beer do you have?  2) Giving your answer in Klingon, what is the square root of 3687643098.287257?  3) Why is what?  4) If you take a narcissistic Poodle and a squashed tin of lemons, what is the colour of Bob the friendly mongoose?

Confused?  Great!  That is what The Bridge The Bridgeexcels at.  It is a rather quirky little puzzle game; the indie brainchild of just 2 people.  It attempts to blend the artwork of the renowned M.C.Escher, with equally twisted physics-based puzzles, into the format of game.  If you have ever seen Escher’s artwork, you will know that this is no mean feat at all.  It is a convoluted explosion of impossible, intersected architecture and abstract ideas.  Not only that, but the game’s art-style is in the form of a black and white lithograph.

To give fair credit to the dynamic duo behind this title, the visuals are incredible.  Not only does the artwork serve as a backdrop, but it is also the basis for the puzzles themselves.  It is safe to say that The Bridge has hit new ground with this aesthetic.  That said, art for the sake of art in a game can sometimes be a hindrance to the gameplay.  Generally the gameplay of The Bridge is not adversely affected in this way, aside from the lack of definition in the black and white colour scheme, meaning it is sometimes hard to see exactly what door you just unlocked, or which key needs to be collected.

So, back to the puzzles.  The Bridge delights in giving you a puzzle so patently simple that you imagine you are pretty smart for solving it so quickly.  Then it will rub that in your face by throwing something so soul-destroyingly awkward and nonsensical at you, that you question your very will to live.  It feels as though some puzzles were properly planned out, and well-executed.  Then other puzzles were in production, and an accidental slip or fall led to an unexpected solution, which the devs decided to keep.  So although the majority of the puzzles can be solved by canny thinking, some are just a case of trial and error until you clumsily stumble upon the answer.

There is also a small matter of genre confusion.  The Bridge cannot decide if it wants to be a puzzle game, or an action platformer.  Certain levels are pure puzzle, but certain levels are almost exclusively based upon swift precision movement.  If a game manages to master puzzles and action, that’s all well and good.  But the action sections are severely handicapped by the controls.  Your character is a clumsy fellow who slithers frustratingly at the slightest slope or angle.  There are also other control inconsistencies that make all action-based puzzles something of an ordeal, rather than something enjoyable.

The Bridge has attained huge critical interest, and rightly so, for it is a truly unique game, with a unique twist.  It has a moderate lifespan of 5+ hours, depending on your grey matter and digit-dexterity.  Part of that time will be spent in genuine enjoyment, as you bask in the warm glow and smugness of knowing you were bright enough to figure out the solution.  And part of the time, you will be tearing out your hair, wondering why on earth logic has been abandoned in favour of a confused mess.  But, there are certainly rewards to be reaped if you persevere through the clunky bits.

By the way, the mongoose was blue.

Reviewed for Bagogames – www.bagogames.com

Jagged Alliance - Back in Action

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action Review – 2012

My explosives expert inches forward slowly on his belly.  The landmine is on the path in front of my squad, so most of them are cowering at a safe distance, whilst my brave minion  creeps forward clutching his defuse kit.  He finally reaches the mine, and…starts jiggling and flapping his hands at it in an oddly hypnotic manner.  *Jiggle jiggle, flap flap*.  The mine is defused.  Relieved and safe, I order my medic to patch one of my wounded soldiers.  The medic minces over and… *jiggle jiggle, flap flap, jiggle flap jiggle*.  The soldier is healed.  Meanwhile another soldier has picked up a nice handgun from a fallen enemy.  The gun is damaged, so I get him to pull out his repair kit and fix the weapon.  *Jiggle jiggle jiggle, flap jiggle flap…*

One does wonder if the animation team workingJagged Alliance - Back in Action on Jagged Alliance: Back in Action were either insanely lazy, or were just severely understaffed.  I send my medic over to a nearby desk to pick up some items.  She dutifully heads in the direct opposite direction, moves away a few paces, and somehow manages to *flap flap* pick up the items from about 6 feet away.

Outside in the yard, my sniper spots an enemy wielding an axe charging at him.  I order him to attack.  My sniper slowly rotates on the spot, and points 90 degrees left of the enemy I have highlighted.  The axe-psycho chops him into little pieces.  *reload savegame*.  When axe dude charges next time, I give him the same order, attack.  After several seconds spent aiming, my sniper fires.  The enemy is hit to half health, hurrah.  I order him to continue attacking.  My sniper sits like a lemon, watching axeman approaching.  I order him to fire again, but no response.  After a while, the wounded axeman reaches my sniper, and chops him up again.  *reload savegame*.  This time my sniper misses his first shot, and then doesn’t bother taking any more, despite aiming directly at the enemy the whole time.  The axeman chops him up again.  *quit game*.

When I next felt the urge to laugh at something, I launched the game again.  On the next gameplay attempt, I send my sneaky medic into enemy territory to take down all the enemies with her handgun.  She crawls everywhere, making herself harder to hit, and starts taking down bad guys one by one.  She shoots one guy, who dies noisily, and crumples to a heap on the floor.  His nearby buddy is startled by the shots, and by the body of his comrade.  But within 30 seconds he has forgotten all about the death of his buddy, and has started strolling around on his patrol.  Quite callous behaviour really.

I position my medic on a little mound to be in a perfect shooting spot for next time the patrolling baddy comes my way.  He strolls round the corner on schedule, and I order my medic to the attack.  Wait, that’s odd.  The little in-game indicator tells me that the shot is impossible.  Apparently my medic cannot see the enemy.  Yet the enemy has spotted me, and fires a few bullets in my direction, seriously wounding me.  The shooter moves sideways slightly.  The in-game indicator tells me briefly that my shot success would now be ‘very likely’.  But before the shot can be taken, he moves another inch to his right, and the shot is once again ‘impossible’.  The whole time he is shooting at me.  And kills me.  *reload savegame*.

Jagged Alliance is, at times, completely and utterly dumb.  It has moments of such cretinous ineptitude that you wonder why you are playing the game.  But then there are sections of moderately acceptable gameplay, and for a short while you forget how bad things can get.  But several times per mission at the very least you are left infuriated and exasperated at why your little soldiers have the IQ of a doorknob.

One of JA’s main features is the ability to pause time and issue orders to your squad.  So rather than clumsily trying to co-ordinate an attack in real-time, you can set exact actions, and exact timings so you team will perform a precise operation in perfect harmony.  In theory, it’s a really attractive prospect.  In practise, it rarely is.  Whilst some operations pan out as you intended, it doesn’t take changing circumstances into account.  So for instance if you spend ages planning a carefully rehearsed routine, the entire operation can be scuppered by something as simple as an enemy wandering nearer and spotting one of your team.  Then you would need to scrap all of your planning and re-issue new orders to handle the enemy.  Although the planning feature was fun to experiment with, I ended up ignoring it as the game progressed, as it was just too much hassle.

One nice aspect of the game is the fact that there are a number of unique individuals with differing talents and RPG-style stats.  These operatives can be hired to form your squad.  But if they ever die on a mission, without being saved by a medic, then their death is permanent, and they will stay dead for the rest of the game.  The whole perma-death idea does always add that element of tension to a game.  Unless of course you can circumvent their death by reloading a savegame from 30 seconds before, and replay an action.  Perma-death is also a little vexing when a highly valuable trained operative is chopped into little pieces because they refuse to fire their weapon at an axeman, because he is ‘too close’.

One of the female characters has a character trait called ‘Nudist’, explaining that she doesn’t like to wear clothes.  Naturally I hire her immediately.  Yet disappointingly she absolutely insists on wearing clothes throughout the game.  I even assist her, by removing her shoes and camo gear, but she isn’t interested.  Damn false advertising!

So you move through various areas, clearing out the baddies, completing side-quests for various characters you come across, as well as following the main storyline.  And that’s pretty much it.  It is basically a revised, updated version of the old Commandos series, with a lot more scope, but unfortunately also with a lot more flaws.  Gameplay is never scintillating, sufficing with being just moderately satisfactory.  An entirely unexceptional title which may attract a specialist following, but will never really meet the demands of most discerning gamers.

My medic picks up some ammo from behind the desk*flap flap*.  A small child has followed me into the little office, blocking the exit.  I try to get past her, but she is not interested in moving.  The next 5 minutes are spent trying to coerce her to get out of the way.  She doesn’t.  *quit game*.

Reviewed for Brash Games – www.brashgames.com

SkyDrift

SkyDrift Review – 2011

It is most vexing when you can see a glimmer of real potential in a game, a spark of true hope, until is smashed into tiny little pieces by the clumsiness all around it.  SkyDrift is a sad case in point.  You can see how it could have been a gem of a title, but instead will be lost into history in under a year thanks to an appalling execution.

The basic concept is an arcade airplane SkyDriftracing game.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously, with power-ups and speed boosts.  A main campaign gives you a variety of challenges set around 6 or so primary tracks.  You get to choose from a number of different planes, each with different strengths and weaknesses, such as speed, manoeuvrability etc.  A very simple, classic formula, but of course any game can shake up a tired formula with some fresh ideas.

The elements of SkyDrift that showed promise were the track design and the graphics.  The tracks are set in various scenarios, but there are things happening in each scenario.  For instance parts of the scenery collapse and topple over as you fly past, forcing evasive manoeuvres if you are too close.  In one map there is an avalanche, and detritus comes roaring down the mountain all around you.  These are a lot more fun than static tracks, as there is always something to keep you on your toes.

The graphics are not notable because of their wonderfulness, but because they capture their intended mood perfectly.  It is a classic arcade look, with bright colours, clean, crisp visuals, and nice effects for when your or one of your opponents blow up or open fire on each other with homing missiles, or get shot by a machine gun and bullet holes start peppering your screen.

But that is where the positivity ends; the rest of the game is a wreck.  I tried throttling my plane back, applying zero acceleration.  But rather than stall and crash it just still glides along slowly like a granny hovercraft.  If you want to make a game in the style of WipeOut that’s great, because WipeOut had a strong, unique racing style.  But you can’t create an aircraft racing game if your planes don’t behave like aircraft in very basic ways.

Whilst many games use the ‘catch-up’ racing ploy to ensure you are always in the thick of the race, SkyDrift just smacks it in your face like a wet kipper.  On one race I absolutely stormed through the laps with perfect lines, cornering, and turbo usage, and just managed to snatch victory by a hair’s breadth.  Then I restarted the race, and put my plane into zero throttle for exactly 1 minute.  This means I would be way behind the other racers with no chance of catching them right?  Wrong.  On a 2 lap race I had caught them all up by the end of the first lap, and managed to claim victory by the end of the second lap.  The opponents just race as fast as you do, and it is far, far too apparent.

The problem with any aircraft racing game is how to express the confines of the track, and enforce them.  Since SkyDrift is an arcade game, it doesn’t matter that is uses giant neon signs to mark the way round the track.  But using mid-air invisible walls?  That is unforgivable.  You can literally be flying through a vast canyon, then stop dead because apparently the track isn’t supposed to be that high, and puts a wall up.   Or you can be careering down a valley, and them a sloping invisible wall force you downwards so hard that it smashes you into the floor.  This happened on every single lap of a particular track for me, even though my height was consistent throughout the rest of the valley, I had simply reached a section where the game wanted me to descend.

Speaking of crashing, get used to it.  Hitting the scenery (or invisible walls), or being shot down by an enemy will result in your fiery death.  Should you be concerned about dying?  Not really, because you will respawn almost immediately after, and carry on racing as though nothing had happened.  On one coastal map I was chasing a nippy racer along a long straight, and picked up a rocket.  I fired my rocket, and destroyed her.  Success?  Not yet.  She respawned almost immediately, still quite a way in front of me.  So I picked up a machine gun and destroyed her again.  She respawned in front of me again.  So I got another rocket, and destroyed her for a third time.  Surprise surprise, she spawned in front of me AGAIN.  What is the point of a racing game where the destruction of your vehicle has almost no effect?  Why even bother turning a sharp corner when you could smash into it at high speed and respawn immediately the other side.  Utterly ridiculous.

After attempting to join an online match on numerous occasions, I didn’t find a single other player online.  Not one!  It seems the public is discerning enough to realise that this game isn’t worth playing.  So there is an entire section of the game that will be completely redundant unless you are fortunate enough to have a lot of mates that also enjoy playing very mediocre, unsatisfying, illogical and inconsistent racing games.

Even if you put some really sexy alloy wheels on a cabbage….it’s still a cabbage.  Some decent elements to the game are not enough stop SkyDrift from being a very bad racing game overall.  It is not enough to have a good idea, you need to execute that idea properly.  And until some proper thought is put into the execution it is impossible to make a racing game that will withstand the test of time, or even be remotely fun to play.  Go and play WipeOut again instead.

Reviewed for Brash Games – www.brashgames.com

Need for Speed - The Run

Need for Speed: The Run Review – 2011

Playing Need for Speed: The Run make me feel seriously bipolar.  When everything goes right, the game reaches dizzying heights, a pure unadulterated slice of gaming heaven.  But for every moment of elation, there is a moment of despair, frustration, anguish, and righteous indignation.  It’s certainly a rollercoaster, but is it worth braving the lows to reach the highs?  Let’s have a game of critical tennis, where we’ll thwack around some good and bad ideas.

POSITIVE – Let’s be lovely and start on a Need for Speed - The Runpositive.  There are cars.  Lots of cars.  Really pretty cars.  And they go really fast.  Woo!  As with any NFS title, the big names come rolling in apace, and you barely have time to soak up your latest Porsche before a Gallardo is wafted tantalisingly in front of your nose.  Driving is very user-friendly, with a tangible sense that the game is really rooting for you, and wants you to succeed.  This adds fluidity, and actually helps you to think that you are in fact the finest driver to have ever set wheels on tarmac.  Or is this actually a…

…NEGATIVE? – Lost control and sliding towards a fence?  Ah don’t worry about it, a quick bounce and you’ve barely lost half a second.  Battled a lorry and ended up losing?  Don’t panic, we’ll just make sure the enemy racers slow down to a crawl whilst you turn yourself around and catch-up again.  Want to pull-over and change car?  It’s OK, we’ll freeze time for you whilst you meander round and inspect the other vehicles.  Then we’ll re-insert you into the race at high speed just a half second behind where you were before.  There are subtle ways a game can keep the pace going without waving a big flag that says “Haha, I’m letting you win!”  But NFS:TR doesn’t really bother with subtlety.

POSITIVE – The graphics are absolutely astounding.  The premise of The Run is a long-distance race right the way across America, from San Francisco to New York.  So you race through all the states and their unique terrains in between.  These vary from scenic countryside and lonely mountain passes, right through to bustling cities and sprawling interstates heavy with traffic.  All the environments are believable, and well-created, as are all the racers and other traffic in the game.  But the cutscenes are a whole step ahead again, with possibly the most realistic rendered human faces I have ever seen in a game.  You can see every freckle, every spot, every individual hair on a stubbled face; the detail is frankly astounding.

NEGATIVE – The idea of racing through unique environments all the way across America was very appealing.  Driving unknown tracks using wits and reflexes rather than prior knowledge of the track is a very exciting thing.  However, the cheeky developers have cheated!  Rather than unique tracks across the country, they just reverse and re-use a lot of the tracks.  So the section that is supposed to be one of the final sections through New Jersey, is simply the exact same track as California, just reversed.  What complete and utter tosh.  Playing through reversed tracks is really an illusion-killer, as it is hammered into your brain that you are in fact still just playing a common racing game with faults, rather than being allowed to properly immerse yourself into the romantic notion of The Run.  Unforgivable!

POSITIVE – Many may scoff at the insane, cheesy action that is proffered throughout your trip.  James Bond style avalanches, stunts with helicopters, explosions galore, falling bridges, and much more.  Whilst a retrospective critical analysis may render these events as far too scripted and over-the-top, it is clearly designed to be that way.  NFS:TR makes no attempt to fool you into believing that your races will be realistic.  It simply tells you to belt up and prepare for freneticism aplenty.  So forget realism, and quell all logical thought from your mind, and you will be kept on a constant octane-fuelled adrenaline drip for a lot of the game.

NEGATIVE – Whilst the action is designed to be brainless, there is a limit to how much of your brain you can turn off.  For instance when cruising at 210mph along an interstate, it is a little disconcerting when a squirty little cop car whips past at about 400mph, chasing a racer ahead.  Or how some trees, metal bins and metal poles can be ploughed straight through with no penalty, yet a wooden telegraph pole and some other trees won’t budge a millimetre and will wreck your car.  Or how about the shortcuts.  Some ‘suggested’ routes in orange highlight quicker paths, such as down alleyways, or through garden fences.  So you would be forgiven for assuming that the main track allowed for deviation.  Not so.  Sometimes, straying so much as a metre from the track can elicit a reset.  Once I was reset twice in a row whilst actually still on the road!  There are far too many instances where the game requires that you have precisely no brain whatsoever.

POSITIVE – To extend the lifespan of the game beyond the few hours that is the main storyline, there is a multiplayer mode, even if it is a little basic.  It can offer some moments that are far more realistic than the main game.  There are also Challenge modes, where you compete against your friends for the highest scores.  These are quite compelling, and offer quite a bit of extra content, but only serve as challenges if you actually have friends on Autolog to compete against.

NEGATIVE – Autolog.  And Origin.  Rather than swallow their pride and accept the vast swathe of gamers that build up their gaming library through Steam, EA have selfishly decided to shove their own version of the program down our throats.  Of course this is not a criticism of the game itself, but it still needs to be addressed because it still affects our game experience.  Gamers now have a reason to run Steam, because of the vast library of games it has, and the in-game connectivity.  But having an incompatible Origin now effectively disconnects gamers once more, and adds yet another completely superfluous program onto the list that they expect us to run.  Grow up EA, and stop letting your ego rule your childish actions.

POSITIVE – Driving against the AI in-game is frankly a delight.  They are as fallible as any other human racer, and still manage to make mistakes on their own, as well as when enticed by you.  There are few joys to compare to the satisfaction of ramming an overtaking opponent into an oncoming car, or holding your line as a barrier approaches, and watch them helplessly flying into the air in your rear-view mirror.  Mwahaha!  I’m so evil!

NEGATIVE – I already mentioned the pansy cop cars overtaking my behemoth at insanely unrealistic speeds.  So I was mildly impressed when they called in a super-cop, driving some exotic machine of his own.  Surely this would be more realistic?  The very first time I encountered him, his first action was whisk past me at approx 150mph and smash into a tree.  ‘Dopey twit’ I thought as I swung past his motionless car.  Thus, I was somewhat perturbed when 6 seconds later, the same car flew past me again.  This time I decided the ending must be final.  We were side by side, and an oncoming lorry seemed the obvious place to offload the copper.  One hefty smash later and the road belonged to me again.  For 7 seconds.  Then super-cop zings by again, apparently impervious, and apparently driving a car running on rocket fuel.  Time to end this!  We reach a straight, so I build up speed.  At the approaching corner, I flick the pesky cop directly into a huge tree at over 200mph.  I slow down to regain control and admire the bruised copper nestled into his tree, when….BUSTED.  The copper, who should realistically be in small pieces by now, just arrested me as I was driving slowly past his tree-parked car.  Damn haX0r!

POSITIVE – The harder difficulty modes increase lifespan and are….harder.  Is it clear I am scraping the barrel now?

NEGATIVE – Arbitrary is the name of the game.  One section of the race will insist you failed the entire run because you were 0.2 seconds behind an opponent at a particular checkpoint.  Then you will enter a city, and spend ages boring yourself through one of the rendered action sequences, escaping from the cops, and when you finally manage to rejoin the race later, that 10 minutes you just lost doesn’t seem to matter.  No arbitrary factor has decided that you have lost the entire race, and stupidly enough, no opponent cars have been able to pass you.  So you hop back onto the trail, and hey presto, some opponents to overtake.  It seems they just spent the last 10 minutes waiting for you whilst you were dealing with the cops.  How sweet.

POSITIVE – Ummm.  Pass.

At this point I still have a sizable list of aggravating negatives that I wanted to list.  But I could go on for quite a while.  The main thrust is this: If you want to make a game about The Run, you at least need to put just a modicum of thought into how you implement it.  The developers have just taken too many shortcuts, and crammed everything else around what they consider to be the optimal gameplay.  But by doing so, the game is no longer an exciting trail-blazer across America, it is just another generic racing game full of randomly cool set-pieces.

However, despite all these negative gripes and grumbles running through my head, the final track in the game, when you reach New York City, altered my mind-set somewhat.  In true rollercoaster fashion, the ultimate low I was feeling upon entering, was changed to an ultimate high.  The final race section is mind-blowing.  I won’t give away any of what happens, but it was the first time in a long while that my jaw has genuinely dropped.  And as I careered wildly through the most breath-taking driving experience this year, it finally clicked.  I got it.

Need for Speed: The Run can thrill, and it can disappoint.  But if you have absolutely zero expectations, and just approach it as a wild edge-of-the-seat ride, then it delivers some of the most brainlessly gratifying driving you will ever experience.  Realism be damned, this is exclusively about feeling awesome.  Play through the lows, and the highs will knock you sideways!

Reviewed for Brash Games – www.brashgames.com

Worms Crazy Golf

Worms Crazy Golf Review – 2011

And in exciting news, some major new titles are about to be released.  Splinter Cell: Knitting Simulator, Call of Duty: Tiddlywinks Pro, Need for Speed: Antique Furniture Management, and Worms Crazy Golf.  The more astute among you may have noticed that some of those titles may possibly be fictitious.  But Worms Crazy Golf; that’s just another day in the Worms franchise.

Long-standing Worms fans will recall the Worms Crazy Golfreasons why people kept coming back for more.  Sure, the mass carnage and destruction was fun for a while, but the replayability came in the form of mastering the game’s staple weapons, the bazooka and the grenade.  With a good wind, getting an accurate bazooka shot onto somebody the other side of the map provided an intense satisfaction.  And when wind or terrain was not your friend, a well bounced grenade, with some forethought, could be skilfully used to penetrate even the most secure defences.  Easy to learn, very hard to master, it was a dark art of concise calculation, careful judgement and just a dash of luck.

Worms Crazy Golf manages to take the skill from those two elements, the bazooka and the grenade, and combine them into one.  A golf ball.  You have the familiar aiming system, and a slightly altered powering system, but the premise is the same.  Launch a projectile into the air to hit an intended spot with as much accuracy as possible.  The ball is affected by the wind like a bazooka, and it bounces like a grenade.  The best of both worlds perhaps.

The objective is obviously to land your ball into the designated hole with as few shots as possible.  Obstacles aplenty litter the courses as you may expect.  Sheep that like to nibble your balls (honestly), gardeners, bats, moles, bunkers, water traps, and many, many more.  Whilst there are many random variables that affect your game, strong skill does shine through.  Moments of pure genius along with good technique can land you some truly amazing shots, and score that elusive hole-in-one if you are lucky, or good enough.

Replay value is increased by the optional extras littering each level, such as collecting coins or crates.  Just playing through all the holes takes quite a while over the 4 different worlds you play through, but when you aim to complete all the challenges as well, there is plenty of game to keep you occupied.  And whilst all the main holes have to be moderately straightforward to reach, some of the bonus crates or coins make you work very hard to reach them, which certainly adds to the challenge.

Aside from the main campaign there are other small trinkets, such as the challenge mode, where you aim to complete an assortment of objectives as quickly as possible.  These offer welcome variety from the crazy golf gameplay, and you get to do daft things like hit as many sheep as you can, or see how long you can keep a ball bouncing for.  There is also a shop where you can buy golfing gear, and upgrade your clubs to better versions.

Of course don’t expect any major thrills from this game; it is just a quirky little offshoot from the Worms franchise, and doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a light gaming experience.  But as a casual game to fill the odd half hour when you are bored, then this is easily one of the finer options on the market.  As daft as concrete parachute, and almost entertaining as trying to watch people lick their elbow.

Off-Road Drive

Off-Road Drive Review – 2011

Let’s be absolutely clear about something: I am a huge fan of off-road racing.  I love both the real-life sport, as well as the numerous off-road games that the PC is graced with.  But the rather generically monikered Off-Road Drive does not try to be a crowd-pleaser like Colin McCrae, or a fun jaunt like Insane.  If you have even seen 4×4 trials, where Landrovers and Jeeps attempt to tackle murderous, windy, tight little tracks, losing points for every small error, this is where ORD lays its hat.  This is a hardcore simulation to not only test your skills to the limit, but also to frustrate you to the limit.

There is no doubt that some off-road Off-Road Driveknowledge will aid your progress throughout the game.  You will know how to straddle the ruts, climb up tortuous precipices, and handle the bumpy sections without toppling over.  But this is far more than choosing the right line, since you literally have to adapt your vehicle to suit the terrain.  So this involves shifting to lower gearing, adjusting the differentials, lowering or raising tyre pressure, or even using a winch if you are really stuck.  And as the track unfolds, you have to constantly fiddle with your setup to ensure you are correctly configured for the obstacles ahead.

The important question is, does it work as a faithful recreation of the hardcore off-road experience?  The delightfully nebulous answer is: yes and no.  For some of the tracks and environments, generally the drier ones, things run very well indeed, and the only thing required of you is sheer driving skill, as you react to the challenges, and they react realistically to your vehicle.  Whether you succeed or fail is entirely down to how you drive.  Meaning the experience is as close to authentic as you are likely to find in any off-road game.

But then at the other end of the spectrum there are the wetter tracks.  These eschew realism in favour of the developers’ decision as to precisely what tools should be used in that specific situation.  To get up a particular mushy mound of mud, the dev thinks you should use a low gear ratio, lock a particular diff, and lower your tyre pressure.  Unless you use their exact prescribed setup for that obstacle, then the majority of times they will be insurmountable by any other means.  And even when doing this, successful navigation of the obstacle can be hit and miss, with exactly the same lines and setups having differing results on repeat runs.  Or if you are cheeky you can copy the ghost car (race leader) and use his exact line, only to stop dead because it doesn’t work for you.

Coming to a dead stop on mound of wet mud usually means race over, unless you are within winching distance of a handy nearby tree.  And even then you will lose valuable race time.  There is simply too much inconsistency navigating the wet maps.  This is not helped by the race leader’s ghost car being unbeatably fast in certain sections of a stage, and as slow as treacle on other sections.  You can remedy a lot of problems you face by your vehicle setup, and fine-tuning it to each individual track.  But enforcing car modification does not help the game’s mass appeal, as anybody but the most hardcore racing fans will have little idea of which bits to tweak or change.

Whilst we are dwelling on the negatives, special mention must go to the dire collision detection.  I was a little perturbed on one race to discover that I was constantly incurring time penalties, when I was certain I wasn’t hitting the plastic barriers.  So slowing right down, I tested it.  Moving past a barrier when my tyres were over 2” away from it resulted in the barrier being torn out.  So what was an already tight track was made even tighter by the daft constrictions enforced by useless hit detection.

On the brighter side, it must be said that ORD is quite a looker.  The racing environs are deliciously rendered, as are the monsters that you will be driving.  Mud and water effects are moderately convincing, and particularly noteworthy is the way the track reacts to your vehicle, with deep ruts being forged in wet mud as you slither past in ungainly fashion.  Your screen will also splash with water and mud in appropriate places to convince you of the elements you are facing.

For any average gamers, whether fans of off-road racing or not, ORD is just going to be a bit too niche for you.  It takes devotion, a significant understanding of off-road theory, and a keen eye for terrain.  And even with these skills, the game still fails to deliver in some scenarios.  Plenty of keyboard-bashing is bound to ensure.  But ultimately, if you are a hardened grease monkey, who wants nothing more than to tinker around with a 4×4, and enjoy a hardcore off-road racing simulation, Off-Road Drive is probably the best simulation of its kind out there.  You will fail often, weep much, and tug out your hair constantly, but there is certainly fun to be had in this title.

Let’s be absolutely clear about something: I am a huge fan of off-road racing.  I love both the real-life sport, as well as the numerous off-road games that the PC is graced with.  But the rather generically monikered Off-Road Drive does not try to be a crowd-pleaser like Colin McCrae, or a fun jaunt like Insane.  If you have even seen 4×4 trials, where Landrovers and Jeeps attempt to tackle murderous, windy, tight little tracks, losing points for every small error, this is where ORD lays its hat.  This is a hardcore simulation to not only test your skills to the limit, but also to frustrate you to the limit.

There is no doubt that some off-road knowledge will aid your progress throughout the game.  You will know how to straddle the ruts, climb up tortuous precipices, and handle the bumpy sections without toppling over.  But this is far more than choosing the right line, since you literally have to adapt your vehicle to suit the terrain.  So this involves shifting to lower gearing, adjusting the differentials, lowering or raising tyre pressure, or even using a winch if you are really stuck.  And as the track unfolds, you have to constantly fiddle with your setup to ensure you are correctly configured for the obstacles ahead.

The important question is, does it work as a faithful recreation of the hardcore off-road experience?  The delightfully nebulous answer is: yes and no.  For some of the tracks and environments, generally the drier ones, things run very well indeed, and the only thing required of you is sheer driving skill, as you react to the challenges, and they react realistically to your vehicle.  Whether you succeed or fail is entirely down to how you drive.  Meaning the experience is as close to authentic as you are likely to find in any off-road game.

But then at the other end of the spectrum there are the wetter tracks.  These eschew realism in favour of the developers’ decision as to precisely what tools should be used in that specific situation.  To get up a particular mushy mound of mud, the dev thinks you should use a low gear ratio, lock a particular diff, and lower your tyre pressure.  Unless you use their exact prescribed setup for that obstacle, then the majority of times they will be insurmountable by any other means.  And even when doing this, successful navigation of the obstacle can be hit and miss, with exactly the same lines and setups having differing results on repeat runs.  Or if you are cheeky you can copy the ghost car (race leader) and use his exact line, only to stop dead because it doesn’t work for you.

Coming to a dead stop on mound of wet mud usually means race over, unless you are within winching distance of a handy nearby tree.  And even then you will lose valuable race time.  There is simply too much inconsistency navigating the wet maps.  This is not helped by the race leader’s ghost car being unbeatably fast in certain sections of a stage, and as slow as treacle on other sections.  You can remedy a lot of problems you face by your vehicle setup, and fine-tuning it to each individual track.  But enforcing car modification does not help the game’s mass appeal, as anybody but the most hardcore racing fans will have little idea of which bits to tweak or change.

Whilst we are dwelling on the negatives, special mention must go to the dire collision detection.  I was a little perturbed on one race to discover that I was constantly incurring time penalties, when I was certain I wasn’t hitting the plastic barriers.  So slowing right down, I tested it.  Moving past a barrier when my tyres were over 2” away from it resulted in the barrier being torn out.  So what was an already tight track was made even tighter by the daft constrictions enforced by useless hit detection.

On the brighter side, it must be said that ORD is quite a looker.  The racing environs are deliciously rendered, as are the monsters that you will be driving.  Mud and water effects are moderately convincing, and particularly noteworthy is the way the track reacts to your vehicle, with deep ruts being forged in wet mud as you slither past in ungainly fashion.  Your screen will also splash with water and mud in appropriate places to convince you of the elements you are facing.

For any average gamers, whether fans of off-road racing or not, ORD is just going to be a bit too niche for you.  It takes devotion, a significant understanding of off-road theory, and a keen eye for terrain.  And even with these skills, the game still fails to deliver in some scenarios.  Plenty of keyboard-bashing is bound to ensure.  But ultimately, if you are a hardened grease monkey, who wants nothing more than to tinker around with a 4×4, and enjoy a hardcore off-road racing simulation, Off-Road Drive is probably the best simulation of its kind out there.  You will fail often, weep much, and tug out your hair constantly, but there is certainly fun to be had in this title.

Tropico 4

Tropico 4 Review – 2011

Apparently I am transgendered.  Despite my flowing purple frock, exquisite feminine features displayed proudly beneath a blonde bob, and even the tiara on my head, people still think I am a guy.  I am a guy in real life, but the in-game dictator I created in Tropico 4 is a rather elegant Hispanic Lolita, who has no doubts as to her femininity.  Yet every in-game description, newspaper headline, and cutscene refers to me as a man.  Am I really that androgynous to others?  This odd little oversight wasn’t the finest way to welcome me into the world of Tropico.  But with journalistic resolve I set forth to investigate this latest addition to Kalypo’s catalogue.

For the uninitiated, Tropico is a managementTropico 4 sim set within a host of tropical desert island backgrounds.  From humble beginnings you must oversee the development of your little island from a small colony into a world-recognised force in industry, tourism, or both.  You will create and manage your own fragile economy, micromanaging almost every facet of your island’s growth.

There is a primary campaign, as well as extra missions, a sandbox, and user-created challenges.  The campaign takes you on an epic quest through 20 missions, each with a differing agenda.  The starting point of each mission is identical; you have your palace and a few essential amenities, set in the mid 1900’s.  You may imagine that 20 missions starting exactly the same way would be a bit repetitive.  You’d be partially right.  Whilst the people will continue to whinge and moan and demand the same things (‘build me a cathedral, my religion bar is low’ – ‘I’m bored, show me some dancing girls’), the actual focus of each mission is different.

So in one scenario you may be challenged with settling down an island notorious for its rebellious inhabitants.  Money is not a priority there, so you would direct most of your developments towards pleasing the Tropicans.  Then another scenario will get you to become a leading force in the tourism industry, so out with the hot air balloons and rollercoasters.  Then things may take a more serious tone, and you’ll need to fine tune your foreign alliances in order to avoid being attacked by the nuclear powers during the height of the Cold War.

Whilst all these exciting events are the main theme of each mission, there are still hundreds of minute tasks to fulfil as you build your empire.  Schools and colleges are essential for some of the skilled jobs you will be creating.  Churches and cathedrals are needed to keep the religious ones from burning you at the stake.  Then Militarists will demand a larger army, the Communists will want better housing and more hospitals, and the Capitalists will want to see some sizable income opportunities.  You could always disregard any of these factions, but then they’ll get stroppy and start protests, or even take rebel action against you, the pesky little blighters.

This degree of micromanagement would be all well and good if wasn’t for the tedious pace at which the game is played.  I used the word ‘epic’ earlier.  I didn’t mean epic in a grand and wondrous sense, but purely in a lengthy sense.  Each of the missions will take a couple of hours to finish at least, and that’s even when using the fast-forward button, which speeds up time.  The workers are just so hideously inefficient, spending the majority of their time sleeping, eating, or at the cinema.  At one point I had three construction offices, each with a full contingent of workers employed, yet not a single one of them was available to construct my latest project because they were all off gallivanting round the island guzzling pineapples or supping beer at the pub.  Then they will end up going to a job, slowly hammering away for a few seconds, and then decide they are hungry again, and then walk the entire way back to town at an interminably slow pace until you literally die of boredom waiting.  This is not to say it is a game-ruining problem, but it certainly does grate after a while.

Graphics are pleasant enough, although unexceptional.  However, the finer details are impressive whilst zoomed in, and you can view every single worker go about their daily routine, and even examine the skills, thoughts, and feelings of each one.  The sounds are quite decent, and in character, but are repeated far too frequently, so you will soon tire of them.  The same goes for the musical score which most people will turn off after the 50th loop.

The true satisfaction of the game comes from progressing your island in exactly the way you choose.  You can achieve victory being a saint, looking after your people and using green initiative to protect the environment.  Or you can become the stereotypical evil dictator and oppress your people, keeping them in fear using the military and capital punishment.  The variety of gameplay options is most enjoyable, and will provide for countless late nights happily tweaking your empire to perfection.

If you are a Tropico veteran, you will want to know what improvements have been made since Tropico 3.  Other than a dribble of new buildings and a new hairstyle or two, very little indeed.  A few gameplay tweaks do sit awkwardly alongside the diminutive additional content, trying to puff themselves up and look as important as possible.  But quite simply, there is not enough new game here.  This is at best a DLC pack for Tropico 3, and the changes/improvements certainly do not merit a full-priced standalone game.

If you look at Tropico 4 objectively without any other influences, it is a rather tasty treat.  But since we have the advantage of comparing it to what has gone before, and see the laziness behind its release, I can sternly remove a whole heap of brownie points from the score.  A very good game and worth getting if you are new to the series, but completely superfluous if you already own Tropico 3.  Now I’m going to flounce around my island in my purple dress again and hope to catch the eye of someone who recognises me as female.  Damn heathens!

Worms Reloaded

Worms: Reloaded DLC Review – 2011

Puzzle Pack

The blurb for this collection of puzzles claims that they are both mind-boggling and a challenge for even the most hardcore Wormers out there.  There are 20 missions, and far from being a taxing assignment, they range from the blindly simplistic to the mildy interesting.  The entire pack will easily be completed within a couple of hours, if that.

Occasionally, innovative use of Worms Worms Reloadedfeatures makes you think about things in a slightly different way.  For instance the use of the relatively new Worms addition, the magnet, which propels objects away from it.  Some of the puzzles are less of a puzzle, and more of an agility test, requiring button-tweaking adroitness, or incisive timing.  These really do little to add to the game’s claim as a puzzle title.

Despite these gripes, you will have some fun, and may even scratch your head for a few moments.  Unless of course you have lice, in which case you may end up scratching quite a bit more.  Out of all the Worms DLC, this is one of the better add-ons, so certainly consider it.

Score – 6/10

 

Forts Pack

I was expecting forts.  Big, awesome, complex forts, with multitudes of worms huddling in each base, attampting to flatten the enemy with expert aiming and selective weapon choices.  Instead I get a pile of spaghetti meatballs facing up against a wonky weather vane.  What an absolute pile of posterior waste.  A few haunted houses, a dinosaur, a tree…  They don’t even match the already poor Fort designs on the main game.  I would like to rename this add-on “Big Random Objects Floating On Water Pack”.

Worm placement is automatic, and unfortunately quite useless.  Half your worms will get lodged down awkward crevices, or on a distant overhung cliff with absolutely no way to launch an offensive.  Compounding this is the wind, which is no longer random.  The wind now blows ONLY against you, not towards the enemy.  Whilst this is useful for looping shots to pick off enemies behind cover, it also means that worms at the back of your base usually cannot make a single wind-based shot; they are reduced to operators of air-strikes or flying sheep.

This pack is lazy beyond belief.  Not only for the basic forts, but the fact it reuses all the those same forts over and over again rather than creating unique environments for each mission.  Plus the ‘missions’ are as imaginative as a concrete wall, and about as complex.  You will even usually get a much better game by using the random terrain generator tool.  There is absolutely no excuse for such lack of effort.  Avoid at all costs!

Score – 3/10

 

Time Attack Pack

This pack initially showed promise by adding a new dimension to the Worms formula.  It builds on the idea of ninja rope racing, and adds in the jetpack, along with increasingly more complex environments through which to race.  The downside: it gets old far too quickly.  You don’t even get to beat imposed times to earn medals, which would add an element of challenge.  Instead you have as long as you want to complete each challenge, and don’t get disqualified for getting blown up, you just get a small time penalty.

Missions consist of just racing round a track, reaching a set objective, or collecting all the crates in as quick a time as possible.Rather than PC times to beat, there are online times from all the other players, so you can earn yourself a place on a an online scoreboard.  This was obviously designed as an idea to add some replay value to the pack.  However, unless you are one of the elite few Wormers skilled enough to compete for the top 10, then the leaderboards serve little more purpose than to highlight how ineffective you actually are.  This disillusionment shows when you see how few people actually bother to play through all the races.

This pack does serve as a mild diversion, but it is far from essential.

Score – 5/10

 

Retro Pack

This pack is oddly the pack I want to both praise and criticise more than all the other Worms DLC.  Negatives first.  These missions are not new, they are purely mission remakes from Worms Armageddon.  So they are basically selling you an old game all over again, but in the slightly shiner new Worms format.  Another sad indictment of the complete laziness and lack of imagination behind every one of these add-on packs.

The positive side is that these missions are way above the puerile quality of most of the other packs.  Some genuine brainwork is required, and there is a much more unique approach to each mission, rather than hammering a singular concept time and time again.  Fun, frustration, and a true challenge are guaranteed.

So this boils down to whether you have already played Worms Armageddon.  If you have, then this is a useless waste of cash for you.  But if you have never sampled these delights before, then this should be your pack of choice out of all the Worms DLC.

Score – 7/10

 

Overall Conclusion

The overall quality of these add-on packs is not good.  They are, in general, substandard both in content and concept.  Each one has their own additional features such as voices, graves, hats and environments, but these are inessential little superfluities which attempt to bolster the weak main campaigns.

If you are hankering after more Worms content, then you can get some excellent free downloadable missions from the community, some of them being made to a very high standard.  In fact, one or two of the community offerings had more imagination and effort in a single mission than can be found in an entire campaign of the offical DLC.  So ultimately, steer clear, unless your desire for our squishy pink garden superheroes is on a par with your tolerance for the bland.

The Ball

The Ball Review – 2010

Sometimes you can’t help but form an attachment.  Remember the companion cube in Portal?  Remember how endearingly cute it was, and how you wanted to protect it from harm?  Or maybe you have a little pet in WoW that is just the sweetest?  Or a particularly sexy car in GTA IV?  I was expecting the same attachment to form between myself and my very butch, manly ball.  It sits there, being all shiny and lighting up with an inner glow.  And we’ve been through many things together, solved puzzles, beat up enemies, diced with death on many occasions.  Yet…I feel nothing.  Not a single scrap of affection for my silent partner.  I even gave him a name to make him a bit more personable, but Bally the ball is still characterless.  He just rolls along beside me, prideful of his roundness, and I’d happily discard him at any time in favour of a small pet frog.  Called Froggy.

That complete lack of a connection is partiallyThe Ball what ruins The Ball.  That and the fact that your ball has absolutely no skills apart from…being a ball.  If you are expecting some revolutionary puzzle game that will knock your socks off, go and play Portal instead.  The Ball seems on paper like it could be used to generate some fantastic and varied gameplay.  But somehow it just never does.

As an archaeologist that clumsily slipped down a hole into an old volcano, the discovery of this mystical ball launches you into a story that is about as gripping as a doorknob.  The graphical representation of a lost underground ancient civilisation is actually quite convincing, with acceptably sparkly visuals painting a vivid picture.  However, this is somewhat ruined by the fact that none of the levels retain even a vague semblance to their ostensible environments, purely because they are patently designed to exist as a giant playground for you and your ball.  So whilst the eyes may be fooled, your brain keeps reminding you that there is a thinly disguised puzzle game hiding under that façade.

Control of your ball is via a jackhammer, through which you can either strike your ball to propel it forward, or magnetise it to draw it towards you.  So to solve puzzles you move the ball about to press buttons, or drive machinery.  Then for combat you can grab your ball and swing it about like a clumsy great club, or just fire it forward and hope to hit your foe.  Enemies are quite stupid, frequently committing suicide in water to get to you.  They also are blessed with eyes in the back of their head, as they will deftly dodge a ball that is coming up behind them, even though they are chasing you in the opposite direction.

The first third of the game is so simple you could do it blindfolded.  Run down corridors, press buttons to open doors, then run down more corridors.  At some points you get to ride little trains on tracks, which suddenly cease to be enjoyable when you realise that you have precisely zero control over the train you are riding in.  They are pretty much just glorified cutscenes, and rarely do anything interesting, just trundle down interminably long rocky tunnels whilst you sit doing nothing.  You can’t even get out of the train until the game decides you can.

In fact, the game decides far too much for you.  Some of the activities require strapping your ball to something, in order to manoeuver that something into a position which helps you progress.  Then, when the game judges that you have done enough manoeuvring, it will unstrap your ball for you, and refuse to let you strap it back up again.  If you want to decide for yourself where to shift things around, forget it, The Ball keeps patronisingly playing the game for you, minimising your control and input.  You also fall into the water during the game, and the current rigidly drags you down a very specific route with no control whatsoever.  At some points you may as well just be a spectator.

We really do applaud new ideas, and seeing indie game developers make it into the big wide world of commercial gaming is a true joy.  But sadly it is simply impossible to recommend The Ball as a purchase to anyone.  The game is just far too easy, too short, and lacking any real depth or imagination.  There was so much potential in the idea, but that potential has not been fully realised.  Any kind of gameplay variation, or any real skill required for the puzzles would have been gladly welcomed.  Maybe the introduction of Bally’s good friends Cubey or Pyramidy may have helped.  No, sadly the game’s fate is sealed as a mildly entertaining little puzzler that tried, and failed, at implementing a new idea.  The Ball will soon be forgotten forever in the mists of time, so please allow it to sink gracefully into the mire unplayed, and let’s just salute the developers for having the balls (sorry) to try something new.

Plain Sight

Plain Sight Review – 2010

There is a such an over-dependence on tried and tested game scenarios that not many truly innovative games make it through to a mainstream gaming audience.  It is with great relief that I find new concepts and ideas like Plain Sight offers, instead of yet another clichéd wartime shooter.  Here we ditch our M4s and AKs in favour of samurai swords.  Wielded by ninja robots.  In space.  Oh yes, this is a break from the trite norm, and for that alone Plain Sight gets plenty of brownie points.

It is an extraordinary, yet compulsive, blendPlain Sight of ancient and futuristic warfare.  And being set in space, there is vast potential for leaping around elegantly in low-gravity environments bearing your blade of death.  The genius thing being that your gravity will be based on the orbit of the nearest piece of spacescape (space landscape), so if you jump high enough toward a platform way above you, you will actually fall back to earth on that platform, since that is now your nearest gravitational pull.  This allows all manner of aerial acrobatics, since you can use the gravitational pulls to your advantage, spinning wildly around all manner of space obstacles, looking cool.

In fact, feeling and looking cool is one of Plain Sight’s biggest assets.  Once players get accustomed to the movement controls, as well as the ability to charge up and launch yourself forwards with a speed lunge, you rarely actually ever have to touch the ground if you are good enough.  You can simply hop between gravitational pulls, carving through the air in graceful swoops.  On some maps there are narrow twisting platforms running between larger locations, and you can simply spiral around them the entire way, without touching land once.  Experienced players are very hard to target, since they are never in the same place for long, but are constantly swirling around the maps with bewildering speed.

Destroying enemy robots will increase the amount of energy you have.  Each robot starts with 1 energy point, which then increases every time they defeat an opponent by however much they were carrying.  Energy has the advantage of making you bigger and more powerful the more you have.  So taking on and beating a larger robot with plenty of energy is dangerous, but can reap fantastic energy rewards.  To actually convert your energy into points though is another interesting new concept.  You have to explode yourself.  You have a button set aside for just that, robot suicide.  The catch is that you are vulnerable whilst trying to convert your points, so others can attack you more easily.  This is a whole new thought behind the idea of collecting points and converting them into permanent score, and it is a genuinely clever way of progressing a round.  Do you blow yourself up immediately for safety to ensure a few measly points, or do you slowly increase your energy making you bigger and more deadly, but knowing that one enemy hit could take it all away?

Further additions to the game include the ability to spend points on character upgrades as each round progresses.  So you can go for defensive shields, more attacking power, a double or triple jump, or even a warning indicator that lets you know when someone has targeted you.  There are also additional game modes: ‘Capture the Flag’, ‘Lighten Up’ (best explosions), or the interestingly monikered ‘Ninja! Ninja! Ninja! Robozilla! (everybody attacks the giant robot who must do as much damage as he can before being taken down).  Interesting diversions, but obviously vanilla deathmatch is the hardcore staple which must prove its long-term playability.

So far the premise is quite superb.  But sadly the reality of the combat system does not quite live up to the same standard.  The bread and butter gameplay mode is plain deathmatch, so plenty of mini robot ninjas soaring about the skies trying to stab each other.  To engage an enemy, you need to target them by pressing your attack button, and then holding the button to build the power of your attack.  You are informed when you are in proximity of your target, and can release the button to charge and hopefully smash them out the sky.  Firstly, the targeting system itself is arbitrary to make an understatement.  It requires plenty of frantic clicking to actually lock onto something, even when it is right next to you.  There is also no definite way of choosing your target, and you will frequently end up targeting a robot in the distance, rather than the one wafting about directly in front of you.

Then when you have finally targeted the robot you want, you need to contend with the whimsical combat system that decides whether you hit, miss, or are deflected from an enemy.  Sometimes when your attack is fully charged, and your enemy is within spitting distance, you will charge and completely miss them.  Other times when you get a lock on a distant enemy, and charge less than 10%, you still somehow manage to decimate them, quite frequently by accident.  It would be nice to say that an enemy’s speed, or position, or dodging ability would affect the attacks, but they really matter little.  You can hit high-speed jinking enemies as frequently as you will miss completely stationary targets.  And defending yourself against other enemies is extremely hit-and-miss, as you can use shields if you choose to upgrade them, but rarely have a definite idea of when to use them.  There is little rhyme or reason.  And therein lies Plain Sight’s greatest flaw.  It does not offer consistent enough gameplay to give it a durable fanbase.

This is further exacerbated by the scoring system.  When you blow yourself up, if any other robots fly into your blast radius, they are instantly blown up, and each enemy death adds a multiplier to the energy you are converting.  So if you are converting 10 energy points, and nothing flies into your blast, you get just those 10 points.  But if 4 adversaries happen to be caught within the blast, your score will be quadrupled.  Whilst there is of course a certain amount of skill involved in detonating where you can get maximum casualties, there are far too many variables to make such a scoring system fair, or indeed truly based on skill.

Ultimately, despite its delicious looking environments set in space, and its inspired new concepts, Plain Sight’s combat is just too random and haphazard to make it a long-term prospect for many gamers.  This is evinced by the consistently low number of players online at any time.  Most of the servers are empty, particularly the ones for the additional game modes; I never found a single Robozilla server with players on it.  Plain Sight is great fun for a short while, but does not offer consistent enough combat to give it lasting appeal.    A true shame, since there is so much to love about this game.  But a sterling attempt at innovation, and I will be keeping a close eye on developer Beatnik Games to see if they can fulfil their potential with their next game.

Driving Simulator

Driving Simulator Review – 2010

I like exploring smaller gaming titles that fall under the mainstream radar.  Games that are made by smaller companies, who don’t have the marketing finances to shout too loudly about their product.  Whilst lower budget titles do admittedly lead to a lot of inferior gaming experiences, sometimes you will stumble across an absolute gem, with ingenious concepts and gameplay ideas.  Games that are refreshingly different, have the nerve to stand out from the crowd and be completely zany with no reason to pander to the executive bigwigs who only care about the money.  So I was quite interested to give Driving Simulator a test drive to see if I could discover another delicious nugget of gaming goodness.

There are 2 categories that Driving SimulatorDriving Simulator could have chosen from.  They could have done the full-blown simulation, with uber-realism, accurate controls, environments, road laws, and real life gameplay.  Or they could have taken the title with a pinch of salt and just opted for a fun driving game with elements of realism.  Now some games cheekily lodge themselves in between 2 different game styles, stealing the best of both worlds to make a more entertaining experience.  Driving Simulator somehow got a little confused, mixing the 2 different game styles, but taking the absolutely worst possible parts of each style to form a monstrous hybrid that sucks out every last vestige of fun you may possibly have had from the game.

Let’s start with the handling.  Initially, things seem quite reasonable; your car handles moderately well and strikes a fairly even balance between sim and arcade.  At high speed, this turns more into a glitchy arcade handling.  Things then take a downwards turn when you collide with something.  When I say collide, I mean that you will stop dead from 80mph when coming into contact with something as flimsy as a traffic cone.  Or if you make the mistake of simply steering too close to a wall, just the tiniest side scratch can also stop you dead in your tracks.  And don’t think you can accelerate out of it.  No, you’ll have to laboriously put the car into reverse, and shunt out, even though there is absolutely nothing blocking the front of your car.  Walls, it seems, are made from a deluxe super glue.  The AI inhabitants of the roads seem to have the intellect of a soggy cardboard box.  When you nudge or smash into one of them they will perform a random assortment of actions, from speeding up and driving into a wall, testing out the pavement for a while, or my favourite, driving into oncoming traffic and playing dead for a while.

Bear in mind that Driving Simulator was made by a German development team.  Usually that would be no problem, assuming the person who translated the game into English actually knew anything about English.  Sadly he didn’t.  The result is a childish attempt at writing that occasionally tries a little humour, but which invariably gets lost in translation.  So after fumbling through the grammatical ineptitude of what your next mission entails, you set off at a snail’s pace to accomplish it without breaking too many traffic laws.  You know the traffic laws right?  Wrong.  Again the German influence comes to bear since the entire game setting is in Germany.  That means driving on the wrong side of the road, and being shown various roadsigns that we don’t know the meaning of.  Great.

Let’s move onto missions.  I use the word ‘missions’ in the loosest possible sense here, since your tasks are mundane in the extreme.  Driving from A to B is pretty much your entire remit, and sporadically they’ll throw in a C just to keep things fresh.  Missions are lamely dressed up into activities such as driving a doctor to his patients.  The objective being to complete the challenge within a timeframe, and abiding by the traffic laws is compulsory.  So even if you get to your target location and back in record time, you can fail the entire mission by jumping a few reds and speeding a bit.

If the traffic regulations were well implemented, it may provide a moderately enjoyable challenge.  Sadly, they are whimsically random, and offer no consistency whatsoever.  On one mission I was toddling off down town without much bother.  I had already broken a few speeding restrictions, but wasn’t too cut up about it.  Then I needed to turn right onto the highway, so I used my right indicator, and carefully made the manoeuver.  The game then informed me that I had been docked points for not indicating.  Up ahead was a red light.  I neatly pulled up and stopped in front of it, with plenty of room to spare.  The game then berated me for jumping a red light.  Then I got a speeding ticket whilst driving up the private driveway of a house.  Getting a little peeved with the idea of failing a mission for mistakes I didn’t make, I drove into a grassy glade for some peace and quiet.  At this point my car fell through the scenery and spiralled into an eternal glitch abyss beneath the map.

Now, I’m going to try and make this very clear indeed.  Do not buy this game.  Ever.  If you see it in a bargain bin for 10p, ignore it.  If someone gives it to you for free, as a gift, refuse it.  This game is so horribly bad, so abysmally broken, so shoddily conceived it is an absolute gaming travesty.  However, if you need to buy a present for someone you really don’t like, then look no further.

Serious Sam HD The First Encounter

Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter Review – 2010

All over the world there are big fat businessmen sitting in shiny tower block offices, laughing uproariously whilst counting out wads of unending cash.  Whether the financers behind the latest Hollywood garbage, watching the millions of zombified punters shuffle aimlessly into the cinemas to see their latest tedious production, or the frankly hilarious goons who thought they’d see how many people would be stupid enough to pay cash to listen to 2 tone-deaf Irish brats wail awkwardly in a horrifying attempt at singing.  How they laugh heartily to see how so many simple folk will buy whatever is placed before them, regardless of content or quality.  A marketplace of mindless drones, just ripe for the milking.

Then you get the bright sparks behind theSerious Sam HD The First Encounter re-release of Serious Sam 1, this time in HD.  Clearly they decided to hop into the easy-money game.  Colour in an aging FPS classic with a few crayons, slap a bit of paint on the walls, sprinkle some shimmer into the water, and voila!  A whole new game ladies and gentlemen.  Please flock forth to your nearest retailers and buy this mildly freshened game all over again for a brand new price tag.  Be good little lemmings now, and buy exactly what the advertisments tell you to.  Who wants to play with stinky old graphics when you can have the shiny new HD version…?  You didn’t need that extra £15 anyway did you?

You’d think with a price over a tenner, there would have been some decent updates to Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter.  Some new enemies, new levels, new weapons, is that too much to ask?  But no, you will play through the exact cloned world you already played all those years ago, with not a single thing changed apart from the paint job.  So the new HD graphics had be something pretty spectecular to justify the price tag.  With a moderate enthsiasm I notched up all the graphical setting to max, and then gave it a whirl.  It’s hard to dash to pieces expectations that are only mediocre to begin with, but sadly that was the case.  I was completely underwhelmed by the complete lack of effort, and absence of any real discernible advancements.  Sure the game is certainly a little prettier, but not vastly, and not even up to current graphical standards.  A complete waste of time.

Ok, so there is one more addition; you now get Steam achivements.  Whoopee doo.  A series of little sub-challenges attempting to extend the lifespan of the game.  Whilst Steam achievements work really well in some games, these achievements serve little more purpose than to make you play through the game several times, and to make you more thorough.  And thoroughness ironically defeats the entire point of a game like this.  The thrill is in instant action, not wandering into every last corner looking for obscurely hidden secret tunnels leading to *gasp* an extra health vial.

Just in case you never got the opportunity to play the original Serious Sam, rest assured it is one of the finest brainless shooters the PC has to offer.  Insane numbers of enemies lunging at you, spectacularly huge guns to decimate them with, and enough frantic adrenaline-fueled action to get a sloth doing the Tango.  The story is a trivial bolt-on, everything is about the action, streamlined and simple, and Serious Sam is all the better for it.  A polished work of art.  If you don’t already own it, you should do.

But to all of you who already played the orginal, and are considering this, DON’T DO IT!  Don’t feed money into a greedy grasping machine that will give you absolutely nothing more for your effort than a kick in the teeth before running away clutching your cash, squealing merrily in delighted amusement.  That said, if you are a Serious Sam virgin, the HD version is still technically a great game.  But go for the older version if you can, it’s cheaper, and pretty much exactly the same.  It’s really hard to criticise a game that is actually very good.  But the principle stands.  It is frankly immoral to demand money for something that has simply been regurgitated.  Thus Serious Sam HD is a reprehensible example of commercial greed, and for that deserves our eternal scorn.

Peggle Nights

Peggle Nights Review – 2009

Peggle, despite being a very simple concept, has won over many millions of avid fans.You can just imagine Popcap revelling in the success of Peggle, and wondering how they should progress the franchise.  Should they add more characters and abilities?  Should they add new block types, with new actions when they are hit?  How about a little storyline to piece together the various levels?  No.  Instead they’ve released exactly the same game, but with different peg formations on each level.  Whoopee doo?

Ok, so there’s an inherent sensibility in not Peggle Nightschanging a successful formula.  But some extra content surely would not go amiss.  Adding even just a few extra elements may have spiced things up slightly, without breaking that exquisite formula.  But Popcap have erred far too deeply on the side of caution, and certainly on the side of laziness, with a sequel that is pretty much an identical twin of the orginal.  It looks like they’ve paid the postman to pop in for a few hours, and knock out a few block formations, then shoved ‘Nights’ onto the title to pretend that’s it’s a whole new game.  Then prepared themselves for the undoubted influx of undeserved cash.

For Peggle virgins, the concept is simple, yet compelling.  You bounce a ball off a series of blocks, aiming to touch all the orange blocks in the level.  Think pinball, but with a bucket instead of flippers.  There are 2 wildcard blocks per level, which have special abilities depending upon the character you have chosen to play with.  A fun concept for sure, but not something you’d want to spend hours on.

Whilst this is definitely a fun game, it is certainly not justified if you own the original.  This is simply a very cheap trick by the developers to get twice the cash for what is essentially one purchase.  Very lazy indeed.  They couldn’t be bothered to put in an ounce of effort, so neither can I be bothered to write any more of this review.  Just don’t buy it…please!  It will only encourage them to churn out more…

FUEL

FUEL Review – 2009

It’s a shame that around the net, reviews of FUEL are somewhat negative at the time of writing.  A lot of overworked games reviewers are taking the game purely at face value, and not being terribly impressed with what they see.  The main criticism seems to be that they want FUEL to have amazing vehicle control, because it’s a racing game.  Fair comment perhaps?  But then look what Serious Sam did to the FPS genre.  In a world of refined gunplay, recoil, missions, storylines and tactics, Serious Sam burst onto the scene sporting just firepower and cannon fodder in vast quantities.  An arcade take on a genre that was not used to such streamlined simplicity.  Likewise FUEL roars into sight with a simplified arcade racing ethos, and draws tuttings of disapproval from grouchy cretins who think it’s a step backwards for the genre because they can’t adjust the tyre pressure, gear ratios, or cupholder location.  They couldn’t be more wrong!

Simplified handling in no way makes FUELFUEL an inferior racing game.  You only have to look at recently released statistics to see that the majority of people never even manage to complete most of the games they own.  There is an absolutely enormous market of casual gamers out there that crave for something a bit more basic, something they don’t have to spend countless hours working away on, trying to master a steep learning curve.  And the multiple difficulty levels ensure that anyone will get a tough challenge, from complete novice to seasoned veteran.

My first gaming session on FUEL was utter bliss.  I was dropped by helicopter into a deserted wasteland for my first race.  Just a fairly simple off-road challenge where you have to make your way to the target checkpoint by any means necessary.  My buggy bounced and slithered up a vast mountainside as I frantically veered between mud and tarmac to find the quickest route.  Having achieved my goal, I was left at the finishing line in free roam mode.  With countryside stretching out in all directions as far as the eye can see, I set off in a downhill direction.  My buggy is soon pelting along at a fair turn of pace, I come to the edge of a clifftop, and soar into the sky like a giant mechanical albatross.

I soon land again like a giant mechanical hippopotamus, and continue picking up speed on my downhill trek.  A burnt down forest looms, and tree stumps start whizzing past, narrowly skimming past my bodywork as I slide sideways between them.  All of a sudden I am back on tarmac, and staring into the face of a lumbering great truck which is rumbling towards me.  I pull a hard handbrake and skid around, missing the tuck by inches, come to a halt by the roadside.  I watch, slightly breathless as the truck continues lumbering up the country road, and celebrate the fact that games can make you feel this good.

