Category: Playstation 3 (Review)


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There has been somewhat of a revival of the Western lately. It may not be of the same ilk as the heyday of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, but it is far edgier and grittier this time around. So much so that a film that won an Oscar in the 60s is currently being nominated for several more in the guise of a Coen brothers remake. My Granddad was fascinated with Westerns the first time around and while he may not be able to identify with the actors as it comes full circle, he would probably appreciate the fact it is getting a serious look at once more. I on the other hand never got the genre until a while after my granddad’s passing, but can now appreciate in his stead. Part of this resurgence comes from the fact that video games have tried to capture the elements of the genre in a new light. Most of these have completely missed the bar of being a good game, due to either an unbelievable plot or broken mechanics. As an indication of just how dire the Westerns survival rate is in video games, the last really good game was Sunset Riders way back in the 90s. Red Dead Redemption hopes to come closer to this standard than say its prequel; Red Dead Revolver, by hoping it will shoot the target with both barrels rather than firing in the air like a crazy old coot with a moonshine addiction.

I’ll start by saying that this is without a doubt in my head the best narrative/plot that Rockstar have devised. Things aren’t looking too great for John Marston. His family have been taken away from him by the federal government because of some of the crimes he committed in the past. They make him the proposition that if he rounds up or kills all of his former gang mates that left him for dead one day, then his family would be freed. Things don’t start off too well when one of the gang shoots him and leaves him for dead (again) on the roadside. Fortunately John is picked up by the MacFarlanes; a father and daughter family of ranchers and is nursed back to health. What is astounding is not the plot itself, but it is the level of detail in the amazingly believable characterisation. John is a particular highlight, and it is surprising that we don’t see his type more often; by type of course I mean a truly remorseful man who is still bad-ass, but has a sense of morality that other games protagonists seem to ignore completely. He actually makes us want to succeed. He actually makes us care that his family are gone and he is trying everything to get them back. All the other characters seem like the stables one would see in a typical Western, but they each have their own tics that assist with the immersion of the player into this fully realised world. A man who went hunting for treasure and subsequently became a mad gravedigger. A gunslinger who fled to Mexico and has acted as Sheriff ever since for a little town; and indeed a German swindler who when things don’t go his way resorts to duels. There is absolutely nobody who stands out for being a terrible character and that is an achievement in itself.

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The real star though is the Wild West itself. It’s open and free, and riding across the plains on horseback is a far more gratifying experience than driving at eighty miles an hour in a sports car in the middle of a fake Manhattan. Sure you don’t get to run over them, but trying to hijack a train is far more exhilarating than making car tires red for the billionth time. The wilderness between towns is home to an entire ecosystem of critters and steeds, and together with the sweltering heat it makes the whole world feel real, more real than anything I’d experienced before. The music also shows during the more quiet moments that element of tension and the more dramatic moments of shootouts, and this even comes down to the Western sound effects to give it that wonderful throwback to the 1950s/1960s world of cinema.

The experience is a somewhat familiar affair though, as missions have different starting locations and usually have you journeying to a different area to perform a particular errand. Lots of the early game involves rounding up cattle or getting a new steed, which is a somewhat satirical nod towards the more normal activities of Grand Theft Auto IV. This quickly erupts into shooting up gangs, looting their hideouts and saving the odd damsel in distress. You can’t take the GTA out of Rockstar after all! What is fascinating however is that things aren’t limited to these missions and mini-games. Listed somewhere in the pause menu are some challenges which can be tackled during missions and their completion rewards you with bonuses and cheats. There is also an online challenge set list that is activated once you enter an area with the social challenges and tasks you with performing a certain chain of events in the shortest time. You will even encounter random events along the side of the road; which could consist of a bar wench being mugged by a drunkard or a woman asking for a ride to town. Sometimes there is positive and negative outcomes, such as said woman stealing your horse or the mugger carrying the wench off into the sunset to have his merry way with her. These are far more satisfying than the rather drab alternative of riding continuously towards your objective without anything getting in your way other than some scripting marauders shooting in the air and shouting obscenities at you.

But if you did like the little extra games that featured within Rockstar’s last epic, then you are still in luck. In towns you can find people who just want to challenge you to a duel; a guy who wants to toss horseshoes at a post for money and three gambling based games revolving around classics such as Poker and Blackjack while featuring the more unusual Liars Dice. All the gambling ones are well realised and combined with the bar music from the piano, it gives an atmospheric edge. Of course if you scared off/killed him beforehand, there wouldn’t be any music. As for the horseshoes and duels, they’re minor time wasters that don’t add a lot to the package. There are the conventional race missions and not so conventional bounty hunting missions which have a similar pattern to them, but are done at one’s own pace.

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All of these additional extras give a long single player campaign, but there is a lot going for the games online multiplayer modes too. There are typical rank up perk systems as made popular in certain first person shooters of late and plenty of rather diverse game modes, including free DLC co-operative missions for up to four players at a time. Of course this isn’t what most people will be doing. Instead they will be taking advantage of the free roam mode. Think of this as a multiplayer hub where a medium sized capacity have the entire game world at their disposal. Within there are places where one can round up an entire posse of mavericks and gunslingers. This is all accompanied with probably the fullest announcer in gaming though, and the AI is a little on the unforgiving side at times. There are little online challenges accessed via this mode where you compete with a friend to shoot ad many of the bad guys down as possible. Your experience with the multiplayer mode will be different to mine, but one similarity is that some jerk will pursue you for hours on end until you join another server; or just grab a friend to join in on the revenge.

For me, this came out of nowhere as I had little faith in games that feature a Western environment, but Red Dead Redemption is by far one of the more enjoyable experiences of last year. It showcases just how powerful Rockstar’s engine really is compared to how Grand Theft Auto IV handled the tech. Instead of making certain cars have their own traits; Red Dead Redemption uses it to not only create its own ecosystem, but also make characters believable, the Wild West a large playground, and give the online component something to shout about. If you can find this for a bargain, it is a steal! This may even be the game that turns those who are against Rockstar’s gang violence because there is a more distinct line between real life and fantasy. This is probably the best way of playing out boyhood dreams of life in the Wild West, if a little more grizzly than mounting a mop and pretending it’s a horse.

 

DLC

 

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (Xbox360/PS3) Review

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Red Dead Redemption, despite it being released in the summer was one of the most polished games of last year. Numerous packs have been released for it that improve the online side, but it hasn’t received the GTA IV treatment of a competent single player campaign that is separate from the main game. It seems though that the team has decided to use internet logic on this issue. “Anything, no matter how good it was before, can be improved with the inclusion of zombies.” So with an appropriately Halloween release date and filled to the brim with undead hordes; does Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare confirm that this logic is scientifically accurate?

This expansion assumes that you have done everything in the original game, so if you haven’t; the game is pretty spoiler heavy. John Marston is at home with his family on a cold wet stormy night. His uncle walks in and takes a chunk out of his son. Naturally annoyed about this, he shoots him dead and puts his son to bed. Not long afterwards, Jack breaks out and bites his mother, who turns rabid and proceeds to start snapping. Thinking at this moment that something is amiss, John secures the rest of his family in the bedroom with a steak chop to munch on, and sets out to discover a cure. It is quite frankly ridiculous, and that’s the best bit! His adventure takes him to the furthest reaches of the West, and even over the Mexican border. Along the way, he meets old friends who either meet their demise to the zombie hordes or carry on surviving. Characters such as Seth are shown in a similar light to their main game story persona, whereas others have gone crazy due to their impending doom.

