Category: PC/MAC (Review)


Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 

Magic the Gathering is perhaps the most popular game of its type, and also one of the hardest to play. On the outside, it is a card game where you need to buy more to have more options. But looking deeper into it reveals a tactical nature. Building your own deck is billed as “half the fun”, and they’re not wrong. Some people have a great time when they have a sudden realisation of a killer combination. The introduction of the online version brought a horde of enclosed individuals together. Other interpretations have not had as much success. This is probably because of the limited card pool or odd variations used in order to sell the game to the mainstream. Xbox Live Arcade is the latest platform to wield the Magic the Gathering torch with Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. There is an old phrase used in the Victorian times. “Children should be seen and not heard”. This is exactly how to describe what is going on here. While the design is pretty basic yet appealing, the sound design leaves a lot to be desired. This seems to happen more when playing with the mono-black deck than any of the others, though sometimes you’ll have the spectacle of having a Venerable Monk groan like a Wookie. If the sound effects are bad, the music is worse. There is variety, over the same general theme though. The best way to describe it would be the theme from a Hollywood Epic crossed with the theme from a dodgy 1970’s blue movie.

What will happen this turn? (Answer: White player casts Holy Day. The ultimate way to say "Denied!"

The gameplay is thankfully faithful to the source material. Normally this is said for anything that resembles a remake, but this is definitely not that. It is the most accurate digitalisation of the trading card game that doesn’t involve having an online connection. Since this game came out just before the new core edition rules though, there are subtle differences to how you might know it. The cards in each deck are designed to be about as complicated as 2+2 and as accessible as an Amsterdam window dancer. A good thing too as this is evidently designed to teach people how to play Magic the Gathering. At the cost that it is going for as well, you’d be surprised at the amount of variations of gameplay. There is a pretty standard campaign and co-op mode. The latter being the two-headed giant variation of the game. You can take the fight online, and also take part in a bit of “mentoring”. A very helpful tutorial makes understanding how the game is played easy.

Perhaps the most interesting inclusion is the challenge mode. The basis of each of these is simple: Win this turn. The practice is far from it however, as more often than not the creatures the opponent controls far outnumber/outmatch those you control. Solutions are clearer once you see the weakness behind enemy lines. This is perhaps one of the most interesting features as it helps players think their way out of desperate situations. It is useful for the actual trading card game as well. The only issue is, there aren’t enough of them.

There are around seven decks to unlock, each consisting of one or more of the five colours. In each, there are a number of unlockable cards you can obtain as you win games. While it is free cards essentially, the amount of what is actually any good differs between decks. You are bound to get four of the life gain for playing a spell of your colour spells unlocked, but maybe only one or two decent game winners. Then there is the deck construction element to the game… Wizards, let’s get one thing clear. If you want to entice people into playing a game, enable them to experiment with the decks themselves. Don’t limit it to the cards players unlock during play. The amount of times I just wanted to get rid of the bats in the black deck is just amazing, but due to some programming fiasco you can’t remove them at all.

I don't care if you fly, you're not stopping me from killing your master!

The potential for downloadable content is there. Already there is talk of a few new decks being introduced, new planeswalkers and new cards. The good news is that also means new puzzles in the challenge mode, though how many there will be is undetermined. The range of downloadable content out now is slightly disappointing as it is purely of a cosmetic nature. If you aren’t happy with the look of the game table then what is currently out might suit you down to the ground. Otherwise, it’s best to stay tuned for more DLC.

Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers is perhaps the most accurate representation of the popular card game without being a direct version of it. The list of cards is limited, but provides enough to win games. While the majority of the modes are fairly standard, the inclusion of the challenge mode is one I vastly approve of. While the visual department deserves heaps of praise for making a simple looking yet vastly appealing game, the sound department deserves a very brisk slap across the face for giving an uninspired and baffling result. Overall it is a fair attempt at recreating the magic of an almost ten year old franchise to the digital array but a limited card pool and a peculiar voice leave it falling flat, like a spell that has been countered by a blue instant spell.

Expansion Pack 1

This comes in the form of two things: 1st a free pack allowing you to play against people who have the expansion but you don’t get the cards/modes. The second costs 400MS points, but grants you three new decks (including the Relics of Doom deck that Tezzeret wields), new cards for your older decks, a new campaign mode leading to a fight against the dragon planeswalker; Nicol Bolas, a new co-op campaign, extended puzzle mode and achievements. Whew! While it certainly is a cash in by creating new decks, the idea of new puzzles and the like is welcome. The new cards for the older decks certainly enhance the style of play rather than invade it. The idea of multi-turn challenges complete with bluffs is just brilliant and really taxes the mind. There are a few bugs at the time of writing with certain affects not working as well as they should. First Strike damage on online games can now freeze for an unknown reason. Overall though, probably the best priced DLC for what you actually get!

Expansion Pack 2

The setup is much the same as the first one, in that you get a few new decks including Nicol Bolas’ “Eons of Evil” deck from the last expansion, a new campaign for single player and co-op play with vampire Planeswalker Sorin Markov as the big bad guy; new challenges and achievements. There are two differences though. First, the game will ask you for a version update before playing as they’ve overhauled the system to make it more efficient. So gone are the forced AI “thinking”, life gain happening once and general effects that could waste game time. The second is that wording and rulings have also changed to work more like the changes introduced with the Magic Core Set 2010, making it far less confusing than it already is. The only snag with all of this is that loading times have increased dramatically. Still, most some of the  bugs have been taken care of, but like a game of whack-a-mole; you hit one problem and another one appears. Now you need to worry about “assigning damage to multiple creatures” and playing the first expansion co-operatively and being able to progress. Perhaps this is something they will sort out at some point when they release the NEXT expansion. On top of new achievements, there are also a couple of Avatar unlocks including the really sweet “Magic Cards” prop. This also costs 400MS Points, and has a free multiplayer only version for cheapskates.

Expansion Pack 3

Okay, you know roughly what you are getting now, roughly speaking. New decks, new challenges and a new end-game boss whose deck you cannot unlock. If you liked Sorin Markov’s deck in the last expansion, the vampires can now be controlled by you. There are also two other decks, the first is a mono-white Soldier deck that can fish out and equip creatures with some effective weapons whilst being pretty good defensively. The Red/Blue deck however is the true star as it is seriously burn and counter spell heavy. The synergy here is ridiculous because some creatures get bigger or un-tap if you play certain spells. The challenges are incredibly devious in execution and take more thought to completely solve properly. They also make you worry more about timing this time around. There are a couple of new things. Firstly you can now buy keys to unlock either the full deck or the Premium Foil version of it. This is a bit of a rip-off to be honest, but the matchmaking feature of being able to switch on and off certain dlc decks is fairly handy if you don’t have all the packs. New achievements are a little too easy. One of them can be triggered by having your opponent sacrifice their solitary land. Once again, this only costs 400MS points (or the equivalent in other digital currency) and there is the free version that enables you to play against people with these decks.

All three DLC are available for all formats.

Fallout: New Vegas (Xbox 360) PAL Fallout: New Vegas (PS3) PAL Fallout: New Vegas (PC) PAL

Format Reviewed: Xbox 360

What is it really like living in a world where everything went wrong very quickly? It is a question that has lingered since the near calamity that is the Cuban Missile Crisis. If the nukes went off, would we be completely annihilated or would humanity live on somehow? The Fallout series has always gone with the semi-futuristic version of the latter option of humanity living on in vaults or even a tribe. But never have we seen it from the point of view of someone who isn’t immediately connected to the Vault program and indeed Vault Tech. Enter Fallout: New Vegas, where apparently not only are you a courier who didn’t come from a vault, but you are also in the only location in America that wasn’t heavily touched by the nuclear bombs. But is New Vegas really a paradise amongst ruin, or does the corruption that lays within leave a sour stench in the air?

As mentioned before, you are a courier in the Mojave Wasteland. Your last package however was either some kind of set-up or an unfortunate sequence of events. Things got so bad, somebody shot you in the head. You awake to find yourself alive and seeking answers. So far, not a lot that is interesting. Then you look at where you are. New Vegas is a warzone in a vast desert, with the NCR (New Californian Republic) and “Legion” at arms. Oddly, it seems there is a similarity with Fallout 3 about the fact it is a war about resource. Last time it was water that wasn’t radiated. This time though it is about who controls Hoover Dam, and the essential electricity it provides. But don’t let that fool you into a false sense of security in that you aren’t going to get involved, because you are. What’s nice is that every other faction out there searching for scraps is part of the overall plot and the words and actions you take matter to the overall outcome. Replay value is assured here.