Let’s be completely honest, FUEL’s handling is nowhere near realistic.  Not even close.  But that’s exactly what the game intends to be.  A ceaseless wheel-spinning, sideways sliding, white-knuckle ride from start to finish.  You’ll never flip in mid-air, no matter how crazy your take-off angle.  You’ll never damage your vehicle, even when falling hundreds of feet off a clifftop, or ramming it into a truck.  You’ll never lose control of your vehicle.  You’ll never feel that the game is too advanced for you.  But you will get lost…

Imagine how big London is.  Quite a hefty area I’m sure you’ll agree.  1570 km² to be precise.  Do you think that’s a big enough area to set a free roaming racing game within?  Well FUEL doesn’t think so.  It offers you 14,000 km² to explore every inch of, and that is simply incredible.  You start off in one area of the game, and expand your way into other areas by winning races and challenges.  Just in the very first starting area I tried driving from one end to the other, and it took me over 20 minutes.  Then you zoom your map outwards to find that the starting area is just one tiny jigsaw piece of the overall map.  It really is quite jaw-droppingly huge.

You’d be forgiven for imagining that the scale of the game world has caused the quality and detail of the environment to suffer.  Not at all.  FUEL is set in a post-apocalyptic future, Mad Max style, where only a few hardcore remain, and the primary currency is the gradually diminishing fuel reserves.  Charred forests lie nestled between mountain peaks.  Burnt-out cars lie abandoned by the roadside.  Overturned petrol tankers sprawl clumsily across the motorway.  Demolished buildings sit amongst a tangible aura of decay and abandonment.  Plus there are plenty of added jumps and ramps to make your racing and free-roaming a little spicier.  It really is a remarkably well designed and meticulously generated environment within which to race.  A really nice touch is the addition of Vista points which you are supposed to visit on every area.  The reason being just to admire a particularly beautiful part of the landscape.  Delightful!

If you stay in free-roam for a while, you’ll notice the continual day/night cycle in action; a delightful reminder of FUEL’s graphical prowess.  It is an eminently believable world, with dynamic and organic visuals.  There are 75  vehicles you can unlock and buy as you progress through the game, and they are all unique and very well modelled.  The soundtrack is enjoyable for a while, but it does get a little repetitive after a while.

FUEL does have a few failings.  Not huge issues, just minor elements that could have been improved.  Firstly collisions.  When you hit something at high speed, you don’t get to see a spectacular crash, the screen just goes black and you get reset onto the track.  Just a little immersion spoiler.  Also, the vehicle specs are just a bit too literal.  For instance, when seeing that a buggy car has 1/10 ability on off-road terrain, that literally means your car’s speed is restricted to a set figure, even when that means a high speed car can only do 30 mph along a flat, dry mud track, yet can speed up to over 100 mph if the dry mud turns to an almost identical dust.  A little annoying at times, but nothing too serious.

Ignore the bigots who shun FUEL’s raw arcade appeal.  It’s a damn fine game with absolutely loads of replay value.  You’ll get 100 hours from the game with ease if you aim to complete all the career races and objectives in all the difficulties, as well as collect all the bonus cars and liveries, and visit all the Vista spots.  There’s even a very basic multiplayer service for when/if you manage to complete the singleplayer mode.  As well using all the career races in multiplayer, gamers can create their own racetracks using the editor, and submit them for others to race online.  Limitless potential for fun.  More than enough racing to keep you entertained for months, or even years.  FUEL is bold, imaginative, and fun.  A refreshingly straightforward slice of arcade racing ecstasy.

The Last Remnant

The Last Remnant Review – 2009

If I were to say to ‘Square Enix’, what would spring to mind?  Final Fantasy would be probably the most common answer.  And for some reason Square Enix have eschewed the PC as a gaming platform for the majority of their Final Fantasy series.  Ok, if they have valid reasons for doing that, fair enough.  But enter The Last Remnant.  Another Square Enix game in a very similar style to the Final fantasy series, and nowhere near as popular, but suddenly it gets a PC port.  If there’s some clever business tactic there, it’s really not very obvious.  Ah well, we’ll never complain about having more games to play, so let’s dive into The Last Remnant with our judicial keyboards at the ready.

Ok, so you play the role of some adolescentThe Last Remnant sprog by the name of Rush, and he’s loping around trying to find his little sister who was kidnapped or something.  And there’s these enormous great big ornamental rocks stuck in the ground, and people want to control these rock things because they have some crazy powers or whatever, and maybe, just maybe, the missing sister has something to do with this completely unrelated phenomenon.  Ok, so it wins points for being mildly original, but still….giant artefacts?  C’mon, why not throw in a few giant green, one-legged ostriches for good measure?  Where credit is due, the Remnant artefacts actually make some sort of sense as you progress through the game, just make sure you bear with it through the opening stages where it makes as much sense as boiled ice-cream.

If you’ve played any of the Final Fantasies or similar, you’ll know what to expect from this JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game).  You run around in 3rd person view, whilst interacting with plenty of people, objects and places.  Then the most obvious factor is of course the fighting.  This is all turn-based, and you and your cohorts very politely take it in turns to knock the stuffing out of each other.  Fighting is somewhat simplified compared to the popular series we keep making reference to, at least to start with.  You’ll spend the first 10 hours of the game wondering why the creators of Final Fantasy have given you this astonishingly basic fighting system.  Then, as your options start to open up you get access to more advanced styles of fighting, better combat moves, magic spells, and just generally far more variety.  With these available, fighting becomes far more a matter of skilled gameplay, as opposed to ‘whoever has the biggest chunk of health wins’.

The characters themselves perform attacks or actions based upon what you have asked them to do.  You can make them use a special skill or attack, or just let them do what they think would be appropriate judging by the current state of the battle.  There is a big emphasis on positioning in fights.  So if you have taken the enemy by a flank position, or from behind, you get a decisive advantage, and vice versa if they get the same on you.  This affects how you play, because separate units within the game can move across fighting areas to initiate an attack where they have an advantage.  You also get critical hits within the game, and these are dependent on whether you can hit certain hotkeys in time when the situation arises.  It helps to give you a little more immersion into the fight, rather than sitting back like an evil puppeteer watching your characters fight.

I bet you’re just abiding by common stereotype here, and assuming all the game characters have unfeasibly long, spiked, ornately styled hair.  Oh, and you’d be right of course.  It seems pretty much de rigueur for any Oriental RPG.  The main character Rush is pretty headstrong, and rather annoying.  He seems to do absolutely everything in opposition to what you the player actually wants to do.  The daft thing being that his actions via cutscene affect the story far more than your own in-game actions do.  When we’re playing the game ourselves, choosing our own actions, why do we have to have a twerpy little teenage nitwit making stupid decisions and communicating intolerably with everyone else in the game?

Speaking of cutscenes, they are pretty good.  In fact the game thrives on cutscenes, all rendered with sparkling graphical prowess.  In game visuals are none too shoddy either, with plenty of the latest Oriental wizardry ensuring things are easy on the eye.  But despite the intricate detail and textures throughout, one may be let down slightly by the animation, which is quite stilted at times, and does not do justice to the otherwise quite beautiful graphics.  Characters walk in a slightly stilted way, and certain animations such as gestures are hideously overused, making conversations a farce.  NPCs are always frantically and repeatedly gesturing the same movements, no matter how irrelevant they are to the conversation.

Whilst The Last Remnant is a fairly capable JRPG, and will provide many hours of fun, you are still left feeling as though something is missing.  What’s missing is soul.  The game just doesn’t draw you in, envelop you with an enticing story, wrap its emotional arms around you and bring you back begging for more.  Instead the storyline ambles along pleasantly but never provides the dramatic highs and lows that we have come to expect from a Square Enix production.  It’s an enjoyable endeavour, but not the best on the market at the moment.

Ceville

Ceville Review – 2009

“You absurdly nauseating little do-gooders.  Thinking you can be so righteous and moral, and just so disgustingly….good!  Your lives must be so full of fluffy niceness, you make me sick.  No, I’ll show you where the real fun lies.  Evilness is where it’s at.  Incarcerating innocent civilians, decimating wildlife, insulting everything you lay your eyes upon, and keeping your torture chamber up to date.”

As game critics, although we try to keepCeville unbiased and impartial when approaching every game, certain mindsets can sometimes inveigle their way into our brains subconsciously.  For instance, when given Ceville to review, several thought processes flashed through my mind.   Firstly, the fact that I had never heard of it, and secondly, a general consideration of how much mediocrity stains the reputation of the adventure genre.  So how about that for a negative mindframe to start reviewing a game in?  And then within just 30 minutes of starting the game Ceville had won me over completely.

Whilst some games excel in the dilemma of a good vs bad alignment, Ceville has absolutely no qualms about thrusting your squarely into the shoes of the eponymous tyrannical despot who thrives upon injustice, selfish greed, and the abject misery of his subjects.  Relying almost exclusively upon comedy and quirkiness to maintain your interest, the game carries that theme throughout, and to enormous success.

The story follows the dethronement of Ceville by an uprising, incited by an individual almost as evil as Ceville himself.  Thus, the diminutive royal reject must attain justice for the evil usurper.  As someone used to making decisions from afar, Ceville sees a lot of his kingdom up close for a change, and happily expounds his views on the disgustingly nauseous nature of anything good, and the deliciously horrible state of anything evil.  His opinions range from cheeky to plain sadistic, but his musings certainly do amuse.

Full credit to whoever penned the script for the game, it is both polished, and very funny indeed.  There is such overwhelming character to every individual within the game, from the dark cynicism of Ceville himself and his complete loathing of everything pure and good, to the overpowering narcissism of the bold paladin Ambrosius, who spends more time stroking his ‘glorious’ head of hair than fighting for justice.  And the best thing is, there is not one single boring character that you meet throughout your adventure; every single one is madcap both visually and conversationally.

Thankfully the voice acting is up to the task at hand of representing the crazed in-game individuals.  Ceville sounds like the slimy villain he is, Ambrosius sports a refined but self-adoring tone, and the others are similarly accurate.  The visual design of each person is also extremely unique, abounding with daft characteristics like hideously long necks, gigantic droopy noses, and vast bosoms.  Altogether ensuring that the entire cast is particularly memorable.

Another sterling quality is the fact that Ceville never ever takes itself seriously.  There are in-game tips that show as the game loads different areas, and one of them freely admits that the sole function of such tips is to disguise the rather long loading times.  At another point, you see a blatant developer plug in an in-game graveyard.  And again, one of the secondary game characters offers a hint as to what to do next, then admits that she only knows that because she glanced at the walkthrough earlier.  There are just so many tongue-in-cheek game moments as well.  There are constantly scenes or dialogue that make humorous reference to films, books, TV shows, games, and even sometimes poking fun at companies or certain PC applications.

Technically, everything you would expect from a polished adventure game is present and correct.  Dialogues and animations are skippable, shortcut keys save clicking time, and the interface can be adjusted if required.  Best of all, pressing the space bar brings up an on-screen list of all the hotspots of all interactive objects, meaning teeth-gritting screen sweeping for hidden object is nothing but a past memory.  The only possible downfall here is the fact that game does crash, and regularly so.  However, that is soon forgiven thanks to the 5 minute autosave function, so you never lose more a few minutes worth of progress when the game does crash.

Some may point out Ceville’s lifespan as a negative aspect of the game.  However, I completely respect the fact that the developers chose to make a game reeking of quality all the way through, rather than stretch it out interminably into a more characterless soup of genericism (New word I just invented.  I should get paid for this stuff).  So just be aware that Ceville won’t take up more than a few pleasant evenings.

Despite initial reservations, Ceville charmed me more than I like to admit.  It is the obvious result of a team who truly love what they are doing, and who are determined to make new and interesting gaming content for us.  The witty and eloquent writing style and the consistently top notch humour turn this little title into a gaming gem.  Realmforge, I salute you!

Mount and Blade

Mount & Blade Review – 2008

Horses are awesome!  No, I don’t mean the ones on icky-poo farmyards that prance about, leaving trails of muck for you step in.  I mean the hardcore battlehorses, kitted up with armour, striking fear into enemy hearts as they thunder gallantly across the battlefield, smashing through enemy lines with the ease of a hot knife through butter.  Some strategy games have recreated horses so well, like the Total War series.  But imagine it on a much more personal scale, imagine being just one of those mounted horsemen, the crashing hooves, and clashing swords filling the air.  Few games have tried this, and none have truly succeeded.  Until now…

I, Brew van Storm, astride my majestic mountMount and Blade cantered slowly into the courtyards of a humble country village.  The sun was rising from hills to my left, and the blinding rays were projecting through the ancient stone archway just beyond the village.  My horse slowed to a trot as I passed by the outlying farmyards, and entered into the village centre.  The locals continued about their business, as I slowed to a gentle plod, surveying my surroundings.  I was directed to the village elder, a grizzled old farmer sporting an incongruous wide-brimmed hat.  I enquired about the possibility of recruiting young men from the village to bolster my army, to which the old man found me some suitable volunteers.

With my new recruits in tow, I turned tail and headed back into the rolling green pastures, the distant sea no more than a hazy blue line on the horizon.  My faction was at war with the Kingdom of Vaegirs, and we were trying to push back their invading parties.  So far we had met with little success, since their superior numbers put us at a disadvantage.  However, I had collected a small but elite army of veteran soldiers, archers and cavalry, and was going for a last ditch attempt to defeat their most formidable general.  I set Eastwards apace, knowing that the coming battle would mean either my grim demise, or the turning point of our war.

The sun was setting by the time I reached the battleground.  The enemy had finished ransacking a village, and were heading further into our territory.  I ordered my army into a full charge.  My horse struggled up the steep hill above the battlefield, giving me a full vantage point over the imminent clash.  I reached the summit of the hill, the sun slowly sinking amidst a fiery red sky.  Beneath me, metal smashed on metal as my soldiers made contact with the enemy force.  For one long minute I watched the battle hover in the balance, then I purposefully drew my sword.  It caught one of the sun’s dying rays, and glowed fiercely, as if with relish for the fight.

My sturdy mount started to canter down the hill.  Within seconds we had reached a full gallop, the hooves thundering a deafening staccato across the green turf.  I bore down on the enemies at a frightening pace, and aimed a sword strike at one of the foot soldiers.  The force of the blow, combined with speed of my horse proved instantly fatal, his lifeless body flung forcefully across the ground, soon to be trampled by my cavalry.  I then made a beeline for the enemy soldiers, throwing their long range attacks into disarray.  I received two arrow wounds in the pursuing skirmish, thankfully neither of which were fatal, and caught many, many more arrows on my trusty shield.  But the enemy archers fell beneath my cold steel, or the merciless hooves of my bold equestrian companion.  The battle ended with a complete enemy defeat, my remaining men cheering and chanting, waving their weapons furiously in the air.  Again I clambered up the hill, observing the battlefield as the final dying rays of the sun sank beneath the horizon, leaving behind a whorl of oranges and reds dominating the sky.  We had won a battle, not a war.  But for the moment, that is all that mattered.  There were hard times to come, this was just the start, but for tonight we would celebrate.  Finally, the tide had turned.

Mount & Blade takes place in the Kingdom of Calradia, a fictional Medieval locale, brimming with towns, cities, and vast castles.  There are a number of opposing factions warring within the battle-scarred lands of Calradia, each vying for dominance.  As a newcomer, a wayfarer and adventurer, you have no set career path; you are free to roam the lands as you please, forging and breaking alliances, and making friends and enemies.

The idea behind M&B is one that really appeals.  Medieval warfare was absolutely fascinating, and battles with swords, lances, and bows make for extremely compelling gameplay.  Swordfighting, for one of the first times in a game is entirely skill-based.  Rather than have preset buttons for preset swings, the developers have designed a fluid gameplay mechanic that relies upon your mouse movements to control the sword.  It must have been incredibly hard to create, but it works surprisingly well.  When pitted against a foe, you can slash or jab from any direction, and can also parry their attack if you are quick and accurate enough.

Some weapons are one-handed, allowing you to hold a shield in the other hand.  That makes blocking attacks comparatively easy, well until the shield breaks through excessive battering at least.  If you have a two-handed weapon, defending is a lot harder, meaning you are open to every attack unless it is parried successfully.  You will need quick reflexes, and require some nifty mousework, but some true swordsmanship against a worthy foe is something that feels staggeringly satisfying to accomplish.  Like any skill-based game, proficiency comes with a lot of practise, and with proficiency comes a heightened enjoyment and appreciation of the game.

If you have ever played a swordfighting game like the Dynasty Warriors series, where you slash your way through lands full of enemies almost single-handedly, you can forget all about that.  M&B does not make you some elite warrior with a vast amount of health, inhuman strength, and ridiculous sword skills.  You are only too aware of the fragility of life as axemen slash at you, and enemy archers devastate your health with well placed arrows.  And every army consists of varying units, so even if you took out an army twice your size on the last battle, you can easily be wiped out by superior or long range units from the next army if your troops are not so effective against the unit type.

There is actually a moral element to the game as well, allowing you to make the good/evil or light/dark decisions that some games employ so well.  This affects your interaction with others, and how they view you, but does mean the game will play out slightly differently depending on how you act throughout.  For instance, do you steal cattle from a village, and lower your reputation with them, or do you help them find grain to plant their crops, making them your friends?  And the ruling forces of the area will be aware of your actions, and may also take action accordingly.

It must be said that M&B has a very distinctive beauty.  There is a constant day/night cycle going on, and as you see the sun rising over grassy glades, then setting over the sea in a bloodshot sky, it really is quite jaw-dropping.  Several times I clamber up to the top of a hill, and just sit there quietly on my steed, gazing out over the rolling hills, and watching the wondrous sunsets.  The scenery is simply amazing, and aided by a fairly atmospheric, albeit somewhat repetitive soundtrack.

And now for the horses.  Oh, the horses.  The single most enjoyable aspect of the game.  I have ridden digital horses before, and it felt like I was grinding around on a concrete block, with the nimbleness of a drunken mammoth.  But M&B’s horse-riding is just oh so exquisite.  You have complete control of your mount, turning realistically, and moving at any speed you like, from the gentlest trot, right up the full gallop.  You can even jump over fences and walls, with horses being the natural jumpers they are.  And in battle, it feels so good, charging the enemy atop your noble steed, with your cavalry charging alongside.  Those are the gaming moments that will remain for a lifetime, times that will stick forever in the recesses of your gaming memories.

That said, despite such remarkable moments, M&B is not without its shortcomings.  The biggest problem is that with such a large world, there needs to be a reasonable amount of variation between each location, and the missions it can offer.  Sadly, it seems that not enough time was allotted for this area of the game, and most of the missions are randomly generated from a short list of possible actions, with the only changing variables being the targets.  And every person you speak to will respond using the same words and sentences.  There is simply not enough variation to give even a slightly unique character to any of the locations or NPCs.

Added to which, there isn’t really technically any winning criteria for the game.  You can simply choose to end whenever you wish, and will get assigned a score based upon your performance, and some small end tale.  But it is not really a convincing end.  We want some final challenge, a sense of completion, of victory.  But unless you want to undergo the exceedingly laborious task of dominating the entire map, you simply have to choose a seemingly premature end.

Medieval warfare just got even trendier.  And despite several major deficiencies, Mount & Blade has just too many memorable moments of glory to ignore.  Even just to watch one sunset, the price tag is worth it.

Trackmania United Forever

Trackmania United Forever Review – 2008

Different games companies have different marketing techniques.  Some release demos to give you a taster of what is to come.  Some put together spectacular trailers.  And some give you part of the game for free, and make you pay to play the rest of the game.  What Nadeo have done is really quite befuddling.  They release a full free game (Trackmania Nations Forever) with no obligations or restrictions.  Then they release another paid game which has an identical formula, but with a few more bells and whistles and greater variety.  Whether that distinctly odd marketing style has paid off or not we’ll see in coming months, but either way let’s check out what the paid game, Trackmania United Forever has to offer.

Hardcore ‘Trackies’ will know the drill.  First upTrackmania United Forever is a vast array of madcap races set across multiple terrains, and comprising of numerous death-defying jumps and leaps.  Then you have the Platform section, where the aim is to complete the rather challenging map in as little resets as possible.  Stunt is a more niche gamestyle, requiring you to flip your little vehicle around to get the highest stunt scores.  And Puzzle is where you build your own track between preset checkpoints to get the fastest possible time.  The difficulties are nicely categorised by colours, starting at white and progressing through five difficulty levels up to the extreme black levels.

Trackmania is all about the times and the scores.  Replaying races again and again until you can shave those extra few hundredths of a second off to get the gold medal, and finally reach the elusive 3,446th spot in the UK rankings.  That’s the great thing about TUF; you are not playing against the game, you are playing against thousands of other players online.  The game records every player’s best scores and compiles them all on an enormous online ranking board.  And it is oddly addictive to replay tracks time and again to edge your score ever so slightly closer to the top spot.

In absolute honesty, there is very little real driving skill required for TUF.  It is just about twitch gaming, swerving through tight chicanes at insane speeds, dinking round corners on two wheels, and veering wildly out the way of the traps and holes lining every track to catch you out.  And at times it is molar-diminishingly frustrating, with the slightest error being heavily punished, and prematurely ruining your chances of topping the desired scoreboard.  But that is precisely what gives it such a long lifespan.  The fact that with every retry you can slowly improve your performance and climb the rankings.  There are some quite socially-deprived individuals with such hideously large scores that one imagines they play TUF as a job.  And thanks to the extremely active Trackmania community, there are countless extra maps being added continuously, some of which you can even play as part of the game to earn medals and points.  So this is one game that will literally handle as many hours of gaming time as you can throw at it.

The various vehicles in the game all handle differently, offering a unique driving experience.  Some are twitchy, and will roll at the slightest opportunity, some are lumbering and cumbersome, and some sporty types will just drive so fast your eyes will bleed.  Likewise, the terrains grant unique surfaces to drive on, meaning the environments are more than just aesthetically varied.  And in usual Trackmania tradition, the graphics are a tadge basic, but nonetheless a delight to behold.  It is a whole new world of shimmery water and cutesy grassy horizons, and it will make your heart glad.

Are there any inherent flaws with the Trackmania concept?  Yes.  The new Stunt mode is awkward and based largely on luck rather than driving skill.  And really just the whole Trackmania thing has been done a long time ago, and this latest edition doesn’t add enough new to the series.  Sure there are extra bits and bobs all around, and especially the ranking system, but still the game is still essentially the same core design that won our hearts several years ago.  Whilst the wisdom of not fixing something that isn’t broken does apply somewhat, if we are expected to pay out again for the same experience, we do want a little more substance.

So TUF does have more content than TNF, and more options.  But do you really need them?  Because of its lightweight nature, once you have played your first 100 tracks on Trackmania, the rest do tend to feel a bit samey.  The first five times you do a loop the loop it is quite a thrill, but after that it is no longer special.  What I am getting at is that Trackmania does not need a lot of content to be fun.  Playing the free TNF will amply sate most gaming appetites, so TUF does feel just a little superfluous.  For the hardcore and devoted fans only.  But hey, the developers need cash, so they can make the next game even better.  TUF isn’t essential, but if you like the series, you can certainly do a lot worse than invest into the lovable Trackmania universe.

Crimes of War

Crimes of War Review – 2008

Don’t you just hate it when designs of grandeur and excellence are shattered by their own failings?  Crimes of War is a perfect example.  The concept it aspires to and actually partially achieves is tragically marred by the inferiority of the gameplay it showcases.  Ok, so this is just a budget game, retailing at the wallet-soothing price of £9.99, but it still sets some intriguing goals that it never manages to fulfil.  Please do accompany me on a verbal exploration of this latest WWII shooter.

Where COW (heh, just noticed that ratherCrimes of War unfortunate acronym, please forgive me if I use it excessively from now on) carves a fresh path is the introduction of emotions.  Two of them to be precise.  The first is called ‘Beserker’, and is activated by a number of knife kills within a short space of time.  This sets you on some crazy bullet-time-esque spree during which your screen goes a bit fish-eyed, and you are invincible for a while.  The second emotion is called ‘Ubersniper’, activated by consecutive headshots, and granting you a very similar experience as Beserker, but you keep your gun instead of a knife.  Unfortunately these emotions are far too forgiving, as I completed a large portion of the game using my knife alone, just keeping the Beserker emotion running.  Crowded room of enemies?  No problem, just knife them all, and that is actually the easiest way to clear the entire room.

Ok, let’s stop calling these emotions, because in honesty there is nothing emotional about them.  What we have is some cool new modes revamping similar ideas from previous games, but dressing them in entirely new outfits.  And despite my initial reservations, they really do make the game more enjoyable to play.  Sure they’re hideously unrealistic, but then the plotline is about undead soldiers, so we’ll nudge that idiosyncrasy into the corner for a while.

Now the problem I mentioned earlier, is that while you have these trendy new modes to tinker round with, the gameplay itself makes the experience somewhat less than fascinating.  The biggest issue is that you are not fighting Nazis.  Sure, they shout stuff about sausages, and wear domed helmets over their huge grey overcoats, but you are not shooting humans, you are shooting escapees from the retardation hospital.  They have the common sense of a doorknob, and intelligence to match.

They perform scripted actions to give the illusion of intelligence, like hiding behind a box and spraying fire whilst behind cover.  But take them away from their cosy little scripted piece, and they will flutter around like confused butterflies, heedless of personal injury and without the faintest concept of tactical advancement.  If behind cover they will pop up and down like sombre mindless actors in a surreal popgun range.  If anywhere near you they will make the immediate decision that shooting bullets is proving ineffectual, and will instead try to poke you with the butt of their rifle.  Ironically, a jab with the blunt rifle butt does actually do more damage than their bullets, which emphasises even more so how broken the gameplay is.

BUT.  Despite everything, I still enjoyed playing the game.  I never really believed I was in WWII, or that I was fighting humans, but it was still something of an interesting challenge, enhanced by the quirky new modes, and the pleasant little RPG system.  Yes that’s right, you gain XP by using plenty of the ‘emotions’ and can use these to upgrade your abilities, such as health, accuracy, and how long your emotion spell lasts for.  There is also a weird force-field device that you can activate which soaks up the bullets, and then gets the ability to spew them back at the source when upgraded.  Not a particularly effectual device though.

And then of course some developers like to pretend they are clever coders by adding special little touches.  One of the special touches here is the fact in rainy environments, drops of water land on and roll down the camera lens.  Just one problem.  There shouldn’t be a camera lens!  This is a damn first-person shooter, not a Hollywood movie, what on earth is that all about?  Although despite such daft additions, the game is visually acceptable, with plenty of decent effects and backgrounds.  Animations are slightly stilted at times thanks to the poor AI though.

There are more instances of wasted potential in COW too. The attention to detail is quite impressive at times.  You can blow enemies’ helmets off, you can shoot the guns out of their hands, you can even shoot the grenades off their belt.  But once again, as soon as you combine this with the overall gameplay, the fun is significantly diminished.  I was hoping the multiplayer modes could offer some decent fun, playing against real humans, but sadly there wasn’t a single server up at the time of writing, so I was unable to test out the multiplayer.

COW just turns itself into a giant arcade shooter.  The enemies spawn from all sides and swarm at you from a series of preset locations.  You take them down, then restock from the abundant supply of ammo and health kits that just happen to litter almost every single room you enter.  Shoot, restock, repeat.  Things get ever more predictable, and utterly fail to deliver any new experience that you haven’t seen a thousand times before in other shooters.  Ok, I will concede just one scene in the game which made me croak out a startled “Holy Nora“ and half fall off my seat, but this is only one notable exception amongst many levels of dreary sameness.

Completing COW did not give any deep satisfaction, just a slight contentment before I started my next gaming title.  Do not expect anything amazing from it, but if you approach it with a light heart and a free schedule, it can idle away some fairly pleasant hours.  I can’t give COW a recommendation, but I’ll give it a wry smile and a gentle pat on the shoulder.  You may want to risk that tenner if you have a particularly noticeable hole in your FPS collection which needs filling with something.  Like its bovine namesake, COW is udderly unexceptional.

Circulate

Circulate Review – 2008

You remember those little tilt puzzles you played with as a kid?  You have a little metal ball in a handheld maze, and you have to tilt the maze to get the ball to roll where you want it to, usually finishing in the centre.  Circulate is the tilty-maze-thingy remake for the 21st century.

Circulate does a whole lot more though, as Circulatethe objective changes in each level.  On one level, it will ask you to gather a certain number of balls into a container.  Or maybe various coloured balls into their respective containers simultaneously.  Then there are a whole host of additional elements to keep you on your toes.

Sometimes you get fire and water balls, and can’t let them touch each other for fear of extinguishing themselves.  Add in magnets, UFOs, bounce squares, forcefields, black holes, and much much more, and you have a gameplay that is really quite varied.  Each level demands something different from you.  Sometimes careful preparation and forethought, other times just raw reflex tilting.

The strangest thing about Circulate is the way you control it.  You can use keys, but a mouse it essential for any kind of control.  So you have this 2D circle on screen, and simply have to rotate it left or right.  But to rotate it, you right click on any place in the circle, and literally drag the circle the way you want it.  Sounds easy huh?  Wrong!

If you had a perfect hand, capable of moving in equally measured circles, you’d be laughing.  But if you so much as make one circle sweep slightly smaller than the rest, the drag arrow will cross over the screen too early and flip you 180º the other way, ruining any careful tilting you may have done to that point.  It’s not even a case of getting adept at the control system, it is simply a really clumsy way to control movement.

Nevertheless, you can still get a plenty of fun from the game, just don’t expect to get it without frequent moments of frustration as the cack-handed control system ruins your carefully laid plans yet again.

So you have 120 levels of tilting fun.  They are varied yes, but they are also a bit too easy.  That is of course a generalisation, and you will find several levels of butt-clenchingly obtuse headaches, but nothing that can’t be dealt with after a few retries.  There are just too many levels that can be completed within 10 seconds on the first attempt, even when reaching the latter stages of the game.  I had completed every one of the 120 levels within a matter of hours.  You could replay them to get a ‘higher score’ and more bonus stars, but that’s not really much of an incentive to keep replaying something you’ve already defeated.

Fortunately, the developers are not asking a lot of money for this, just a paltry $6.99.  And for that price it is indeed worth it, just to tax your brain and to test the hand you thought was pro-gamer.  There won’t be any lasting satisfaction on offer, but some intriguing little missions will set the grey matter whirring.

Ancient Wars Sparta

Ancient Wars: Sparta Review – 2007

Spartans are cool.  Or so Hollywood would have us believe with the recent offering of the film 300.  It reminds us of true historical events, of some of the most remarkable warfare in history, and of what a truly unique culture Sparta enjoyed.  And as glorified as that celluloid image may have been, it portrayed ancient Sparta with the kind of character that it truly deserves.  Astounding skill in combat, and bravery being just a fraction of their many talents.

But then along trots a game like this one, Ancient Wars: Sparta, and paints a completely different image to the one that Hollywood just ingrained into our minds.  Is it trying to cash in on the success of a remarkable movie?  Or is it genuinely trying to replicate some of the most exciting historical wartime events that have taken place on our humble earth?  Let’s have a wander through and find out.

AWS faces you with 3 main campaigns, lettingAncient Wars Sparta you play as the military might of either Sparta, Persia, or Egypt.  Here is where history buffs might start rubbing their hands, salivating over the military differences between all three sides, and how their individual strengths could be utilised.  Except for that fact that the differences and strengths have been liquidised into a little mushy pulp.  Sure, each civilisation has some unique units, but they are all samey and do little to distinguish any real fighting style from any other.

Warfare should be an exquisite ballet of grace and finesse.  Instead it resembles a playground brawl.  Everyone dives into the melee, and the side with the most fighters wins the day.  Tactics?  Strategy?  Pah, forget all about those.  Within seconds of starting a battle, your available tactics are refined to the finer nuances of precisely whose big bashy things can do most damage.

With such rudimentary insight into warfare, one would hope that other game elements disguise this loss with astounding features in other departments.  Sadly not.  The AI is as bright as deranged monkey.  The graphics are the epitome of mediocrity.  And the sound is just frankly appalling.

Ok, well the graphics are not too bad in actual fact.  They serve their purpose well enough.  The problem is that they don’t deliver anything that we discerning gamers would class as up-to-date.  3D graphics are all very well, apart from the fact that the camera is needlessly restricted, and can’t zoom out very far, meaning army management is clumsy.  Pretty, but unimpressive in light of what we have come to expect from modern games.  As for the sound effects, I present a gold medal to anyone who can tolerate the dreadful voice acting and grotesquely repetitive order sounds.  Hearing the same incredibly gay voice clips whenever you order a unit to a location gets very tiresome, very quickly.

Unit pathfinding is not as bright as you would like, with soldiers taking ineffective and illogical routes at times.  And enemies do not think through their actions at all, nor use any tactic more complicated than ‘Charge!’  The multiplayer offers relief from retarded AI, but then with RTS games dripping out of our ears, AW:S simply offers nothing more than any other game, and indeed falls far short of the kind of experience offered by the big genre contenders.  Although, in an attempt to rescue a small shred of dignity for the game, it must be noted that sea battles are quite pleasing to play, offering a nice change from land based combat.

The three campaigns on offer, fighting as one of the primary factions are moderately well built, and as you progress through, they do offer a little bit of variety.  But you soon fall into old routines of resource management, base building, and churning out the warriors.  Your army will grow with all the speed of a legless sloth, thanks to the interminable build times, and the general sluggishness of the game mechanics.  Acceptable if you enjoy taking your time, spending many hours on some battles, but most RTS devotees are used to more celeritous affairs, testing our nerve and quick-wittedness.

Most importantly, ancient Sparta and Persia were not just common fighting forces.  They were trained war machines, both unique, and both highly effective in what they did.  Their leaders were cunning, and clever, using mixed force armies, and unique tactical stratagems to accomplish their aims.  The history books are full of astounding tales from these nations.  Sparta in particular deserves an amazing game conversion after such a successful film adaptation, and I’m sure many developers are out there right now dreaming of exotic and wonderful ways in which to digitally realise the full glory of Sparta and its awe-inspiring people.  But playing AW:S, you get no such thing.  It is as bland and by-the-numbers as any other generic RTS.

Will you gain much enjoyment from AW:S?  Well that depends on whether you play the game for a simple RTS fix, or for the value of the civilisations and/or subject material it contains.  For a brief play it serves a purpose well enough, but if you really want to milk the most out of this exciting period of ancient combat, then you’ll want to wait until something more inspired comes along.  The game is just a bit too spartan.

Warpath

Warpath Review – 2007

What’s your favourite game?  Are you World of Warcraft devotee?  Maybe a CounterStrike: Source aficionado?  A Quake purist?  Well me, my favourite game series of all time has been Unreal Tournament.  First the original, followed by the magnificence of its rather sexy sequels.  Epic and Digital Extremes were responsible for the first few games, which of course rather endeared my heart towards both.  Then Digital Extremes released their own game, Warpath, which I obviously decided to try out, being created by one of my favourite developers.

So off we trot into a world of First PersonWarpath Shootery, which judging by trailers and screenshots seems to be a pretty hardcore competitor to Unreal Tournament.  But please now, imagine the experience of jumping into gleaming Ferrari, only to find that three of the wheels are missing, the steering doesn’t work, and the engine is missing.  That is what happens when you jump into Warpath expecting Unreal Tournament.

The basic premise is the same, with a handful of standard game modes such as Capture the Flag, Deathmatch, and Assault.  There is a singleplayer mode to work your way through, or you can hop straight into online play if you like.  That of course raises the question of whether the game mechanics are professional and unique enough to draw attention away from the big online shooters at the moment.  Let’s have a look-see shall we.

First up, the weapons.  They are absolutely rubbish.  And much as I would love to come up with some helpfully constructive criticism, all I can do is reel in shock of the utter inadequacy.  Sure there are various types of weapons, such as rifles, rocket launchers, and plasma thingummys, but there is simply no skill required in their execution.  Accuracy is defiled with a dirty great crosshair, aiming is thus rendered redundant, and the only vague attempt at skill is hammering down the attack key whilst shoving your crosshair somewhere near the general direction of your foe.

Maybe Digital Extremes learned nothing from their past forays, but to equip us with such unsatisfying tools of destruction is simply unforgivable.  The concept behind the weapons is actually quite cool, you gradually upgrade them as you progress through the game, which unlocks more powerful abilities on each weapon.  But even so, they still fail to suffice as enjoyable or reliable slaughtering methods.  Fragging becomes a chore, rather than a delight.  Which utterly defeats the whole point of the game.

So was that a bit negative for you?  Well fasten your seatbelt Dorothy, because Kansas has only just started twirling.  Let’s have a little discussion about the AI.  Of course Warpath is designed primarily as a multiplayer game, but since it also claims a single-player campaign, I am obliged to render judgement on the artificial intelligence which play as your foes and friends throughout this experience.

So imagine you are in a duel to the death.  You have to choose some hardcore companions to battle by your side.  Do you pick the toughest, hardest, most experienced soldiers you can find?  Or do you pick some blind, one-legged, mentally challenged rejects from the Girl Guides?  Well of course the answer should be obvious.  To everyone except Digital Extremes that is…

To say that the AI of Warpath ever bear even the vaguest semblance to their human counterparts is an understatement of grotesque proportions.  Quite simply, they just completely fail to react logically in any situation.  If they are guarding the flag for instance, they will point in a random direction, and leave other directions completely unguarded.  Or even more hilariously they will camp one of the exit corridors, but facing entirely the wrong way.

When in deathmatch mode, they have a tendency to group together.  And for some reason their team bonding takes a higher priority than attacking you.  So they frequently trundle straight past you without so much as blowing a kiss in your direction, despite taking your bullets up their artificial backside.  The same happens when they have other objectives in other game modes, they’ll just ignore you completely.

Having started the game on the second out of four difficulty modes, I initially presumed that the spasticated AI and the incredibly easy victories were owing to the low difficulty.  But having ramped the difficulty right up to maximum, I was saddened to find that the AI still flap about like demented headless chickens, completely oblivious of the fact that they are supposed to present a challenge.  I never lost a single map, right up to the completion of the game, and with the difficulty on max.  Now that is not a good sign for the lifespan of singleplayer.

If you have to draw something positive out of Warpath, I suppose you could nod in the direction of its campaign map.  Rather like a boardgame, each space represents a different map, and you slowly have to deplete all your opponents maps by beating them on it.  The slight twist is that there are three warring factions, so you have to be mindful of what both are doing.  Then again, the whole boardgame effect is ruined by the fact that you can only leave the game when it is your turn.  The maps start automatically within seconds when it is not your turn.

Overall, Warpath is a mess.  With terrible gameplay, bland graphics, forgettable sound, a whole host of technical issues, and a lifespan shorter than the manhood of a poorly equipped midget, there is little to savour from this game.  Some may find a bit of life in the online mode, but with very few players online as this review is written, and with such inferior gameplay to most other shooters around, there really is no saving grace for Warpath.  This game is less of a Warpath, more of a Warpathetic.

Determinance

Determinance Review – 2007

Tis a dark time in the era of PC games, with verve and innovation being quashed mercilessly by the grinders of commercial gain.  In these troubled times, a heroic band of two has set out on a perilous mission to seek out some gaming gems amongst the morass of clichéd genre milkers.

Thus Karn “Spydar Lee” Bianco, and Mr Brew arrived at Determinance, a futuristic, gravity-absent sword-fighting game.  Imagine a demented mix between Superman’s flying skills, and the bloodthirsty duels of Gladiator, and you might get a vague whiff of what the game is all about.  You basically swordfight foes in the traditional way, whilst retaining the rather uncanny ability to fly at the same time.

What truly makes Determinance shine is itsDeterminance core gameplay engine that refuses to rely on simple pre-designed movements and attacks. Instead players are treated to an incredibly fluid experience that allows them to wield their chosen blade in any number of ways. Waving your sword around presents a number of results, firstly your blade leaves a trail behind it that can also damage opponents, but too much swinging causes you to run out of gas, leaving you open to attack and forcing you to relax for a short time.

It is also possible to rotate your blade through various angles using the middle mouse button in order to better parry or block incoming attacks. Certainly this amount of freedom comes at a price; it can take quite a while to get your head around everything and pull it into a battle. However with a sufficient amount of perseverance, Determinance starts to feel like second nature, and with the range of slight movements described above its possible to become a lot better in a very short amount of time as everything begins to click into place.

If there is one thing that Determinance oozes out of its very being, it is the way it allows players to create a very unique fighting style with ease. Along with the multitude of ways to perform attacks that we just mentioned, there is an additional feature that allows for the creation of personalised moves. The editor allows you to drag nodes related to the layout of your characters body (i.e joints) and re-position them to create a specific stance. This can then be saved and accessed in the main game to quickly move into a certain position.

We took it upon ourselves to whip up a quick Superman-inspired flying stance just to make us feel that much more omnipotent! From this point on there are a number of ways to put your skills and moves to the test, to get started there is a rather in-depth tutorial segment that introduces everything you’ll need to know, and to complete the single-player options there is a basic Arcade mode that allows for practice against bots of varying skill levels.

Of course Determinance is primarily a multiplayer title so it’s the online/LAN modes that are the highlight. Essentially there are two types of battles, Duels and Free-for-alls.  Both are pretty self explanatory with the former focusing entirely on one-on-one matches and the latter focusing on a Deathmatch-esque set up. Of course part of the battle engine relies on locking onto single opponents before going into attack, thus even in free-for-all matches there will be a degree of one-on-one fighting going on. Unfortunately this can lead to one of the games bigger flaws, with more than two players Determinance can get very hectic, often so much so that is impossible to keep a track of what’s going on. Whilst locked onto opponents you have only a small radar in the corner of the screen to warn you of impending danger from behind you. On more than one occasion we found ourselves unfairly shredded from behind whilst we attempted to focus on the duel at hand.

Naturally, being the intrepid pair that we are, it was necessary for Spydar Lee and Mr Brew to engage in a series of brutal battles to the death.  After 3 rounds of being skewered in all sorts of painful places, Mr Brew withdrew with a feigned ‘tonsil infection’ so as to escape the uncanny swordsmanship of the lethal Spydar Lee, and his inspired Superman impersonations.

Fun, Determinance most certainly is.  Also innovative, and a highly imaginative breath of fresh air.  But is it worth paying for?  Sadly not.  There are a lot of free games on the net, and despite the many virtues of Determinance, it has to be said that bigger and better games are available without having to expend wallet filling.  By all means try out the demo, and you will certainly have a blast, but as a paid gaming title, Determinance is unfortunately too shallow and limited to recommend.

Co-written by Mr Brew and Karn Bianco

Race The WTCC Game

Race: The WTCC Game Review – 2007

Hold on, something seems slightly amiss here.  Simbin, purveyors of high quality simulation confectionery have been producing rather splendid racing sims with regularity for the last several years.  Their last offering was GTR 2, back in September.  And suddenly, they shove out another full-blown title in November, just 2 months later.  Of course this is not necessarily a reflection upon the quality of the title, likely being in joint development with GTR 2 for the last 6 months or so.  But have they cut any corners?  As a matter of fact, yes they have.  Race – The WTCC Game by no means smacks of poor quality, but as a direct comparison to GTR 2, it does fall down a little.  Let’s see why.

Let’s firstly look at Simbin.  Over the yearsRace The WTCC Game since their highly acclaimed Grand Prix Legends, they have slowly been edging ever further towards their objective of simulation perfection.  And as they refine, tweak, and polish the wholly impressive game engine they have been building up, we can see the improvements peeking through with every release.  Unfortunately, Race is not actually a step forwards in this evolutionary gaming chain.  Instead, they have used their existing technology to knock out the game, and added in a bit of plastic surgery to alter the style of the game into another avenue of racing.

Graphics are not all that impressive, and in fact, somehow seem inferior to the splendour of GTR 2.  Sure, everything is present and correct, but it lacks the zestiness, the ripe fruitiness of GTR 2’s sumptuous graphical abundance.  There are too few rich textures, and too many bland surfaces that are just begging to be filled with visual finery.  That said, the 3D marshals and a few 3D spectators do add an air of realism to the game.  And no, you can’t run over the marshals; I have tried for hours and hours, and it just isn’t possible.  Gah!  The sound effects are acceptable, albeit unimpressive, and the menu music is stirring, but repetitive.

Game mechanics are still about three trillion times more detailed than any other racing title, with the ability to alter the tyre pressure on each individual tyre, start with as many litres of fuel as you think is necessary, adjust the gear ratios, as well as more elitist capabilities such as adjusting the degree of toe-in, or the degree of camber on each wheel.  And this really does affect the gameplay.  Very few will even bother to look under the hood of this game, but those mechanical-minded ones who do are never going to be disappointed.

And like they have started to introduce to their later games, Simbin have included scalable difficulty.  So it will provide a challenge to pretty much all racers, regardless of skill.  I stuck my 15 year old sister on the game at novice mode, and she won the very first race she played.  Whereas I tried out even hardened racers on the pro setting, and most of them flailed helplessly off the road on the first corner.  Finer details can be altered too, such as being able to select varying degrees of traction control, auto/manual gearing, and other driving aids that can be altered to tune the game to your capabilities.  Thus, don’t let Simbin’s hardcore reputation put you off, as the game is suitable for all.

The game reflects the professional sheen of the gameplay by insisting upon stringent track rules and regulations that all drivers have to abide by.  For instance, driving around the track the wrong way will elicit a warning, closely followed by a disqualification.  Cutting the track will get you a stop and go penalty, forcing you to enter the pits and wait for a set number of seconds before you are allowed back out on the track.  Multiple offences will result in a disqualification.  And similarly, there are all the usual flags that keep you informed of problems of the track, and which you have to obey.  All in all, quite reassuringly realistic.

When it comes to the handling, I do start to sound a bit like a stuck record when attempting to describe the digital exactitude of Simbin’s driving model.  Quite simply, words cannot do justice to the overwhelmingly comprehensive nature of how precisely it manages to replicate real driving, and in any weather or terrain.  The beauty of the racing line is so markedly more satisfying, the gripping thrill as you begin to slide, followed by the deep fulfilment of a perfect correction, as you continue your sprint along the straight and narrow.

Something which then foils that illusion somewhat is the AI.  In general, they are tough as hell, and don’t usually get wiped out by anything less than a spectacular collision.  And all the while, they keep pretty much perfect racing lines, and will provide a pretty hefty challenge if you wish to outrace them.  But when you try something they are not expecting, their artificial brains just cannot cope.  For instance, if you manage to get yourself stuck sideways across the track, some of the cars will smash right into you.  And instead of reversing out, and trying to get round, they just keep pushing and pushing you along the track until you somehow get out of their way.  Also, if you keep an eye on your rear view mirror, it is far too easy to stop them overtaking.  Just pull in front of them, and they will slow down to a crawl instead of veering past you in another direction.  I once won a race after about 25 barrier collisions, with a wrecked car and a tyre missing, quite simply because I managed to keep the AI cars from overtaking, just swinging my car all over the road to slow them down.  Intelligence?  I think not!

It is not often I would judge a game on what it doesn’t do, as opposed to what it does do, but Race just does not provide anything new from GTR 2, apart from the setting.  Yes, a bunch of cars, as well as a few bonus bits, like Minis and classic cars, and then a selection of tracks, from Monza to Istanbul.  Included multiplayer also lets you race your pals online.  But none of these justify Race as a separate purchase, since the experience of GTR 2 is still better overall.  I would hate to see Simbin choose cash as a focus over their ostensible goal of racing realism, but this quick release does question their motives.  Next time Simbin, cut out the window dressing, and just get us some more tangible content please, that we can really sink our teeth into.  We want a long-term title, not a disposable thrill, which is what Race sadly turns out to be…

Rag Doll Kung Fu

Rag Doll Kung Fu Review – 2006

Rag Doll Kung Fu.  This is the name of a game that has no rags, no dolls, and absolutely no form of humanly recognisable Kung Fu.  Those zany developers.  Or, more accurately, that zany developer.  This game is the rather oddly inspired brainchild of just one man, that incorrigible Mark Healey of Lionhead Studios.  Obviously in some horrendously painful brainwave of abstract genius he came up with a concept that would topple the expectations of the gaming public, and set up a whole new pathway of gaming evolution.  That’s right, Cabbage Farmer Pro.  But owing to a cabbage famine in Northern Yugoslavia, and the subsequent paucity of high-quality cabbages, he was forced to try out his secondary magnificent plan – Rag Doll Kung Fu.

I have seen all sorts of weird and wonderful Rag Doll Kung Fugaming ideas.  But it really does take a mind of vastly wandering psychosis to come up a Kung Fu game which has absolutely no Kung Fu involved.  Trying to adequately describe the lunacy of RDKF is like trying to ice-skate with a bulldozer.  Words simply cannot do justice to this completely nonsensical game.  But please bear with me as I attempt the impossible.

Gameplay revolves around the concept of building up and maintaining Chi, which gives you the power to perform your martial arts moves.  Perhaps the flaw with this otherwise sensible concept is the fact that Chi is attained by waving your mouse in continuous circles around your character.  Then you perform attacks by frantically dragging around your various body limbs and walloping the enemy with them before they can do the same to you.

Game characters are made from a rubbery gloop that bends to simply any contortion with no apparent harm to the player.  Bending your legs behind your neck, then plaiting your chin into your backside, followed by a tendon-ripping 840 degree side-stretch, and your little in-game dude will still stand there grinning as though it is all just a game.  Movement involves grabbing a limb of your character and dragging him in the direction you want him to go.  A horizontal drag will send your jellified avatar flailing awkwardly in a flurry of misshapen limbs in your desired direction.  Or dragging him upwards will result in an ungainly leap with the grace of a recently castrated, one-legged elephant.

The concepts within which you use these drunken controls can be divided into single player and multiplayer.  The single player storyline follows the training and development of a kung fu warrior (yourself) who then gets thrown into a remarkably shallow plot involving ninjas and fighting and stuff.  The cutscenes linking each mission seem to be Mr Mark Healey and friends mucking around in the woods with a camcorder, waving their arms and legs about in a vain effort to look even more ridiculous than they already do.

Multiplayer then allows you to take your ungainly character and clumsily fight against other cack-handed players online, in a humorous celebration of quite how random gaming can be.  Fighting becomes less a game of skill, and more a game of luck and chance, with seemingly arbitrary successful hits.  Ok, I know I am exaggerating this slightly, and after a lot of practise, some can get quite aux fait with the controls and handling of these bouncing heroes, but on the whole it is just too sloppy and imprecise to feel any tangible sense of actually being in control.

You also have your gamer image to maintain.  It does not help when people come into the room to find you staring grimly at the screen, tongue protruding from mouth in stark concentration, foam emitting from the corners of your mouth, and your hand whizzing round and round the mousemat in continuous circles, whilst intermittently muttering curses and obscenities.  Plus the whoops and high-pitched screams emanating from your speakers, as well as the rubber avatars bouncing around the screen like jellified scarecrows do not give credence to your claim that this is an adult game.

But hey, I’m in a good mood, so I’m going to pull something positive from this.  RDKF is fun.  It’s a laugh.  And isn’t that what gaming is all about?  Sure, it is a bit of a five-minute wonder, but there are worse ways to spend your gaming time.  RDKF won’t teach you anything about Kung Fu, but it might just teach you not to take yourself so seriously…

The Ship

The Ship Review – 2006

Where is the best place to murder somebody?  Now I was pondering this very question myself the other day.  In a crowded city for instance, it might be too easy, as you could use short or long range with relative ease, and then use the interminable crowds to facilitate your escape.  On deserted moorland would be trickier, as you would be more noticeable to your quarry, who may try to run for it.  In a junkyard would be really cool, and sport a lot of environmental aids to make your task more elaborate.  I was contemplating these thoughts, as you do, considering which would offer the most efficiency, and which would be most fun.  Hey, why are you looking at me like that…?

Now a ship.  Ah, a ship would be an idealThe Ship choice.  Firstly, it is a contained location, so nobody can enter or flee the crime scene.  Then you have the standard security personnel and equipment on a ship which would add tension and planning to the act.  Plus of course, owing to the unpredictable movements of your quarry, and also other passengers who might see the crime, you cannot rely on just one murder method; you have to be prepared to do the deed in a variety of sly and surreptitious ways.  Yes, you can see why a ship is a perfect setting for a murder-fest.

The question though does remain as to precisely why you would want to murder someone at all, unless of course you happen to be some insatiable serial murderer with a penchant for surmounting challenges.  Well, aren’t we all?  Aren’t we?  Oh.  Sorry.  Well, anyway the basis for these water-bound murders is quite simple.  A mysterious Mr X has taken the ship to uncharted waters, and has started a lethal game of cat and mouse, where the only way you can survive is by assassinating your randomly designated target.  Plus, you have to keep an eye on your own back at the same time, because you are also on the hit list of one other person aboard.  All the time Mr X sits behind the scenes and gloats over the bloodshed whilst polishing his exotic barbed syringe collection.

So, your first move would obviously be to find a weapon.  Now this is the best bit, as each ship has a variety of different methods to smear your quarry’s brains over the floor.  You could go with a standard axe or knife, which are effective, but don’t earn you much cash from Mr X.  Alternatively you could go for a more unique method of dispatch, such as a lethal injection, a dropped lifeboat, or perhaps a flare gun to send them down in a screaming wreath of flames.  You could even head down the path of humiliation, batter them to death with a brolly if you wanted, or perhaps show them the wrong side of a candlestick.  Not the most obvious tools for murder, but certainly makes a nice change from the usual.  The methods of murder are all quite sadistic really, but still plenty of fun.  And in the game…

There is a single player game which takes you round various missions on Mr X’s ship to try and save your sorry hide, but this is just an introduction really, a taster to prepare you for the main course, which is online play.  Multiplayer is joyful reunion of like-minded sickos who compete in Mr X’s game for cash, glory, and of course the obvious thrill of gruesome murder.

In concept this should work extremely well, and to a certain extent it does.  But the atmosphere is somewhat not quite as you had imagined, with suspense, horror, and a thrilling hunt.  Instead it slopes into a melee of players sprinting about the ship in a tearing hurry to find their victims first.  The public chat channels are spammed with discourteous requests to ‘get out of the [fulminating] way’, and ‘where the [bludgeoning] hell are you?’, which sadly unveils the dignified models of the players into their coarse teenage realities.  Of course that is a rather agist generalisation, but one that holds true throughout the majority of online play.  Typically as well you have griefers.  The players who slaughter everything in their path, regardless of whether they are the assigned quarry or not, and these do ruin the game for many.

On a more technical note, the game’s construction does not hold up well under scrutiny.  For instance, being spotted by a security guard or camera will get you arrested if you have a weapon in your hand.  But there are some places, such as in a lift, where by standing close to the wall, you can be spotted by the security camera in the next room.  Also, the music that is played on the radios around the ship, although full of period character, does not react as sound should react.  When walking away from one radio, instead of fading out as you approach the next radio, instead it just completely cuts between the two.  So in one single step you can basically switch radio stations.

Most of the weapon placements are seemingly random as well, meaning the first to search the cabins get the best shooters and blatterers, whilst you are frequently running about with little more than a pencil sharpener.  And don’t get me started on those awful doors which only ever open one way, sometimes swinging out towards you and unthoughtfully trapping you in some random plant pot or solid wall.  These and a few other similar issues can serve to further ruin the immersion of the setting.

Graphics are in shipshape condition, fresh and clean, although rather generic and unexceptional.  The environments and characters look fine, but not jaw-droppingly so.  As regards the quality of the sound, this is an example of a plan gone wrong.  Sound effects were intended to be deliberately over-the-top in an attempt at light-heartedness and humour.  So if you send you character to the toilet, you will hear copious amounts of wet spurting and plopping as they unleash their putrid innards in a sickening soundfest of gratuitous overkill.  Then when your character needs to sleep, you hear the kind of teeth-grating, wet, billowy snores that have caused many a divorce.  And when eating or drinking, your character’s complete disregard for even the slightest form of etiquette results in a grotesque quagmire of chomping, slurping, snorting and spitting that simply makes you want to smash their scrawny little faces in.  The sound is possibly the weakest and most annoying part of the entire game.

The Ship first saw life as a multiplayer mod for Half Life, and a lot of people still play that mod.  But you just have to question whether it is worth your cash to invest in this mod-remake, when the free version is still plenty of fun.  Also, at the time of going to press, the number of available servers to play The Ship on could be counted on fingers and toes.  Well if you are 7-fingered and 7-toed anyway.  There are usually opponents to play against, but most servers are still occupied primarily by bots.

The Ship does work, but only just.  We can see what the developers had in mind when they designed the concept, and on paper it was a glorious scheme.  But in practise it does start to tear at the seams, and soon becomes a rather forgettable experience.  But then, even forgettable experiences are still quite enjoyable sometimes.  Plus, there can be few better ways to release your psychopathic desires to slay innocent humans.

ParaWorld

ParaWorld Review – 2006

It is fairly hard to actually find a period in history that has not already been visited in the gaming world.  Thus, finding fresh source material that hasn’t been covered a dozen times already is quite a challenge.  Paraworld feels that familiarity breeds contempt, so it has selected a completely different era in which to base its game world; the Jurassic period.  Yes that’s right, forget the tanks of WWI, and the elephants of the early Eastern European wars; now you’re fighting with dinosaurs.

The game even goes as far as to suggest an ParaWorldalternative theory of why dinosaurs existed, and whether they existed at all.  Maybe they just got accidentally sent over from a parallel world.  Well, why not, eh?  The story follows three insipid heroes, sorry, three intrepid heroes as they get sent to a parallel world, and have to find their way back to the real one.  The problem is, the parallel world is in a state of perpetual warfare, which you may just have to participate in if you want to return home.  So lots of brutal dinosaur violence then.  Lovely!

The parallel world is inhabited by people who are still living in the Stone Age.  Coarse cavemen with beards wielding giant bone axes, and implausibly breasted female warriors brandishing sharp pointy spears which they are only too happy to shove up your nose.  These locals are the ones who control the dinosaurs, and breed them for their own nefarious purposes.  Thus, when wartime comes, it is frequently a case of, ‘my dinosaur is bigger than yours’, as opposed to the strengths of the human warriors.

Paraworld is an RTS game, and some may question its originality.  Is the game actually carving its own path, or is it just a cloned formula of your standard WWII RTS?  To a certain extent, the gameplay will be very familiar, but Paraworld does manage to establish the unique strength of its environment.  Let’s take a look at the gameplay and you will see what I mean.

Although each mission has its own objectives, the basic RTS premise of: ‘build base, research, build army, bash enemy with army, cry as enemy obliterates you’, still remains the focus on pretty much every level in the game.  There is a bit of variation, and some rudimentary storyline elements, which loosely tie together each mission, but the RTS instincts at the heart of Paraworld remain intact.  Build your army and start warring.

With a unit cap of 52, Paraworld does limit itself rather severely.  With some games having a unit count of up to 64,000, a paltry 52 may seem rather insignificant.  However, I would argue that having a limited number of slots to fill, although an illogical restriction, is actually beneficial for the overall gameplay.  Rather than amass a humungous mismatch army, you are forced to create a healthy mix of warriors and workers to keep your economy and your battles running smoothly.  And someone who happens to be faster at clicking the buttons than someone else, does not necessarily gain the upper hand through speed.  The unit count actually evens the gameplay, and makes it more tactical, as opposed to being a burden in any way.

What adds a lot of fun is the way that most units add their unique personalities to each battle.  Maybe you have a wild boar with its rider that leaps in and out of skirmishes.  Perhaps a battle mammoth that charges and batters heavily into the enemy, skewering them with its enormous tusks.  Or perhaps a giant Bigstompysaurus that clouts enemies at close range, and also has a whole band of archers secured into a carrier upon its back, taking care of the long range warfare.  Each unit utilises the strengths and abilities of each dinosaur nicely, allowing for both effective and unique units.

One of the criticisms that could be lowered at Paraworld is the unbalanced nature of the units.  Each race has its own unique dinosaurs and fighters, and generally these adhere to the standard accepted RTS maxim of the rock/paper/scissors routine, where each unit has strengths against some enemy units, as well as weaknesses to other enemy types.  However, that line is slightly blurred in Paraworld into something more like clay/tissue/spoon, with some units being too weak in all areas, and some being too powerful in all areas.  The infamous ‘tank rush’, usually combatable in most modern RTS titles, is once again effective, although obviously it is now a dino rush instead.

The rest of the game is what you would expect, falling into familiar strategy patterns that are ingrained deep into our brains.  A number of resources, plenty of upgrades, plenty of special units; all very pretty and impressive, but not a giant step up from the ordinary.  But it must be said that Paraworld includes all the intricate polished elements of any strategy games.  For instance, the standard command of Ctrl+1 groups together any selected units, and pressing each number highlights the selection you assigned to it.  A multiplayer mode is also included, allowing up to 4 players to compete against each other.  Allied gameplay can be very rewarding if worked well with your opponent, although currently multiplayer match-ups are not as commonly available as we would like.  Hopefully this will be remedied in the near future as more people buy the game.

One thing I was quite impressed with was the quality of the visuals.  The grass waves gently in the breeze, each individual leaf of each tree rustles and moves independently to the rest, the battle units fidget when bored, or cheer and dance when excited, and everything is rendered nicely in fully rotatable 3D.  The environments are very pleasing, with dynamic vegetation meaning a crop of wild flowers can pop up anywhere at any time, or a herd of friendly dinos can saunter into view randomly.  There is a tangible sense of place and atmosphere that is frequently missing from similar RTS titles.

There is nothing fundamentally new with Paraworld, but there is also nothing significantly wrong.  In fact, the scenario change makes a welcome break from the hackneyed themes we have suffered of late, and was truly refreshing to play.  Yes, I have to review games as part of the job, but I continued playing after I had finished writing this review, as its endearing qualities continued to exert a strong draw upon my gaming senses.

Buy this game.  Not only because it is a joy to play, but because the developers had the balls to try something new.  The result is a stimulating and invigorating rejuvenation to all us hardened RTS players who are tired of the same old trawl.  Play Paraworld and feel good about yourself.  Plus, dinosaurs rock!