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The zombies themselves are the basis for this entire adventure, and it is helpful that every mission has something to do with either decapitating them or burning graves. To kill all kinds of zombies requires head shots, which thanks to the increased Dead Eye meter is fairly easy to do en mass. You dp however need to change your play style completely when facing them. Cover is counter productive as they are very happy to run up to you rather than shoot from afar. Then we have special zombies. One initially would groan at this as Left for Dead pulled a similar stunt beforehand, and behaviourally they act similarly to then too in that we have the Spitter, Charger, and something that moves about as fast as your average Hunter. In terms of actual behaviours, the Spitter is the most interesting as its acid actually poisons you and it explodes upon shooting in the head, causing anything around it to be killed too. The other two just make it harder for you to shoot them, and this outlines a problem about of all things: originality. It would have been nice to have some new ideas crop up, rather than copy what the other guys did. It even surprise me that Rockstar did this because the conception of Red Dead Redemption was a clever and well thought out game. To cop out on such a fundemental detail is astonishing for all the wrong reasons.

One thing that they got right was the idea of having an active invasion happening. Every three game days or so, there will be a warning that a town is under attack from the horde. If you head over there and help them, then the region is declares safe and you can rest easier knowing nothing will happen for a while. Leave it too long though and the zombies will overrun the town. It is an intriguing mechanic, but one wonders about the methodology behind the three day cycle. The undead wouldn’t need to regroup, and others should know what a zombie looks like; so how do zombies come in waves? There are lots of other side missions, including finding lost survivors and returning them to the fort where you got the mission, and little side challenges where it ranges from finding treasure to finding the four horses of the apocalypse. All these details add hours to the package; and robust new zombie themed online modes also help by pitting gunslingers in a town they have to defend from the zombies.

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For the price online, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare is a fantastically conceived but nowhere near perfect DLC package. The change in pace, combined with the silly plot and amount of hidden extras is a joy to see. It would have been perfect if they hadn’t copied off Valve for their zombie ideas though. I hate feeling like a teacher, but as plagiarism downgrades marks for exams, I have no choice but to give this effort a C-.

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A fairly recent development in technology has enabled game developers to create grand and epic landscapes the likes of which were only implemented in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hurr. The result of this was the paramount success of the video game example of a Greek tragedy: God of War. It made a character we could identify with whilst treating us to more blood and gore than is present in an abattoir slop bucket. The sequel followed a few years later with Kratos becoming more and more resentful towards the gods for betraying him. God of War III has Kratos now wishing pain and suffering on the gods of Mount Olympus and wishing to end his torment. But has the god of war fallen from grace?

The third part in this trilogy continues on literally where the last part ended; an army of titans and Kratos scaling the mountain of Olympus, hell-bent on the gods destruction. Soon after the battle, he is approached by the spirit of Athena in the realm of the underworld. She tells of her father’s fear of his own son seeking his destruction and that the way to save the world is to kill Zeus. Of course, with Kratos being the brooding little brat he is, he only cares about vengeance. It is only during the second act that things get interesting with the inclusion of Hephestus; the Smith god, and his daughter Pandora. This element attempts to steer the series back into the realms of Greek tragedy. Mind you, the first God of War was infinitely more convincing. Sure emotional bonds are formed between several characters, but nothing quite compares to the utter despair of a mortal man and his regrets never ceasing. This element does make a brief appearance later on, but there is a lack of impact. One particular scene attempts to reverse the polarities of Kratos’ persona. It just doesn’t seem feasible to have a mindless slayer of myths and legends suddenly learn the art of empathy.

God of War III is a bit of a roller-coaster from the absolute beginning. The assault on Mount Olympus begins its epic details by having you traverse the body of the titan Gaia, as enemies begin to try and invade. Things take a turn for the worse when Poseidon nosedives into the great lagoon, only returning to attack Gaia. But of course this wouldn’t be a God of War game without an epic opening battle, and Poseidon’s form is far grander in scale than the Hydra and slightly more complex than the Colossus. Essentially the whole tutorial acts like a particularly epic fight scene one would have expected from Clash of the Titans, but involving a far more convincing water effect than most digital water on a horses’ back and more modern Hollywood features. While I enjoy these sections a lot however, there were fairly mundane segments to the PS2 games. They are still present in the final part, but they are nowhere near as transparent. What originally starts as a quest for revenge, bloodlust and redemption does suddenly shift several gears and become more emotionally driven. This culminates into a segment involving wandering through the Great Labyrinth to find Pandora as we see a familiar set of challenges that resemble saving the scantily clad Oracle from the first venture into ancient Greece. One would be forgiven for thinking this was akin to a greatest hits edition as you are actively trying to save someone.

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God of War II in terms of actual combat wasn’t too different from the original, and this one doesn’t fare much better in terms of new ideas. You still chain attacks through button presses and press associated buttons when prompted by QTEs. Some things however make this game slightly fresher and a little more exciting. Secondary weapons are perhaps the most significant of the lot. Some are Staples such as the bow and arrow come back here in this form, while the head of Helios; don’t ask how he obtains this, provides light for dark places combined with a blinding a random minotaur. Grappling has also become a rather integral part of the experience and is a lot less situational in terms of usage. Then there are the new primary weapons, which include forks that can unleash the souls of your foes; Cestuses that can pummel the hardest metal known to the gods; and a whip that is imbued with the strongest power known to the gods. All of these are fairly obvious additions to the game, and I do feel as if Santa Monica studios are slowly running out of ideas.

Then I got to kill Poseidon and realised it wasn’t combat that was improved, but the sheer scale and brutality of the adventures presentation combined with the epic landscapes. Most notably, there are first person viewpoints from the victims. You get to see the pain in horrifying detail and that is powerful stuff. I would have prefered them to keep this style for all the gods though, though watching Helios having his head forcefully severed from his shoulders is probably in contention for most stomach churning demise of the century. Towards the end, things become even more caked in blood; and you also get the typical sexual encounter. Watching the QTE for this got me thinking that they thought about how to pleasure Aphrodite a little too much, as there are circular motions and waggles of the stick here. This is great for immersion, but one wonders if they took it a little too far.

One element I have always liked about the series is that the music is amongst the best around; put simply because it has made me hum the tunes in my own head. God of War III‘s score is probably their finest achievement because it is wonderfully paced and brilliantly orchestrated. Fights with the gods are epic as they are, but it is the music that really brought these to life. As already mentioned, it is also a pretty good looking game in terms of style, but it is starting to show its age. There are some rather rigid movements, and the fixed camera sometimes works against you in combat. But perhaps the biggest disappointment is that it seems to be missing a scene. The transition between the labyrinth and the final encounter is essentially a couple of short flights and a tiny bit of fighting. They could have extended this a fair bit to flesh it out.