For those who felt that Fallout 3 was way too easy, even if you Forrest Gump’ed (Put your Intelligence stat to 1) your way across the Capital Wasteland, you’ll be pleased to know that this is a lot harder. This is due to the fact that armour has more of an impact this time around, with certain weapon types being hardly effective against certain protection. In the Mojave, it isn’t just Deathclaws that can kill you with ease. Swarms of bugs that resemble giant wasps will come in very quickly and poison you to death with their large stingers. Primarily though it is the humans that are packing the armour, with a few animal based exceptions, and those that do take a lot longer to drop. The catch here is that there are armour piercing bullets at your disposal, and they rip through their protection for slightly reduced damage. Switching ammunition is a little cumbersome, but you also gain ballistic ammo which causes slightly more damage against anything unprotected and nothing to those with armour. Of course, VATS is there to help out in battles but the actual normal aiming has been significantly improved with a focus aim option, ala Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. That said, some bullets that are perfectly aimed might still veer off course. Nothing is more satisfying than an instant stealth kill however, and that is more likely now than it was two years ago.

falloutnewvegas1

The other improvement to combat itself is the modifications you can equip to certain weapons. This allows for scopes, suppressors, extended magazines, you name it! So far there hasn’t been a limit to how many modifications one can make to a particular weapon. So instead of a typical laser rifle, you could theoretically now have one that spreads on impact and infects the enemy with the bubonic plague…with a scope. Of course it isn’t as elaborate as this, and there are limitations, but the impact of these options on combat means that you’re constantly looking for new ways to kill the mutants. There are several classes of weapons and some fall under fairly odd but understandable classifications. The Grenade Launcher for example is part of the Explosives family. The reason this is all important is because there is greater emphasis on the Skills table this time around, including more options via dialogue for specific areas of expertise. This makes it a fairly methodical, yet intriguing game to experience no matter how you go about it.

As morality meters go, Fallout 3 had a fairly rudimentary one. You do bad things; you become a harbinger of despair. You do good things; you become a paragon of justice. Both came with perks and consequences. It’s not quite as simple as yin and yang in Fallout: New Vegas. Yes, good and bad things have consequences, but morality is of hardly any importance in the Mojave Wasteland. Instead, people judge you on how you handle situations they put you in. They will obviously look highly upon you if you treated them with respect, but with hatred if you decided to kill several of their gang with no explanation. It’s a cool system, with lots of ways to get around it to make everyone happy if you want to. But there comes a time during the course of the game when you undoubtedly annoy a faction. This will spawn a random event every now and again when members of said faction come to destroy you/fine you. If for example it is Legion, there are eight of them, they want blood, and you’re just in a chequered suit; it is time to say the last rites. Unless you can trigger another random event quickly, this event will occur ad-nauseam. On the flip side if you really please a faction and enter their territory, they will bestow you with gifts. Overall it is a lot more in depth of a system but the events aren’t as random as one would hope.

Fallout: New Vegas is however a bit under the weather, suffering from some major bug issue. While Fallout 3 had some tracking issues, the bugs here range from the miss-loading areas to random crashes. Some of the glitches are downright ridiculous. I’ve seen the very first person you meet have his head spin and hovering in a sitting position. I’ve seen Old Lady Gibson in a sitting position, randomly murdered outside the Helios One power facility by two random mole rats and the dog she put down to salvage the brain, which then together with the remaining dogs turned on me. I’ve even seen the cowboy Securitron turn into a Guard Securitron straight after speaking to it. These are far less common than the “crash on the load screen glitch”, which is neither funny nor interesting, just infuriating. None of these bugs really break the game fully, unless you happen to decide to save during the glitch and not before. Besides, that’s what patches are for. Boy does this game need one of those soon!

falloutnewvegas2

If you thought the options in Fallout 3 were a bit Spartan, then you also be pleased as punch to know that the Mojave Wasteland has more than a host of stuff to distract you from one of the many end-game options. Certain quests are unavailable depending on which factions you annoy the most. For example, saving the town of Goodsprings will provoke the wrath of the Powder Gangers. Really though there is no rush in what you do and don’t do. Everything can be taken at your own pace. As for other diversions, some come in the form of challenging strangers to a game of Caravan; a game involving normal playing cards that is so complex that a read through of the instructions isn’t enough to get you through, or some classic gambling in New Vegas such as slot machines, roulette and Blackjack. These games tend to use your Luck stat a lot to determine how lucky you are and how much cash you’ll accumulate by sheer perseverance. If you aren’t the gambling type however the options are limited to the side-quests, which isn’t as bad as it might seem. For the sadists out there, there is “Hardcore mode”, which adds an H20, Food and Exhaustion meter into the experience. While it may seem like someone at Obsidian has been playing a Sims game too much, the mechanic adds an interesting challenge to the whole experience that has not been covered in any other RPG in recent years. If you liked old 80’s RPGs, consider this a throwback.

One thing that has seemingly not changed in the two years since the Capital Wasteland is the visual style. Sandy in most places with barren locales that have most of the times seen better days. There are some exceptions to this though, as one of the few Vaults is overgrown with plants and another is populated by hotel guests. The scope is massive and the immersion is mostly absorbing. The few moments when it isn’t as immersive as one might want are when the game asks if your choices at the beginning are okay, or when you’re reloading the same area for the umpteenth time due to unfair dismissal. But really, these are minor quips with a beautifully crafted if slightly buggy world. The soundtrack on the radio is stellar to say the least, with Mr New Vegas helming the main station and actively trying to seduce your ears. It gets annoying after a while, but not as annoying as hearing “Johnny Guitar” for the millionth time or someone singing about getting mad about a boy. Turning the radio off is not recommended however as some songs such as “Big Iron” by Marty Robins and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” by Dean Martin are just cool even in the 21st century. As for the non-playable characters, they still look at you as if you’re about to steal their change (which isn’t accurate in my case, I just steal their stuff!), but at least they move around and change emotion after a while. The voice acting is brilliantly executed, with some half-famous people chipping in for a change. Kudos to Felicia Day however; I knew the girl could act on camera thanks to “The Guild” but she should really branch out everywhere. Her character is both amusing to converse with and an interesting history behind her provides Felicia with a persona to undertake of its own. She nails it. The rest of the cast are competent though, so her standing out is all the more remarkable.

Fallout: New Vegas poses a question. Can you enjoy a game that has so much going for it, with excellent presentation, more features than a brand new spangled Mercedes S-Class with diamond encrusted steering wheel and adamantium hub-caps; if the thing breaks down every five minutes? My answer prior to playing this would have been “no”. If a game hasn’t been properly tested, then the developers did a shoddy job. My answer after playing this is a resounding “yes” however, because with a game of this scope it was inevitable they’d miss a few things. It is sad that they couldn’t have ironed out the freezes before release and it does affect my opinion of their best work to date. The upgrades were necessary to improve the experience, and the immersion is a little more focused when the game allows for it to be. The only thing you might experience is intimidation due to the sheer scale of it all, together with some occasionally unforgiving difficulty spikes. Fallout: New Vegas is a phenomenal feat, but one hoped the nuclear winter would have at least taken out the bugs.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge (PAL) PC   Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck's Revenge (Artistic mock-up of a cover)

Back in the early 1990s, an old genre was receiving a bit of a facelift. Adventure games of old allowed for simple puzzles and dialogue situations that depending on choices made by the player either resulted in triumph or a grizzly demise. The exploits of Roger Wilco in the Space Quest series signifies the throwback to the bygone era. As royalty to the adventure genre, Sierra’s time on the throne was short-lived when an usurper to the throne; namely Lucasarts, released a barrage of adventure games exploiting their own properties from the directorial chair of Mr Lucas himself, together with some brand new ones. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Monkey Island series, tales of Guybrush Threepwood (mighty pirate), and his struggles against the ghost/zombie pirate LeChuck. These games created iconic game writers such as Ron Gilbert, and the daring Tim Schafer. Before even some of the most mind boggling movie twists of the film industry ever created had been thought of, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge brought probably the most ridiculous u-turn in gaming history. It’s all well and good having a decent game, but when a twist such as this is still talked about for years since its creation and even after the sequel explained everything, it is a remarkable feat. With the recent emergence of Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck’s Revenge, it is time to look at this old classic in a new light. What made this great back in the day, and does the game still hold up now, twist and all?