Hearts of Iron II - Doomsday

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday Review – 2006

Once upon a time there was a strategy game called Heart of Iron II.  Now it was loved by many, and it loved them in return, until one day a child was born unto them.  Doomsday!  Well, it’s not what we’d call a child, but some have strange tastes.  Doomsday is the add-on pack for the highly acclaimed Hearts of Iron II, and wonderful little cherub it is too.

Doomsday is set after WWII, which is kindaHearts of Iron II - Doomsday refreshing, dealing with the aftermath of aforementioned event, and delving into part of the Cold War era.  You know the drill: colour coded map, you start as any one of several nations, and then try and take over the world through war, diplomacy, or rigged waterbomb fights.  The main players in the fight are the Commie pigs (Soviets), and the Democratic yanks (Americans).  Take control of either and you get to fight against the fiendishly fiendish enemy.  Whoop, etc!

Gameplay is virtually identical to the add-on’s parent game, leaving us primarily with a difference in content.  Yes, you are supposed to believe that those grey and red areas are different to the grey and red areas in the original game.  It’s several years later dontcha see?  It doesn’t matter if it looks, plays and feels exactly like the original, the point is, we are now playing a completely different event.  Pah, don’t look at me like that.

To be completely honest, the game mechanics are so admirable, that I don’t really mind.  Indeed there are plenty of new shiny things to research, that it does now alter your approach and style.  Nuclear weapons do show their face, so that does add a certain edge to the first player that gains the ability to obliterate other countries at the twitch of a pinky.  Of course you may want to infiltrate and stir up enemy production a little before they have the same devilish ideas as you.  Diplomacy options are also improved, enabling fresh ways to lovingly seduce your enemies into your fold.  Or just to tell them to nark off.

Of course you already know all the technical stuff, but a quick word about the graphics; there are none.  So noticeably absent that there must have been an uprising in the graphics department a day before the game shipped, and all the graphics went scuttling off into the wide blue yonder, never to be seen again.  But why waste such a wonderful game simply through a few missing graphics eh?  So just make do with splodges of garish colour and all will be well.  Everyone’s happy.

The sound certainly didn’t disappear though.  The rather pleasing soundtrack is a worthy accompaniment to the rest of the game, and sets a mood and an atmosphere quite adeptly.  The sound effects fail to live up to such aural delights, being rather effete and generic, but then when we have the excitement of a blue blob attacking a green blob, such trivialities pall into insignificance.

When you get fed up of pitting wits with the razor-sharp AI, you can also battle other world-leader wannabes online.  Sadly there are no options for a multiplayer matchup, or any tools to help you find a game.  So you will have to traipse around the net looking for an opponent to connect to you directly, but such efforts are worthwhile, as battling humans is so terribly satisfying.  Unless of course you lose.  But even so, you’ll have fun trying.

It is all too easy to condemn Hearts of Iron II for its graphical inadequacy, vertical learning curve, and other elements that we tend to expect from a modern game.  But really, it is a game designed for strategy purists; people who see through the superficial interface and appreciate the game for its core function – Deep and fulfilling strategy.  People who dismiss Doomsday as outdated and funless are naïve fashion-following types who dictate what they want from a game, and don’t allow the game to win them over with its own glorious merits.

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is a truly enjoyable experience, and certainly gives value-for-money in terms of gameplay and lifespan.  C’mon people, if only to see the gloopy yellow blobs assaulting the feisty white blobs.  Genius!

Three Lions

Three Lions DVD Review – 2006

So with 2006 abuzz with the tension of the World Cup, surely it is time to flood the market with patriotic football emblems of how amazing England is, to capitalise on the heady elation of millions of England fans.  So expect to see England clothing, Beckham tea-cosies, Gerrard sewing machines, Neville tissue paper, and numerous other articles of dubious quality or function.

Enter Three Lions.  This is a DVD containing a documentary about someone’s three chosen lions for this world cup.  These are Beckham, Rooney, and Lampard.  There is a documentary about each of these players, which we will have a brief look at now.

Being Frank

This is pretty much a ‘day in the life’ of Lampard.  Three LionsThe camera follows him around all day, and he happily warbles about his life, his past, the clubs he has played for, and absolutely tonnes of pointless info, like how well he cooks pasta.  He takes us for a tour of his old house which he no longer lives in.  Why??  Then he goes to visit his dad, and they both reminisce about mum’s cooking, how much he used to cry, and other useless info.  By the end, you just have to ask, what is the point of all this?  Sure it gives a little insight into the life of Lampard, but there is far too much garbage in there to make it worth watching unless you have any desire to know the minutiae of this star’s life.

Rooney’s Rise

Being on the same DVD, you would expect this would take the same style as the previous documentary on Lampard, but no, this is completely different.  You never ever actually get to speak to Rooney, just look at pictures of him, and listen to hundreds of adoring interviewees trilling about how amazing and awesome he is.  However, this is a little bit more comprehensive about the career and footballing life of Rooney, and thankfully stays on topic throughout, without delving into what his favourite lunch is or anything.

The Making of Beckham

Again, this is similar to the Rooney documentary, comprehensive details about the football career of Beckham himself, and this time you even have snippets of an interview with Beckham himself.  A fairly interesting watch.

However, after having watched these documentaries, a glance at the DVD box reveals quite a disturbing revelation.  The Lampard one was aired in 2004, The Rooney one in 2003, and the Beckham one back in 2000.  This is old material.  Not some up-to-date coverage of the players who will be England’s hope this year, but a desperate dig-up to find any material possible to make easy money out of the footballing populous.  And there are no extras on the DVD either.

This is a scandalous idea, and the complete lack of effort expended in latching together a few dusty old documentaries is a bit of a smack in the face for anyone who wants to enhance their World Cup experience with this DVD.  If you get a free copy off someone it might be worth watching, but whatever you do, do not pay any money whatsoever for this cynical cash-in, unless you have any particular desire to watch Lampard struggling vainly for ten minutes to open a tin of tomatoes.

Take Command - 2nd Manassas

Take Command: 2nd Manassas Review – 2006

They say first impressions count.  I would generally tend to agree.  However, my first impression of Take Command: 2nd Manassas was something along the lines of “Woweee, this is so horrendously ugly and unplayable”.  Now I still maintain that the game looks like the rear end of a constipated elephant, but that now no longer bothers me, as this particular elephant’s posterior is host to one of the finest wargames this year.

A clue to explain this may be found in the Take Command - 2nd Manassasself-proclaimed genre branding from creators Mad Minute Games, who define their game as an RTCS (real time combat simulator).  This means none of the concessions from real life you would expect from your standard RTS title.  And despite a less than remarkable face, it plays better than a football match between England and Jamaica.  Anyway, back to topic…

Just like MS Flight Simulator provides the real life experience in the flight sim genre, so 2nd Manassas attempts to cradle the concept of realism lovingly in its arms in the strategic wargaming arena.  So we have plenty of strategy games out there, but all make allowances, all treat you as a god not a commander, all bend certain rules of realism in order to make the game more enjoyable.  What we have here is a game that tries to shun the world of strategy that we know, as a game, and instead replaces the game with a simulation of precisely how the American Civil War played out.

So you give an order, and rather than have your troops react as though from miraculous godly communication, you have to wait for a messenger on horseback to gallop up and deliver the message.  And if you have changed your mind before the order has been delivered, or the situation alters?  Tough luck.  Your message will still be delivered.  Of course you could send another messenger out, but by then it could be too late.  And maybe the enemy will intercept your messenger, and you might have to send out another one.  This is just one tiny nuance, but highlights beautifully the thrust towards realism that Mad Minute Games were aiming for.

In further pursuit of this goal, the AI generals you must pit your wits against really do give a strong semblance of clever human opponents, not the digital buffoons from most strategy games that will recklessly throw their troops straight at you with little regard for tactics or army lifespan.  They will contemplate their moves carefully, and really do their best to make you suffer.  The AI is pretty unique in that each enemy general also has a different attitude and level of tactical prowess.  Some will cautiously suss out your strength before starting an elaborate manoeuvre, others may be a little more bold and try something quite daring, whilst yet others may decide that you are a bit big and scary, and run off home to mummy.  Your own commanders may even disregard your orders if you turn your back on them for a few minutes, and take it upon themselves to ignore you in favour of carrying out their own ideas.  Damn frustrating, but incredibly realistic.

As already mentioned, this is based upon the American Civil War, and it must be said that the historical accuracy maintained here is very precise indeed.  Not exactly a point of interest for most Brits, but the history buffs amongst us will find few quibbles with the authenticity of the entire game experience; from facts and statistics, right down to AI behaviours and troop deployment.

With realism as its forte, you might imagine 2nd Manassas suffers somewhat in the gameplay department.  Well this is indeed the case, though not in the way you would expect.  The main gripe being the baroque control system which is too cumbersome and frustrating for the purposes of the game.  It is almost impossible to use it properly without mashing your mouse to pieces in vain efforts to try and make your troops do what you want them too.  It will become easier with practise, but the whole control system needs a major overhaul, and some severe streamlining.

The graphics are not only quite rubbish, but they also lack detail and variety.  The battlegrounds are sparse affairs with little to add character or atmosphere.  Sound-wise, the musical score is moderate, but the rest of the game sounds are fairly poor, and could have been improved a lot with just a little more thought in this area.

With its slow pace and realistic combat, Take Command: 2nd Manassas is very much a game for wargaming enthusiasts, not really for the casual gamers who like to dip into AOE III or Warhammer now and then.  So ignore your first impressions of this game and you will soon discover that inner beauty means far more than superficial glam.  This is deep strategy on a grand scale.

Red Orchestra

Red Orchestra Review – 2006

The overriding desire of most games is to pick a subject that will draw players, and then strip away all the dull and unexciting parts, leaving only the tastiest morsels to be consumed by the hungering gaming audience.  In the end using only the most enjoyable and exciting elements of the overall game scenario.

But then you had games like Operation Red OrchestraFlashpoint, which taught you that it isn’t actually possible to storm into Tommy’s base and take him out single-handedly, or find magic health packs scattered handily around the battlefield, that will seal up bullet holes and fix broken bones with ease.

By including even the more menial and common of a soldier’s duties, it brings you far closer to the battlefield than the gung-ho antics of COD2 or BF2 will ever hope to.  Is that a good thing?  Yes and no.

For sheer enjoyment and raw gaming pleasure, the streamlined arcadism of those latter two titles will amply sate the lust of almost any FPS fanatic.  But the experience presented by Red Orchestra is something quite different.  It doesn’t offer you a fast-paced thrill-a-minute recreation of war, but does offer you a realistic depiction of what it would really have been like to fight in the bloodied battlefields of WWII.

Despite the recent glut of WWII shooters, which it might seem inspired the game, Red Orchestra has actually been around for several years in the form of a mod.  It won the Make Something Unreal competition using the Unreal engine, and has gained such critical acclaim that now developers Tripwire have been hired to develop a commercial version to be run through Steam.

And impressively, despite sharing the same theme as so many recent shooters, Red Orchestra really does carve itself a unique niche in the multiplayer gaming scene.  The buzzword here is – realism.  If you are going to fight a war that actually happened, then Tripwire are determined to bring that whole experience to life, rather than just pick out the bits that would make it exciting.

So if you are expecting the traditional benefit of a nice FPS crosshair hovering handily in the middle of the screen for you to aim down, forget it!  You can raise the gun sights, and squint down the barrel, like the real life soldiers had to, but then you obviously can’t run as fast.

Whilst moving around the map, your gun sight picks up body movements and jogs around a bit.  When you stop moving it stabilises slightly, even more so when you crouch, and finally when you lie full length on the ground the waver on the barrel is barely discernible.  That has the obvious disadvantage that a stationary target is easier to hit than a moving one, but is a compromise many soldiers would have taken.

When driving in vehicles, you don’t get a handy outside view, but rather have to peek through a narrow window at the front.  Your view range can be increased by moving further toward the window, but then that increases your chance of getting your head blown off by an accurate shot.

Then you have the ability to sprint and jump, although both of these require energy, and slowly diminish your energy bar, after which you are reduced back to a gentle amble until you build up enough energy again.

But the things that really add atmosphere and tension to Red Orchestra are the omission of standard HUD helpers that make the game easier to play.  In most shooters you will have some kind of indicator to define whether that figure in the distance is an enemy or an ally.  Not here!  You soon learn to check your fire, as shooting a figure in the distance whose colours you cannot make out could just as easily result in a friendly death.  And the not dissimilar colours mean that identifying a friend or foe within the half second before you both open fire becomes a true test of nerve and skill.

It is realism like this that sets Red Orchestra on a completely different playing field to its ostensibly similar contemporaries.  Although using the same scenario, this is a vastly altered game.  Some may not like the detailed realism, but others may revel in it.

Technically the game is polished nicely.  The graphics may not excite the visually hardened breed of gamer today, but it is certainly functional, and adds to the gritty realism of the whole experience.  But whether or not you enjoy the game depends on whether you are looking for a fun shooter, or whether you are looking to relive WWII.

Ultimately then, Red Orchestra is an accomplished title.  But whether or not it can entertain you depends upon your personal taste in games.  Love it or hate it, realism rules this roost.

The Most Fertile Man in Ireland

The Most Fertile Man in Ireland Film Review – 2006

Allow me to make a rather broad generalisation here.  Most actors excel at certain roles or parts.  Many such as Mel Gibson or Catherine Zeta-Jones are clearly designed for the centre stage, to take the leading role.  Whereas many actors work absolutely sublimely as supporting actors, and that is where their true skill lies.  However, sometimes filmmakers will take people destined to be support actors, and shove them into lead roles, where they just look lost and frightened.

Kris Marshall was superb in Love Actually, The Most Fertile Man in Irelandfulfilling that support role extremely well, and showing us his humorous acting style at the same time.  But being cast as the lead figure in The Most Fertile Man in Ireland makes him lose that shine.  He just lacks the ability to generate a strong character for himself without some other actors to hide behind.

The story runs that in the future, sperm is almost extinct, and most men become infertile, leading to the obvious worry that posterity will die out.  However, for one 24 year old Irish virgin – Eamon, sperm is the one thing he is good at, as he soon discovers by impregnating the local sleep-around, who even uses max protection.  Soon, he is in hot demand, and has to set up his own impregnation clinic.  Not a bad job by all accounts…  Then romance enters into the plot, as well as other complications, and everything spirals towards a pedestrian climax.

The concept is actually quite decent, and with some more imagination this film could have worked really well.  But it just ends up seeming like little more than a glorified soap opera, so quotidian and uninspiring is the action, or lack thereof.  The comedy falls flat most of the time, with a few highlights, but mainly lowlights, and a lot of really boring dialogue scenes with less comedy than Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography.

There are no extras whatsoever to choose from, which is somewhat disappointing.  But then again, I would have had little motivation to watch any extras from this tedious title anyway, so maybe that is a good thing.

There is rather interesting colour dichotomy, with some scenes in bright gaudy colours seemingly representing the happier carefree days of Eamon’s life, and progressing into the drab Belfast norm.  But such marginal perks do little to resurrect the film from the overwhelming mediocrity that prevails.  One to watch once before losing it on the back of a dusty shelf.

Attack Force Z

Attack Force Z Film Review – 2006

A wartime film starring Mel Gibson and Sam Neill.  You’d be forgiven for being impressed at that alone.  However, Attack Force Z is not quite the sum of its celluloid, as we shall see.

Action is set in a Jap-occupied PacificAttack Force Z island in WWII.  The eponymous Attack Force Z are an elite unit of Australian commandos that are sent on an extremely dangerous mission to retrieve the occupants of a plane that crashed within the mountains on the island.  The film follows their exploits in the scenic island as they face the Jap infestation.  This is not Mel Gibson as you would remember him though.  This is a very young Mel indeed, with a somewhat awkward Australian accent; and it is a similar story with Sam Neill.  With their presence out of the way, the film fades into a reasonable, but underwhelming experience.

What is commendable is the gritty realism of the action.  No punches are pulled to show the inhumanity of wartime; from the grisly violence, right down to scenes of torture, which are really quite moving.  The senselessness and futility of war is highlighted as the innocent get slaughtered, as well as the good and noble.  And like so many other great films in which a band of heroic soldiers put their lives on the line in the call of duty, does the end ever justify the means?  Does the bloodshed make the goal worthwhile?  Attack Force Z shoves that down your throat with a resounding ‘NO!’

Sound and video quality are what you would expect of a 1982 movie, acceptable, but lacking the polish and fancy effects of modern titles.  The soundtrack is noticeably adept at the job it does, inspiring patriotic zeal and accompanying the action pretty well.  It must be mentioned that the setting of the film is simply stunning, with the Pacific island backdrop serving as wonderful scenery.

Whilst the action jogs apace, the overall feeling is just slightly hollow.  Japanese soldiers for instance are portrayed as imbecilic buffoons who seem strangely attracted by the prospect of dying in gruesome ways, and attempt to do this at every opportunity they get.  This makes a lot of the battle scenes quite unsatisfying, as you know that no humans could be quite that thick.

The only extras are a theatrical trailer and a 25 minute interview with the cast and the producer.  Ah, but let’s stop complaining and just enjoy Attack Force Z as a throwaway element of a winter evening.  It really isn’t all that bad.  It just really isn’t all that good either…

Legion Arena

Legion Arena Review – 2006

Slitherine have been purveyors of fine strategy games for many years.  Their game engines to date have been based around a similar concept to Rome: Total War, although establishing the whole ‘turn-based management with real-time wars’ system a long time before afore-mentioned heavyweight or its illustrious Medieval forebear entered the scene.

The fundamental difference has been that Legion ArenaSlitherine have always had a unique combat system for the real-time element of the game.  Rather than be able to control your units mid-fight, the emphasis is given to the preparation of the battle, where you can assign orders, routes, behaviours and tactics.

Thus, once you have set it all up, you have no hand in the battle at all, but just have to sit back and admire how beautifully your carefully crafted manoeuvres work out.  Although immensely frustrating at the lack of control when your men gleefully gambol around the hillocks in a fashion you were not expecting, it did have a certain charm.

This latest Slitherine game makes some changes to formula, chopping some bits, yet adding others.  The first to go down the pan is the management part.  You now no longer have any direction or control over any area of land, but rather the campaigns consist entirely of a vast string of preset scenarios hitched together in linear fashion.

Possibly this was done so that the game could follow a historically accurate course of Roman history, but such management aspects made meaty additions to the game, and it now feels a little undercooked without them.  The storyline covers countless wars from the era of Rome, developing it from a small nation into a mighty kingdom.

However, during the RTS elements that the game almost solely consists of now, your capabilities have now been upgraded so that you have a limited means of controlling your army.  There is still a lot of focus on the setup, and how you compose your troops into their various positions and assign orders, but the real-time commands offer a controllable option when the action is in progress.

The orders you can give in-game are dependent upon a slowly regenerating bar, which will be lowered as you start to order your troops to do things.  Initially, this causes little problem, but as you get to control more divisions of infantry and cavalry, you find that your order capabilities run out extremely quickly.  Just assigning three or four different units to do different things can knock your bar down to zero.

If this was actually a tactical part of the game and had a genuine reason for existing, based upon ancient warfare abilities, then this might have merely served as an extra tactical nuance to the game.  But the sheer illogical stupidity of it just makes the soul despair.

For instance, your Militia might be having trouble with some Heavy Cavalry, and there just happen to be some War Elephants and some Praetorians standing aimlessly nearby.  So you order the elephants onto the enemy cavalry, only to find you cannot do the same with the Praetorians through lack of order points.  And all the while the dumb AI means your Praetorians will stare glumly at nothing, despite their comrades being torn to shreds a few paces away.

Then you have to factor in the unclickability.  Quite simply, there are rather obscure hotspots for each and every division of units.  There appears to be no rhyme or reason to this, as clicking on similarly logical locations within a division will frequently yield enormously varied results.

The pain comes however, when you attempt to order a unit to attack somewhere, and instead you will miss the hotspot, and they will simply move there instead of attacking the enemy you targeted.  So your precious order points are wasted fruitlessly upon an endlessly futile exercise instigated by the frustrating hotpots, or lack thereof.

Then you get bounteous heaps of other battlefield inadequacies, such as patrols that will stop half way through their advance without cause, or archers who will fire upon the first enemy they encounter, then somehow forget about all the other ones nearby, instead preferring to wait patiently for you to identify what precise target you would like them to attack next.

The possibly unfair, but inevitable comparison to Rome: Total War shows up just how deficient Legion Arena is in all aspects of RTS.  The AI in particular is really quite horrendous, and although I won’t delve into the minutiae of the faults and problems, they really do show when viewed in comparison with one of the RTS big boys.  Never does the action feel real enough to pass for a real-life battle.

Graphics fail to impress, with the rather angular 3D shapes cutting a rough edge when zoomed up close.  The music score is really quite fantastic; until you realise that the same track is played for every single battle without fail, and eventually the brilliance fades into a moderate annoyance.

Whilst Legion Arena does certainly offer mild enjoyment, the whole experience is extremely narrow in scope and potential.  So much more could have been achieved with just a little more planning and development.  Not the proudest moment for Slitherine then, but if they can continue to push their ideas forwards even more, they may come up with something that can truly rival Rome next time.

MX vs. ATV Unleashed

MX vs. ATV Unleashed Review – 2006

Gaming is a world where character and personality mean everything.  There are just too many generic shooters and dreary strategy games to merit even a mild glance at anything that does not sparkle with life.  Originality, shine, and creativity identify the games that have true individuality; the ones that scream out to us, offering bounteous gaming treats that have not been spat out of an industrial mouth several million times already.

On paper, MX vs. ATV would seem to be MX vs. ATV Unleashedone of those joyously carefree gaming romps.  It tries to do what TOCA did to road racing, but in an offroad environment.  There are heaps of buggies, quadbikes, dirtbikes, even a bi-plane for goodness sake, and you zoom these around oodles of muddy tracks full of jumps and death-defying leaps of faith.  But upon an extended examination, the game does seem to be somewhat…soulless.

The options open to you are quite simply multitudinous.  There are race modes such as supermoto, short track, hill climb, waypoint as well as an assortment of free-world challenges, freestyle competitions, and a variety of mini games.  Then you have the choice to do all this in quick races, single player, a full fledged selection of championships, and even a multiplayer option that allows up to 8 people online to compete head-to-head.

Now if the game continued to follow TOCA’s footsteps in the same vein of production, things would have been very interesting.  However, things now depart from such inspiration, and veer onto the path of arcade racing.  This is evinced by many things, not least the vehicle handling.  Such superfluous fripperies as grip and turning circle are happily flung aside to present a racing experience that can be mastered simply by using the arrow keys and half your attention span.  Marginal use of skill or driving capabilities is required in any of the modes.

Then you have the AI, who have the curse of catch-up.  Whenever you are lagging behind, they will gladly set out a picnic, and wait for you to get back into the pack before resuming their pace.  But the second you start to nudge ahead of the rest, they will engage ultra-drive, and achieve phenomenal speeds and jumps in order to keep up with you and overtake you.  At which point they will slow down and wait again.  Sure it keeps you in the action all the time, but it robs the experience of any pretence it has to proper real-life racing.

Then you have the drab, simplistic, and distinctly uninspiring maps that are devoid of any real life or character.  Scenery is very limited, with little effort made to spruce up the fairly bland surroundings.  The music is relatively limited, sporting a small variety of tracks to chunder through, and all in the same style, which could become irritating for some.  Your vehicle also has a rather nasty tendency to throw you at random moments.  Of course you will be sent flying if you completely screw up a jump or something, but the game also likes to throw you off at sporadic intervals without cause.  Then when you get into the stadiums and try to pull of some neat tricks, there is an auto-dismount catch in your vehicle that restricts you from leaning forwards or backwards more than 45 degrees without flinging you humiliatingly down to the dirt.  For a game that is so bluntly arcadised, such pointless restrictions are almost laughable in their ineffable futility.

It must be admitted that there are some rather neat distractions that can entertain you for a few hours though.  First up is the fact that you get to fly old bi-planes at various stages in the game.  Why would you do that?  Hell knows.  But it certainly does add a tinge of insanity to the whole experience of what should technically be an offroad experience.  Then you have the simply superb map boundaries.  Not being content with impassable cliffs of invisible walls to prevent the racer leaving the field of play, there is instead some kind of amazing electro-cannon effect which activates when you pass a certain boundary.  The result is an absolutely enormous explosion which sends you hundreds of metres into the air, and about half a mile back into the map.  It is actually the most fun part of the entire game, and I spent many hours experimenting with how far I could get myself blasted into oblivion, and what horribly painful contortions I could get my little racer to emulate.

In summation, MX vs. ATV does nothing drastically wrong, it just fails to do anything drastically right.  It is a moderately entertaining blast sure, but is too lightweight draw any long-term appeal.  There are plenty of game modes to try, but all will become stale long before you have completed them.

Monkey

Monkey – Selected Episodes DVD Review – 2006

Some TV series, and some films will always live in our memories as special and remarkable.  The material we watched in our younger days, when TV was still in its comparative adolescence, we invariably retain in our memory under the hazy blur of our retromantic, rose tinted spectacles.  Monkey could be described as such a series.

Some people have wonderful memories Monkeyof Monkey, and will joyously sit through these belated repeats just for nostalgic value.  However, show the same series to the uninitiated and they will gaze at you in befuddled wonder that anyone could actually watch such convoluted tripe.

Sadly, taking an impartial view of Monkey without the benefit of having an opinion stretching from three decades ago, it is quite clear that it is in fact a load of rubbish.  The story runs that a Tang priest, Tripitaka, has to retrieve some valuable ancient scrolls from a Buddhist temple.  He is accompanied by a pig monster, Pigsy, and a sand monster, Sandy, and also the titular Monkey.  Despite their somewhat interesting descriptions, all three are just human actors with minuscule props to bear relation to their role.  Monkey’s costume for instance is merely suggested by long fluffy sideboards.

The characters are admittedly quite distinctive and unique, with the male priest Tripitaka patently a female, and some splendid dubbed voices.  But the storyline for each episode is quite simply awful.  Dialogue is cheesy and uninspiring, and the action, although clearly intended to be fake and laughable, is just too inept and inert to even raise a smile any more.  The production qualities are also quite dreadful, with sound cutting out occasionally, and a frequently fuzzy picture.

The three ‘specially selected’ episodes included on this DVD are: Even Monsters can be People, The Country of Nightmares, and The End of the Way.  Precisely why these were chosen over the rest of the groansome series is a mystery I cannot comprehend, although it does speak volumes about the quality of the episodes that were not ‘specially selected’.  Delving into the Extras department yields no fruit either, as it merely contains a scant handful of trailers for random films.  And there was me expecting an interview with the costume department…

Monkey was never meant to be taken seriously, and back in the dark ages it gained some mild respect.  But in the modern era of film-making, Monkey does nothing in terms of story, action, or film-making prowess to excite even the slightest interest any more.  A nostalgic flashback certainly, but something you would be ashamed to show your friends.  Let’s leave such fragments of the past in our memories, and not resurrect them to critical damnation.

Agatha Christie - And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None Review – 2006

The joy of books is that they draw upon your imagination.  The locations, descriptors and protagonists all take on a unique identity on your mind; a vision that is different from anyone else’s.  Then when a film or game is based upon a book, it shatters your elaborate mental constructions, and replaces it with a reality that is often far removed from your own visualisations.  So if you have ever read the eponymous novel by Agatha Christie – And Then There Were None, don’t expect to be marvellously thrilled by this reinterpretation.  And to save myself the irksome task of typing out the full title, the game will from henceforth be referred to as ATTWN.

The basic structure of the book is adheredAgatha Christie - And Then There Were None to rather less than religiously.  A new character is invented so as to grant a way in which to tell the story.  You play the part of an 11th character, Patrick Narracot, and from his perspective, must solve the mystery.  To those who never read the book, the storyline brings together a number of unconvicted murderers, and starts killing them off, one by one.  It must be mentioned that game ending differs from the book, and is a good deal less satisfying.  The inclusion of the book’s ending as an extra does mollify this gripe somewhat though.

In terms of creating an atmosphere, ATTWN manages to generate a remarkably moody milieu, with every scene somehow just managing to exude a foreboding miasma.  The graphics are all pre-rendered, which limits their interactivity with the 3D characters, but allows the capability for some truly gorgeously styled backgrounds.  The 3D models do look a little out of place plodding around a rendered scene that is clearly dimensionally deficient, but if you squint you may be able to overlook this.

Having created a wonderfully atmospheric mood in which to immerse the player, ATTWN sadly fails to live up to this with a game that actually plays very well.  The story itself and the cutscenes wind an elaborate tale, and can easily capture the attention.  But then as soon as interaction is required, you start to see why this magnificent tale should have forever remained as a book.

Gameplay falls under the generic format of most adventure games, requiring you to converse at great length with the in-game characters to ascertain why their cat is feeling poorly, or why Mrs Bladdersnitch’s lawn is neater than Mr Blubberingale’s.  In fairness, the voice acting is pretty decent on the whole, and not all the conversation is dull waffle.  Then the rest of your chores involve acquiring as many items as you can and combining them with all your other items in the hope that some abstract puzzle might somehow solve itself.  A lovely soundtrack accompanies your progression through the game, helping build the tension even more as time inexorably ticks by.  The ominous tone of the plot is well represented musically throughout the entire game.  Ambient sounds also add character.

The problem with ATTWN is that it should simply never have been converted into game format.  As a story it is magnificent, and allows you to unleash your imagination upon the horror of what is happening.  But when it tries to add interaction into the equation, that is where the attempt falls flat.  A car is never used as a salad seasoning is it?  So why is a perfectly good novel squeezed into the mould of an adventure game.  It just doesn’t suit interactive gameplay as well as it does a work of literary fiction.

Sure, the whole game does suffice to deliver up a healthy wodge of intrigue, but it seems strange that a story should be offered that so many people already know.  Admittedly the ending is different, but being so unsatisfying, it is bound to annoy a good deal more people than it pleases.

ATTWN is generic adventure gaming, but bolstered by a decent plotline.  There is nothing new here, but if you are looking for some tense, atmospheric adventuring, then you could do worse than add this little title to your collection.

Born to Fight

Born to Fight Film Review – 2006

The concept of Born to Fight is actually a very cool idea.  Take a handful of Olympic athletes, and shove them into an action film that uses their individual abilities to create some fantastic stunts and action sequences.  Sure it entails all manner of unrealistic manoeuvres in the face of heavy gunfire, but isn’t that what action films are all about?  Made in Thailand, dialogue is sadly in the native language, so you’ll probably need to make use of the subtitles if you are going to understand their rapid gibberish.  The Olympic actors involved are the Thai national team, and they are rather impressive.

The plot follows a traditional hostage scenario, Born to Fightwhere a gang of vicious rebels hold a whole village to hostage and threaten kill them all unless some drug baron or other is released from military custody.  So begins the waiting game, and mounds of gratuitous violence as the rebels mercilessly exterminate half the village in their attempts to keep things under control.  With their deaths imminent, the Olympic champions and the villagers choose to fight to the death.  And what a fight it is.

One of the athletes is a footballer of some sort, and he dispatches his enemies by kicking things at them.  His airborne acrobatics would put David Beckham to shame, and his accuracy is positively amazing.  Another is a gymnast, and she uses her skills to swing about amongst the mud-huts and pummel her enemies by swinging and kicking at them.  All the others use their skills to aid the fight, and the result is a truly entertaining and unique hybrid form of combat and athleticism.

The quality of the footage suffers occasionally, but since we are used to Hollywood standards, we should not expect the same of a Thai movie.  Also, despite the professionalism of the acrobatics, there is a certain amateurism in the fighting.  Blows and kicks patently do not carry sufficient weight to send the enemies flying backwards like they do.  A feeble punch from the delicate gymnast will almost knock out a rebel, and send him onto heavy trip into the dirt.  Aurally, sound quality is perhaps a little rough at times, and the music is less than enthralling.

But what the film lacks in polish, it makes up for in sheer variety, frenetic action, and a grittily realistic atmosphere.  Because the violence is so down-to-earth, so unglorified, so cruel, it paints a really vivid picture.  Old men, young children, women, there is no partiality, all are mown down by enemy gunfire in frankly sickening numbers at a time.  There is no shying away from the more grotesque elements of war, and that is why Born to Fight is both enormously violent, but also a more true-to-life experience than many of its celluloid contemporaries.

A glance at the extras reveals a handful of trailers, as well as small featurettes on the cast, the set, as well as interview with some of the more prominent characters in the film.  Worth a glance, especially for the insight into the shooting of stunts, which any health and safety official would drop dead with shock at the sight of.

An entertaining, brainless blast, Born to Fight certainly is.  So long as you can put up with the subtitled Thai dialogue, it is a worthy expenditure of an hour and a half of your time.

Dynasty Warrior 4 Hyper

Dynasty Warrior 4 Hyper Review – 2006

Priggish PC snob that I am, it is incumbent upon me to poo-poo the achievements of those console monstrosities at every available opportunity.  And we have a here a console conversion.  I had my big bashing hammer of damnation, and my scythed tongue of vilification at the ready, but sadly it looks like I won’t have much opportunity to use them after all.  Dynasty Warriors 4 is actually a reasonable conversion, so I shall have to make do with snorts of mild derision.

The game is set in one of the bloodiestDynasty Warrior 4 Hyper periods in Chinese history – The Three Kingdoms.  This was a campaign between the Wei, Shu and Wu dynasties and consisted of endless warring between these three bloodthirsty factions.  According to a reference work I examined, the population of China was around 56 million before this historic period, and fell to 16 million at its lowest ebb before peace was restored.  A rather excellent setting on which to base a game then, with endless potential for mass oriental-style slaughtering.

An in-game encyclopaedia of the period, as well as tactical strategy maps further the idea that this RPG is somewhat strategy orientated.  5 minutes into your first game and that thought will be banished completely.  DW4 is frenetic arcade action of the most superficial kind.  Aside from the names of Chinese leaders, historical battle authenticity is flung aside as callously as a suspiciously malodorous Won Ton.

Quite simply, your chosen battle character recklessly charges at the enemy lines and pounds them all with his giant smashy swords and various other exotic Eastern tools of limb-disposal.  He has a variety of different attacks with which to dispose of enemy blood, the most impressive of which are the Musou moves.  According to a knowledgeable Chinese fly residing on my wall, Musou can be described as a kind of Chi, an inner strength with which you can perform almost superhuman feats.  This allows for some damn impressive spins, twirls, thrusts, lunges and slashes.

And quite simply, that is about the limit of your battlefield activities.  Pound the enemies mercilessly, taking down hundreds of them on every single map, while your decidedly vacuously brained AI soldiers slowly poke at the enemy hordes with their giant toothpicks, and at the pace of sloth-drawn rickshaw.  Repetition is something you will be comfortable with if you intend on seeing the campaign mode through to its conclusion.

Conversion from the PS2 has been almost successful.  Pleasing is the fact that the whole experience is faithfully recreated and shaped to fit nicely onto the PC, but bearing the obvious console limitations.  Graphics are a bit crusty, since they were created with the aged, frail body of the PS2 in mind, and the aforementioned shallow gameplay doing nothing to aid the ‘dumbed-down’ stereotype that consoles are sadly branded with.  But with re-aligned controls that fit the keyboard nicely, and the reasonable degree of polish, we can overlook these unfortunate genetic foibles inherited from our gawky console brethren.

The camera that follows the movement of your character is unfortunately bred from the same intelligence tree as your soldiers.  It trails miserably around behind you perfectly for ages, but the second you get involved in battle it gets all excited and roams around uncontrollably, leading to many a spectacular attack into thin air in entirely the wrong direction, whilst your foes attack your labouring posterior with unbridled glee.

At some point in the game, you will stop and question whether closing your eyes and hammering the same keys will make any difference at all to your success rate.  And laughably, it doesn’t really make a lot of difference either way.  It is possible to pull off some impressive combos and launched attacks, but a simple button bash of your primary attack, mixed in with a bit of Musou when your bar is full, and you can prevail in almost any situation.  A great way to achieve acute RSI, but not really the most satisfying way to play a game.

At its heart though, DW4 is an arcade slice-em-up with little aspiration for any greater accolade.  And credit where due, it does it pretty well.  You won’t use an awful lot of grey cells thrashing your way through the frenetic missions, but it still maintains the irresistible arcade appeal of overpowered abilities for mass destruction.  If you fancy waggling your axe at something a little more brainsome than a duck-brained AI general, there is a multiplayer option allowing two players on the same PC to face off with their chosen characters.  Not exactly long-term fun, but useful for resolving arguments over whose katana is the most awesome.

RPG status is granted by the addition of upgradeable stats and various other lightweight options, but don’t expect much more than a glorified arcade slasher.  It is certainly fun, but doesn’t really grab the attention for more than short bursts of a few hours at a time.  Just make sure you buy the PC version, because the PS2 version smells of Stinky Tofu. Honest!

Lula 3D

Lula 3D Review – 2006

Please.  Make it stop!  Adult games have never really fared very well on the PC, but this one just takes the biscuit; Lula 3D is a gaming travesty.  Ok, so we can accept that some games take on an adult theme.  Games like Singles and 7 Sins that provide a moderately entertaining gaming experience, but flavour it with a degree of eroticism in order to appeal to those who enjoy such things.

Lula 3D approaches from the other angle, Lula 3Dplying the user with copious eroticism and sex, with a vague hint of game lingering in the background.  This ‘game’ has been designed from the ground up to be a tool for gratuitous titillation, and the gameplay has seemingly been carelessly bolted on wherever the developers found room amongst the morass of artificial lust.

I will give you a simple example.  The game starts in a mansion.  Allow me to describe the scene as Lula minces outside in her low top and virtually non-existent skirt.  Glancing to the right, there is a nude couple shamelessly making love on a table, both of them moaning and grunting noisily.  In front of you, a topless model is sprawled on a sun-lounger, whilst another topless model strolls around the swimming pool.

A foreign man wearing Speedos is requesting sex off anyone who will come near him.  Lula herself will strip off and go swimming nude in the pool if you click a button.  There are also two lesbians pleasuring themselves in a shower, and a whole mansion full of erotic pictures and portraits.  Factor in a bed that allows Lula to pleasure herself with a giant dildo, and you get some idea of the developer’s mindset.

Even in a game though, we do expect some degree of professionalism, a certain amount of dignity and respect.  But Lula 3D shies away from such an attitude, and insists on treating you like some kind of common pervert with an insatiate lust for digital voyeurism.  And of course, what can possibly be harmful about portraying women solely as sex toys, as disposable pleasures, and merely a source of personal gratification?

As shallow as an empty paddling pool, and about as much fun, Lula 3D never even attempts to be anything but a cheap way to drown you in a deluge of giant breasts, crummy sex scenes, and animalistic lust.  You would almost believe the game was inspired by the wet dreams of a pre-pubescent youth.  Now hang on a moment…

The pathetic story, egregious gameplay, stilted animations, retchsome dialogue, and puerile puzzles do little to aid the claim that this actually a game, and not just a shoddy excuse for a bunch of sallow-faced geeks to digitally replicate what they could never hope to achieve in the real world.  If they put as much time into the gameplay as they did into perfecting their Bouncin’ Boobs technology, then Lula 3D might have stood a chance.  But they didn’t.  I mean who wants great gameplay when you spend hours admiring amazing mammary physics?

Frankly, Lula 3D disgusts me.  I feel dirty even writing about the game, let alone playing it.  In fact, I am supposed to aim for over 800 words when writing a review, and indeed I have here a whole list of faults, quibbles, criticisms, and general observations on how truly appallingly bad this game is.  But I am going to cut this review short, because quite simply, it does not deserve any further comment.  I have never before come across a game that made me quite this angry, and the charred plastic remains of a CD lying in my hearth bear testament to that fact.

The biggest damnation I can grant this grotesque monstrosity?  The abysmal Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, is more tasteful, more dignified, and sports better gameplay than this game.  Yes.  It is that bad!

Mindhunters

Mindhunters Film Review – 2006

Some places, some areas, just have a tangible miasma about them.  A distinctly foreboding and sinister atmosphere that permeates every nerve in your body.  Mindhunters captures such an ambience with the exquisitely judged island on which the film is set.  The island looks like any other ramshackle small-time American town except for one crucial difference – None of its inhabitants are alive.  The waitress serving the coffee, the street bum leaning against a lamppost, the gentleman and his wife tucking into their Sunday dinner, they are all dummies.  Puppets in the hands of a hidden puppeteer.

Seven FBI agents that are training hard toMindhunters become psychological profilers are sent to this purpose-built island to undergo a simulation of a crime as their final test before they qualify.  A murder has been committed, and they must use their highly trained FBI skills to solve the mystery.  To quote some famous last words, “This is just a simulation, right?”  Ha, yeah right!

Things soon take an ominous turn of events, as the FBI trainees themselves start getting killed by an unknown ‘puppeteer’.  Things head in an even more insalubrious direction when they are hit with the unquestionable knowledge that there is no-one on the island besides themselves.  Cue panic, fear, and tension that could be cut with a knife as the shaken group realise that the puppeteer is one of themselves.  The resultant scenario beautifully portrays the effects that nerves wracked by fear can have upon human nature, easily overriding natural logic, trust and sense.

Director Renny Harlin uses excellent mise en scène, swathing every single setting in incredible detail.  Sinister backdrops, richly littered with superfluous minutiae contribute even further towards the ominous tone and direction of the plot.  Cinematography is also fantastic, with well-composed shots, effective use of camera movement, and wonderful lighting that really gives depth to the film environs.  With a decent musical score to round it off, the production values of the film are clearly manifest by the admirable finished quality.

Sure, Mindhunters just can’t steer clear of those generic horror clichés, indeed it doesn’t even try to; it revels in them.  But this somehow works in its favour, simply because it does them with such style and panache.  The excellently devised plot twists and turns like a wildly convulsing python, and keeps you guessing as to the real identity of the killer right up until the final curtain call.

Extra features include a full length commentary with director Renny Harlin, a profiling of how the actors were trained for their roles, an insight into how the stunts and fight sequences were shot, and also a closer look at the lifeless island town, which reveals just how much detail was put into the production of the film sets.  These featurettes are decent enough to watch, but they do somewhat shatter the atmosphere that the film takes such pains to create.  So don’t watch them if you plan to view the film again.

For fast-paced, thrill-a-minute action, Mindhunters does an admirable job, never letting a dull moment penetrate the twisted tale it delights in unravelling.  The plot is a gratifyingly woven mystery of intrigue and suspense, and should satisfy even the most battle-hardened genre critics.  A damn fine way to freak yourself out on a dark night.

EN-4203

Enlight EN-4203 PC Case Review – 2005

Over the last few years, PC manufacturers have come across the astounding realisation that an unsightly beige box is not what everyone would desire above all else to proudly house their gaming machines.  So we have been treated to all manner of increasingly elegant cases and case mods to beautify our beloved hardware.

Enlight have branched out in their range of PC EN-4203cases to offer an all-new unit directed specifically at gamers.  The EN-4203 gaming case cuts quite a striking figure, its elegant black body interwoven with streamlined strips of silver.  The side also has a rectangular side window with a fan and a metal mesh through which to admire your gleaming hardware.

Heat is not going to be an issue here, with a total of four fans adorning the top, front, rear, and side panels.  Plus with plenty of ventilation to allow heat dispersion, the case is well equipped for overclockers, as well as any gamers just wanting an ultra-chilled and stable system.  Excellently, there is a digital display at the front of the case that keeps track of your fan speeds, as well as the data from several system temperature sensors, so you can monitor the case heat at all times.

The top of the front panel is actually a lockable door that opens to reveal all the disk drives, as well as an integrated 8 in 4 card reader.  For ease of use, the door’s hinges can be swapped, to allow the door to open from either direction, suiting all environments.  Additionally, the top bit of the door can be removed for easy and quick access to the card reader, the 2 USB ports, audio in and out sockets, and the power button.

The screwless nature of the entire case makes fitting or removing components a breeze, negating the use of any additional tools.  Even the alternating door hinge and removable section can be dismantled via a few clips.  Portability is also a bonus, with a large but unobtrusive carrying handle nestled into the top of the case.

There are also several optional extras that can be purchased to accompany the case.  One is a fan controller, the functions of which I cannot say, since this device was not included with the review unit.  However, there is an alternative case siding, with an elegantly styled Perspex window, and it has to be said, it looks a damn sight more sexy than the default case siding.

The window is far bigger, allowing you to see more of your PC’s innards, and with the utmost clarity.  The side-mounted fan only adds to the sheer style of the window, achieving the dual merits of form and function.  This alternate case siding is admittedly an add-on, which comes at a further cost, but such an expenditure is well worth your while if you desire a particularly trendy housing for your PC.

There are one or two drawbacks to the design which hold the EN-4203 back a little, but these are only minor gripes.  The inconvenience of having to open a door to access your disk drives for instance, which could annoy over time.  Also, the multi-hinged door doesn’t hang from the secondary side as well as it does the initial side, scraping on the casing a little.  And the whole screwless idea, although a good concept, makes for some really fiddly clips and clasps.  I almost broke the plastic several times in my attempts to unclip some of the fasteners.

The overall style of the case is almost comparable to the famous Alienware chic.  But with a gratifyingly classy side window, and with a fantastic interior design with plenty of upgrade potential, the EN-4203 is genuinely quality piece of kit.  Get one now, if only to put on your mantelpiece to the envy of your peers.

Fritz Chess 9

Fritz Chess 9 Review – 2005

Fritz Chess 9?  So there have been 8 predecessors to this venerable series.  When series have reached so many figures, you start to wonder if the updates justify a new game each time.  Certain games use their imagination to generate exotic backgrounds, wild themes, and different game styles and variations.  But chess?  Chess is hard to put in any other context than as a thinking man’s boardgame of choice.

So how exactly does Fritz Chess 9 improveFritz Chess 9 upon its generically monikered prequel?  On the surface, not an awful lot, it has to be said.  The true changes lie under the outer shell, evident in the truly deadly updated match engine that will mercilessly annihilate your supposed skill and chess ego in just a handful of ruthlessly executed manoeuvres.  Don’t be put off if you are a chess novice though, as there is a whole training program that attempts to teach you the game, from the simplest basics, right up to advanced techniques.

Your tutorship comes in the form of videos by a fellow called Andrew Martin.  Now I’m sure Andrew Martin is a remarkable chess player, but sad to say, his teaching skills might be compared to my own personal chess skills – Woefully inadequate.  On some parts of the game, he spends fruitless hours explaining, then repeating the same point again and again and again with barely discernible alterations.  Then he will whiz through some important bits that it would have paid to dwell on for a bit longer.

For instance, the exercises to find checkmate in one move from a pre-determined board position are pretty futile.  Since the pupil knows that a one-move checkmate is possible, he will keep looking until he can find that one move.  A much more thought-inspiring approach would be to develop some simple tactics leading up to the killer blow, rather than just setting up the full scene, and letting the pupil discover the coup de grâce.  It makes you feel simply a pawn in a bigger picture, rather than the master tactician you are training to be.

When you have completed the training and learnt a few strategies to use in your game, there are also some advanced training video excerpts to watch from famous characters such as famed chess champion Garry Kasparov.  But to listen to these, you will need to attach your nurtured Almighty Chess Brain +12 in order to make the slightest bit of sense out of the intellectual observances made by these great men.  Plus, since they are just clips of longer videos, you don’t get the full flavour of their presentations.

In fact, aside from the overly simplistic tutorial, the whole game seems to be aimed squarely at seasoned chess players rather than novices.  Graphics are primarily 2D, although there is an included 3D view, which is still distinctly bland and lifeless.  Plus there are a plethora of different menus, options and bits and bobs that will serve no end of usefulness for a well-trained chess pro, but do little more than map out a checkerboard of confusion for anyone else.

Hence, if evaluated solely as a professional chess aid, Fritz Chess 9 would score very highly indeed.  However, it also attempts to expand its remit to novices and intermediates, and that is where it falls flat on its face.  There is just too little documentation to guide you through the complex structure of the menu system and options.

Sure, you will still manage to play a game of chess against a damn fine opponent, but we can do that online for free any time, without having to buy this package.  Therein lies the biggest weakness of the game.  It offers too little to anyone but chess experts.  An included multiplayer option with a year’s free subscription to Chessbase.com offers mild recompense, allowing you an online ranking and matchup system.

The AI itself is quite charactersome, nattering incessantly to you throughout the match.  Sometimes making scathing remarks on your inability to play chess, and sometimes just uttering random remarks, such as Mrs Doubtfire impersonations amongst many others.  But even that exuberant façade cannot hide the fact that behind this latest edition of Fritz Chess is very little new material besides engine updates.  A wonderful package if you happen to be a chess Grandmaster, but a pretty redundant expenditure for the rest of us.

Vietcong 2

Vietcong 2 Review – 2005

Vietcong was a fantastic game.  Blazing through the Vietnamese jungle with your trusty comrades at your side, performing all sorts of dangerous operations, and parlous runs behind enemy lines.  The problem is, the game was over all too quickly, leaving you with a sweet taste, but an insatiable longing for a bit more action.

I was hoping for greater length from developersVietcong 2 Pterodon this time around.  The promised inclusion of not one but two entire campaigns sufficed to quell my doubts in this regard.  However, playing through the first campaign, which is the US soldiers against the North Vietnamese, you are again struck by how short it is.  The second campaign pits you as Vietcong soldier against the same foes, but ridiculously, this second set of missions is even more pitiably diminutive than the first.

Rather than the solidly jungle-based warfare of the original game, Vietcong 2 brings the fighting to an urban environment.  Rather than firing through trees and copses, you will spend a lot of the time sprinting around balconies and rundown streets.  Sadly, Vietcong just doesn’t do the whole urban warfare thing very well.  Jungle skirmishes it crafted beautifully, but the combat system just fails to work as satisfactorily in the cityscapes of Vietnam.  You start to feel more at home when the second campaign reintroduces you to the familiar jungle setting.

The graphics too, although suited nicely to the abundant vegetation of rural Vietnam, fail to convincingly depict the city of Hue, in which the US series of missions is based.  Things look slightly dated, and the animation is rather stiff, and somewhat stilted.

Battles can become very immersive, depending on the mood of the AI.  Although relatively untrained in the art of tactical progression, they will still usually fight for their own skins pretty well, taking cover, and loosing off pot-shots whenever you poke a toe out of hiding.  Although sometimes bearing strong human characteristics, they are also prone to frequent bouts of plumb stupidity, sacrificing their lives, or the lives of their colleagues with rare abandon.  Their lack of awareness of each other is sadly a technical failure, rather than a depiction of true events, as both sides of the war used remarkable tactical gambits to overcome their enemies.

A word must be said about the performance of Vietcong 2.  If you have anything less than a modern, high-end machine, don’t even think about trying the game.  Despite the unexceptional graphics, it still demands far more of your PC than it rightfully should; low resolutions and lowered settings can still bring even the beastliest of machines to a crippling stutter.

Gameplay is what you would expect of a shooter, with plenty of set-pieces, a variety of guns, and healthy aversion to bullets.  You can forget all about Leroy Jenkins here, as your soldier is a remarkably fragile creature and can be felled in an instant if you are not exceedingly careful about what you are doing.  The additional down-the-barrel view of your gun also helps to mentally lodge your character more firmly in the reality of wartime Vietnam.

A basic multiplayer option is included, but which has little personality and little to offer, other than the setting.  It won’t really tear you away from Counter-Strike or Unreal Tournament.

Vietcong offers an amazing premise, but fails to deliver the full extent of its promise.  Technical deficiencies, as well as lack of scope, contribute to an enjoyable, but distinctly unremarkable game.  Consider this an inessential purchase.

Epsilon FX700-GLN

Epsilon FX700-GLN PSU Review – 2005

It’s not at the top of everyone’s upgrade list, but a new PSU is still a pretty essential purchase for all super-gamers cramming their exquisitely tuned gaming machines with all the latest hardware.  Without that precious current flowing abundantly to all your thirstily sucking components, your PC will end up floundering as badly as our beloved editor Richard in the deep end without his water wings.

The Epsilon FX700-GLN is quite a strikingEpsilon FX700-GLN beast really, with a gleaming bodywork of shiny dark blue metallic paint.  There are honeycombed cooling vents on the case, which allow for better airflow through the inner sections, and thus have an improved cooling effect.

Connector-wise there are more than enough power connectors to cope with all essential components, as well as several extra additions.  There are six large 4-pin connectors, six SATA connectors, six small 4-pin connectors, and one 4+4 pin 12V connector.

But turning more towards the accomplishments of the FX700-GLN, it boasts an incredibly impressive 85% efficiency.  Efficiency is basically a ratio between power consumption and heat output.  What this means to us is that this astounding device will run on a remarkably low amount of electricity, and stays cooler than most similar PSUs.  This coolness also grants the FX700-GLN an extended lifespan, which is yet another plus point in its favour.

Hearing it in action, you would be forgiven for mistaking the power of this little contraption.  The FX700-GLN is whisper quiet, due to a number of factors, and that is wonderful news to those suffering from PCs that sound like chainsaws to run.  Yet the low noise emission does not compromise the heat output, as it stays as cool as ever.

Compatibility will not be an issue for anyone, since all modern technology is supported.  The Intel ATX 2.0 standard, the latest AMD 64 CPU, as well as ATI Crossfire & nVidia SLI VGA card double +12V design are supported, as well as all motherboards currently on the market.

Predictably, the whole unit conforms to all the European WEEE & RoHS environmental directives, and also features over-voltage and current-protection safety measures, ensuring the complete protection of every single component in your system.

Admittedly, the FX700-GLN is supremely powerful, and will far exceed the needs of most PC users.  Cheaper 500+ watt PSUs might be preferable to some.  But for those who need the raw power, and want guaranteed high quality performance along with low noise and reduced power consumption, the FX700-GLN ranks amongst the elite.

FIA 06

FIFA 06 Review – 2005

Of all the sports in the world, few inspire more mass excitement and patriotism than a good game of football.  Or soccer, as I am going to have call it, so as not to befuddle my dear American friends.  Precisely what the universal appeal about 22 men kicking a piece of leather about a field is, I have yet to accurately convey through words.  It is just a deep inherent joy that is unparalleled in its uniqueness.

The FIFA series has been recreating that FIA 06real-life excitement more accurately with each and every game in the series.  Player movements and capabilities, along with graphical enhancements are incrementally transforming it into an ever-increasingly faithful depiction of the real game.

The problem is, with Pro Evolution Soccer already hogging centre stage in the gameplay and animation department, FIFA has been left just clutching its precious official licenses.  Yes, it gets better every year, but so far has not managed to rival the fluidity and accuracy of the Pro Evo experience.

But that may not be the case for much longer.  The FIFA gameplay engine is slowly but surely being built up into an impressive beast.  This year, things have become even smoother, the gameplay more lifelike, the AI maintaining a strong illusion of being human, and everything else polished and shined up nicely too.

Passing and ball control is quite delightful, and the players swarm about, making runs and shouting to each other.  No-one is perfect, and it is truly satisfying to see a player entirely miss an incoming ball, skew a shot miles off target, or watch a keeper deflecting the ball into his own net.

Thankfully there is none of that off-the-ball malarkey that FIFA 2004 introduced so damningly into the game.  You can still remotely manage other players whilst controlling your main man, but this is merely ordering them to do something, not controlling them directly.  For instance, if you are defending a ball, you can call in another man to help you.  Or if you have a throw in, you can make the receiving player run into an open spot before you pitch the ball to him.

One of the most commendable components of play is the through-pass.  Rather than passing to a player, it passes in front of them so they can carry on running without having to slow down.  These can make for devastating attacks on the enemy defence.  Plus with airborne through-balls as well, there are many methods of attack, which can be used extremely effectively against a disorganised defence.

Shooting is nicely realised, with a player’s accuracy and power depending upon a number of factors, including the angle of the shot, their distance from goal, the pressure of surrounding players, whether the ball is moving or not, and whether the player is moving of not.  So a wildly bouncing ball shot whilst being hassled by defenders, is not very likely to go in the net.

The chip-shot is also a wonderful tool, perfect for lobbing the keeper when he rushes at your attacker.  It is easier to use than in previous iterations, so it is a truly viable method of attack, rather than just a passing hope.  Overall, the keepers are just a little too skilled though.  On the lower difficulty levels they are about level with real-world keepers, but on World Class difficulty, they are shot-stopping automatons, parrying or catching almost anything you can throw at them.

First touch is absolutely necessary for a decent football game and FIFA 2006 does not fall short in this area.  Since the volatile ball movements can never be predicted, you have to be prepared for instant shots or passes the second the ball bobbles out towards you from a keeper block or a defender deflection.  There are even buttons that perform an automatic one-two, whether on the ground or in the air.

The fluidity of the whole experience is now manifest, as you can always react to the evolving situation as it happens, and you are not tied down to any linear movement restraints or patterns as you have been in previous FIFA titles.  The game is what you make it, and is genuinely rewarding of insightful and innovative play, making skill more important than an ability to repeat clichéd routines.

One criticism that can be lowered at every FIFA game in existence is that there are always small routines that can produce an easy goal.  In FIFA 2000 it was the horizontal run across the box, and the top corner shot when central with the goal.  In FIFA 2003 it was the crosses, with an almost guaranteed goal if your player was nearer the goal than your opponent.

This tradition of hereditary weakness is carried on with FIFA 2006.  The most straightforward way to score a goal is to blast a powerful shot at the keeper from a distance, forcing an acrobatic block or parry from him, and then continue running in to knock the ball into the net, while the keeper is still retrieving himself from the pitch.

There some people online who use this as their sole tactic.  Shooting from miles away, and then strolling in to put away the undefended rebound while the keeper is still out of position.  It is not as glaring as previous FIFA weaknesses, but does somewhat tilt your playing style, provoking you to go for goals that are not a reflection of real life football.

Whilst the majority will find their fun from the excellent online mode, where you can play single matches against other payers, or even compete in leagues and cups, there is also a 15 season singleplayer mode.  This runs deeper than just gameplay, and provides further management options for you to train and build up your dream team of players.

It must be said that online play suffers one major flaw – Lack of punishment for unsportsmanlike behaviour.  Since your online profile gives the stats of how well you do, players are always trying to improve their stats.  And a player finds that they are losing a game, they can quit on 89 mins, and not have a defeat marked on their stats.  But neither does the winner get a win recorded.

Ridiculously, I found that at least 40% of the online community are so juvenile as to abuse this flaw so as to make their stats better.  This can be unspeakably frustrating, particularly when you have worked really hard at a game and won a well-earned victory.  The stupid thing is, you don’t get punished for quitting, so more and more players have started to do it.

But overall, with slick menus, a decent selection of audio tracks, adequate in-game commentary, and lovely player graphics, FIFA 2006 is a polished package indeed.  With a match engine that is now a major rival to PES, FIFA has come off the touchline, and is now vying for possession.

At the moment, PES still remains the slightly better game, but by next year, we could be looking at a very different story.  Roll on 2007, when the big football fight takes to the field.

GTA San Andreas

GTA: San Andreas Review – 2005

From a gamer’s perspective, it seems the GTA series can do nothing wrong.  With each and every new title, Rockstar continually prove that they can press all the right buttons.  As well as enhancing every single game facet from Vice City, they have added more content than you can shake an Uzi at.  To simply describe San Andreas in detail is a Herculean effort that I have no desire to make.

Rather than settling for just one game, GTA San Andreasthey have pulled numerous different games under the same title, making one of the most multifarious titles on the market.  Street racing, gang wars, robberies, stealth missions, stunt displays, aquatic exploits, airborne madness, off-road lunacy, law enforcement, pimping, car tuning, weight training, and that’s not even scratching the surface.

To a certain extent, San Andreas is not quite as polished as you would expect from such a famous title.  The on-foot controls are a little soggy, the aiming system is designed for consoles, and the AI is about as bright as your average goldfish.  But when taking into account the enormity of the scale and scope of what San Andreas attempts, and indeed achieves, such foibles can be forgiven in an instant.

Rockstar could have been forgiven for resting on their laurels after the success of Vice City, which shifted in excess of 10 million copies.  But with the commitment we have come to expect, they have pushed hard to forge San Andreas into an even higher pinnacle of gaming supremacy.

The addition of such abilities as swimming adds a whole new dimension to the gaming environment, as does the improvements to your character’s capabilities, allowing him to scale most reachable fences and other obstacles.  RPG-like stats also determine your abilities and restrictions, allowing you to personalise your character to a certain extent.  Then you have what could almost be described as a glance at RTS, with gang battles over various in-game territories to acquire new ground for your hood.

A real sense of life is imbued into all game characters, who have been designed as individuals from the ground up, not just generic gangster types.  Take Woozie for example.  You find out part way through your dealings with him that he is actually blind.  So how did he manage to compete with you in an off-road race earlier?  He is just ‘very lucky’.  And then you have OG Loc, an individual whose relentless narcissism is uncannily comparable to modern figureheads of the music industry.

So San Andreas has both variety and quality, but what about quantity?  Well for starters, the game area is about four times as big Vice City.  And rather than the cityscapes of prior titles, the terrain and style of the map now varies with each area.  You can trundle through dense forests one minute, swing up and down towering cliff faces the next, then speed along country lanes, overtaking all the tractors. Venturing into civilisation, you can come across rural towns and hamlets ensconced in the depths of the countryside, or else traverse the modernised bustling cities.

There are hundreds of different types of vehicles, whether cars, vans, trucks, buggies, lorries, planes, helicopters, boats, dinghies, push-bikes, motorbikes, trains, tractors, or even combine harvesters.  All are individual, with different handling and driving styles.  There are also multitudes of radio stations to listen to, all carefully written and compiled to ensure your aural satisfaction.