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After completing the game, there are some challenges to be done which unlock some extra challenges. There is also trophy support and the conditions for some of these are inspired. One has you complete the entire labyrinth section without dying, while another might have you drop kicking the hounds into enemies 50 times. Scattered around the game are the typical health and magic upgrades, but also artefacts of the gods. Upon completing the game you will unlock new costumes and videos of production. Considering the time it took to create the final part of the trilogy, it is nice to see that they are willing to share their experiences during the creation process. It is also here that we can see the celebrity cameos and realise that they are the most emotionally driven of the bunch. Rip Torn is absolutely brilliant as Hephestus as he nails the completely delusional and compassionate banished god of forging. Then we have the complete contrasts of Malcolm McDowell as Daedalus and Kevin Sorbo as Hercules. Daedalus is often portrayed as a genius, but here we have a broken man whose only hope is that his son is still alive. Hercules on the other hand is normally seen as the heroic figure of Greek mythology. Here though we see that even he can be as fickle as the gods as he is but a spoilt brat who is never happy. He moans about his many trials and thinks Kratos got off easy in comparison. All these tweaks to mythology paint a very different Mount Olympus; a united and jealous society who want Kratos dead.

Whilst far from a complete tragedy, God of War III doesn’t seem to make the same impact as the PS2 prequels. One thing that is guaranteed is that the combat is as smooth and brutal is ever. While I still don’t like QTEs, the perspective changes are a welcome addition that make these a little more immersion in execution. Music is as always fantastic and the epic scale of the entire game is heads and tales above similar styles of game. Just don’t expect a great overall story or for the game to clock in over a certain timeframe. There are some elements of great plot; mostly involving bit characters famous within actual mythology, but the whole thing hinges on a desire for vengeance and brutally homing in that point. If you were as engrossed into this trilogy as I was, then seeing how it ends will be a must and chances are you won’t be disappointed with the ending too much. A fairly good rent, but paying full price for this game is a little too much, despite the sense of guilt in knowing that it took the developers 6 months to plan the first 20 minutes of the adventure.

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.

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Tactical RPGs have a little bit of an image problem now. Only one company is religiously making them and they’re for their audience of otakus and fantasy geeks. They’re making some money out of it, but the genre hasn’t really moved too far from the late 1990s. The genre went from the 2D overworld style of Shining Force on the Sega Mega Drive to the isometric landscape we see today. So what has improved over the past decade? Better artwork and higher resolution sprites and textures combined with more content than any sane man would try to delve into. Confused? So am I! How come a once mighty genre hasn’t moved an inch since Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea: Hour of Darkness? A “eureka!” moment hit one group of developers like an oncoming car screeching towards a glazed eyed pheasant. Success in game change has sometimes come from creating a hybrid. So from the monolith publishing firm that is Sega came Valkyria Chronicles, a PS3 exclusive that promised to reinvent a genre by incorporating style and execution. Was this promised fulfilled or was it a nightmare of broken aspirations?

Set in the kingdom of Europan in 1935 E.C, the Eastern Europan Imperial Alliance (Empire) is waging war with the countries in the West of the region. In their campaign, the neutral country of Gallia is suddenly being invaded. It is at this point that Welkin Gunther makes his homecoming to the village of Bruhl on the border. When soldiers appear on the shore, he is forced to take arms and eventually gets conscripted into the army. As his father was once a great general, he is given a team which consists of a fellow citizen of Bruhl; Alicia, his adopted sister and a few others. It is a tale told with a surprising amount of maturity. Sure there are quirks one would assume with a Japanese anime (pigs with wings to name one), but there are some harsh moments and mature themes exploring inherent racism towards the Darcsan people and lots of death and war. Its gritty for a video game of such light hearted first impressions and that only adds to the package.

Let’s get this out of the way fairly quickly. The visual presentation of Valkyria Chronicles is simply stunning. Not only are the textures smooth and the setting of a world at war is achieved with real depth, the actual visual style uses a unique watercolour effect which only serves to make the look and feel of the game completely astounding. Sure there is an anime overtone surrounding what you see, and this is something that can be abused in future instalments. But somehow it works here and it would be difficult to show a similar visual presentation without it. Perhaps it is because the anime style serves to enhance the presentation rather than detract from it. What also helps emphasise the appearance is the quality of the sound direction and quality of script. One could easily have a cast of hammed up voice actors to speak a dull and uninspired literal translation of the Japanese script. Instead we have a clever reimagining handled by a competent cast of voice actors that show some element of emotion. They’re not exactly of the greatest calibre, but you could very well hear worse. The music seems to stand out however as the most dramatic sceptical from a Japanese studio in a very long time due to its simplicity. No individual track stands out, but when one is faced with a particularly sombre scene in the game’s plot, the music accompanies this to added effect.

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For those who love the statistics and strategic plotting found in most tactical RPGs, it will come as no surprise that you are likely to find the concept a tried and tested one. You are one army, they are another, clash. You’d be forgiven for thinking however that it was merely as simple as that. Instead of plotting attacks and seeing the results; Valkyria Chronicles zooms in on the action and gives you the helm and a gun. In third person view, you control movement and firing just as you would with most third person shooters. When you focus with your rifle however, time completely stops and you get to pick your target. In terms of being an immersive experience; it is a dancing bear on stilts. Enemies will start firing at you when you get too close, stop whilst you’re aiming and then restart firing when you attempt to retreat. What’s even more unnerving is that your allies don’t do much to help you unless you’re firing alongside them, or your enemies wander within two feet of them. The other problem with Valkyria Chronicles is that despite what it is trying to do, it is still a tactical RPG. If one doesn’t have the time to sit down and play it to death, it will get fairly mundane pretty quickly. Thankfully though, this at the very least tries to spice things up beyond perspective.

Firstly, movement is done with CP (command points). Units use up one, tanks use two. This allows your units to move more than once in each phase. If you lose a unit, your overall CP goes down, while eliminating key targets reduces the enemies CP. It allows for more flexibility, but subsequent moves reduce the range they can move. Your squad will consist of a variety of different units, each with their own specialties. Scouts have an increased movement range, but are fairly weak on firepower. Stormtroopers are the assault units who have a machine gun and fairly average movement. Lancers have anti-tank weapons and are strong against explosives, but are susceptible to infantry fire. Engineers restock your allies supplies of ammunition, but can’t really defend themselves very well while Snipers can shoot from afar, but can’t walk around too far. You also get a tank of your own which you can use to steamroll through enemies whilst keeping enemy tanks under control using other units. Areas have their own hazards; such as mines to deactivate for example. To say this is the most original tactical RPG would be an obvious statement, but to say that it still has the same mundane nature might not be. That would be the case if it wasn’t for the fact that character interaction; such certain conditions and the light insight of your squad’s characteristics, really works well in making this a challenging experience in a way you probably didn’t think possible. Emotional ties really come into their own when they fall in battle and you can’t rescue them; ala Fire Emblem and their permanent character deaths. One might think this is a harsh tactic, but it serves to enhance the desperation of war that the game seems to be going for.