Not too long after the events of The Secret of Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood is sitting on a beach telling the tale of his triumph against the ghost pirate LeChuck…again. So much so it is boring the unfortunate audience. Conversation turns to why he is there. When he mentions that he is searching for Big Whoop, a mystical treasure of untold fortune; the pirates inform him that there is no treasure on the island, something he already knows. Attempts to get off the island only serve to be futile as a thug named Largo LeGrande has an embargo on the entire island’s shores. I might as well spoil the conclusion of the first act as it’s pretty much implied within the title, but LeChuck somehow gets resurrected (due to Guybrush’s incompetence) and he plans his revenge on the mortal that poured root beer on him. To say that this Lucasarts game is a barrel of laughs is an understatement. It’s downright hilarious. The writing is just so good that even those who only usually smile when amused at a video game will have a giggle. The star is obviously Guybrush, as different choices in text will range from the downright stupid, to clever set-up for other characters. LeChuck also has come a long way from his ethereal self as even he has some dialogue that is witty and sarcastic, making him a somewhat lovable zombie pirate. Just don’t get too close. He reeks a bit.

Walking off the plank may cause harmful effects, such as seeing your arch nemesis, or your dead parents.

Guybrush has a nasty habit of getting himself into dire circumstances. With this in mind, searching for Big Whoop can range from the borderline annoying to flat out amusing. A rather non-spoiling example is when Guybrush is in Phatt Island and is in need of a fishing line. The fisherman makes a bet with him that he could catch a bigger fish. So what better way to win than to cheat? Going to Booty Island and to the governor’s mansion to steal a fish from the kitchen; then presenting the fish (after a bit of impromptu acting) to said fisherman to get the rod. It’s moments like this that make the game a joy to play. So most of the game takes place in the second act, with the third and fourth being tiny in comparison, but this is not a particularly bad thing. In most adventure games, there are moments where something that would blatantly make sense is not the solution and something nonsensical will be the ticket towards that elusive map piece. This however rarely is the case with Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge as the solutions themselves help as part of the gag. Want to buy a mirror but the parrot won’t let you? Easy; buy the sign next to the bird to expose the nail, and then hang a bag of bird seed on it. The parrot will mistake it for the mirror and divert the attention, allowing you to buy the mirror. It’s genius and there are more where that came from.

Now we get onto the remake stuff. As you’re more than likely aware, Guybrush is a little more mature now than he was when he “wanted to be a mighty pirate”. To show this, his new character design in the upgraded visuals reflects this. It’s great that he looks like a proper human being, rather than a person receding before his time. Zombie Pirate LeChuck also has a new found swagger that is so authentic that it is creepy. While it is impossible to ask the rigid movement be erased completely, Lucasarts have made animations a little sleeker. But the real visual treat is the backgrounds. My god they are masterpieces! Iconic locations such as the swamp and the big tree on Booty Island so artistically rendered that I actually wished I bought the PC version to print screen it. I’m not joking; they’re definitely something you’d want as a desktop background! Of course you can always go back to the admittedly decent 16-bit renderings if you want that 90s adventure game feel, but it’s nice to know they cared enough to make the new art as stunning as the first time around, but in a new age.

Another reason to own the PC version over the Xbox360 version is the controls. As a point and click adventure, the way it works is just to…well, point and click! Making it so Guybrush moves with the analogue stick on the Xbox360 version is good, but there are areas on Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck’s Revenge that just don’t work when you are able to move the character. I hate using the swamp as an example, but it’s where a lot of the impressions were made. While I was looking in awe at the massive skull head, I realised I wasn’t actually moving, even though I was holding the stick to the right. Being able to move him with the stick also makes it weird trying to do the few “quick reflex puzzles”, mainly because the game doesn’t take into account the time it takes to do those puzzles with the controls. Perhaps the limitations of the console finally get to the adventure genre, but there is a catch. You can technically still use the old move method by switching back and forth between modes. What would be better though is if you didn’t have to switch. Better yet, have the option to do both!

Despite being in glorious HD and a work of art, having all your hard earned plunderings swiped by a green trousered shorty is still emotionally painful.

Also brand new are some especially remixed tracks for the new version. While the old tunes were great for their time, the new ones are especially classy. Just goes to show how 20 years can pay a huge amount of homage. Then there’s the other homage, give it a voice track. Remember the awesome voice actors from The Curse of Monkey Island? No? Remember the awesome voice actors from The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition? Well, they’re the same, and yes, they’re in this too. Each line is delivered with such class that it’s almost as if they were in it from the initial release. If that’s not good enough, Lucasarts even listened to fan feedback from the first game remake and have now given the option to enable voices in the classic mode. Talk about service! You can’t even get that from Lucasarts Tech Support (in-game one, not actual Tech Support).

So are there any extras for your trouble? Well, in all honesty, not a heck of a lot! You do however get a rather riveting director’s commentary which has several prompts for the press of the RB button (Xbox 360) or A (PC). These rarely distract from the actual scene as you’ll most likely be using it for a subsequent playthrough, rather than your virgin voyage into the Caribbean shores. The three most influential men of the game have provided a great bunch of facts about the creation of the game and it has made me more aware of the technical power behind certain locations. For example, did you know they used a dedicated sound engine for certain locations of the game? The idea behind it was to change the music style as you change locations, but not lose the place of the music itself. The most obvious example of this is Scabb Island’s main town, but another less obvious example is the Swamp on Scabb Island. It also establishes Gilbert, Grossman and Schafer as the funniest director commentary I’ve ever come across. (The moment where Schafer realises after around 15 years he stole the intro sequence from Full Throttle from the bar scene in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge is magic!)

Needless to say, if you played the original Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge; then you’ve probably already picked up the remake. If you liked the first game’s remake, then the second is an obvious purchase. As far as a standalone experience goes, it is one of the funniest games ever devised. The puzzle solutions force you to think outside the monkey’s head, while the writing is witty and clever in only a way that intellectuals could write for just about anyone to get. It doesn’t rely on culture for its jokes, real world or in-game. Just about anyone could establish why the argument about “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck?” is silly but a mark of brilliance. The new 21st century polish helps make an artistic stand, but the most appealing inclusion is the ability to turn the original game into a “talkie” adventure game from the 90s. There’s something particularly rebellious about that action and I’m glad that Lucasarts decided to give you the ability to do so. If you don’t particularly want a long experience, then the hint system helps somewhat with the more irritating puzzles, while those whose observation skills leave a lot to be desired will appreciate the “item highlighting” button. As for what is next for the series, an HD touching up of The Curse of Monkey Island wouldn’t hurt too much, but the doomed Escape from Monkey Island might be a push too far. Going to other adventure game properties won’t hurt though.

Dragon Age: Origins (PC) PAL Dragon Age: Origins (PS3) PAL Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360) PAL

Version Reviewed: PC Version

While they are now owned by EA and part of the biggest software conglomerate corporation since Microsoft, Bioware are a company with heritage. Long before being controversial with showing a little cheek in Mass Effect or performing a little necromancy on a certain blue hedgehog, they made a little fantasy game. This has gained a following due to the fact that it was a very well made one that showed that a mature, non-Japanese influenced RPG could still make it. While ventures into the genre of the fantasy epic did indeed follow, Neverwinter Nights was Bioware’s last involvement to date, instead favouring Chinese history, the space age, and little azure rodents. Things do come full circle though, as Dragon Age: Origins bills itself as a dark fantasy epic. While it is certainly of the fantasy genre and epic in the scale that only a Bioware RPG can be, there is nothing significant about calling it “dark”. Even the father of fantasy; Tolkien wrote a very dark tale about a hobbit who needed to make a special delivery to an active volcano. Perhaps the shire wasn’t all that dark, but it did get that way when they came back. So while it fails to stand out as particularly dark, does it at least give us the fantasy epic we’ve been longing for since Baldur’s Gate?

A brief history of the realm of Ferelden shows that being sinful has more downsides than losing your whereabouts in a dark alley. Some mages who forsake their God were cursed and deemed “Darkspawn”. They corrupt all life under their feet and kill everything they touch. Being a little bit bitter about the whole ordeal, they seek to bring the world into ruin in what people speak of as the “blight”. Grey Wardens, warriors who actively seek out and put an end to their sinful ways managed to drive off the last blight. If you’re wondering why it is called Dragon Age: Origins, then it is because of the fact that each class and race has their own “origin story”. Essentially it means that every character has their own beginning rather than the same one tacked on to each race, and also it means that how a “Commoner Elf” will behave in front of a human is very different to the other kinds of elves. There are also more subtle differences in terms of dialogue/dialogue choices which make races feel more unique to play as. This is a fairly important step into making this one of the most immersive experiences around.