Although a lengthy central narrative runs through the heart of San Andreas, an equally full and satisfying time can be had by simply existing within the vast game environment, alongside the thousands of other inhabitants.  There is so much to see, so much to do, that you could simply take virtual vacations to enjoy yourself doing whatever you want.  The freeformity of the fully autonomous environment, and the way the game world works cohesively to replicate a living location is quite astounding to behold.

Reactions are not sparked entirely by yourself, but are happening all around you all the time.  A policeman chasing a criminal down the motorway past you.  A gang war being fought between opposing factions.  An injured civilian being given medical assistance by paramedics.  Two random people pausing on the street to discuss the weather.  A car accident with both drivers dismally surveying their damaged cars.  This world does not need you to exist.  You are just one tiny cog in a huge great living, breathing machine.

Equally, the missions do not require any degree of conformity.  The objective is given, and the method is left entirely down to you.  The skeleton of the mission is set, and you can flesh it out in any way you see fit.  Sure, you could just gun down a target, or ram a courier off the road, but the huge variety of tools at your disposal just beg for more exotic ways to achieve your aim.  Cunning, observation, and quick thinking can all be utilised to accomplish each task.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the GTA series can do nothing wrong from a gamer’s perspective.  But from a moral viewpoint, it just sinks lower and lower.  Extreme language, glorification of violence and drug usage, as well as a callous disregard for the value of human life are not just present, but thoroughly encouraged.  Sure, we see these things in games all the time, but not to such an excessive measure as San Andreas, which positively revels in being as rebellious as it possibly can.

This is reflected by the many countries which have chosen to ban the game, deeming it unfit for public consumption.  And it is a true shame that so many have to miss out on such an astounding experience through Rockstar’s almost juvenile determination to provoke as much controversy as possible.  The saying runs that ‘all publicity is good publicity’.  That has certainly worked for Rockstar, but at what price?  At the cost of making GTA even more distasteful and crude than it has ever been before.

This is admittedly just a minor setback in what is one of the finest games of the decade.  San Andreas is a game that will live on for far longer than its lifespan, thanks to the endless replayability and its sheer size.  You will constantly be shocked by the additional little bonuses and extras you find everywhere.  Even when the missions and storyline are completed, there are still a number of oysters to collect from underwater, and a number of gang sprays to apply, plus various other activities, all of which reward completion with further bonuses.

Yes, San Andreas was hyped to an incredible degree.  But amazingly, it actually lived up to the hype.  Even examining what it has to offer in retrospect, the whole game just reeks of ambition and quality.  In terms of value, you will gain more play-time and entertainment from San Andreas than almost any other game available today.

Polished, pretty, and nigh on perfect, San Andreas is a gamer’s dream.  Neglect it to your detriment!

Putt Nutz

Putt Nutz Review – 2005

Isn’t it great when console games are ported over to PC!  That way we get more games to play.  Obviously though, there are several fundamental differences between consoles and PCs, so the developers have to realign the game to suit the PC’s capabilities and control system.

A decent conversion demands many hours ofPutt Nutz work to bridge the gap successfully.  And then you get games like Putt Nutz, where it seems the developers threw the console version of the game to the new work-experience boy, and told him to do his best in half an hour before home time.

It was not a promising start then, when the manual happily wittered on about the ‘square’ key, and the right analog stick for in-game moves.  Then going to controller config in the game merely shows a picture of a Playstation controller, and what all the buttons on it do; not even a hint of any keyboard controls.  How utterly useless!

The actual gameplay itself is pleasingly simplistic for a golf game, with a straightforward aiming mechanism and power meter.  A degree of advance planning is required, as the environments in which you play are distinctly mad.  Every level is crammed with moving ledges, scuttling creatures, and obstacles that contrive to send your little golf ball bobbling off anywhere except its intended destination.

The Nutz are a golfing family, and you have to choose one of them to be your golfing avatar to play through the game.  All are equally irritating, and repeat the same small quips and lines over and over again, frequently giving horrendously inaccurate commentaries of your performance.  One of them commented on my ‘amazing shot’ as I fumbled it miles off target and irretrievably landed my ball in a pit of lava.

There are oodles of different balls to choose from, many of which have special abilities, like being able to hop, explode things, or stop dead when needed.  These make life a lot easier, and you can get some really good scores if you use them wisely.

However, the menu system used to select your balls and power them up is too linear, and patently derived from a console.  You use just the same few buttons for all in-game actions, when a broader spread of assigned keys would have speeded things up considerably, and streamlined your golfing experience.

For a game that is aimed at younger ones, you might expect some leniency in the progression difficulty.  However, the shot allocations are quite stringent, and allow for few mistakes if you are to finish under par.

Especially with the unpredictable and wild areas you play the game in, you can be sure that some errant crab or exploding barrel will thwart your attempts at some point.  And it can only take one badly judged hole to lose the entire series.  Which is annoying when you can only progress by completing the entire series below par on aggregate.

Just a word on the menu music:  Why?  Some dribblesome, droning number that warbles on incessantly to the tortured strains of a badly tuned guitar.  Even turning off the music from the audio menu does not put it to sleep, so I suggest either wearing earplugs or unplugging your speakers whilst navigating the menus.

If you can cope with the gaudy colours, bouncy theme, and evident console origins, then Putt Nutz might offer a mild diversion for the kids.  It is far from perfect, but should still deliver a reasonable slice of entertainment.  Or you could save your money and invest in a giant sack of jellybeans.  The choice is yours…

Cross Racing Championship

Cross Racing Championship Review – 2005

Slideshows.  Great for business meetings, lectures and tutorials.  Bad for games.  Playing Cross Racing Championship for the first time with a PC that exceeds both the minimum and recommended specs, I was quite literally playing a slideshow.  And this was at a mere resolution of 1024 x 768, with options set to high.  However, knocking the res back to 800 x 600, and notching down a few of the options turned CRC into the silky ride I was anticipating.  It is a system-hog though and no mistake!

However, this is just a minor gripe compared toCross Racing Championship the biggest disappointment of all.  CRC is made by Invictus, the developers of one of my favourite racing games of all time – Insane.  It was an absolutely magical game, immensely enjoyable to play and packed with so much detail and so many game modes that it simply never got boring.  And now Invictus bring us CRC, which pointedly fails to live up to the Invictus standard I was expecting.

How so?  First and foremost I am a keyboard racing purist.  Yes, certain games are better played with the wheel, and occasionally the analogue gamepad, but for most racing games, even simulators, I find my deepest rut and yet greatest skill in using the keyboard.  CRC however, has other plans.

There are many, many different steering tweaks that you can use to hone the game into your style, but to put it into basic terms, the handling in CRC is just too twitchy.  Any kind of digital input, whether it be keyboard or digital gamepad, is simply rendered useless by the grotesquely configured steering system.

The initial dab of steering will always be too strong, too wild for the nature of the game for any reliable period of racing.  Not only that, but when digital steering, it feels as though every car has a hippo sitting on the bonnet, and a swathe of helium balloons tied to the spoiler.  Top-heavy and out of control.

In an arcade game this might just about be acceptable.  But CRC treads a strange line between arcade and simulation; think somewhere between Colin McRae Rally and Richard Burns Rally.  And sadly, such handling traits are disastrous for all racers who use digital steering.  However, plug in your racing wheel, and CRC becomes a whole different kettle of fish.

With its somewhat rare arcade/simulation feel, it manages to combine what many would say is the best of both worlds.  The true feel of a rear-wheel drive car is an unbridled joy to those that can successfully push it to the very outer limits without them, and CRC paints us a very accurate reflection of that.  It isn’t anywhere near the depths of GTR, but it provides a more accessible racing experience that can still give the same thrill.

Tracks are quite well designed, but allow for very little adventuring from the beaten path.  Stray a little too far for the game’s comfort and the auto-reset utility will come into play.  This happens frustratingly often, even when you are in full control of your car and where it is going.

The scenery is detailed by the trackside, but just turns into a solid wall when you get closer to the edges.  Fields of wheat are simply giant boxes with a wheat texture on them.  And a few parts of the tracks feel unfinished.  I drove off a bridge into a lake once (purely for evaluation purposes of course…) but it did not have the physical properties of water, allowing me to drive around as though on dry land.

Plus, there are too many indestructible trackside objects that should simply shatter under the weight of your speeding race machine, but somehow come away without a scratch.  Have you ever knocked off a wheel simply by mowing into one of the aforementioned fields of wheat?  I have.

Speaking of destruction, Invictus have at least managed to replicate and even supersede their marvellous damage system they used in Insane.  Especially on the higher difficulty levels where the damage is set more realistically, your car crumples like a coke can in the paw of an enraged yeti.  A high speed knock can ruin your car, tearing wheels off, and bending the bodywork nicely.

There is music playing in the background, the genre of which I would not like to guess.  Suffice to say it becomes very annoying very quickly, so turn it off and stick your own mp3 playlists on, which is actually a supported game feature.

You also have a commentator who has an uncanny knack for stating the obvious.  Some of his choice phrases include:  “The player is going very fast”, “The player has chosen to reset their car”, The player has damaged their car”, and “The player is going to ram a red hot poker up my backside if I don’t cease my inanely futile witterings”.

And so you race through a championship, unlocking better cars, parts and tracks as you go along, all of which keep you occupied sufficiently, and gradually improve your racing experience.  65 tracks later, there will still be multiplayer to keep you occupied, although sad to say, it only has three available modes to choose from, and not half my favourites from Insane.

I hate to keep drawing upon the same comparison, but CRC just lacks the style, substance, and production values of its beloved forebear.  It certainly makes an attempt to advance handling, damage modelling and graphics, but really even these advancements are marginal.

Here’s the plan Invictus.  Take the bits that worked from CRC, and stick them onto Insane 2.  That way everyone’s happy.  Oh yeah, and we like slideshows at 50 frames per second for future reference…

Neuro Hunter

Neuro Hunter Review – 2005

Deus Ex was a masterpiece.  Its revolutionary style of gameplay has been an influence to numerous subsequent titles.  However, it was technically defined as an RPG, even though that could be slightly misleading for a title that utilised the essential components of both an FPS and an RPG.  Neuro Hunter attempts the same formula, so I am going to boldly assign it a more accurate genre acronym – FPRPG (First-Person Role-Playing Game).

Set in a Cyberpunk fictional future, Neuro Neuro HunterHunter places you in control of Hunter, a renowned computer expert and hacker.  Hired by the ‘Corporation’ to make use of his skills, things suddenly take an unexpected turn, when an explosion sees him end up in an underground cave realm, virtually unknown to the rest of the world.  The existence of this strange subterranean is hidden from public knowledge, and its occupants are forced to stay there, denied access above ground for the rest of their lives.  Hunter must ensure his own survival amidst the dangers of the underworld, and eventually make his way back to the surface, battling many evils throughout his journey.

Full points for an original, and indeed, deeply interesting game concept, despite the clichéd all-powerful corporation, and cyberpunk future.  Starting out with little more than the clothes you are wearing, and a dead mobile phone, you need to build up your skills, complete quests, and learn to fight in order to accomplish your eventual goal of escape.

Citing its inspiration as Deus Ex and System Shock 2 amongst others, Neuro Hunter certainly aims at an interesting target.  Just like Deus Ex it throws you into a world that is full of all sorts of weird and wonderful items filling every room and every cavern.  All the objects you see lying around, virtually every single one of them you can pick up, and all of them can be used in some way or other, no matter how obscure.  A plate of scraps can be picked up from a table, or the meat of a Cancerous from its freshly slaughtered corpse, or even a bottle of delectable mushroom liquor from a colony bar.

You gain experience points with each mission completed, and with each baddie or monster you dispatch, and these points can then be converted into useful skills such as lockpicking or melee fighting.  Once you reach certain levels of such skills, this gives you the ability to progress to new areas, and take on tougher enemies, etc.  There is even a nifty little ability to manufacture useful goods from the stuff you have picked up on your journeys, from advanced weapons and armour, right up to mission critical items.

Graphics are quite reasonable, despite being rather system-hungry, and generates a pleasant atmosphere with which to venture round on your underworld quests.  All NPCs, as well as the monsters are nicely modelled and animated, and environments are well made, even if slightly bland overall.

All this seems to lay the basis for a good FPRPG, but sadly that is not actually the case.  Neuro Hunter fails to satisfactorily implement its separate parts.  Control, first of all, is not of as great importance in this kind of game as in a FPS, but still, a good control system can lead to a lot greater enjoyment.  Whereas making Hunter toddle round the underworld is far more painful than it should be.  Movement is way too twitchy, and the running speed is far too slow, making travelling a real chore.

Plenty of quests are in place, but they are so blandly unimaginative that there is little incentive to complete anything except the mission-critical ones.  And quest descriptions are so vague as to be seethingly frustrating.  An early example of this is when someone asks you to find the purified water somewhere near the compressor.  In a world with all sorts of random mechanical paraphernalia round every corner, even finding out what a compressor is can be tediously annoying, and then determining its location is another matter altogether.

For a change, voice acting is not too bad, with adequate spoken dialogue for all NPCs.  But the accompanying musical score is extremely limited, and makes you listen to the same hackneyed melodies over and over again.  I recommend turning the music off, and putting on your own tunes in the background.  And moving on to sound effects, some of these are absolutely ridiculous.  What noise does a knife make when swiping the air?  A swishing sound yes?  Well why your knife makes a sound like a toilet backfiring is a mystery far beyond me.  It seems the developers picked random sounds to accompany each in-game action, and a lot of them are really quite dire.

AI stupidity is another sad failing of the game.  Every single walking monster can be killed by simply strafe circling around them, whilst hitting them with your weapon.  They will never hit you, so long as you keep circling.  Dumb indeed!  NPCs mostly either stand like lemons in their assigned areas, or just wander round aimlessly within a certain area.  They also have their failsafe phrase, which is, “Don’t you ever do that again!”.  I got so annoyed with one of them once that I tried mashing them to death with a club.  Ridiculously, they never die, but just keep saying “Don’t you ever do that again!”, over and over again every time you clobber them.

I approached a store one time and tried stealing something off a shelf without paying for it.  The angered shopkeeper gave me a firm, “Don’t you ever do that again!”.  I took his entire stock while he kept repeating his little phrase each time I took an item.  To add insult to injury, I then sold his entire stock back to him for a handsome price.  Such heights of stupidity have never before been scaled…

Whilst Neuro Hunter can be moderately pleasing to play overall, it is not a game you will be telling your friends about, or will ever consider playing through a second time.  However, with a RRP of just £19.99, it may be worth considering if you enjoy traipsing underground caverns and drinking mushroom liquor while swiping with rusty knives at mutated beasts with more eyes than your average housefly conference.  Oh yes, and watch out for the mutated spiders…

Space Rangers 2

Space Rangers 2 Review – 2005

Having played too many FPS and RTS titles of late, my mind has grown somewhat numb owing to the mindless repetition they offer.  Space Rangers 2 was a refreshing break from the linear monotony, offering a vast virtual gaming experience of galactic proportions

Rather than outlining the game’s boundaries, and then setting you off upon a defined journey, Space Rangers 2 hands over control entirely to yourself.  You initially choose what race you want to play as, which has an effect on how the game plays out, and then decide what parameters you wish to play within.  You can set not only the difficulty, but also how the rest of the galaxy interacts with you, what equipment you wish to start out with, and plenty more; allowing players to customise the game according to how they want to play.

There is an underlying storyline to the whole game, of how an alliance of nations must rise together to overthrow the invasion of the evil Dominators.  The situation throughout the entire galaxy slowly evolves throughout the course of the game, according to how the battle is going.  But you are not forced down any path; you can make your own choices.  You can take up the role of a fighter and wage war with the fearsome Dominators, or perhaps become a merchant, and profit from heavily fluctuating prices across the solar systems as the war rages.  You can even become a pirate and take your spaceship on missions of villainy and treachery.

There is a whole living, breathing, universe out there, and you are not the only one in it.  There are hundreds and hundreds of other characters in the game, all wending their own separate paths throughout the galaxy, and all with their own personal agendas.  You can even interact with these individuals, whether it is by asking for help, trading, arranging a deal, or simply by attacking them.  And the attack option opens up a whole new arena of space-based combat, which although relatively basic, is a commendable addition to the game.

When landing on planets there are various places you can visit.  Some places offer missions, others offer goods or services, and of course the Trading Centre allows you to flog your goods for vast sums of cash, or buy some sizzling new equipment for yourself.

On planets that have suffered invasion by the Dominators, a new RTS game element opens up.  You firstly build your own custom robots, selecting from various bodies, weights, sizes, weapons etc, and then mass-produce them to fight the enemy.  And not only can you fight in traditional RTS style, but you can also take control of individual units and charge them against the enemy lines yourself.

Graphics and sound are unexceptional, but suffice for their ordained purpose.  Plus gameplay never feels quite as deep or detailed as games devoted to a specific genre.  But it is the wholesome combination of them all put together that makes Space Rangers 2 so enjoyable.

And finally, BOGOF!  No no, I’m not being rude, just using the acronym to describe what Space Rangers 2 has on offer.  Buy One Get One Free!  The full original Space Rangers game is included free when you buy Space Rangers 2.  What superb value, etc!

The enormity of Space Rangers 2 is quite awe-inspiring; blending so many game styles into one title, and doing so with considerable panache.  You will lose countless hours to its pleasant ways and charming personality.  But rest assured that those are hours well spent!

Chrome Specforce

Chrome Specforce Review – 2005

As many will remember, the original Chrome was released back in 2003 to the general consensus that although it was an entertaining blast, it was both rough around the edges, and distinctly uninspired.  Fred Fun and Mike Mediocrity battled fiercely for dominance throughout the entire game, but you never really reached a conclusion about which one won the fight.  Chrome Specforce seems to willingly utilise that same formula.

Chrome Specforce is set before the events ofChrome Specforce the original game, following the exploits of Bolt Logan, elite Specforce Military grunt.  After an early mishap, he and his pal Pointer are stranded on the desolate planet of Estrella, which is under the rule of a power crazed terrorist faction that are planning impolite deaths to everyone else.  Tsk, naughty terrorists.

So off you bundle round the vast planet of Estrella, allying yourself with friendly rebels and bashing the bad guys in the brains with your bullets.  To aid your progress, you get a selection of special abilities.  These include the ability to slow down time (how original, what on earth will they come up with next?), use invisibility, initiate a special shield, and use a gigantic inflatable hippopotamus in a tutu as a decoy.  Or am I confusing this with Erotica Zoo VII…?

Supposedly, the game engine and mechanics are superior in every way to that of the original Chrome.  While that may technically be true, it is only just true.  In general, the in-game graphics are quite bland and plain, even though they do use their graphical limitations excellently to create some truly compelling environments and striking scenery.  There is a palpable atmosphere permeating the entire game, which gives a true sense of character to Estrella.

A nice touch is that you can use the various vehicles you find throughout your travels.  Whether giant stompy robots that stream rockets, or just nippy little speeder bikes ripped straight from Star Wars.  The downside is that you are only allowed to enter vehicles when it suits the purpose of a mission, so their usage always feels a little contrived.  More freedom to make our own minds up would have been greatly welcomed.

The gameplay is pretty much standard FPS fare.  Just like its daddy, Specforce offers a reasonably satisfying experience, but never pulls your enjoyment any higher.  There are no occurrences of sheer gaming elation, or moments where your jaw drops and your brain squirms in pleasure over the digital magnificence.  The missions are just so clichéd, so unadventurous in outlook, that you can pretty much second-guess what is going to happen next.  So we manage to assault the enemy anti-aircraft gun, and my goodness, would you believe it!  The enemy have just started an air assault, so you’re going to have to climb into that gun and fend them off.  Whoopee do!

Various bugs clamber out the cracks and wallop you in the face on regular occasions.  There are several graphical clipping problems, with soldiers even occasionally managing to make their way into solid walls, and staying there, shooting you invisibly.  On one occasion a poor grunt was swallowed up by the ground, and never resurfaced.  Also, the collision detection on vehicles, most noticeably the speed bikes, is appalling, as you can smash into a rock or building that is actually over a metre away to the side.

You have an allotted amount of space to carry weapons, ammo, and other items in your backpack, although sadly you are restricted to carrying two standard size guns at any time owing to the placement of the allocation slots.  The weapons are all reasonably satisfying to use, although after a bit of experimentation I just found myself using the default rifle almost all the time.

The problem is when you do build yourself a perfectly supplied backpack full of meaty weapons, ammo, grenades and health packs, you will usually lose all of this when the mission changes.  At one point I had an absolutely stonking supply of the best equipment, and had managed to sneak out a giant mech, which I was driving.  But as the mission changed, leaving me in the same scenario, with same people, on the same map, my entire backpack was replaced with rubbish default kit, and my mech was whisked away into thin air.  T’was heart-breaking.  And stupid!

I don’t usually like to drop hints about the plot, or spoilers of any kind, but the end battle just has to be mentioned.  The climax of the game is quite disappointing, as although the boss is one of the toughest have ever played, he has less brainpower than a common garden pea.  I eventually defeated him by simply taking advantage of his crass stupidity, shooting at him from a place in which he could clearly see me, but couldn’t shoot at me.  And wouldn’t even come towards me, since he is bound to strict movement patterns between a few defined waypoints.  Thus he died miserably without me taking a single ounce of damage.

That pretty much speaks for the entire AI throughout the game.  They will duck behind cover, but always reappear in exactly the same spot as they disappeared, so you know exactly where they are going to pop up.  There are four multiplayer modes included, so you can battle against some intelligent (well…possibly) enemies, and these include the traditional fare of: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Team Domination, and Capture the Flag.  At the time of writing there are just five servers currently online, although I only found one other player besides myself, and the server lag was abysmal.  We might bring a further update if things improve on this front.

Chrome Specforce is uninspired, and unoriginal, but not entirely without merit.  Its straightforward shootery will provide mild entertainment while it lasts, and excellently the release price is a mere £20.  Don’t be afraid to give it a try, but don’t expect too much.

Martin Mystere Operation Dorian Gray

Martin Mystere: Operation Dorian Gray Review – 2005

For those unacquainted with the eponymous Martin Mystere, he first saw life as a popular graphic novel penned by Alfredo Castelli.  Now the lucky chap has been granted full 3D movement and a butch voice in this videogame rendition.  And that enigmatic subtitle Operation Dorian Gray, derived from Oscar Wilde’s striking tale of the man who sold his soul to the devil, has a strong influence upon the tale.

Right let’s cut through the preliminaries, andMartin Mystere Operation Dorian Gray get straight to the point.  MM has a heart of gold.  The core storyline is excellent, gripping, and involving.  But that beauty is hidden beneath an overall gawkiness, a poor game engine that makes navigation and interaction tiresome rather than fun.  So these balance out into a game that is unexceptional, but worth labouring at to reach the conclusion.

I will not spoil the enjoyable story by recounting any of its surprises, apart from to say that it has many twists and turns, and will keep making you re-evaluate what you believe to be fact, and what is not.

Which leaves us to mention the awful game mechanics.  Navigation is conducted by clicking your way round the screen, as per your usual adventure game.  Then you get sweep your cursor randomly across the screen hoping to alight upon a hotspot that will aid the completion of the current puzzle.  Perhaps in a bid to enliven this tedious activity, those crazy developers have gone and mixed up some of the hotspot names, so when you put your crosshair over a statue, it might claim to be a cucumber or something.

Martin himself is a bulky kinda chap.  When you click to examine some objects, he will wander over to them, thus obscuring your view of them entirely.  So if you want to choose a different action to use on that object, then you have to make Martin walk elsewhere, so you can actually see the object again, then click on it once more with the chosen action.  Needless to say, this can get just a tad frustrating.

When you choose to look at something, there is usually one defined spot where Martin, or whichever character you are controlling, will stand to look at that object.  So even if you are standing right next to the object you want examine, Martin will still walk to his designated little spot before he delivers his modest oration on what he wants to say about it.  Plus, Martin will frequently abandon the simple route to his objective, and instead take a hideous long detour round and about to get to it.  Combined with his interminable plod, this can make some scenes, especially the bigger ones, a real chore to work your way around.

The game’s designer also seems to have a predilection for ancient history and artefacts, as many of the game locales are littered with statues, ornaments, and books that Martin will happily natter about for ages if you give him the chance.  I’m sure some may find it to be scintillating stuff, but if I want to study history I’ll do it in my own time thank you very much.

As you might imagine, this can lead to some rather bland object descriptions.  In fact, rather than serving any real purpose, or eliciting any real reaction whatsoever, many of the levels are just crammed full with examinable objects that seem to have had descriptions added as a last second afterthought.  Here is a classic example.  The hotspot reads ‘Old books’.  The description reads, ‘Old books I haven’t looked at for some time.  Some are very old.’  Well whoopy-doo!  Now that just enlivened my journey of adventure so drastically that I want to throw open the window and scream with elation.  Or perhaps just throw myself out of it…

The graphics are generally quite good actually.  The backgrounds are pre-rendered, but use moving animation to good effect within them, which adds a good deal of life to the scene.  The characters move reasonably fluidly, although they often walk through each other or the scenery, which doesn’t help the game’s credibility.

However, with an audio score that ranges from the occasionally inspiring to the downright horrendous, and voice-acting to match, you might be better off sticking on a creepy soundtrack of your own.  The conversation lines that are spoken are ridiculously cut up into lots of smaller segments, presumably to fit in with the animation going on.  However, this makes the conversations extremely stilted, with long pauses where there shouldn’t be.  The spoken lines are also a little weird, with the characters coming out with some really random drivel.

But persevering with Martin Mystere: Operation Dorian Gray can be ultimately satisfying.  Yes, it is sometimes more irritating than a pesky kid spilling your coffee all over your keyboard, but the story shining through underneath suffices to make such frustrations just about worthwhile.  Something for a rainy day!

Chaos League Sudden Death

Chaos League: Sudden Death Review – 2005

It is a sad fact of life that established games of real world sports, like FIFA Football, will always sell thousands of truckloads more than any futuristic, fantasy-inspired sports game concepts.  People love to play what they already know and are familiar with, which is why Chaos League will likely never receive the attention it truly deserves.  But it is my mission to change all that.

In a nutshell, the idea is to score rugby-like Chaos League Sudden Deathgoals on a something vaguely resembling a rugby pitch, by taking the ball past the opposition.  But the rules quite simply don’t exist.  There are a few rough guidelines in place, but there is nothing to stop you trampling them into the dirt alongside your opposition.  Kill, maim, or eviscerate; there are no restrictions to prevent you from slaughtering your way to the enemy goal.  The term ‘sudden death’ is used in a very literal sense!

Chaos League: Sudden Death comprises the entire original game, as well as the Sudden Death expansion pack.  So let’s check out the improvements that the pack has to offer.

There are no major alterations to the way the game plays; the pack mainly consists of content additions.  Three new races are available to play as: The Damned, The Gnomes, and The Cigulae.  None of these are amazingly different or original, although it must be said that The Damned are pretty damned cool, with some excellent characters.

The addition of plenty of new heroes is a nice touch, and with some memorable ones at that.  There is also a new character class: the Captain.  They add some needed muscle to most sides, and have some nifty abilities.  There are also four new maps to play on, each with its own unique style and bonus arrangements according the terrain.

There are various nips and tucks in the gameplay department, with increased control over both the pitchside and management side of your players.  They also have a vastly enlargened repository of spells to add some glittery death to the battlefield.  You can still bribe the referee to ignore your dirty tactics, or hire some unsavoury types to take out one of the opposition’s deadliest team members before matchday arrives.

Probably the biggest problem I have with the game is that it does not fulfil the atmosphere it promises to create.  The whole ambience of the game is based around the thrilling notion that this is a horrendous bloodsport, with each match leaving a scattered trail of death, dismemberment, gore, and assorted eyeballs.  The reality however is quite different.  Teams just bash each other until one of them is knocked out, and they lose a bit of life.  If they lose enough life, they will die, but this is not a particularly common occurrence throughout the course of a standard match.

The gameplay is never as exciting as it could be, as the adrenaline thrill of impending danger is so subdued as to be negligible.  And although the zoomable camera allows you to get right into the action, the rather blocky graphics remove any kind of emotional attachment you might otherwise form with your players.

The only other criticism I have is that that with such a freeform style of gameplay, things are horrendously unbalanced.  Some races are distinctly underpowered, with few good players, while some seem to have plenty of amazing ones.  Plus, with so few rules, match results are often arbitrary.  One match you might lose 10-0, the next you might win by the same margin.  Of course it is not entirely random, and skilled players can pull off some impressive tactical coups, but the whole concept is just a little too loose.

Regardless though, there is much fun to be had from Chaos League.  A standard match of elaborate passing and progression techniques accompanied by lots of crushing of skulls is a distinctly enjoyable experience.  Magical spells flicker and burn around the battlefield, sorry, I mean pitch, and mystical creatures from fantasy-land adorn the ground with their blood.  Sometimes the actual idea of the ball can seem a bit of an afterthought, and you all too often forget all about it and just pummel the opposition into submission.

But nevertheless, at just £19.99 for Chaos League: Sudden Death, which includes the full game as well as the expansion pack, this is great value for anyone who has not yet sampled its delights.  Having said that, too little is added to make the purchase worthwhile to most players who already own the original game.

It is time to rid yourself of that familiarity fondness with which you cradle FIFA or PES so lovingly in your arms, and probe your conscience into considering the possibility that even sports that don’t exist can still be fun.  You don’t have to shun your precious sporting affections, just widen them enough to see Chaos League standing at the touchline waving a meat cleaver in your face.

Stronghold 2

Stronghold 2 Review – 2005

Quote of the day:  “Haha, you’ll never get me in here…..oh!”

Like any good egg, Stronghold 2 is polarised into two distinct sections.  For the peace-loving management enthusiasts there is a pleasant campaign within which you slowly fashion and maintain the economy of your own thriving castle.  Warmongers will find more interest in the battle-orientated side of things, defending your castle from enemy assault, and then laying siege to your castellated contemporaries in turn.

For some reason, Stronghold seems toStronghold 2 have gotten confused over the kind of pace it chooses to follow.  Initially, you imagine things have been streamlined with a lot of the waiting parts cut out.  For instance, most buildings are built instantly; no need for labourers to come and knock it up.  And when you recruit troops, they are generated at once; no need to wait for some loading bar to slowly churn them out.

Fair enough, so far so good.  But then ask your peasant to cut some trees.  He will idly amble over to his post, and then lethargically start chopping, eventually riding his cart at a trickle back to your stockpile.  Or setup a workshop to build archery bows, and the craftsman spends several in-game minutes laboriously crafting each bow, before wafting sluggishly over to your armoury to deliver each one individually.

This incongruous mix of instant response for some game elements yet languid reactions for others makes for a rather odd experience.  Obviously this was done in order to balance the game properly, but it is just a little too disconcerting to gain too much respect from hardcore gamers.

Let’s take a closer glance at the castle management side of the game.  Simply put, although it is relatively competent at what it does, it features absolutely nothing that we haven’t seen before.  Mission tasks vary, from gaining popularity, or cash, down to exterminating rat colonies, or starting new food farms.  Another slight criticism here is that there is never enough info available for you to really know thoroughly what is going on.  There are just a few essential stats that give you a rough guideline, but you can’t, for instance, find out the productivity of an individual farm or warehouse.  You can only get the overall figures.

Also, you need a lot of space in order to cope with the challenges the game throws at you.  Space to build the necessary buildings for survival, as well as the ones facilitating the success of a mission.  The problem is, there is simply never enough room.  Even shoving all your buildings up close to each other right the way throughout your territory, you will always struggle to find room for the entire selection of buildings that you require.  Essentially, maintaining your castle feels like little more than a challenge to build all the available structures as quickly as you can, ensuring the continuation of your castle and its economy.

Warfare.  This is where things pick up a bit.  But only slightly.  Castle sieging is clearly Stronghold’s chosen focus, and it does it fairly well, with a variety of different troops all playing individual roles in the assault.  However, in the post-Rome: TW era, our senses are already attuned to what we know is possible.  Despite Stronghold’s linear focus on castles, it has to be said that Rome does the whole siege thing quite a lot better.

Stronghold’s warfare is just a little rudimentary, slightly unbalanced, and somehow not as spectacular as it should be.  Plus the missions are decidedly on the wrong side of ‘tough’, necessitating numerous restarts and precise military manoeuvres in order to snatch victory.

With an update to 3D graphics, visuals are still not amazingly spangly, but at least improved since the previous title.  The fiddly camera is a bit of a nuisance too, until you get used to its strange way of moving around.  As regards sound, I never really understood the mix of about four different dialects for different units.  The most extreme being the Brummie Spearmen and Cornish peasants.

On a positive note, goodly amounts of bonus review points have been awarded for the exceptional use of names within the game.  Your peasants are all individually monikered.  Such cheerful fellows as Peter Horselover and Darrin Peebucket reside within your crenellated abode.

You might just be better to hold out for the Rome: TW expansion pack on its way.  Although adequately diverting, Stronghold is neither professional nor enticing enough to hold the attention for any extended period.  Entertaining certainly, but fails to comprise the sum of its parts.  Two parts that is.  Just like an egg then.  Yes…

SCAR

SCAR Review – 2005

SCAR.  I didn’t really know what to expect with a title like that.  Maybe an action adventure, or platform puzzler.  But no, SCAR is actually a racing game.  The title is devised from the Italian words Squadra Corse Alfa Romeo, which means something like ‘Alfa Romeo race track’.  So congratulations are in order for the most incongruous and confusing acronym this year.  But the cleverness doesn’t stop there!  Those zany chaps at Milestone have only gone and invented a brand new genre too.  Get this – CARPG.  Yes, that’s a mix of ‘car’ and ‘RPG’, making for the very first car racing role-playing game.  It’s enough to make a grown man weep!

Thankfully, SCAR does not adhere to theSCAR latest D&D rulesets, but invents its own unique brand of role-playing.  The idea runs that the more you drive, the more experience you get, and this can be used to build up a variety of different skills.  Sadly, that’s pretty much where the good ideas end.  Think about if for a second, what in-game skills could you possibly improve that would bear a resemblance to real world driving skill progression?  Thought of one?  Hard isn’t it!  This is an obvious bottleneck the developers came to, having come up with a great concept, but no logical way of implementing it.  The solution?  “Gah, let’s invent some stuff.”  And so they have.

Take for example the intimidation technique.  When you start tailgating an opponent, their intimidation meter will lower gradually down to zero, at which point they supposedly panic and lose concentration for a few seconds.  This can have negligible effect on a straight section of track, but can cause them to veer out of control on a corner.  They can use the same trick against you though, and when your intimidation meter hits zero, the track blurs and wafts, and the sound goes a little weird.  Firstly, I have never seen a professional race driver become intimidated by the close proximity of an opponent.  Just imagine Schumacher crashing out on the first lap because he got scared by Coulthard breathing down his tailpipe.  Secondly, you can only intimidate one person at a time, so if there are two cars right ahead of you, one will be drastically affected, the other won’t be bothered in the slightest.  Thirdly, the lack of concentration is so feeble that it has never caused me to even lose a place, let alone depart gracefully from the track.

Other strange but remarkably unrealistic skills include an uncanny ability to gain greater grip, an ability to supernaturally be able to take more damage, and a matrix-style rewind feature that comes in handy when you wipe-out big time.  All these and more can be increased by spending skill points on each ability.  You gain skill points by completing the dynasty career mode.  This is mainly comprised of a variety of progressively more difficult races around famous tracks (Silverstone, Donington, etc), but also includes several welcome additional challenges, which require you to complete specific objectives.  These include the enjoyable speedtrap mode, where you have to be above certain speeds at certain points around the track, a chase mode that simply involves overtaking an opponent in a set time, and plenty more nicely judged little challenges.

Although most of the XP points are acquired by winning races and completing challenges, you are also rewarded with bonus XP points right throughout each race.  For instance overtaking someone, intimidating an opponent to the point of knockout, setting new lap records, or even just driving a clean lap.

One of the biggest problems I have with the game is the stupid damage modelling.  Put simply, there are loads of places you can cut the track, and gain loads of time by doing so.  So they needed to find some way of stopping you cheating too often.  So your car now gets damaged by driving across the grass!!  Yes, you read right.  A simple high-speed shortcut across a flat and inviting stretch of grass can knock off a quarter of your car’s entire damage capability in seconds flat.  How utterly, stupidly, abysmally ridiculous!  We could just about survive with extra barriers to prevent shortcuts, or even some hindering scenery, but this method is just plain farcical.

SCAR is a confused game.  It wants to be realistic in some ways by providing nice replica tracks of real world locations, and intricately modelling the entire Alfa Romeo series for you to race with.  But then it adds in loads of arcade elements, strange abilities and ridiculous game design like the dangerous grass mentioned above.  With all that going on inside its addled brain, SCAR has no idea where to turn; it is a pleasant but befuddled mishmash of good and bad ideas thrown together under the same bonnet.  Like a Mini with a V8 engine and three wheels…

Graphics are unimpressive, as is the sound, although they don’t detract from your racing experience.  What is impressive is the multitude of available race options available to complete, with several challenges and races set across a number of difficulty levels.  There is also a multiplayer option, as well as the facility to upload your best times to an online scoreboard and compare them with everyone else’s.

SCAR can be enjoyable.  It can also be tedious, frustrating, and annoying.  Oddly, it will please neither hardcore simulation fans nor arcade aficionados, but retains a strange, albeit mildly pleasing, line in between the two.  A brave effort, just not entirely successful.  If Milestone manage to put things right for their next release, they could turn this whole CARPG concept into a very promising genre.  So long as they don’t call the next one a SCARPG that is…

Trackmania Sunrise

Trackmania Sunrise Review – 2005

My house is like a warzone to walk through at the moment.  This is resultant of the affair between our cat and her boyfriend, leading to several mini-cats zooming about like lunatics trying to reduce the house to rubble.  Their seemingly boundless energy, fantastic speed, and remarkably robust design is comparative to the unbridled madness of what Trackmania has to offer.

Think of what Serious Sam did for the FPS Trackmania Sunrisegenre.  It ripped out the story, realism and logic, leaving a refined example of raw, undiluted, polished action.  Trackmania laughs in the face of simmers who set their own tyre pressure and suspension height, and kicks any vague attempt at realism cleanly out the window.  The consequential game is a heady mix of arcade bliss.

A Scalextric-inspired heaven of giant swirling loops, impossible bends, death-defying leaps of faith, and other track trickery.  To judge it by improvement upon its predecessor, Sunrise is bigger, badder and better, and sports a nifty new haircut.  There are more modes to choose from, more ways to play through each of those modes, and loads more of those fantastic barmy tracks in each mode.

‘Race’ is standard racing against AI ghost cars, where you simply have to get to the finish line as quickly as possible.  ‘Platform’ is less frenetic, but equally challenging as it throws you into a series of madcap jumps and scrapes, and you have to complete the track with as few restarts as possible.  ‘Puzzle’ is the classic mode that made the original Trackmania so unique, where you have to complete the set objectives by building your own track.  This mode is absolutely ingenious, and demands incredible cerebral deliberation rather than simply laying blocks.

‘Crazy’ is psychotic scramble around small tracks with 16 other cars, and with its own unique twist.  A multiplayer option for LAN, hotseat and online play extends lifespan somewhat, as does the included editor that allows the creation of your own towering masterpieces.  With an enormous amount of user-generated content already on the net, this game will last well beyond its intended lifespan.

Scenery is vastly improved, with the lovely new graphics rendering intricate city streets, sun-scorched desert islands, and gorgeous water effects.  There are loads more cars to choose from too, each with individual handling and personality quirks.  The music tracks are acceptable for the first hundred times or so you listen to them, but do quickly start to irritate as the same few tracks keep looping perpetually.

TM Sunrise boasts that annoyingly addictive ‘one last try’ pull.  No matter how long you spend on a track, you always know you can swing a finer line on that corner, brake more optimally on that slope, and jump that hill more accurately.  Plus with perpetual rewards for faster times and an oh-so convenient restart button, the draw is even stronger.

With such instant appeal, Trackmania is playable and enjoyable for either a few minutes or a few hours.  Overdosing for too long does lead to slight boredom owing to the comparatively shallow nature of the game, but that does not detract from its overall appeal.  With such simple and refined gameplay, it is also enjoyable to everyone, not just racers.

Manic, mad, frantic, yet loveable, Trackmania Sunrise still manages to hold a special place in my heart.  Succumb to your instincts and give it a home.

Singles 2

Singles 2: Triple Trouble Review – 2005

Some sequels really try hard.  Look at the giant leap in both content and gameplay from Vice City to San Andreas.  A perfect example of how sequels should be done.  Then sadly you get sequels like Singles 2: Triple Trouble that seem to have been knocked together as a quick makeshift game, adding just a few small bits and bobs onto the original, as well as a whole new price tag.  There is a remarkable lack of difference between this game and its predecessor, despite the whole new premise of controlling three people instead of two.

So let’s listen in on an imaginary board meeting of the Singles 2 developers.

Mike:  So then, anyone got any ideas?
Sid:  Nah, I’m too tired.  Let’s just do something everybody already likes.  What about The Sims 2.  That sold loads.  Let’s make one of those.
Titch:  I want to see more boobs in it.
Mike:  Well, I can see the appeal.  The Sims, but with more breasts.
Sid:  I could come up with a few erotic contraptions if you like.  I’ve just been reading my mag, and I’m sure we could use a few of these devices here.  *Points to page*
Titch:  Boobs!
Mike:  Yes, that would be good.  We could add in a few small elements of gameplay too if we get time.
Sid:  Right, I’ll get the fresh models in to do the motion capture work.
Titch:  Boobie Woobies!!
Mike:  Yes we need to get it right.  I’ll put a fiver in the kitty for any additional costs in case we find we need a story or something stupid like that.
Titch:  Boobs!  Wahoo!

For those who are unacquainted with what this Singles 2title has to offer, think The Sims: Hot Date, and then slap a well deserved 18 certificate on the box.  You have to run the life of your digital avatar, going to work, doing the chores, cleaning, etc, as well as making amorous advances upon the gal(s) of your dreams.  There are masses of props, accessories and upgrades available for you to construct your own gleaming playboy mansion, and plenty of gadgets, equipment and leisure facilities to ensure that a good time is had by all.

OK, let’s just look at what additions and enhancements Singles 2 has undergone.  Firstly, there is the obvious addition of another house member.  So rather than trying to seduce just the one lover, you now have the option to woo both your new targets at the same time.  Cue anger, envy, jealously and heartbreak as you try to keep both of them happy without appearing to cheat on either one with the other.  You are also no longer restricted entirely to your homestead, as there is a bar downstairs, inhabited by a handful of locals.  You can talk and flirt with the people you meet in the bar, and once you have reached a certain level of friendship, you can invite them over to your house via phone.  So if you fancy throwing a wild party, or just want some company, you need never be alone.

Another welcome improvement is the addition of specific objectives orientated around the central characters.  These vary from simple purchasing and arrangement tasks, to specific combinations of actions to achieve a desired effect.  Although short-lived and relatively easy to accomplish, they do give Singles 2 a slight hint of direction and purpose, which is a nice step up from the meaningless drift of the original, which asked you to simply make your characters fall in love and then left you to it.

So there are certain distinct improvements, but sadly, that is where they come to an end.  Singles 2 uses exactly the same graphics and engine as the original game, which was released over a year ago. It was quite impressive then, but with the passing of time it is starting to peel at the corners.  That in itself isn’t a great problem, but what is really worrying is the fact that most of the characters from the original game are simply cloned into this one, right down to the exact same clothes.

Possibly the biggest problem with Singles 2 is the sheer repetitiveness of daily activities.  You have Sims-style meters dictating your hunger, energy, happiness, etc, and you need to keep these topped up otherwise your avatar will start moaning, and won’t do what you tell them to.  So when you get up in the morning you will need to sate your hunger bar with breakfast, your hygiene bar with a shower or bath, and likely use the toilet and brush your teeth.  Then it will probably be time to toddle off to work.

When you get back from work your bars will be lowered again, so you need to repeat all your actions and more to rebuild them.  Then your fridge, toilet, sink, oven, and everything else will start exploding, which they do on a regular basis, and you will spend your time fixing them, and then washing dishes, taking the garbage out, cleaning, hovering, and much more.  When everything is fixed, washed and cleaned, there will be little time left with which to do what you want, whether it be romancing your love, or playing on the computer.  With so many jobs to do, and so little time to enjoy yourself, every day becomes a monotonous routine of samey boredom.

Even when interacting with other characters, most of your conversations are acted out in mime, with the characters speaking some gobbledygook language, and even these are exactly the same.  When you choose to make small talk with someone, both characters make exactly the same noises and gestures.  Interaction thus becomes a joke.  Particularly when each conversation takes about 20 in-game minutes, and the fact that you have to repeat each conversation style and action about a million times in order to develop your friendship\love with someone fully.

When people start walking through each other in horrendous spasmodic graphical glitching fits, when an AI character does something stupid like sit in a chair without moving for a solid week, when the annoying and endlessly recurring sound effects finally drill deep into your brain, and when you experience the ghastly loading times for the fiftieth time, you will finally question whether or not you are actually enjoying yourself.  I even locked somebody in a bare room without food, drink, or any other amenities, and removed the door, in a vengeful attempt to kill them.  But sadly they never ever die, just stand there whinging like a baby and crying for all eternity.

Even as a perverted romp to ogle the naked ladies running around, and rubbing themselves down in the shower, and to watch a couple getting frisky in the bedroom, this game still fails to deliver.  The animation is just too wooden, too unrealistic, and with unnaturally angular breasts on all the women, it is even vaguely disturbing.

The telling question when you put this back-to-back with The Sims 2 is: what does this do that The Sims hasn’t already?  In a nutshell – graphic nudity and sex.  With little else to bolster this half-baked game, Singles 2 will satisfy only digital voyeurs.

7 Sins

7 Sins Review – 2005

Sex sells.  Fact of life.  It is unfortunate that those who try to exploit this within the videogame industry generally seem to do so to the detriment of the overall game.  A scattered wake of raunchy but shoddy titles litter the PC’s dark history, noticeable only by such a preoccupation with sex and voyeurism that the actual game crouching awkwardly beneath the alluring veneer is a tawdry gaming travesty.  I had higher expectations of 7 Sins, which promised a vaster scope as a game than simple sex tactics.

The premise of 7 Sins is based upon the 7 Sinstraditional ‘seven deadly sins’, which are: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth.  The objective is to acquire wealth, power and influence in the fictional Apple City by sinning as adeptly as possible.  There are seven scenarios set throughout the city, and each one has a set task you must accomplish by means of charm, wit, guile, and of course sinning.

Each chapter of the game sees you climbing in social rank and fame as you manage to access and work in much higher caste areas.  The first section plants you as a sales attendant in a luxury ladies shop, while the later scenarios involve invite-only private fetish clubs and becoming a manager of a vast corporation.  Your interaction with the people inhabiting these areas is key to your progress, as you make powerful allies, and learn deep dark manipulative secrets about influential individuals.

While your objectives differ with each chapter, the style of gameplay rarely does.  Since the game plays from the perspective of a bloke, you typically attempt to work up romantic relationships with the females, and friendly relationships (but sometimes more) with the males.  Each individual has different needs, desires, and personality traits, so you have to adapt your approach to suit each one.  Some involved lasses may respond well to conversation about mythical legends and folklore, others will prefer a sense of humour, and yet other lasses will respond well to compliments, displays of manliness, and the occasional tweak of their breasts.

Common sense should usually help you choose something appropriate to say that will build up the relationship, but sometimes you will only learn the intricacies of a particular woman’s mind through sheer trial and error.  You also have to choose when something is appropriate.  For example, fondling the breasts of your prey will be entirely unacceptable in the ‘first contact’ stage of a relationship, but will be gratefully welcomed in the later ‘passion’ stages.

Whilst you are involved with these numerous delicate relationships, you have to keep your eye on three meters: sex, fear, and violence.  Certain annoying incidents or the acrimonious diatribes of particularly snot-nosed individuals can cause the latter two meters to soar, while passionate exchanges with hot chicks will raise your libido and the first meter considerably.  Let one of the meters overload and your character will go crazy, hitting things in a frenzy if in a blind rage, or running around thrusting randomly at everyone if under extreme sexual desperation.

To keep your meters at a healthy low you have to vent your feelings by performing certain actions.  To rid yourself of unwanted sexual urges, you will have to grope a girl or accomplish an act of voyeurism (like gawping at someone’s heaving cleavage, or staring up their skirt).  To relieve fear or stress you might want to make some upsetting or unfair remark to a lady to make her cry, or tell yourself how great you are by looking in the mirror.  Violence can be circumvented in a variety of ways, from ripping up sexy lingerie, peeing on office plants or in the boss’ drinking cup, or just starting a fight with someone.

We were promised a freeform environment within which to play and write our own success story, but sadly, the only freedom you get is a choice of targets within each mission.  Yes, you can choose which lady you want to seduce and milk some cash off, but with such similar methods of accomplishment to succeed, the illusion of freedom is in fact negligible.  A nice touch though is the ability to revisit previous locations at any time throughout the game.  Want some more cash to impress the boss of the Kombat Klub?  Simply head back to the ladies shop to wrangle some more lucre out of its doting frequenters.

Although 7 Sins clearly has made a definite attempt to add a certain amount of game behind the sexy façade, it still does not add up to much more than a thinly veiled endeavour to cash in on the seemingly endless appeal of eroticism.  There are admittedly other challenges to overcome, such as food-tasting, phone negotiations, and fighting, but every single scenario lays the basis for (and frequently requires) a large amount of amorous tomfoolery with your ubiquitously amply-chested victims.  Everything else takes a distinct backseat to this primary focus.

All major actions constituting one of the ‘seven deadly sins’ such as sex, groping, stealing, and violence are represented by small mini-games, much in the style of the obvious point of reference; Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude.  The whole game is dependent upon these frustratingly frequent and irritatingly irrelevant mini-games that litter the levels, almost to the same extent as Larry.  Some are fairly pleasing to play at first, such as the ‘food tetris’, and the ‘counting sheep’ themes, but these soon descend into dire drudgery, as you are forced to play them again and again and again.

We also have to consider the moral implications of a game like this.  Without attempting to sound like a frowsty old curmudgeon who frowns disapprovingly upon such juvenile exploits, there is more to consider than the brazen licentiousness on offer.  For instance, the game rewards you for stealing money off the lass who has just fallen in love with you.  You are actively encouraged to swear at ‘old biddies’ out of the shop window.  And basically, the entire concept of falsely playing with the emotions of the opposite sex for selfish gain is not an idea that I am sure any victims of such heartache would be willing to condone.  Obviously the game is intended for mature audiences only, but this will inevitably fall into the hands of wide-eyed adolescents, and is not something anyone would like their child to take inspiration from.

You have to approach 7 Sins with the right outlook if you want to play this game.  Don’t expect a realistic sex simulator.  Instead expect laddish immaturity and whimsical hedonistic indulgence with a patently tongue-in-cheek humour.  If Larry was the pre-pubescent, crude black sheep of the family, 7 Sins is the slightly more refined, yet oddly enigmatic older brother.  With more realistic graphics, less lewd jokes and crude language, and strangely no complete nudity throughout the entire game, 7 Sins doesn’t fall into the same perverted depths as Larry, but still maintains its fair share of dissolute adolescence.

7 Sins will often surprise, often shock, and sometimes entertain, but will never provide much deeper entertainment than a rushed fumble in the schoolyard with Melanie Norkster.  Adequate for mild digital titillation, but sadly lacking enough ‘game’ to entertain for any extended period.

Cossacks II

Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars Review – 2005

You have to admire the bravery/stupidity of soldiers during the Napoleonic era.  Two armies would line up neatly on either side of a battlefield, then march towards each other until within rifle-range.  Then they unload their single rifle shot into the enemy ranks, and follow by a bayonet charge.

But throughout all that, they maintain a sCossacks IItrict line and formation, presenting an easy target for enemy guns.  If I had 300 French rifles aimed at my chest, I think I would be justified in at least diving to the ground for cover.  But these fellows stood resolutely in line, maintaining strict order and discipline even if it killed them, which it frequently did.  This is the kind of warfare you are going to be playing in Cossacks II.

You can choose to lead any of six nations throughout a campaign for European military dominance.  The path to riches involves harvesting resources to sustain your army, diplomatic negotiations to aid your cause, and military might to crush the enemy.  As the game progresses, you can also upgrade units and buildings, erect defences, and train bigger, better troops.

The morale system is probably the most attractive feature of Cossacks II, and also one of the most important elements of the game.  A small group of well-positioned and acutely led soldiers can defeat a disorganised army twice its size with ease.  Throwing out your troops in great quantity is not the way to win the game; you will need strategic consideration as well as a clear understanding of how your soldiers’ minds work.

For instance, your men will start fleeing the second their division starts getting wiped out in great numbers.  So the trick is to attack the enemy in short, sharp bursts to eradicate their morale, and with minimal loss to yourself.  Using cavalry for lightning assaults to the flanks and rear is a devastatingly effective tactic to use.

Formations are also key to success, ensuring your men don’t get tired out over long distances, and also using offensive and defensive formations to counter certain enemy attacks.  Setting your soldiers into a square would easily withstand a cavalry attack, but would be quite useless against another infantry division.

And the rifles, ah the rifles.  Forget the semi-automatic killing machines of today; these rifles were wildly inaccurate, fired only bullet per round, and took almost a minute to reload.  Knowing when and where to use your rifles is one of the things that will determine how quickly you win or lose a battle.

As your troops win battles, they grow in experience and confidence.  A group that has undergone many successful fights will be harder, tougher, and better fighters.  Thus this adds more tactical nuances to the game, as you don’t want to waste your experienced fighters in enemy gunfire, so you need to find ways to bring them into battle when the enemy have already used their round of rifle fire.

In traditional Cossacks style, the unit cap is ridiculously high, allowing up 64,000 units on-screen at any one time.  This makes for some spectacular battles and some scenes of unbelievable carnage, men being slaughtered in their thousands every single second.  Naturally you have to house all these units though, so keep building dwellings at a hefty pace.

The problem is, with so many things to hold your attention at the same time, it can be hard to effectively manage both the military and economic sides of the game.  There are no less than six different types of resource, all of which are necessary to the successful running of an army.  Don’t harvest enough food for instance, and there will be a famine, with your troops dropping to the ground like flies.

With a fog of war hiding enemies from view until just before they attack you, and usually regular attacks at that, there are frequent instances where your immediate attention is demanded.  That leaves sporadic gaps to issue orders to your peasants, upgrade things, and see to unit production, which results in badly managed economies, and hundreds of troops dying because you forgot to press some button or other.

With a main campaign, a battle for Europe mode, a quick skirmish editor and some decent multiplayer options, there is plenty to keep you occupied throughout your Napoleonic endeavours.

Cossacks II is a polished game with its own distinctive style of gameplay, but it just doesn’t offer as much as Rome: Total War or Empire Earth II.  It will certainly serve as a flavoursome filling for your strategy sandwich, but you might just be left feeling a little hungry when it’s finished.

Stalingrad

Stalingrad Review – 2005

Selected casualties from the battle of Stalingrad.

Hans Heitig – Died of starvation when he drove his car into tree and failed to find the reverse gear to extricate himself.

Frans Freitig – Was KIA when he stopped to admire the scenery in a dangerous assault move.

Jans Jeitig – Bravely assaulted a platoon of enemy tanks on his motorcycle.

Vans von Veitig – Got so depressed with the stupidity of his comrades that he committed suicide.

Stalingrad is a dismal disappointment.  As time Stalingradprogresses and videogames evolve into more elaborate and highly enjoyable forms of entertainment, you tend to expect great things from new releases.  But Stalingrad obnoxiously gives progression the finger and contentedly rots away in sterility.

The prospect was fairly exciting.  A recreation of the events leading up to the battle of Stalingrad, and climaxing in the battle itself.  The game claims astounding historical accuracy, basing the missions on what exactly happened, including realistically replicated maps for you to follow through the footsteps of our ancestors.

There are two campaigns to play through.  The first is from the perspective of the German forces, letting you lead the Wehrmacht into Stalingrad.  Then you swap sides and become the Soviet forces when they boot the Nazis out of the city and reclaim it for themselves.  The idea of building something up in one campaign, only to systematically tear it down in the second campaign is of debatable satisfaction, but is certainly an interesting notion.

In practise though, that wonderful prospect is methodically ripped up into little shreds and trampled into the mud by some of the shoddiest game mechanics I’ve experienced in quite a while.  There is no tutorial to teach you the intricacies of the game, so you are just shoved straight into the first mission with just your default RTS skills to guide you.

Let’s run through that first mission shall we.  The one that laid the groundwork for the entire campaign.  Your objectives are fairly generic; take a cemetery by force and then move on to the crossroads.  Ok, simple enough.  I select all my troops and order them to the right place via the mini-map.  It is here you notice that you cannot set any kind of formation with your units, you just have to manually arrange your own layout if you want them to travel sensibly.

Having organised my armoured vehicles to lead the way, and my support vehicles bringing up the rear, I set off to the cemetery.  However, my motorbike units don’t seem too keen on staying with the rest of the pack, so before I can stop them they have buzzed off out of formation at top speed en route to the objective.  I move quickly to select them and bring them back but they have already met a mounted gun emplacement and suffer an instant death.

I continue bringing the rest of my troops up and raze the dratted gun to the ground.  Now I order them to the cemetery again.  To get there requires a left hand turning across a bridge.  My lead tank drives straight past the bridge and gets stuck in the scenery beyond.  The next tank actually turns left but meets heavy fire from the other side of the bridge and stops.  He refuses to budge either forwards or backwards despite my earnest yells and curses, and dies shortly after, thus blocking the entire bridge, making it impossible for the rest of my men to follow.

There is another lengthy route around which doesn’t require use of the bridge, so I reluctantly head my troops in that direction.  For no apparent reason the leading tank suddenly stops, and the second tank runs right into him, and the rest pile up too.  When I try to get them going again I find that the two leading tanks have become inexplicable attached, and it takes several minutes of coaxing and wheedling to separate the idiots again.  Shortly after, my entire platoon is wiped out by some unknown force that isn’t within my visibility.

That is a small sample of what the game plays like.  I was hoping things would get better later on, but they never do.  The pathfinding is possibly the most annoying aspect of the game, as it takes a Herculean effort to do something as stupidly simple as moving from one place to another.  They will always run into obstacles, each other, or sometimes just spin around on the spot for ages.

Other inadequacies include the fact that some troops will remain unharmed after a tank runs directly over them.  Then you have tissue paper armour on all of your tanks, so they tend to blow up at any opportunity.  I have even seen the turret on a tank continue turning when the tank has been blown up.  The isometric perspective also allows a depressingly narrow and unalterable field of view from which to conduct your military manoeuvres.

The appalling unit balance then robs the last scrap of sense or enjoyment from the game.  I took a platoon of tanks down a busy road, and was attacked from the side by another tank division.  They killed all my tanks within seconds bar one.  That one remaining tank then attacked the entire enemy division and annihilated them all without taking so much as a scratch.  Another example:  I run some of my infantry past a mounted gun and some entrenched soldiers.  Not one dies.  Then I get spotted by one armoured vehicle, and it takes down all my men within seconds.  The unit balancing is worse than a blind tightrope walker with two wooden legs.

In other matters, there is a lovely little help window that pops up every time you first visit a menu screen.  It includes handy details, like the fact that to scroll the text you need to drag the scrollbar to the left of the text downwards.  Except the scrollbar is on the right of the text.  Fantastic!

Even the game’s claim to historical accuracy has to be taken with a pinch (or indeed a barrel) of salt, because no matter how accurate the locations are, it is patently obvious that real soldiers of WWII were not the feather-brained, pathetic wretches that this game has on display.  Our forebears did have a degree of intelligence, and this just does not carry across when you see your digital soldiers getting tangled over their own tank tracks or getting stuck in the scenery.

If this were a sparse genre, then Stalingrad could be possibly be forgiven a little.  But when you have multitudes of other WWII heavyweights such as Blitzkrieg patrolling the horizons, then this game serves only to emphasise its own clumsy inadequacy.  There is realistically no reason why anyone should buy this game.  Ever!

SWAT 4

SWAT 4 Review – 2005

It is a rare find to come across a FPS that actually requires active thought throughout the game.  Usually your biggest task is simply gunning down baddies before they return the courtesy.  Interestingly, if you used the same technique in SWAT 4, you would fail every mission.  Since this aims to be a realistic interpretation of how SWAT operates, there are stringent rules to stick to.

The first priority of a SWAT team is the defence SWAT 4of civilian life, so shooting innocents or hostages is going to fail your mission instantly.  The problem is, you can’t go around just shooting baddies either.  The extremely strict rules of engagement for a SWAT team dictate that you can only open fire upon an armed felon when the lives of civilians or your team is in danger.  You cannot even harm criminals who are disobeying your direct commands and running away.  Doing so is a breach of SWAT policy, and will result in a severe loss of points when the mission totals are totted up.

Since the success of a mission is determined largely upon your adherence to the above rules, you are forced into a perpetually super-alert state of mind, as your hesitance for just one second may cost you your life, or your impulsiveness may cost you the mission.  The second a baddie points a gun at you or an innocent is the only permission you need to legitimately mow them down.  Thus every corner you turn and every room you clear is an extremely tense affair, as you have to have your trigger finger on a razor-edge, ready to let loose at the drop of a pin.

Let’s run through a standard SWAT room-clearing procedure.  The safest approach is to firstly stand clear of the door, then lob through a flashbang or gas grenade, which will momentarily stun the occupants, making them more likely to surrender.  The second it explodes, you and your men move swiftly through the doorway shouting at the top of your voice to “get down” and “drop your weapons”.  Your shouts will also lower the morale of the occupants.  Each baddie will react differently to your presence.  Some will collapse instantly and drop their guns, others will waver for a few seconds before reluctantly lowering their weapon to the floor, and other suicidally-minded idiots will just start firing anyway.