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Essentially how it works is that each character has conditions that improve their skills and conditions that hinder them. For example, one of the two snipers you have right at the beginning has the tendency to be a bit of a loner. To have others around her would distract her from picking out her shot. Another two come from the interaction between Vyse and Aika. The wise owl minded amongst you with a good memory of the Dreamcast game Skies of Arcadia (which needs a HD reimaging), then you already know that they’re part of the same team and are essentially best friends. They’ve somehow both wandered their way into the Europan war, but do better when one is next to the other. Some have preferences of terrain, whilst others are just really bad at taking down a particular unit. Since you level up your squads as a unit rather than as individual units, this aspect is not as intimidating as it might seem. Each squad member might learn a new trick with subsequent class rank upgrades. The flip side of this coin is that you need to upgrade your tanks and weapons on a fairly individual basis and this slowly becomes tedious. I had practically forgotten that there was a rank up opportunity for the Gunther in the form of buying new squad command instructions. Resources after battles are a little on the Spartan side. You don’t get a heck of a lot, but you’re expected to demolish the enemy or capture certain points within a set amount of turns.

There are a few side things to balance this out. Skirmish modes which come with difficulty settings allow for quicker play periods and reward you with experience and cash to spend. You can also delve into some of the sub-plots and hidden extras littered throughout the game. While it is nice to see a tactical RPG that tries to condense its package in return for more style and flair, some may complain about the lack of support the game gives you while trying to see everything in the game. That said though, the games plot spans around 15 chapters and there are a couple of reasonably priced DLC packs that should tie you over. All in all, the game is still a fairly hefty grind in terms of gameplay and there’s enough to keep one interested, but not enough to make one feel they still haven’t unlocked anything after spending a collective month playing it.

Valkyria Chronicles seems to excel in some areas, but come up short in minor ways. You’ll more than likely be engrossed in the sheer spectacle of the visually unique but tragically war torn landscapes of Gallia, with a story so engrossing yet believable that even the anime eyes won’t detract you from thinking this game is gritty in the best possible way. The battle system in turn also tries to put a unique spin on things, and it is a fairly reasonable effort to reinvent an ailing genre. Some decisions don’t really work out too well, such as the fact that enemies seem to have a heightened vision than anyone in your party or some of the upgrades being hidden away in a menu one would normally never visit. It is certainly worth a look for certain if you already own a PS3 because the things it tries are ambitious enough to warrant it, but despite the numerous innovations it is still a tactical RPG. Therefore, a wholehearted recommendation for this can only be achieved if you don’t need to do anything else for a long time.

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.

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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!

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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.

In this era of gaming, there is a tendency to look back into the classical age. Okay, so I coined that myself, but the classical age is simply when everything was simple to understand and still fun. There is even a point in the timeline where everything changed. It’s clear and defined. With the invention of polygons came the invention of storylined plot, side game options, you name it. With 3D came the potential for big worlds. Therefore it completely bypassed the teething phase where polygons and classic 2D overview. 3D Dot Game Heroes aim is essentially to bridge this gap, and prove that it was a good idea, whilst giving a customisable interface to create your own avatar. But is this a bright idea, or the reason why the changes the polygon format brought did so well?

The kingdom of Dotnia was once saved from the Dark Lord by a mysterious hero. Shortly after his victory he sealed his sword in a magical forest and disappeared. Fortunately for the kingdom, it prospered for many years after the event. Time has now passed, and Dotnia’s tourism has been dwindling for some time now. The king decrees that a change of perspective is required for tourism to improve, so he gives the order to convert the world into 3D. Tourism once again prospered, but the return of the Dark Lord requires a new hero to emerge. Nothing really special to be honest, but the perspective explanation deserved a chuckle. There are many villagers who will parody text from old school 2D RPGs, and others who complain about the new perspective’s inconveniences.

But before your adventure really starts, you get the option to make your own character. In two dimensions, you only needed to design the character using a series of dots (pixels), each showing colours to make it look like a person/monster. This logic is largely true here; except in 3D. While the game doesn’t give you a clear indication of how to use the system, the samples programmed into the game do assist a fair bit along the way as they provide a useful template to fall back upon if you’re having a creative crisis. Unfortunately, controlling the cursor to edit certain pixels is a little cumbersome due to the fact you have that third dimension to worry about: the one that makes the difference between a paper doll and a fat tub of lard. Once you do get used to it however, creation is pretty simple as colours are allocated to slots and are able to be changed all at once on the fly. The poses are limited, but given the heritage of the style of game this is fairly appropriate and indeed keeps things from getting more intimidating than an airplane control system. Still, the sword power at full health is insane. You can buy upgrades to your sword at the blacksmiths, alongside sub weapons and items, but the sword upgrades can extend the length and width of the sword; even the ability to pierce through walls and shoot a laser from your sword. If it wasn’t for the simple fact that this breaks the game until you get hit, then I’d welcome this option with open arms.

If initially starting this adventure you create a green robed man with blonde hair that looked a wee bit elfish, then you’re pretty much setting yourself up for a very familiar adventure. It even comes complete with an annoying fairy, big sword and dungeons. There are six mystical orbs that are hidden in the aforementioned dungeons, with plenty of monsters and traps and a boss to separate you and the orb. This game is a parody of its inspiration however due to some of the mechanics and dialogue, notably in the side quests. There is one instance where a man will be complaining about water. It is only when you return that he was merely complaining about the state of the water and felt that water from foreign lands cleans clothes better. He then jabs you with a sarcastic comment of “you thought I was dying of thirst?”

Unfortunately though, not even humour and a rather expansive array of special features and quests can save this experiment. The gameplay is basic to say the least, and while the solution for sword upgrades is novel, it merely breaks what could have been a challenging game. The customisation options are a nice touch and help the game feel more unique. Artistically, polygon pixels look good to an extent, but the actual physics feel just too rigid. It’s like looking at a pre-Atari game in terms of how fast things move. Even The Legend of Zelda for the NES was more fluid looking. As an experiment it has proved one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt, which is good because every experiment requires a conclusion. 3D Dot Game Heroes has indeed made a decisive case for the argument that polygons and 2D planes don’t always mix well.

Final Fantasy XIII (PS3) PAL Final Fantasy XIII (PS3) PAL Limited Collectors Edition Final Fantasy XIII (Xbox 360) PAL Final Fantasy XIII (Xbox 360) PAL Limited Collectors Edition
Version Played: Xbox 360
Version Recommended: PS3

When one thinks of an RPG from Japan, the most well known of them all is Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy. It could very well be because of the quality and sheer scale of the games released each and every time. We have seen re-released versions on newer machines and even a remake of the third and fourth instalments in the third dimension. It is a global phenomenon, but everyone has their favourite. So whether you thought Final Fantasy VI was the pinnacle of story-telling, Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII was the coolest antagonist of all time or you actually liked the rather stoic emo-kiddie Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, they all have the namesake in common. After a slightly disappointing plot from the PS2 swansong: Final Fantasy XII, we finally get the next generation in this epic series. We oddly get Final Fantasy XIII in a multi-platform format, a first for the series. But is thirteen the series’ unlucky number?