Options in dialogue are a plenty. Some are merely questions while others are how others perceive you in the end.

The lore behind the world also makes for interesting scenarios. Humans act much as they do in fantasy tales, but their relationship with species Even in the human society however there are prejudices in that those who know certain magic will get put in the slammer, while others are considered a legal and necessary tool. Different groups such as the Circle of Magi and the Templars have different outlooks on not just the maker, but their stance in the world. These kinds of thoughts will have a direct consequence depending on what action you take when talking to people. Things get really interesting when you use conversation with party members to boost their confidence in you. As they grow more used to you, they also become more powerful thanks to special perks they obtain. Some however will love you quite quickly and others take a lot more convincing, so gifts are a good idea.

If one is familiar with the concepts behind Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, then this won’t be unfamiliar to those with the PC version. If you have only played Mass Effect on say, an Xbox 360, think of it as that but without guns and pausing all the time. While this could be an annoyance, try to see it as a method of tactically thinking of how you could survive every onslaught. As for classes, there are variations on the core three that enable characters to have unique abilities. This is mostly governed by the different skill sets, as mages can opt to run aggressive or restorative magic for example. Others are depicted by specialities that include a lot of flavour. These seem to have an impact on plot as well as gameplay, since being a Blood Mage will attract the attention of the Templars, because that is forbidden magic. A character can learn two specialities over time, either from tomes or each other; depending on how nice you are to them.

The countries of Dragon Age: Origins each have a distinct look and feel. Ferelden’s dark and dreary horizons are worlds apart from Dalish controlled forest or the bronze underground Orzammar. While not technically impressive as it is graphically ancient, everything works well. It’s not going to give processors a hard time, but the environments are varied and vibrant enough to keep one enthralled on adventure. The same can be said for the characters. Player created ones can be hit or miss depending on how detailed they wish for their race to look. Those fashioned by Bioware look as they probably should. The old look noticeably wrinkled, while the young are baby faced. Personality is also determined by how a character looks as the more menacing they look, the worse they probably are. A little stereotypical perhaps, but then again the Darkspawn don’t exactly look the type to invite you in for a cup of tea.

There is a certain element of style when killing things here. Some freeze to a chill. Others are simply lept upon and stabbed ferociously in the eyes, like the poor big sap on the left.

As should be the case with an RPG, it is going to last more than a few hours. In my case, I think I’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of what is going on, but have been playing for over ten hours. There have been other occasions where this has happened, but none have kept my interest after this mark. Here, I only want to know more. Beating the game would feel like a rich accomplishment and the end of an epic journey. Most games just make it seem like I’ve come out of a film screening. It’s not the same, and I’m glad for it. It has probably been in development for a number of years, but Dragon Age: Origins certainly establishes the same type of pedigree that Baldur’s Gate once established in the previous decade.

The final year of the 00’s hasn’t been a kind one for the RPG genre. Those that have been released and saw critical acclaim were few and far between, and we’ve seen more first person shooters than in the entire decade alone in one single year. This does not seem to deter Dragon Age: Origins. It stands proudly on the rock and rallies those who believe quality and length over simply shooting things repeatedly while having your hand held the whole time, is the way forward in a gaming industry. It certainly is a value for money as the quest is long, the worlds are vibrant and the challenge is very real. The legacy of Bioware fantasy RPGs has been rekindled single handedly by what seems to me; their most complete game for years.

Console Specific:

  • PC has the best visuals, controls, camera and the linkage with the EA servers for DLC and the like is remarkable. Even with Steam piggybacking onto it!
  • Xbox 360 has duller visuals than PC, different controls and a lack of the useful Baldur’s Gate camera angle. The only reason you’d want this version over the PC version is for Gamerscore.
  • PS3 has duller visuals than PC, different controls and a lack of the useful Baldur’s Gate camera angle. The only reason you’d want this version over the PC version is for Trophies.

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Version reviewed: PC

When Left 4 Dead entered the world, it brought with it the most addictive co-operative experience a shooter has ever given players. Instead of just having them kill each other, players are forced to work together to either survive or bring down the human side. The result was a highly praised multiplayer experience that generated an online community that would make anybody proud. When the sequel was announced, they were up in arms saying that support for the first won’t be kept up. Knowing Valve’s commitment to pleasing its audience, it has stated that they will endeavour to create new content for the old one even after the sequel is released. With that promise, we now look to Left 4 Dead 2 to see what has changed and whether or not it changes everything.

This time, you are four very different miscreants with a very South US twist. You have Coach, the big fat guy; Nick, the lounge-lizard; Rochelle, and the blatant Def Leppard fan. Then there is Ellis. For lack of a better terminology, he is what Louis was for the first game: The one person who will cause everything to go wrong for you. He will set off Witches, not save you while your guts are being gouged out and most annoyingly; shoot alarmed cars. The added individuality of the characters is welcomed, but I wouldn’t say there is any more of a narrative than there was in Left 4 Dead. You could sum the entire plot in a sentence. “Four people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse”. Then again, this is supposed to be a game about fun so to expect a coherent plot would be like expecting tabloids to not cover celebrity scandals.

While the aim and structure of each campaign hasn’t really changed, there are subtle individual challenges in amongst the levels. This in turn gives them a more fluid transition compared to the now seemingly bland levels in last year’s game. Instead of moments of surviving a horde onslaught in the middle of almost every level, there are moments where you need to run from point A to point B and kill every zombie that gets in your way. There are also a couple of finales that change the typical structure so dramatically that there is a real sense of danger once more. For those who like rock, there is even a finale that takes place in the grounds of a fictional band’s last gig venue. The environments are as good, if not better than those in the first. Left 4 Dead 2 takes you through the more outlandish zombie hideouts, such as the mall and circus. One even takes place in a swamp, adding even more gloom to the precarious situation. All look fantastic, as do each of the new characters, and zombies.

The new melee weaponry really does lay on the blood.

Old favourites return for another bash of human slaughter and largely play and look the same. Boomers though now come in two different genders just to confuse the survivor players. Witches also can now walk, as if they were blessed with the ability to stalk corridors by some divine miracle. Still, if only they had also gotten round to figuring out what made them so depressed in the first place. Since this is the sequel though, the need for new mutations. The first is the Charger, who if looked at with more detail looks like what happens when a dirty old pervert discovers the internet. Simple aim with this one is to run at the survivors, pick one up and start pummelling him to the ground repeatedly. They’re not as tough as Tanks, but their durability is welcome. Spitters, who look like they should be on the Jeremy Kyle show, are hideously grotesque. They do have a nasty habit of spitting corrosive acid, thus pinning the survivors in confined spaces. Lastly there is the Jockey, who really does look like a little old man. Their purpose is to being piggyback riding the survivors and leading them to more danger, or a really secluded space for them to bash their heads in peace. The balance between all three new classes is mostly fair, though Jockeys die a little too easily. Also new are uncommon Infected. These range from construction works to clowns. Each has a unique trait that usually means their either more difficult to kill or bring new dangers with them.

With all these new threats comes a new arsenal for the survivors. The old weapons remain, but new variations on those types grant more tactical choice. Some have more ammunition than their counterparts, but longer reload times. Others fire in short bursts rather than single/multiple shots. It also seems that someone has been harvesting Boomer bile, as the new grenade weapon is essentially that. Throwing this will cause a horde to appear and chase the victim. One that at this moment of time seems fairly useless is the defibrillator. This is because the purpose is to revive dead party members, which in versus mode seems pointless. If one is dead, the rest are sure to follow. What will probably excite you as much as it did me is the ammunition packs. These contain incendiary or explosive ammunition for which when deployed grants a full clip for the current primary weapon. But the thing you probably wish to hear about is whether or not melee weapons take the fun out of the experience. Thankfully, they do not, as when you are completely surrounded by a horde a nice big axe is what is needed, especially if a Spitter is nearby.

 

Spare a thought for the Jockey. It only wants a hug in a secluded place... 