Sometimes it is not that straightforward.  For instance, some baddies will refuse to lower their guns, but don’t actually shoot at you.  These will have to be subdued by the less-lethal shotgun, or the pepper-spray, which help make up their minds quite efficiently.  Others will run away, and even though you have a clear shot at them, it is against the rules of combat to shoot, and would result in a point deduction.  You will also get civilians who get scared and run about in a blind panic, and it can be quite difficult to differentiate these from the bad guys in the heat of battle.  Whatever happens, it is your duty to react according to the individual dispositions of the occupants, and keep track on the evolving situation.

Overall, it must be said that the AI of all in-game characters is excellent.  Your team are pretty damn good at what they do, working quickly and effectively to cover areas and clear rooms.  They have excellent situational awareness, and work beautifully as a cohesive unit to accomplish anything you order them to do.  Strangely, even though your team members sometimes get shot, the same guys will always be patched up or resurrected in time for the next mission, which detracts slightly from the loss experienced at an ‘officer down’ moment.

The enemy AI behaves incredibly realistically also, creating a few moments where you fail a mission by stopping too long to gape in admiration at some of their manoeuvres.  If a hostage is present when you burst into a room with a hostile, they will occasionally grab the hostage and threaten to shoot if you take a single step closer.  When running away as well, they won’t run randomly; they will run until they find a suitable hiding place.  This can frequently catch you out when they use your haste to their advantage in ambushing you.

Unfortunately, for every moment of genius, there is also a moment where the whole illusion breaks down through just a few AI discrepancies.  One of these is when a team member occasionally gets stuck to a piece of scenery.  Even if you press on without him, if he is the default grenade thrower when clearing rooms for instance, the whole team will wait indefinitely for him to come before they continue, even though he will never show up.  There are other moments where your team will occasionally stand guarding a bit a wall with their back to the danger area.  Sometimes they even point their guns down at the floorboards, aiming at criminals on the floor below.  These are admittedly rare incidents, but ruin the whole feeling that you are leading a team of elite professionals.

I also found that the takedown system was altogether a little punishing.  If you die then the mission ends instantly, now that is fair enough.  But the second a hostage gets shot by either you or the bad guys, then that also ends the mission.  Sometimes a baddie can shoot an innocent in another room when they hear gunfire and shouting, bringing your game to an end, which is entirely unfair upon you and your crew.  Hostages get shot in real life, but does that mean instant defeat and withdrawal for the rescuing party?  Far from it.

Apart from a few minor gripes though, SWAT 4 is one of the most polished shooters I have played in a while.  Fluid gameplay, excellent visuals, and impressive although ultimately repetitive sound affects.  One of the finest aspects of the game is the remarkable replayability.  Every time you play through a mission again, you will have a totally different experience, as the bad guys are spread randomly through the level each time.  You will never know what to expect, and that’s what keeps the gameplay feeling fresh, even when forced to play certain missions through again and again.

There is also a quick mission setup option, where you can play through any of the unlocked scenarios, but set your own parameters from a raft of various options.  This can be a lot of fun, and can make areas more challenging or easier depending on the choices you set.  A multiplayer option allows you to play co-operatively or against others in a choice of four engaging game modes.  These include straight deathmatch and the classic escort VIP mode.  With up to sixteen players per game, things can get quite frenetic.

SWAT 4 is compelling, engrossing, and thrilling.  But with the Rainbow Six series as well as the previous SWAT titles serving as worthy predecessors, it is unfortunately a style of gameplay that most will have experienced many times before.  It is a great game regardless though.  Something that will hone your reflexes, test your wits, and scuttle your nerves.  I’m off for more!

January 6th, 2011 @ 16:13:14

Sudeki Review – 2005

I often wonder how developers come up with the names for the characters and locations within their games.  Do they actually pay someone to sit there and grab Scrabble pieces out of a hat, fashioning randomly obscure combinations of letters.  Sudeki is a prime example.  The four main avatars go by the names of Tal, Ailish, Elco and Buki.  They are tasked with defending the land of Haskilia from the assault of the deadly Aklorians.  You would be forgiven for assuming these were the output of some unintelligible oriental development company.  But no, developers Climax are native Britons.  Madness!

Anyway, welcome to Sudeki.  A world where January 6th, 2011 @ 16:13:14good battles evil, the light god attempting to banish the pesky dark god from the lands.  However, the light god is having a few problems with the big bad dark god, so he has to call on some heroes to help bash some sense into his wicked counterpart.  Blah-de-blah, etc.

You are thus flung headlong into a storyline that soars into action with the alacrity of wet tissue.  Saving the world of Sudeki is an enjoyable experience, don’t get me wrong, but to really savour the heights that the narrative has to offer, you have to persevere through many hours of idly pleasant but seemingly unfocused storyline.  About half way through the game, things really start coming together though, and will draw you in effortlessly right up to the very end.  The clock reminding me accusingly that it has gone 3am is testament to that fact.

Gameplay consists simply of either fighting your way through areas, or working out puzzles in order to progress.  Fighting is sadly one of the game’s weakest points.  You usually have all four of the main characters in every battle, and you can switch between these at will, which is nice.  Tal and Buki are melee fighters, so they’ll get up close and personal to baddies, while Ailish and Elco will use ranged attacks, with magic spells and ranged weapons respectively.

When in control of Tal or Buki, the camera is in a third-person perspective, and you assault enemies by using your two attack buttons to create various combos.  The main problem is that aiming is ridiculously unwieldy from the viewpoint used, so accuracy and skill come a distinct second place to brainless button-mashing.  The other deficiency is that combat only uses three-button combos, which are extremely easy to master.  So although you can’t aim your fighters very well, it is insanely easy to pull of giant whirling attacks of ludicrous dexterity.

When using your ranged warriors, Ailish and Elco, the view changes to a first-person perspective, which is nice, but ultimately still just a little gawky.  While the AI of your bizarre quartet is generally bearable, all too often they will get themselves entangled within the clutches of the enemy hordes, necessitating swift rescue actions by yourself to save their sorry hides.

Sudeki is pretty much a linear experience right the way through.  The puzzles you come across throughout your travels are pleasant but a bit simplistic.  These puzzles often rely on your characters using one of their special abilities, such as Tal’s strength or Elco’s jetpack, but the game ensures you are rarely left in doubt as to when you’ll need to use each action.  Although it is a nice change not to keep getting stuck in frustration as some titles are notoriously famed for insisting upon, it all seems just a bit too clear-cut; not quite taxing enough.

It must be said that trekking the glorious landscapes of Sudeki, and gazing in awe at the spectacular vistas it ceaselessly streams into your retinas is a remarkably pleasing experience.  Although gaudy and exuberant, the graphics are absolutely top-notch, with excellent texturing and plenty of impressive special effects for magic spells and the like.  Animation though is sadly a little stilted; your characters walk as though they’ve been stung on the posterior by a wasp.

The soundtrack accompanying you on your travels is reasonably varied, with a few particularly memorable pieces, and adds a sense of atmosphere to the locations you visit.  The lands you travel are packed with unique NPCs, most of which will have something to say to you, and many of which will converse at length, offering quests, services, or just chatting about the weather.  Excellently, virtually all in-game dialogue is voice-acted, and with a variety of accents and variations, even if some of them were patently never admitted to acting school.

The main story of Sudeki will likely be completed by the hardcore in little more than fifteen hours.  Completing all the side-quests will add to the lifespan a little, but since these feel a bit hollow and frequently fail to reap satisfactory results, it is sometimes just as well to avoid these.

Basically, Sudeki feels like a lightweight RPG.  Yes, it certainly is stylish, but it never approaches the complexity or depth of Morrowind or similarly vast titles.  Look upon this as an introduction to RPGing, or else a tasty filler to keep you occupied until the next big title comes along.  A lot of fun certainly, just not a lasting or ultimately fulfilling diversion.

And Climax, if you need a hand generating names for your next title, I’ve got the deluxe edition of Scrabble here, so I’d be glad to help out…

The Great Art Race

The Great Art Race Review – 2005

To base a game around art is a bold move indeed.  There is a very fine line between daring entrepreneurialism and futile bravery.  No doubt Ascaron have done their homework and decided that there is a market for a game based on art, but whether it can generate enough appeal to lure the masses away from their rocket launchers is a moot point.  I for one am certainly pleased, and indeed impressed, to see game publishers and developers broadening out to explore fresh gaming formulas.  Such innovation demands respect, even if the attempt itself is not entirely successful.

The story of TGAR runs that Uncle The Great Art RaceWalter has had his art collection stolen.  Poor fellow, particularly with his terminal health condition granting him only a few short years to live.  Thus, he promises to bequeath his entire estate and possessions to whichever family member can retrieve the most of his pilfered paintings before his untimely demise.  Not a very fair way to draw out a last will and testament, but that’s enigmatic old Uncle Walter for you.

So playing as one of his avaricious family members attempting to selfishly earn themselves some easy loot, you have to travel the globe, attending auctions to buy back the valuable artistry.  Naturally, such famous works as Picasso, Monet, and Caravaggio are going to fetch quite a hefty price, so you’ll need to engage in business ventures to generate some substantial income.

Gameplay focuses primarily on this necessity to make cash, and despite the various ways of doing this, there is only really one reliable source of income – plantations.  There are fifteen available spots on the world map for you to erect your plantations, which allow you to yield indigenous crops from the land using local cheap labour.  You then sell these crops for huge profits in the London and New York emporiums.  Business sense is necessary, as you have to weigh transportation costs with current prices between the two locales.

The other methods of accumulating wealth are far more unpredictable, and infinitely less remunerative.  Firstly you have the option to invest in a simplified version of the stock market, investing in various companies.  This is uncannily erratic though, and even successful ventures will rarely generate enough money to fuel your auctioning expenses.  Horse racing is another way of making a quick buck, but once again is purely down to chance, so you are more likely to lose your bet than make a profit.

Every month or so, art auctions will be held at various places around the world, and all who wish may attend them.  The daftest thing about the auctions is that there is never anyone there except your family members.  So if it is just yourself who manages to get to the auction, you’ll get it for the minimum asking price.  Also, the auctioneer has never heard of the word ‘incremental’, as he raises prices by up to £50,000 per bid at times.  As forgeries are not uncommon, you are also able to take art classes so you can identify which paintings are genuine, and which are not.

And basically, that is it!  Make cash, attend auctions, and that’s about the limit of your activities in TGAR.  The formula is simple, but it works reasonably well to create a simple, albeit engaging experience.  Of course there are plenty of finer details that add extra character to the game.  Random events occur frequently, whether for better or for worse, such as strikes in your plantations, or unexpected events to boost your reputation.  There is also a mysterious stranger in most of the cities that can be hired to perform unlawful tasks.  He can ‘acquire’ forgeries for you, and can make ‘unfortunate incidents’ occur to your rival family members.

Possibly the greatest appeal of TGAR is the multiplayer element which allows up to six human players on the same PC to take up the art quest.  As a family-orientated title, it simultaneously teaches you all about the paintings you acquire, so serves as an art lesson at the same time.  This can get a little tedious on longer games though, so fortunately the victory conditions can be tailored to adjust to different lengths and victory conditions.

For those who don’t have the benefit of friends or family who want to play an art game, the AI characters are pretty proficient at building up their own financial empires, and will prove worthy challengers to you, particularly on the higher difficulty settings.

Sadly, the game’s low production values are delineated by the repetition throughout the game.  Each location is represented by a 3D snapshot, which pretends to be animated by small pieces of 2D animation within it.  The problem is that these snapshots are re-used for several different locations each, even across separate countries.  Also, the warehouse buildings and banks right across the world are just identikit clones, not bothering to change in the slightest.

The musical score is very pleasant at first, changing with each location, but the tracks are too short, so it will loop long before you have finished your turn.  The rest of the sound effects are reasonable, but a special mention must go the horrendously foulsome snoring sound clip.  I don’t usually mind the sound of other people snoring, but this particular snore is so putrid, so soul-spearingly antagonistic, so brain-scythingly infuriating that I ended up turning off all sound effects just to get rid of it.  I shudder even remembering it.

So when you when you have finally laboured, sweated, auctioned and bought, the winner who has accumulated the most paintings inherits Uncle Walter’s assets and estate.  When you have spent such a long time toiling to attain your goal, you want to finish on a high note, to be rewarded amply for your labours.  But sadly, TGAR has one of the most anticlimatic game endings I’ve ever seen.  A few fireworks go off, and you get to read your uncle’s will.  The end.  Pathetic!  And to exacerbate matters, his assets only add up to a paltry sum compared to the wealth you will have accreted, so that fails to satisfy either.  I was left feeling distinctly hollow.

Possibly TGAR’s greatest failing is that it simply should not have been a videogame.  I kept getting the nagging feeling right the way through that I was playing a boardgame, which in essence I was.  The game’s simplistic nature makes it far better suited to translation as a traditional style of boardgame, rather than using the PC’s considerable power to accomplish very little.

A disappointment certainly, but an innovative disappointment, which isn’t quite so bad.  Keep them coming Ascaron!

Cops 2170 The Power of the Law

Cops 2170: The Power of the Law Review – 2005

Let’s kick off this review with a quiz to test your common sense.

1.  When under fire from a vicious gun-toting madman, do you?  A) Dive for cover and return fire.  B) Use someone else as a human shield.  C) Wander closer.

2.  Whilst attempting to strategically round up dangerous Cops 2170 The Power of the Lawgangs of the aforementioned gun enthusiasts, do you?  A) Flank them with an incisive squad manoeuvre.  B) Bomb the entire area regardless of civilians.  C) Happily stroll around in a small circle until you get killed.

3.  When endeavouring to neutralise a psychotic gun nut who is standing five feet away and about to open fire upon you, do you?  A) Shoot him down quickly.  B) Ask if he’d like to talk things through.  C) Expend all your ammo shooting into the wall 90º to his left.

4.  Upon finding you have no ammunition left in the middle of a frenetic firefight, do you?  A) Grab the spare ammo clips from a fallen comrade and rejoin the fray.  B) Run away.  C) Ignore the ammo clips lying around you and just stand still and wait.

Here are the quiz results.  If you got mostly A’s: Brave and resourceful under threat, you would make an excellent cop.  Mostly B’s: You appear to have one or two screws loose.  Mostly C’s: Quick, go out and buy Cops 2170 straight away!  This game was tailor-made for you.

Cops 2170.  You are a cop.  The year is…oh you guessed.  Cue the typical futuristic cityscapes, marked by affluence and modern technology in the better off areas, and derelict slums housing the degenerates and low-life scum.  You play as newly promoted police sergeant Katy, who is still a little wet behind the ears for her current level of command.

The storyline, although clichéd and repetitive, is possibly the only element of interest throughout the entire game.  With a corrupt police force entering into shady dealings and accepting bribes from dishonest citizens, it soon becomes apparent that treading the merging line between good and evil is not as straightforward as it sounds.  Without dropping too many plot spoilers, it will suffice to say that the forking storyline forces you to make your own decisions that to a certain degree affect how the game plays out.

Sadly, to access the moderately entertaining storyline you’ll have to fumble your way through the dismal game mechanics, which appear more confused than a chameleon on a tartan tablecloth.  For a start, modern urban warfare does not lend itself well to interpretation as a turn-based strategy game.  Yet somehow, Cops 2170 has squeezed fast-paced action and frantic firefights into a turn-based mould.  The result is an ungainly mess.

Imagine the scene if you will.  A dark street, cops on one side, naughty rebel-type bad guys on the other.  Each cop takes it in turn to move forwards, spending their measly few action points on closing ground between themselves and the wayward gun-brandishing villains.  Now the baddies’ turn, so they move incrementally toward the cops.  Even when forces clash, what would in reality be a chaotic battle of blazing guns and death screams, is in fact reduced to a protracted, prosaic affair, with each character patiently waiting (or indeed dying) while everyone else takes their turns in strict orderliness.

Where’s the tension?  Where’s the excitement?  Where’s the illusion that you are actually fighting a battle and not picking your nose whilst waiting for the dumb AI to break the impression even more?  Forget action, the combat is more like a slow game of chess, but without all the finesse and tactical nuances that make chess such a more worthwhile option.

Right, so here’s the deal.  You are in charge of a few cops, and you must go out and complete missions amidst the turmoil and perpetual warfare around you.  Each of your characters has an allocation of action points to spend per turn, which you can use to make them move, shoot or otherwise interact with their surroundings.  Sadly, the number of action points is initially so little that it takes a good few turns just to get outside the front door.  Traversing to the other side of the map is a nightmare slog; with your characters obstinately refusing to run more than the scanty few inches allotted to them each turn.

And with so few action points to spend, you’d assume that your controllable cops would make proper use of them.  But no, they insist on running zigzag paths wherever they go, halving the distance they could cover if they actually ran in a straight line.  Then they’ll frequently stop for no apparent reason, halfway to their destination.  Gnn!  Even better, when they finally reach a baddie and start shooting at him from point-blank range, their aim will often be an entire 90º off to the side of the target.  A blind man could do better than that.  Why?  Why are you doing this to me you pathetic, puerile, and crassly asinine silicon cretins?

Oh we’re not finished yet.  We’ve still got to talk about the lovely line-of-sight model, which is so horrendously volatile that enemies and allies alike flutter in and out of view without warning.  Sometimes an enemy won’t even pop into sight until he is almost rubbing noses with you. Such unpredictable vision negates any chance of using tactics, as you can rarely be certain of where the enemies actually are.

The AI is very possibly the worst attempt I have ever seen to recreate human intelligence.  Fellow cops and baddies alike are soulless zombies, seemingly driven by randomness.  Their actions and decisions generally make absolutely zero sense whatsoever, and the word ‘tactics’ does not even enter into their vocabulary.  They just shoot everything in sight, and plenty of things not in sight as well.

The inclusion of invisible walls also prevents you from inflicting damage on enemies from certain angles.  You can just unload your entire arsenal at them from a few feet away, and yet not a hair on their head will be harmed.  Some waist-high fences also act as invisible walls, meaning you can’t shoot someone who is clearly in view on the other side of one.

There’s more!  The voice acting is dire, and exacerbated by the fact that the voice and sound across the levels are repeated infuriatingly often.  Speaking to other AI cops will more than likely result in a response you’ve already heard and developed a loathing for many times already.  Your characters also talk nonsense, sometimes speaking two entirely contradictory phrases within seconds.

To round off this splendid package you get extremely dated graphics and unconvincing character animations.  Plus, with the precipitous learning curve introducing you to the game with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head, what’s not to like?

There is a very tiny weeny fragment of game hidden beneath this shambolic detritus, but don’t waste your time by searching for it.  Cops 2170 is outdated, outclassed, and outright appalling.

GTR

GTR Review – 2005

Do you consider yourself to be a really skilled person?  Want to prove it?  Do one of the following if you wish to gain our respect:  1. Attain world peace.  2. Reach Mach-6 on a unicycle.  3. Use a spade to dissect a flea.  4. Count the grains of sand in the Sahara.  5. Eat Mt.Everest.  6. Win a race in GTR on the Simulation difficulty at your first attempt.

Developed by coding geniuses Simbin, GTRGTR is a work of art.  No doubt inspired by the uncompromising authenticity of the infamous Grand Prix Legends, they have recreated a driving experience so real that it’s with surprise you realise that you can’t smell the burning rubber.  The problem with Grand Prix Legends was that it clung to hyper-reality like a dog to a bone.  The resulting learning curve was a vertical cliff face, scaleable by only the most devoted petrolheads.  Sadly, the masses shunned it, despite the purity of racing it offered.

Fortunately, GTR has learned a lesson from its esoteric forebear, and has broadened its remit considerably to become all things to all people.  To a novice it will gently take them by the hand and ease them slowly and kindly into the game.  Hardened racers will be challenged by a tough but rewarding experience.  Elite professionals will be forced to tread a line so fine that the merest twitch of a toe could cause a trackside barrier to end your race (and indeed your life) prematurely.  Regardless of your skill behind the virtual wheel, GTR will provide a uniquely enjoyable and perfectly tailored challenge to everyone.

This is achieved by three distinct racing styles, each reflecting a different level of difficulty.  At the lower end of the scale is the accessible Arcade mode, which is itself divided up into four further difficulties.  The first two, Sunday Driver (easy) and Weekend Warrior (medium) are what you would expect from a traditional arcade experience.  No car setup, no hassle, no finicky rules, just get out there and drive.  The third, Speed Demon (hard) takes things up another notch, as it starts taking away the driving aids that helped you in the lower difficulties, and the competition also gets a skill boost.  Alien on Wheels (hard) is the final option, and ramps up the skill level to almost Simulation level.  Virtually no driving aids, full car damage, and aggressive AI that wants to see you plunge headlong into the trackside scenery.

However, the defining arcade elements are all present, removing the air of realism that pervades the other driving styles.  You get thrown straight into a race at the starting grid with no option about how many opponents or how long the race should be.  The game determines all that automatically.  Additionally, you are not penalised for taking sneaky shortcuts across the track; anything goes.  The computer also takes over control of the car when entering the pit lane.  As with conventional arcade modes, this is an instant fun, no questions asked style of racing.  But you’ll soon be craving something more substantial.

The opposite end of the scale is the mightily fearsome Simulation mode.  Waiting ominously for you to just sample its slick delights, this is almost certainly the hardest, yet most rewarding racing experience since the aforementioned Grand Prix Legends.  A decent steering wheel and pedals are absolutely compulsory if you are even going to contemplate starting to learn the unfathomably deep drive offered by the Simulation mode.  You’ll see why this is so from the very first second you nose your gleaming automobile from its garage.  The accuracy with which it recreates the handling of a rear wheel drive turbo-injected monster is quite terrifying.

If you’re the kind of person who thinks that the best way to start a race is by putting the pedal to the metal, then this is by far the wrong mode for you.  An exquisite balance of acceleration and careful steering, complemented by some delicately applied dabs of the brake are required if you are to successfully direct your obstinately wayward race machine along the track.  Mastering the nuances of this mode takes true dedication, and a deep comprehension of racing techniques.

Just a fraction too much throttle on departure from a corner, just a smidgeon too far on the wheel, or take the corner just a hair’s breadth too wide and control is gone.  Occasionally recoverable with extreme skill, frequently not, this racing mode is truly the divider between the men and the boys.  Or perhaps more accurately: between the men and the godlike elite.  The trivia of extreme racing are replicated so precisely that there is a noticeable difference in grip between hot and cold tyres.  This calls for a different racing procedure for the first few laps while your tyres are still warming up.  The terrain too reacts realistically; so don’t expect to retain even the slightest fragment of control or steering ability when you involuntarily slip off the track onto the sand.

When in the garage, your car is modifiable with a ridiculously advanced array of parameters.  Yes, all the usual options make an appearance, such as tyres, gear ratios, and brake bias, but each part is fully scaleable.  So rather than having a choice of preset gear ratios to choose from, you can actually construct your own ratio, determining the exact maximum and minimum limits for every single gear.  Then on top of that, there are masses more advanced gubbins, like the ability to set the tyre pressure on each tyre individually, the option to adjust the degree of each camber, and even the capability of setting the ride height of every wheel.  You don’t need to use the options in the garage in order to win races, but the mechanically minded will be able to tweak away to their hearts content, adjusting every single facet of the car to suit their driving style.

The more serious nature of the racing is also given consideration, allowing you more control over your car, and treating you a good deal more strictly than the user-friendly arcade mode.  Try cutting a corner and depending on the severity of the short cut, you’ll either be given a warning, or asked to serve a ten second penalty in the pits.  You also maintain full control and responsibility of your car at all times, so you’ll need to drive carefully and even manually reduce your speed to the pit lane limit when driving in the pits.  The Simulation mode is professional on all counts, not just in the driving style.

Semi-Pro is much the same as Simulation, except that the driving and the difficulty have been toned down a good deal to make it more accessible to the masses.  Your metal monster now behaves itself a little, and is much more forgiving on your mistakes.  Don’t mistake this for being easy though, as it remains a tough proposition for even racing veterans.

Superb AI serves to add even more tension to the already atmospheric races.  Overtaking an opposing driver is not just a case of slipping past him on a straight, because he’ll be bombing down it just as fast as you.  Rather you’ll need to carefully time your manoeuvre so that you can take him on the entrance or exit of a corner without damaging your vehicle.  It is also excellent to note that the AI drivers are not soulless automatons.  You will occasionally see a driver push just a little too hard on a corner, and lose time trying to correct their error.  I was once following a fellow who was pushing so hard that he entirely lost control on a corner and flew into the hedge at great speed, flipping his entire car over a barrier, which ended his race.  It is fantastic indeed to race against drivers that are professional but humanly fallible.

Once you’ve had enough practice against the superb AI though, there is the additional option to go online and race against human opponents.  This will no doubt be the most enduring element of the game, as players continually hone their driving skills, and go online to prove their worth to the racing community.  Up to 56 racers can compete in the same event simultaneously.  There is also a perpetual stream of add-ons and updates available through the GTR online service, which will add a comprehensive buffet of both professional and user-made content.  This delightful concept should stretch out GTR’s appeal indefinitely.

GTR is pretty to look at too, particularly the cars, which are all modelled accurately, as you might guess.  The trackside scenery is also quite pleasant, save for the cardboard spectators and marshals.  Sound effects are aurally stimulating; the sound of a twenty throaty engines revving hard is a joy to listen to.  There is also an excellent musical score for the menu system, and you can even switch on in-game music to accompany you while you race.

I feel bad finding criticisms with GTR, as the only faults that you can lower are just minor discrepancies, nothing game threatening.  The pit team that you stay in radio contact with throughout the race are possibly the only thing in the game that doesn’t work properly.  Upon undertaking a high speed smash against a wall that tore off half my bodywork, blew up the engine, and sent both front wheels flying off down the track, the expert pit crew informed me that I seemed to have a slight problem with the suspension.  Thanks guys!

Other than that, the only niggles I can think of are the fact that the AI racers will entirely ignore your existence on the formation lap, so they’ll ram straight into you if you happen to veer into their path.  Also, the safety car is made of solid concrete and cannot be budged even slightly by ramming him, as you’ll no doubt attempt to do as a matter of priority.  The nasty formation lap can’t be turned off either, so you’ll have to keep skipping it every time.  Occasionally one or two of the buttons stop working, and errm, that’s about it.  I really can’t see any other scratches in the gleaming bodywork of this polished model of motoring magnificence.

GTR is the most realistic driving experience available today (after Grand Prix Legends of course).  Its gamut of options and scaleable difficulty make it the title of choice for all devotees of raw racing action.  Go on, prove your skill.  Attempt the challenge we set in the opening paragraph: win a race on the Simulation difficulty at your first attempt.  You won’t of course; you won’t even get near.  But persevere.  You will win one eventually, and you’ll be a better person for having done so.

Voltaire once said, “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”  Appreciate the excellence of GTR and your life will be all the richer!

American Conquest

American Conquest Review – 2005

As a child I was never really interested in history.  I didn’t really care who Christopher Colombus was, how many wives King Henry VIIIth had, or even how the feudal system worked.  My apathy was founded not on the subject itself, but through the numerous bland and uninspiring history books I had to work through, turning potentially interesting subjects into a formalized drag.  This has changed in recent years however, with the release of games like Age of Empires and Medieval: Total War, that make history a lot more fun by letting you re-enact famous events from the past while educating you about them at the same time.  American Conquest lets you relive three centuries of American war, from the voyages of Colombus in 1492 to the great War of Independence in 1775.  A truly appealing prospect, not only to history fans, but also to non-enthusiasts like myself.

I was awaiting this game with muchAmerican Conquest anticipation for various reasons, but the aspect that excited me most was the enormous potential for truly epic battles with a possible 16,000 fighting units at any one time.  Each of these are individual characters with their own status, morale, equipment etc.  Your men are not like the grouped units in Medieval, but can all be controlled individually and given unique commands and behaviours.  This opens the way for the most spectacular and majestic battles ever seen on the PC.  It honestly does take your breath away to see wave after wave after wave of whooping Sioux Indians descending upon the serried ranks of a vast Spanish army, entire columns of brightly coloured head-dresses being torn asunder by the deafening crescendo of three thousand muskets roaring in unison.  This kind of scale takes strategy games to a whole new level of immersion and gameplay.

There are a total of twelve different civilizations for you to play throughout eight campaigns spanning America’s volatile history.  An interesting feature is that most of the campaigns let you play as either side of the turmoil.  For instance, in the War of Independence you can decide to play as the USA, struggling to overthrow the yoke enforced upon them by the British.  Then you can replay the entire campaign as the British, who are trying to suppress the American revolt.  This gives an unbiased view of both sides, rather than classing one race as the good guys, one as the bad guys, English-Nazi style.  The little history lesson you get before each mission gives you all the details, so you can fully understand why the war was taking place, and why the people felt justified in fighting for it.  Which is a commendable addition to the game.

The units you get to fight with fall mostly into the categories of infantry, cavalry and artillery, making a grand total of 100 different unit types.  The kind of fighters used by the USA include Militiamen, Fusiliers and Trappers, whereas a tribe like the Huron boasts Tomahawk Throwers, Archers and Mounted Pikemen.  An improvement on games of this genre is the way in which ranged attackers like riflemen and archers are also equipped with melee weapons, so if they come face to face with enemies they are not rendered helpless by being stuck with their cumbersome default weapons.  Thankfully, all civilizations have been balanced well in traditional fashion, so no race will have any advantage over another.  Every unit has it’s own strengths and weaknesses that can be exploited by a cunning leader.

Strategists will be delighted with the kind of possibilities this game has to offer.  Although not as advanced as Medieval, it still offers all the usual commands and options plus a few new ones.  Basic orders like guard, patrol and don’t attack are supplemented by additional useful ones such as: use melee weapons only, attack any enemies encountered while travelling, and friendly fire (which allows musketeers and other firearm-wielding units to shoot through their own ranks to get at the enemy.  This can be extremely damaging for you if used improperly, but is very useful at times).

American Conquest also caters for stat-fans who soak up statistics, facts and figures.  This is not immediately obvious, but hidden beneath the outer graphical appearance is a whole host of stats.  Hitting the relevant key with any unit or building selected will bring up a detailed virtual dossier that contains more than enough information to sate anybody’s curiosity.  It will tell you the equipment a unit has, his fighting skills, his morale, how many people he has killed, any recent incidents that worried him, or even anything that is currently pleasing him, like plenty of defence, or close proximity to a command building.  This info can be viewed for any single one of your countless troops.  But this excess of information is not obtrusively pushed in your face; it is hidden behind the gaming interface and only shows up when called upon.  A subtle technique that appeals to a wider range of players and shows how much thought and consideration has gone into the game.  After the match too you get a screen full of statistics that can help highlight where you went wrong and what your weaknesses were.

One thing that initially put me off was the unfashionable approach to the graphics; the use of a 2D isometric viewpoint.  Us gamers are fussy creatures, and expect our games to use the latest in 3D technology, treating us to a feast of sumptuous eye-candy.  So is American Conquest a graphical disappointment?  At this point I  will humbly bow my head and gladly eat my hat, for this game is a paragon of beauty.  Apart from the slightly annoying fixed viewpoint which you can never change, the graphics are better than many similar 3D titles.  All of your tiny warriors are modelled with exceptional detail and display remarkably realistic and fluid animation.  Just watch the way in which an idle drummer will push back his hat with his drumstick.  Watch a bored villager kick stones while he waits for something to do.  Observe a skilled swordsman constantly surveying his surroundings for the first signs of danger.

Then send your men to battle and check out the way your gunners will take a firing stance, fire, then take more ammo from their bags, reload their guns, and shoulder them in an orderly way when the scuffle is over.  You really don’t miss 3D when 2D is this good, indeed such trivialities won’t even occur to you when six thousand whooping Indians surround your castle and you are overcome with awe at the splendour of it all.  Sound is also superb, adding a lot to the atmosphere.  The only slight problem is that the excellent soundtrack is too short, so you will end up hearing the same music over and over again.

Another well-implemented feature that impressed me is the extremely convincing morale system.  The morale of your soldiers is affected by many different factors: fatigue, loss of too many soldiers, loss of standard bearer, retreat of others, proximity to their encampment, loss of drummer, insufficient food and many more conditions.  The thing that really makes this work well though is the individual attributes and statistics for every single soldier, as I have already mentioned.  This means that rather than a simultaneous retreat when things get tough, your soldiers will depart in desultory fashion, according to the individual endurance of each man.  This makes the already impressive battles more realistic than ever, with your troops fitfully scattering across the battlefield when the enemy gets the upper hand.

Another aspect that affects your troops’ morale, and is yet another welcome addition to the game, is experience.  With each battle your warriors survive, the more adept they will become at fighting.  This opens up to you even more tactical decisions to make as you will end up with many hardened veterans that you don’t want to waste by putting on the first wave of an assault.  Rather you can send the inexperienced youths on the suicidal tasks, and use your experienced men for something like a flank attack.

American Conquest is a truly fine game, and delivers on almost all counts.  Unfortunately it falls short in just one or two places, which denies it the privilege of a perfect score.  The biggest of these is the under-developed artificial intelligence.  Rather than the supreme AI of Medieval, your computer opponents show themselves to be a little lacking in the required grey matter.  Although they are devastatingly effective at eliminating you, they usually follow the same routines of attack that can be identified and used as their downfall.

For instance, on many scenarios they will use only one route to reach your base.  When you find this out you can simply build a few heavy fortresses on that route with a lot of firepower within, and you can hold them at bay for the rest of the game.  They will continue to throw all their forces straight at you, seemingly oblivious to the fact that all their men get mown down every single time.  Another little niggle is that they are not restricted by the fog of war that hinders you.  They can unerringly see you and head straight towards you even if you are the other side of the map, well out of their vision.  But these flaws don’t really impact the game too heavily, and when you play on multi-player they won’t even exist.

American Conquest is a classic, and rightfully so.  It takes all the best parts of a strategy game and adds them to a fascinating period of history to emerge as a polished and near flawless masterpiece.  Throw away your history books and play American Conquest, so you can experience a much more vivid picture of true historical events.  Whatever sort of games you play, you can’t fail to enjoy this innovative and moving experience, even if it’s just to charge down the British army with a heaving horde of screaming Indians.

Space Tripper

Space Tripper Review – 2005

Every once in a while there comes a game that moves you inside.  It touches a gaming nerve you never knew existed, and you enjoy it all the more so for that.  But what is that elusive ingredient that so manages to attune to and harmonise with your gaming nature?  It varies in every case, but for Space Tripper it can be clearly identified – Purity.

Describing itself as a crossbreed between Space Tripperclassic shooters Defender and Uridium, Space Tripper is truly a gaming revelation.  Unconcerned with all the extraneous details of an arcade game such as plot, story, or any depth at all, there is but one simple focus: Shoot, shoot, shoot, and shoot some more.  Quite simply, these are 14 levels of the most intense gaming action you have ever experienced.

In the world of Space Tripper there are no reasons.  No reasons why you might be obliterating the inhabitants of an alien race, no reasons for the appearance or destruction of a giant robotic spider that doesn’t like you.  No reasons for who you are, why you are there or indeed any justification for your very existence.

And that is precisely what makes Space Tripper so special.  It doesn’t try to cram a million little concepts, ideas and innovations into one game.  Rather, it keeps its remit wafer thin, and in doing so provides one of the richest gaming experiences around.  And what it does do, it does with the polish and sparkle of a masterpiece.

The levels are never too hard to be unbeatable, the enemies never too tough.  But you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise; Space Tripper is one of the most difficult games you will ever play.  But you won’t need tactics or styles, you will need raw, undiluted skill, and reflexes to make David James weep forlornly into his gloves.

Enemies will assault you from all directions, wave after wave, literally thousands of them, all intent on spilling your blood.  What makes things so much more tense is the fact that your little spaceship will only take one hit to die.  If you hit just one little buzzing fly, or travel half a pixel too far off the edge, you will lose a life, and have to restart the level.  Lives are incredibly hard to come by too, so extreme caution is needed.  Once your lives are gone it’s game over, and back to square one.

Movement of your craft is beautifully implemented, with just the right sensitivity and speed to keep the action flowing, and to keep you in total control of your craft.  You can only face in two directions, left or right, but this does not restrict you, just makes your ship easier to control.  14 levels may not sound a lot, but there are also three difficulty levels, the final one being virtually impossible to complete.

The means at your disposal to dispatch the heaving hordes of alien menaces are red and blue lasers.  The blue laser shoots straight in front of you, while the red shoots to the front as well as the sides, but is a little weaker.  You acquire plenty of upgrades throughout the missions, and these turn your lasers from single shot affairs into vast aerial bombardments, with hundreds of shots being fired at every button press.

You suddenly realise why you love Space Tripper so much when you reach the 7th or 8th level.  There are creatures all round you, they are shooting and swarming straight at you.  You scream at them madly while laser fire tears into their ranks like a hot poker into flesh.  But there are too many, you can’t make it.  Unless.  You skim through a gap in the vicious attackers with a hair’s breadth either side of your ship, and in one fluid movement you have swung round your ship and are taking them from the rear.  True exhilaration follows such manoeuvres, and this endears Space Tripper to you all the more so.

The graphics are quite impressive too, in full 3D with plenty of lovely explosion effects, and a camera that is so unobtrusive that it feels like a third arm.  Levels are streamlined to allow for fast and furious solid action.  The sound too is nicely realised, with satisfying explosions and various thuds, clunks and buzzes as your enemies get nearer.

Space Tripper is frankly a masterpiece.  It cuts out all the unnecessary dribble, and focuses itself on raw action.  Bugs and inadequacies are nowhere to be seen; the sheer quality here is outstanding.  It’s difficult, and it’s intense, and you’ll probably strain your thumbs a few times before you complete it, but the purity of the game is just so compelling that you’ll keep coming back for more, time and time again.

You reckon you’re a good gamer.  Forget it!  Your prestigious gaming achievements count for nothing in Space Tripper.  This will determine what skill you truly have, how good you really are.  To steal a quote from the game’s box, Space Tripper is “your only hope.  It’s the only thing that promises gaming redemption.  It’s a spark of brilliance.  Let it ignite.”  This is an essential purchase.  Sally forth gamers, and prove your gaming prowess once and for all.

Will of Steel

Will of Steel Review – 2005

Commanding a war has gotten more complicated so it seems.  Gone are the days where simply ruling with an iron fist, a hawk’s eye, or a rod of iron would suffice.  No, now the standard has become much more sophisticated.  To so successfully lead your troops to victory you will need a will of steel.  Or at least that’s what this game would have you believe.

The twist being that the game straps you Will of Steelinto the uniform of a young marine officer called William Steel.  What are the chances of that eh?  As the aforementioned gent you get to command the USMC battalion through campaign episodes in Afghanistan 2001 and Iraq 2003.  Pretty much bang up to date stuff then.

As you may have guessed, this is a 3D RTS, focusing on the debatable thrills of current (or at least recent) world combat events.  Action is assured of priority by a notable lack of any kind of resource collection.  The bit that the creators are most proud of though, is the fact that this is the first ever voice-controlled RTS.  In fact, they claim it is possible to complete the game almost entirely by voice commands.  To promote that, retail editions of the game come bundled with a free headset, but I’ll talk about that later.

Unit selection is achieved by stating the name of the unit class, such as ‘ranger’ or ‘sniper’.  Alternatively you can select them more broadly by calling their unit class like ‘tanks’ or ‘choppers’.  Any selections you make can then be bound to teams to make it easier selecting them next time.   After that, you simply have to remember the list of available commands that your men will respond to.  You can make them move, halt, attack, guard, heal, and repair amongst many others.

That’s the essence of the voice command system, but really, it fails to work as smoothly as it should.  Each verbal command has to be verified by pressing the spacebar, and you cannot do anything precisely with voice commands.  Moving the camera for instance requires a start and a stop command.  But by the time you’ve said stop, the camera is already at the far side of the screen.

However, as an aid to your fighting, and nothing more, voice commands find their niche perfectly.  Using the mouse for most of the general strategy action is pretty mush essential, but rather than searching the cluttered actions bar looking for the appropriate action for a soldier to perform, just speak the word and choose a target and he will obey.  Some will still prefer keyboard shortcuts, but I urge you to just give this voice control concept a try, you may just find it works a little better.

The actual game itself though is a strange mix of quality.  I’ll start on a positive note and point out the lovely graphics and animation.  The scenery is pretty nice, without being exceptional, but the vehicles and units are absolutely lovely.  The tanks for instance are modelled beautifully, and if you zoom right in you can see all the little wheels turning around within the confines of the treads.  Astounding attention to detail.  Unit movement animation is also beautifully implemented, so all the vehicles move and wallow convincingly across the terrain.

Death animations are particularly spectacular, so if you blow up an armoured vehicle while it is still moving, the explosion will lift the whole vehicle in the air, and the charred carcass will gracefully somersault and flip completely over before coming to rest on its roof.  A work of art.  Explosions are also impressive, and you’ll see a lot of them.  Excellently, the scenery is fully destructible, so not only can your tanks crash straight through trees, walls, and other obstacles, but everything can also be blown up.  Almost every building on every map can be reduced to rubble with sufficient firepower.  Impressive indeed.

Unfortunately, everything goes downhill from there.  The camera to start with is extremely restrictive, and never gives you enough of a view of your battlefield.  It can zoom up close to your men, and zoom back out a reasonable distance, but it never really goes back far enough to give you proper strategic control of your men.  You will frequently be attacked by enemies who you simply cannot see because they are outside your range of vision.

The missions you have to complete number 16 in all, and sadly suffer from a lot of repetition.  The mission briefings try and flavour the action differently, but essentially you are doing the same thing over and over again.  They are also poorly designed.  In one particular scenario where you have to battle your way to a bridge, I won it in under a minute, simply by throwing all my forces straight at the bridge and gaining control of it.  In another scenario, my victory was detained by over half an hour because I was fruitlessly searching for the solitary remaining enemy grunt.  This was made almost impossible through the poor line of sight.

The biggest bugbear of all though is the AI, particularly in the area of pathfinding.  When under fire, your men show at least a modicum of intelligence.  They shoot back when fired upon, fire at any enemy to cross their field of vision, and lie down to present less of a target.  But ask them to do something as inanely simple as move ten metres forward, and the problems set in.

This is how a tank reacted when I asked him to simply move round a corner.  The road was open, the way was clear.  My tank started off well, heading in the general direction of the corner, then, for no apparent reason he drove into the nearby building instead.  Whoops.  I order him to the spot again.  He reverses out of the building, in a full circle and straight back into it.  Following attempts were met with similar success until I finally abandoned him to his fate.

Other units too are just as cretinous, and rangers will frequently get themselves locked to a piece of scenery, and just run on the spot for the remainder of the mission.  Even the units that don’t somehow manage to hook themselves onto various parts of the map are slow and unresponsive to your persistent orders.  They’ll take a few steps in a random direction, scratch their heads, decide if it’s worth going where you’ve ordered them to, and frequently decide against the idea and wander off somewhere else instead.

I cannot emphasise how execrably poor the AI unit control is.  Whereas the game might otherwise have been reasonably good fun, the frankly ridiculous pathfinding is the plague of every single mission.  The challenge comes not from the enemy, but from successfully wielding your recalcitrant units round the cramped battlefields.  I exaggerate not.

Moving on, the audio is reasonable to start with, but your men’s replies will quickly start to annoy, particularly as they have so few phrases to choose from.  The bundled headset that comes free with game is of moderate sound quality, and manages to pick up your vocal orders quite well, but it is cheaply designed, and doesn’t sit on the bonce very comfortably.  You’d be better off investing in a more luxurious headset than this bare-bones offering.

You are indeed going to need a will of steel to play this game, merely because it takes tremendous patience to put up with terrible AI.  There is fun to be had from the game, but sadly it is squarely ensconced behind that one overbearing vexation.

CSI Crime Scene Investigation

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Review – 2005

I suppose being a CSI agent isn’t really a childhood occupational fantasy.  There seems to be little fun in gathering stray hairs, DNA samples and the other microscopic minutiae associated with the job.  But it seems quite an exciting profession nevertheless, as the TV show of the same name would testify.  CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is the licensed game of the series.  A point and click adventurer.  Each mission starts you off at a crime scene, and you have to use the number of methods at your disposal to figure out whodunit.  Let’s run you through a standard mission.

Your first task is to search for clues.  Woo.  CSI Crime Scene InvestigationAs well as using your own two trained peepers, you have additional observationary tools in the shape of a magnifying glass and some weird ultraviolet light.  You can also dust for fingerprints, and pour out insalubrious looking potions to highlight bloodstains, as well as using various other little odds and ends to gather a nice little pile of clues.  Then you have to collect all the fingerprints, hair samples, wood chips and suspicious dust molecules that you deem to be evidence, and send them to the lab.

Next step, you can trundle off to the morgue and converse with the ominously towering figure of Al Robbins, the guy who cuts up all the victims to find out what’s wrong.  He’ll give you a complete rundown of how the victim died, including plenty of superfluous gory details to make you feel good about being alive.  He’ll chuck a few clues and bits of evidence at you sometimes as well.

Then you’re off to the Crime Lab to exchange pleasantries with the ever-enthusiastic Greg Sanders.  Greg analyses the evidence you bring him, and gives you all the information you ever needed to know, and more, about any samples or objects.  His office also contains a computer that you can use to run fingerprint or tyre matches, as well as scanning various other information through.  And of course you have access to the ubiquitous lab microscope under which to admire the trim of your victim’s hair.

Once you’ve got all that done, you can pop off to the office of Captain Jim Brass.  He can use his high-ranking computer to get hold of any information you need from wherever you like across the world.  Plus, he is also the only person authorised to dish out warrants for searches and arrests, so better get used to grovelling in front of him.

So that’s the procedure.  You need to make effective use of the above departments to make your evidence meaningful, and thus open up more avenues of exploration.  You get to work with a different member of the CSI team in each of the missions, who will give their advice regularly, and will be available for more help should you get stuck.

The biggest problem with the game is that everything is too pre-scripted.  You can only ever pick up or examine what the game wants you to.  It will let you inspect and run tests on all the mission-critical bits of evidence, but forbids even a close look at the other bits of the environment that you really want to explore.  This forces you to solve the crime in the way the game creators wanted you to, leaving little room for individuality.

Even the process of deduction is taken away from you, as your fluctuating mission partners verbally fill out the story the very second it starts piecing itself together.  This leaves you with few actions other than fruitlessly clicking every single pixel on the screen in order to find all the clues, and conversing with your accomplices while they solve the crime.

There are five missions in total, each of which are admittedly moderately satisfying to complete, but which are so short that I completed the whole game in under half a day, and that’s without any kind of walkthrough or guide.  There is slight replay incentive by receiving bonus artwork for what efficiency percentage you got in each mission.  You can replay them all to boost your scores if you so wish, but really there is little genuine motivation for doing so.  You’d just get bored.

The in-game characters are all based on real-life individuals from the TV show.  Their likenesses are all quite convincing, and it must be noted that the voice acting is excellent overall.  The graphics are generally very good, except in the spinaround investigative view, where the images are slightly fuzzy and the perspective is distorted.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is not wonderfully likable, it’s just not particularly unlikable either.  It chooses the middle road of mediocrity, and treads it with care.  You could do worse than invest in this game, but you could certainly do better.

Ski Racing 2005

Ski Racing 2005 Review – 2005

Sliding at breakneck speeds down treacherous snowy slopes with your feet lashed onto two spindly lengths of plastic might not be everyone’s idea of fun.  So much safer then to squat comfortably behind your keyboard and watch your digital avatar flounder to an agonising death.

Ski Racing 2005 lets you play all the Ski Racing 2005original slopes from the 2004/2005 skiing world championship.  The four core World Cup disciplines are slalom, giant slalom, super-g, and downhill.  Winning the championship requires competence, if not mastery, of your skiing skills in these areas.  Let’s get this straight; SR is not easy.  In fact, your first ten tries are all likely to meet their end on the wrong side of a marker flag.  Completing a race breeds a sense of accomplishment, even if you do happen to be 38th in the standings.

However, a bit like an RPG, your skill points increase synchronously with your success in the tournament.  Climbing a few rungs up the ladder will enhance your abilities just a little notch, so that the seemingly impossible races in the later stages of the World Cup are eventually made to seem at least vaguely plausible.  And so too your personal abilities will increase, as you learn to dextrously weave your fragile skier through the hordes of marker flags that seem intent on disrupting your progress.

To play SR requires a moderate level of skill.  To master it, devotion and time are prerequisites.  Each set of races leading up to the grand finale requires a set amount of championship points until it can be unlocked.  Hence, you’ll find yourself re-running all the tracks several times, trying to squeeze an extra second here, or higher place there.

Slalom is definitely the trickiest of all the disciplines to get the hang of.  Quite simply, you have to carefully glide your avatar through hundreds and hundreds of slim checkpoints, which are craftily placed so as to keep you wrong-footed (or wrong-skied) for much of the race.  Giant slalom is a little easier, with bigger checkpoints and greater distance between them, but which advantage is unfortunately used by the AI as well.

Super-g is simply a nippy checkpoint race that thankfully has far fewer turns than the slaloms, and downhill takes it to a whole new level, forcing you to claw your breath back at speeds of up to 160 kph.  Quite how candidly that adheres to the reality of skiing I couldn’t possibly comment, but I can most assuredly advise you that it goggle-blisteringly fast.

As an age-old axiom never quite got round to quoting: ‘the faster they go, the harder they fall’.  Oh yes, the harder they fall.  With something very similar to a ragdoll physics engine, SR has your brave little sportsman tumbling downhill at remarkably frequent intervals.  It takes little effort to convince your hapless chappy to dismount his plastic steeds and plunge down the slopes at quite literally ‘breakneck’ speed, with limbs flailing into grotesque contortions that the human body was certainly not designed to perform.

I suppose the biggest question though is whether this game manages to recreate the experience of skiing to a satisfactory degree.  As a fairly keen skier myself, I would testify that the sport is one of the most exhilarating I have ever tried.  There is nothing quite like the rush of haring down a black run, or taking scarily big air off a mogul.  Unfortunately, SR never quite manages to reach those heights.  Although technically accomplished and a reasonably competent little skiing simulator, there is a distinct absence of tension, even when sailing at searing speeds down vertiginously inclined slopes.

Another slight gripe is that fact that the game has lowered its remit squarely at the world championship, and thus restricted itself solely to the four primary disciplines.  Not a huge issue certainly, but it would have been nice to see some extra modes available to hold our attention longer, even as unlockable extras.  An editor that lets you set up your own courses remedies this slightly though.

The graphics serve their purpose adequately, with a decent draw distance to admire the pleasant scenery, and some pleasing snow effects.  A particularly nice touch is the way your skier starts to distort at high speeds, stretching languidly backwards in a stylised motion blur.  The cardboard cutout spectators don’t really add a great deal to the atmosphere though.  Sound effects are moderate throughout, but with a few maddening additions like that cretinous spectator who insists on rattling a few tin cans together to herald my departure every time I start a race.

But SR still manages to entertain, and does so with a certain amount of style.  After the hard slog of building up your stats and getting to grips with the unforgiving controls, it is a very sweet reward indeed to finally scrape your first victory.  You need a lot of skill and a degree of luck to make it, but the palpable sense of achievement is well worth the effort.

With a conspicuous paucity of other skiing titles to choose from, I have few reservations about recommending Ski Racing 2005 to you.  It’s not revolutionary, it’s not spectacular, it’s just a pleasant exploration of the word ‘enjoyable’.

Clay Pigeon Shooting

Clay Pigeon Shooting Review – 2005

Shooting clay pigeons is a highly skilled sport that requires a steady hand and meticulous accuracy.  If you think stationary target shooting is hard, then try this.  Watching the professionals hit those small whizzing clay discs at a distance makes it very obvious that it is an elite activity.  So to save us the embarrassment of missing in real life, Hotbarrels bring us a game of the sport so we can fulfil our secret clay pigeon shooting fantasies.

The first thing you notice upon running the Clay Pigeon Shootinggame is quite damning.  The entire thing is made in Macromedia Flash.  Yeah, there are plenty of cool Flash games online, but its capabilities are primarily visual, and it has a significant lack of real power beneath it when compared to any decent coding program.

Hmm, well I’ll try not to prejudge though.  So I start a new game.  This is where the real shock sets in.  Those beautiful landscape graphics you see on the box…are not graphics.  They are photographs inserted into the background.  The clay pigeons themselves are effortless little blobs of colour that dismantle into a few pieces when shot.  There are 9 different modes to play through, ranging from Decoyed Pigeon and Driven Grouse to Bolting Rabbit and Springing Teal.  The difference between these?  Quite simply a different background photograph and a slightly altered way that the clay discs zoom across the screen.

The game claims to replicate the way real animals would move in the circumstances.  Thus the bland clay projectiles suddenly change direction at various points across the screen.  Which is nice for the first time it happens.  And then you realise that every single subsequent set follows the exact same pattern as those first two.  Shooting them after that requires not accuracy, but a simple knowledge of where they enter the screen from so you can pop them off instantly.

It gets worse.  The crosshair’s refresh rate is abysmally slow, so moving the damn thing across the screen is not the silky smooth swirl that you would expect and require from such a game, but instead it is rather stuttery and sluggish.  Great!  Then you get dark patches of the background photograph that completely hide your black crosshair from view, making the task of aiming even more futile.  Fantastic!

I finished everything the game had to offer, comprehensively boring myself stupid in the process, in under half an hour.  The content on offer is to be measured in crumbs, not in platefuls.  In fact, being a Flash boffin myself, I know that the entire game would have taken me barely more than a month to knock up single-handedly.  The fact that people are being charged money to play this game is frankly rude.

Yes, we can just about live with the fact that we are only shooting plain clay discs, even though they do dink and swerve, but the rabbit shooting section has absolutely no excuse.  The rabbits are represented by small, black 2D circles.  Since when did you see clay pigeons running through the grass?  Even worse, the graphics are so bad that they are not even recognisable as clay pigeons.

Some clay pigeon Olympic gold medallist is quoted on the box as saying that this game really improves his concentration before matches.  Quite how inebriated he was at the time is unfortunately not stated…  Trying desperately to look for some vague sense of purpose or use for this game, I simply cannot find anything worthwhile about it.  It cannot even be claimed to aid your shooting skills, as real life shooting is vastly different to sweeping a mouse across a screen.

There are one or two other little bits and pieces I was going to mention, but I’m afraid my apathy prevents me from continuing.  Some constructive criticism before I take out this lovely shiny disc and see how far it flies across my garden?  Nah, actually I don’t have room for an essay.  Instead I’m just going to recommend playing decent FREE Flash games on the net, which is where this underachieving shooter belongs.

Alternatively, try poking little twigs in your ears and pretending to be the Twig Monster.  ROWR!  It’s just so much more fun than playing this game!

Galactic Civilisations

Galactic Civilisations Review – 2005

It is often fun to poke around the graveyard of gaming, if only to see what poor digital wretches lie mouldering within.  Sub-standard movie tie-ins are entangled with long-forgotten adventure flops, and mediocre brand-name cash-ins rot peacefully beside buggy disappointments.  Amongst the strewn corpses resides the charred remains of Master of Orion 3.  As many will remember, it was a hugely anticipated title, released several years ago to the scorn of players and critics alike, attempting to revolutionise space-based strategy.

Sadly, the game failed to deliver a coherent Galactic Civilisationsgame structure, fatally mutilating itself at the very first hurdle.  The world was aghast.  Space-strategists ripped out their hair in anguish.  Grown men were seen to cry.  But all was not lost!  Before many moons, an unsung hero sped in at warp speed to squarely plug the gaping hole left by MOO3.  The fearless newcomer was Galactic Civilisations.

Released back in 2003, GC formed itself a solid reputation very quickly, winning a glut of awards from all over the gaming world.  This new Gold Edition includes the entire original game as well as the Altarian Prophecy, a new campaign that extends the story significantly.  I’ll talk about that a bit more later, but firstly, for the uninitiated, lets have a look at the game itself.

As leader of the human race in the struggle for galactic dominancy, you have a lot of decisions to make.  A LOT of decisions.  Becoming a major power in the galaxy is attained through a combination of military might, technological supremacy, economic thriftiness, and political prowess.  But fantastically, there are a number of victory conditions, which means there is no strict path to victory; you can play the game any way you like.  Pacifists can opt for a non-combat approach, uniting all civilisations within one galactic alliance, while the more hostile-minded can win the game by the merciless genocide of all other opposition.  Or maybe take a more indirect route, and attain victory by reaching immortality through research.  The pure genius of the game is the way it neatly adapts to whatever game style you play by.

Let’s guide you through a few of the steps you’ll take on your way to becoming the big interstellar cheese.  First off, the human race is initially a tad effete, so declaring war on other alien races is less likely to yield results than a burning lottery ticket.  Expansion is the name of the game, so you’ll need to set about colonising planets to build up your power.  Next up, you could do with some extra muscle, so try allying yourself with various races to bolster your chances of survival.  Of course, don’t let these paltry diplomatic treaties restrain you from annihilating your allies once you’ve superseded their military capabilities.  Poor fools!

Then you’ll need to start getting involved in intergalactic affairs via the United Planets Security council.  Your participation in such meetings can dramatically affect how the rest of the game unfolds.  For instance, you get to vote on various universal debates, so you can tailor your responses according to your modus operandi.  When you start to get really powerful, then you might consider instigating war with some of the weaker civilisations to milk their resources and colonise their most fecund planets.  Plus, the whole time you will be gradually researching your way right through the vast technology tree, unlocking ever-more useful tools to aid your progress.

What makes the GC universe particularly immersive is the meticulous detail in every game choice you make.  Rarely do you get a clear-cut yes/no decision, but rather you’ll always have alternative options that help to more accurately fulfil your wishes.  Take leases for example.  There will be many times when you need a bit of instant cash to get that extra freighter or research a crucial technology.  At such times you can take out a loan, but GC is not content to merely give you the option of a standard loan.  There are three different companies that offer you leases, and all operate on different policies and payment regulations.  You’ll need to shop around to see which one offers the deal most suited to your circumstances.  Scarily like real life.  A master of minutiae, and a champion of choice; GC provides a rich playing field indeed.

With over a decade of existing similar titles to learn from, GC really has got this Turn-Based Strategy lark off to a fine art.  Gradually smoothing out rough edges, and then polishing them to glossy finish is what GC is all about.  Innovation is pretty much absent, but is replaced by sheer quality in just about every single aspect of the game.  Your gradual accretion of galactic power is beautifully recognised, giving a tangible sense of authority and might.  Diplomacy, trade, and research are sublimely implemented, always offering maximum control with minimal effort.

The main addition of the Gold Edition is the inclusion of the huge new campaign, The Altarian Prophecy, that delves into the history of the infamous Altarian Republic.  There are also two new major alien civilisations, as well as a comprehensive game editor that allows players to create their own scenarios and even campaigns.  Plus masses of other new content (ships, technologies etc) and plenty of game tweaks that refine the game formula into an even more streamlined beast.  A tasty little update all in all.

There is no multiplayer option unfortunately, but GC recompenses that with some ruthlessly realistic AI.  They are neither simianly stupid nor superhumanly smart, and struggle just like you to make progress in the game.  Plus, each race feels genuinely unique, not just cardboard-cutout replicas.  In fact, it’s not just the alien races that have personality; the actual game itself has an indefinable, subliminal character of its own.  Ranging from eccentric to just plain brilliant, GC is the kind of game that you can get really comfortable with.

It must be noted though that GC is a hardcore title, not really suited to the likes of a casual gamer.  It takes many, many hours of devoted time and effort to overcome the relentlessly precipitous learning curve, and to proficiently tap into the deep, full-bodied strategic undercurrents that resonate so profoundly off the cavernous confines of this elaborate digital masterpiece.  But rest assured that such time expended is ultimately rewarding when your playing skills climax into a complete mastery of the game, and the subsequent sensation of complete fulfilment is satisfying indeed.

The release of the Gold Edition is reason enough for veterans to once again succumb to its enticing allure.  Newcomers too will glean many hours enjoyment from this strategic gem.  Galactic Civilisations is one game that’s never destined for the graveyard!

Prince of Persia Warrior Within

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within Review – 2005

I’ve heard of schizophrenia, but this is ridiculous!  In the prince’s previous outing, The Sands Of Time, he was a footloose, carefree, and fun-loving youngster, blessed with a positive outlook on life, and a quick wit.  He was a character we could all relate to, cheerful, irrepressible and full of zest for life.  Someone who’s company you really enjoyed, a shining light in a world of gloom, and undaunted by even the ugliest of situations.

Now the eponymous prince has grownPrince of Persia Warrior Within bitter and cynical, a mere shadow of his former buoyant character.  His unsmiling visage views the world through a dour mask of apathy as he forges relentlessly through an uncaring world.  No-one loves him, and he loves no-one in return.  He fights not for a good or noble cause, but purely in his own interests, to the detriment of all who cross his path.  Twisted and callous, he is the very antithesis of his former self.

The rather unsubtle shift in the prince’s personality affects the mood of the whole game.  This palpable miasma permeates everything, and is in my view, the only major downside of the game.  There is less sense of purpose in all the prince’s actions, as there is no grand underlying heroic mission, just self-preservation.  However, now we’ve had a chew on the sandy corner of this game sandwich, let’s have a nibble of the more delectable innards.

The basic storyline is thus: The prince will die.  It is foretold in the timeline.  He created some rift in time or something in the last game, and now a creature has spawned to heal that rift.  This monster is the Dahaka, and his sole raison d’être is to the end of annihilating the prince.  Understandably though, the poor fellow wishes not for such a demise, and determines to alter his own fate.  He attempts to do this by preventing the sands from being created, and thus ridding himself of the decidedly deleterious and defecation-inducing Dahaka.