It’s a little hard to pin down who is exactly the main protagonist of the game as it seems to be every playable character. You start out as Lightning, a girl with some vendetta against army types with Sazh seemingly tagging along for the ride. Also in the chaos surrounding them are a rebellion group called NORA, led by the charismatic Snow. During the chaos, a young mother is killed which leads Hope; a young fugitive, to resent Snow because he is to blame for her death. Somehow, all four of them and Vanille; a young girl also caught up in the events surrounding the introduction, to be ensnared by a “Fal’cie”. Much to their dismay, they are all now what the military forces have been searching to eradicate. It may take a while to process the concept of “fal’Cie”, “l’Cie” and all these weird terms, but think of it like ruling factions. Some of the godlike fal’Cie are on one side, whereas rest are on the other side. As it happens, the protagonists are all turned into “Pulse l’Cie”, which are the rebellious force. When you dissect the terminology, it comes down to it being a case of warring factions. Subtle twists litter the games plot and some really good characterisation make it a joy to play through. It takes a while for some characters to show their true emotions, but once they do they’re a little more believable than most that come from the Final Fantasy series.

A little blurred, but the environments are amazingly cut-scene like.

As with every instalment of the seemingly never-ending series, Final Fantasy XIII manages to up the bar in terms of visual presentation significantly. The transition between cut scene and in-game engine is very hard to notice now. The lights and brightness of the industrial areas, combined with more natural landscapes give it a varied tone. Even the Xbox 360 version looks stunning in comparison with most games out there. That said, the PS3 was definitely the first console of choice in development due to some graphical tears during cut scenes on the Xbox 360 version. Voice acting is top notch on most parts, as early game Vanille is so annoyingly happy and optimistic that it almost makes you want to tell her a kitten has just got run over. She seems to mellow out during narrations and emotional moments she has, but her voice is still too high. The others have the right sense of emotion during the plot moments, with Sazh sounding a lot like Lawrence Fishbourne did in The Matrix on occasion. Music is generally above average, though their dependency on “Serah’s theme” is a little too much for my liking considering how bland it actually is. Also: Leona Lewis? Talented singer maybe but why shun out many other talented singers for one that disembarked from the Simon Cowell train?

Characters in Final Fantasy XIII don’t level up per se , but are upgraded via the Crystalium menu. Each character has a maximum of three skill-sets which they can upgrade using CT points accumulated in battle. Classes vary from the offensive Commando, the defensive Sentinel, Medics and even classes that boost your stats or expose enemy weaknesses. Through this, characters get new moves to unleash over the enemy and new techniques to use instantly in battle. Thankfully like items, these are instant and on the fly unless you’re attacking, meaning you get a chance to recover quickly. The only thing about the character progression that doesn’t quite follow is that you don’t get a lot of money at all. A lot of the time you’ll be selling loot in order to gain GIL, to buy stuff you actually need. Weapons and accessories can be upgraded for more effectiveness, which helps balance the stats somewhat. It is also worth noting that while Crystalium is very similar to the Final Fantasy X level up system, it leaves little room for customisation, another one of Final Fantasy’s strong points.

Fighting seems to be what is done a lot in RPGs, and this one is no exception. Battles return to the ATB gauge routes the series is famous for, but with a significant twist. Gone are the staple MP/Skill power bars found in most games. Everything you can do is listed under a certain amount of the ATB it takes off per turn. For example, not everyone can “attack”, but those who can take one part of the ATB for it. This also means the almost complete eradication of customising everyone’s attacks, apart from your own of course. This is however the only familiar aspect of the combat system as everything else is completely different. Instead of controlling everyone else’s actions, you control what tactics they use in the form of Paradigm Shift. In the menu, you can customise what tactical combinations everyone uses, with some combinations focusing on healing and others focusing on sapping enemy strength whilst boosting your own. It does of course mean that everyone has some form of selective amnesia, but the system works well in terms of balance.

Enemies have their own gauge for you to exploit in the form of a stagger bar. If you as one might put it, “Lay the smack down” on your opponent a little too much, they understandably get weaker. This essentially means that once you decimate an enemy into this state, a large chunk of their health will be taken off quickly. Some enemies even change their state in order to make the advantage clearer, such as the trundling porcupine-like giants the game actually advises you avoid. Incidentally, the fact the game flat out tells you to avoid some confrontations is a bit of a tease. In actuality, it is definitely possible to beat those things at that moment in time. It just takes a while. Summons act a lot like they did in Final Fantasy X, in that they come out and start fighting. You still control your character while the Eidolon goes to town on the enemy. You also start building up a gauge, which can be triggered at any time to start “Gestalt Mode”. For those that think that Square-Enix have just tacked on a random definition, you’ll be surprised to know that it is English and has a real meaning that is incredibly appropriate. Gestalt means simply a combination of physical, mental and/or biological subjects that have a function which amounts to more than the sum of its parts. This couldn’t be more true for a summon that is able to take a human rider, but also does things it couldn’t do on its own. You activate a mode where you can press a certain amount of button combinations, depending on how far down your gauge is. When it has nearly run out you can activate the Eidolon’s ultimate attack, which is more reminiscent of the attacks of old.

As things open up later on, the potential for lighting goblins on fire returns.

My only real criticism of the battle system is that should the character you control die for whatever reason; Game over. No second chances. No allies rummaging through their inventory to find a Phoenix Down or cast a Revive spell. Just flat out Game over. When you have enemies that deal a third of your health in damage surrounding you, you get the feeling that it has a quota of how many times it has to kill you in a single session. All it leads to is immense frustration, and makes some battles just severely one sided. While this is surely annoying, the biggest problem with Final Fantasy XIII is that it is incredibly linear. For a series that once boasted on exploration and side quests, there is a sheer lack of it in the latest instalment. Someone once described it to me as “running through a tunnel, chasing the orange dot”. Essentially that person hit the nail on the head. Think of it also like Pac-Man where the little dots are replaced by ghosts. It is fight after fight after fight, and when you get to the orange dot it is a case of cut scene or boss fight. Engaging these enemies is more reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII in that you must approach them when they’re not aware of your presence to gain the upper hand. This makes the aforementioned stagger bar almost full on each enemy you encounter in the fight and grant you a full ATB bar for each character. It worked in the previous Final Fantasy and countless other RPGs, but then again so did exploration! You have the option to backtrack in case you missed an item or want to grind, but this is rarely the case. However, you can only backtrack to as far as the first area of each chapter or particular segment. The only advantage to having such a linear path is the emphasis on plot and battles. Both these aspects are comparatively well executed. But the lack of exploration will have veterans wondering just what is happening to their beloved series. A concern I happen to share at this point. The game does open up slightly towards the end of the game, but by that point it is too little too late. The damage has already been done at that point.

To say that Final Fantasy XIII is the disappointment in the family is a little bit of an understatement. In all fairness, it did address the biggest problem in Final Fantasy XII; story progression. There is the right amount of tension and the plot is one of the best in the series. Even the Xbox 360 version’s visuals are above par, but the best experience should come from the system it was actually designed for. There are even fresh ideas within the confines of the corridors. But fundamentally it isn’t Final Fantasy. Why? Because a lot of the characteristics don’t fit at all with what the series is famous for. The battles are linear and scripted, battle system; linear. If it wasn’t for the big logo on the front and the brooding looking characters then I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. In theory, I could condense this entire review into a Haiku, “Just a series of tubes, with monsters”. But this would be inaccurate because it does open up towards the end of the game. By then though, you’ve probably already gone back to your age old Playstation (PSX) for yet another trip down memory lane.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Xbox 360) PAL Ghostbusters: The Video Game (PS3) PAL Ghostbusters: The Video Game (PC) PAL

Platform Reviewed: Xbox 360

For years we’ve been crying for a spiritual successor to the Ghostbusters movies. They were cheesy perhaps, but they enchanted a generation of children with talk of ectoplasm and PKE. It is over twenty years since the second film was created and at least five since the end of the last known Ghostbusters cartoon; we needed something to celebrate this series. Given the heavy delays due to publisher issues and then PAL territories getting a staggered release date due to Sony owning Columbia films and monopolising over Microsoft for once, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is now in the hands of everyone who could possibly play it. Were the years of waiting for a spiritual successor to the films worth it or are childhood memories cremated into mere dust?