You have a few options as to how to play out this zombie apocalypse. Campaign modes that are online can be done with the same options as before, or the all new “Realism” mode. Here, it isn’t as obvious when your teammates are in trouble and the infected take a lot more hits than before. This is therefore a true test as to whether or not you would theoretically survive, and is not for the faint hearted. Versus and Survival modes return and are largely the same as before, albeit the melee weapons do make swarms easier to deal with. Scavenger mode however is completely new. Split into two teams of four, you must compete against each other to get cans/stop the enemy getting cans. Since this is score based and time limited, it has a very arcade feel to it and can get quite addictive. It should also be pointed out that some significant upgrades to the existing technology have been implemented whilst using hardly any more memory. When a zombie is shot, limbs will fly off. When a Boomer explodes, nearby tables and chairs could fly around. As for the AI Director, he is now at version 2.0. This means he not only can control the weather but also place certain obstacles in your way, therefore changing your route. While this isn’t immediately obvious, try running through the graveyard sequence multiple times and it should become clear. All of these improvements nullify the tactics formed from Left 4 Dead.

The only main drawbacks come from every online shooter ever made. The option to kick players out of the team can be abused to an extent when it borders on the sadistic. Perhaps this is something that can be dealt with via a crash course in online etiquette, but knowing the people who would frequent these play areas, that isn’t going to change. There have been instances where people have booted me out without giving me an explanation as to why. As far as I was aware, I was actually doing the most in that particular game of Scavenger. Then there are those who when it all goes to pot for them, quit. It not only puts your teammates at a disadvantage, but also affects the enjoyment for those on the opposite team. So you might lose on occasion. If it is due to bug issues then that is a reason to quit in order to not put the rest of the team at risk. If it is just because you’re having a bad spell, it’ll get better. The new host of achievements grant new challenges, such as escorting an object from one part to another.

It is safe to say that Left 4 Dead 2 is not only a significant improvement on the first, but also a more varied experience altogether, consequently earning the guise of a true sequel. The exploits of a new cast are fraught with new dangers, but are backed up by new tools of destruction. New infected characters feel as organic to the series as the Boomer, Hunter and Smoker were before. While I would have liked to have seen another variation on the Tank for use in set pieces, the three new special infected combined with the new uncommon varieties make it a more balanced affair. The introduction of Scavenger mode is very welcome and definitely in line with the Survival mode also included. As for which platform, this is a personal preference at the end of the day. One thing I do want to see at some point is cross console/pc compatibility to allow for anyone to play against anyone. Perhaps that will be the improvement for the all but inevitable showing next year. As for whether or not this is an improvement over the first, if anything it makes the first Left 4 Dead look like a beta test.

XBOX 360

Aside from a few control differences and it obviously not looking as good as the PC version, the games generally run well. A lot of the issues that arise in this version also arise from the PC version. In terms of which version to get, think of it as “which version will my friends get?” and you’ll have the answer. One would suspect however that DLC will be free on PC.

Left 4 Dead 2 is available on Steam for the PC, where it actually premiered as a release for once!

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When one of your inventions becomes a steady cash flow, it must feel good. When it involves indulging in a hobby it must feel better. Games Workshop created the most popular table-top war game of all time with Warhammer. Things took a more futuristic tone when they advanced the timeline around 40,000 years with another release. Both are rich with well conceived back stories, with the futuristic game taking a very dark, macabre tone. It was only a matter of time before someone did the franchise justice on a digital platform for when Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War was released, the Emperor was very pleased. Indeed so were the gods of Chaos and just about every other faction. Well, all except the Tyranids who never made the party in time. After years of expansions, a true sequel hatches from the deep craters of Calderis. But is the egg fertile with new ideas, or just a hard boiled rehash?

Calderis is one of the recruitment colonies for the Blood Raven Space Marine chapter. Lately though it has become a warzone with Orkish Hordes becoming a severe threat. After a few skirmishes with the green skins, it soon dawns on the humans that there is a greater power directing the course of action. The Eldar, a race known for their deception and trickery had been strategically unleashing the Orks on human territories. But when the Force Commander and his band of Space Marines confront one of the Warlocks, he mentions that there is a greater threat to the system. With the gameplay emphasising the idea of specific squads, there is more room for characterisation. The primary character is a speechless one, and the rest are somewhat stereotypical grunts. Cyrus is perhaps the most interesting as he seems to know the horrors that await them. Incidentally, he mentions something about the Death Guard chapter, which for those in the know was a chapter that converted to Chaos. This element of back-referencing will undoubtedly alienate those unfamiliar with the table-top game. As someone who at least knows a little about the “Horus Heresy” though, it is a rather nice addition.

In a complete departure from what made the original Dawn of War special, you no longer build bases. You no longer claim requisition points, power nodes or even upgrade units. Well, you do, just not in the way you would normally think in an RTS. There is almost nothing to compare it to other than one of the modes in Warcraft 3. You take control of a band of Space Marines, comprised initially of a Tactical Marine squad and the Force Commander. Over time you’ll find a Scout squad that can turn invisible, a Devastator Squad that operates heavy machine guns, and an Assault Marine squad that uses jetpacks to leap into direct combat. Each squad can be upgraded with treasures you find while taking part in missions and as rewards for achieving each objective. There are also beacons during each mission to obtain, and the defence of territories you control to distract you from the main storyline, which are welcome changes from the usual fray. Also new to the franchise and even to the genre is the idea of boss encounters. There will be one highly powered unit with a specific weakness noted down.

Tactics 101: If you're on a hill, best be on the top.

As for how things handle, it is about as streamlined as it gets. Instead of the long tedious base building from RTS games before, you can leap straight into action from the moment the pod drops down to the ground at the beginning of every mission. The game’s tutorial is seamlessly woven into the first few missions, with explanations of just about everything appearing in helpful little boxes that appear. It isn’t obvious however that your units will automatically attack at range. Right clicking an enemy will provoke all that can do so to charge for a melee attack. The real strategy therefore comes from cover, something that has been significantly improved upon. Green and yellow indicators show how much protection your troops will have from enemy fire. There is also a suppression mechanic which oddly makes the RTS elements of Dawn of War 2 seem more realistic. A good tactic is to suppress the enemy and then lob a grenade in there when they are distracted enough to huddle like frightened lion cubs. When it all goes to pot however, you can just bring your forces in for a good scrap. The campaign option can be played alone, but there is also the option to go for two player co-op. You each take command of your squads to achieve mission objectives. The transmission between the two varieties is almost seamless, though depending on internet connection speeds you may experience slowdown with the other player.

A couple of interesting features in the single player campaign seem worth a mention. The first is the importance of taking specific structures during missions. All count towards a bonus defence for if the territory becomes under attack from any of the opposing forces. The other is introduced after you meet the threat to all life; the Tyranids. Since they are like parasites, their concentration is gauged by a meter on the bottom of the navigation/upgrade screens. Completing certain missions where you engage the Tyranids will lower the meter slightly. This will mean fewer aliens to purge, because you will have disrupted their state of flux. It is an interesting way of showing what the countdown timer. Achievements are also included with this game thanks to the Games for Windows Live feature being enabled with this title, and it also sparks the first instance of it appearing on a PC exclusive title. My only complaint really is the lack of race options in the campaign mode. It isn’t a surprising realisation due to the nature of the game itself, and the fact that the first Dawn of War did the same thing. Perhaps I’m used to the newer expansions. So put simply, the single player mode is very different.

 Tactics 102: If you're base is being invaded here, there is more than one reason.

The multiplayer mode on the other hand slips into far more familiar territory. Essentially what we have here is a mix between the old and the new because while it involves the same cover based tactical strategy of the single player, you also get to build units and upgrade them. It is less about building buildings, but more about taking certain territories and holding them with your forces. Scattered across the various maps are requisition points and energy posts. Nabbing them improves the rate of resource acquisition, but building power grids near power spots significantly gives you the advantage. The only real construction you do is based around either power nodes or certain commander units. Upgrading the fortress/HQ will grant you access to new high powered units, such as the Space Marine Dreadnought or the Tyrannid Carnifex. Units are upgradeable as well, with many customisable options to decimate your foes.

Objectives in these multiplayer modes vary from ticket reduction to total annihilation. Due to the nature of these modes, games are fast paced frenzies rather than the typical big base build and technological arms race. Taking hold of key territories is vital to success on both modes as you can pile on pressure with more resources. With the new levelling up system in place for the commander unit, the more you kill things, the more powerful you get. While there are only two types of match, you can have up to six players in one sitting. The only problem with this comes in the variety of match types that are supported with the “Rank” system. You can only cover 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3 matches, and all of them are ticket matches. Annihilation and free for all types are not supported, which is a shame because a 6 player melee to the death is a lengthy but fun option.