The gameplay is less linear than SOT, giving you a little more control over when and where you take the prince.  There is still usually only one way to complete every objective, but now you have a modicum of choice over which you complete first, and there are also optional little sub-quests that earn the prince additional bonuses.  Although this step towards non-linearity is mainly commendable, it does fall over its own feet at times, as I somehow managed to access and get stuck an area that you are supposed to visit much later in the game.  I wondered why the enemies were so damn tough…  I eventually had to reload and find the traditional route.

The puzzles and action sequences are as ridiculous as before, and just as much fun.  It’s painfully obvious that the levels are built directly around the prince’s capabilities, but you tend to forgive that when confronted with the exotic and magnificent scenarios that make up the game.

The prince (doesn’t he have a name?) hasn’t lost any agility with age, and at the touch of a button will still pull off nimble leaps, rolls, dives, spins, wall-runs and Persian jigs.  The levels push his dexterity to the limit, and also demand a lot more than button bashing from yourself.  But the mainstay of the game is of course the fighting.  Although SOT’s combat system was impressive, WW takes combat to a whole new level.  Hammering the attack keys will still elicit some hefty swipes from the prince, but taking the time to learn the highly detailed and elegant controls will turn fighting into an art form.

Learning the right combos will unleash ludicrously cool moves that have the prince twirling, slashing and lunging like a madman.  There is also a lot more emphasis on using your environment to your advantage.  For instance, grab a tree trunk and perform a slicing spin to damage multiple enemies, or rebound off a wall and skewer your foe with an outstretched blade.

While your right hand is restricted to using your primary sword, your left hand is free to pick up whatever weaponry you may find lying about, from axes and daggers to weird shuriken blades.  Or just leave your left hand empty and you can use it to grab enemies and throw them off cliffs or at other baddies, or just use them as a human shield.  Fighting is easy to execute, but difficult to master.  However, if you do master its complexities, every battle will transform into an exquisite choreography, a ballet of grace and fluidity.  The world is your play-toy, and using the prince’s lithe, freeform movement makes fighting something truly memorable.

The baddies you are tasked with dispatching vary in strength and fighting-style, so fighting several types of enemy at once is often a challenging assignment, as you will have to use a blend of attack methods.  The later baddies get even tougher…and bigger.  I turned round once to find such a hulking great monstrosity that I literally shrieked out loud.

I was somewhat surprised at the game length.  I was expecting something fairly similar to SOT, but was pleasantly surprised to find a largely extended lifespan.  Admittedly this is partially due to location revisitation, but the game never really gets boring.  So then, great gameplay, excellent graphics, acceptable sound (surely princes aren’t allowed to slurp their drinks…?), fearsome foes, full head decapitations, claret aplenty, what could possibly go wrong?

The downsides of Warrior Within are as follows.  The moody new character is less likeable, bugs occur between past and present states, auto-lock on the combat system is both a lifesaver and possibly the biggest source of frustration when attempting to get out of if you don’t want to fight.  Also, at one point I somehow turned into a different character.  Some oddly-clad ghoul or suchlike, who had a few different abilities to the prince, but the game wouldn’t let me progress, so I had to reload an earlier save.  Strange indeed!

But regardless of these minor deficiencies the prince still offers the ride of a lifetime for all action/adventure aficionados.  Not as pure as its prequel, but Warrior Within is still a gritty masterpiece.  The fighting sequences alone offer sufficient gratification to make this game worth the fee.

So what can we look forward to next?  Prince Of Persia: Warrior Without?  I don’t care, so long as he damn well cheers up a bit…

Neighbours From Hell 2

Neighbours From Hell 2 Review – 2004

The original Neighbours From Hell was released in Spring last year.  It wasn’t fantastic, being very short and too restrictive, but was a moderately enjoyable romp in a relatively innovative setting.  Once again you are the star of a reality TV show, and must please your eager audience by playing nasty tricks on a grumpy old gent and watching him make a fool of himself.

The developers were obviously aware of the criticism lowered at their last title, so you might think they would have a crack at improving, or even completely changing some of the elements that let them down.  Wrong.  NFH2 is virtually identical to its predecessor, and the only changes it makes are unwelcome ones.  Let’s take a look at these.

The game environment is now no longer Neighbours From Hell 2restricted to a single location.  The neighbour is on vacation to get away from you and your meddling tricks, so you get to play through several diminutive and uninspired locations.  Some might say that this is an improvement, but I would argue otherwise.  In a solitary location you get used to the capabilities of your surroundings, and so can work out the puzzles accordingly.  In multiple settings you just end up sweeping the cursor desperately across the screen, trying to find what random objects you might have to interact with to initiate a trick.

The neighbour isn’t alone this time; he is joined by his equally cantankerous mother on some of the missions.  Being caught by either of them is rather insalubrious for your avatar Woody, who gets a severe beating every time he is spotted.  To add a little colour, the neighbour’s love interest is also along for the holiday; a horse of a woman with the most colossal breasts you have ever seen, and accompanied by her little boy.

The audience appreciation meter is now gone, so you simply get remunerated with cash, instead of a percentage score of how well you did.  Not half so satisfying.  And now you have three lives instead of just one, so you can endure up to three encounters with the neighbour or his mummykins before the mission ends.  Add to that the fact that there is no longer a time limit, and that means that every last ounce of possible tension that might have leaked through in the first title is now vanquished for good.

I was hoping that this sequel might add some dynamic alterations, such as allowing proper directional movement on screen rather the extremely restrictive 2D actions from the original.  No such luck, it stubbornly retains its clumsy movement system, and even removes one of your actions, the ability to sneak.  Apart from these relatively negligible alterations, the general experience remains the same as the first.

If you have an item you don’t know what to do with, simply rolling the cursor over it will give a blunt clue that virtually tells you outright what to do with it.  And predictably, the only tricks you can pull off are rigidly prescribed, and cannot be deviated from in the slightest.  Very frustrating, especially when Woody will refuse to pull off several blatantly obvious potential tricks that you spot, and instead will insist on using your inventory of items in the most obscure ways possible.

That’s not to say this game is hard, because it isn’t.  I completed every level at first attempt thanks to the surplus lives you are endowed with.  But you most certainly won’t complete every trick on every level on your first try, because some are so obscure as to be downright ridiculous.

The tricks you pull off are apparently humorous.  Since this game is most likely aimed at a younger audience that is fair enough, suffice to say that I wasn’t overly impressed.  Every trick involves the elderly neighbour getting injured, maimed, angry, frustrated, embarrassed or otherwise shamed.  The poor fellow only wants to have a relaxing holiday, but you will insist on making his life a misery won’t you.

Animation is fairly lazy, with the same simple animations being used multiple times in different circumstances, even when not very apt.  Sound effects are tolerable although the musical score quickly begins to grate.

To look at things realistically, the concept of Neighbours From Hell was quite good; it was just never executed particularly well.  The first title was just about acceptable, but to churn out a second, and with practically no changes is bluntly superfluous.  Even if all the content from the second incarnation were added to the first, it would still fail to be a full-length game.  Yet we are expected to pay for what is simply another iteration of an unimpressive and remarkably ephemeral game.

If you were considering purchasing this game, here is some invaluable buying advice: don’t bother!  It falls into the depths of lacklustre drudgery, and palls quicker than you can say “Neighbours Fr…”.

Blitzkrieg Rolling Thunder

Blitzkrieg: Rolling Thunder Review – 2004

There were some truly great commanders in World War II.  Men whose intelligence and foresight can hold lessons for even the military leaders of today.  Take Rommel for example.  Now there was a man who, although eventually failing his task to hold back the Allied forces, is legendary for his military prowess.  In fact, evidence of Rommel’s tactical proficiency hits you during your Blitzkrieg campaign like a slap to the face.  It is whilst swallowing the bitter pill of defeat that I relate my woeful tale.

My army was well prepared to take on the Blitzkrieg Rolling ThunderAfrica Corps.  Spies had reported that although infantry was of the expected numbers, there were very few tanks defending the town.  This was good news, tanks were the mainstay of a good army particularly Rommel’s.  Thus, me and my division of Shermans, as well as a few lighter M4s should be able to gain superiority without too much bother.

I set off towards the town, approaching from a side entrance rather than risk a frontal assault.  Surely there would be little armoured defence from there.  My tank divisions led the way and my vast army of infantry and armoured cars followed just behind to lend their aid.  I also had artillery at the ready, and plenty of air support on call.  I was smugly confident.  This would be an absolute massacre.

My downfall lay in my panicked lack of observation over the next few moments.  Approaching the entrance brought into sight a whole row of Axis tanks.  Damn that spy, he must have been wrong.  I immediately set my tanks on them, and brought in the infantry to add more firepower to the offensive.  Very swiftly I had annihilated every tank without losing a single unit.

I congratulated myself on my speedy response and breathed a sigh of relief as I surveyed the charred metal carcasses.  But something wasn’t right.  Why hadn’t they so much as shot at me?  Why had they exploded so easily?  And those smoking remains, they just didn’t look like burnt-out tanks are supposed to look.  And what was that movement behind them?

In one blissfully protracted second that seemed to linger interminably, the realisation hit home with shocking force.  Equally as strong was the awareness that I had just been outclassed by the artificial intelligence of Rommel.  Before I could even start to order the retreat, the Heavy AT Guns that had been hiding behind the tank decoys opened fire, and enemy artillery began a devastating and unceasing barrage that tore asunder my tanks and infantry alike.

An undisputable masterstroke of genius I’m sure you’ll agree.  Rommel used these exact tactics to great success in Africa to counter the Allied preponderance of lumbering metal death.  That AI can replicate such a ravaging manoeuvre is a strong testament to the love and adoration lavished upon this game by developers who really know their stuff.

In fact, adherence to historical accuracy and attention to detail is one of the things that stands out when play Blizkrieg: Rolling Thunder, or indeed any of the previous Blitzkrieg titles.  Every unit found in the game can also be found within the annals of time, from tanks, to guns, to soldiers.

I took the time to count how many different types of tank are featured between the Axis, Allied and Soviet forces.  A total of 75.  That’s a ridiculous number, and not even mentioning the hundreds of planes, cars, jeeps, artillery pieces etc.  Plus each unit has its own description and statistics.  There is even different strength armour on each side of the tanks.  That’s how fanatically accurate this game is.

The problem is that, despite an unreserved enthusiasm for the subject matter, developers Nival don’t transform this solid foundation into an eminently playable game.  As a starting point the original Blitzkrieg was a pretty good attempt, but the subsequent releases including Burning Horizon and this title, Rolling Thunder, singularly fail to add to the formula.

It’s these restrictive roots that hold back Blitzkrieg’s brilliance, despite the façade of change signified by the superficially different scenarios.  But essentially it’s still the same game underneath, meaning little change in gameplay style whether you’re playing on snowy wastes or sun-baked deserts.

Overt results from this include the crusty, isometric graphics, the ham-fisted and sluggish path-finding skills of your army, the execrably short distance allowed by the restrictive line of sight, and unorthodox AI that veer from sublimely gifted to just plumb stupid with apparent ease.

The graphics are a perfect example of how Blitzkrieg tries so hard, but ultimately fails.  The game features some of the most realistic animations I’ve ever seen.  Just watch the way your tanks and jeeps wallow and bounce over the bumps, the way they recoil as they fire, and the multitude of death animations for every vehicle that occurs according to how the killer blow was delivered.  But all of that is hidden beneath an extremely dated game engine that constrains your view to the aforementioned 2D isometric perspective.

The campaign itself is a meaty 18 missions long that follows the progress of General Patton who spearheaded the initial retaliation against Rommel in North Africa.  It must be said that the missions are very well designed within the limited confines of the game structure, and allow for some very exciting moments as you lead the Allied troops against the Nazi threat.

There are also 8 additional single scenarios from various locations to play through, as well as a set of developer tools that include a map editor and a resource editor.  This should ensure the longevity of Blitzkrieg, as a lot of player-generated content will soon be appearing around the net.  There is also supposed to be a multiplayer option although I cannot comment on it since it wasn’t included in my review code.

It’s impossible to dislike Blitzkrieg.  It’s eccentric sure, but it just tries so damn hard to please you with its more appealing features that you always end up forgiving it for its gawkiness eventually.  With practice you’ll even manage to master the ability to turn a blind eye to the faults.  That’s when you really enjoy yourself.

Blitzkrieg has a personality, a charm that is hard to resist.  I’ve grown very fond of it.  I just hope it can make some tangible improvements for the next iteration so it can truly justify my affections in future.  But until then Blitzkrieg holds sufficient appeal to keep me playing.  Watch out Rommel, this warhorse hasn’t given up on you yet!

Zoo Tycoon 2

Zoo Tycoon 2 Review – 2004

Before we start the main review, let me just comment on a few recent titles that may whet your appetite.  First up, Washing Line Tycoon.  Carefully manage the washing on the line, being careful to use the correct mixtures of soapy suds and further unlockable rinsing agents.  Innovative new features include dynamic wind affecting the drying speed of your precious washing, and a variety of different washing lines to play on.

Also we have Flea Farm Tycoon 2.  An exciting,Zoo Tycoon 2 action-packed title where you get to manage your own fleas, ensuring a careful balance between breeding and flea satisfaction.  Now in full 3D!  You can individually view and name every flea, as well as monitor their various needs and desires.  Last but not least comes Toilet Brush Tycoon 4.  A spectacular title that introduces a competitive edge to the…  Gah, forget it!

Tycoon games are falling out of our ears.  You can’t walk into a games shop nowadays without being drowned in a deluge of them, or their counterparts, the Theme games.  If they were all fantastic it wouldn’t be so bad, but unfortunately the majority of this style of game use the exact same formula as the rest, but just with perhaps a different setting or occupation.  But just when you are sick to the gills of sub-standard Tycoon games, along comes Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 and sets a whole new level of excellence, reminding you why you loved Tycoon games in the first place.

So it was with some degree of hope that I plunged headfirst into Zoo Tycoon 2, hoping that it might set the world alight with some amazing new features or ideas.  I was disappointed.  Everything that makes a traditional Tycoon game is present and correct, everything is balanced reasonably well, the graphics are acceptable, there are lots of little details that need to be addressed, and a mob of boisterous visitors constantly charge through your gates to litter the paths with their rubbish.

But new features?  I can count them on one hand.  With four fingers left over.  And I’m not even sure something as primitive as this can be counted as a new feature, but this is the addition of a biome brush.  Basically it just allows you to paint ground with the natural habitat of your chosen animal.  This automatically includes trees, bushes, flowers, rocks etc, which saves you the bother of manually placing all these by hand.  Whoopee!

That is precisely the extent of fresh ideas ZT 2 that dares to implement.  Thus, by exercising such precautionary reticence to employ anything new, it simultaneously proves itself to be yet another false pretender to the Tycooning crown.  It almost angers me at times that publishers have the gall to demand a fee of £35 – £40 for simply applying a lick of paint to something that in essence people have played many times before.  But the most frustrating part is that ZT 2 is not a bad game.  I can’t demolish it with a well-prepared blast of verbal abuse because it just doesn’t do much wrong to deserve that.  It simply fails to do what’s right, if that makes any sense.

Probably the only redeeming element of the game is that it aims squarely at the younger generation.  A lot of Tycoon games are quite hard to get into, requiring you to build up a good deal of specialist knowledge about the subject matter to be able to handle situations properly.  But here everything is as user-friendly and simplistic as the theme will allow.  That’s not to say it’s too dumbed-down, but it is certainly more Fisher Price than Meccano.

But once again broaching the vast pathway of negativity, ZT 2 shows a fair bit of amateur design beneath the 3D veneer.  Stupid little niggles like the way your animal lecturer will continually wander round the whole park area searching for a rostrum even when your exhibits only take up a few squares by the entrance.  The fact that your handyman will completely ignore one piece of rubbish, but pick up the next.  The odd sound effects.  The constantly buggy 3D graphics that give a poor rendition of animal movement, and will frequently allow animals to walk around without moving their legs.  And the way it brings even a zippy Half Life 2 machine humbly to its knees with the ridiculously demanding yet unexceptional graphics.

As a final damning criticism, take a look at the Zoo management titles that are already out there.  Aside from the original Zoo Tycoon which was acceptable enough in its time, there is also Wildlife Park which has a lot more depth, and Zoo Empire which did the whole 3D thing nearly half a year ago, and with more success it must be added.  There is no reason for Zoo Tycoon 2 to exist.  Everything it does has already been done before.  This is just milking the cash cow to its bitter death.  Newcomers might find enjoyment in the game due to its simplistic nature, but the rest of us have already flogged this dead horse many times before.  I would wait for something a little more upbeat, like the upcoming Fish Finger Tycoon Deluxe.

Camgoo Campack

Camgoo Campack Review – 2004

I feel like a ninny.  Some people just walked in as I was performing an elaborate, acrobatic body contortion while playing Camgoo.  My blustering attempt to explain that I wasn’t having a fit or convulsion was met with some scepticism.  They didn’t stay long.  But I don’t care; Camgoo is fantastic fun, and well worth the discreditable humiliation of looking like a myxomytosis-addled bunny rabbit.

The consoles have got their Eyetoy contraption, Camgoo Campackand it was only a matter of time before the idea hit the PC.  The concept is sublimely simple.  You use a webcam to portray your own fetching visage onto the screen, and then interact with games through body movements.  No mouse or keyboard required, just the active use of your own enfeebled limbs.

However, the limited amount of control this affords you is only suitable for very simple games, which is why Camgoo consists of six different little titles for you to play with.  The first, Treasure Trouble, is a swashbuckling maritime adventure where you have to defend your treasure chest of gold from hordes of rapacious piratical scoundrels.  They’re determined little suckers, so you’ll need to be pretty alert to catch them all.

The next game is Pixie Presents, in which a magical pixie lays gift-wrapped parcels at the edge of the screen.  All you have to do is collect them by touching them.  Sounds simple?  Wrong.  Her magic frequently goes awry, and the screen will perform all manner of bewildering tricks, including reversing your actions, turning you upside down and more.

Cam Kong designates you as the defender of the eponymous giant ape, who is traditionally stationed at the top of the empire state building with a damsel in distress.  Planes and giant dirigibles swarm at you from all directions, and you have to fend them off.  Box A Bot places you in a similar role, biffing evil robots into outer space, but this time being careful not to hit any of the cute little civilian robots.

The best of the bunch though are Keepie Uppie and BeatmasterKeepie Uppie is fairly self-explanatory, putting your rusty football skills back into action as you try and keep the ball in the air.  This is the game that elicits the most death-defying leaps of panicked misjudgement, flailing wildly into shapes that the human form was never meant to replicate.  The addition of some rather grumpy forest inhabitants attempting to foil your ball control makes things even more difficult, but somehow even more addictive.

Beatmaster is a dancemat alternative.  The only difference is that you use your whole body instead of just your feet, which is a great deal more energetic.  You have to hit the speakers at the corners of the screen synchronously with the music symbols floating over them.  It starts off fairly easy, but then gets progressively trickier as the track warbles on, throwing symbols at you with little respite.  Again this demands athletic capering as well as accurate timing, but is inordinately satisfying to get right.

There are two retail editions of Camgoo, the only difference being that one is bundled with a webcam and is thus more expensive.  The webcam you get is a lightweight offering from Philips that does its job but is distinctly unimpressive.  Picture quality is admittedly fine for its intended purpose, but the main problem is that the webcam itself is so flimsy and weightless that it is impractical to put it many places.  The weight of the cable dragging from its rear frequently dislodges the frail camera with even the barest of nudges.

Probably the biggest criticism one could lower at Camgoo is that although it does a pretty good job of tracking your movements on-screen, it is never quite perfect and will occasionally completely ignore the swipe of a mitt.  Inevitably this happens at a crucial moment, and you end up losing a life through no fault of your own.  Frustrating yes, but this isn’t the kind of game where pixel-perfect precision is required, so such flaws can easily be forgiven.

The nature of the game makes it ideally suited for multiple players.  Camgoo lets you challenge your mates with a hotseat option where you take it in turns to rack up the highest score.  Or just let everyone pile in on the same game and all make fools of yourselves together, which is by far the most popular choice.  The great thing is that you are not restricted as to how you play the game.  If you want to use a baseball bat to reach those high corners a little easier, then go for it.  If you’re feeling lazy, sit closer to the camera so you can play with minimal body movement.  Just use your imagination to find fun and fresh ways to play.

It is good to see companies making innovative use of available technology, so the publishers are to be commended for their forward thinking.  Camgoo is far from perfect and limited by the technological boundaries enforced from utilising such an imaginative concept.  Importantly however, it is fun and refreshing, and that is what counts.  Camgoo doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should you.  Swallow your pride and play it.

Starsky & Hutch

Starsky & Hutch Review – 2004

Every time I have to play a game from a film license I groan.  Yes, I know as a reviewer I have to treat all games impartially, but seriously, the number of genuinely good games springing from film license tie-ins can be counted on one hand.  But preconceptions aside, please join me on a guided tour of this game.  Starsky & Hutch was released to coincide with the recent film of the same name.  Fans of the old TV series will be delighted at the opportunity to don 70’s garb and the shiny police badges of the titular heroes.

I have to admit, for approximately the first Starsky & Hutchfive minutes of playing this game I genuinely enjoyed myself.  The missions are all car-based, and simply involve driving from one place to another, shooting baddies and defending good guys.  A simple concept, but even the most basic ideas can work if implemented properly.  Speeding through city streets at high speed and careering dangerously through back alleys does hold plenty of appeal, even if the gameplay is more Crazy Taxi than Driver.

To cleverly tie in with the fact that this is a recreation of a TV series, you have an audience appreciation meter at the top of your screen to convey how excited or bored the spectators are while watching you complete a mission.  If that meter ever reaches zero, then you fail your mission for not pleasing them.  To remedy this you’ll need to keep them enthralled with your fancy driving and parlous feats of bravado and skill as you dash around the city.  There are plenty of set-piece stunts to earn you respect with the admiring public, and these give you flattering slo-mo shots of your airborne accomplishments.

Pretty much the staple objective of every mission is to stop some criminal or other, with occasional additions to the formula to add a slight attempt at variety.  The only way to stop these pesky felons is by damaging their vehicle to such an extent that it blows up.  To crumple their chosen getaway transportation you have to use a combination of physical ramming and using Hutch to shoot them with his trusty pistol.

This leads us to the biggest, most damning, overtly pathetic hitch in the entire game.  Quite literally the fact that every car, van or lorry you chase is seemingly manufactured by the famous Cast-Iron-Solid-Indestructo-Fantasti-Strong company.  A full head-on with an enemy vehicle will set it back a miniscule millimetre in its health bar.  And Hutch’s pistol is even worse; an asthmatic octogenarian could do more damage firing soggy tissue from a bent peashooter.  By the time you finally dispose of your enemy, you’ll have fired your farcical firearm many thousands of times, and with such negligible damage on the fleeing vehicle that it feels totally redundant.

The rest of the game is actually fairly unique in a quiet, unimpressive sort of way.  Your journeys throughout the city, and your battles with baddies are facilitated by the use of various power-ups scattered liberally throughout the city.  These range in usefulness, from handy speed-ups and audience appreciation bonuses to sirens that help clear the traffic slightly.

By default, the gun is on auto-aim, semi-intelligently targeting enemies and power-ups.  However, for hardcore gamers who want proper control and a more satisfying challenge there is an option to control gun aim yourself by means of the mouse, while you control the car with your left hand.  You could even turn it into a co-operative game, and have someone driving the car while someone else shoots the gun.

As already mentioned, car handling is distinctly arcade and offers little tangible sense of realism in either control or the results of a misguided swerve into solid objects.  Vehicles also flip themselves back onto all fours if accidentally landing in a supine position.  The sight of a ponderous bus lightly flipping a 180° spin back onto its wheels particularly defies belief and spits facetiously in Newton’s face.

There are three seasons to play through, each one increasing exponentially in difficulty.  The final season requires plenty of retries; so frustrating is the exertion of slowly, gradually whittling the health off a speeding hunk of nigh-on impenetrable motorised metal.  There are little extras you unlock as you progress, with additional side missions and extra cars aplenty to add to your garage.  Nothing that’ll keep you playing for much longer though.

Graphics are acceptable, capturing the 70’s style a little, and the city you zoom around is modelled quite nicely.  Sound effects are fine for the first minute or so, after which they repeat with astounding regularity and grate forcibly on your frayed frustration synapses.  Praise be to the mute option.  Starsky & Hutch won’t last that long, mainly because the lifespan of the game plays out far before its climax.  The slender sense of progression gives little motivation to continue playing, and you’ll likely leave this one to gather dust after just a few sittings.

I liked the TV series, I liked the film, and I desperately wanted to like this game.  However, Starsky & Hutch proved true to the film license generalisation I made at the beginning.  I really wanted to be proved wrong, I yearned for my preconceived notions to be unfounded and I earnestly sought to glean some decent enjoyment out of the game.  But no, for the time being at least, my callous regard of film licenses remains.  The cheap thrills on offer here are replicated with much more panache in titles such as GTA: San Andreas or Driv3r.  Steer clear.

Space Invaders Anniversary

Space Invaders Anniversary Review – 2004

Ah, the mention of Space Invaders brings back wonderful memories.  Fighting off the alien hordes, battling the spaceships as they march inexorably down on your position.  Dodging enemy fire as you scamper from cover to cover, letting loose with your own potent missiles.  And indeed the whole arcade experience of playing the game upon those twisty knob calamities from decades ago.

Space Invaders was one of the very firstSpace Invaders Anniversary games ever created; a revelation at the time, and crowd-pleaser.  But it wasn’t too long before it was ousted from its cherished position in the arcades and replaced with the next generation of gaming goodies such as Sega Rally, House of the Dead, and Wipeout.  In fact, all the old classics were uncaringly booted out to make way for the spanglier, shinier, and altogether more alluring newcomers.

But fear not.  Space Invaders is no longer consigned to the grimy dungeons of disuse, for those lovely, considerate folk from Xplosiv have brought us a whole host of Space Invader remakes for us to ogle and coo over.  There are a total of 9 different styles, covering the first and second episodes of Space Invaders, multiplayer versions, a 3D remake, and the rest being different colour adaptations of the above.  The main problem being that all are virtually identical, with the exception of the 3D version, which simply adds slightly more stylish graphics to the same, overworked Space Invaders structure.

The presentation is quite respectable in a retrogeek sort of way, with the main interface being an explorable room that contains the original arcade machines the game was initially played upon.  Plenty of Space Invaders posters and advertisements are emblazoned over the walls, as well as other old posters for games of the same time period.

But that’s not all.  “What?”, I hear you cry, “There’s more?”  Yes indeed, there is an additional bonus section where you can look at some original Space Invaders promotional material, and some of the design concepts used in its creation.  Quite literally minutes of fun to be had here.  And if that weren’t enough, there is also a small selection of MIDI soundtracks for your aural enjoyment.

But reflecting upon this polished classic from over a quarter of a century ago we come to a slight problem.  I posit that Space Invaders is in actual fact……rubbish.  Does that shock you?  If so, why?  Yes, I’ll grant you that 25+ years ago Space Invaders was quite a treat, but merely because the 70s marked the very conception of the videogame.  That was gaming in one of its most primitive forms, and to say that Space Invaders has a place in today’s gaming society is akin to claiming that tricycles should be allowed to compete in F1 racing.

Gaming has evolved almost immeasurably since those early days, and now we have to view Space Invaders in the light of current games.  Time has not been kind, and now the graphics, sound, and even the gameplay fall way short of our heightened expectations.  For goodness sake, Space Invaders belongs in the past.  And what’s more, it earned its right to be remembered as a true classic, even if that is only possible through the hazy, rose-tinted memories of the gamers who played it from the start.  Bringing us these crusty remains of something that died a long time ago is not the way Space Invaders deserves to be remembered.

Maybe devoted 70s retromancers will find some delight in the reminiscing value of this dated collection, but really it is not something that is capable of providing more than a five minute diversion for any discerning gamer.  You can even download all these versions for free from the net, so to buy this package is quite pointless.  Space Invaders is dead and buried, so let’s not tarnish the memory of this dearly remembered title any further.  R.I.P.

Aura Fate of the Ages

Aura: Fate of the Ages Review – 2004

Aside from graphical improvements, adventure games seem to have evolved little from their inception many years ago.  The high standards of Lucasarts’ early work is rarely, if ever, superseded by adventure titles since then.  Myst took a slightly different approach to the adventure genre, requiring players to solve a series of puzzles in order to further the story.  Many love it, many loathe it, but Myst certainly did forge itself a unique brand of adventure, requiring people to play in a slow and thoughtful manner and think logically in order to solve the puzzles.

Aura is a Myst clone!  There go half my readers.  Aura Fate of the AgesYou traverse various 3D fantasy worlds clicking on everything clickable, clicking on everything unclickable in desperate hope of finding something clickable, and solving obscure puzzles indigenous to the setting of the world.

In fact, the thing that Aura excels at most is obscurity.  You want to know how to solve a particular puzzle?  The answer was probably in a small hut two worlds ago, under the guise of a child’s drawing, with nothing whatsoever to link it to the puzzle you are trying to solve.  My favourite instance of obscurity is how you are expected to pick up a particular small leaf from a whole forest of leaves, and use it two worlds later with a fountain as a makeshift watering can for a dead plant.  No other leaf can be picked up, so you are expected to find that tiny little object that you don’t even know you are looking for, and in a scenario where countless other objects would have served the purpose far better than a leaf.  Fantastic!

The gameplay is rather rudimentary for an adventure game, with merely the option to interact with objects, but no choice about how to interact.  This is admittedly balanced by the aforementioned obscure solutions to everything.  Movement is performed by clicking on the screen where the movement cursor is activated, basically making you traverse the 3D environments through a series of pre-rendered, rotatable screens rather than granting you proper control over movement.  This is fiddly and annoying to operate, and you just wish they would give you proper first-person freedom.

The benefits of course of having pre-rendered graphics is that on the whole they are absolutely stunning.  Everything is of cutscene quality, and of cutscenes there are plenty, demonstrating the considerable graphical quality with style.  The nature of the game demands excesses of organic alien machinery to operate the puzzles, and this will fulfil the wet dreams of any devoted mechanist.  Not just satisfied with stupidly hi-res textures and lighting effects, everything also moves fluidly in futuristic and quasi-magical fashion.  On top of that, there are multitudes of breath-taking particle effects, just to layer the icing on the proverbial cake.

Much thought has been put into the design of the fantasy environments as well.  Each is fairly distinctive, and shows up the creative dedication of the location modellers.  Almost everywhere you glance you see decorative machinery, unique ornaments, statues, plants, and other alien trinkets and oddball kitsch that lend a tangible aura to each world.

The puzzles themselves are a wildly varied assortment.  Ranging from the mildly simplistic, to the outrageously obtuse, you will frequently be reduced to bouts of searing exasperation as you expend hours upon hours attempting to figure out just what the hell you are supposed to be doing.  Most of the puzzles can be figured out if you have the time and extreme patience to do so, but a few of the solutions are so ridiculously obscure that I take my hat off to anybody who completes the whole game without a walkthrough.

Thankfully there are few bugs to contend with, aside from occasional issues with the cursor that can easily be rectified by reloading your last save.  Sound effects are unexceptional, but pleasing.  In total, the whole game could potentially be completed in a few hours, but unless you have a walkthrough that figure is more likely to top the 30-hour mark.

Aura will appeal to a very niche audience.  Thinkers and Myst’ers will be delighted, but the rest of you will probably give up before the end of the first level.  Really, Aura is a step backward in the adventure game genre.  Admittedly it would be a crime to give short shrift to the fantastic graphical accomplishments, but other than that, this game offers no improvements from the classics of yore.  Computer games are perpetually evolving into bigger and better things, but titles like Aura are dead weights, dragging the industry back into the primordial depths of gaming progression.

As gamers we need to reward innovation and punish prosaic repetition.  Buying this game will merely accelerate the adventure genre even faster downhill.  Be strong and quash the inclination.  For posterity!

Rome Total War

Rome: Total War Review – 2004

Secundus Julii sat upon his mount, surveying the distant army with some trepidation.  It was not a pleasant situation for the young man to be in at just 19 years of age.  He was not entirely without battle experience since he had fought alongside his father, Gaius Julii when besieging the town of Ravenna only 12 months previously.  But Gaius and his huge military command had left the town recently to seek out fresh areas ripe for conquest, leaving Secundus in charge of defending and overseeing the development of Roman tradition in Ravenna.  The problem was that Gaius had little expected any trouble to befall such a small and unimportant town, and had left a paltry guard of 14 mounted cavalry to accompany Secundus.  Now the situation was looking increasingly grave as barbarians had just laid siege to the town, boasting an equal number of cavalry, but with an additional battalion of light infantry.

The future and security of Ravenna and its Rome Total Warinhabitants lay solely in the hands of Secundus, and he shifted uncomfortably in his saddle as he reflected upon this, unaccustomed to such responsibility.  He tried hard to recall all the academic military training he had received in Rome during his rebellious teenage years, wishing desperately he had listened more closely to the old battle-hardened commander who had taught him.  Though relatively inexperienced, he was aware that his loyal men looked to him for guidance, and would obey his commands, whether to victory or death.  He had to be strong, show courage, give off the air of a confident commander, even though inside he was trembling uncontrollably.

The aggressors stood their ground, waiting in ominous silence for Secundus to make the first move.  The young man uttered a small, fervent prayer to Jupiter through clenched teeth, and then turned to his men, who were looking at him expectantly.  “Men of Rome!!”, he roared, in a strong and assured voice that surprised even himself.  The stirring oration that followed spoke proudly of Rome, the might of the Roman army, and the worthiness of their cause.  The words seemed not to originate with himself, but as though some mighty warrior was channelling a speech through him.  But the men soaked up every word of it.  They responded unanimously with an almighty war cry and clashed their swords on their shields, their lust for battle re-ignited by the rousing and inspiring words of their leader.  Secundus smiled grimly to himself.  Morale was high; the time to act was now.

He proudly turned and set a steady canter toward the imposing army, cutting a striking figure against the setting sun, his men following closely behind.  The barbarian army waited even now, holding ground at the order of their general.  Then, with a sudden motion from the opposing commander, the infantry division charged towards Secundus and his men, their bestial screams sending a chill through his veins.  Secundus wavered, his confidence dramatically lowered as the gravity of his situation struck home.  His actions over the next few minutes could mean life or death to every man under his control.  As suddenly as it had melted, his resolve returned, even more powerful than before, as a stroke of pure genius flashed through his racing mind.

“Charge!!”, he roared fiercely, a steel glint in his eye, and he spurred his horse into a furious gallop towards the advancing infantry.  As the two armies of charging warriors were about to collide, Secundus veered off to the side, leading his men right around the scurrying mob.  The enemy infantry turned in bewilderment, only to see the young Roman general charging towards their leader and his remaining cavalry division.  Secundus’ adversary faltered, unhinged by the unorthodox actions of this determined young man.  Before he could stutter out a command, the Roman cavalry had dashed into his, the momentum of their rush taking a heavy toll against his men.

Within seconds, Secundus himself had slain the barbarian leader, and his men battled easily against the enemy cavalry who were still taken aback by the shock and speed of the attack.  As comprehension filtered back into the infantry, they rushed back to try and counter-attack, but they were too late.  Before they had even crossed half the distance, every one of their cavalry regiment had been slaughtered by Secundus and his eager men.  Now Secundus charged the disorderly infantry who were not nearly so confident now their leader and cavalry had been slain, and he took advantage of their disunity to trample them down beneath the hooves of his men.  The remaining survivors sensed their imminent defeat and panicked, fleeing in all directions.  They were easy prey for the Secundus’ horse-mounted soldiers though, and every last attacker was finally pitched into the mud.

Secundus surveyed the battlefield proudly.  His strategic finesse had granted him victory against an army over twice his number, and yet with only two casualties from his band of 14 men.  Rome would be abuzz with the news of his glorious triumph, and he could just imagine the relief and awe of his father and family.  Not only that, but he had rewarded the trust shown by his men, earning their respect and admiration, which was a vital ingredient to success as his father had often told him.  Secundus led his men slowly back into the town, allowing his relief to turn into a heady elation as a cheering crowd applauded his heroic return.

An early lesson you learn while playing Rome: Total War is that victory comes at a price.  A major battle that leaves you with even half your men intact is viewed as a great success.  But you will always know it was your decisions that furnished the outcome, and the fantastic freedom and virtually limitless battle strategies really let you fashion your own fate rather than accepting that the strongest army will necessarily win.  Grasping, and even forming your own battle tactics is profoundly satisfying, and can lead to the kind of conflict mentioned above, where military prowess outclasses weight of numbers quite pointedly.

The most obvious influencing factor in determining the result of a battle is ostensibly the size of the armies.  But a true veteran will realise that numbers weigh in with far less importance than the multitude of other factors involved.  It is perfectly possible for an effectively led army to decimate an army of double the strength or more, but only under the right leadership.  If you indiscriminately chuck everything at your enemy with abandon, you’re going to create a lot of widows.

The beauty of R:TW is that virtually all the boundaries that restrict you on other similar strategy games have been removed.  You wage war as you want, not how the game would like to dictate to you.  There are no specifically right or wrong paths, just victory or defeat; the method you use to get there is up to you and you alone.

The main focus of the game is the giant campaign, which allows you to choose a faction to control and work to attain dominance throughout the mammoth campaign map, which encompasses pretty much all of Europe.  Once you have finished that, there are still plenty of historical set-pieces to play through from either side, a quick-battle generator, and also a decent multiplayer option.

The campaign is played out in a turn-based game style, very similar to that of Civ III.  You build up your armies, build up cities, conquer more cities, and so on, using the allotted movement and expenditure points for each turn.  However, there is a remarkable amount of detail concerning the management of your expanding metropolis, more than enough to keep stat fans busy and plenty to keep you occupied between battles.  Whether you build public attractions to please the populace, establish trade routes to generate income, or just train mountains of troops to fuel your army, everything can be individually controlled and maintained.

This element of the game is fun to play, but where R:TW really takes things to a new level is on the battlefield.  Upon starting a battle or siege of a town, both armies will line up on their relevant sides of the combat zone and you have carte blanche to organise your troops as you see fit, using the individual strengths and weaknesses of all your units to craft your own cunning battle plan.  Every unit available to you has obviously been meticulously researched, and with just a few clicks you can bring up a hugely detailed profile on any warrior you want.  This translates into a game of almost uncompromised battlefield realism.  Words do little justice to the breathtaking splendour of watching two converging armies becoming embroiled in a bitter massacre of epic proportions.

Every unit is powerful if used in the right way.  The cavalry are devastatingly effective at demolishing infantry and missile units, with a fierce charge usually annihilating up to half the enemy number through impact and trampling alone.  But send them to meet long spear-equipped units such as hoplites, and they will fall quicker than a lead balloon.  Use archers from afar to rain death on the enemy troops, and cause a fair bit of damage.  But if any rival units get up close and personal, then your archers will put up as much of a fight as a wet tissue.

That is why a good battlefield commander will never let his troops have their weaknesses exploited.  He will send appropriate units for every occasion, and defend the weaker warriors with more capable ones.  But even this does not really constitute tactics.  Tactics are brought into play when you make manoeuvres to entirely outwit the enemy with minor losses to yourself.

Hide some heavy cavalry in a nearby wood for instance, and then when your main forces engage the enemy, sweep down in a devastating flank attack.  Or you could send some weaker mounted units to draw the attention of a few enemy divisions, and then lead them straight into a well-laid trap.  Or even a simple dual approach, where you charge the enemy from both sides, locking them eternally within a deadly wall of warriors.  Due to the freeform nature of the game, you will be able to design and implement your own awe-inspiring tactics, and the handy replay function allows you to save your moments of genius and glory for proud presentation to your peers.

However, battles dynamically alter when the time comes to undertake the sieging of a city, and this requires a whole new set of tactics.  There are two ways to assault a city.  Firstly, you could use an onager or similar to break down the main gates, facilitating access to the enemy.  Alternatively, you could storm the walls or ramparts with siege towers and ladders, allowing your men to scramble up and over.  Or try them both together to begin a frantic but effective attack on the settlement.

And sieges aren’t the only battle variation you will come across, as there are potentially limitless battle maps to fight on.  Wherever you are on the giant campaign map, if you start a battle, you will quite literally fight on a drastically zoomed-in version of where it was initiated.  All surrounding terrain and scenery will be present, including bridges, forests and hills, all of which add additional strategic options for the perspicacious general.

Naturally, to make the battles truly impressive you need sizzling graphics, and by Jupiter this game has them in abundance.  R:TW is a huge graphical accomplishment, presenting gorgeous visuals as well as some of the best animation I have ever seen in a strategy game.  Just the way every single troop moves and acts individually, not in rhythm or synchronisation with the rest of his comrades.  The way a poor peasant will be sent flying some distance in a cavalry charge, his redundant weapon spiralling lazily after him.  Or zoom right into the action with the flexible camera, and notice the soldiers straining to pull back the levers on the siege weapons.  All is just about flawless, giving a tangibly genuine battlefield atmosphere.

One of the most commendable points of R:TW is its consummate adaptability.  Don’t fancy managing all those arduous stats, and manual army and settlement development?  Just click the auto-manage button and your silicon subordinates will gladly take on the task themselves.  Don’t fancy dirtying your royal sandals with that nasty battlefield mud?  Just clicking a button will auto-resolve any skirmish, leaving you free to focus on more pressing matters.  Whatever style takes your fancy, Rome will adapt to you.

This game is so huge I could ramble on about it all day.  But I won’t.  Instead I’ll just mention the few little points that bothered me.  Firstly, although the 3D camera allows any view from any angle, it is extremely cumbersome to wield, making navigation almost a chore.  The AI is generally pretty sound, and shows some moments of divine inspiration, particularly on the higher difficulty levels, but just on the odd occasion it does perform ridiculously cretinous deeds.  Sea battles are included, but unfortunately the outcome is always automatically determined, and you have no influence over the matter at all.  These are but miniscule pinpricks in the vast gleaming game that is Rome: Total War, and don’t degrade the overall experience to a point that stops it from achieving that revered maximum score.

A new breed of superlative is needed to even begin describing how truly revolutionary and fantastic this game really is.  Medieval was a strategic masterpiece, but the superiority of Rome makes Medieval look positively crude.  Creative Assembly have exceeded all our expectations with this title, and simultaneously blown all the opposition into virtual oblivion.  Rome: Total War is a true chef-d’oeuvre, and deserves the attention of all gamers, not just strategy aficionados.  Donning sandals has never felt so good!

Sherlock Holmes The Case Of The Silver Earring

Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring – 2004

Sherlock Holmes is a true legend.  Just the mention of that name will bring back fond memories of his gaunt features buried within the famous deerstalker, and puffing on an ornate pipe.  There are many great fictional detectives, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s unique brainchild is surely the most legendary and memorable of them all.  In fact, to sully such a great name with such mediocrity as this game is a real travesty.  The Case of the Silver Earring retains the salient distinguishing features of Sherlock Holmes, but assembles them into a disappointing recreation, and indeed interpretation, of what we know about the man.

Probably the biggest flaw is that none of usSherlock Holmes The Case Of The Silver Earring are as intelligent or observant as the eponymous detective himself.  Hence, we could never be expected to make the same deductions as him in any given situation.  Although you are given direct control of Holmes throughout the game, you always feel as though demoted to the back seat.  You have to do the manual work such as sweeping the screen for clues, while he does the thinking and pieces it all together.

Also, the story is strictly linear, so you have little input other than to find the preset clues and evidence.  There is a quiz at the end of each in-game day when you are supposed to answer questions and provide evidence to support your answers.  This is a good concept, but once again you are not allowed to form your own ideas as Holmes will not let you progress until your theories are entirely conformed to his own.  This distances you from your character really, and you never feel like Holmes himself, but rather some spectator watching him solve the case from afar.

Gameplay is functional, but is frequently so demanding that progress will often halt as you search in vain for additional clues that Holmes requires before he will let you move out of the area.  You then resort to sweeping the screen, hunting in desperation for anything that will trigger the action cursor.  What makes this worse is the kind of clues you are expected to find, including a hair (yes indeed, a hair), a miniature feather, a tiny scrap of cloth, and black objects hidden invisibly in black locations.

There are also little sub-games scattered throughout the locations you visit.  Some of them are relatively innocuous, such as a sequential card game, or a board with counters that calls upon your long-lost mathematical abilities (or just a calculator if you’re lazy like me).  But then you get ridiculously illogical set-pieces, such as a game of cat and mouse across a darkened yard.  Pleasing enough in theory, but ludicrously ruined by overemphasis on darkness, and a guard dog that can see straight through multiple buildings as if they didn’t exist.

Graphics are generally good, though just a little bland at times, and the animation is slightly stilted, but works quite well on the whole.  What is perhaps more annoying is that when given a direction order, Holmes will shuffle round slowly on the spot until facing the right direction before he moves.  This wastes an awful lot of time, and even more patience.  There is even a small bug that makes Holmes tediously trundle round in full circles a few times before performing his requested action.

The game length depends upon how you play it.  If you use a walkthrough it can be accomplished within a few hours, but otherwise you’ll probably spend much longer as you search for random obscure objects, and solve strange puzzles.  On a positive note however, the game does come with a free Sherlock Holmes DVD.  It’s an old black and white one starring Basil Rathbone, and it makes for a mildly interesting diversion.

The voice acting is frankly appalling.  Holmes, although not exactly a modest character, is made to sound a like an arrogant upper-class bighead, the sort you want to smack right up their snooty nose.  He and Watson are frequently at loggerheads, and perpetually irritating each other, which is not in sync with their true characters as painted by Doyle.  The same actors are re-used for multiple voices throughout the game, and some of the women’s voices in particular are so bland and emotionless it almost sounds as if they are just reading through their scripts in an apathetic monotone.

The Case of the Missing Earring is playable, just.  The gameplay is stuttery, the controls awkward, and the justification for location visitation is non-existent.  The plot is not actually written by Sir Doyle, but incorporates the usual mixture of intrigue, mystery, and absolutely no idea of who the culprit really is until you near the end.  In fact, the story itself is not at all bad; it’s just that it doesn’t shine properly through this unfortunate mess of a game.

Unless you have any particular reason for playing this game then I recommend you avoid it.  There are a few good ideas, but these are dragged down into the mire by the overall poor quality of the gameplay.  The revered name of Sherlock Holmes deserves far better!

SpellForce The Breath of Winter

SpellForce: The Breath of Winter Review – 2004

Hmm, I am sorely tempted.  I am currently wrestling with a desire to indulge my indolent cravings and simply copy and paste my entire review for the original SpellForce game into this space.  I could just write a different intro and conclusion and no-one would be any the wiser.  Probably the most worrying aspect here is that my summation of the first game is just as accurate at describing this add-on pack as it is at appraising the original.

If you’re reading this then you’ll most likely SpellForce The Breath of Winteralready own the full game, so I won’t bother reiterating a description of that.  What we are interested in here is changes.  Alterations, improvements, optimisations, additions, and basically anything that tweaks the original formula to make a more enjoyable, or varied experience.  Sadly, after a few minutes meditation, the biggest change that comes to mind is the picture on the loading screen.

Once again it’s a Good vs. Evil story, and you as a humble rune warrior must lead your troops to victory.  Commendably however, this time around there is a hazy line between good and evil, which gives pause for thought.  So one race that you are fighting viciously for several scenarios, may actually be fighting for a goodly cause, and so you’ll feel really bad when you’ve depleted their number somewhat, and then have to join forces with them.  Admittedly this ambiguity is scripted and immutable, but it does carry emotional impact, and does make you question the integrity of your character.

Unfortunately, there is total lack of connection between the original game and this add-on pack.  You cannot use your elite character you created and nurtured throughout the Order of Dawn, and instead you must start once again from the very bottom, at level one, with an all-new persona.  Cue level grind as you climb the slow ladder towards that shadow of the great warrior you once were.

The wintry setting, as suggested by the title is not half so obvious as you might expect.  The number of winter maps you play are far fewer than the standard grassy scenarios.  Much like the original game then…

There is a new enemy that surfaces throughout the game; the evil Crimson armies.  Woo! etc.  These are actually quite tough cookies, and pretty much indomitable the first few times you come across them, due to their preponderance of numbers and fighting skill.  You have to build up your character a fair bit before tackling them properly.

Music, sound, graphics, all are identical to the forebear.  In the case of the graphics that isn’t so bad as SpellForce was always a bit of a looker, particularly when zoomed in.  But unfortunately the same hopeless voice actors make a return, turning potentially interesting or enjoyable conversations into an embarrassing celebration of how not to use the English language.  Incorrect emphasis, accuracy and grammar with intransigently imperturbable attitudes all round leads to little enjoyment of the otherwise reasonable script.  The exceptions are the excitable goblins, and the inspired Dark Elf workers who are beautiful Gollum replicas, no doubt inspired from the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy.  (“Mastersss, we is getting hurt!!”)

Sadly, there are more bugs than before, particularly related to the audio, as your character dialogue frequently relapses into German, or doesn’t play at all.  The music too cuts off for no apparent reason at times.  What is particularly annoying is the lack of control over some of the friendlies that follow you around.  These characters will run and attack any enemy they see, and you can’t do a damn thing about it.  These foolish deeds often ruin your carefully planned assaults.

Erm, what else?  Well, the lovely plastic box that holds the disc is beautifully crafted, and shiny and stuff, and fits perfectly into your games collection.  The CD itself is also shiny and has a pretty picture adorning the….. Is it obvious that I’m scraping the barrel now?

The Breath of Winter add-on pack makes no pretence at revolutionising anything.  It is simply a further iteration of the exact same formula as its highly acclaimed parent.  More quests to venture forth upon, more items and weapons to collect, more baddies to destroy, more fun to be had.  It is with mild regret that my +6 Hammer of Justice comes down to give this add-on pack an average score, but really, more effort is expected if gamers have to pay out again for what is essentially the same experience.

More of the same.  Not necessarily a bad thing.  This pupil returns home with ‘Could do better!’ stamped upon his game report.  A recommended purchase, but inessential.

London Racer World Challenge

London Racer: World Challenge Review – 2004

This game is quite extraordinary.  Most of the game elements of London Racer: World Challenge form a dichotomy, in that they are either extremely good or extremely bad.  In some cases it shows verve and innovative design, yet at other times it sinks to the lowest possible depths of pathetic incompetence.  I will now carve up this game and divide it into sections of good and bad.

BAD – To start with, before you even open theLondon Racer World Challenge game packaging, take a moment to consider the title of the game.  London Racer: World Challenge.  The developers obviously intended this to be a sequel to the original London Racer, which, handily enough, was set in London.  But to be technically accurate, London Racer – World Challenge is a direct contradiction in terms, a London racing game set in various locations throughout the world.  Hmm.  Not a good start.

BAD – The next unforgivable sin will be made obvious at the next port of call for any serious racer; the controls setup.  Prepare yourself.  There are no configurable controls!  You are simply faced with three preset control selections for your controller of choice, and if you don’t like it, tough luck.  This is simply not acceptable for any game trying to compete as a decent racing title.

BAD – The first cars you get stuck with are endowed with possibly the worst handling I have ever tried.  A dab of direction will turn you 90 degrees in an instant while you are travelling slowly, and when you speed up a bit the steering will become so unresponsive that you need to let off the accelerator a long way before you reach any sharp corner to even have a chance of navigating it successfully.  And then when you have finally slowed down to take the corner, the handling turns ultra-sensitive again.  Not even the vaguest pretence at realism.  With fair credit the later cars you unlock handle slightly better, but never handle like cars should.

GOOD – Car models and graphics are almost the only game elements that remain mediocre, neither super nor poop.  There are a commendable 24 cars in total though that make up for their averageness.  The later cars you unlock look pretty decent too.

BAD – Damage modelling eh?  Rather than go to the bother of modelling the damage on the car, the developers opted for a slightly easier approach.  The only way you can see that your car’s health is deteriorating is via the damage bar at the bottom of the screen.  If your damage bar nears it capacity, a fire will start under your bonnet; this being the only graphical sign that your car is ailing, since the bodywork will remain in pristine condition whatever happens.  But you are unlikely to ever break down, since a high speed smash at 220mph that sends you flying 10ft in the air will barely add 5% damage to your car.  That wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t hundreds of repair pickups strewn liberally along every road of every track.  Put simply, car damage is one of the most pathetically ridiculous failures of the entire game.

GOOD – Since this game has a more arcade approach than usual, you have the benefit of a nitro boost.  It’s not the concept of the boost that is great, merely its execution.  Upon holding down the boost button you will sluggishly start to build up speed, then fly faster and faster the longer you hold it down.  As you start to boost, a few small strokes of graphical finesse present themselves.  Firstly your exhaust will start to billow blue smoke, the scenery will blur a little and your car grows smaller as it moves away from the camera slightly to enhance the impression.  This works so beautifully to create a genuinely tangible sense of speed and is truly fun to operate, especially if you try to negotiate some small corners or obstacles at that pace.

GOOD – A glance at the credits shows up the production values excellently.  There are five track artists, one car artist, and two coders.  So as you might have guessed, the trackside scenery is one of the high points of this game.  The feeling of driving in a city is graphically superb with towering buildings, distinctive landmarks, nicely modelled destructible scenery like benches and parking meters, and reasonable use of textures.

BAD – Despite the decent scenery, each of the locations from across the world are so similar that you can never really define one from another, they all use the same sort of design layout and trackside objects.  Admittedly there are certain defining characteristics, German flags in Berlin for instance, but the feel of the locations does not fit in with their real-life counterparts.

BAD – When racing, the tracks are laid out with gigantic great yellow arrows hovering solidly across all the routes you are not allowed to take.  Dreadfully bad for what feeble scraps of immersion you might otherwise have garnered.

GOOD – You will initially be impressed with a decent selection of music and native DJs talking in the language of whatever country you are racing in.  An attempt to copy the radio station success of GTA III and Vice City is evident.

BAD – It won’t take long for you to realise that the radio repeat loops are only just over a minute long, meaning that on longer races you’ll hear the same music and the same DJ quips over and over again.  Despite the mostly good quality of the radio, the repetition will drive you insane, which the developers have handily addressed with an option to turn the music off if you want to.  Thank goodness.

GOOD – Once again this game shoves another piece of genius out through the stinking drivel.  The AI of your drivers is an almost perfect recreation of not real-life drivers, but of real-life people racing on a computer game.  In other words, they are so totally fallible and non-linear that it feels like you are racing real people.  They will swerve to avoid cars and pillars, but will frequently make driving errors and catch their wing on a wall or plough straight into a London bus.  Added to this, they never follow each other in linear fashion along the tracks, but veer along whatever path seems to take their fancy the most, sometimes taking short-cuts or taking air off one of the jumps scattered about the level.  Most other games reserve the power-ups on the levels for yourself alone, but LR-WC lets the AI take their fill also, once again adding to the illusion of racing genuine people rather than the computer.

BAD – An attempt to add life to the cities by adding ambient vehicles and police to chase you goes dreadfully wrong.  The police are frightfully inept and will try to stop you by smashing into you, but will then forget all about you after ten seconds or so and carry on their way as usual.  One cop car I rammed while racing was so upset that it faded away into nothing in front of my eyes.  The ambient AI aren’t much better.  They have the physics properties of a cardboard box, bouncing up in the air upon collision, and then slide along the road as though on an ice-rink for ages before coming to a stand-still.  Then, even if upright they will wait there indefinitely, blocking the way.

BAD – There are only two views to race from.  A traditional chase cam and a bumper cam.  When a fire starts in your car, all you can see from bumper cam is some badly animated fire filling the screen, forcing you to change to the chase view.

BAD, BAD, BAD – There are numerous other things to mention: the ridiculous invisible walls, the inconsistent properties of movable objects like lamp-posts and bins, and many, many more glaring errors and glitches.

In conclusion you have to point out that the bad features of London Racer: World Challenge far outweigh the good.  It is thus hard to recommend this game to anybody, even devoted racing fans.  There are hidden gems of gaming genius in there to be harvested, but a lot more work needs to be done on the game as a whole before it will be genuinely enjoyable to play.

Perimeter

Perimeter Review – 2004

What does RTS mean to you?  In the minds of the general population, mental images of resource collecting, troop building and vast battles would intermingle with diplomacy screens, mini-maps and upgrade researching as our typical vision of what real-time strategy is all about.  However, the winds of change are stirring as the traditional formulas get rewritten, and more games like Perimeter manage to squeeze through the largely immutable bottleneck of commercial gain that so patently discourages creative and fresh ideas in gaming.

Perimeter doesn’t exactly rewrite the RTS rulebook,Perimeter but it is sufficiently altered to provide a different gaming experience from the ordinary.  Technically, all the standard ingredients are present, but are implemented in such a way as to completely realign the core gameplay ethic.  Not with absolute success it has to be said, but with a lot of style, and a commendable variation in focus from the tried and tested formula.

The story is that of the human race fighting for survival as they attempt to colonise other planets after the destruction of their home planets.  Things are made more difficult by the existence of the Scourge, vicious alien creatures who seem intent on wiping humans out of existence.  The humans in their giant floating cities must build and travel through portals that apparently will eventually lead to worlds uninhabited by the brutal Scourge.  The situation is made even more complicated by an internal insurrection, in which various cities insist upon travelling in the opposite direction, choosing to rely upon their own intelligence than trust the judgement of the leaders.

The titular perimeter is a linked network of power cores that generate the only required resource: energy.  Energy is the currency with which every building and every unit is purchased.  But these power cores do more than just supply energy; they are also impregnable forcefields that can be used to protect your base.  With the flick of a switch, your entire perimeter, and all buildings within close proximity of an energy core are covered with a heaving and swelling shield of raw energy, similar to the giant forcefield covering the Naboo fighters in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

It is these energy cores and their dual-purpose functionality that form the central gameplay experience.  Within the glutinous boundaries of this giant gooey perimeter you build up your base with a selection of unit production facilities and research labs, expending more energy to produce bigger and better troops.

The next major change for Perimeter is the revolutionary system for creating units.  Throughout the game, there are only three types of units you can actually manufacture: Soldiers, Officers and Technicians.  From these basic production units, the rest of your army are crafted through the beauty of nanomorphing.  Rather than producing unchangeable units and being stuck with that decision, your armies can quite literally completely reform themselves by nanomorphing within just a few seconds.

Say for instance you had a squadron of light Ceptors, but needed to assault an enemy base.  No problem!  With a single button click you can smelt them down and nanomorph them into heavy Bombies, which are the best bet for razing bases.  Then you find that the enemy perimeter is too heavily defended.  Fear not!  Morph your units into underground Diggers and sneak covertly into the enemy base before changing back to something a little heavier once more.  The extra tactical depth this adds to the game is quite incredible.

Another feature of Perimeter is terraforming.  You can only erect your energy cores and production facilities on perfectly flat ground.  Any bumps or furrows on the target area, and you cannot construct your chosen building.  To remedy this you are forced to terraform, or level out, wherever you plan to build.  Once again, extra tactics are brought into play here, as you can choose to bombard your enemy’s building areas and halt his production for a while.  There are even units designed for this very purpose.

Not only that, but the terrain is dynamically affected by all in-game events.  So if a tank shoots a shell at an enemy and misses, the shell will leave a small crater.  You fire a clod of earth, and it will leave a small mound.  Even an exploding craft will fall to the ground in a ball of fire and leave a sizeable dent on terra firma.  Adverse weather effects too can take their toll.

Everything is rendered in full 3D, and with a zoomable camera, so you can focus in to oversee the minutiae of running your base.  Graphics are quite luscious, even when zoomed in, and the pre-rendered cutscenes are possibly of the best quality I have ever seen.  Even all the menus are slick and professional, with a frankly superb interface.  Strangely enough though, the soundtrack does not at all fit in with the atmosphere of the game, sounding rather out of place.  Sound effects too are inadequate, and get quite ridiculous in-game, when you frequently hear the same voice commands up to twenty times in one minute.  This soon starts to grate.

But really, this is something we can live with compared to the quality of the rest of the game.  There is a reasonably entertaining single-player campaign, a decent skirmish option, and best of all, multiplayer.  Owing to efficient but comparatively thick AI, the single-player bundle won’t keep your attention for too long.  Playing with other people is where Perimeter really comes into its own.  With such diverse tactics available, few matches will ever be the same.

The concept of Perimeter is not world-shaking, but it’s pretty darn good at what it does.  Unfortunately the setting doesn’t allow for a great deal of mission variety, so what you do is fairly repetitive, but when you’ve got this many new features to play with that won’t be too much of a problem.  Possibly the only other criticism I could lower is that the single-player side is pretty hard, even on the easiest setting, and takes quite a while to get used to.

Other than that, I fully recommend Perimeter to you.  Not least because such innovative advances breathe fresh life into gaming and pave the way forward, so we should support them.  There’s plenty of depth here, and much fun.  To miss this gaming gem is to step back further into gaming sterility.  Don’t forsake the future, play this now!

Robin Hood Defender of the Crown

Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown Review – 2004

I’ve played quite a few genre hybrids over the past few months; games that conflate various playing styles within the same title.  But none have I ever come across that are so description-defying as Robin Hood: DOTC.  Try this on for size.  A primarily turn-based-strategy title that has many real-time-strategy elements, as well as a fair deal of first-person-shooter scenes, and with a hefty wodge of third-person-action, plus plenty of platforming slashery.  No wonder that poor little ‘genre’ box to the left is so woefully vague.

An impressive list to be sure, but also a high Robin Hood Defender of the Crownbenchmark to achieve due to the difficulties in combining all those genres.  I was doubtful that such a feat could be successfully be pulled off, so I was pleasantly surprised to explore the simplistic but enjoyable delights of Robin Hood.