Two years after the events of Ghostbusters II, yes, this is canon; the Ghostbusters decide to recruit a new face onto the team. Venkman insists they simply know him as “Rookie”. It is during his training that a large PKE wave covers the city, unleashing a number of ghosts onto the streets of Manhattan. What follows is a typical Ghostbusters tale that is full of spooky goings on, conspiracies involving the mayor’s office, and great voice acting from the original cast. If only the presentation of the actual game sequences was a little more consistent. While voice acting in the cut scenes is brilliant, character’s reactions to things get stale quicker than freshly baked bread. The usual “ouch” or screams of pain would have done, but the characters insist on trying to annunciate what they are feeling. The only redeeming aspect of this is that it takes a long time for Bill Murray to get annoying.

You couldn't get graphics like this 20 years ago...

If there is anything Ghostbusters got completely right in the films is the arsenal of weapons and gadgets that were used. The Proton pack in particular was a highly successful marketing toy in the day and to not have it here would reduce it to the travesties that were the movie games (back in 1984 & 1989 or later). Here though justice has been served by having the Ghostbusters use proton packs, along with other weapons. Each is customisable by obtaining cash by capturing ghosts or killing monstrosities. The Proton pack behaves just as it should including some hilarious results when you “cross the streams”. Other weapons are either substitutes for the more conventional weapons found in shooters such as the shotgun and machine gun, or lifted from the animated series “The Real Ghostbusters” in the form of a Slime gun. The Slime gun in particular is the most versatile as it not only harms enemy ghosts and spectres, but can be used to un-possess people, seal up portals and clean up harmful black caustic slime. Each weapon comes complete with a secondary fire option, including the Proton pack. You’ll never see it fire an RPG-like device, but you’ll be glad it does since it hurts enemies a fair bit. The Slime gun gets a tether, while the “shotgun” gets a stasis device which holds ghosts still. The “machine gun” gets a very useful homing device which if you fixate on a foe will make every consequential round go exactly for the right place.

But what the game delivers in flavour, it takes away in practicability. Take for example – trapping ghosts. You need to literally whittle down their health in order to get them weak enough to wrap a noose around them. This isn’t so bad initially, but combined with having to pull them into a trap while other ghosts can nibble at your ears or bombard your partners without any risk of retaliation is just stressful. One part even has possessor ghosts which can go into your partners, making them very difficult to capture. Thankfully not all ghosts are to fill the traps as others can be blasted into oblivion with the proton pack (and other gadgets) without any need for exposing yourself to the spectral peeping toms. In terms of flavour, again, this is something that is to be praised. In practicality, you’re left scratching your head repeatedly. It doesn’t help that the bosses are really easy and to be honest, a huge letdown. The second level gears things up to an epic encounter with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, only for it to be a simple case of zap the minions and blast his face if he gets too close. One thing I did find incredibly flavourful was the destruction counter. As long as you’re blowing stuff up, you will amass a debt which acts more like a separate scorecard than a hindrance. Still, it’s nice to know when you trash a museum JUST how much damage you caused in its full value.

Aside from the flavour, Ghostbusters: The Video Game acts like a lot of other third person shooters from past and present. The same over the top shoulder view. The patting your allies on the back to revive them when it all gets a little too much and they need to lie down. Unless you’ve lived on top of a mountain in the Himalayas for the past three or four years, it won’t be rocket science to you. While most games fill the screen with health meters and ammunition bars, Ghostbusters: The Video Game discretely places them on the proton pack. Given that things fly all over the place, having these here is a godsend. Those with smaller TVs might struggle to see these indicators, but it is a small price to pay for a benefit that outweighs the issue significantly. Even if you have a small TV, the controller vibrates when you’re about to run out of juice on the proton pack and damage is reasonably randomised.

And here's me thinking repairing your flashy car was a good thing...

Like most games based off a franchise or series, there are collectables. Thing is, there are an awful lot of them here with the most conventional being the haunted artefacts. Scanning the ghosts and buying equipment upgrades satisfies those who like to get stuff. But for the rest of us, the emphasis on grabbing new things that only serve as collectables doesn’t really sell the game. It’s like waving a bacon sandwich in front of a vegan – a pointless endeavour. While the upgrades are nice and some make trapping ghosts easier, others just reduce cool-down time or increase power. As for the collectables themselves, some give a nod to the Ghostbusters heritage. One even has a shameless plug for the Ghostbusters DVD (on sale now). This wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t Doritos machines scattered around certain locations. Thankfully, they’re destroyable and count towards the damage counter.

In essence, Ghostbusters left me with a mixed state of emotions. Technically speaking I found it to be an average over the shoulder shooter with some control issues, frustratingly difficult segments and ridiculously easy boss battles. The AI is rather similar like a trip to the supermarket as it can be as annoying as a toddler with a tantrum and as useful as one of the assistants. On the flip side, the story is what you would expect out of the franchise and the weapons are in keeping with what you would expect. But in all seriousness, the main thing that the game left me with was a craving for a third Ghostbusters movie. Sure they’re all old now, but there is such a thing as special effects and stuntmen to make sure the actors aren’t put through too much peril. All we need is the consent once again from the original actors to reprise their roles one more time, and we have something great in the making. So thank you Ghostbusters: The Video Game, thanks for making me realise that a third movie needs to be made. (A look on IMDB has brought to my attention that one is “currently in production”, thanks Ghostbusters: The Video Game!)

Resistance: Fall of Man (PAL) box

Let’s face it, Halo: Combat Evolved was big. It created an entire franchise base in one sitting. Halo 2 effectively, and tragically, killed off the health bar in first person shooters. It is responsible for the many pretenders on the market because companies wished to cash in on the willingness of nerdy humans to part with their money to indulge in a fresh shooting experience. Sometimes it involved the futuristic setting that Halo: Combat Evolved popularised. Sometimes it involved the more realistic setting of a previous war. But at the end of the day, it was an excuse to say to shooter players; “Here is a gun, go play on our online mode”. So with the advent of the George Foreman Playstation 3 came yet another franchise to conscript early adopters. Will this prove to be just another shooter, or will it let us in for a rather big surprise?