I for one am very surprised by the dramatic change Dawn of War 2 takes, but at the same time I welcome it. There is something about making the whole experience quicker that pleases me. The single player is a more tactical affair than simply building a force and using it to beat the snot out of the opponent. It has more strategy than simply nuking the foe to oblivion. It has a flaw, one that is significant, but that is for once beside the point. What we have is something very different, and in the case of the multiplayer mode something between the two. Taking all the good elements from the first game and combining them with a lot of elements from the second is an encouraging realisation of the skirmish fight. Neither of them are perfect though. Single player lacks diversity, while the multiplayer lacks freedom. I can’t help but like the whole package though. Perhaps it is the iron grip of the Emperor, or maybe the Terminator’s Storm Bolter pointed at my head.

ERRATA: The Last Stand

Look ma, I even got a pic of a logo!

It comes as no surprise that Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War 2 has some additional content already. What we didn’t expect was that it was to come in the form of a survival game mode. When it hit the internet, another surprise was in store for those who logged into their game: It was free. So with that in mind, it is time to review this as a supplement to the new incarnation of Relic’s RTS franchise. Does it add anything noteworthy to the package or is this one idea better left for something different?

The rules are fairly simple. You and two cohorts of the same or different races team up to take on horde upon horde of enemies. It all sounds simple until you realise that each wave will consist of different foes, with each fourth wave containing a boss battle of sorts. Since it is inevitable that your party will perish under a mass of gunfire, the aim is to see how long you can last. Your choice of units is limited to three; the Space Marine Captain, the Eldar Farseer and the Ork Mekboy. It is an odd assortment of units, but with the right team there is a good sense of balance.

This might be a bit hard to tell, but essentially what is happening is the Space Marine is going for a test flight, an Eldar player is bracing the impact and the Orcs all around are trying to find their spleens.

As you play each game, depending on which wave your party met their demise you will gain appropriate experience. With each level increase, you gain access to a new piece of War Gear that can be equipped to your warrior. These grant you new bonuses and attacks depending on what unit you have been using. They don’t share experience or weapons, so that alone increases the playability of the mode. But there are two fundamental flaws with this mode.

The first comes in the form of the enemy. The first few waves are ridiculously easy, but by the time wave 6 happens the difficulty increases at a sharp level. I’ve only made it to level 10 once because the enemies on level 9 will pummel you to submission. This would all be a lot more bearable if it wasn’t for the second issue. You will no doubt have friends who play the game, and they’re good companions. For those who don’t however, relying on some redneck Space Marine from Ohio where running into the enemy is the order of the day isn’t exactly going to do anyone any favours.

Perhaps it is a little harsh to say that this is merely wetting the appetite for the proper expansion to Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War 2, but essentially this is all that The Last Stand sets out to do. The arcade style gameplay is a good addictive time waster, but it adds very little to the package in general. Sure it’s a lot better with friends who know what they’re doing, but then again the difficulty around certain waves makes things harder than they need to be. Since it is free however, you’ll probably be playing it if you have the main game. All I can really say is this: “Don’t buy Dawn of War 2 if this was all you were after”.

Doom 3 PC (PAL) box Doom 3 Xbox (PAL) box Doom 3 Limited Collector's Edition Xbox (PAL) box  

ID Software is the company that made the forefather of the modern FPS. The legacy of Wolfenstein 3D can be seen throughout the industry. From the likes of Half-life, to the massive online community that was formed because of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, it is hard to play down the importance of that game. But if Wolfenstein merely created the concept, Doom brought it to a bigger audience. Shooting lots of demons with the BFG9000 or mowing zombies with the chainsaw in a futuristic horror setting was enough of a fresh idea to popularise the phenomenon in the early/mid nineties. After enjoying a wave of titles, ID moved on to further develop the genre with the mouse operated, free-looking, completely 3-dimensional Quake. Since that day, Doom was sealed away, left to stagnate in its un-dead husk. After around half a decade, it was about time to revisit the series. But had it completely decayed into nothingness, or was there a new horror waiting in the vault?

The UAC (United Aerospace Corp) is the largest company in the existence of mankind. With a limitless capital and the ability to research using controversial methods, they have set up a base on Mars. As the newest marine on Mars, you have been assigned to a location where the personnel have become increasingly paranoid or insane. Scientists have been opting to leave for Earth or suffering from accidents due to them hearing voices for some time. Your first assignment on Mars however goes horribly wrong when all hell breaks loose, literally. A lot of the scientists and marines become zombies, while Imps and other demons begin to appear out of nowhere. Getting a call from his commander, it seems this everything has gone wrong in the main base as well. Since you are one of a small band of survivors, it is up to you to live to tell the tale of what happened on Mars.

Surely one man can't ooze that much blood...

Doom 3 isn’t like any of the other Doom games. It is essentially “The Ugly Duckling”. The older hatchlings played with an arcade feel, making the player shoot monsters, find secrets and eventually take down the big boss with a BFG9000. Doom 3 is a lot more subtle. Instead of having the player see everything, it wants the player to see nothing at all. Only the flashlight gives a good amount of visibility. This means that if it is incredibly dark, you will probably be shooting into nothingness when you switch to your gun. But don’t be fooled. This is no development flaw. It was all intentional, because Doom 3 is not an arcade shooter at all. It is what Doom was originally intended to be; a survival horror game. This means instead of just fighting static enemies, they will instead attempt to make you jump. Expect the AI to be cheap. No matter how carefully you check, always look behind you just in case some big nasty demon wants to take a chunk out of your spine. The enemies themselves are far cooler than their previous incarnations, with the big pink beast thing even surprising me with its behaviour the first time I met it.

The atmosphere that the game creates by forcing you to wield a useless flashlight half the time is one of extreme paranoia. This is further helped by the claustrophobic corridors and liberal splashing of blood on walls and floors. The random deceased corpse lying on the floor to remind you that you are practically the only one left. The only thing more unsettling than this is the constant clattering surrounding you. Sometimes it is really your imagination, but most of the time the clatters belong to something coming up behind you or in the shadows. Perhaps the biggest confinement is the use of the first person perspective. Because you can’t see what is behind you, you constantly have to look around your perimeter, like some kind of meerkat surveillance system. The monsters themselves have taken an equally dark turn, with many adopting shading designed to make them blend into the background. Well, except for the zombie UAC marines that is, as they seem almost unchanged.

Story sequences do progress in cut scenes, but the bulk of the plot is about the background before the accident. Around you there are various discs featuring emails and audio logs you can read/listen to as you wander around the dark Martian labyrinth. What they actually tell you gives a surprising amount of insight into what it must have been like for the mere scientists. Aside from the odd email asking for an eight-sided dice back, the feeling was generally one of extreme fear and paranoia. It also seems there was some kind of conspiracy in the space station. While those who want to get the most out of the game would collect these entries for their PDA, they also contain codes for special safes that contain ammunition and armour. It is a little used technique for storyline, but one that conveys the atmosphere so well.

Undead genitalia censored by the FCC...

Just be aware of the fact that it is physically possible to run out of ammunition very quickly. That is because there isn’t a lot of it lying around. Should you actually run out, it is very likely that the enemy will shred you to pieces. Conservation is the key, and that is a problem. Having both light and ammo being an underlying factor, it is possible to forget that enemies spawn right behind you, or could easily kill you at close range. This overall makes Doom 3 very tough. The arsenal does make up for it however, as old favourites return. The shotgun is as deadly as ever at close range, the plasma gun will melt foes to radioactive paste and the BFG9000 is still a really big gun that slaughters enemies en mass. Enemies do take a lot of bullets to go down in this game however, so be prepared to make every shot count. Doom 3 also comes with a multiplayer variant, but it is quite plain in comparison with the single player feature due to a lack of interesting modes. Basically, it is an afterthought.