The thing you have to realise with this game is that there is virtually nothing complicated or difficult to master.  Rather than an in-depth rendition of each of the gaming styles, it provides an enjoyable but basic experience.  This is how it manages to combine so many styles within one title, by offering stripped-down versions of what we would normally expect from a single genre title.

The aim of the game, as the title suggests, is to refrain the perfidious Prince John from ruling over England in place of Richard, who is held prisoner in a distant land.  There are a variety of means at your disposal to accomplish this gallant insurgence against tyranny, and who better to perform them than crowd favourite Robin Hood!  To keep England at peace you must successfully use your archery, jousting, swordfighting and battle skills to keep Prince John under control.

First up, archery.  These sections put you behind the bow of Robin Hood in a series of convoy raids against passing rich folk.  For some reason your men never help you in this, so you are forced to single-handedly skewer as many guards, knights and wagons as possible as they pass by.  This proves to be an arduous task, particularly considering the awkward controls for your bow and arrow, and especially since arrows frequently fly straight through their targets without any visible consequence.

Guards with their own bows will fire back at you, but never causing much to fret about since their arrows travel at approximately one quarter the speed of yours and give you oodles of time to duck out the way behind a tree trunk.  This is really just a section of scrolling cannon fodder, and only justified by the fact that Robin Hood’s metier was archery.

Next event, jousting.  Although a great concept, and potentially great fun, the downside of this event is that it is just so darn easy.  I have participated in over 20 tournaments now, and have never lost a single joust.  Unlike the archery, it is so incredibly easy to dismount your opponent that all excitement soon drains.  Also, by the rules of chivalry, you are duty-bound to attend every tournament, which is quite annoying, but that does call for a temporary armistice, so you can build up some cash.

Swordfighting.  There are various reasons for your blade skills, whether it is fighting a boss character or battling through a castle to rescue some damsel in distress.  This is probably the most balanced mode since the vagaries of fate frequently predict different outcomes.  On one castle you might slay the entire outfit of guards with little more than a scratch, but then be mushed to a pulp by the first guard on the next castle.  A nice deviation from the main game though.

The body of the game is turn-based.  You start off in Nottingham, and then have to spread your armies and influence throughout the country, while overcoming the rival lords that have sprung up in the king’s absence.  Each county is a separate section, and you have to expand your borders by waging war on neighbouring counties.  Each faction is based in a heavily fortified county, so to remove someone from the race for good you have to defeat that starting county, which isn’t easy, but helps in the long run.

Attacking a county opens up real-time battles where both armies are lined up at the sides of the map, and you shove them forward in numbers to assault the enemy.  This is, like everything else, very simplistic, with your armies being represented by small icons, charging across a landscaped sheet of paper.  Tactics are marginal, giving you little control over your troops, although a few more orders get unlocked as you start winning battles.  Thankfully though, the game realises its own limitations, so the skirmishes don’t usually last longer than a minute at a time.

To defend your counties you get to build castles and fortresses, and can hire armies to inhabit them.  To overcome a county containing such, you have to lay siege to their fortress by means of your catapults.  Again an interesting small sub-game, the siege lets you fling rocks at the walls of the fortress, and you can even decimate the numbers of the army within by hitting the buildings inside the walls.

Do you see the problem here?  All of the above game styles and mini-games are fun to play, but are all extremely cut-down versions of their contemporaries.  Admittedly, with such bold stab at multiple genres, it was never going to be that complicated, but the phrase that keeps springing to mind is ‘my first RTS’, or ‘my first platformer’, or whatever genre you choose to name.  But then again, that’s not entirely a bad thing.

Hardcore fans of any of the genres contained within this game will not be satisfied.  However, for those who are not too familiar with the modes it offers, it will serve as an excellent introduction to these.  And particularly for children or inexperienced gamers, this will be a rewarding experience.  Robin Hood is back, and a good deal of fun can be had behind the revamped bowstring of the incorrigible prince of thieves.

Warlords Battlecry III

Warlords Battlecry III Review – 2004

Hands up who knows what RPS stands for.  While ignorant folks might mutter something about the Romford Poetry Society, us cultured gamers know it to be a recently devised acronym to describe a genre hybrid that mixes elements of strategy into a typical role-playing game.  Namely: Role-Playing Strategy.

So just imagine a standard RPG, now take away Warlords Battlecry IIIthe small group of fighters and replace them with vast armies.  Add in resource collecting, base-building and huge assaults, and you have some idea of what Warlords Battlecry III is all about.

First mention must go to the impressive strategic elements that WBIII has to offer.  You can choose from 16 playable races, each one notable in that most of the units produced are race-exclusive.  So although a few units are shared between multiple races, most units are unique to a certain race.

Not only that, but almost all units are clearly distinctive.  So the Orcs will fashion their armies with the likes of Goblins, Trolls, Ogres and of course, Kobolds, while the PlagueLords will assault you with Zombies, Ghouls, Hydras, and the fearful Wyverns, to name but a few.  This astounding variety throughout the races adds much spice to the proceedings.

The thing that really stands out though is the sheer quality of the core strategy engine, coalescing all the tiny little nips and tucks that have been devised over the past few years.  All such tweaks as setting waypoints, order stacking, formation control, attitude, morale, and much more have been included, and even improved upon in several areas.

Basically, whatever actions you want your troops to perform within the physical boundaries and rulesets of the game, they are capable of doing it.  Developers Infinite Interactive are clearly experts as well as enthusiasts in the area of RTS, and combine the use of mouse and keyboard to present a streamlined strategic playing experience that is a real joy to use.

There is an unusual twist on resource collection that actually adds strategic depth as to how you harvest the requisite materials.  Other than that, the formula of progression is similar to most RTS titles; build, research, buy, create, attack enemies, lose dismally.  Or something like that.

Where things start to go slightly awry is in the role-playing department.  You are in charge of a solitary avatar who as usual is on some lengthy quest to rid the world of evil and valiantly fight for justice, etc etc.  Yawn.

The box claims non-linearity, which although technically accurate, is slightly misleading.  You simply get a choice of which order to complete the available missions in, after which the next few are unlocked.  Your freedom is held within fairly tight rein, so the choices you make rarely affect anything.

Rather than a group of accomplices, you do have the option to retain your most experienced warriors in your retinue, so you have that bit extra muscle in a hard fight.  Your warriors grow more effective with every battle, so you can train up some mean fighters.

Character progression is admittedly fairly comprehensive, allowing you to shape your character how you please, with hundreds and hundreds of available stats and skills.  But why on earth does your backpack only hold 4 items, even when you can find well over 10 on some levels?

Probably the most damning aspect of WBIII though is the repetitiveness.  In at least 90% of all missions, the sole aim is to build up your armies and flatten the enemy.  The few sentences explanation preceding each mission do little to mask the fact that you are simply performing the same actions over and over again.

Other quibbles?  The graphics are sadly outdated, offering all the glory of a fixed isometric perspective.  The cutscenes are pretty dire as well.  Special mention must go to a soul-destroying bug that suddenly erased all my progress to date (40+ hours worth).  And thanks to the frustrating inability to save progress other than autosaving, I can’t even restore to an earlier point.

Balancing a vast range of diverse troops and races to ensure equal playing conditions is a gargantuan task.  This is shown up by the fact that certain races are stronger than others.  Also, the units are not properly balanced, as not all units have an effective countermeasure.  So fans of the infamous tank-rush will be pleased to find that similar tactics are available in the form of a Pegasai-rush.  And very few races can effectively combat such an attack except by following suit.

All too often you fall into rote of just knocking out a few buildings, researching the necessary upgrades, and then just setting the production counter on repeat to spew out multitudes of your chosen units.  It is almost a chore at times.

However, there is an included editor for you to craft your own missions, so expect to see a good deal of player content appearing on the net in coming months.  The editor isn’t as easy to use as the one in the Age Of series, but is pretty comprehensive, and is capable of fulfilling most ideas.

Multiplayer is also a blessing as there are plenty of maps and modes to keep you and your mates occupied.  A particular favourite is Battle of the Titans, where each army is granted their racial super-unit from the very beginning.  Online matchups are also catered for by the dedicated Enlight server.

Overall WBIII is not a bad game.  It manages to present itself as a worthy RPS title, and although negative points are plentiful, there are also a fair few high points.  It cannot quite compete with the likes of SpellForce: The Order of Dawn, but as a reasonably enjoyable title to fill the void of gaming insomnia, it does merit mild recommendation.

Kill Switch

Kill Switch Review – 2004

Preconceptions are strange things.  They can be based upon such vague assumptions or nebulous knowledge, and yet can severely affect our reactions to the thing in question.  Preconceptions are a natural process; they develop freely without our aid.  We can banish them with sufficient knowledge or experience of the subject, but when we are ignorant of the facts, preconceptions will always shape our opinion and belief, whether for good or for bad.

I had a preconception.  I assumed that when new Kill Switchgames were released at a budget prices, then they would inevitably be pathetic, amateurish piles of drivel that the publishers reduced in retail price because they were too ashamed to ask much for them.  This unverified supposition was completely blown out of the water after playing Kill Switch, which has turned out to be one of the most enjoyable games I have played this year.

Kill Switch was released at the bargain price of just ten pounds.  But lets get this straight, the low price was intended from the beginning, it isn’t just a reflection of the game’s quality.  And playing the game through, you can clearly see that this title does not have the depth or variation of a standard title.  Is that a bad thing?  Definitely not!  There are too many games on the shelves at the moment that just drain your time mercilessly, so it is a refreshing change to play something so simple and pure as Kill Switch.

You are an elite agent.  You must shoot.  And kill.  And blow stuff up.  Repeat.  But this is way different from your standard shooter.  For a start, things are played out from a third-person perspective.  I have always preferred playing in the first-person, but Kill Switch demonstrates just how much fun third-person can be.

The beauty of the game is the way it makes you feel so innately cool as you play.  James Bond would be crying into his Martini to see how deftly you duck, dodge, roll, and dive from cover to cover, loosing strafing bursts from your submachine gun as you do so.  Taking cover is essential, and you can peek from behind cover to present a smaller target, or just blind fire in the general direction of enemies.  You get plenty of grenades too, which add a good deal of spice to the action.

The scenarios are actually pretty realistic, being set within an assortment of locations; ranging from distanced rooftop snipe-fests to frenetic dungeon shootouts.  The AI give a vague semblance of being human, and will take cover intelligently while also trying to flank you or catch you in a rush attack.  A bit too human at times though, with their shoddy grenade throwing being a case in point – they blow up themselves more often than you.

Kill Switch is strictly linear.  Never throughout the entire game do you have the slightest doubt about where to go next, as your entire path is clearly mapped out.  The emphasis is on action, pure and simple, and this linear clarity keeps the action flowing fast and furious.  Forget the usual multitude of puzzles that litter the levels of similar shooters, the only thing you’ll have to worry about here is staying alive as you insouciantly waltz between the streams of lead directed at your vulnerable torso.

The storyline is actually pretty good, working with a particularly befuddling concept that I just spent 15 minutes trying to convert into words and failed miserably.  You start off with little knowledge of who you are or what’s happening, but the story progresses nicely in between missions, and there are countless little twists that keep your brain whirring, such as not knowing whether you are actually fighting for the good guys or the bad guys.

Sadly, since this is a console port the graphics are less than impressive, although they still do their job with mediocre adequacy.  What is much more noteworthy is the fantastic cutscenes that link the missions together.  The graphics on these are absolutely stunning, and there are also some Matrix-inspired action sequences that are frankly awesome.

The game length is reflected in the price; I finished the whole thing in under five hours.  But those were five hours of fantastic fun that I shall never forget, and even now I frequently return to various savegames to replay my favourite sequences.  There are also different difficulties available, to put up more of a challenge for hardcore gamers, and that also adds length to the lifespan.

I admire games like Kill Switch.  Although clearly a budget game, it is packed to the gills with quality, features, and importantly, style.  Obviously it won’t be competing with the big boys, but it provides a hugely enjoyable experience for such a healthy, wallet-friendly fee.  Publishers Namco are to be commended for such a noble aim.  Ignore your preconceptions; this is a damn good game.  A glistening chunk of raw gaming action.  Buy it!

I-Ninja

I-Ninja Review – 2004

3D platform games are generally the fare of our console brethren.  They enjoy the likes of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, while us PC owners are remarkably underwhelmed with similar calibre titles.  To be honest I wasn’t particularly enthralled when receiving my review copy of I-Ninja; it was just some console port I had never heard of before.  However, my preconceptions were soon overturned.

You remember the recent Prince of Persia:I-Ninja Sands of Time game?  One of the high points was the total freedom of movement your character experienced.  You could think on the fly, and virtually whatever you wanted to do, your character would do it.  Well our agile ninja makes the Prince look like a doddery granddad with a limp.  His vast array of possible moves are quite impressive.

Rather than levels that require exact movement patterns to complete, I-Ninja gives you full character control, so your ninja does double-jumps, wall rebounds, wall runs, claw scrapes, and loads more nifty little moves.  Fighting enemies is also fun, but kept pretty simple.  You have few attack moves, and just repeatedly bashing one of the keys will usually win any battle.

Under the guidance of your mentor Sensei, you must complete 64 missions of madcap madness.  There is little logic to the layout of the levels, and that actually works in its favour, as you never know what sort of crazy feat you’re going to do next.  The first few levels I played were absolutely great fun.  Rarely have I played such a game that is so pure, and unencumbered by preconceptions of what you might have to do next.  In what other game have you played human ten-pin bowling down a giant tube while balancing on a pulsating heart?

You can’t help but be impressed at the thought of 64 levels of this insanity.  But your zeal is dampened somewhat when you realise that I-Ninja has done the oldest trick in the book.  Rather than 64 individual levels, you just have to keep revisiting completed levels up four or five different times, merely with harder objectives.  Don’t get me wrong, the levels are well designed, but even the best missions fail to hold your interest for more than a couple of re-runs.

Graphics are your usual cartoonish fare, gaudy colours all round.  What is much more impressive are the heaps of tiny little pieces of polished animation that give I-Ninja a style of its own.  When climbing a ledge, your ninja will pull a brief handstand, followed by a somersault.  And you can hardly get around a level without pulling off multitudes of spins, flicks, twirls and fancy footwork.  Slicing your enemies with your ninja blade will reduce them to eviscerated carcasses frothing green blood all over the place, while your special combo move will slice them squarely down the middle, and they fall into two soggy pieces as you watch.  This is only cartoon violence mind, and none too disturbing as the age rating is 7+.

What’s the storyline?  Errm.  As with most other platformers, the storyline is pretty meaningless and serves only as a weak adhesive to somehow link the levels together.  Something to do with rage stones and giant stompy robots I seem to recall; nothing that will live in the memory too long though.

As platform games go, I would say I-Ninja is pretty hard to complete.  Some of the levels are fairly straightforward, but later iterations of levels such as the timed episodes or similar are damn difficult, and require a good few attempts to get right.  You get harder baddies in the later levels, and you need plenty of deft flips and accurate jumps to be able to navigate the levels successfully.  Plus you get to fight cool boss characters that get bigger and badder with each area.

Probably the most annoying thing with I-Ninja is the ridiculously awkward camera.  As character control is based on the camera viewpoint, you may have to change the direction keys you are pressing up to three times just to run in a straight line, as the camera wafts about maddeningly.  This also means that if the camera is facing the wrong way, you can’t see where you are leaping or jumping to, and that can be disastrous.  You do have two camera control keys to circle the camera round your ninja if you want to take the time to use it, but even that gets your camera stuck on nearby walls.

I-Ninja is at heart a standard 3D platform game, but it adds plenty of little nips and tucks, plus genuine style, and plenty of polished animations to make the experience even better.  There are a few minor annoyances, but nothing soul-destroying.  This won’t tear you away from a social night out, but it is unquestionably a very pleasant distraction.  Certainly something no platform adventuring fan should be without.

March Offworld Recon

March! Offworld Recon Review – 2004

See that?  Look at my hand.  It’s twitching uncontrollably.  And look at my hollow eyes, my stricken face, and my gaunt figure, slumped effetely in the armchair.  Yet it is no physical ailment that afflicts me.  Take my hand please and make comforting noises to me as I attempt to relate my horrifying tale.

It was a cursed day that the large white March Offworld Reconenvelope slipped through my door.  It appeared to be fairly innocuous, and contained an interesting looking title called March! Offworld Recon.  A team-based arcade-style shooter set on Mars, battling rebel robots.  Ha, little did I know.

I installed the game and ventured into what is best described as a living nightmare.  The objective of any game is the provision of enjoyment and entertainment to its user.  Perhaps the developers misread these criteria as ‘anger and frustration’.

The opening scene placed me inside a deserted corridor on an abandoned ship.  At least I think it was a corridor, or maybe it was just an elongated box.  Hard to tell to be honest.

I wandered through more various boxy corridors, and then in a dramatic moment I ran into my first enemy, after realising it wasn’t just a tea strainer with long arms.

I affably strolled up to him and let blast with my machine gun.  I stood there for 30 seconds firing at point blank range without discernible effect until he eventually killed me by audaciously swinging his arms at me.  *Reload level*

I scooted back through the corridors to meet him again, and this time let blast from a little way back.  He was felled within a second.  As is the case with some low quality shooters, March! is riddled with bugs, not least this pathetic one that forces you to retreat from each baddie a little way in order to kill them.

I came across more long-arm robots and decided to take cover behind a nearby metal crate.  Here was when I found out that the vital crouch button merely lowers you by half an inch.  What a total waste of time!

I shortly came across some team-mates.  Great, surely things would get better now.  Well not really, because your AI mates display all the intelligence of a cardboard box.  I’d feel safer being accompanied by my little sister armed with a tin-opener.

After passing some truly horrendous ‘puzzles’, (that take an hour to find out what to do, and then ten seconds to actually do them), I came to the pyramid level.

I killed all the local bad guys and was then faced with a room that had eight switches, and four things that looked like switches but wouldn’t move.  I tried combinations, I tried single presses, I tried double presses, all with no discernible effect.

At this point, my remaining two AI bots wandered into the cramped environment and set themselves down, blocking access to every switch bar one, no amount of screamed obscenities or pushes would entice them to move, so I opened fire on them like a madman, and slaughtered them mercilessly.

I have never felt so good in the game as I did at that point.  The pathetic excuses for team-mates were gone, and my fury abated somewhat, so I could continue my button bashing.

So I try to press a nearby button, and my crosshair jumps up.  What?  I try again and this time it jumps down, not letting me focus on the button.  The twitching started here.  The crosshairs leap about whenever you try and point them on something nearby, infuriating me beyond measure.

I finally found that four certain buttons opened the doors of the four surrounding tower buildings.  Ah, progress.  I gingerly proceeded into one of the towers to find….five more buttons.  Some instructions flash up, ‘find the right combination and then lock it’.  You.  Are.  Joking.

After an hour of attempts in all four towers (a total of 28 buttons!!) to make anything happen at all, trembling in unsuppressed frustration, I decided that unless I took some light relief, I might be permanently affected.  So I found my first scrap of enjoyment by exiting this wretched shambles of a game.

Can you believe I was foolhardy enough to try again the next day?  That two hour session produced in me the most aggressive behaviour I have ever experienced, and it was all I could do to stop myself running off and murdering somebody, or hanging myself from a nearby bridge.

This game feels like the first beta test of an amateur production.  The character models I could have surpassed myself given ten minutes in 3D Studio MAX.  The textures are so sparse as to render every environment lifeless and achingly dull and repetitive.

All areas are dominated by various garish colours, red, blue, yellow etc, and serve to choke your appreciation of any décor that you might happen to find hiding away somewhere.

The guns are feeble, enemies are painfully unimaginative and uninteresting, team-mates are outstandingly egregious, and level design seemingly authored by a chimp with no hands and a history of mental instability.  I could go on, but I’m afraid I might start crying.

The only thought that makes you persevere for very long in this game is the distant hope that somewhere, somehow, you might bump into a small scrap of enjoyment.  That never happens.

March! is frankly soul-destroying, and should be issued with a health warning due to the limitless frustration, irritation, anger, fury and rage it can bring out in you.  I rest here now, my tortured nerves throbbing, my vision blurry and my body taut with tense agony as I recall those times of suffering and anguish.  Never again!!

Trackmania

Trackmania Review – 2004

It’s a strange truth that sheer simplicity can often appeal over everything else a game has to offer.  Some throw at you stupendous graphics, involving gameplay, incredible AI, etc.  But there is always an overriding attractiveness to sheer, undiluted simplicity if the concept is good enough.  Trackmania fulfils that basic but important craving.

You remember Scalextric?  You had to build Trackmaniayour own tracks and send miniature cars flying round them at breakneck speeds without letting them fall off.  A simple idea I’m sure you’ll agree, but so much fun!  Trackmania is basically a modern digital representation of that timeless concept.

There are two main modes to play through; Race and Puzzle.  Race is fairly standard fare, speed along the pre-built tracks in the fastest times to beat the set scores.  Puzzle is where things become more interesting, since you are required to modify existing tracks, or even build new ones from scratch in order to obtain the fastest times.  There are few rules in this mode, so expect to find yourself veering off the beaten track and taking plenty of shortcuts.

Car handling is purely arcade, and very easy, letting even novice drivers have a reasonable attempt.  Your dinky little motor vehicle zips round like a lunatic Jack Russell on heat, bouncing and bounding under, through and over the various obstacles that litter your way.

There are three different types of scenery, each with individual track sections and unique physics properties.  The first is a snowy wilderness, that provides wooden tracks for you to traverse through the slush.  Ice is particularly fun to navigate, in fact I frequently abandon the sterility of the defined track and meander amongst the frozen wastes for a lark.  The desert sections are amidst an arid wasteland, with grippy tarmac and gravel roads.  The final scenarios are within a countryside setting, featuring mud tracks, slippery roads, and much green grass, to the backdrop of rolling hills, torpid rivers, and small rural habitations.

There are unfortunately no AI drivers to compete against, but you can race alongside your fastest ghost replay to provide a challenge.  Alternatively, playing multiplayer over the internet or LAN holds much fun as you can partake in frantic battles against ten or more other racers.  The joy of Trackmania is quite simply the innocent, simple fun of an amusing arcade blast.  Something you can play with for five minutes or five hours, and still enjoy yourself.  There is also the instant pick-up-and-play appeal, which can come in handy if you fancy an inebriated romp with your mates after the pub closes.

Another compelling feature is the track editor, in which you get to spend all the cash you have won from the races and puzzles.  There is limitless possibility for creative minds here, especially considering the huge array of different pieces that you can use to make up your track.  Plus, once you have constructed your towering masterpiece of magnificence, you can take it online, to let others race your track with you.  Alternatively, the lazier option is to capitalise on the hard work of others, and search out other great tracks from budding designers.

Whoever you are, whatever your background, no matter how old you are, Trackmania is bound to appeal.  It presents an innocent and undiluted slice of pure fun, and that makes a refreshing change from much of the convoluted garbage that litters the shop shelves.  We need more games like this!  Do yourself a favour and treat yourself to the simple arcade joys of Trackmania.  Polished, fast and furious, this is a true gaming gem.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc Review – 2004

I have met a fair few ladies in my time, some friendly, some attractive, some boring, and some that can only be described as man-eaters.  These latter mentioned ogres are the kind of vicious animals that would claw your face if you so much as raised an inebriated eyebrow in their general direction.  Some brave fellas occasionally try and tame these monsters, although personally I’m rather scared of them.  Yet in all this time, I’ve never come across anyone half so violent as the fearsome Joan of Arc.  Or at least as the image this game portrays her as.

Our long-forsaken history lessons paintedJoan of Arc young Joan as a great military leader who led the French to victory against the English at Orleans.  This game, however, casts her in the more action-inspired light of a young lass who would run out and casually slaughter two hundred nasty English type blokes single-handedly before breakfast.

The historical setting is preserved, as well as some of the famous characters involved, but the storyline is entirely fictional.  Joan treks through the huge game maps and completes various sub-quests along the way to aid the local French peasants.  This game is another of those genre hybrids, blending action into a not-unattractive mix of RPG and RTS.  The first section of the game is purely RPG as you take the role of Joan in a third-person view to go gallivanting the landscapes.  Then halfway through the game you gain access to an RTS option in addition to this, and can switch between modes as you please.

Playing as Joan, your daily activities consist of hacking and slashing the English marauders with your blade of steel, or occasionally pinning down their torsos with your bow and arrows.  And that’s just about the extent of the action really; hack, slash, slice, dice, dodge, carve, pin, hack, slash, repeat ad infinitum.  The sheer number of baddies that get thrown at you tends to remind me of Serious Sam in a way, albeit with a sword instead of guns.  On paper this sounds potentially boring, but in practice manages to lure you in like a fish to the bait.  This life of slashery is an enjoyable one, and despite my initial reservations, still manages to add enough mutable veneer to keep the battles alive and fresh.

The maps you wander through are absolutely huge.  One technical detail that caught my eye was the fact that the largest map in the game takes 20 minutes for the player to travel from one end to another by foot.  Pretty darn huge eh!!  It’s just a good job that the maps are so well swathed with lush vegetation, particularly the impressive grass effect.  Special note too must go to the fancy weather effects that dynamically change throughout the game.  From blazing sunshine, to bleak mists, to pouring rain and lightning.  Day segues seamlessly into night and back again.

As you might expect, Joan gains experience as she fights, and you can spend this experience on a number of character attributes to boost your performance.  You also get to unlock oodles of extra sword combos that add more variety to the fighting action.  A rather neat addition is the Generals that get placed under your command.  Each of these can be controlled individually, and they all gain experience as well, so you’ll end up with a whole band of mega-warriors.

The RTS mode kicks off in mission five, and you’ll see why you need it when you get to lay siege to a giant castle.  Apart from the sieging moments though, the RTS mode is a little soggy, and doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.  It does the job though, and you can get some great tactics going as you switch between modes.  There are one or two inspired moments as you progress to the climax of the game.  I won’t let slip any spoilers, but the latter missions become even more addictive and enjoyable than the first lot.

While this game is a very pleasurable romp, it is also riddled with technical deficiencies.  The pathetic and virtually redundant jump feature, the frustrating invisible walls that line every grass verge, the poor AI pathfinding and inconsistent object properties to name just a few.  I won’t linger on these, but they do knock aside the professional air that might otherwise have prevailed.

Joan of Arc combines realism with arcade in odd measures, and yet still makes for a great gaming experience.  Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but you could do a lot worse than give this medieval hack and slasher a test lunge.

Singles

Singles: Flirt Up Your Life Review – 2004

There’s a very fine line between inspiration and plagiarism.  To mimic a style is one thing, but to directly rip it off is quite another.  I still haven’t decided which side of the fence Singles is on, bearing so much resemblance to The Sims that it could be mistaken for a modern add-on pack.  I’m sure the lawyers of both firms are battling things out as you read.

The concept of Singles is quite straightforward; to Singlesbuild a relationship between two people to the point of marriage.  Think of The Sims: Hot date – Adult edition, and you get the idea.  To start with, you have to pick the couple that you want to play the game with, and there are a small selection of men and women to choose from.  There is even an option to develop a lesbian relationship between two women, which most blokes will likely try just for the hell of it.

The first similarity you’ll notice is the interface.  Not just a very similar design to The Sims, but also boasting plenty of identical features within it, such as the various bars denoting a character’s hunger, fun, sleepiness levels etc.  Things start slowly, with your two characters just moved in together into a disorderly makeshift flat. To progress a relationship you have to cater for all the needs of your chosen avatars, keeping all the happiness bars at a reasonable level.  Due to the restrictive and one-track nature of the game, this quickly becomes boring.  Your daily routine becomes a chore, with so little to do.

Initially, toying around with various romantic and sensual options provides some brief entertainment, but being required to perform them again and again becomes increasingly tedious.  You can develop your flat to a limited extent, and give your characters an assortment of trendy but useless junk to use.  These serve little purpose really, as the contentment bars can be sated with just the most basic of equipment.

Where Singles really comes into its own is in the graphics and animation.  The visuals are positively sizzling, and can be thoroughly explored with the versatile albeit fiddly camera viewpoint.  Both the human models and the surroundings are impressive pieces of artwork, and the character animations, although a little stilted at times, manage to replicate real life movement very well.

As you might expect, Singles is not just about the gameplay, but also about satisfying the desires of virtual-voyeurs.  This means no Sims-style fuzzy blurring in the shower, but rather, the game is geared toward showing off as much digital flesh as possible.  A choice of clothes is available to you, or else just walk round naked if that appeals.  Plus, when in the shower there is plenty of rubbing of breasts and the like, and things also get pretty frisky in the bedroom as the relationship develops.

At first you will have very few options available to you, but these will gradually open up.  Within a week or so you will be able to start kissing, then will come the sensual groping, and eventually the gleeful trot off to the bedroom for some real action.  In fact the only bit of the game that is even partially censored is full-on sex, where your characters are tactfully covered up by a small quilt across around the waist.

Interspersed with your daily activities are small in-game cutscenes with conversations between your devoted pair.  These display an astounding lack of proper thought and attention, and serve only to annoy.  For instance, you may be progressing your characters really well, but then a cutscene will show up what an arrogant prat the man is being, or what a caustic viper the woman is being, and ruin all romantic notions you had in mind.  Then a cutscene will appear in which the couple discuss investing in a double-bed, which would have been fine if I hadn’t already bought one two weeks beforehand!!

There are also a few technical rats that scurry in view every now and then, one in particular that crashed the game and forced a reboot.  Nothing too serious though, they won’t hinder your playing enjoyment much.

Probably the biggest problem with Singles is that it spectacularly fails to provide a decent experience in either of its target areas.  As a game it is somewhat lacking in the entertainment stakes, and is far too repetitive to offer a long-term proposition.  As a medium solely for erotic pleasure it again fails, since game graphics can never do justice to what is so enticing about the real life experience.  Think about it, would you rather stare at the wooden cleavage of a well-shaped polygon, or would you rather appreciate the bouncing breasts of a real female?  No competition…

Fans of The Sims will find some entertainment here, as will pre-pubescent youths who manage to get their grubby mitts on a copy.  For anyone else, it can be moderately entertaining to make a virtual couple fall in love, but the unspectacularity of the overall game experience makes this an inessential purchase.

X2 The Threat

X2: The Threat Review – 2004

There are various things I hate about videogames.  I can’t stand bad cutscenes, I detest dated or haggard graphics, I loathe trite storylines, I abhor head-crabs, and I despise awkward controls and handling.  X2 hits that final bugbear seemingly squarely on the head.  When you try to manoeuvre your ship in a dogfight for the first time, warning klaxons clang loudly in the pleasure neurones of your brain.  Then when required to delve into the bottomless tangle of massed commands and orders from the impossibly deep menu system, prospects of enjoyment look even more remote.

Why do I start this review on a negative note?  Quite simply X2 The Threatbecause this is the negative note that you will start the game on.  The first few hours of playing X2 are frankly a chore to undergo as you try to get your mind round the baroque menu system, and battle with the woefully inaccurate and cumbersome controls.  Then, suddenly, wham!!  With startling abruptness you finally get to grips with these complex systems, and like a flower in Spring, the game opens up beautifully before your eyes.  Rather than a convoluted shambles of meaningless stats and options, things start to make perfect sense, and you will begin to fully appreciate the astounding capabilities of this vast game.

Lets make this clear from the outset; X2 is not an action game.  Those looking for a fast-paced space shooter will not find their fill in this rich diet.  X2 is space simulation of epic proportions, and has a lot more on its agenda than simple destruction tactics.  You exist as an initially insignificant pawn in a living, breathing universe that operates its own evolving dynamic economy.  None of the universe relies upon you to exist or continue existence; life continues all through the universe regardless of your presence or absence.  This impressions upon you your own insignificance wonderfully in such a vast and independent cosmos.

Are you the peaceful sort?  Then X2 will take you quietly under its turbo-thrusters and allow you to incrementally construct your own space colony as you increase in wealth and influence by peacefully harvesting crops, minding your own business.  You can not only build your own space stations, but also assemble your own garrisons of spacecraft that you can use in either offensive or defensive tactics.

Maybe a life of adventure is more your scene.  In that case you can become a bounty hunter, tracking down the scum of the universe in return for rewards and prestige.  Alternatively, become a space pirate yourself and assault existing space colonies to expand your evil empire.  Or you could just wander round trading stations, enjoying the views, and selling your wares at extortionate prices.  Quite simply, X2 will cater for whatever life you want to lead.  This is a thriving virtual universe, and you can literally pursue whatever course of action you so choose.  As a footloose entrepreneur, the copious array of options open to you is quite staggering.

Traipsing the virtual universe will reveal how truly beauteous X2 is.  The swirling, gaseous nebulae add patches of radiant colour amidst the luminescent stars that coruscate with limitless energy.  Meteorite storms rage ceaselessly as they tread lonesome, swirling paths throughout the desolate wastes of nowhere.  Planets abound, some are vibrant with life and colour, some are bleak and deserted wastelands.  Amidst all this are littered the inhabitants of space, living in huge station complexes, transporter fleets, or occasionally just the odd solitary spaceship, winging its secluded route throughout the vast, all-encompassing universe.

Such is the genuine feeling of being just a tiny fragment of something so huge, that the solitude really affects you as you explore the outer reaches of the known universe.  No living soul for thousand of miles, and I felt so lonesome that I almost wept at one point.  Thankfully a passing comet expressed its welcome, and I played with it gratefully for a couple of hours before making my slow and lonesome way back to civilisation.

X2 is not a game to be taken lightly.  To appreciate its countless virtues requires generous amounts of devotion and time.  Gaming doses are to be taken in the form of hours, and not minutes.  But such an investment is well worthwhile to those who enjoy this kind of game, and rewards you bountifully with an unforgettable journey into the heart of space.

I could talk for hours about the great features that X2 has, the wonderful array of choices, the variety of locations, and the technically accomplished way in which it is presented, but I won’t expound, because to do so is superfluous.  What you need to know is that this is the finest space simulation game money can buy.  To sate your dogfighting skills you should look elsewhere in the form of X-Wing Alliance or the superb Freelancer.  But for the unmissable experience of becoming your own space entrepreneur in a dynamically evolving universe, X2 is an exquisite offering that will fill the gap in your soul.

Chicago 1930

Chicago 1930 Review – 2004

No matter how you look at things, Chicago in 1930 was not a nice place to be.  Due to the prohibition of alcohol, crime was at an all-time high.  Gangs fighting cops, cops fighting gangs, gangs fighting gangs, and even cops fighting cops.  Superbly realised in The Untouchables, such was the extent of bribery and corruption that a large proportion of the police force were under the payroll of different gangs, thus creating divisions between themselves.

These are the hostile conditions you have to faceChicago 1930 in Chicago 1930.  There are two career paths you can follow.  If you choose to be a mobster under the command of Don Falcone, you have to wipe out his enemies and do all the dirty work, allowing him to expand his realm of power.  If you’d rather be a cop, you are one of the untouchables, helping to keep law and order by thwarting the criminal activity of Don Falcone throughout the city.

When initially starting the game, I was hit by a strong sense of déjà vu.  This was accounted for when I realised that this game is from the makers of Desperados, and Robin Hood.  Both of these used the Commandos engine to recreate suitably diverse settings, but with an extremely similar style.  Chicago 1930 takes on a different persona again, but the same old traits are evident, suggesting that the changes are merely superficial.

One thing that must be said for their earlier title Desperados, is that, although unoriginal, it was extremely professional and competent at what it did.  Sadly, like a granny on an ice slide, things have gone downhill apace.  Although moderately entertaining throughout, the whole game stinks of a rush job, almost like a stage 1 beta.  The existence of any QA testers whatsoever seems doubtful, as there are so many glaring inconsistencies treading on your toes that you can almost feel the pain.

As already stated, Chicago 1930 plays like its predecessors.  You and your loyal conscripts must wander round a specific location, attempting to complete the given objectives.  Sometimes these are ludicrously easy, and merely require some flesh-mowing with your chosen tool of destruction.  Others are obscenely inane, forcing you to trudge round countless buildings and areas in search of some specific object, person, or clue as to what you must do next.

Frustrating missions are exacerbated by some of the most preposterous AI I have ever encountered.  You can march up to a baddie, waving a Tommy gun into his nostrils, and it will take him an age to raise his gun, and even longer to shoot it.  If he doesn’t have a gun, he will fiddle about trying to affix a knuckle-duster for a while before turning to face you, waiting a bit more, and then taking a swing at you.  Even on the hardest difficulty, it is perfectly possible to enter a room full of non-firearm equipped thugs, and systematically knock them unconscious while they amble about aimlessly, or idly swing a fist at where you were five minutes ago.

Maybe you’ll opt for a stealthy approach.  If two baddies are talking, and you dispatch one while remaining out of sight, his buddy will grunt a bit and shuffle his feet before returning to his position and carrying on as normal.  Don’t bother taking your prey elsewhere for furtive reasons though, as civilians have an unnerving ability to see through walls.  I particularly envy the disposition of those who watch their mates get slaughtered from across the room, and yet will remain calmly seated, apparently unaffected by the sight of dear friends in their death throes.  The best ones though are the photographers.  Kill or move whoever a photographer is taking pictures of, and he will happily continue to snap away at the empty space that they previously occupied, blissfully unaware of their departure.  I could go on, but I’m depressing myself.

The old line-of-sight system has been revamped, although it ironically turns out to be monumentally worse than the original.  Now you can only see people that are in the direction you are facing.  Everything behind you, or blocked from your vision quickly fades out of visibility.  This could have been a great concept if implemented well, but unfortunately, it just serves to annoy.  The main problem is that your range of vision is woefully short; you can barely see the end of your nose.  So a seemingly safe location a few metres away, might actually be crawling with armed bandits.  The other major problem is an invisibility bug that sometimes forgets to make the characters visible again, even when you turn to face them, meaning you will frequently be sliced down without even seeing your assailant.

What else do you want to talk about?  The fatally sluggish inventory selections?  The amateur spelling and grammar?  The monotonous equipment loadouts?  The way you are forced to drag a body to access the items it contains?  Or how about the myriad other bugs, absurd foibles and horribly evident mistakes that typify the severe lack of polish displayed in this title?

I completed this game in under a day.  This wasn’t through a shortage of missions, but merely through shortage of decent puzzles, missions and overall originality.  Despite the goodly number of men I acquired through my career, all were superfluous, as I found it far easier to complete every mission solely with my central character than to have the liability of extra individuals littering the map, especially as they arrogantly refuse to fight without my express command to do so.  They prefer to stand and die than fight back without my consent.

The pre-rendered backgrounds make an unwelcome return, as does the awkward fixed isometric viewpoint, making navigating an arduous task indeed.  The characters’ pathfinding skills are inexplicably obtuse, often taking them in huge detours round the moderately pretty scenery, rather than the easiest, and shortest route.  Sound effects are unimpressive, and the music is gratingly repetitive.

Chicago 1930 is a mess.  An untidy drawing board of potentially good ideas, but scribbled over so much that the result is an unintelligible jumble.  If Desperados is a Tchaikovsky symphony, then this is a Cheeky Girls B-side track.  Only consider this title if you can find nothing else for your required gaming fix.  Sour and outdated, this won’t live long in the memory.

FIFA 2004

FIFA 2004 Review – 2004

For the first time in years, the PC version of the FIFA Football series has serious competition.  The debut of Pro Evolution Soccer 3 on PC has finally given EA reason to get worried.  FIFA has long been the staple football diet of PC gamers, but does it still hold up against this talented newcomer?

First mention must go to the new features that FIFA 2004 FIFA 2004offers.  Most widely appreciated is the inclusion of lower divisions, letting you play as any English team from Premiership to Division 3.  Naturally, due to EA’s licensing of all FIFA players, these all have accurate and up-to-date team rosters, and a whole heap of individual player stats for every single player.  As well as English sides, there are plenty of foreign sides, and also lower divisions of these as well.  There are well over 10,000 players in total.

The aim of the game, as always, is to guide your team to Premiership and Cup domination, by playing matches, and also by undertaking a basic managerial role.  The ability to choose a lower division side adds a lot more meaning to the progression of your team, giving a harder challenge, and also requiring a much longer completion time.  Even after reaching the top, you can still continue playing through further seasons and competitions, or maybe even start over again with a harder difficulty or a worse starting team.

The other major addition is the development of what EA proudly tout as their ‘off-the-ball’ style of play.  This basically lets you take direct control of any player without the ball and run them into any position you like.  Although a little fiddly, and relatively difficult to master, this is a welcome progression to the game, and adds a lot more tactical depth.  You also still have the option to force team-mates to make runs by themselves, which is still useful, even if it has varying levels of success.

The usual yearly graphical overhaul is evident, with realistic models for all premiership players, although unfortunately, lower division players are only vaguely accurate, bearing just slight similarities to their real life namesakes.  You play out matches in moderately impressive stadiums, replete with cardboard cut-out fans leaping up and down in the background.  Not that the graphics are particularly important in a game of this genre where you spend most of your time from an overhead view, but it does help to suspend disbelief nicely.

Also, the usual selection of decent music tracks keep your ears occupied while you trawl the menus.  In-game sound is once again provided courtesy of old Motty and McCoist, who have literally thousands of names, phrases and pieces of commentary for any occasion you ever find yourself in, and now with extra mistakes and word fumbles for added realism.  Not so impressive is the fact that half the commentary is actually pilfered directly from FIFA 2003, meaning avid fans will once again be presented with the same tired old sentences.

FIFA has constantly made changes with each yearly update, whether it’s adding new moves, adding new contests, refining player movement, etc.  Usually though, if you’ve played the previous version, you’re bound to pick up the next one pretty easily.  Not so in this case.  Rather than just making the usual few tweaks and adjustments, this time EA have gone the whole hog and entirely recreated the on-field experience.  Players run, attack, defend, pass, shoot, and even fall over differently, making for a whole new game dynamic.

The essential question of course though, is whether or not this new system is better than the one sported in 2003.  Sad to say, although some of it is better, (replay breakdowns, better AI) the overall experience is slightly poorer.  Shooting is not so reliable, passing ventures in the mind-numbingly shambolic at times, and the new free kick system is a good concept, but ruined by unreasonable and unrealistic requirements.  Everything you learned in 2003 version is now obsolete, and you will need to relearn entirely new tactics and playing styles.

Another damning negative point is EA’s ridiculous multiplayer move.  The only multiplayer available is now through a severely limited online service that you unbelievably have to pay for.  This is not restricted to FIFA 2004, but also to EA’s other recent releases, which is a frankly cheeky move.  This also means that LAN and networked players are totally disregarded unless they go through the rigmarole of joining EA’s online service and playing that way.  With FIFA 2004 being fatuously flawed with this inauspicious and profoundly wretched system, this is a forceful kick in the teeth for many loyal EA consumers.

A couple of other niggles include numerous annoyingly erroneous player stats for lower division sides, frequent flawed replays that show the wrong goal, and heavily laggy commentary.

So despite the many improvements in this latest iteration of FIFA, the severity of its flaws, weaknesses and omissions makes it impossible to recommend over its prequel.  Just when FIFA needed to buck up its ideas in light of the danger presented by Pro Evo 3, it dismally trips over its own shoelaces, and in doing so loses that coveted crown of best PC football game.  The legend has fallen; and the sublime Pro Evo 3 now deservingly steps up to take the crown.  For the time being you would be wise to avoid FIFA and instead delve into Konami’s exquisite offering.  Loyal FIFA fans need not give up hope though; there’s still next year.

Armed and Dangerous

Armed and Dangerous Review – 2004

There are many things that draw my attention when choosing games.  Sometimes I am won over by sparklingly shiny and sizzling graphics.  Sometimes it’s the promise of an involving narrative, or maybe a bold venture into unmarked gaming territory.  Occasionally, even a decent selection of weapons can lure me in.  But with Armed and Dangerous, I was tempted solely by the developer’s track record.  Planet Moon Studios are the highly revered brains behind the phenomenal magnum opus that is Giants: Citizen Kabuto.  For this reason alone I looked forward to A&D.

Let’s make this clear from the outset: A&D Armed and Dangerousbears more than a little resemblance to its older brother.  Just as families bear hereditary traits and features from their ancestors, fans of the original game will instantly recognise the style of play and game dynamics that have been directly inherited from Giants.  The similarities are evident.  Once again, you play from a familiar third-person viewpoint, slaughtering masses of familiar scampering, brainless enemies, with plenty of familiarly wacky weapons, placed within those familiar weapon slots.  The familiar fictional landscapes are rendered in that familiar style, and the familiarity continues ceaselessly in almost every department.

You play the part of Roman, a small-time Robin Hood style thief who plans to land bigger fish, and who is accompanied by his gang.  This consists of Q – a sentient robot with a predilection for tea, Jonesy – an irritable mole with a metier in explosives and belabouring, and they are also joined by Rexus – a feckless, malodorous and blind old recluse with scarily realistic glass eyes.

The story is a madcap ramble through various fictional locations, and ranges from mildly bizarre to absurdly outlandish.  Not in a bad way mind.  I mean visiting a pub to replenish my stock of sharks makes sense doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, this spawn of the Planet Moon offspring is a bit of a delinquent, and purges some of the best features that made Giants so famous.  All the base-building and managerial elements have been ignored completely, and the story now solidly follows one linear route instead of three.

The missions are endlessly repetitive, lacking the spark of imagination shown in Giants, and invariably require you to blow something up, rescue someone, or go somewhere.  They also feel distinctly removed from the main storyline that is told through cutscenes, and sometimes you can’t help but feel that the levels were created before the story was even written.

Another major shortfall is the worryingly short game length, which can be played through in under a day.  There are admittedly further difficulty levels to unlock, but the bland missions will make these superfluous to all but the most devoted fans.  Tokens collected in-game also unlock little extras, but nothing very special.

The afore-mentioned selection of wacky weapons are amusing diversions but little more.  They include the Topsy Turvy bomb – turns the world upside down for a while, the Knockout bomb – lets you don a huge boxing glove and throws your enemies toward it with gusto, and the World’s Smallest Black Hole – quite literally just that.  To be frank, although it bears the same distinctive style as its forebear, A&D fails to meet, or even come close to meeting the high standards we expected.  There is however, just one main redeeming feature that lifts it out of shameful disrepute.

Humour is a rare commodity in the gaming world, but A&D has it in spades.  This redeeming feature is the humour entwined within the priceless cutscenes that link each mission together.  I won’t ruin any of the best gags or incidents, but keep an eye out for Rexus’ dogs, the engagement, and the cancer-ridden footballer.  The main incentive that keeps you slogging away on the harder levels is a sincere craving to unlock the next precious cutscene.  Flowers of light in a comparatively bland world, they add immeasurable character and atmosphere to an otherwise unremarkable game.

Have you played Giants yet?  If not, go and get it before you even consider playing A&D.  It’s now on budget, so you’ve got no excuses.  For Giants veterans, don’t expect too much from A&D, as it isn’t half as special as its precursor, but I would recommend playing it if only for the fantastic cutscenes.

No Man's Land

No Man’s Land Review – 2003

In a genre where virtually all angles have already been covered, games usually require a unique selling point to be of interest to the hoi polloi.  As a result, we often see banal incarnations that simply introduce new and intriguing features and further a particular concept, or even introduce a fresh one.  Sometimes this may be just the scenario or setting, or maybe even make significant adjustments to the generic formula that enhance your gameplay.  No Man’s Land has two main features to differentiate it from other RTS titles.

Firstly is the wonderful addition of trains.  Woo,No Man's Land trains!!  Well that doesn’t sound too exciting on paper, but it translates beautifully into game design, and adds a whole new tactical element to the staple experience.  As well as having two entire game modes based upon the construction, destruction, or preservation of these trains and their railway lines, you can also use your lumbering locomotives to transport your troops across the battlefield.  This is extremely useful, negating the necessity for trudging fatigued or wounded soldiers for many miles to reach their destination, and also allows for swift clandestine assaults on enemy positions.

The game itself follows the well-worn vein of the big boys like Warcraft and Age of Mythology.  It also bears a strong resemblance to American Conquest in its setting and direction.  But rather than doggedly pursue the minutiae of the afore-mentioned titles and their success, No Man’s Land treads its own path.  The main difference being that the whole game experience is slightly watered-down to make playing and mastering the game a less intensive experience.  Rather than needing 101 vital upgrades before you can build your own baked bean plantation, for instance, you will rarely need more than one or two expedient pre-requisites to manufacture whatever you want.

This dilution is obviously intended, making for a lighter and more accessible title for anyone who is put off by the complexity of a standard RTS.  This is evinced by the fact that there are only three resources to mine, and all research and upgrades can be completed within ten minutes.  The core experience requires less effort and management to play, yet still offers enough options and variety to sate the thirst of most strategy fans.  The backdrop of the game spans 300 years of American history, allowing you to relive the settlement of the New World.  Historical accuracy is largely absent, instead following a fictional sequence of events describing the same event.

The second main feature of No Man’s Land is its sheer variety in terms of playable civilizations.  From Woodland Indians to the original Settlers to the Spanish conquistadors, plus others, all play their role in America’s history.  What makes these different playable races special though, is the individuality and disparity of each and every one.  The British will sport riflemen and cannons, plus will supply elite units such as the Trapper and the Pilgrim Father, while the Woodland Indians for example will fight with archers and spear warriors and boast elite units including animal and spirit shamans.  Each civilization’s elite units and their specialist skills really give the races distinct characteristics and strengths.

The common downfall of many titles is that they give identical units to all sides, but just with a different name and an altered hairstyle.  And this is where No Man’s Land competes with the best, by offering a completely diverse array of battle units, and thus also multiple diverse ways to play the game.  Playing as the bestial Indians, for instance, would require a significantly different gaming process, and also necessitate a fully different style of fighting to the Settlers or Patriots.  This is all played out in moderately impressive graphical finesse, capable of close inspection by a fully manoeuvrable and zoomable camera.  Also, a strong musical score adds much to the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, things are let slip a little when it comes to multiplayer.  I encountered numerous bugs, many of game-threatening proportions, that reared their ugly heads throughout my multiplayer experience.  These will hopefully be fixed with a future patch, but until then, online gamers will have a hard time.

Despite that, the single-player experience remains strong, slick, and extremely professional, even though it is somewhat simplified by an aspiration toward being a tasty snack, as opposed to a full-course meal.  There is little to dislike about No Man’s Land, and much to love.  Not least the fact that you can drive trains.  Trains!!  Forget tanks or elephants; trains are the new benchmark in trendiness.

January 3rd, 2011 @ 20:11:53

SpellForce: The Order of Dawn Review – 2003

It’s amazing what scientists are attempting, and even achieving nowadays, with their attempts at crossbreeding animals.  They do all that DNA splicing and transplantation malarkey, and manage to create animals that sport the characteristics of other animals.  (Yes, don’t worry; this will tie in with SpellForce somehow.)  Whether this is a good idea or not is a moot point, especially since this is a very risky process for the animals involved, with survival rates not very high.

This can be compared to what Phenomic have January 3rd, 2011 @ 20:11:53attempted in their endeavour to splice together multiple game genres within one title.  Such hybrids are rare in the game world, and a good deal of this scarcity is due to the financial risk the publishers take in funding such an experimental and contemporary evolution of games as we know them.  A few have succeeded in the past, in varying degrees of genre mergence, although some have let their vision cause their downfall, by allowing that vision to obscure their sensibility of what makes an enjoyable game.  SpellForce attempts to combine the RPG and RTS genres, and with an additional hint of Third-Person Action.  Quite an undertaking I’m sure you’ll agree.

The game begins as would any normal RPG: a bit of storyline, a quest to embark upon, and various items to improve your character’s abilities.  You can create your own character, and this allows you not only to determine how they look, but also what their abilities are.  These range from physical Strength and Stamina for the budding warrior, right through to Intelligence and Wisdom for wannabe mages.  Your chosen forte can be slowly changed as you progress through the game and accrete experience points to spend, but choose your metier carefully from the beginning as this will determine the way your character plays.

The story is one of those generic Good vs. Evil scenarios that pits you against seemingly insurmountable hordes of Goblins, Orcs and the rest of the monsters that make up a traditional fantasy setting.  As usual there are thousands of items to pick up on your travels, some that you can make use of yourself, and a whole load of frippery that can be sold to the traders scattered about the lands.  Aside from the main mission there are also numerous side-quests you can embark upon for additional rewards.  These typically follow the same formula, necessitating an object to be recovered, or a beastie to be slain, but give a lot more depth to the storyline.

Rather than acquiring a band of unique warriors as you progress though, the RTS side comes into play, letting you build armies to overcome the opposition.  This is done in the traditional style: harvest resources, construct appropriate buildings, conscript army.  There are quite a few resources to stockpile, from the basics of wood and stone, to more mystical materials like aria and incense.  The units you can build are varied, and can use traditional fighting and/or magic skills.  This RTS skeleton is not as advanced as many other titles, with less available options and tactical decisions, but that is only to be expected due to the hybrid nature of the game, and even so it still gives them a run for their money.

The final half-attempt at a genre is the Third-Person Action element.  This is basically just a fully zoomed-in camera view that lets you control your avatar directly with the familiar W,A,S,D configuration.  You will rarely find a use for this though, as the default isometric view is so much more practical in every way.

At first you can only control human workers, but as the game progresses you get to build armies of different races as well, such as Elves and Dwarves.  The sheer variety is commendable, each race having different units and warriors, and each with their own personal strengths and weaknesses.  As well as the countless minions that you can build up to fight by your side, you can also summon heroes that will join your army until they die, and even then can be summoned again as often as you please if you have access to the correct hero monument.  You can even equip these heroes with your own weapons and items.

Enormous battles are the highlight of SpellForce, and it really does make the process more fun to swarm into an enemy camp with a hundreds of warriors instead of barging your way through with a select group of ultra-skilled fighters in typical RPG style.  The variation of units also helps.  Magic-casters will run about just behind your hand-to-hand soldiers, unleashing fiery death as well as healing the injured friendlies; archers will line up behind everyone, raining steel-tipped projectiles from afar; and your avatar and selected heroes will join in whatever way their remit dictates.  The further you progress through the game, the larger and harder the encounters become, placing even more emphasis on battle awareness and adept unit commands to supplement weaknesses.

Making things even more magnificent is the fantastically monikered Krass (sic) engine, which creates a remarkably believable 3D world.  The verdant, sloping hillsides and the native fauna ensure that you are never short of eye-candy during your strolls, and the fights are even more majestic, with hundreds of nicely animated troops beating the living green slime out of each other, and all this intermingled with moderately impressive spells being cast hither and thither every few seconds.  For the best possible experience, the camera can be zoomed right in, giving a thoroughly immersive taste of the action, and showing off the graphics a lot more than the standard isometric view.

And don’t expect to play through this in a couple of days; the scale is simply enormous, and the copious amount of sub-quests stretches it even further.  When finished, you could potentially play through the whole game again with a different skill-orientated character for a slightly different experience.  The inclusion of a basic multi-player mode further bolsters the longevity.

Mention must go to the frankly awful voice acting and script, which renders all cutscenes boring monotonies that you end up skipping through.  The script is so poorly planned that when you are offered options as what to ask or say, the game will always assume you have listened to all prior speech options, and frequently make the latter speech routes unfathomable if you choose to listen to them first.  Equally ridiculous is the way all conversations are addressed to a male character, even though your avatar may be female.  Despite this, the music is quite inspirational, and the sound effects are adequate.

SpellForce does a commendably good job of bridging the gap between genres, but in so doing, becomes more a Jack-of-all-trades, and indeed, Master of none.  With slightly higher production values SpellForce could have been a major title, vying for position with the big boys.  But unfortunately it is comfortable with remaining good in all areas, rather than genuinely great.  A true shame, but still an enjoyable romp, and well worth the investment.  Pull on your +4 jerkin of Orc-bashing and head for the virtual hills.

Chariots of War

Chariots of War Review

You know who I mean, you’ve been there before.  Talking to that person you met randomly, and started conversing with.  The one with the smile that is just too wide, and the laugh that is just too loud.  You look into their eyes, and see not the spark of intelligence, but the slightly vacuous gaze of someone who is a few pennies short of a pound.  Not the sharpest knife in the rack.  They are often fun to be with, but you somehow never feel comfortable spending too much time with them.

That is exactly the same feeling you get upon Chariots of Warplaying Chariots of War for any extended period.  The inkling that somehow it is not the sum of its parts, that it just fails to meet the expectations you had.  That it somehow is an inferior, and maybe amateur, title.  That is so true, but at the same time so inaccurate; let me explain.

Not long ago I played the game Legion.  A satisfying turn-based strategy title that I reviewed for this very site, and awarded a very reasonable 8/10.  Chariots of War is the sequel to Legion.  Perhaps the most worrying issue with COW is that I could copy and paste entire paragraphs from my Legion review as they still fit so perfectly into this latest incarnation.  Basically, what this means is, although all the gripes from the original game have been sorted out, and the campaign is set in a different scenario, the body of the game itself is merely the game that Legion should have been.  The improvements now boasted could easily have been released as a patch, or even an expansion pack, but the game in no way breaks enough ground to even come near warranting another full game.

For the uninitiated, go and read the Legion review first, and find out what the Legion/COW formula is all about.  Read it?  Good.  Then I’ll continue.

COW streamlines the whole experience, making things slightly more fluid to play, and has clearly addressed issues that were raised against the original.  Unit movement for a start has been tweaked, so that now you don’t have to move your units in small, separate increments each turn, but rather can set a distant target that they will continue moving towards at the click of a button.  The interface too has been overhauled, although whether it is actually any better or not is a moot point.  Some of the buttons have been grouped together to add a little cohesion, but the interface itself is unnecessarily 3D, which takes up valuable viewing space when in the map mode.  The fog of war now covers the battlefield, and makes things slightly harder, as you cannot see far beyond what you control.

Historically accurate random events now take place as well, with small hostile tribes belonging to no faction wandering in from the mountains and the sea.  They don’t usually require too much effort to get rid of, but add a certain unpredictability to the game, which gives it a little more character.  Other random events also occur within your cities, buildings occasionally explode, or sometimes you might hit upon a rich gold supply that gives your gold mining a hefty bonus.  There are also resource pickups to be found scattered across the map that add further bonuses to your stockpiles.

Once again, a decent selection of campaigns will keep you occupied for many long hours, as well as the astounding option to play as almost any single one of the numerous nations you see on the starting map.  All have special units and individual history, and really give the game limitless playability, as even one nation has many, many routes of conquest open to them.  The same foible also remains that the only way to win the game is by conquest; you cannot gain power by making friends, so you’ll have to slaughter them all if you want to win.  Diplomacy is woefully underused, and will aid you little in your quest for victory, since the AI are extremely unresponsive to displays of friendship.

The resource management aspect has been deepened a fair bit, now consisting of nine distinct resources to collect instead of the original three.  This makes you spend more time than ever finely balancing the separate functions of your individual cities.  And you will be forever tweaking your setup synchronously with the state of advancement your cities are at, as different time periods and available warriors demand different resources than earlier or later periods.  Also the tech tree has become a lot more convoluted, with numerous prerequisite structures for many of the advanced buildings and military centres.  This is not entirely successful, placing too much burden upon the management aspect of the game, and making it a long process before you can start really producing the heavy goods.

The main graphics setup is a carbon copy of its predecessor, featuring the same map-like rudimentary images to represent everything going on.  The battle engine that runs the real-time enactments seems to have undergone a slight update to reflect the new setting and nations, albeit one that has moved it in a sideways direction, rather than forwards.  The huge battles can still be an awe-inspiring sight, and are strangely satisfying, despite the crippling lack of control after the battle has started, and the seemingly aleatory outcomes.  Rather than fight sensibly though, your troops will line themselves up behind each other most of the time and advance only when the row of men in front of them has fallen.  This leads to a frustratingly quick morale plummet, and makes the battles fickle beasts to master.  To make things worse, you get none of your troops back if you lose a battle, even if most of them are still alive when the result is announced.

One significant improvement of note is the addition of a proper soundtrack to the game, and even to the battle scenes.  It is all appropriate music and livens the whole experience, adding just that little bit extra to your overall enjoyment.

Really, COW has evolved little from its origins.  Admittedly, the experience is more refined than before, but at the same time it is more complex and requires greater devotion to master.  It is worth an investment if you haven’t played its prequel, but if you already own Legion then COW is superfluous.  While everything around it is slowly maturing, COW sticks stubbornly to its own ruleset, and retains the same playing experience.  This is what makes it like that aforementioned empty-minded individual; offering decent entertainment, but not something that will hook you permanently.  A petulant child that will not turn from its ways.  And yet a damn fine game despite that.

As with its forebear, COW will consume vast quantities of your time.  But I don’t really mind.  Under that vacuous grin lies a heart of gold, and until the excitement palls I will continue to enjoy my role as conqueror of the Middle East.

Legion

Legion Review – 2003

Gah!  I don’t want to write this review; I haven’t got time.  My veteran army of Praetorians, Equites and Auxiliary Archers is about to storm the gates of Duroliponte, while my young and inexperienced Velites are just engaging a small band of Catuvellaunian peasants.  At the same time I am trying to stem the inexorable depletion of ore from my stockpiles by building mines in all my secure rural cities, and also trying to attract more people to Alauna so I can replenish my dwindling ranks of Praetorians and Equites.  Atrebate is pushing hard from the West, and I think they might soon be declaring war on me, as I keep pushing my armies through their territories.  But hopefully the alliance with Dobunni will hold out, as that will give me a chance to send more armies to my borders and expand into enemy territory.  That large band of Icenian warriors is lurking ominously near my poorly defended city of Branodun, so I had better keep an eye on them.  I’ll just tend to my business matters for a few minutes and then I’ll be back with you.