In an alternative timeline to our own, World War 2 never happened. This trend is a fairly common one amongst modern fantasy, but we’ll run with it. Instead, the Russians closed their borders to the rest of the known world. It was not known why and many speculated that the Soviets were creating a new weapon. “The truth is far worse”. Turns out that a virus engulfed Russia, turning its people into monsters. Before long, Europe succumbed to the plague in a matter of weeks. England thought it was safe due to water. But three months after the Chimera burrowed under the English Channel, they won. America responded by closing its borders and suppressing its people in an oddly dictatorship-like state. Resistance: Fall of Man tells the story of one Nathan Hale, an American soldier sent on a mission to rescue England from the Chimera plague. His squad however becomes infected with the plague, but he somehow doesn’t fall into a coma. The only signs that he has been infected are his golden irises. The plot from there onwards becomes one of rescue and shooting more alien scum, much like Halo was when the Xbox surfaced. The plot here though is thankfully viewed from a human perspective rather than supped up macho men from the future.

The combination of a 1950s England together with the monstrous Chimera as the foe of choice is an interesting one. Capturing a war torn York with a small degree of accuracy is nothing short of remarkable, and co-operation with Ordinance Survey GB is a cunning way of getting good material. Gunning your way through hordes of enemies through Manchester Cathedral is enough to have the Church of England complain, but it all somehow adds to the authenticity that the game tries to create. This is combined with a protagonist who has a slightly different and better explained take on the whole health regeneration thing. In the first level you get no regeneration. You must take on a barrage of these monsters as a plain old human. Then in the in-game cut scene, he eats one too many scarabs and develops the ability to regenerate. While most would groan that this would be all too easy, Resistance: Fall of Man provides a solution to provide some sort of challenge. Your health bar is split into four sections. If you don’t get shot for a while, your health indeed regenerates, but only as far as the portion of health you are currently on. So if you take two full sections of damage, you don’t regain that health back. Unless you pick up the health pack variant of course. Much as health packs are a cheap way out, I like the way the game explains what is going on and why this is happening. It provides a certain amount of depth that is absent from other shooters of recent times.

The Chimera are as ugly as any other "alien" FPS target, but at least they have funky guns!

First person shooters are of course all about blowing things up with guns and explosives and Resistance: Fall of Man caters for your hoplophiliac tendencies. You start with the standard American assault rifle, which lets be honest is the gun that we use until something more interesting appears. In most games, the shotgun is usually the one it replaces. But in Resistance: Fall of Man, that gun is the Bullseye. It is another machine gun that on first glance seems unimpressive due to its lack of accuracy. It is when you discover that this gun can produce beacons that impale enemies and attract your bullets to it that things become infinitely more interesting. Essentially you can hit an enemy with the beacon, get behind cover and impersonate Johnny Utah at the end of Point Break and hit your enemy with every bullet. It is only upon the realisation that the weapons in the game were created by the same team that dreamt up the Ratchet and Clank series that it becomes clear just how bizarre the weapons can be. My personal favourite is the XR-005 Hailstorm. A gun that shoots out an auto-targeting turret. Having something shoot at the enemy while I sneak behind them is an amusing tactic that never fails to baffle them.

Not that there is that much of a degree of intelligence in the enemies to warrant this manoeuvre. To dub them as “thick” would be unfair, but “gung ho retards” however is a far more accurate description. When they’re not charging at you like Italian football fans invade pitches, they’re ducking in and out of the same cover shooting at you with whatever weapon they possess. The only real difference comes with the variety of enemies and the differing tactics. Menials are the game’s equivalent to zombies, while the scorpion-like foes scuttle down walls and small entrances. They provide little in the way of a challenge alone, which is why Resistance: Fall of Man attempts to overwhelm you with hordes of around fifteen at a time. I understand that this is the Playstation’s answer to the Halo franchise, but a more intelligent AI wouldn’t have hurt. Thankfully there are a lot of set pieces and the enemy on turrets are bizarrely more challenging, due to having some kind of instruction manual implanted into the barrier on how to use them.

Multiplayer mode while it has the potential for 40 players at once, doesn't have many modes.

Every so often, you’ll more than likely score Skill Points. While in more recent times Trophies have become the answer to Microsoft’s achievement points, Resistance: Fall of Man felt the need to have its own. You don’t get a description on how to unlock them, just a name. Each one is worth a fixed amount of points, which can be used to unlock content. I would have liked achievement points/trophies to count towards unlocking stuff more as this is far more of an incentive than just score hoarding. There are also various intel reports scattered around each stage. There are a variety of different locations in Resistance: Fall of Man, with the entire game set in England. Which brings up a question: Was 1950 in the British Isles really that brown? All the locations that aren’t Chimera strongholds look like someone had smeared them with mud. Dialogue is generally good, though some of the characters are a little…forgetful. That is probably because the only two that survive for longer than a mission or two are the protagonist and the English narrator you rescue in the second chapter, though the only mildly interesting one here is Nathan himself. Even that is only due to the fact he has irises that are 24 carats each.

When a first person shooter fails to provide some kind of multiplayer option; we stop, stare and then point and laugh at it. That is not the case with this Playstation 3 exclusive as there happens to be a fairly extensive one. You have the potential to take part in forty man skirmishes, which is as frantic as it sounds. From an outsider’s point of view, this seems a daunting task. Kills tally up towards experience points which unlock new outfits for your online avatar of bullets and grenades. Thanks to the Playstation 3’s hardware capabilities, so long as you have a decent connection, you shouldn’t experience any lag at all. The only issue is that the multiplayer modes themselves are a little uninspired. For a game where inspiration is in the weaponry alone, this is a disappointing truth. I would have loved to have seen game modes that are as mad as the sniper rifle that grants you bullet time when zoomed in. It is a common complaint in first person shooters, and I would have imagined Resistance: Fall of Man would have addressed it.

As one of the flagship titles on the Playstation 3, Resistance: Fall of Man does what it probably set out to do quite nicely. Providing those who invested in the most expensive console available with a fun shooter with tales of monsters wiping out the human race bit by bit and the protagonist being some kind of superman in comparison to the rest of the army. To the untrained eye, you could pass this off as “what happens when Halo meets Gears of War. For the large part, you’d be exactly right as there are a lot of aspects from both series present in this game. Halo styled shooting sections with Gears of War grittiness. But it isn’t. It is cleverer than that. It manages to utilise the notion of the past to create a real sense of peril. If this was done in the macho futuristic setting that the Microsoft titles had, the goal would be spelt out from the outset because they knew what to do. Here, the army doesn’t, and that is what makes it ultimately different. It feels almost like a story. Also having an armoury that incorporates a host of unique weapons that are fun to use makes the deal all the sweeter. It is far from a perfect representation of the first person shooter, but it is at least a step in the right direction from the Microsoft “sit in a corner and will the pain away” style of shooters, even if it is only baby steps…

WWE Smackdown Vs Raw 2009 Xbox 360 (PAL) box  WWE Smackdown Vs Raw 2009 Playstation 3 (PAL) box  WWE Smackdown Vs Raw 2009 Wii (PAL) boxWWE Smackdown Vs Raw 2009 Playstation 2 (PAL) box   WWE Smackdown Vs Raw 2009 PSP (PAL) box  WWE Smackdown Vs Raw 2009 Nintendo DS (PAL) box 

Wrestling: A sport where grown men grapple each other to the floor. WWE: A soap opera like Eastenders but with more violence and grappling to the floor. Since its hay day in the early 90s the institution formerly known as the WWF, before the animal charity secured the name for themselves, has entertained many adolescent men and women. There have been many icons that went on to bigger things and infamy Heroes such as Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Some such as The Undertaker are still around, tossing their colleagues around the ring, week after week. The difference here is that Eastenders isn’t likely to have a video game made about it where you play as Barbara Windsor and go around nagging at everyone. As you can gather, I don’t watch soaps. But ones with constant staged violence not only hold a small amount of interest, they can also be made into a game.