As an experiment to revive the series, Doom 3 accidentally takes it and you out of the respective comfort zones. It resembles the Quake franchise more than the Doom one, but at the same time it still works perfectly. This is thanks to the AI being somewhat cheeky and the decisions made about lighting. The decision to force the player to conserve ammunition is an interesting way of increasing the difficulty, but one that makes the survival horror aspect that much more potent. The range of weapons has not taken a nose dive; in fact it has actually increased since the 2D renditions. Doom 3 brings to the table the right amount of paranoia, dread and indeed guns that make the experience one worth playing through. What is gained here is dramatically lost in the multiplayer mode, as it is the same old tiring run around shooting each other theme that occurs in a lot of FPS games. The difference here is that the single player is definitely worth playing in comparison because it is that unlike the multiplayer mode. If death is supposed to be a truly terrifying experience Doom 3 would grab a plank of wood, smack you round the head repeatedly and proclaim “Welcome to Hell, enjoy your stay…”

Version Differences: Xbox version includes a 2-Player co-op mode for the main campaign, but heavily stripped down graphics. An expansion was released titled Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil which is available on both Xbox and PC formats.

Loom AMIGA box (The only surviving box art for Loom™)

Have you ever played The Secret of Monkey Island? Before you ask, this is merely a link for something else rather than a rather lacklustre introduction more befitting of a small child. As one of the point and click adventures of Lucasarts, there was the odd occasion where there may have been a little product placement. In the SCUMM Bar, there is a man who has a badge bearing the words; “Ask me about Loom™”. What he doesn’t tell you is that it doesn’t work with any computer above Windows 95, and that the game itself is incredibly rare. In real life this week, the rarest of all the Lucasarts adventure games made a sudden re-emergence. So was that advertising from almost 20 years ago worth it?

The story of Loom™ is about a young wizard named Bobbin Threadbare. He is a member of a tribe of weavers, whose elders have summoned him on his birthday. He arrives to find his mentor being turned into an egg, and then the elders who did so being turned into swans and flying into a portal. It seems that Bobbin was left alone. After managing to hatch the egg, his mentor informs him of a great evil approaching and that he needs to find the flock in order to survive. During the course of his journey, he will see an emerald city, some sheep and a forge through a linear path. The concept is something new, but there is a reason we never heard from the writer of this game ever again. The story does flow, but due to some dialogue issues the game isn’t really sure of which genre it is in. There are times you aren’t sure exactly if it is even trying to be funny.

I command you to rise above your seagull oppressors and devour their.....beaks.

The idea behind Loom™ is very unusual. Instead of collecting items and using an inventory, you have the ability to conduct music into magic. Learning new notes takes time, but also enables the use of more elaborate songs. Bobbin will only be able to achieve a small amount at first, though he learns more via certain checkpoints. Here lies the first problem with the system though. Since you are learning music, it is an idea to keep note of the songs you know. You can’t do that in-game, so you have to resort to real life pen and paper to handle that for you. Some puzzles also require you to play the songs backwards. On top of the rather unique way of solving puzzles, this is a trait I liked, for about five minutes. The issue here is that you have double the range of songs you wrote down in the first place because of the alternatives. The puzzle solving mechanic does however put an unusual twist on the genre.

Go on mate, show us the "Turn yourself inside, out trick!"

With the recent release, you’re more than likely running the VGA remake with CD enhancements. This is the most visually pleasing version thankfully, due to the re-rendered graphics. It is also within this remake that the first “talkie adventure” was weaved out of the Loom™. The music creates a magical feel. Voice acting is actually rather good. Lines are delivered with at least a fair degree of emotion. Bobbin suffers from a small amount of culture shock however as it is hard to distinguish whether or not he is American or British based in terms of accent. Everyone else speaks with a ye olde English accent, which for a fantasy game is stereotypical but fitting.

There really isn’t much to say about Loom™ as a package. The setting is nice but the story telling is a little bland. The unique way of puzzle solving is intriguing, but forces you to write down a list of actions. Loom™ is undoubtedly a pretty game, with some great backdrops and good looking and sounding characters. It is good to see an old hat finally being made available for the first time in around a decade. But out of the games released by Lucasarts so far over Steam, this is the worst one. Perhaps it is the quality of the other titles that makes Loom™ look like an ugly duckling rather than a beautiful swan.

Loom™ has been recently made available on the Steam client; and costs £2.99

Left 4 Dead PC (PAL) box (VERSION MOSTLY TESTED)    Left 4 Dead Xbox 360 (PAL) box (VERSION NOT SO MUCH TESTED)

Version Tested: PC

In terms of being antagonists in video games, it seems that the reanimated corpse of Abraham Lincoln and billions of other deceased people have drawn the short leg. Zombies will always be brainless maniacal killers whose only purpose is to disembowel the remaining members of the human race. You can blame George A Romero for that one, as he deviated from the voodoo origins of the walking dead by instead turning them into what we know today. Not that it is a bad thing mind. Resident Evil converted this into an interactive survival horror fest. But those zombies were always a little on the sluggish side. In fact the trend has people running away in terror from monsters that even a tortoise would sneer at before shuffling off. So in order to make zombies in video games ever so slightly scary again, we turn again to films for the inspiration. 28 Days Later sparked the whole “running zombies” trend, which is a little more troublesome for would be survivors. This has now been adapted for video game audiences in the multiplayer based Left 4 Dead.

If the inspiration for the concept was fairly simple to establish, it is easier to figure out where the inspiration for the story came from. You are one of four individuals all trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. They are Bill, an ex-marine; Francis, the tough punk; Zoey, the college student and Louis, the average Joe. All are walking clichés of the horror genre. If this was a horror movie, Louis would be the second person to die in the film because he has a nasty habit of stereotypical catchphrases. Francis is the kind of guy who would go investigate a disturbing noise only to get his liver gouged out of him in the middle of the film. Zoey and Bill are the only characters who would seem to survive the entirety of the “film” because Bill is sensible while Zoey just nods in agreement and does whatever Bill tells her to. But this isn’t a film. It is a game. You need to make your character survive.

The game is divided into four “B-movies”. In each there are five chapters to repeatedly blast your way through. The first chapter is a usually straightforward attempt to get to the safe house. They also introduce you to perhaps the three main adversaries which will impede on your progress. Smokers look like any other zombie, were it not for the distinctive coughing fit and unusually large lasso tongue. The Hunters are hoodies with animalistic reflexes that tend to pounce on you when you least expect it. Boomers meanwhile are like terrorists fighting with biological warfare. While they can unleash their bile in a projectile format, they’re a lot more likely to run towards you hoping to be close enough when they die. Bile attracts the “horde”, which is merely a large number of zombies. All are controlled by a somewhat sadistic “AI Director”. This will ensure that you get a different experience each time, but usually something bad will happen at some point. Computer controlled teammates are double edged swords. Sometimes they’ll see a boomer in the bushes, and other times they’ll run straight at a hunter’s leaping path.

Apparently, corpse flu took a rather literal turn. (Xbox360 Version)  

The second, third and fourth chapters introduce three more parts to the experience. The first are set pieces which are obstacles that when activated attract lots of enemies. This is a simple case of finding a nice corner and blasting everything in sight. There are also the other two special zombies. Tanks are built like Austrian bodybuilders on steroids and will usually launch cars and slabs at you for heavy damage. Then there are the witches. They will be on their knees, crying to themselves and not wishing to be disturbed. Shine a light into their eyes, touch them, or harm them in any way and they’ll go berserk. These are perhaps the biggest damage dealing infected in the game, and usually the thing that first makes you realise that this is a team game. It is a simple case of sticking together and getting through it as separation usually means a rather untimely and bloody demise. The AI Director is particularly brutal when it comes to placing witches. It is very rare to see them not in a doorway or on your path. The final chapter is usually a case of holding yourself up in a base and surviving the zombie onslaught consisting of lots of individual infected and at least three tanks.

As a human the odds look stacked against you, but help is at hand. You have at first the choice of main weapon, either a machine gun or a shotgun; a pistol and a first aid kit. The shotgun will deal lots of damage at close range, while the machine gun tends to mow down lots of enemies. Pistols seem most effective when special infected aren’t around. First Aid kits will heal up to the 80 point mark on your health, though can also heal further if you so wish. Lying around the levels is the rest of the weapons and items. New main weapons include the Auto Shotgun, Assault rifle and Sniper Rifle. They all act like you’d expect them to, with Sniper Rifles even having a scope to zoom in. A second pistol can be added to your first, allowing some dual wielding to happen for better efficiency. Pills can also be found for restorative purposes, but only grant 50 temporary health points that slowly drain over time. Health items can be used on or given to teammates as well as yourself, which add to the co-op style. Finally the game comes with two explosives. Molotov Cocktails help deal with the bigger enemies with speed, while pipe bombs deal with the normal zombies in a rather amusing fashion.