Hell’s teeth, is that the time?  2:30 in the morning?  That’s 5 Legionhours solid play, and it feels less than 1.  This game is addictive like very little else I have played.  A quick five minutes will transform into five hours and still have you slavering for more.  Yet as a game, Legion is flawed, showing deficiencies in quite a few areas.  But for some reason this does not hinder the undiluted enjoyment you can glean from this title.

Upon first starting out on a campaign, the map is colour-coded into numerous segments, each of which is a separate nation.  You can play as quite literally any one of those many nations, even though the game is actually based around the Romans.  If you are the defensive type you can find yourself a quiet corner with some nice resources to stockpile, if you are on attacking form you could opt for a central position totally surrounded by other nations.  Each nation has differences in unit type, so the tribal armies will never be the same as Roman armies, although each unit has a similar counterpart in the opposing forces.  The sheer number of possibilities extends the longevity of the game drastically, and at the same time caters for the individual playing style of all types of player.

There are two distinct gameplay elements that you will primarily be focusing on.  Firstly is the management and resource side of things.  You have to build up each of your cities to acquire more resources.  The more resources you have, the more armies you will be able to create, and also the bigger you can build your cities, opening up even more possibilities.  There are only three resources to harvest: food, ore and wood.  Each area on the map has varying amounts of each, and you will likely have to expand your empire to be able to gather enough of each resource.  You employ the residents of your town to work as harvesters, and so, naturally, the greater your population, the more you can harvest.  Attracting more people to your town is facilitated by the creation of certain buildings.  But since you only have a limited number of building slots available to fill, you have to reach a practical trade-off on what you build.

In practice, this concept works well enough, but is too limited to really have such a gigantic impact on your empire as would be expected.  The limited number of building slots is a strategic choice, forcing cities to specialise in either military or resource production.  The problem is, this simply doesn’t fit how the Roman Empire really expanded, so you are being forced into playing the rules of the game, not playing as the real Romans would have.  If this is something you don’t mind living with, then the concept works well to create a balanced and enjoyable game.

Now for the military side.  Quite simply, the winning conditions are to expand your empire and become a good deal more powerful than every other nation on the map.  This is done by laying siege to, and taking over control of the other cities dotted around the map.  Once again, how it was really done is sacrificed for the sake of balancing the game.  You can only have one army attack a city at any time, and each army can only consist of eight bands of whatever warriors you choose.  This means that even with a maximum size army, you can still be outnumbered when the battle begins, because each city has additional defending units.  Fans of the colossal assaults made by the Roman Empire will be disappointed at the enforced smaller scale battles on offer here.

The battles themselves are quite fun to watch, but unfortunately give you very little control over the outcome.  At the beginning of an assault each army gets placed on one side of the screen, and you can then line up your units as you see fit.  A nice touch is that you can’t actually see where the enemy starts except when your spy gives you information of where they are, and this can be improved through certain buildings.  After placing your units you have only two further options: formation and march orders.  The formation speaks for itself, letting you choose a wedge, checkerboard, or whatever else you think will be effective against the enemy.  The march orders simply tell your units how fast and how far to advance, neither of which really has a great impact on the battle.

Once you have set up, just hit the go button, and watch as your two armies battle it out in real-time.  This is initially a very nice feature, and indeed is quite impressive to watch.  The main problem being, that once the battle has begun, you get absolutely no control over your troops whatsoever.  You just have to watch them fight to victory or get slaughtered, the outcome cannot be influenced by yourself.  Another small frustration is the lack of any speed-up, or even exit buttons, so you have to watch the entire thing right through to conclusion every time, whether you want to or not.  You win when all the enemy have routed and fled, as they will do when their morale or numbers get low enough.

Graphics and sound are below what you would usually expect from a game, but compare it to the usual fare of turn-based strategy fans and it doesn’t look so bad.  Decent graphics are not essential for games of this genre, and as long as the visuals are relatively clear and sharp, which they are, then this can be forgiven.  The sound department is scarcely furnished, but suffices to convey a reasonable all round atmosphere.

I have outlined the main failings of Legion, and although they sound quite severe, you will barely notice them once you get engrossed in a decent campaign.  Your attention will be held on all the minutiae that make up the running of an empire, and this is thoroughly enjoyable.  Legion will never approach the timeless-classic state of masters such as Civilization, but it will afford countless hours of fun, and will be something to put aside for a rainy day.  Just beware it doesn’t exert too much of a stranglehold on your life.

But I can’t stand chatting all day.  The Durotriges have just declared war on me and attacked my military town of Sorviodun.  Heh, little do they know I have a full-scale army hidden in there, but that means I will have to hold off attacking the Dumnonii until my army has recovered.  Unless of course I bring down my Northern army from their war against the Dobunni, and replace them with some of my inexperienced Legions from Verulam.  That would then secure the halfway city of Bagendun, and also leave my reserve army free to…

Enigma Rising Tide

Enigma: Rising Tide Review – 2003

It’s been a busy year in the submarine simulation department.  What with Submarine Piston Greaser Pro VII making its welcome appearance early on, closely followed by Periscope Wizard III and the seminal Depth Gauge Deluxe, plus a whole heap of similarly high-calibre titles.  It’s into this crowded genre that Enigma: Rising Tide squeezes itself into.

Seriously though, since the days of Silent Enigma Rising TideHunter II a few years ago there have been few, if any, submarine based titles released.  The problem is, attempting to make an enjoyable and fun game based on such a restrictive machine is extremely difficult.  A total submarine simulation would be no fun at all: A sluggish speed, half an hour to reload a torpedo tube, no vision beyond the sonar once submerged, and a half hour turning circle.

Enigma wisely eschews such realism in favour of a mixed approach; half arcade, half simulation.  This cuts down on the tedious bits, and makes the action more frenetic and enjoyable.

You are not restricted to submarines though, as Enigma widens its remit to include a variety of ships as well.  To be honest, the difference between the two is not that huge, it’s just that subs have the enviable ability to slip beneath the waves when the going gets tough, whereas the ship is forced to fight or run.

The one word that describes Enigma best is ‘adequate’.  The graphics are adequately believable, the gameplay is just about adequate, and the ambient sounds are, well….adequate.

The selection of ships and submarines you get to pilot are all nicely modeled, and all react realistically to the fickle dangers of the ocean.  The bow forges through the waves sending spray in the air, the prop churns up water at the rear and the whole ship surges up and down to the perpetual swells of the sea.  Things get quite boring underwater though, as you are simply enclosed within a blue haze that gets darker the deeper you go.

The atmosphere is somewhat salted by the lack of any human activity aboard any vessel, and also the lack of variation in the fleets you encounter, most of them sporting numerous identikit replicas of the same boat.

The activities you get assigned to throughout your career as a sub or ship captain are lamentably repetitive.  Torpedo a ship, dispatch a sub, defend someone important, repeat.  Some of the missions try to add a little variety, but are mostly thinly veiled repetitions of the same formula.  Also, the progression in difficulty throughout the game is mostly marked simply by an increase in enemy numbers.

A word of commendation must go to the frankly impressive game length though.  In campaign mode you can choose from three nations to fight for: America, Britain, and Germany.  Then you have the option of whether to command a ship or a sub, creating a total of six possible career paths to complete.  Add to this the large selection of single missions available and the upcoming massively multiplayer online option and this game should last you quite a while.

Another noteworthy feature is the voice recognition capabilities, allowing total command over your vessel without a single button press needed.  You’ll soon be muttering things like ‘set heading zero three zero’, ‘rig for surface’ or ‘fire bow torpedo’.  The only caveat here is to be aware that some of the commands have dodgy voice recognition, and will need to be repeated five or six times in various accents and pitches.  All good fun of course.

The biggest bugbear of Enigma is quite simply the fact that submarines and ships don’t translate into a game very well.  The very nature of these water beasts are almost the opposite of what we gamers class as fun.  As such, the whole game is fundamentally restricted, and appeals mainly to just a select niche of the market.

With all said and done however, there is enjoyment to be gleaned from Enigma.  Don your military cap and head into battle, the inspiring nationalistic music starting up as you commence firing sprays of torpedoes at the Huns, screaming commands into your microphone or just hurling obscenities at your foes.  Not a recommended sight for any poor soul who happens to enter the room at that time, but a stirring experience all the same.

With such a paucity of similar titles in recent years though, Enigma: Rising Tide is easily the best submarine/ship game around at the moment, so if this genre tickles your palate I wholeheartedly recommend this title to you.  Unless of course you’d rather wait for Hydrophonic Hiatus Pro IV.

Beanotown Racing

Beanotown Racing Review – 2003

Game developers seem to be running short of inspiration these days.  They seem to pounce on fleeting items at random, and turn these obscure pieces of inspiration into a game.  Maybe someone was digging in the garden one day, and was inspired to make Worms.  You can just imagine the developers of this game finding a crumpled Beano under the bed, and swiftly asking the only question that matters any more; will it make money?

Beanotown Racing takes ten famous characters Beanotown Racingfrom the Beano and Dandy comics, and sets them upon ten loony vehicles for you to tear around the equally loony tracks in.  If the appearance of specific characters makes any difference, you have: Desperate Dan, Dennis the Menace, Gnasher, Roger the Dodger, Korky the Cat, Bananaman (eeugh, spell that in a hurry), Minnie the Minx, Brain Duane, Bea, and last but not least, Plug from the Bash St. Kids.

Unfortunately, as with many other similar titles, such as South Park Rally, the main feature of the game is simply the licensed inclusion of these famous characters.  The benefit of having an entirely fictional inspiration is that the developers strive to provide some meat; something different, or at least some innovations that make it stand out from the other swarms of racing games out there.  Beanotown Racing happily relaxes under the weight of its license and lets the popular subject matter work the magic.  This translates into rather a dull game.

Let’s clear this up; Beanotown Racing is not too bad.  Well not entirely anyway.  But equally it is such a staid and formulaic take on such an overcrowded and hackneyed genre that it just numbs the mind to play.  The first few races almost peak into what you might call fun, as you discover all your favourite comic characters wobbling about the roads in their zany perambulators and dustbins and the like.  You even get to visit genuine locations from the comics, Bash St. School and Cactusville being two of the most widely recognised.

After a couple of races, however, you’ll realise how basic the game really is, and you’ll start winning races with your eyes closed.  Tracks are short and badly designed, featuring too many cramped indoor environments for enjoyment.  Since there are only six tracks for the entire game, this is a major problem, and knocks the replay value down to virtually nil.  I completed the entire game and unlocked every extra in less than two hours.  Add in the frustrating AI and things start to tumble downhill quicker than Desperate Dan at dinnertime.

The AI is a strange bag.  In the lower two difficulty levels your opponents are pretty rubbish and will slow down when you are behind and speed up when you catch up.  The hardest difficulty level is whole different kettle of cow pies, and allows you to win some races without being overtaken once, yet took me eight attempts to come higher than fourth on another.  All the time they get in your way, and any contact with them will slow you down to a turtle’s crawl, and all the while they are shooting you with one of the many ‘novelty’ weapons.  These include tomatoes, cow pies, and smelly nappies, all suitable to each character, but add very little to the game.

One thing that pleasantly impressed me was the simple cartoony graphics.  They are in no way of high quality, but do a reasonable job of conveying the quaint charm that makes the comics so famous.  As you race through the cartoon locations, toy planes will zoom about in the sky, trains will cross bridges, and a representative section of the scenery goes about everyday comic bustle, creating quite a nice racing atmosphere.  The audio is what you would expect, a few cheesy music tracks, adequate sound effects, plus individual taunts and engine sounds for each character.

A lot of importance has to be placed on vehicle handling in a racing game, quite simply because that is the only element of gameplay.  Sad to say, the handling of this title is slow, cumbersome, and frustrating.  Even when you know every nuance of every track and could drive them all blindfolded, still, you’ll find yourself paying your respects to the fence frequently since the handling is so shoddy.  I could hardly restrain the frustration seizures, as what could be described as ‘fun’ handling turned out to be a joke indeed.

To finally seal the last nail in Beanotown Racing’s coffin, it has no multiplayer whatsoever.  This only possible redeeming feature makes a predictable non-appearance, and seals the game’s fate as a lightweight also-ran, hobbling over the finish line in a sorry state.  Beano and Dandy fans might find some short-term amusement here, as might young children, but any racing devotee with any self-respect whatsoever will avoid this game like the plague.  A lazy attempt, and one that deserves criticism for milking yet another license with such a severely lacklustre effort.

Saitek Cyborg Evo

Saitek Cyborg Evo Review – 2003

It is a fierce battle that wages between PC peripheral giants Saitek and Logitech.  Their revolutionary joysticks have evolved into what appears to be the final leg of the race to achieve the optimal instrument, and each is vying for top spot with little tweaks and refinements that edge their products even further toward that elusive pinnacle of gaming perfection.

After a period of careful planning, Saitek Saitek Cyborg Evohave now inched into the lead with the Saitek Cyborg Evo, a more than titular evolution from the Saitek Cyborg 3D.

From the second you take this beauty out of its box you will be struck with its sleek and incredibly stylish design.  This isn’t a case of form over function though, as the Evo is not only a bastion of aesthetic indulgence, but also manages to create what is probably the most ergonomic and practical joystick to date.

Features include an eight-directional POV hat, a superb throttle, and a 3D twist control on the handle.  Aside from these there are five well-placed thumb buttons as well as the usual trigger, plus a total of six buttons on the base.

What makes these functions all the more special is the way that they are fully integrated into the joystick itself rather than being compulsory afterthoughts.  The throttle is quite literally part of the base, not a separate control, and the base buttons offer the same quality, remaining operable indents into the body and not clumsy additional entities.

To make the stick compatible with absolutely everyone, the Evo is usable by both left and right-handed people.  This is cleverly ensured by a mostly symmetrical body with a detachable palm rest that can be reversed.

To add even greater ease of use the palm rest can be lowered or raised slightly, and the thumb buttons offer the same feature, as well as a side tilt function.  All of which is facilitated by some shiny metal knobs that although protruding, only add to the incomparable chic of the stick.

Any fears that this beast might not perform as well as it looks are soon dispelled when you grasp the handle and give it a test-drive.  The precision is unparalleled and offers pinpoint accuracy for all functions, not just the main stick.  The stick itself is entirely comfortable to hold, and the base is broad, allowing for great stability on a flat surface.

There is even Smart Technology software included that lets you configure the stick individually for every one of your games.  Not something we would all use, but a praiseworthy addition nonetheless.

Quite frankly, the Saitek Cyborg Evo is the best joystick I have ever laid my eager mitts upon.  The only possible criticism I might lower is the fact that the base buttons are not too individually distinguishable in the heat of battle, and so you often end up pressing the wrong ones, but that is such a trifling issue it is hardly worthy of mention.

For such a reasonable price, the Evo is certainly the current joystick of choice for any serious gamer.  If for any reason you are still undecided about whether to purchase this or not, the mention of some cool red and blue LEDs decorating the joystick should tip the balance.

Superbike World Championship

Superbike World Championship Review – 2003

Let’s see now, four on the first, plus that daft one in between, three on the second, then six, and um, four after the bend, er, carry the five, minus that one, aw never mind.  I was simply trying to add up how many times I crashed my bike while racing on realistic mode.  On the first lap.  With no others bikes on track.  After ten practise races.

Upon starting a new game, as any Superbike World Championshiphardened PC gamer will testify, it damages the pride to use inbuilt devices that make the game easier, such as driving aids, or adjustable physics settings.  So I naturally resisted the urge to pootle around a simple little track on a nice gentle bike in arcade mode, and instead opted for solo race in realistic mode with all driving aids turned off.  Oops!  This really is a game of two halves.  The arcade mode gets you started on your two-wheeled stallion, and presents a reasonable challenge to both pro bikers and beginners.  The realistic mode however should not even be glanced at by anyone without vast experience of both real-life and in-game bike racing.

The arcade mode then is what will attract most attention.  You can race any of five famous motorbike makes, from Suzuki to Ducati, on any of twelve real life courses.  All tracks are accurately recreated using genuine track data, and all the official licenses are in place, so expect to compete against real life riders such as SBK legend and record holder Carl Fogarty.  The handling is somewhere between adequate and good, at high speeds it is almost spot on and great fun, but as things slow down a bit it loses a lot of precision and does not turn quite sharply enough.

The realistic mode is a whole different kettle of fish.  To those of you who have won the championship in this setting I take my hat off to you.  Well, helmet anyway.  Now I don’t consider myself to be a bad driver.  I have played numerous bike racing titles, from dirt-track to superbike, and with reasonable success on all.  Yet the realistic mode of Superbike World Championship manages to be the hardest bike racing I have ever experienced.  A millisecond too long on the throttle while accelerating away from a corner and you’ll swiftly dismount yourself.  Touch a hairbreadth of grass and you slide on your rear for a while.  Brake too swiftly from high speed and you’ll cartwheel over effortlessly.  Turn just a little too sharply and you’ll severely graze your thighs.  Blink or sneeze or anything similarly dramatic and you’ll probably wind up with an engine failure.

The problem is, for such a demanding game, you can’t really afford to hit the tarmac.  One slip is all it takes and you are unlikely to see the front leaders again until they lap you.  And taking such extraordinary control as it does to actually stay mounted, the prospect of winning races, long ones in particular, is more of a distant fantasy.

The AI racers show little personality, all following one another steadily round the track along the racing line.  A bit of jostling here and there and some overtaking, but it is usually one of the same top few bikers who wins the race.  And looking at the finishing table after a race you’ll notice that they finish within a few seconds of one another, unless some were hindered by your good self.  It’s pretty much like racing against automatons really, they’ll race consistently well, but never showing individual verve or ability.

A very enjoyable and frequently humorous ride is had when experimenting with crashing your bike.  Not so much fun on your own, but fantastic when in the midst of a tight clutch of bikers.  You simply have to bash into somebody with reasonable force, to send them, yourself, and often a whole wave of other riders sailing along the grass in agonisingly bone-breaking animations.  You can even ride straight into scurrying footbound drivers and send them flying further down the track.  Even more humorous is the way that the AI of your fellow racers completely breaks down at this point.

After picking themselves up, and prancing back to their machines like demented gorillas, many of them will do nothing to dispel this analogy by pointing their bikes at the fencing and smashing straight into it.  Some manage to skip right through the fencing and initiate some strange bug that sends them flying skywards with incredible gusto.  Still others manage to get their bikes stuck in the fence itself, and will spend the rest of the race patiently attempting and failing to extricate their mashed motorcycle from its depths.  There are in fact many small bugs and inadequacies that show SWC’s lack of polish, none game-threatening, but annoying all the same.

Superbike World Championship manages to disguise its age very well with gaudy colours and acceptable modelling.  All your fellow bikers’ graphical representations are sufficiently realistic to be moderately immersive, although the bright colours tend to hide what are essentially fairly simplistic graphics.  This breaks down completely as you start taking regular unscheduled trips into the trackside fences, as all spectators are a blocky 2D travesty of graphical ability.  The in-game sound stands out little despite its apparent accuracy, although the revving of numerous meaty machines on the starting grid is quite stirring.

Whether you buy this game or not will be entirely dependent upon your love of superbike racing.  First-timers should give this a wide berth, but fans will find a certain amount of enjoyment, and certainly a challenge.

Echelon Wind Warriors

Echelon: Wind Warriors Review – 2003

Wind Warriors eh?  No that’s not big Norse fighters blowing off, that’s the sub-title of this sequel to Echelon.  The original was a slightly above-average flying title that attracted a fair sized fan base.  You might as well just call Wind Warriors an expansion pack really, because it does little to warrant standalone status.

The game puts you into the helmet of loyal Echelon Wind Warriorsfighter, Jack “Wolf” Scott as he fights for the government of the Galactic Federation in a war against some lost colony or other.  Without glimmer of a rapprochement, you are forced to use all your skills in an all-out war to defend the land.  You get a decent selection of airborne beasts to choose from, all with varying statistics, speeds and weapon capabilities.  I must emphasise here that the arcadish control system is too clumsy for its own good.  Manoeuvring your torpid crafts around the various locations you fly in is not overly enthralling, especially as the huge turning circle renders nimble flying techniques almost impossible.

Fighting enemies is a lot of luck besides anything else, merely because it takes you so long to actually bring them into view on your screen.  And woe betide you when they fly straight past you, as your chances of turning fast enough to catch more than a glimpse of an undercarriage receding into the distance are not very high.  The arsenal of weapons you get blast your enemies out of the sky with are nicely varied, and range from ineffectual popping lasers to full-on guided missiles that provide one-hit kills when used properly.  The targeting system that helps you aim at enemies is the same concept as utilised by X-Wing and all similar games that use comparatively slow-moving firepower.

Commendably, you have the option to use either mouse or joystick to control your metal bird of death, allowing for greater ease of use, and no doubt appealing to a wider chunk of gamers.  Controls can be honed a lot more, letting you define what the z and x-axis control, as well as all the usual keyboard options.  I used a joystick as it is generally easier to fly that way, but for precise aiming you’d be better off with a mouse.  There are a whole panoply of keys to learn and configure, meaning you’ll probably be better off playing through Echelon over a few days rather than stretching it out for weeks, as you’ll most likely have forgotten all the key settings after a week or so.

As you progress through the war you are fighting, you get options of additional mission that you can choose to partake in instead of the standard war operations.  These are usually of a more covert nature, and vary nicely.  This also adds a fair bit to the replay value of Echelon, as you will need to complete the game at least twice to have covered all the missions.  One point that stands out though, is that no matter how valiant or how knaff your efforts at combatting the enemy, you will never really have any effect on the overall war.  This is emphasising how diminutive the role of a single soldier in battle, in lieu of building you up to be some world-saving superhero who the entire side is dependent upon.

Mission objectives have a tendency to be a bit vague, so don’t be surprised to find yourself cruising at 10.000 feet without the faintest idea of what to do next.  Thankfully your fellow AI always know what to do, so following their lead can be useful.  It would be nice though to have a clear picture of your objectives in mind before you attempt to fly the mission.  Sometimes when you are expected to fly somewhere you will be shown a small arrow that points to a waypoint, but this is so small and unobtrusive that you have to look for it to notice it.

It can be a bit lonesome in that commodious cockpit all on your own, so those nice chaps back at base will keep in frequent contact.  The voices above are not particularly pleasant fellows, and seem to enjoy tearing you down with their caustic obloquy at every opportunity.  Move your craft a pixel too high on a particular mission, and you’ll be informed that you are ‘piece of wet toejam’, among numerous other taunts bearing references to our simian friends.

Echelon’s box claims to sport photo-realistic landscapes, but after playing you’ll soon see that this claim must have been founded on some particularly squalid photographic specimens.  The game environments are far to bleak and devoid of life to be anywhere near interesting, and are a far cry from the touted photo-realistic landscapes.  They do convey a sense of abandonment and lost hope that we can only attribute to the futuristic setting, but which give the game on the whole a fairly dismal atmosphere.

Flying aficionados will derive certain enjoyment from Echelon: Wind Warriors, but unfortunately it will probably turn out a little too bland for the tastes of the hoi polloi.  It adds little to the formula of the original Echelon, and excels at little, rather, satisfying itself at maintaining a reasonable standard of flying game, and aiming no higher.  If you are pessimistic you would look on this as a missed opportunity, but for the optimists this is a competent flying title.

Wildlife Park

Wildlife Park Review – 2003

Upon starting the game I am greeted aurally with a woman yodelling energetically at me to the rhythm of numerous African instruments, and visually with an interface of bamboo shoots and verdant jungle vegetation.  The combined effect is actually rather pleasing, and sports an unmistakable jungle image.  Er, problem is, this isn’t a jungle game, it’s a zoo management game.  Well, a wildlife park management game to be technically accurate, although the difference between the two is negligible.

To sum up this game in a sentence: ‘Zoo Wildlife ParkTycoon, but worse’.  Quite literally, the concept of Wildlife Park is identical to that of Microsoft’s adequately entertaining offering.  You run a zoo, now termed wildlife park for copyright reasons, and build up a selection of animals for your paying visitors to appreciate.  Once again, similar levels of micro-management mean your animals require their every whim attended to before they are fully satisfied.  The ground needs to be the right hardness, the food needs to be correct, the swimming pool needs to be large enough, the surrounding verdure appropriate, and the teabags need to be decaffeinated.

The visitors also need to be looked after and require their enjoyment senses to be dazzled by a huge variety of impressive animals, plenty of exotic vegetation, and decent services at a reasonable rate.  Naturally, caring for the animals and your visitors is no easy task, and sooner or later some disaster is bound to happen.  Your animals may get ill and die, or they sometimes escape their enclosures and wreak havoc upon the defenceless visitors.  If you treat an animal too badly, animal rights protesters will storm your gates and run riot within your park.  Worst of all, your coffers might finally empty and force you to sell some of your park to regain cash.

If Wildlife Park had the same care and attention-to-detail lavished upon it as Microsoft’s adequately entertaining offering (Zoo Tycoon), things would be a different story.  But the truth is, Wildlife Park still feels in the beta stages, rough and unpolished.  Here are just a few of the many idiocies the game displays:

—Information boxes inform you about the condition of an animal.  I was once informed that one of my King Penguins was unhappy, injured and dead.  Eh?

—Your workers seem rather zealous at their jobs.  So much so that all of them, including the petite little veterinarian in her small white skirt, will take the quickest route to their targets, which includes regularly swimming across lakes and rivers, even if a perfectly serviceable footpath is right next to them.

—The afore-mentioned information boxes are so small that the ends of larger words are irretrievably cut-off.

In a similar way, the help rollovers that appear when you rollover a button are frequently so long that they disappear off the edge of the screen.

—Animal lovers won’t appreciate one of the games options that allows you to shoot any of your animals, albeit humanely, through the use of a trapper.  Even worse, is when you try making him kill an animal that is boxed for transport.  Rather than the one-shot kills he normally displays, the trapper will continue to fire hundreds of shots at the poor wounded creature which never dies, but will get severely injured.

—Technical deficiencies in some of the alpha layers make simple tasks very frustrating sometimes.  What this means is, when you go to click on something like a wooden fence, you will need to click precisely on the wooden slats themselves to be able to select it.  Clicking on the gaps between the fence will select the ground behind the fence.  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that fences are incredibly small from most viewpoints, meaning you can never accurately select a fence, or anything else with alpha transparency.

—You will see as a percentage how much your visitors are enjoying your park.  You tend to lose faith in such figures though, when you see their appreciation fall from 94% to 69% in exactly one second.  Unless you blame it on the fickle nature of tourists.

—Entry prices affect how many people enter your park.  There is a steady stream of customers approaching your gates, and the ones who think it is too expensive turn around and leave.  No matter what price you set it at though, some people are always going to enter, even at $100 a head, and some are always going to leave, even when entry is free.  This is just begging out for some proper balancing, as are many other faults within the game.

But that’s enough picking out the shoddy corners of this game, so lets have a look at some of things it does well.  Firstly you have the likeably odd (don’t confuse this with oddly likeable) selection of music that accompanies you throughout your career.  Still a bit jungle style but pleasing nonetheless.

To add variety to the game, there are vast selection of the standard objects, buildings and animals to choose from, each having unique properties and values.  This makes playing more enjoyable and extends the lifespan considerably.  Rather than just one type of tree to suit your elephants for instance, you have a choice of trees, all of which having differing degrees of attractiveness to your park visitors, and hence cost accordingly.  And since you have so much variety, building your park is a lot more satisfying, allowing for highly creative and artistic potential park designs.

One point of particular note is the intuitive terrain editor that lets you terraform your park into weird and wonderful shapes with the greatest of ease.  A few seconds is all it will take to conjure up a towering clifftop path, a vast chasm, or multiple magnificent cataracts.  This not entirely for display either, as certain creatures need certain types of terrain to live in, so your parks can display a synergy of form and function.

A quick word before I finish though is to mention the woefully inadequate graphics.  The viewpoint you start with is not fantastically pretty in itself, but when you use the zoom function to get a closer look at your park, things will turn extremely blocky indeed.  Conversely, the zoomed out viewpoint will make things so small that you will barely be able to select anything.  In effect making both the additional views redundant.  There is the option to rotate the map in 90 degree increments which can be handy occasionally, but usually just serves to disorientate you.  Also, when there is a lot going on at once, things turn unbelievably chuggy, even on an XP2800+ with a Gig of DDR and a Geforce FX 5600.

Lets get this straight, Wildlife Park is the cousin of Zoo Tycoon, but with bad acne and knobbly knees.  Despite his unappealing appearance though, if you spend time with Wildlife Park you’ll discover that he’s not all that bad after all.  He has a sense of humour, and a charming personality, and although not all will like him, you might just find a true friend.

beach-king-stunt-racer

Beach King: Stunt Racer Review – 2003

What is the best way to a woman’s heart?  No, it’s not by weeks of wooing, forests of flowers and mountains of expensive chocolate, letting a loving relationship develop between you.  Oh no.  The real way to a woman’s heart (unless of course you are a female reader) is to get her seven diamonds and pull off heaps of stupidly dangerous car stunts in a desperate display of male bravado.  I mean, obviously.

Is it just me, or does that kind of woman sound beach-king-stunt-racerjust a wee bit shallow?  Nevertheless, that is the concept inscribed into the soul of Beach King Stunt Racer, and hence that is the only way you’ll progress within the game.  The objective of each and every level is to win the heart of the resident beach babe, and you’ll only achieve the philandering title of Beach King when you have all four of the game’s scantily-clad babes fawning at your feet.  That’s all very well for us blokes, who will indeed be the majority gender playing this game, but what about women?  How uninspiring it must be for them to ‘win the heart of a beach babe’ in every level.

The actual game itself is basically a cut-down iteration of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, albeit with a change of garb and a top hat.  Whereas in THPS you can perform endless multitudes of different tricks, BKSR only allows you movement in the air, such as spins and twists.  The closest you ever come to genuine tricks are when you have gained enough points for a super stunt, and at your request, your avatar will show off some bizarre and gravity-defying trick that is usually rather underwhelming, and since he performs it without any aid from yourself, it leaves you feeling a little distant from the action.

To start with you’ll find it a little tricky to get used to the fully directional capabilities of your machine while it is soaring about in mid-air, but you will soon find it relatively simple to pull off gigantic whirligig spins and land them intact.  But the main problem is, that is as difficult as it gets.  You have to hunt about for the diamonds a little initially, but the rest of the time you just speed up ramps and pull off a spin before landing and repeating a hundred times.  You will soon learn what sort of spins gain the most points though, so once you have found the highest scoring spin, there is little reason to do anything else.  This makes evident the game’s lack of depth and vision.

Beach King Stunt Racer feels rushed.  Aside from the severe limitations already discussed, there are further indications and cut corners pointing toward a shorter development time.  Take for instance the fact that to complete the game you need to play through every level four times.  Once with each male character.  Rather than having unique animation for each of the babes, they enact exactly the same movements.  Also, many of the various power-ups littered around the levels have exactly the same effect, but are given different guises to add a little superficial variety.

There is an almost cartoon feel to the game, most obviously recognised by the childishly colourful graphics, but also by the indestructible physics of everything, including your vehicle.  BKSR certainly isn’t a looker by the way, but it certainly manages to get away with it’s bright and cheesily cheerful landscapes.  There is never anything too spectacular scenery-wise, although the odd pirate ship and mountain-top temple provide fleeting interest.  It can be quite frustrating to traverse across the maps though, because the dodgy handling on your car makes tumbles down to the bottom of the level frequent, usually when you’ve spent five minutes trying to reach somewhere in the first place.

Other annoyances?  The way you can make a near-perfect landing from a jump, but won’t be granted the points for it because you apparently failed to land satisfactorily.  The music on the title screen that is approximately one minute long and is enjoyable until about the third loop, when it gets increasingly tiresome.  The graphical glitch in a babe’s hair that allows you to see straight through her head.  Total lack of any multiplayer support whatsoever.  Add in all the niggles already mentioned and you’ll see overall how poorly BKSR measures against a good quality title like THPS.

The problem is, there is nothing inherently bad about Beach King Stunt Racer, it just attempts so little, and has such narrow vision that it was never even meant to be great.  But to finish on a positive note, it manages to create an adequately enjoyable experience that is fun in small doses.  A tasty little morsel to pass the time until the next course arrives.

Sid Meier's SimGolf

Sid Meier’s SimGolf Review – 2003

FACT:  I hate golf.  I cannot stand either playing it or watching it on the goggle box, I really do detest the awful sport.  To broaden my gaming horizons I once tried Microsoft Golf Simulator, but an hour’s play on that deepened my loathing even further.  Driven by excessive boredom in a time of PC gaming starvation, I eventually forced myself to just check out Sid Meier’s SimGolf; if it wasn’t any good I would delete it again immediately was my reasoning.  Simgolf still remains on my PC, here’s how.

At heart the game is identical to any otheSid Meier's SimGolfr ‘Tycoon’ or ‘Theme’ game, your ultimate objective being to please the crowds that flock to your establishment.  The principles remain the same also, your popularity gaining by making your customers happy, or waning by displeasing them.  And of course, the happier your customers, the more people you attract and the more money rolls into your kitty.

To ensure that the golfing community visits and enjoys the courses that you build, you need to spice up your course in a variety of ways.  Firstly, of course, you have to construct a number of holes on your course, and how you set up the holes affects how the game turns out.  If the ball has to pass too near trees or water then the golfers may mishit and lose their ball in the depths of a pond or forest.  Also they won’t enjoy having to constantly hit balls out of sand-traps or rocks.  So having a good course layout is essential to prevent your visitors from becoming lugubrious.  To add further depth, your holes get judged by how good they are, and you can even win awards by creating extremely well laid out courses.

The next step is to add more to the surroundings to make your budding golfers enjoy themselves.  You have a host of buildings and scenery objects to brighten up your course.  Your golfers will soon be uttering phrases like ‘I am enjoying that scenic bridge’ or ‘This hole really tests my putting skills’.  Naturally these additions will lighten your purse a good deal, but you have to balance between cost and customer satisfaction.  More money spent initially could help you in the long run because golfers who enjoy your course will come back more often.  The clever twist here that I haven’t seen yet in any other management game is the individual opinions for each golfer.  Most will enjoy your scenery, but some won’t like it at all, and it will have an adverse affect on them.  To this end you really have to think about what you place on your course.

By the time you have built your golf course, you will have realised that the vast array of options to help you build your holes allow for some fantastic creations.  You place one hole on an island in the middle of the river for a really difficult shot, and watch all your visiting golfers get extremely annoyed as they constantly lose their balls.  You might also create curved greens surrounded by trees, making golfers curl the ball a little.  Or you could place an obstacle directly in front of a hole that calls for an extremely high shot for a hole-in-one.  For probably the hardest shot of the lot you can intersperse land and water near the hole, requiring the ball to bounce on the land and over the water in order to reach the hole.  Crafty!

To ensure that you don’t get bored too easily, SimGolf has a neat little trick up it’s sleeve; you can actually play any of the holes you create.  Don’t start thinking that this is Tiger Woods 2002 though, it is a very basic but somehow very enjoyable little sub-game.  It involves little skill on your part, and doesn’t have many options or indeed much depth.  But it is another welcome addition to SimGolf that extends it’s longevity and enjoyment just that little bit further.

Then you have the ambient sounds, the native wildlife, the chatter of golfers playing your course, the cutesy graphics and the large array of options to help turn a piece of grassy countryside into your own deluxe golf resort.  But despite all this, SimGolf doesn’t really leap ahead of the competition in any way.  OK, there aren’t any other golf management sims out there, but the body and bones of the game are just a regurgitation of the traditional formula, bar a few tweaks and innovations.  But this is a very relaxing and pleasant theme for a management game, not war, fighting or instant action, just the gentle coping of your own golf course in the wilds.  SimGolf isn’t going to satisfy the adrenaline junkies, but I really can’t think of a more peaceful and enjoyable game for a relaxing afternoon in the sunshine.

Don’t be put off by the golfing theme.  This is nothing like the real world tediousness of golf, but has a charm all of its own.  Nothing ground-breaking then, but good, wholesome fun and well worth your cash.  I still hate golf…..but I love Sid Meier’s SimGolf.

GTA Vice City

GTA: Vice City Review – 2003

How do you exceed ‘sublime’?  How do you advance on ‘outstanding’?  These were questions no doubt faced by Rockstar when they attempted the onerous task of creating a sequel to their ground-breaking and highly acclaimed GTA III.  Miraculously they have pulled it off, and have produced an indubitable chef-d’oeuvre that surpasses its predecessor with ease.

Welcome to Vice City, a veritable haven for GTA Vice Cityopulent hedonists.  Whether you choose to party all night long, sunbathe all day, or indulge your carnal desires with the dissolute denizens, Vice City is geared towards making life fun for it’s inhabitants and visitors.  Think Ibiza and you wouldn’t be too far wrong.  But hidden in the shadows, pulling the ropes behind the whole city lie avaricious drug barons, corrupt politicians and swarms of nihilistic gangsters fighting for various factions.

As savvy malefactor Tommy Vercetti, you decide to rule rather than be ruled, and attempt to establish yourself as a prominent figure in the Vice City underworld, eventually aiming to take over the whole city.  This is accomplished by completing the various missions that you are offered and also by acquiring revenue-generating properties to amass your wealth.  The opportunities are vast as you will discover when you buy such properties as Interglobal Films, and complete crazy tasks to make it more popular.  Or buy a taxi firm and try to put the competing taxi firms out of business.  Each property you buy will spark more mission-based activities, and usually unlocks a vehicle or two as well.

So what does Vice City do to gain the edge on GTA III, and are these changes sufficient to warrant a full standalone sequel?  First and foremost, the biggest improvement is an end to all the technical difficulties that plagued III.  No longer do you have to put up with juddery framerates and overall poor performance; instead, lusciously smooth graphics guide you silkily around, presenting the city to you in all its glory, without a twitch or blemish to be seen.  And this isn’t at the expense of graphical quality, for Vice City is a beaut.  To recognize this you just have to stand on the bridge in the evening and watch the sun setting magnificently on the horizon, above the gently rolling, shimmering water, plastering the city and surrounding environs in orange, pink and golden glowing rays.  It quite takes your breath away.

But onto the real meat of the game; vehicles.  There is now a much larger selection of cars available for your motoring delectation, none being real life models for copyright reasons, but it’s clear that many have obvious inspiration.  This makes driving more interesting and varied, as you rarely see more than two of the same model on-screen at any one time.  You can also drive boats, abstrusely controlled helicopters, planes that are actually flyable, army vehicles such as tanks, and best of all, a selection of motorbikes.

This is the first time bikes have been used since the original 2D GTA, and they enhance your motoring ecstasy infinitely.  There can be nothing to rival the thrill of speeding a bike down the motorway through incoming traffic, followed by a sweeping corner, sliding between pedestrians and narrowly avoiding lamp-posts before ascending a flight of steps at top speed and performing a death-defying leap onto the roof of an adjacent building.  The feeling of vulnerability on a bike, knowing that just one crash will injure or even kill you, only adds to the excitement.  Fantastic stuff, and a worthy addition.

GTA III fans will be delighted to know that there are loads more radio stations with a vast selection of music, all oozing 80s chic.  There are now two chat stations, KChat and VCPR, both just as loony and insane as the famous Chatterbox.  Poor Lazlo has been demoted to a music station, VRock, while two presenters with dodgy names host the afore-mentioned stations.  Some will also notice that Fernando Martinez, the pimp from GTA III now returns with his very own station, Emotion.  Plenty to keep you occupied as you engage in your shady and nihilistic activities across the city.

Finally, the biggest other departure of note from III is the already mentioned way in which you can purchase businesses and buildings to increase your bank balance.  It really gives you the feeling of being one of the bigger characters in the game, having power and influence, not just being a pawn for hundreds of missions given to you from above.  This also changes the whole style of the game slightly, shifting the focus to a capitalist aim, rather than following a linear story.

I feel that this change in focus as well as all the other points mentioned above, and numerous other subtle and delightful changes, are just enough to let Vice City scrape away as being a full-priced sequel rather than an expansion pack.  As usual though it is morally reprehensible and ratifies, even positively encourages wanton violence, bribery, theft and all manner of other illegal, nefarious deeds.  Therefore not suitable for children at all.

Vice City really is a work of genius.  It will provide endless hours of enjoyment and earns from me the accolade of being the first ever 10/10 mark I have ever given in my life.  It genuinely deserves praise for being innovative, beautiful, fun and exciting.  A masterpiece that Rockstar will have an great trouble in surpassing.

Colin McRae Rally 3

Colin McRae Rally 3 Review – 2003

Aeons ago, lost in the distant mists of yore, a humble tribesman whittled into shape something that we today know as the wheel.  Little could he comprehend the usage of such a simple instrument as being the founding father of all the extreme racing events that take place in this modern era.  The concept of attaching four wheels to a tree trunk and careering down a hill probably wasn’t highest on the priority list back then, but the joys of Formula One, dirtbike trials, 4×4 events, and not least rallying, now attract millions of eager fans.  Indeed, just imagine what life would be like without Colin McRae Rally to idle away those long weekends.

The legend that was the original CMR was a Colin McRae Rally 3storming success everywhere, and I must confess probably one of the reasons why my GCSE grades were not too fantastic.  CMR2 then came along and added better graphics and physics onto an already sublime foundation to emerge as the number one rallying title of all formats.  Now, CMR3 makes it’s belated arrival, stumbling into the PC limelight eventually after having already been released on those weedy PlayBoxes and X-Stations many moons ago.  If the trend continues, this third title should be a work of genius.  An all-accomplishing blend of fantasticality and georgeousity, revolutionising the racing genre and crushing the opposition with its streamlined big toe.  My hopes were sky-high, shadows of foreboding nowhere in sight as I gingerly stepped into the shoes of Colin McRae for a test drive.

You’ll have to excuse the frequent comparisons to CMR 1 and 2, but this is necessary in order to ascertain the improvements upon the existing titles in the series.

One of the first things you notice upon starting the game is that the great arcade mode featured in CMR2 has been dropped.  Arcade mode let you race up to 5 other AI cars or one human opponent physically on the track, making for a much more enjoyable way to have a small dose of Colin, and allowing for an entirely different experience than the usual solitary rallying.  CMR3 only has the options to play either a championship as Colin or to start a single stage for practice.  The championship route is extremely limited as it will only let you play as McRae himself, which unfortunately means that you can only drive a Ford Focus.  In this sudden leap to adhere to real-life situations (now ironically out of date anyway, as Colin has left Ford) CMR3 disregards the multitude of players who favour other cars such as the Mitsubushi Lancer Evo or the Subaru Impreza.  Further narrowing the options is the restriction to one-player championships, whereas CMR2 generously allowed two players to compete simultaneously.

As you progress through the championship, further changes will brought to your attention.  The 3D animated pit crews give a little more life to the service areas, and native race marshals will see you off at the beginning of every race.  Before you start the actual rally though, you have something called shakedown day, which lets you make as many adjustments as you like upon your car and excellently lets you try out your configuration on a short course, even presenting you with the performance of each setup on a graph for your perusal.  Damage is no longer repaired by yourself, but is done automatically at each service area, although it rarely manages to fix your car fully, even when your damage is negligible.  Winning rallies, or just getting a podium position will unlock further motoring goodies such as new car parts, or sometimes even new cars themselves.  This rewards good progress and gives incentive to perform well on each stage, also adding replay value for those who want to unlock all the available extras.

Single stage races are the only option that has multiplayer support.  The available tracks are gradually unlocked as you complete each stage in the championship, and are then available to practice at your leisure.  One of the improvements upon its predecessor is CMR3’s commendable addition of split-screen options for up to four players simultaneously.  Unfortunately the game is still insistent on staying true to rallying life, and won’t let you actually race against the other players on the same track, but just allows you all to compete on identical versions of it at the same time.  Playing against three mates is great fun though, allowing frantic competitions as you try to race well while jostling for a position around the monitor.

I tried all the major racing games as a youth; TOCA, various F1 games, Gran Turismo, Nascar, Destruction Derby, the Need for Speed series, the Test Drive series.  But out of all racing games Colin McRae was always my favourite, purely for the exquisitely honed handling.  Once you mastered the feel of your car and found out its limitations and capabilities you could manoeuvre it as though it were a third arm.  You felt entirely in control.  Codemasters have retained the same control system, but have severely increased the sensitivity of the steering.  Rather than giving you more precise control of your car though, this makes your driving a lot more inaccurate.  Just small taps on the controller can send you careering wildly from one side of the road to the other.  This can still be controlled with a fair bit of practice, but just lacks that perfect edge that gave such sublime driving confidence in the previous two titles.  You really need a steering wheel to make the most of CMR3’s handling, as the keyboard and gamepad are just a little too twitchy for enjoyment.

The environments you race in are now far more detailed and realistic than the comparatively constrictive tracks of the previous CMRs.  You are not so often confined by the impenetrable wall of trees or insurpassable fences, but are let loose to roam in more open areas.  This freedom comes at the price of automatic resetting as soon as you stray too far into the wilds.  The areas you zip through at high speeds are not only minutely detailed, but also frequently animated.  At one point for instance you will pass over a motorway.  Pausing on the bridge briefly and glancing at the road beneath you will reveal cars and lorries whizzing by in a constant stream; barely noticeable while racing.  Keep an eye out in Sweden for skidoo drivers racing around at the side of the roads.  Another time a helicopter will follow you around the course for a bit.  Peer into a farmyard as you drive past and notice a tractor parked there.  Take a look as you pass through a populated area and admire all those quaint houses and buildings lined up in streets just like a real town.  This loving attention to all the minutiae and incidental detail for just an ephemeral glimpse as you power past is quite fantastic, and adds a lot to the atmosphere.  The illusion of racing in real locations is much more tangible than before.

In a rather welcome move, indestructible marking tape and plastic fences that plagued the first two titles have now had physics coding applied to them, so they can be torn apart by your front bumper with ease.  Other objects that litter the roadside have also been given movable physics, so you will find that a high speed collision with an advertising board or a bale of hay won’t stop you dead, but the object will instead give way under pressure.  Bushes and trees once again abide by the same rule of thumb as before; big ones stop you, little ones don’t.

As usual, the main PC change from its console counterparts is the vastly improved graphics.  The nicest touches are the cars themselves, showing off all the latest clever visual wizardry such as reflection, refraction, radiosity etc, that mean a little less than nothing to most of us ignorant lay folk.  But the results are fantastic; a gaping difference from the heavily limited console versions.  Your shining bodywork and gleaming windows reflect the passing scenery, lighting and shadows with hitherto unsurpassed realism in a racing game.  All of your car is of course deformable and will crumble to pieces beautifully as you start to smash it up.  The trees too warrant a second glance.  Trees are renowned as being one the hardest things to digitally recreate in games, but CMR3 manages to achieve remarkable verisimilitude with one of the best tree efforts since Ghost Recon.  There are really no graphical letdowns or glitches throughout the entire game, everything is prim and proper, and very impressive.

There are still a few niggles that eat away at CMR3’s score though.  Firstly, the fact that there are only three viewing angles to race with.  My favoured view of having the camera further away from the car than usual has been abolished for no apparent reason, leaving only one outside view that I personally feel is too close behind the car.  Of course many people will be more than happy with the available views, but for the perfect racing experience racers need a view that suits them, or at least a dynamic option to adjust the view.  Another slight glitch is the tendency toward inconsistency.  Most tracks in a country for instance boast the exact same identikit replica advertising hoardings; but in one race they will be movable, in the next they will be as solid as rock.  This is clearly not intentional, but it is rather frustrating when you know what an object should do but doesn’t.  The final large criticism I have is the total absence of any control over your visual driving aids.  The rev counter, race positions, speedometer and all the other usual gubbins cluttering up the screen could all be turned off in CMR2 to allow you better vision of the track ahead.  Now though, the only option you can alter concerning these is to turn the corner warnings off, the rest is perpetually glued to your screen whether you like it or not.  This is compounded even further in split screen views as you can barely see the track half the time for all the instruments encircling your car.

Although most of this review has been focusing on negative areas of Colin McRae 3, these are mainly comparisons to it’s predecessors, and how it falls short in following their footsteps.  But despite this, CMR3 is a damn fine game in its own right and will afford any racing fan a satisfying experience.  Certainly recommended to all Colin fans, but if you haven’t tried any of the series yet go and buy the second one instead.

Neighbours From Hell

Neighbours From Hell Review – 2003

It can be very wearisome to slog through the latest generic shooter 17, or fight through some buggy WWII RTS for the purpose of reviewing.  So it comes as a great relief to play something fresh, something different that isn’t already on its umpteenth incarnation.  Neighbours From Hell is a truly innovative and new concept, placing you as the star of a reality TV show in which the aim is to wind up the grumpy inhabitant of a house as much as possible in order to please the watching audience.

To achieve this aim you are required to find and Neighbours From Hellmake use of a variety of props to ensnare and anger the irascible old gent.  For each level you have a minimum audience appreciation percentage to accomplish, which can be met by performing enough of the pre-set tricks.  These vary with each of the 20 odd levels.  In one instance you have to affix a balloon onto the end of the neighbour’s brass instrument, meaning that when he puffs on it the instrument rises out of his grasp then falls back down on his head.  Another time you get to place an putrid egg in the microwave, which he doesn’t appreciate at all, since microwaved eggs explode.  You even have the chance to add gunpowder to his pipe, the consequences of which are obvious, or add hair restorer to his bath  tub to really kill his chances of wooing Mrs Jones next door.

It is actually quite humorous to watch the narcissistic old fool engaging in his daily activities.  One level is set on his birthday, so he celebrates it with his best friend (himself) by pulling poppers, blowing out candles and checking the postbox every few minutes for any packages that might arrive.  Another time the proud old codger poses in front of the mirror in his favourite hats, and puts on his medals for his own admiration.  To be honest, he seems such a harmless old fellow going about his day-to-day life that I almost feel sorry for him after playing particularly mean tricks, like breaking his self-made statue or killing his much loved plant.

Unfortunately, the limitations of the game outweigh the mischievous possibilities.  Each item you find has only one possible purpose, which is usually blatantly obvious, even to children, i.e. banana skin goes on the floor.  Whenever you come across something that you don’t know what to do with, all you have to do is roll over the object with the mouse to display a description which usually contains a rather blunt hint.  The hint for a handful of soil reads something like ‘garden soil, looks just like coffee granules’.  Once you have discovered the pre-set purpose of each item you collect, all that remains is laying the trap while your lovely neighbour is not present.  This sometimes requires some basic choreography while you dash from room to room to avoid him, but is never really challenging.

Essentially, Neighbours From Hell doesn’t aim very high, simply attempting a change from the normal, but on a very small scale.  This is evinced by the fact that the same house is used throughout the entire game, with further seasons being opened that simply add rooms onto the house to make things a bit more difficult.  Each level takes between ten and twenty minutes to complete due to the game’s simplistic nature, making it probable that most buyers will complete it on the day of purchase.  But realistically, the setting doesn’t allow for limitless potential, there are only a finite number of things you can do within the game’s design.  This shortage of inspiration is highlighted by the way in which ideas are overused many ways in different guises.  For instance, the banana skin, soap, and marbles all serve exactly the same purpose, but are created in a desperate bid to add some thinly-veiled diversity to the gameplay.

Full marks to JoWood for attempting something new, even though it isn’t entirely successful, because it takes guts to try something different from the tried and tested formulas.  Games like this are truly refreshing to experience and show what is possible if developers and publishers are willing to experiment with new ideas and concepts.  Well done JoWood, keep up the good work.

With cute, cartoony graphics, fun sounds and a simple playing style, Neighbours From Hell is aimed more at a youthful market, but even so is bound to bring a certain amount of disappointment due to its short length.  As a full priced or even a moderately priced game you should avoid this title, but if you can get hold of it cheaply, don’t hesitate to give it a try.  Less of a game, more of a fleeting distraction, but certainly fun while it lasts, despite its heavy limitations.

Devastation

Devastation Review – 2003

It is some time in the not-too-distant future.  The world is in turmoil, a post-apocalyptic wasteland overrun by riot and destruction.  Evil capitalist corporations rule the world, using violence to quell any opposition they happen to meet.  You play the role of a courageous hero, determined to topple the yoke of these oppressive dictators with only a small band of skilled warriors, overcoming all odds in a last ditch effort to restore sanity and justice to the world.

Sound familiar?  This slightly vague formula could fit any Devastationnumber of PC games released in the last few years, including Devastation.  No extra points for originality in the storyline then.  The true test of a game’s quality when attempting such a hackneyed setting though, is whether it manages to stand above the opposition, excelling in one or more ways that make it a fresh experience for the player.  With due credit, Devastation accomplishes this with style.

Firstly, the environments that you get to shoot your way through are truly remarkable.  This is partially due to the stunning graphics granted by the new Unreal engine, rendering your surroundings in all their exquisitely detailed splendour.  All the fancy particle effects are in action, and the lighting is more than adequate.  But the main reason that makes the game environments so fantastic is the awesome amount of incidental detail crammed into every single level.  Forget the days of walking into an office to find just a computer and a chair; Devastation fills every room, every corridor, every street, every backyard, and literally every other location throughout the game with extraordinarily lavish attention to detail.

Take an indoor environment for example.  You walk into a standard office.  Folding office chairs are scattered around the banks of flat-screen computer monitors.  A metal cabinet stands against the wall, one door swinging loosely to reveal documents and bottles inside.  An alarm sits inconspicuously above the doorway while a security camera fixes its steely gaze upon you from up in the corner.  A metal shelf holds various bottles, boxes, books and other nondescript oddments.  A little table resides between two cabinets bearing a dirty, cracked microwave and a few flat, pizza-sized boxes.  A fragment of newspaper lies trodden into the carpet, advertising (for some daft reason) ‘baked cat’.  Small crates and boxes litter the floor alongside numerous empty cans, while a rat sniffs amongst the mess.  It is simply impossible to describe the immense level of detail that dominates every single part of the game.  This, coupled with the graphics, makes it a joy to explore the native milieux, and intensifies your immersion manyfold.

Big guns are of course essential too.  I don’t want to skip up to a band of ferocious enemies waving a peashooter that fires with a wet pop.  I want to storm in brandishing double uzis or a heavy machinegun, mowing down evil gangsters with the deafening rattle of meaty minigun.  Devastation doesn’t disappoint.  You start with just the one gun, but very quickly build up a deadly arsenal of polished firearms, ranging from medium pistols to huge, heavy-duty rifles that can flatten a crowd of mobsters within just a few seconds.  With the smaller guns you can hold two at once, doubling your firing rate, and the ubiquitous sniper rifle makes a welcome appearance, much to the glee of scope-eyed addicts.  Gun models and firing effects are also very impressive, making your fighting experience a very satisfying one.  Then you have the zoned damage model on enemies that allows for one-shot kills in vital areas of the body like the head.

Special mention must go to the Unreal engine’s physics and rag-doll features.  For the uninitiated, the rag-doll effect is the entirely natural way in which human bodies will deform when killed.  This means that someone killed at the top of a flight of stairs will tumble down in agonizing fashion, contorting into shapes that you never knew were possible until they come to rest at the bottom.  It is endlessly amusing to experiment with this, laying out your enemies across the scenery of the location into incredibly weird shapes and positions.  Movable physics are applied to virtually all objects with the game world, making a far more believable environment than the solid and unmovable objects that most other games are endowed with.

The only slight criticism I have of the physics is that they are all too light and airy-fairy.  Kick or throw a computer case and it will bounce and slide along the floor, rather than stopping dead with a mighty crash.  A heavy barrel will fall and roll at great speed with just the slightest of nudges from yourself.  This is but a niggle though, and doesn’t detract from your enjoyment too much.  You can also interact with these objects, most of which can be picked up to use as weapons, distractions, or traps.  Use a plank of 2×4 to batter an enemy with.  Throw a bottle to divert his attention.  Place a barricade of boxes to prevent access.  Place barrels near enemies and explode them with a shot from your gun.  Great stuff, the possibilities are endless.

As you progress through the game, you’ll gradually build up a team of characters that support you throughout the missions.  These can be invaluable at times as some have handy skills and all can be given individual orders from a basic selection.  When you are running low on health and ammo you can simply command them to attack while you tag along behind, out of harms way.  You’ll never experience that frustrating annoyance of having team members block you in or hinder your movements though, because they are very quick to move well out of you way when you approach.  Another nice touch is the way you can supply your team-mates with your own guns.  If they sport poor firepower, just press a button and you’ll supply them with the weapon you are currently holding.  Alternatively, if your own weaponry is pretty meagre, you can pilfer the weapons off any team-mate you like.

Probably the biggest let-down is the enemy artificial intelligence.  You’ll frequently walk almost right up to enemies without them spotting you, yet you can crouch and approach some enemies from behind who will instinctively discover your presence for no reason whatsoever.  Other bad guys will spot you, but will just run back and forth between two points for no apparent reason, giving off a strong semblance of a headless chicken.  Yet others will bend over double as though hiding behind wall, but in an open space.  Very rarely do enemies take the initiative and make use of their surroundings as cover, but rather pedal around in random fashion, eating all the lead you throw at them without protest.  Despite their extreme stupidity, it can still be enjoyable to fight them if you can overlook these glaring immersion-spoilers that rear their ugly heads frequently.

Ambient sounds are not particularly great, many areas being dominated by silence when a gun-fight is not in progress.  Weapon sounds are rather nice, giving off healthy bangs, shots and explosions, and the voice acting is acceptable without being particularly superb.  The oddest sound effect is played when your character jumps, and he gives a kind of high-pitched wheeze that seems entirely out of place.  To be honest, sound is rather basic on the whole, and doesn’t really stand out much.

A point in Devastation’s favour is the longevity of the game.  The actual single-player game is of a standard length (the box claims 25 hours, but the hardcore will do it in less than half that), but you also have two distinct styles and three difficulty levels to play it through in.  The two styles are Arcade and Simulation, Arcade providing a more fast-paced and action-packed adventure, while Simulation is more tactical and strategic, where weapons have a bearing on how fast you run, and you are more vulnerable to enemy fire.

You could quite easily play through both modes for a very different experience each time.  Further adding to the lifespan are four multiplayer modes: Deathmatch, Team-Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Territories.  Mostly basic fare, but the staple diet of any online gamer.  And if that weren’t enough, there is also an editor that allows you to build your own maps and mods.  This game should keep you going for some time.

I feel obliged to mention that the minimum specification is very optimistic.  My test system exceeds the recommended spec by a generous margin, but I still had to turn down a lot of options to achieve an acceptable framerate.  There are plenty of scalable options, both for the graphical side of things, and also for the physics and rag-doll effects.

Devastation is not a classic, but it makes a competent stand in the already crowded marketplace, and provides a very enjoyable experience while it lasts.  Don’t approach it with high expectations because it falls down in one or two areas and will disappoint, but just enjoy the ride and marvel at the things it does well.  All in all, I’m proud to add this to my collection of games.

Fallout 2

Fallout 2 Review – 2003

Aaerchkkkkkagrfft!!
That’s it, I’m done for.
Gagrrrphhhhrl!!

Excessive game playing has finally taken its toll upon this gaunt, trembling frame.  My fingers totter uncertainly over the keyboard; my eyes are shrunken and hollow, blurring my vision.  My back is screaming in taut agony, and my face is contorted with anguish as I experience perpetual visions of gaming memories past.  Alas, I am stricken with some unknown and mysterious malady due to this over-indulgence in the virtual haven of videogames.

Eeeeeckkaaccchhhxxxxx!!

This disease was caused mainly by the wretched Fallout 2addictiveness of Fallout 2; an RPG of some repute that has captured me within it’s heavy embrace for the last…., in fact I have no idea how long I have been playing it.  Days and nights have blurred into one huge transmogrification of jumbled thoughts and memories.  I am recovering slowly, but were it not for the fortunately located exit button I would be near death by now.

Prrrrphlynndrrl!!

Fallout 2 was released back in 1998, following the appearance of the original Fallout in 1997.  The tale is set in Northern California, and you play the role of The Chosen One who has been selected to undertake a dangerous quest.  Unlike the standard ‘save the world’ plot of many other games, Fallout 2 gives you the pleasingly daft task of finding GECK, otherwise known as the Garden of Eden Kit.  This will enable your home village to turn from a parched wasteland into a thriving and bountiful area once again, ensuring its survival.

Your character can be one of the three preset individuals with varying strengths and weaknesses, or you can create your own character from scratch, defining their abilities with a set number of skill points.  The skill system is deep and complicated, with an excess or lack in a certain area affecting other attributes, which can in turn affect others.  There are also traits you can give you character, which will have give you benefits in some ways but degrade you in others.  A fast metabolism for instance will make you more vulnerable to poison and radiation, but means you will heal quicker when resting.  This is a perfectly sufficient system, and ensures that you will always feel like you are controlling individuals rather than a batch of cloned characters with different faces.

As you pursue the main quest, you will be inundated with NPCs requesting your help for various reasons.  In total there are probably over 100 different sub-quests that you can engage upon to aid people, and in return you will receive better weapons, valuable items or sometimes cash.  These add variety to the game, and also add a lot of replay value, as certain quests will only become available to characters of certain skills.

You will also build up a merry band of wayfarers who will travel with you and aid you in your search for GECK.  These all have unique personalities and will liven up the quest no end.

Combat is a vital ingredient for any decent RPG, and it’s here that Fallout 2 makes its first blunder.  I’ve never really latched onto this turn-based idea, the notion that enemies should sedately take turns to thump the living daylights out each other, and patiently endure that assault without even the vaguest pretence of trying to defend themselves.  Turn-based combat can work if implemented properly, but unfortunately Fallout 2 allows for some frankly ludicrous tactics.  For each turn you have a set number of action points to do whatever you like with; attack someone, walk somewhere, access your inventory, etc.

Say your character has nine action points to spend.  With the first four he can slash at the enemy with a melee weapon, and then with his remaining five can walk away.  Any character with less action points than you can walk up to you, but then won’t have enough points left to attack.