There is an authentic look this time around, as all the entrances and models for the characters are mostly true to life. Each superstar has been designed with care to detail, from Jeff Hardy’s armbands to Triple H and his pulsating muscles. Odd blips such as the lack of tattoos on Randy Orton are forgivable when Mr Kennedy’s entire introduction is completely faithful to the material. What isn’t forgivable however, is the blocky N64 generation models for the audience. They actually look like they hired a bunch of paper people. On consoles capable of such warlock activities, one even has the cheek to hold up a sign saying “I’m in HD!” If a cardboard cut-out is high definition, then the Mona Lisa is Miss World 2009. Audio is authentic enough to keep the fans happy, with commentary being done by each of the commentators themselves and without too much repetition. After a while it will seem familiar, but it takes a long time for that to happen.

Road to Wrestlemania mode is probably the most likely to be a campaign mode. Through the course of each character things will happen to that individual, up until the last fight at Wrestlemania. The plots are specifically designed for the game, bearing little details that have things in common with the real plotlines in the shows. Mostly the plotlines aren’t anything that the writer will be receiving an award to a standing ovation, but they’re interesting enough to keep you going. There are moments however that are just genius, the most obvious being during The Undertaker’s storyline when he makes a rival into a voodoo style zombie. Plotlines also have gameplay affects as well, like the interrogation phase of Chris Jericho’s campaign. Most of the unlockable content is hidden within the bonus objectives of some matches in the Road to Wrestlemania. There are a wide variety of optional goals, from making your opponent bleed to losing but indirectly. One of the campaigns uses two wrestlers and can be done co-operatively with another player. This usually leads to dominating the matches or smacking each other with your chosen superstar. They usually last about two to three hours each, but the co-op storyline along with one other requires more than one play-through to reveal all the secrets. The only issue really is that sometimes you’ll hardly do anything, whereas the rest you’ll have a lot to deal with. Handicap matches are usually the worst as you need to knock the partner(s) off the ringside before going for the win.

You also get a Career mode. This time you have complete freedom in which character you are, and you guide them through the years. You’ll challenge for titles when the opportunity comes along. Obviously this time around there is no plot to keep you interested that way, but along with the Road to Wrestlemania mode – bonuses are unlocked here. In the career mode you can also upgrade your chosen superstar by performing certain techniques. Charisma for example is upgraded by taunting using the D-pad and Submissions are upgraded by performing holds. It all makes sense really and depending on who you are, you’re more likely to perform some moves than others. In this mode, every single match type is available to you. The same is also true for Exhibition mode and Tournament mode. The former just lets you have single matches, while the latter will pit you against many others for a trophy. Most, if not all modes have some form of multiplayer version that can have up to four players. You’re not likely to be in danger of choosing the same person as there are a lot of unique characters to play as.

"Oh Mister Undurtaker, yer cow jacket seems to be on fiore."

So what kinds of match type are featured in Smackdown vs Raw 2009? Well perhaps the only one noticeably missing is the “Casket Match”. This has been replaced with the red hot “Inferno Match”. The aim of this is to slam your opponent so that the temperature of the fire reaches 300 degrees and then force them onto the fire to burn them. Of course not all matches are as obscure, with some merely needing a pin or submission to win. Disqualifications are usually present unless otherwise stated. What is the most difficult to master by far is the “Royal Rumble” itself. The aim is to stay in the ring, whilst throwing others out one by one. Thirty wrestlers will enter the ring in total, and when you enter is randomised. I still think that this is the most interesting match type, though a good old tables or ladder match gives cheap thrills. It helps that the controls are mostly straight-forward. Each superstar can punch, kick, throw, perform moves when the opponent is prone, climb and leap off the turnbuckle, etc. Some moves are granted harder to perform than others, but they usually reap the bigger rewards.

There is also a momentum meter, which increases/decreases depending on what you’re doing. While using the same moves over and over, or hitting an illegal partner or the ref may decrease your momentum, performing big moves will build up the bar dramatically. When it reaches full you can either stock it as a Signature Move to use at any time when the conditions are right, or find the right point and perform a Finisher. Both these move types are devastating in effect and can’t be countered. Everything else can with either one shoulder trigger or the other, depending on whether it is a melee or throw move. Weapons can also be found below the ring and usually cause dramatic damage; that is if you don’t get disqualified. The controls in some cases are a little off, like folding up a ladder/table, but are mostly well mapped. Movement of the wrestlers is a little stiffer than I would have liked it, as some are as jerky as a gremlin with Parkinson’s disease. Tag Team matches are the most upgraded thing in this version, and it shows. Players can now perform special moves that involve both participants on one team, or charge up the Hot Tag to perform a special berserker switch. Watching one of these tags reminds me of when I was a lot younger and people could watch wrestling on terrestrial television. I remember when the Ultimate Warrior would bounce around like a nutcase, screaming off the top of his lungs before smacking everyone in sight. Sure this time there’s the added Quick Time button pressing that has plagued gaming since the early part of this decade, but it is still fun to watch.

It's refreshing to see women competitors in the ring. But for some people, they may think mud is missing...

This is especially true if you created the Ultimate Warrior. Since no “legend” is an unlockable character this time around, you’ll have to make do attempting to create him/her in the Create-a-Wrestler modes. Choice isn’t that limited with many different attires and styles open to you from the get go. You can also design your character’s Finisher move, Entrance and any team manoeuvres. It is also possible to sort out your own WWE roster. You chose which superstar is featured in which show. There is a choice whether to be accurate and follow the shows themselves, or do whatever you wish. You can chose which superstar holds any of the many titles at any given time. The amount of customisation is fantastic, especially when you throw created/unlocked characters into the fray. Finally, you also have the highlight reel mode, which on paper sounds impressive. Unfortunately I find this kind of thing irrelevant on the most part. You also have downloadable content for the High Definition console versions that include Alternative costumes and Extra Characters. Matches can be played online as well, which actually would be the only time I’d use the highlight reel.

There is a lot of content and for once a goal to aim towards. While career mode takes a lot of time, it is missing the vital part of the WWE universe that hasn’t been translated into video game format before. Road to Wrestlemania addresses this issue and provides a simple yet mostly enjoyable time. For those who like sports managing combined with playing the matches themselves, Career mode and perhaps Tournament mode help brilliantly towards achieving the desired effect. For those who like to fiddle around with customisation modes and tweak with the norm, you’re happily catered here as well. Perhaps the only downsides for me are the visuals in some respects and the blips in playability. I’d probably go on record and say that this is perhaps the best wrestling game ever made. My reason for this is simple. It is the only one I’ve played in my entire life for more than an hour, willingly…

 Version Differences

  • Xbox 360 and PS3 as described in the review
  • PS2 and PSP versions have some features taken out, but retain the gameplay elements described.
  • Wii version has some features taken out, but has a different control scheme to the others.
  • DS version is a streamlined experience that will probably be different in some respects. Caution is advised.