The game takes a rather less horror turn with Versus mode, where half the time you play as the Infected. (PC version) 

While the single player mode purely consists of playing these survivors, the online client opens up a whole host of options. Campaign allows you to team up with up to four strangers/friends to play through a “film”. Versus takes the single player mode and divides eight people into survivors and infected teams. The objective of the survivors is to, well; survive, while the infected have to attempt to kill them. Odds are stacked against the infected side each round because they are so easy to kill. Teamwork is necessary to both survive and kill the opposition, but the problem is a lot of people tend not to grasp that fact. The problem with a lot of online games is that people tend not to be friendly to those who are a little on the new side, and this is very true here. There are people who are a lot more understanding of this fact, but for the diamonds of those who do, you have to sift through the slurry of people who don’t. Thankfully the game comes with a LAN option for the PC version where everyone knows each other. On major difference between the two versions is that the Xbox 360 version requires you to be a Xbox Live Gold Member, while the PC version is free to play online via Steam. The Xbox 360 version also supports local co-operative mode, though only two players can take advantage of the vertical split screen mode. There is also a lack of local play with zombies.

In terms of visuals, presentation and platform differences there are a small number. The PC version is vastly superior to the Xbox 360 version because the engine is better realised on that platform. Left 4 Dead looks great on both platforms. But the PC looks and plays better and is quite frankly better supported than the console counterpart. Unless specifically designed for a console, a first person shooter that first sees the light of day on a PC just feels wrong on anything else. Having said that, Valve’s commitment to making the games as similar to each other on each platform has shown some fruit in the “Survivor Pack” that was released not long ago. This included the ability to play on the other two campaigns in versus mode and an all new “Survivor mode”. Essentially this is teaming up with three others to last as long as you can, which is surprisingly addictive. All of that was free. Also free on the PC is a level designer, which does seem to indicate that Valve designed features, will be drying up for the game. This is despite a commitment to keep supporting Left 4 Dead when the sequel comes out.

Left 4 Dead on your own is a pretty short lived and disappointing experience. It seems tragic to have to pay to use it on Xbox Live. But when played with friends online it becomes a whole different experience, but the PC experience is far better than that of the Xbox 360. Not because of a lack of content, but more due to restrictions. You can’t play online on an Xbox 360 unless you connect online, nor can you experience the entire game. Having said that, the game is nothing short of what you’d expect from Valve. It has a great selection of effective guns or abilities, depending on what side of the coin you are on. The AI Director while it does get sadistic at times creates a game experience that changes every time you play, which is perhaps the biggest experiment of the package. It works wonderfully. Just don’t expect the community to give you an easy time online. You’d probably find it hard to adapt unless you have a friend who enables you to get good, especially if you’re playing as the infected for the first time. Left 4 Dead is therefore, a great multiplayer game that badly needs all the right components to make the game worthwhile. It is also a great way of figuring out who would be the best person to have when the zombie apocalypse eventually happens. Personally, I’d have Patrick Stewart, Morgan Freeman and Chuck Norris as that is pretty much guarantied survival…

ERRATA: CRASH COURSE

Crash Course - Crashing will be the easiest thing they do today...

During the month of September, a new campaign was released. For free on PC (woo!) and costing on Xbox 360 (boo!). For those who wished for something more for their buck, Crash Course does little to disappoint. Set shortly after the conclusion of “No Mercy”, it has the survivors run around a small town trying to find a way to escape the zombie apocalypse. There are only two chapters this time around, but the design was for it all to last 30 mins. Here it achieves this well. But it doesn’t just provide a new excuse to shoot zombies, it provides many excuses. The new list of achievements specifically tailored for the Crash Course campaign are intuitive in their design. For example, leading one of the big hulking tanks so you can stumble it with a petrol canister not only provides a trophy reward but also reminds one of the old Looney Tunes cartoons. It isn’t just the survivors that get in on the action, as the Infected have achievements for if they leap of great heights onto an enemy or work together. As far as DLC goes, if they have roughly the same thesis as the main game then you have a good thing coming. For Left 4 Dead, this new campaign expands on the changes and challenges that survivor mode brought when it was introduced. With promise of more DLC even with the advent of the sequel looming, there is still a vague amount of life in this “putrid un-dead corpse” yet!  

Day of the Tentacle (PC) box

Tim Schlafer is a legend in his own right. While he didn’t pioneer the point and click genre, he wrote or co-wrote some of the best scenarios ever seen in a video game. The Roberta Williams adventures were decent when they came out, but lost their appeal as they aged. Lucasarts adventures on the other hand were written with such care and attention that they not only outlasted the Sierra rivalry, but did so with a legendary status. What helped things along were the cast of misfits that populated their point and click games, rather than rely on sequel after sequel. From Guybrush Threepwood to Sam and Max, they are all cult icons in the genre. But I am here to talk about one game in particular that was not only funny as sin, but perhaps the most bizarre of the entire lot.

Day of the Tentacle; the brainchild of Dave Grossman and Tim Schlafer is set in a suburban America. When a hamster calls at the door of three students with a message for the nerdy one. According to the sender, purple tentacle has grown arms and both he and the sender captive. Upon arriving at “the mansion” of Dr Fred Edison, the nerd sets them free. This turns out to be a huge mistake as the purple tentacle plots world domination. Dr Fred devises the plan to send them back in time to the day before to sort the mess out. Unfortunately due to the doc’s cheapskate nature, the diamond powering the machine breaks, sending two of the three into the past and future. What ensues is probably one of the silliest plots ever created in history for a game. But one that appeals greatly.

Green: Note to self, never ask the question "So what are we going to do tonight?"

The characters of Bernard, Hoagie and Laverne are all of some kind of stereotype. Bernard is the epitome of the term “nerd-meister general”. He wears trousers like Simon Cowell and likes to talk about phone makes at great length. At one point you’d imagine that he would have a conversation with the stamp collector about which stamp is the rarest. Laverne, the girl who goes to the future, has some serious mental health issues. Dissection is on her top list of hobbies. She also has feminist traits when faced with the realisation that in the future – tentacles own humans like pets. Lastly we have Hoagie; an overweight roadie who ventures into the time when the declaration of independence was signed. He is by far my favourite character not only because he is a more rounded character (in more ways than one), but also because he sports some of the most amusing set pieces in the game. Talking to the horse upstairs is one conversation that without fail will make me laugh every time.

As a point and click adventure, there really isn’t a lot to say about it other than the conversations border on the outrageous and the puzzles themselves are intuitive. The tried and tested SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine provides various dialogue paths. Due to the nature of the script, each option is aimed for laughs. Multiple play-throughs are essential to get a full picture at just what Mr Grossman and Mr Schlafer had in mind for the script. What is fairly unique however in this game is that some of the puzzles involve a long process of “in-game” time. Without giving too much away, affecting an object in the past; say a tree, could change the future. Another clever idea is that since you control three characters, they each have their own inventory. Some puzzles require items in the past/present/future to be sent backwards, or indeed forwards, through time. This is done via the Chron-o-John, the device that got them into the mess in the first place. One little niggle is that the game doesn’t explain that you can send an item to a character by merely selecting the item and then selecting the person you want to send it to. This cuts out needless backtracking, but unless you know that – you’ll be extending game time dramatically.

Well, if they do, they're snubbing all of us...well except for Mr Ed, that lippy mule.

Day of the Tentacle is very short lived however. To a veteran point and click adventure game player, this will last merely two or three hours. Those two to three hours do look as wacked out as the storyline. The colours are bold and striking with each of the different time periods being similar in structure but fitting with that date. 1776 looks like a surreal 1776. The future, covered with stainless steel seems appropriate. The mansion in the present day looks perhaps the silliest. If you obtain the CD-Rom version, those two to three hours will also feature some very nice voiceovers. It is hard to imagine those characters with different voices to the ones featured on the disc because the casting fits perfectly. A nice touch is that voices of characters whose surname transcends time are the same throughout. For example, all three elder Edison’s have the same voice.

Those who have played Day of the Tentacle will no doubt remember a lot that this game had to offer back then. Those who are new to the concept will enjoy it about as much as we did back then. It is one of those games that stood the test of time because of the fact that its charm didn’t rely on gameplay at all. While it does have a pretty interesting slant on the SCUMM engine, the genius of this game was through the setting, characters and set pieces. This is what essentially makes a good story, film or just about any other creative media piece. It isn’t very long, but then again neither are films…normally. If you are disappointed by a lot of the comedy feature films of late and can find a copy, this game might be the antidote you need for your funny side.